"It takes a great deal out of everyone," Merlin said.
I wondered for the first time if the reason he hadn't done some major mind control after the mother left wasn't just to be polite, but because he was scared. Maybe he didn't have enough juice left. Maybe he, like me, was drained of energy.
"She can feed off other vampires, just by touching their powers, can't she?"
"Why do you ask?"
"She almost always comes to me after some other vampire has used major power on me. She used to follow Belle Morte's mind games. Tonight it was you that she followed. Does she feed off us when she does this?"
"Sometimes," he said.
"So she hasn't been asleep and not feeding for thousands of years. She's been like some kind of dark dream, feeding on energy, on power."
"I believe so."
"Why did she go to sleep in the first place?"
"How should I know?"
"Avoiding the question, aren't you?"
He gave a small smile. "Perhaps."
"Do you know why she went to sleep?"
"Will you tell me?"
"Because it is not a story I wish to share."
"I can't make you tell me, can I?"
"You could try to see if you are necromancer enough to command me to tell you."
I grinned. "My ego isn't that big."
"More of the mother's servants have woken. Most of the council, like Belle Morte, believe it is their own growing powers that have broken the servants from their long sleeps."
"Which council members don't believe it?"
"Since I am forbidden to go near the council, how would I know that?"
"The same way you know what Belle Morte thinks."
He gave that smile again. I think it was his I'm-not-telling-you smile.
"You need to feed again, Ms. Blake, as do I. The good mother fed upon us both."
"She's not good, and she was never your mother."
He made that hand gesture again, the one that passed for a shrug. "She was mother to what I am now."
I couldn't argue with that, so I didn't try. "You wanted to know if she's waking; she is. You say you wanted to know whether Jean-Claude was a power strong enough for you to call him master."
"You do not believe that I seek a master?"
"I believe that the only master you've ever acknowledged is lying in a room somewhere in Europe, haunting my dreams."
He took a deep breath, sighing. Vamps didn't need to breathe, only air enough to talk, but I'd found that most of them sigh, from time to time, as if it's a habit that even a few millennia can't break.
Damian's hand tightened almost painfully on the back of my neck. I was being utterly calm; what was the deal? I started to look up at him, but I felt it. He let me feel it. I was sucking his energy. Taking back the energy I gave him to live. Shit.
There was a knock on the door.
Claudia looked at me. "See who it is," I said.
She checked before opening the door, good bodyguard. It was Nathaniel. She opened the door for him. He came through with his hair still back in its braid, but he'd lost his shirt and vest somewhere. His upper body gleamed with sweat, and the amethyst and diamond collar on his neck glittered as he glided into the room.
"How did you lose your shirt?" I asked.
"I got hot," he said, and grinned.
He walked toward me still smiling, but there was worry around the edges of his eyes. A stranger wouldn't have seen it, but I'd spent months reading his face. He walked wide around the desk, so he'd be out of reach of Merlin. He'd learned to be a better person, and a worse victim, living with me. He came around, and put his hand on my arm, underneath Asher's jacket. Having them both touch me was as if someone had stuck an electric plug in my spine. It made me jump, but underneath the rush of power was the feeling that it was going just one way, into me. Shit. I was really, really going to have to get better at this energy thing.
"You are very new at being the center of this triumvirate of power," Merlin said, like he was certain of it, and like it was interesting to him.
"Yeah, there's a learning curve."
"There are ways to keep the good mother from feeding upon your energy."
"I'm all ears," I said.
He frowned at me.
"I mean, I'd love to hear it." Sometimes I forgot that slang does not travel well, not across countries, or centuries.
"A holy item hidden inside at least two layers of pillows will keep her at bay."
"That sounds risky," I said, raising my newly marked hand. The movement made Damian move, almost a stumble. I felt Nathaniel reach for him, knew when he had put an arm around the taller man's waist.
"Even vampires can sleep thus, if they believe and they do not call their own power."
I needed to feed, but I didn't want a mistake here. I bunked with too many vampires to want a holy item going off at the wrong moment. "A vampire can sleep with a holy item under his pillow?"
"Yes, or underneath the bed, though pillow is better."
"What happens if the holy item touches vampire flesh?"
"Look at your own hand for that answer," he said.
"Are you saying that the cross burned me because of my own power, not Mommie Dearest?"
"You are a succubus, Ms. Blake; that has long been a power associated with the demonic."
"I've come up against demons. Vampirism is a contagion, not a demonic anything. It's a blood-borne disease. A doctor back in the 1900s sort of figured out how to cure it. You don't cure demonic possession with a blood transfusion."
"Cured it?" Merlin said. "With a blood transfusion, truly?"
"Well, yeah, but the vampirism is what keeps the dead body up and running, so you take the vampirism out of the blood, and the body dies."
"Ah, then not a cure that most would seek."
I shook my head. "No."
Damian leaned over and whispered against my cheek, "All interesting, but may I ask that you speed this up?"
"The mother cannot break through your protection on her own, except in dream. But she can follow the attack of another vampire inside your defenses. You are correct on that. Fear of her was one of the reasons for the laws governing combat between masters. But she has been asleep for so long that we have forgotten caution."
"Why does she need to follow someone else's attack?"
"Because she is still a creature of nightmare and the lands of Morpheus."
"She's still asleep, you mean?"
"Yes, that is what I mean." He smiled.
Damian's hand dug into my shoulder. I said, "I don't mean to be rude here, but I need to feed. So, if you'll excuse us."
"Can't we watch?" Elisabetta asked.
"No," I said.
"Come, Elisabetta," Merlin said. He went out the door with her behind him. Adonis turned in the doorway, and stared at us all.
"You don't get to watch either," I said. "This meeting is over."
He started to say something, then seemed to think better of it. He finally shook his head, and left without another word. I'd learned more than he meant to tell, but less than there was to know. Somehow I knew I'd see him again. Just a feeling.
Claudia went to the door. "I'll make sure no one interrupts." She closed the door behind her.
I stood, and gently moved their hands off my shoulders. I took their hands in mine. "Nathaniel, take Damian to the workers' lounge or somewhere. Or find a table outside, I guess."
"Why can't we watch?"
I gave him a look, but he gave innocent, knowledgeable eyes. "It's been less than two hours, are you saying you'd go again?"
"I can't feed on you again this soon, Nathaniel, it's too dangerous. I don't know what the mother did to me, exactly, but I feel shaky. I don't know if I can guarantee that the ardeur won't spread through the room. Outside the door you'll be safe; inside, I don't know." I looked at Damian, who was clinging to Nathaniel's shoulders as if he'd fall down without the support. "If I fed on Damian right now, I think that would be bad."
"Who will you feed from then?" Asher asked from where he stood near the wall.
"If it's okay with you, you."
"A man likes to be asked."
I squeezed the others' hands, and said, "Nathaniel, Damian, go, please, and stay where someone can keep an eye on you, okay?"