"He just needs power," I said, "it doesn't have to be yours."
"If he had a human servant, or an animal to call, but he has nothing," Belle said, and there was a tone of satisfaction in her voice that she couldn't, or didn't try to, hide. "He is alone, and binding himself to me again is the only choice he has, unless you wish him to spend the rest of eternity as he is now." The note of satisfaction slid into cruelty without blinking an eye.
"You can't leave him like this," Richard said, and there was pity on his face, yes, but more, there was horror. "Being tied to Belle Morte isn't worse than this."
"If you had ever known her embrace," Jean-Claude said, "you might not be so quick to decide."
Richard looked at him, then back at Asher, then at Belle Morte. "I don't understand."
"No," I said, "you don't." Then I looked up at him, touched his arm, very lightly. "Think of yourself trapped forever with Raina."
A look of disgust and personal revulsion skipped across his face, before he could hide it. I still carried a piece of Raina's munin, her spirit memory, in me. She was a sexual sadist, but she'd also fiercely protected the very people she tortured. The woman had needed some serious therapy. In the end, the only therapy she'd gotten had been silver bullets. I never felt bad about killing Raina. Funny that.
Richard nodded. "I understand that, but . . ." he made a helpless gesture towards Asher, "this is not . . ." He seemed at a loss for words.
I couldn't blame him. I had no words at the thought of this being Asher's fate for the next few centuries. It wasn't bearable. It simply wasn't. But I couldn't make Belle give him the energy without strings attached. It was the nature of vampire energy that there were always strings attached. It was designed to bind a vampire to its maker, and through its maker, to the council, to the entire power structure of their world. Everything would fall apart if you didn't belong to somebody. There are masterless shape-shifters, but no masterless vampires. There are vampires who have lost their masters, but they are compelled to find a new master, to swear new blood oaths, to hunt someone else to rule them. A truly lesser vampire can even die without a master vampire to rule them. They go to sleep at dawn and never wake up again.
I knew all this. Knew all of it, and didn't care. I could feel Asher's--not thoughts--but will. He preferred a clean death to this. Or to being Belle's slave again.
I dropped to my knees beside him. I could give him a clean death. I knew all about death. I started to touch him, my hand hesitated. I didn't want to touch him. Didn't want to feel that once-living skin turned to this. Didn't want my last memory of him to be this. But I hate cowardice, almost worse than anything else, and if Asher could be trapped inside this body, then I could touch him one last time.
I laid my hand against his face, gently, oh, so gently. The skin felt thin as paper, dried, and brittle. I was afraid if I pushed, my fingers would go through his skin like the pages of an ancient book handled too roughly.
I'd forgotten that all vampire powers are stronger with touch. One second I was holding his face as delicately as I could, the next moment I had collapsed across his body, and was writhing with the memory of Asher's body on mine.
Hands grabbed me back, ripped me away from Asher, and I fought those hands, drove my elbow back into a groin. The hands didn't let go, but dimly I heard someone yelling my name, "Anita, Anita, Anita," over and over.
I blinked, and it was like waking, but I knew my eyes hadn't been closed. Richard's hands were still on me, but he was standing like something hurt.
I opened my mouth to apologize, but what came out wasn't an apology. "Why did you stop us?"
"I thought you were going to crush him."
Staring up into his so sincere face, I knew he meant it. Hadn't I just moments before been afraid I'd shove a ringer through Asher's brittle skin? But somehow I knew that wasn't going to happen. Somehow I knew he was a lot more durable than he appeared.
Jean-Claude came to stand beside me, and the look on his face said that he'd figured out what Richard hadn't. But Richard wasn't good with the dead. It wasn't his area of specialty. Jean-Claude touched my face, gently, as if afraid I'd break. "He fed from you. From your memory of him."
I nodded. "Yes."
"How many vampires can you serve?" Belle asked. Apparently, Jean-Claude hadn't been the only one to notice.
I realized that she thought Asher had marked me, but that wasn't exactly it. "He hasn't marked me, Belle, if that's what you think."
"Then how can he feed from your strength?"
"Surprise," I said, "I don't think that Jean-Claude is the only vampire who's gained new power."
"This is not possible."
"But it's true," I said, and I didn't try and keep the triumph out of my voice. We didn't need her now. We didn't f**king need her now.
Richard was still holding my arms. I looked up at him. "Let me go, Richard."
He frowned down at me. He either didn't understand, or didn't want to.
I repeated myself, more gently. "Let go, Richard, please."
His eyes flicked to Asher lying against the wall, still looking mostly dead. "The last time we talked about this, you had the same rule I had. No one feeds off of you."
I searched his face, while he gazed at what was left of Asher's beauty. I tried to see something in that gaze that I could talk to, explain things to, but I wasn't sure there was anyone there that would understand.
"If I don't let him feed, Richard, he'll be trapped like he is right now. He won't die. He won't decay. He'll just exist, like that."
He tore his gaze away from Asher and looked at me. "He didn't take blood."
"It's more like an energy feed, like the ardeur." It suddenly occurred to me that Richard might not know that Asher really, truly was in my bed. I'd pretended in the past with more than one man that he was a boyfriend or lover to fool the bad guys. Richard might believe that it was just a game again. Now wasn't the time to explain all the gory details. There would be time later to find out if Richard had meant what he said in my mind in the Jeep, that he didn't care who I had sex with, because we weren't dating. If he meant it, it would upset me. If he hadn't meant it, then knowing about Asher would upset him. Either way, it could wait.
He still hadn't let go of my arms. "Have you let Asher feed on you before?"
I don't know what I would have answered because he let go of one of my arms. He reached up a slow hand to touch my chin. I knew what he was going to do, and I couldn't stop it. He turned my head to one side, and exposed the vampire bites on the side of my neck.
"When did you start sharing blood?"
He lowered his hand, and I turned to meet his eyes. One look was enough. He, like me, thought sex was the lesser evil. The problem with something being a lesser evil is that something else has to be the greater evil.
"Is it just Jean-Claude, or . . ." His gaze flicked to Asher.
"We'll talk about this tomorrow, Richard, I promise, but right now, I need to help Asher."
He shook his head. "Are those Jean-Claude's marks on your neck?"
I sighed and looked down at the floor. I made myself meet his eyes, but damn it, I didn't have time or energy for this, not right now. "No," I said.
Again his gaze flicked to Asher. "His?"
"How can you let them feed off of you?"
"If I hadn't let Asher feed last night, then tonight he'd be dead, or enthralled to Belle Morte for the rest of eternity. It's one of the reasons we did it."
"You knew he'd be able to feed?" He frowned at me.
I shook my head. "No, but Musette had claimed him for Belle, because he didn't belong to anyone. We made sure he belonged to us."
"Us?" he actually looked at Micah first.
Micah's face was as neutral as he could manage.
"Not Micah, Jean-Claude."
He looked at the vampire, then back to Micah. "How can you let her do this?"
"I'd feed him myself if it would help," Micah said.
Richard's eyes widened, and the look on his face was uncomprehending. "I don't understand that."
Micah just looked at him for a moment, then he looked at me, and there was something in his eyes that said he understood some of what all this cost me, cost us both, cost us all.