She smoothed her hands down her full skirt, and I knew that gesture, it was one of Jean-Claude's. Nervous, Belle Morte was nervous. "I was within my rights to do as I have done, for I did not know, nor did you."
"True enough, but now that we do know, you must take all your people and go. Leave our lands tonight, for if you are found in our territory come tomorrow night, your lives will be forfeit."
"You would not truly kill my Musette?" But her voice held the lightest thread of uncertainty.
"To be able to kill Musette, legally, with no political repercussions." He made a small tut-tut sound. "That has been the fondest wish of many a Master Vampire, and I will do it, Belle. You can taste the truth of my words."
She stiffened, just a little. "I will retain control of Musette until we are out of your lands. She has an unfortunate temper at times."
"It would be a bad thing if she lost her temper here in St. Louis," Jean-Claude said, and his voice was empty, the joy seeping away.
Cherry appeared at my elbow. "Sorry to interrupt, I'm not an expert on vampires, but I think Asher's dying."
Asher lay against the far wall. He was a skeleton with dried parchment skin. He lay on a bed of golden Christmas tree tinsel, the glorious remnant of his hair. His clothes had collapsed around his sunken body, like a deflated balloon. His eyes were closed, and only the roundness of his eyes underneath that thin skin was flesh and solid. Everything else seemed to have withered away.
I fell to my knees beside him, because suddenly I couldn't stand.
"He's not dead," Valentina's child voice came, but she stayed out of reach. She offered comfort, but she wasn't stupid.
I looked down at what was left of all that beauty and didn't believe her.
"See with something other than your eyes, ma petite," Jean-Claude said. He didn't kneel, but stayed standing, facing Belle Morte, almost as if he didn't dare turn his back on her.
I did what Jean-Claude told me to do; I looked with power instead of my physical eyes. I could feel a spark inside Asher, some small part of him still burned. He wasn't dead, but he might as well have been. I looked up at Jean-Claude. "He's too weak to take blood."
"And he has no human servant," Belle Morte said, "no animal to call. He is without," and she paused, seemed to think upon her next word. Finally, she said, "resources."
Resources,that was a nice word for it. But whatever word you used, she was right. Asher had nothing to feed on but blood, and if he was too weak to feed on that . . . I couldn't finish the thought even in my head.
"Belle Morte could save him," Jean-Claude's voice was neutral, empty.
I looked up at him, then past him to her. "What do you mean?"
"She made him, and she is a sourdre de sang.She could simply give him back some of the energy that she stole from him."
"I stole nothing," Belle said, and her own neutral voice held a hint of anger. "You cannot steal what is yours by right, and Asher is mine, all of him, Jean-Claude, every piece of his skin, every drop of his blood. He lives only through my sufferance, and without that he dies."
Jean-Claude made a small gesture. "Perhaps stoleis not the correct term, but you can restore some of his life energy. You could bring him back enough to be able to feed on blood."
"I could, but I will not." Her anger was like a scalding wind, biting along my skin where it touched.
"Why not?" I asked it, because no one else seemed willing to, and I had to know.
"I do not have to explain myself to you, Anita."
I still had the gun in my hand. Suddenly it was heavy, as if it had reminded me it was there, or maybe the shock of lifting it was enough for me to feel again. I stood up and aimed the gun at Musette's chest. "If Asher dies, so does Musette."
"You have not had much luck killing vampires with your little gun," Belle said, and she sounded confident. Of course it wasn't her body that I was about to riddle with bullets.
"I think the Mother's children are special cases. They probably can survive pretty much everything but fire. I don't think that's true of Musette." I had let out the breath in my body, so that I was as still as I could get. My free hand was resting at my lower back, half cradled on my bu**ocks. It was my favorite position for target shooting.
"Angelito will stop you," she said simply.
I looked back to find Angelito held on his knees by three werewolves, but hey . . . "If he makes a nuisance of himself he can die, too. He probably won't survive me killing Musette anyway."
Belle Morte's brown eyes widened just a bit. "You would not dare."
"Sure I would," and I smiled, but it didn't reach my eyes, because I had them on Musette's body. I was ignoring Belle's shape over Musette, concentrating on seeing that white dress with its dried blood. The more I concentrated, the more of Musette I could see, like a double image, Musette's chest in my physical eyes, and Belle's ghostly overlay in my head. It made me wonder how much of Belle everyone else had been seeing, or if I'd had a better show because of my necromancy. I'd ask someone later. Much later.
"Jean-Claude, you cannot allow this."
"Ma petitehas her moments of rashness, but in this moment she has reminded me that the rules are not the same now. I am within my rights as sourdre de sangto punish one of your people for harming my second in command. It is perfectly within our laws."
"I did not know that Asher was the second in command to a sourdre de sangwhen I drank from him."
My arm was still steady, but it wouldn't last. You can't hold a one-armed shooting stance forever. Hell, you can't hold any shooting stance forever. "You know now," I said, "and he's not dead yet, so you're killing the second in command of another sourdre de sangwith foreknowledge."
"We are within our rights to take Musette's life in payment for Asher's," Jean-Claude said. "You should be more careful, Belle. Sending people you value far away from you makes it so much harder to keep them safe."
I was fighting for my arm not to tremble. Eventually, I'd lose. "Let me make this easy for you, Belle, help Asher now, or I kill Musette."
The one thing that was the same in both the vision of my eyes and the vision of my head, was those honey-brown eyes. Those eyes looked at me, and I felt the draw in them. She wanted me to lower my gun, and my arm hurt, so why didn't I? My arm started to lower, and I caught myself a moment before Jean-Claude touched my shoulder.
I put the arm back where I'd had it. But just lowering and raising it had helped the lactic acid build up. I could hold the stance for much longer now.
"If you wish to play games with Musette's life, that is up to you," Jean-Claude said, and his voice danced over my skin, made my body shiver, made my hand convulse, and only practice kept my finger from squeezing the trigger. But I didn't tell him to stop, because Belle had used her mark on me to cloud my mind. It had been a long time since a vampire had gotten to me so casually.
Jean-Claude's sex ran over my skin while the fear ran like ice through the rest of me. Belle wasn't defeated, not even close. Arrogance would get more of us killed. So, no arrogance, just truth. "What you have to ask yourself, Belle," I said, in a voice that was very quiet because I was concentrating on my breathing, trying to be still, for when I fired, "is, is your love for Musette stronger than your hatred for Asher?"
"You do not hate lesser beings, Anita, you merely punish them." Her voice sounded so sure of itself.
Jean-Claude said one word, "Liar."
Those dark honey eyes flicked to him, and there was no love lost in that look. She hated Jean-Claude, too. She hated them both. They had told me why. They were the only two men who had ever left her bed voluntarily, as far as she saw it. They had deserted her, and no one leaves Belle Morte, because no one would want to. Strangely, their leaving had damaged her sense of self. But I didn't share this knowledge because hurting Belle Morte's pride wouldn't help us. To salvage her pride she'd let Asher and Musette die. I was almost sure of it. I swallowed the words, and fought to control my face, but I'd forgotten that she was a sourdre de sang,and she'd marked me once. It wasn't my face I had to worry about.
Her voice came in my head like a dream, riding on the scent of roses, "My pride is not so fragile a thing, Anita."
Jean-Claude's kiss on my cheek chased back the scent of roses, and that purring voice. "Ma petite, ma petite,are you well?"