Richard let the rage fill his eyes and directed it at her. It was a look that I think would have backed up anyone else in the room. Musette laughed again.
Richard turned to face her. His anger really didn't care who the target was, anyone would do. "This is none of your concern. When we're done with pack business, then, and only then, we'll talk to the vampires."
Musette threw her head back and chortled, there was no other word for it. She laughed until tears leaked down her face, carving runnels in the drying blood. The laughter died slowly, and when she opened her eyes again, they were honey-brown.
Richard's breath caught in his throat. I was close enough to him to know that he stopped breathing, just for a moment.
The smell of roses was everywhere. "You remember me, wolf, I can feel it in your fear." That purring contralto shivered down my skin, and I saw Richard shudder, too. "I will play with you later, wolf, but for now," and she turned and looked at Asher, "for now I will play with him."
Asher was still pressed to the wall, doing that utter stillness that the old ones can do. He had sunk into the silence of eternity, trying to make this not happen, trying to hide in plain sight. It wasn't going to work.
As Musette's body glided towards him, Belle began to spill out of her. The dark gold gown overlaying the white like a ghost. The black hair spreading like phantom flames around her, moved by a wind that trickled through the room, the wind of Belle's power.
"What's happening?" Richard whispered, and I don't even know if he meant to have an answer, but I replied anyway.
"Musette is Belle Morte's surrogate."
His eyes were all for Belle's ghostly form overriding the other body, when he said, "What does that mean, exactly?"
"It means we are in a shit load of trouble."
He looked at me then. "I am Ulfric, Anita, that doesn't change just because some high-ranking vampire comes to town."
"Be Ulfric, Richard, great, knock yourself out, but don't destroy us all while you do it."
Some of the anger had leaked away on the tide of fear. It was impossible to be up close and personal with Belle's power and not fear it.
"I am either Ulfric, or I'm not, Anita. I am either master or slave, I can't be both."
I raised eyebrows at him. "Yeah, actually, you can." I held up a hand. "I don't have time for this tonight, Richard. Tomorrow if we're all still alive, then we can discuss it, okay?"
He frowned. "She's not here in flesh, Anita, it's only metaphysical games. How bad could it be?"
I realized in that moment that Richard was still living in that other world. The world where people played fair and horrible things never really happened. It must have been a peaceful place to live, the planet that people like Richard called home. I'd always admired the view, but I'd never lived there. The trouble was that Richard didn't live there either.
The first scream cut through the silence. The wereleopards had all backed away, crouching at Belle Morte's feet. Only Micah stayed standing. He'd put himself in front of Asher, but he was small like me, and he couldn't hide Asher completely.
I looked at Richard, and he had a look of such hurt in his eyes. He was never going to wake up and smell the blood. He wasn't going to truly change.
I turned away from him and started walking towards Asher and Micah. Jean-Claude moved up beside me, offered me his hand, and I took it. No one else moved with us. The wererats couldn't attack Musette. The wereleopards were doing their best, but it wasn't going to be enough. Only the wolves could have helped us, and Richard wouldn't let them.
In that moment I wondered how long it would be before I started hating Richard.
I couldn't figure out why Asher was screaming. There was no blood, no rending of flesh, but he screamed all the same. Then as we got closer I watched the flesh of his face begin to seep away. It was as if his skin collapsed around the bones of his skull, as if Belle's touch were draining him dry, not of blood, but of everything.
I risked a glance at Jean-Claude, and he looked stricken, a second before his face showed nothing. I felt him pull away into that emptiness where he hid. "She could drain him to death this way." His voice was remarkably empty.
"But you're immune to it, right? She didn't make you."
"She is our sourdre de sang,none of us are immune to her touch."
I stopped and pushed him back. "Then you stay. I don't need two of you to worry about."
He didn't argue, but his gaze went past me to Asher. I wasn't sure he'd even heard me, and there wasn't time to check. I was half-running, when Micah pushed Belle back, pushed her back, using his whole body, broke her touch on Asher's face.
Asher collapsed slowly down the wall, and Belle's glowing face kissed Micah. The moment their lips touched, I felt the ardeurfill the room like hot water, spilled in stinging drops across my skin. It froze me in mid-step, made me stumble. I stood there, caught between Asher against the wall and Micah lost in that glowing embrace. I knew that I could have drained Micah to death with the ardeurover a matter of days, but part of me knew that Belle could do it faster.
Asher's hand reached out to me, skeletal thin, like sticks in paper. Micah was trying to push himself back from Musette/Belle's body, but she rode him, arms at his back, glowing crimson lips like a red fog across his face. I had a moment of feeling Asher dying, fading, for lack of a better word. Jean-Claude went to him, but I knew that Jean-Claude had no life to share. Then the cross taped to my chest blazed to life.
It burned against my flesh as if the black tape held all the heat in. I half-screamed as I ripped the tape away and the cross spilled out into the light, white, hot, like a captive star on a chain.
Micah stumbled back from Belle Morte. Jean-Claude spilled the black velvet coat over himself and Asher. The other vampires hid their faces and hissed at the light. I saw movement from the corner of my eye, a second before Angelito slammed into me. There was no one to stop him now. The cross was a two-edged sword.
He grabbed me in one arm, completely off the ground, the other hand wrapping around the cross. I poked him in the throat with three fingers, stiffened to a spear point. He gagged and dropped me, but he held on to the cross, and as I fell, the chain broke, cutting into my neck as it came away. The moment the cross was his, the glow began to fade.
Musette's body turned to me, but her eyes were pools of dark gold fire, and it wasn't a ghostly image superimposed over her body this time, it was as if I were seeing double. My eyes saw Musette with the wrong color of eyes. But inside my head it was Belle. Belle in the flesh, a little taller than Musette, long black hair falling to her knees in waves, the dark gold of her dressing gown showing a triangle of white flesh, her face like something sculpted from a pearl, her lips a perfect red pout. She wrapped white hands around my arms, long dark nails, playing along the velvet of the sleeves. She pressed me against her body and leaned in to lay a kiss with that mouth upon mine.
A small voice in my head screamed, "Don't let her touch you." But I couldn't move, couldn't get away, wasn't sure I wanted to get away.
That red, red mouth hovered over mine. Her breath pushed against my lips. The world smelled of roses. Then, suddenly, I could taste Asher's kiss upon my lips. Tasted it as if I had kissed him but a second before. That one taste opened my eyes, helped me draw back from Belle's mouth. Helped me want to draw back.
Her eyes stared down at me, pools of golden fire like brown water in sunlight. I realized that I had swooned, and she held me as if she'd dipped me in a dance. Her hand was behind my head, raising me up to meet her kiss.
I felt movement and rolled my eyes back to see Richard. Belle saw him, too, "Interfere, and I will raise the ardeurin you again, wolf. You brought no women with you. Did you think that would save you? It won't. The ardeuronly wants to be fed, wolf, it doesn't care how."
Richard hesitated. I could taste his fear in my mouth, but underneath that was still the taste of Asher's kiss.
Jean-Claude was suddenly beside Belle. "It is me you want." He spread his arms in a wide dramatic gesture that spread the darkness of his coat, spilled his hair around him. "I am here."
I don't know what would have happened, or what she would have said, because the next thing that overwhelmed me was the memory of Asher's love making. It came on me like it had once with Jason, but this was more, worse, better. It bowed my back, convulsed me in Belle's arms, surprised a scream from me, made my hands scratch at the air, and at Belle's face. She dropped me then, and I saw, dimly, as if through a white window, her hands grab Jean-Claude.