A voice from behind us, with more French accent than I usually heard in it, said, "Augustine, what have you done to ma petite? The power, she presses..." I looked at him, and the words stopped. "Belle Morte." He said it, flat, as if he'd just swallowed all the emotion he had.
He was dressed in his signature colors, black and white. A black velvet jacket barely touched the top of his waist. The white lace of his shirt spilled out between that blackness, held at the neck by the cameo that had been one of my first presents to him. The pants were leather and looked poured on. The knee-high black boots were some of the plainest he owned. Of course with his body gliding toward us there was nothing plain about him. We both knew the potential of his body too intimately to ever believe such simple camouflage. Because it was a we. And because it was a we, she knew why Jean-Claude had his black curls pulled back in a ponytail. She knew why the clothes were elegant but some of his least expensive. Why he wore almost no jewelry. He had planned to appear as the visiting masters had last seen him. He was going to hide what he truly was, let them wonder about his power. It was a gamble that I had disagreed with. I thought it was like baiting them. Look how powerless I am, try me. Jean-Claude said that he had never gotten in trouble when dealing with other masters by hiding some of his abilities. It was a strategy that had saved his life in the past.
She used me to say, "I see you Jean-Claude. All these simple games do not hide you from Belle Morte. But you were right to come humble before me, as I like my men."
I stared at him with Belle Morte's eyes, while she laughed, and laughed, and laughed on her big, empty bed. I thought, empty. Since when did Belle sleep alone? That thought made her stumble in her mind again. A moment of hesitation, but Jean-Claude took it. He used it to put himself at my back. To fold all the velvet and leather of his body around me, so that he and Auggie faced each other across me.
Belle roared back through me, but in some ways, her moment had passed. Jean-Claude was sourdre de sang and I was his human servant. Touching, she could not turn me against him. But she left us with a parting gift, an evil whisper in my mind. "You are sourdre de sang. You can chase me out, but you cannot cure what Augustine has begun. When I leave her mind, the ardeur will still be there. It will spread to the three of you, and you will do things together that you have not done in centuries."
She was in my head, so I couldn't hide that this was the first I'd heard of Auggie and Jean-Claude being more than friends. She laughed in her firelit bedroom all those miles away. She spoke through me, that alto purr trying to come out of my mouth. "Oh, Jean-Claude, you did not tell her that you and Augustine were lovers."
Jean-Claude was very still against my body, as if he were holding his breath. I realized he was waiting for me to react to what she'd said. He was waiting for me to be angry and make the disaster that was about to happen even worse. But I surprised us all.
I wasn't shocked. I don't know why, but I wasn't. I'd known he hadn't come to me a virgin. I even knew that he'd had other male lovers besides Asher. Of course, knowing something in the abstract wasn't the same as having the fact kneeling in front of you, holding you in his arms. I looked up at Auggie and expected to be upset, but maybe Auggie's powers had done something to me, or maybe I was picking up Jean-Claude's emotion, or even Belle's. Whatever the reason, I gazed up at the man in front of me and saw the line of his face from temple to jaw like the stroke of some fine painting. The charcoal-gray eyes had lost their fire; fear and willpower had shut down some of his vampiric powers. But even empty of anything but him, the eyes were utterly compelling. It wasn't just the lace of black lashes and the drowning color that for the first time convinced me that gray could be as beautiful as blue, but the look in those eyes. He stared down at me like a drowning man. Something of pain and loss so raw that it tightened my throat. My reaction was sympathy; Belle's was not. She was glad, so terribly glad that after all these centuries the sight of her eyes could still fill him with such pain. She wanted him to hurt. Wanted him to suffer. Wanted him to feel cast out, driven from paradise by the hand of a vengeful god, or, I guess in this case, goddess.
Augustine's power meant that I watched his pain as one freshly fallen in love, in that first blinding, overwhelming rush where you'll do or say almost anything to make each other happy. I wanted to make it all better, to kiss it and make it all go away.
"No," Belle said, "no, they lied to you. You should feel betrayed. Heartbroken."
"Sorry to disappoint you," I said, but she knew I didn't mean it.
"So calm, Anita. See through my eyes and your lovely calm will not survive."
I knew I still knelt, held between Jean-Claude and Augustine, but I was trapped in Belle's memories, so that we sat on a throne in a huge dark, torch-lit room. Augustine was tied to a metal framework, the na**d line of his body exposed to all. He had come begging Belle to take him back. She had refused, but offered one more taste of the ardeur. These weren't thoughts; I was in her head so deeply that I shared her memories. She meant to humiliate him. He had made her love him, and that she could not forgive.
Jean-Claude and Asher appeared before the throne. They were dressed in long cloaks that hid all but their faces. Asher's face had the flawless beauty that had once been his. So this memory was from a time before he and Jean-Claude left Belle to save Julianna, the woman they both loved, from Belle's jealousy. Jean-Claude and Asher were still her perfect pair. Her matched beauties that did all we asked.
I knew they were na**d under the cloaks. I knew what she meant them to do.
Augustine's voice, next to my ear, startled me, but did not break Belle's memory. It was like a voice from on high. "You are her master, Jean-Claude. Do not let Belle show this to Anita."
It was as if his voice helped call me back, because the person talking was not the person tied there. The Jean-Claude he spoke to was not the servant who stood before this throne. This had happened long, long ago. It wasn't real anymore.
"It happened, Anita, just as I will show it to you."
"Ma petite" Jean-Claude said, "can you hear me?"
I blinked up at them, saw their faces looming over me, but Belle's power roared through my head. "No, Anita, you will see the reality of it." I was back in that torch-lit room. I could feel their hands on me, but all I could see was what Belle showed me.
"Touch her bare skin," Auggie said.
Asher and Jean-Claude began to glide around the bound man. It was almost a dance, the swaying of cloaks, the grace of their movements.
Hands glided over my bare arms. The moment his bare skin touched me, the memory began to grow dark. It was as if the lights were dimming, hiding what was happening.
"No!" Belle shouted, and she pulled me back into that dark hall, all those centuries ago.
The cloaks were gone, and their bodies were pale and perfect. I heard Augustine protest. "You promised me the ardeur."
"I keep all my promises, Augustine."
Jean-Claude glowed like some dark star, laying only his hand on the na**d back of the other man. Augustine said, "Ah, now I understand." He lifted his face at an awkward angle to look back along his body at Jean-Claude. Jean-Claude knelt in front of him, so he didn't have to strain. He cupped Augustine's chin in his hand, and spoke, so low that Belle could have not heard it. "I have given you but a taste. If you find my touch repulsive, then I can stop." He put his face next to Augustine's mouth, as if he were kissing the other man's neck. He gave Augustine a chance to breathe his answer, "You have such fine control over the ardeur, so soon."
"If this is but a taste, and all she will allow me, then I want it."
Jean-Claude pulled back enough to see the other man's face. He cupped Augustine's face in his hands. I realized that I was seeing Jean-Claude's face through Augustine's eyes. I watched Augustine see the uncertainty in the other man's eyes. "Would you risk her anger to save me?"
"I do not enjoy force."
Asher knelt beside Jean-Claude, and there was a look I'd never seen on his face. Arrogance, fierceness, something predatory, and something else. Something dangerous, and unpleasant.
Asher's voice fell into the memory. "Jean-Claude, do not let Anita see me like this." Until that moment I hadn't known Asher was somewhere in the room, waiting for us to win, or lose, this battle. And he was seeing what Belle was forcing me to see. How was she doing this?