"I wouldn't brag about that," Richard said. He'd moved to lean his shoulder against the marble around the tub, so that he was close enough to have reached out and touched us, but he didn't try to close the distance. And because he didn't, we didn't.
"If Augustine is truly ours in the way that Belle made allies, than none of the other masters will try us. They will fear us, Richard. Fear even the touch of our hands."
Richard frowned at us. I wanted to touch the thick waves of his hair, but kept my hand around Jean-Claude's waist, and the other hand in my lap. "But you told us, before we agreed to this gathering of masters, that everyone would behave. Especially if they thought one of their people would be Anita's new pomme de sang. Now, the first two masters who touch her are breaking all the rules."
"I believe there is a reason for that."
He gave us a skeptical look that was like a mirror of my own. "What reason?"
Jean-Claude told him about his theory that the ardeur was hunting powerful prey.
"But that means that any Master of the City who comes into contact with her will be, what, compelled to try to mind-roll her?"
"Not just Masters of the City," he said, and he told about Meng Die and Requiem. "It may have been only that these two are of our bloodline, and both had tasted the ardeur more than once."
"So has Asher, and he's not crazed."
"Asher was drawn to ma petite from the moment he came to us."
"He saw her as a way of duplicating what you and he and Julianna had," Richard said. He had moved almost as close as he could without actually touching us. I wondered if he was even aware of it.
"That, and the only way back into my bed was through Anita. But what if it was more than that, Richard?"
I had to add now, "Requiem isn't the only one of the new London vamps that had tasted the ardeur, and they're all of Belle's line. They don't seem particularly drawn to me."
"Perhaps they must get at least a small taste of the ardeur from you before it is triggered?"
"Or maybe you're wrong," Richard said, "maybe you just don't have any friends. How long has it been since you saw these guys?"
Jean-Claude gave that graceful shrug. "Almost a century for Augustine, and not since I entered this country for Samuel."
I looked at him. "Jean-Claude, just because someone was your friend a century ago doesn't mean he hasn't changed."
He nodded, as if I'd made a point. "Perhaps, but I felt something when we were with Augustine. It was such power. I believe that the ardeur is reaching some new power, evolving into something new, or at the very least new to us."
"What if Auggie isn't rolled completely?" I asked.
"Then what we did tonight will not be as large a deterrent."
"Tell Richard the other part, that if we really did roll another Master of the City, you're wondering if the council in Europe will use this as an excuse to kill us. Or maybe our American neighbors will decide to kill us before we try to take them all over."
Richard looked at us with that flat I-don't-believe-it look. "Well, this is a lose-lose situation. Why did you bring them all here, Jean-Claude?"
"Because their presence makes an important event of my evening of dance. It is unfair that just because an artist becomes a vampire he is no longer allowed on the stage. I want my kind to be able to pursue passions that have nothing to do with blood and power. I hope, as you for your wolves, that we can be more than just monsters."
I'd been thinking about what he said about the taste of the ardeur too much to be sidetracked into talking about ballet. "You know I fed the ardeur off Byron, too. He's not besotted with me."
"But he is not a master vampire, ma petite, nor will he ever be a master. He accepts that."
"If Anita has this effect only on your bloodline, we're safe for tomorrow, because there are no other Masters of the City from that line."
"But there are master vampires of Belle's line scattered throughout this country. Some will be there tomorrow. Some are part of the ballet troupe itself."
"So I stay home," I said.
"Cinderella must come to the ball, ma petite."
"Nathaniel says I'm not Cinderella, I'm Prince Charming."
He smiled, and gave me a little hug. "Of course, ma petite, whatever you say." Yeah, he was humoring me, but I let him. "But the point remains, you must go to the party tomorrow night."
Richard's knee touched my leg, his hands still clasped around his legs. His hands were mottled with the tightness of his own hold. "She can't go, not if she's going to get jumped by all of them." His hand started to reach for my leg, then he stopped himself, and went back to holding his own hand. He was fighting so hard not to touch me, to touch us. The vampire marks, at least for Belle's line, made you want to touch each other. It didn't have to be about sex, just about feeling more complete when you touched. I know Richard felt almost compelled to touch me, but I'd never had the courage to ask if he felt the same way around Jean-Claude. If he did, it might explain some of why he was so enraged about Augustine.
"We have in our camp other masters of similar power to Requiem, who have tasted the ardeur. One is even of Belle's line."
I shook my head. "If you're talking about London, forget it. He seriously creeps me."
Richard was shaking his head, too. "No."
"Frankly, Jean-Claude, I don't know why you agreed to take him. I mean, his own kiss nicknamed him 'the Dark Knight.' I think that says something."
He sighed and leaned his back against the wall. "You know that Belle Morte tried to demand all her bloodline back, when their master was executed. How could I refuse to save them from her?"
"Yeah, but I'd think Belle's court would be right up London's alley. A nice dark alley."
"He did not wish to go back to her. He spoke to me over the phone, he begged me not to let him go back to her court. You see, ma petite, Richard, London was traded to Belle for several years, then she exiled him. She tried to recall him, but he got his new master to intercede."
"Why?" Richard asked. "Auggie would give anything to go back. I felt how much he misses her." Richard shuddered. "It's like some sort of addiction."
"Oui, mon ami, exactement, that is precisely why London does not wish to go back. He is like an alcoholic that has become a teetotaler. He knows he has another drunken binge in him, but he does not know whether he has the strength to stop again. How could I leave him to her?"
"That's awfully sentimental for you, isn't it?" Richard said.
Jean-Claude gave him an unfriendly look. "I try for kindness when I can, Richard."
Richard sighed, and leaned his forehead on his knees. "God, this is a mess."
"You said we had other master vamps who had tasted the ardeur but who weren't of Belle's line--who are they?" Our list of non-Belle masters was pretty damn slim.
"Wicked and Truth," he said.
It was Richard who raised his face and said, "No, absolutely no." Then he seemed to think about it. "Not Wicked."
"Truth would be acceptable?" Jean-Claude asked.
Richard's shoulders hunched, and I thought he might break his own hands holding on so tight. "You're asking me to share her with another man. How can you ask me to help pick who it's going to be?"
"How many women have you lain with in the last month, Richard?"
Richard's power flared like a burst of fire through an innocent-looking wall. We were suddenly bathed in the biting heat of his power.
"You all right in there?" Claudia called through the door.
I looked at Richard. He gave the tiniest nod.
"We're fine," I said.
"You sure?" she asked.
Silence from the other side of the door.
Richard said, "Thank you," then got back to the fight. I didn't have to see his face to know he was angry. "We all agreed that I'd keep dating. Anita will be my lupa and my Bolverk, but she doesn't want to marry, or have kids, or any of that. I do. We all agreed to this, don't throw it up in my face now."
"You're going to hurt yourself, Richard," I said, softly, staring at his hands, and all the not-so-pretty colors they were turning.
He let go of his hands with a breath that held pain in it. He finally let himself wrap his hand around my calf. His power ran over my skin like a thousand tiny insects biting.