I took a deep breath, let it out slowly. One thing I was almost certain of was that Richard wouldn't be here tonight. He hadn't come near the Circus of the Damned since we broke up. It weakened us that one-third of our triumvirate was missing. He'd promised to come to the Circus in three months' time to greet Musette, but he wouldn't come early. I would bet my life on that, and maybe I was. Who the hell knew what was inside the Circus waiting for us?
I glanced from one vampire to the other, then shook my head. We needed to get inside, and I needed to stop being squeamish. Asher needed it, too, but I couldn't control what he did, only what I did.
I touched Damian's arm, and power flared between us like a breath of wind. I slid my hand down the smoothness of his arm, using everything but the tips of my fingers. The tips of my fingers hurt when they brushed things too solidly. His breath came out in a shudder, as I slid my left hand into his right, squeezing my fingers 'round his. As long as I didn't squeeze too hard, my bandaged fingers were fine. It felt so right to touch him. It was hard to explain, because touching him didn't make me think of sex. It wasn't like touching Jean-Claude, or Micah, or even Richard. Richard and I were feuding, but he could still affect me just by being present. When I could be in the same room with Richard and not feel my body tighten, then I'd know that I was truly out of love with him.
"I don't mind that Micah sent backup."
I felt his hand, his arm, his body give up the tension I hadn't even realized he was holding. He smiled and squeezed my hand back. "Good."
"You've mellowed," a voice behind us called. We all whirled, to find Jason walking towards us over the pavement. He was grinning, proud he'd startled us, I think.
"Damn quiet for a werewolf," I said.
He was wearing jeans, jogging shoes, and a short leather jacket. Jason was as American as I was, we liked the casual look. His blond hair was still cut short like a young executive. It made him look older, more grown-up. Somehow without the hair to trail around his face, you noticed his eyes more, blue, the color of an innocent spring sky. The color never matched the twinkle in his eye.
"A little warm for a leather jacket," I said.
He unzipped the jacket in one smooth motion, and flashed his bare chest and stomach, still walking towards us, never missing a beat. Sometimes I forgot that Jason's day job was as a stripper at Guilty Pleasures, one of Jean-Claude's other clubs. Then there were moments like this when he managed to remind me.
"I didn't have time to dress when Jean-Claude sent me out to wait for you."
"Why the hurry?" I asked.
"Musette has offered to share her pomme de sangwith Jean-Claude, if he'll share me with her."
Pomme de sangmeant literally, apple of blood, it was slang with the vamps for someone that was much more than simply a blood donor. Jean-Claude had once described it as a beloved mistress, except instead of sex you got blood. A kept woman, or in Jason's case, a kept man.
"I thought it was a faux pas to ask to feed on someone else's pomme de sang," I said.
"It can also be a great courtesy and honor," Asher said. "You may trust Musette to turn custom into torment if she is able."
"So she's not offering up her pomme de sangto honor Jean-Claude, she's doing it because she knows he won't want to share Jason?"
"Oui," Asher said.
"Great, just great. What other little vampire customs are going to come up and bite us on the butt tonight?"
He smiled and raised my hand to his lips for a quick, chaste kiss. "Many, I would think, ma cherie,very many." He looked at Jason. "In truth, I am amazed that Musette allowed you to leave her presence without sharing blood."
Jason's grin faded. "Her pomme de sangis illegal in this country, so Jean-Claude had to decline."
"Illegal," I said, "in what way?"
He sighed, looking decidedly unhappy. "The girl can't be more than fifteen."
"And it's against the law to take blood from a minor," I said.
"Jean-Claude informed her of this, which is how I come to be standing out here in the cold."
"It's not cold," Damian said.
Jason shivered. "That is a matter of opinion." He huddled the still unzipped jacket around his bare body. "Jean-Claude doesn't want you to be surprised, Anita, but two of the vamps with her are children."
I could feel my face tightening with anger.
"It's not that bad, they aren't new. At a guess I'd say several hundred years old, minimum. Even in the United States they'd be grandfathered in under the current law."
I tried to ease some of the tension I was holding. I'd let go of everyone's hand, because I had this urge to have my hands free for weapons. There was nothing to fight, not yet, but the urge was still there.
Damian touched my arm, tentative, afraid the anger would spill over onto him, I think. My usual theory was anybody to be angry at was better than nobody to be angry at. I was trying to be better than that, more fair, but damn, it was hard.
When I didn't jerk away, or yell at him, Damian touched my hand, and his fingers light across my skin made me feel calmer. "Do you think Musette brought an underage pommejust to see what we'd do?"
"Musette likes the young," Asher said, voice still very quiet, not a whisper but close, as if he were afraid of being overheard. And maybe he was.
I looked up at Asher. Damian's fingers were still moving, lightly, over the back of my hand. "She's not a pedophile, please tell me she's not."
He shook his head. "No, not for sex, Anita, but blood, yes, she likes them young."
Yuck. "She cannot take blood from anyone under eighteen while she's in this country. Doing that can get you an order of execution with your name on it, and I'm the Executioner."
"I believe that Musette was carefully chosen by Belle Morte. Belle has other lieutenants that have less objectionable habits. I believe that Musette is an ordeal in the traditional sense of the word. She has been sent by Belle to test us, especially you, I think, you and perhaps Richard."
"Why do we get special treatment?" I asked.
"Because Belle does not know either of you of old. She likes to test her blades before blooding them, Anita."
"I am not her blade, I'm not her anything."
Asher had a patient look on his face. "She is le sourdre de sang,the fountainhead of our bloodline. Belle is like an empress, and all the master vampires that descend from her line are kings that owe her fealty. To owe fealty means to owe so many troops to the cause."
He let out an exasperated breath. "Whatever cause the empress wishes."
I shook my head. "You're not really making sense to me here." Damian's hand was still playing lightly over mine. I think if he hadn't been touching me, I'd have been more upset.
"Belle considers all who descend from her line, hers, thus through Jean-Claude you and Richard belong to her."
I shook my head and started to speak. Asher held up his hand. "Please, let me finish. It does not matter, Anita, whether you agree that you and Richard belong to Belle. It matters only that she believes you belong to her. She sees you as more weapons in her arsenal. Can you understand that?"
"I understand what you're saying, I don't agree that I belong to anyone, but I can see where Belle Morte might think so."
He nodded, looked a little relieved, as if he hadn't been sure what he'd do if I'd continued to argue. "Bon, bon,then you must agree that Belle will want to test the metal of her two newest weapons."
"Test how?" I asked.
"For one thing, by bringing an underage pomme de sangto America and flaunting it in front of the Executioner herself. If Musette has offered to share pomme de sangs,then she may also offer to share human servants. It is considered a great honor to do so."
"Share?" I asked, instantly suspicious. Damian's fingers had sped up, but I didn't tell him to stop, because anger was tightening my shoulders, my arms.
"Share blood, probably, because most vampires take blood from their human servants. Do not worry about sex, ma cherie,Musette is not a lover of women."
I half shrugged. "I guess that's a relief." I frowned. "If she considers me and Richard part of her . . . whatever, then what about his pack and my pard? Does Belle consider our people her people?"
Asher licked his lips, and I knew the answer before he said it. "It would be like her to assume that."