I shook my head, waving my hands in the air as if to erase all of this. "I can't deal with this now. We've got to change topic, at least until I take the test and find out for sure. If the test's positive then we can talk, but until we know for sure, this topic is closed."
"You can't just change the topic," Richard said.
"Yes," Jean-Claude said, "she can."
"What if I don't want to change the topic?" Again I got the impression that Richard was spoiling for a fight.
Micah finally said something. "Anita is only asking to change the topic until we know for sure, Richard. That makes sense."
"You stay out of this!" Richard yelled it at him.
"Don't yell at Micah!" I yelled at him.
"I'll yell at whoever I want to yell at," he yelled.
Claudia yelled us both to silence. A huge, deep sound that made us all look at her. "Are your hurt feelings the only thing that matters here, Ulfric?" She shook her head. "Nathaniel's right, you'd piss on her if you could, if that would make her yours and yours alone."
He growled and took a step toward her.
"No," Jean-Claude said, "no, Richard."
"Are you picking a fight with him?" Micah asked. He sounded puzzled. He was right, it wasn't like Claudia to start the fight. She'd finish the fight, but not start it.
She actually looked at the floor. I think she was counting to ten. "I don't want to start a fight with anyone, but I'm tired of the attitude."
"What attitude?" I asked.
She pointed at Richard. "His attitude."
She wasn't the only one, but out loud, I said, "I don't think your starting a fight with Richard will make me feel better."
"I'm sorry for that." Then she gave Richard a completely hostile look. "But he's like so many men. He thinks that if he could just get you pregnant, just get you married, you'd be the perfect little woman."
"I do not think that," Richard said.
"You don't?" she said.
"No," he said.
"Then what's with the proposal?"
"You're supposed to propose if you've got someone pregnant."
She gave a nod. "And what's with Anita not being a federal marshal, or a vampire executioner?"
"The life she's living right now just doesn't seem like the kind of life that would be good for a baby."
"No," I said, "it doesn't."
He turned and looked at me. "You agree with me."
"Yes, of course, I agree that my life won't work with a baby. But this is the only life I have, Richard. This is who I am. I can't remake myself just because there may be a baby."
"Yes," he said, "you can. If you want to badly enough, you can change."
"Are you going to give up being a teacher?"
He looked away, and shook his head. "I love being a teacher."
"And I love being a federal marshal."
"You hate it, too."
"Yeah, sometimes I hate it, and maybe I'll burn out on all the violent cases. Maybe I'll reach a point where I can't do it anymore. But I do enjoy the police work, and I'm good at it."
"You enjoy seeing mutilated corpses?"
I shook my head. "Get out."
"Ma petite, please," Jean-Claude said, and came to hold me. I didn't pull away, but I stayed stiff and unyielding in his arms. I was so angry I couldn't even think. All I knew for certain was that I needed Richard to be somewhere else, because if he stayed here saying stupid shit, I was going to say something unforgivable, or he was. We were close to the kind of fight that there is no fix for.
Samuel's pleasant and oh-so-reasonable voice came. "Perhaps we should discuss the topics that will allow all of you to survive this weekend, and keep sovereignty of your own territory in your own hands."
That got everyone's attention, even Richard's. "What are you talking about?" he said.
"If Anita's powers are as disruptive to other Masters of the City as they have been to Augustine, then what will you do? What will the other masters do when they see Augustine follow her and Jean-Claude around like a lovesick dog? She ordered Augustine around, she exhibited necromancy that controlled a Master of the City. That is legend among us, Ulfric, but not present reality. I saw Augustine strain against her compulsion. I do not know, even now, whether he used his full powers on Anita because he wished for sex with a woman of the ardeur once more, or to keep her from bespelling him completely. Better to be tied to her by love and lust than by blind obedience. In truth, I am not certain that Augustine himself knows why he did it, or what might have happened if he had chosen another defense." Samuel sighed. "You cannot take her to the ballet tomorrow without knowing if her attraction is universal, or whether it is mainly Belle's line that is susceptible to it."
"Were you drawn to her?" Jean-Claude asked.
"I feel some attraction, yes, but not to the degree that Augustine did. I am not fighting to keep from touching her, or doing what she says. I sense her power, and when she was using her necromancy, it was most impressive, but no, I did not feel compelled."
"Then is it just Belle's line?" Jean-Claude asked.
"Or perhaps only vampires that have experienced Belle's ardeur are strongly drawn."
I was finally relaxing into Jean-Claude's arms. "That would explain it." He didn't sound like he believed it was that simple.
"But, Jean-Claude, you must understand that I feel her power. I am over a thousand years old, and a Master of the City. I have as my animal to call a siren. I am not a small power, yet she does have a certain"--he seemed to search for a word--"attraction even to me. I am not burdened by it, but it is there. You said you wished my advice."
"I advise that you find a way to test her powers before she meets the larger party."
"I know that Maximillian of Vegas has one of Belle's line as his pomme de sang candidate. He would be thrilled if you asked to see one of his candidates early. He will see it as a point of favor."
"We would have to see at least one candidate from each of the masters, then, in private."
"But if it goes wrong?" I said. "Aren't we running the risk that whoever we 'experiment' on may be metaphysically bound to me forever?"
Samuel nodded. "Yes." He looked at me like What's wrong with that?
"It wouldn't be fair. I can't experiment on them, run the risk of binding them to me, if they don't know what the risks are."
"But they have come hoping to be your new pomme de sang" Samuel said. "They have come hoping to bind themselves to you."
"Jason has been Jean-Claude's pomme de sang for years, but if he decided to go back to college, or change jobs, or fell in love, and didn't want to keep being a pomme de sang, he could do that. We'd miss him, and I think he'd miss Jean-Claude, but he has choices. He isn't trapped into being Jean-Claude's pomme forever." I moved away from Jean-Claude and faced Samuel. "What you're suggesting takes away their options. It's like making them a slave without asking first if that's what they want."
Samuel smiled at me. "Freedom and fairness are very important to you, aren't they?"
I nodded, and frowned. "They're important to everybody."
He laughed. "Oh, no, Anita, you would be amazed at the number of people who try to give away their freedom at every opportunity. They much prefer that someone else make their decisions. As for fairness, you said it earlier, life isn't fair."
"No, life isn't fair, but I try to be."
He nodded, and stood, clapping his hands together. "She is a rare find, Jean-Claude."
"Thank you," he said, as if the compliment were all for him, and none for me.
"To make these experiments with their knowledge, Anita," Samuel said, "needs Jean-Claude to admit to the other masters that you, all of you, have no idea what the extent of your powers are. You would have to admit weakness, and confusion, when what you must have this weekend is strength, surety, and unassailable power."
"No one's power is unassailable," I said.
He gave a small bow. "Touché, but my point is still valid. To expose that much of your uncertainty to some of the masters would be nearly suicidal." He came to stand in front of me. "Think upon this, Anita: if you are with child, then it is no longer just your life you risk. Is your sense of fair play worth the risk of letting the other Masters of the City see your weaknesses? For what will they think, if you admit to this being a new power? Might they think that they should destroy you before you enslave us all?"