"I would need more help running the hotline and the coalition. We would have nearly a year to train someone to help me, or even replace me, if that's what was needed."
"It can't be your baby," Richard said.
"What does that mean, genetically?"
"It means that just because it's not blood of my blood doesn't mean it's not mine. Ours."
"Yours and Anita's," and the words singed along my skin. So much power, so much anger, it actually hurt.
"No," Micah said, "Anita's and Nathaniel's, and Jean-Claude's, and Asher's and Damian's and yours, and mine. Leaving a little bit of sperm behind doesn't make you a father. It's what you do afterward, Richard."
"You can't bring up a baby with seven fathers."
"Call it what you like," Micah said, "but the only two men in this room able to totally disrupt their lives if there is a baby are Nathaniel and me." He looked at Jean-Claude. "Or am I wrong?"
Jean-Claude smiled at him. "No, mon chat, you are not. I do not believe that a baby could spend all its time in the underground of the Circus of the Damned and be"--he seemed to search for a word--"well-balanced. Visits, oui, many visits, but the world I have built here is not"--again he searched for a word--"conducive to the upbringing of small children."
"I'm a small child," came a small sweet voice from behind us. Apparently we'd all been so caught up that we hadn't heard the approach of the tiny girl. Of course, Valentina was a vampire, and the undead are quiet bastards.
Her dark hair curled just below her ears. She'd cut it recently, to look more modern. Her face was round, and soft, not long past being a baby. She was five, and would always be five, at least physically. She was wearing a red dress with white tights, and little white patent leather shoes. When she came to us she'd worn nothing designed after 1800. She still wouldn't wear pants or shorts, because it wasn't ladylike, but she had arrived in the twentieth century, at least in fashion. She blinked large dark eyes at us, her face perfectly innocent. At Belle's court she had tortured people for information, for punishment, and because she enjoyed it, Jean-Claude told me that all the child vampires go mad eventually. It was why it was against their laws to bring anyone over before puberty.
Valentina had been made by a pedophile who happened to be a vampire. He had been given an isolated territory, and there he had made his own special playmates for almost fifty years before someone discovered what he was doing. Valentina had been one of the lucky ones. He'd brought her over, but hadn't made her one of his brides, yet. Most of his "brides" and "grooms" had to be destroyed. Too mad, too savage, for anything else. That one of "her" vampires had done such things was one of her few things that Belle Morte seemed to feel guilty about.
"Yes," Jean-Claude said, "of course you are. You are our petite fleur." He moved forward as if he would herd her out of earshot of the grown-up talk. She may have looked five, but she was over three hundred years old. The body was a child's, the mind was not. But unless we were careful, most of us had a tendency to treat her like she looked, not like she thought.
She turned that tiny face to mine, with those solemn eyes. "Are you going to have a baby?"
"Maybe," I said.
She smiled, flashing fangs as delicate as needles. "I would have someone to play with."
Jean-Claude started to take her hand, then hesitated in midgesture. He had suffered at Valentina's hands more than once. He never truly forgot she was a monster. He said, "Where is Bartolome? He's supposed to be watching you today, isn't he?"
"I don't know where he is," she said, gazing up at Jean-Claude.
He laid the barest touch on her shoulder. She looked past him to me. The look in those eyes had nothing to do with childhood.
"She's over three hundred years old, Jean-Claude, don't shush her away like she's really five."
He looked at me. "Valentina prefers to be treated as a child, it is her choice." He gazed down at her. "Don't you, ma dulce?" He lied with his voice, but he did not touch her as if she were a child.
She nodded, but those eyes gazed at me. Those eyes that held centuries of power trapped in a body too delicate to do most of the things in her mind. There were nights when I felt sorry for her; then there were moments, like now, when I wasn't certain that she'd have been sane even if she'd come over as an adult. There was simply something in her that wasn't quite right. It was sort of a chicken/egg question on Valentina's sanity. She'd never hurt me. Never done anything to purposefully frighten me. But she was on my short list of people that I wouldn't have trusted if I'd been helpless and alone with her. It had taken me months to realize that the reason she creeped me out was only partly the whole trapped-in-a-child's-body thing. Months to admit to myself that I was more afraid of Valentina than any other vamp who called Jean-Claude master.
"I think having a baby around would be fun," she said.
"Fun, how?" I asked, not sure I wanted to hear the answer.
"I wouldn't be the smallest anymore," she said. It should have been an innocent statement, so why did I suddenly have the urge to tell her that if she tried to change my baby over into a vampire littler than herself, I would f**king kill her? Paranoid, or just cautious? So hard to tell the difference sometimes.
Richard moved closer to me, and I let him. I wasn't the only one who felt something was terribly wrong with her. He put his arm across my shoulders, and I let him do that, too. Staring into Valentina's eyes I would have let almost anyone comfort me.
"No," I said, slowly, "no, not too much time at the Circus."
Micah moved closer to us, not touching me, because Richard never seemed to like that. He'd tolerate Jean-Claude touching me with him, but almost no one else. But I wasn't the only one weirded out by the "little girl."
Jean-Claude looked back at us, still touching her shoulder. "I must find Bartolome, and chastise him for not watching her better."
Valentina pulled away from Jean-Claude, and he let her go. She started walking farther into the room. Richard drew me in tighter against his body. Micah moved so that he was standing almost in front of me, blocking her from coming closer to me. Normally, I might have told him it wasn't necessary, but I didn't like how interested she'd been in the whole idea of the baby.
Valentina walked around us. The tension in my shoulders eased. Richard's breath eased out in something like a sigh. Micah didn't relax. He stayed tense just in front of us, as if he didn't trust she wouldn't circle back. She walked toward Samuel and Sampson.
"What are you doing, little one?" Jean-Claude said.
She gave a perfect, and very low, curtsey, holding her little dress out with her hands, ankles crossing as she went down. "Greetings, Samuel, Master of Cape Cod."
"Greetings, Valentina," he said.
She offered him her hand. He took the tiny hand in his, and laid the barest touch of his mouth upon her wrist. It was all protocol, perfectly acceptable, but the gesture showed better than any words that he wasn't comfy with her either.
She turned to Sampson. She gazed up at him, her head tilted back, very childlike, but I would have bet anything I had that the searching look on her face wouldn't be childlike. I'd had her stare at me before, and knew that the face didn't match the intensity and personality in the eyes. "Is this your son?"
"Yes, his name is Sampson."
She held her tiny hand out to him, too. He took it, but seemed unsure what to do with it. "I am not a vampire," he said, "nor anyone's servant, or animal to call."
"But you are his son, his heir. I am just one more vampire. I am not even a true master." She was saying that he outranked her.
Sampson glanced at his father, who must have given him some look, because he raised the tiny hand to his mouth. He, like his father, did the minimum touch he could get away with. He, like his father, kept eye contact with her while he did it. It reminded me of how you bow on the mat in judo. You keep your eyes up as you do it, never looking away from your opponent, just in case. But there was a difference between the two men. One was a very master vampire. The other was not. He was part human and part mermaid, and maybe someday he would be more, but tonight, he wasn't.
"Pick me up," she said, in that high little-girl voice.