The two bodyguards at their backs looked right at home, too. Standing orders were that Pierce and Haven got four guards. I wondered if Haven, now unconscious, had two of his own? Probably.
"I want this to work, Auggie, if it can," I said. "I need your word that you won't spoil it."
"Tell me exactly what you want me to swear to, Anita," he said. His face was empty, pale with concentration. His eyes looked huge and even darker, like the sky before it goes black.
I thought about what he'd asked, then looked again to Jean-Claude. "Help me to word it, okay."
"I will second Augustine on this, ma petite. Tell me what you wish him to swear to."
"I want to really try to bond with Noel. I don't want him to interfere with that, but I don't want to bond to Noel the way I did with Micah and Nathaniel. I want to see if it's just lions I'm hunting, or if Auggie's lions are especially tasty."
"If my lions are more tasty, it may not be because they are my lions, but because your power seeks something more dominant than what's kneeling on the floor. I think in your Rex's zeal not to give power to a rival, he has sent you food that your inner lioness will never accept."
"My inner lioness," I said, though it's hard to be disdainful when you're on your knees with men still hanging on to you. But I managed it.
"Inner beast, then," he said, voice empty. His face showed nothing. He was finally acting more like all the other really old vamps that I'd ever met. Will the real Augustine please stand up?
"Are the lions more likely to want a dominant?" I asked.
"I thought you had read up on lions," he said.
I thought about it, then nodded. "If a new male takes over the pride, second thing he does is kill the cubs. It means he doesn't help the lion he drove off breed successfully, and it puts the females into estrus faster, so he gets to mate."
Auggie nodded. "It makes the females of most wereprides very tough to impress."
I shook my head. "You're not saying that werelion prides are run like real lion prides? That the new leader kills the children? That's ridiculous."
He shrugged those big shoulders under the long cloak. "It has happened."
I turned back to Noel and Travis. "You guys know about this happening for real?"
They both said, "No."
"They're too young to know what we did before we became legal." This from Pierce.
"Are you saying that some men do kill the babies of the old Rex?"
"I've seen it," Pierce said in a very clipped voice.
I almost asked, Which end of the fight were you on? but I didn't. There was a look in his eyes, almost a flinching. Either he'd been a victim, or he'd done things that haunted him. I had enough nightmares of my own; I'd let Pierce keep his to himself.
"I guess that would make you want the strongest lion around," I said, but my voice was a little thin. The pregnancy scare was too recent. How would it feel to go through nine months, then labor, and have some stranger kill your baby, after first killing your husband? I said it out loud. "If someone did that to me, he wouldn't survive very long."
"Prides with really strong females don't get taken over much," Pierce said, "because you gotta sleep sometimes." He almost smiled when he said it.
I nodded. "That's how I'd be thinking."
"Your local pride has very weak females," Auggie said, his voice still that empty master's voice, so it could have been almost anyone talking. "Your Rex's wife is weak, and since the females of the lions are just like the males, it's forced him to reject a lot of strong women."
"Are you saving that if someone killed Joseph, there wouldn't be enough fight in his pride to do much about it?"
"His brother would be a problem," Pierce said, "but other than that, yeah."
"You would definitely have to kill both of the brothers," Auggie said, "but after that the pride would be helpless." He looked past me at the lions.
Noel was staring at him with a sort of soft horror. It was Travis who said, "Sounds like you've thought this through."
"It's why you brought dominants," I said. "You came planning for Pierce or Haven to take over the local pride."
Auggie gave me flat eyes.
"You evil bastard."
"It's not me that's left his pride open, ripe for the picking, Anita. He did that himself."
"He loves his wife, that's not a crime," I said.
"Anita." Noel's small voice brought me back to look at him. He inched closer to me, his hand out, his face showing his fear. "Please, Anita, please, try me."
I wanted to say, I won't let them hurt you and your people, but I couldn't. Not and be truthful. We had an alliance with the lions, true, but if Joseph had truly let his pride get this f**ked up, and it was truly the lion's way to take over the pride like this, then no other animal could interfere. We could help each other, but we couldn't interfere directly in the dominance hierarchy of the other groups. Not unless we wanted to start glomming us all into some kind of super-group. Wereanimals didn't do well in mixed-species groups. Too many cultural differences.
The only way I could send Haven home was to find another lion that my lioness liked. Shit. Noel stared at me, hand outstretched. The fear in his face made him look even younger and more inexperienced. No animal group could operate without dominants. You needed muscle and strength, and strength of will. If Joseph had truly done what Auggie said, then his pride was in the gravest of dangers. If it wasn't Haven or Pierce now, it would be someone else later. Of course, if one of them were my semipermanent pomme de sang, then other lions might hesitate to attack them.
Hell, master vamps from around the country who hadn't had the ballet troupe go anywhere near them were offering up pomme de sang candidates. We'd be seeing potential feeds for months even after this batch went home. We'd already had inquiries from animal groups that weren't aligned with any vampire. You know you're big fish, when all the sharks want to come play.
I did the only thing I could think of. I took Noel's hand and drew him toward me. I wasn't sure what we'd do when he got to me, but we'd think of something.
NOEL SMELLED OF fear. He smelled like food, but not food for the ardeur. He smelled like meat that just hadn't stopped squirming yet. I pushed him onto the floor, raised his shirt to his shoulders. I stared down at his bare chest and stomach. He was breathing so fast, so hard, that his stomach rose and fell with it. I lowered my mouth over that pale, soft flesh. I stopped with my face just above his skin, so close that my breath came back warm against me. With that warm breath, came his scent, stronger, richer. It made me close my eyes. But I was too far into beast mind for sight to help or hurt that much. It was all about the smell of him, the sound of his breathing, and his heartbeat. I laid my ear against his chest so I could hear that frantic beating, so clear, so wonderfully afraid. I put my hand on his stomach so I could ride the movement of it, as he breathed.
"Slow your breathing, Noel," Micah said, "or you're going to hyperventilate."
"I can't help it," Noel said, voice breathless, "she's not thinking about sex."
"If you act like food, then you're food," Travis said from behind us.
I lay there on the floor, my head over his heart, my hand on the quick rise and fall of his stomach. So soft, so... tender.
The thought slid my face down his body, until I rested at his sternum, the upper edge of his stomach. So close now that I could not so much see the fast rise and fall of his body as feel it under my cheek. I rolled my face over, and kissed his stomach.
He jerked, as if I'd bit him, and made a wonderful whimpering sound.
I buried my mouth in the soft, easy flesh of his belly. I took as much of his flesh into my mouth as I could hold, and not draw blood. I bit him, hard and deep, and it took all my willpower to rise up from that flesh, and leave it whole.
I pushed back from him, crab-walked until the wall stopped me. The sensation of all that warm, tender flesh filled my mouth. I could still feel it, a sensory memory that would haunt.
"Talk to me, Anita." Micah's calm voice.
I shook my head. "Food," I whispered, "just food."
"Noel is just food," Micah said.
I nodded, eyes still closed.
"Get up, Noel." Travis's voice, unhappy, angry.