"I covered her back in my seed, and that does not count?"
I blushed so suddenly that I felt dizzy. "Can we please change the subject?"
Jean-Claude touched my shoulder, and I jerked away. I desperately wanted comforting, and thus I couldn't let him do it. I know it made no sense, but it was still true. I'd stopped trying to talk myself out of myself and begun to try and work with what I had. I was a mess of contradictions. Wasn't everybody? Though admittedly, I might be a teensy bit more contradictory than most.
I walked away from him, from both of them, but that also took me away from the lights, closer to the waiting pools of darkness. I stopped. I didn't want to walk into the dark. I spoke half turned around, as if I didn't trust my back to the dark completely. "Why are there plates on the floor?"
Jean-Claude moved towards me, graceful in those amazing boots, the dark coat swirling around him, the embroidery catching the light here and there like faint blue stars. The blue shirt seemed to float from the darkness, bringing his face to my almost painful attention, emphasizing how truly lovely he was. Of course, he'd probably planned for exactly that effect.
His voice seemed to fill the cavern like a warm whisper, "Be at peace, ma petite."
"Stop that," I said, and realized I turned my back on the greater darkness, turned towards him like a flower turns to the sun, turned because I couldn't not look at him. This wasn't vampire powers, it was the effect he had on me, had almost always had on me.
"Stop what?" he asked, voice still warm and peaceful, like a comforting blanket.
"Trying to use your voice on me. I'm not some tourist to be soothed by pretty words and a good delivery."
He smiled, then gave a small bow. "Non,but you are as nervous as a tourist. It is not like you to be so . . . jumpy." The smile had vanished, replaced by a small frown.
I rubbed my hands up and down on my arms, wishing the silk and velvet wasn't there. I needed to touch my own skin, with my own hands. The cave was around fifty degrees, I needed the long sleeves, but I needed the skin contact more. I looked up to the towering ceiling above us, and the darkness that seemed to press down from it, hovering over the gaslight, pressing at the edges of the glow like a dark hand.
I sighed. "It's the dark," I said, at last.
Jean-Claude came to stand next to me; he made no immediate move to touch me, because I'd drawn away once. I'd taught him caution. He looked up briefly at the ceiling, then back to study my face. "What of it, ma petite?"
I shook my head and tried to put it into words, while I huddled into myself, as if I could hold in the warmth. I was wearing a cross. The silver chain traced down my neck into the generous cle**age revealed by the low-necked dress. There was a piece of black masking tape over the silver cross itself, so that it wouldn't spill out at the wrong moment. After the earlier visits from Belle and Mommy Dearest, I was not going anywhere without a holy item on me. I wasn't sure what that might mean to ha**ng s*x with Jean-Claude, or any vampire, but for the short term, I wasn't sure that any sex was worth the risk.
Jean-Claude touched my hand gently. I jumped, but didn't move away. He took that as an invitation. He'd always taken anything that wasn't an outright rebuke as an invitation. He moved to stand behind me, putting his hands over mine where I still gripped myself. "Your hands are chilled." He pressed me in the circle of his body, arms sliding around me, pinning me gently against him.
He rested his cheek against the top of my head. "I ask again, ma petite,what is the matter?"
I settled into the circle of his arms, relaxing by inches against him, as if my very muscles couldn't stand the thought of giving in to anything soft, or comforting. I ignored the question and asked again, "Why are there plates on the floor?"
He sighed and held me close. "Do not be angry, because there is nothing I can do to change this. I knew you would not like it, but Belle is old-fashioned."
Asher came to join us. "Her original request was to put humans on large trays, like suckling pigs, bound and helpless. Then everyone could have picked a vein and enjoyed."
I turned my head against the velvet of Jean-Claude's coat, so I could stare at Asher's face. "You're joking, right?"
The look on his face was enough. "Shit, you aren't." I rolled my head up so I could look at Jean-Claude. He obligingly looked down at me. His face was more unreadable, but I was pretty sure Asher hadn't lied.
"Oui, ma petite,she suggested three humans would be enough for all of us."
"You can't feed this many vampires off of three people."
"Not true, ma petite," he said, softly.
I kept looking at him, until he looked away. "You mean drain them dry from multiple bites."
"Yes, yes, that is what I mean." He sounded tired.
I forced myself to settle back into his suddenly tense arms, and sighed. "Just tell me, Jean-Claude, I believe you that Belle insisted on it, whatever it is. I believe you that she wanted worse things done, just tell me."
He bent his head so that he whispered against my hair, his warm breath touching my ear. "When you have steak, do you invite the cow to sit at table with you?"
"No," I said, then turned my head to the side so I could see his face. The look in his eyes was enough. "You don't mean . . ." He did mean. "So who's sitting on the floor?"
"Anyone who is food," he said.
I gave him a look.
He spoke quickly to the look in my eyes. "You will be seated at table, ma petite,just as Angelito will sit at table."
"What about Jason?"
"Pomme de sangswill eat from the floor."
"So Nathaniel, too." I said.
He gave a small nod and let me see how worried he was about how I'd take all this.
"If you were this worried about how I'd react, why didn't you warn me ahead of time?"
"In truth, there has been so much happening that I forgot. This was once very normal for me, ma petite,and Belle holds with the old ways. There are older still than she, who would not even allow the food to sit on the floor." He shook his head, hard enough that his hair touched my face, smelling of his cologne and that indefinable something that was simply his scent. "There are banquets, ma petite,that you would not wish to see, or even know of. They are indeed horrible."
"Did you think they were horrible while you were participating in them?"
"Some, oui." His eyes filled with that wistful look, that lost innocence, centuries of pain. It didn't happen often, but sometimes in his eyes I could glimpse what he'd lost.
"I won't argue if you tell me there's worse out there than this arrangement. I'll just believe you."
He gave me a look of disbelief. "No arguing?"
I shook my head and leaned back into his chest, held his arms around me like a coat. "Not tonight."
"I should leave this miracle alone, but I cannot. You have taught me bad habits, ma petite.I think I must ask, once more, what is wrong?"
"I told you, it's the dark."
"You have never been afraid of the dark before."
"I'd never met the Mother of All Darkness before." I said it softly, but her name seemed to echo into the darkness, as if the darkness itself were waiting for the words, as if the words could conjure her to us. I knew it wasn't true. All right, I was pretty sure it wasn't true, but it made me shiver just the same.
Jean-Claude tightened his grip around me, pulling me tight in against his body. "Ma petite,I do not understand."
"How could you?" came a voice behind us.
Jean-Claude turned me in his arms as he moved to face the voice, making it a dance-like movement, ending with my left hand in his right. His coat and my skirt swirled out and settled in a cloth whisper around us. Our outfits were designed to move and flow like some goth version of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Asher walked quickly to us, and even the way he moved was wrong. His posture was still perfect, but there was a hunching to it, like a dog that expects to be hit. He hurried in those white boots, hurried, and though still beautiful, there was little grace to his movement. There was too much fear in him to allow for grace.
Jean-Claude held out his hand, and Asher took it. We stood there, the three of us holding hands like children. It should have been absurd, considering the vampire we faced, but it wasn't Valentina that we wanted to huddle together against. I think for all three of us, it was the night in general. It was everything in the next room, and what it represented.