"And why do I not wish to use mind powers around you, Ms. Blake?" His voice held disdain, almost amusement. I wasn't insulted; his voice was like everything about him, practiced, calculated.
"Because you're afraid that Mommie Dearest will hear it, and pay a second visit tonight."
He tried for arrogant disdain, and made it, but I could taste the change in him. The faintest, thinnest taste of fear. "And who is Mommie Dearest?"
I stared very hard at that graceful line of jaw. I'd have loved eye contact, but didn't want to risk it. "Do you really want me to say her name?"
"You can say anything you like," he said.
I nodded, and found my own heart beating faster, my newly scarred hand clenched into a fist. "Fine"--and my voice was a little breathy--"you're afraid the Mother of All Darkness will show up again."
Did the lights grow a shade less bright, or was it my imagination?
"She is lost to us, Ms. Blake. You know nothing of her."
"She lies in a room that is underground, but high up. There are windows around the front of that room that look out upon a cave, or underground building. There's always firelight down below, as if whoever watches is afraid of the dark."
"I am aware that Valentina has been inside the room you describe, and lived to tell the tale. Do not seek to impress me with secondhand stories."
I was beginning to think that Merlin didn't know that I'd been in his head with her. Did he not know that I'd seen his memory of her coming out of the darkness? "Let's try another secondhand tale, then. I saw her in the shape of a great cat, maybe a type of extinct lion, bigger than anything that we have today. I watched her stalk you in a night where the world smelled of rain and jasmine, or something like jasmine. I mean, I don't know how long jasmine has existed as a plant; maybe my mind just calls it 'jasmine' because it's the closest smell I know."
I thought he'd gone still before, but I had been wrong, because now he went so still that I had to concentrate on his chest to make sure he didn't just disappear. So still, more still than any snake, still in the way that live things don't get. Still, as if he were willing himself not to be there anymore.
His voice was as empty as his body when he said, "You shared her memory tonight."
"Yeah," I said.
"Then you know her secret."
"She's got a lot of them, but if you mean that she's a shapeshifter and a vampire, simultaneously, then yeah, I know that secret."
He drew a breath. A lot of them did that when they came back from that still-stillness. They drew a breath as if to remind themselves they aren't dead yet.
"But Ms. Blake, everyone knows that you cannot be both."
"The strain of vampirism that we have today is destroyed by the lycanthropy virus, but maybe once it wasn't, or maybe it's a different kind of vampirism. Whatever. I know what I've seen."
"Musette brought some of the Dark Lady's cats to visit us," Asher said, "they were both, and neither."
"Yes, Belle Morte says the sleeping cats of our mother have woken to her call," Merlin said. "What do you think of that, Ms. Blake? Do you think Belle Morte has grown so powerful that the servants of the mother have woken to her call?"
"No," I said.
"Why no?" he asked. His voice was still empty, his body not moving much. He wasn't trying to play human now.
"Because Belle Morte doesn't have that kind of power."
"You have never seen her in the flesh," Adonis said, "or you would not be so quick to judge." He didn't sound happy as he said it, which was interesting. It was the first time I felt that he'd lost control of his voice.
I glanced at him. "She's powerful, but it's not the same kind of power as Mommie Dearest. It's just not."
"If Belle Morte did not wake the servants of our good mother, then who did?" Merlin asked.
I had a moment of insight. I don't get them often. I debated on whether to act on it, or ask Asher's opinion first. Then I thought, to hell with it. I was tired. I'd fed, but the healing had taken more than the feeding had given back. I was too tired for games.
"Do you want her to wake up, Merlin? Or do you fear her waking up?"
He sank back into that stillness again. "I do not know how to answer that question."
"Yeah, you do."
"Then I will not answer it."
"Are you a flunky of the vampire council, is that it?"
"Merlin has been outside the circle of inner power for centuries," Asher said.
I nodded. "Yeah, you guys filled me in on the limo ride here. He grew so powerful that he was given a choice of giving up his territory, or being killed. He gave it all up, and vanished into the mists of time. Jean-Claude thought there might be a place for him here on American soil." In my head, I thought, and the next time that Jean-Claude offers refuge to someone this f**king powerful, he better run it by me first. I'd made that clear in the limo. He hadn't even argued with me.
"If you're not working for the council, then who are you working for?" I asked.
"If I said myself, would you believe me?"
"Maybe, maybe not, don't know, try me." My hand was on the gun again.
"Why touch your gun?"
"Because, I think if you don't want to answer the question that you may try vampire powers again. It just depends on what you're more afraid of."
"I am not afraid of your little gun," he said.
"Probably not, but you are afraid of Mommie Dearest, aren't you?"
He actually licked his lips. The gesture gave me hope that his fa?de was cracking, and it made me give his eyes a full glance. Which was what it was supposed to do. He tried to roll me in that moment of eye contact, and he might have done it, except that Asher and Damian touched my bare skin at the same time. It was enough to distract me, make me look away.
"There must be more to the two of you than I have been told," Merlin said, and his voice was back to emptiness again.
"He is her vampire servant," Adonis said, "it isn't rumor." His voice wasn't empty, more hollow with an edge of anger.
"But that is not what saved her," Merlin said. He looked to Asher, and I saw what I had rarely seen, one vampire look away from the gaze of another. Most vamps' power, like my own necromancy, protected them against vampire gaze. They couldn't roll each other--but Merlin could, or Asher feared he could. Scary bastard.
"You were the weakest of Belle Morte's master vampires. That vampire would not have helped save anyone from my gaze."
"I have never met you before," Asher said, his hand still on my arm, and his gaze averted from the other vampire.
"I have been closer to you than you know, Asher."
I did not like the direction this talk was taking. "Look, we brought you back here to get answers, not the other way around."
"And what answers do you think that I want from you?"
"You wanted to know how powerful we were. I don't know why, but you did. You wanted to test us. Why?"
"Perhaps I have sought long and hard for another master I could call my own. Someone who was powerful enough to make me feel that he was worthy to follow."
"You're Merlin, not Lancelot," I said.
"Lancelot was fiction, as is most of what you know today about me, and the ones I served."
I blinked in his direction. "Are you saying you're the Merlin, as in King Arthur and the Round Table?"
"Are you saying I am not?"
I started to argue with him, but decided not to. It was no skin off my back if he wanted to pretend to be the real Merlin. I wouldn't even point out that Merlin, himself, was a late addition to the legend of Arthur. It was his delusion. Obsidian Butterfly thought she was an Aztec goddess. She'd been powerful enough that I hadn't burst her bubble either.
"Another night, maybe, but tonight I want to get some straight answers out of you. You're talking rings around me, and I'm tired of it."
His power breathed through my mind. I was suddenly pointing a gun at his chest. "Don't try it."
"You would slay me simply for using my power."
"I would shoot you in the chest for trying to roll my mind. One-on-one mind control is illegal, especially for nefarious purposes."
"I do not plan to take your blood, or feed upon you in any other way."
The gun was still nice and steady at his chest. "The law doesn't state you have to do mind control for feeding, just that you infringe on the free will of mother. It's grounds for an order of execution."