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Dead Ice (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 24) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 17:00:57

There were already two guards at the head of the stairs, and more in a sort of hidden crow's nest in the top of the warehouse building with a sniper rifle, and more up above circling through the permanent Circus tent, freak show, and carnival midway that was the public business of the Circus of the Damned. We had one or two bodyguards assigned to all our principals, and now we had two more guards tied up on the other side of the big door. Yes, we had the manpower, but when Fredo had come to me with the suggestion that we lock the door and put guards on it, I just hadn't realized how much it would irritate me to be on the other side of the door so often.

There was an answering knock. Nicky stood closer to the door, putting his bare hand against the big lock with its huge keyhole, so the guard on the other side would catch his scent. It was clever as hell, but I was getting really tired of it, as the door finally pushed open, and Kelly Reeder held the door open for us. She was five-five to my five-three, but I'd seen what those extra inches of leg and arm could do on the practice mat when we all worked out. If everyone is equally trained, reach matters in hand-to-hand combat.

She'd put her long blond hair back in a high, tight braid, so that her face looked pale and unadorned, as if she were waiting to put on makeup. The black shoulder rig with its gun and extra ammo was almost invisible against the black-on-black T-shirt and jeans. She was wearing black boots like I wore to crime scenes. The unrelieved black that was the guards' regular uniform was always severe against her pale yellow hair and paler blue eyes, but today her cheeks looked almost hollow; the muscles in her arms stood out, not like she'd done it on purpose, but as if she'd lost too much weight for her health.

Nathaniel gave me a quick kiss. "I'll go help Sin get ready."

I squeezed his hand and let him go, because there was something wrong with Kelly. I'd take care of the person in front of me, and save the rest for later.

"I'm fine," she said, but it was automatic and totally not believable. She held the door for us, but when she'd shut and locked it behind us, she went down on one knee in front of us, head slightly down, but eyes rolled upward so she could still see us.

I started to say What are you doing? but she said, "I kneel before my king, my Rex, and offer all that I am for him to do with as he sees fit."

I just stared at her and I knew my surprise showed on my face, but I couldn't hide it in time. This was brand-new to me. What the hell was going on?

Nicky held his left hand out to her, as if he had a ring for her to kiss or something.

Kelly's head drooped a little and then she reached out and touched fingertips to his hand. He said, "I accept this tribute from my lioness, for she is faithful and strong."

I looked at Nicky, feeling even more like I'd missed something, maybe something important. I wanted to say What the hell? and I might have except that there was one more person in the room and she was giving me enough grief without me admitting that I, the queen of all I surveyed, didn't know what the hell was going on.

Lita was five-eight and managed to be slender, curvy, and muscular. She wasn't as muscled as I was, because she didn't like lifting weights. She did it because we insisted all our guards do it, but she did the minimum; but then she was a wererat and I was still mostly human. I had to work harder to play with the big dogs, because I wasn't one. I was stronger than human-normal, but so were most of the people who gave me grief, both on my job as a U.S. Marshal for the Preternatural Branch and here at home.

Lita was beautiful and both knew it and was insecure about it, which made her issues all over the board. Her skin was the color of that first nice brown that a good tan can give you, but her "tan" was with her year-round, though she'd probably tan darker if she ever went out into the sun enough. Her dark brown eyes were edged with thick lashes and a little too much eye makeup for my taste, but she could carry it off, and we were both wearing lipstick so red it looked like blood, so who was I to bitch? Her wavy black hair fell to her waist, held back only by a slender headband that was a black so close to her hair color that I only knew it was there because I knew hair like hers didn't stay away from your face without something forcing it back. The black T-shirt tucked into black jeans, waist made tinier with a black belt with a silver buckle, and knee-high boots that were more club wear than military made her look like the gun at her hip and the AR on its shoulder strap were props for some kind of cosplay at a science fiction convention rather than the real deal. She was barely twenty-one but looked older in that lush, I-blossomed-early sort of way.

Her red lips quirked in that smile that some of the men thought was sexy, but if you looked at her eyes when she did it, they were always cold, even cruel. No, that smile wasn't about sex; it was about power. Claudia, who was one of our guard leaders, and I had decided it'd be nice to have more female guards. I'd forgotten what that might mean for the wererats. Lita and two others had come from L.A.; they were all members of a street gang there. The last new guard we'd brought in who'd had a gangster background had been Haven. He'd ended up shooting Claudia and Nathaniel and killing one of our werelions, Noel. I still blamed myself, because I had been wishy-washy with Haven. I believed that if I'd been hard enough, clear enough, from the beginning that Noel would still be alive and have his master's in English lit by now, maybe even his doctorate. He'd died trying to keep Nathaniel alive, so I owed Noel. It's hard to pay a debt to the dead, so I'd decided to pay it forward and never let another person with a certain background doubt who was in charge. I wasn't sure how to make that clear to Lita yet, but I was pretty sure she'd give me an opportunity.

Kelly started to stand, but winced hard enough that Nicky had to catch her arm, or she might have fallen. That was it; I had to say something.

"What's going on, guys? Why is Kelly hurt?"

"You smelled surprised when they did the formal greeting, Anita," Lita said with that cruel little smile on her face.

Rats actually have some of the best scenting noses in the animal kingdom. How do you hide your reaction from someone who can smell it? Answer: You don't. But you can ignore her, and that's what I did.

"Answer me, Nicky," I said, and because he was Bride he had to do exactly what I said. He had more independence and could fight me, but a direct order, or question, was still very hard for him to refuse.

"I don't know why she has fresh wounds hidden under her clothes, but I can guess."

"Then guess, and tell me why the formal greeting. That sort of shit is usually reserved for when we have company, or when someone needs to assert dominance."

Nicky's shoulders flexed before he turned more squarely toward the drapes. Dino moved apart from us, so he was closer to the drapes than we were; so nice that everyone knew their jobs. Kelly and Lita were both paying attention, too, when the drapes parted and Meng Die walked through.

She was one of our vampires, which made her on our side, and she was, but in the end Meng Die was always on her own side. She was shorter than Kelly, slender and altogether delicate with straight black hair caressing her shoulders as she walked. Her up-tilted eyes were a paler brown than Lita's, or mine come to that. She was wearing a black vinyl catsuit that screamed sex, and dominatrix. The first w

as true, the second not, at least not in a fetish or professional way. She wanted to be everyone's mistress if it meant being the boss, the queen, the big cheese, but the outfit meant she was working upstairs in the Circus of the Damned tonight. She made great scenery for some of the acts. Trouble was that the burning intelligence and ambition in her eyes weren't happy with being set dressing. She wanted more, a lot more. She wanted to go back home to San Francisco, but her old master wouldn't have her back. She'd probably been days away from staging a palace coup, and he knew it. Jean-Claude had refused her permission to go back and take over the territory by force. We were looking for a territory that needed a new master vampire but didn't dare send her in as anyone's second-in-command, because she wouldn't be second for long.

She gave a disdainful look at Dino as he towered over her, and walked past him as if he wasn't almost broader through the shoulders than she was tall. "Anita, did you really think you could just dump that many high-level lycanthropes and vampires into our little pool and not have repercussions?" Meng Die asked.

I didn't understand what she meant, and tried to decide if I wanted to admit I was that lost.

"Of course you did. You're so powerful that you think you can handle anything, but the rest of us only get the dregs of your power. We struggle more when you make these sweeping changes without telling us first."

"I don't know what you're talking about," I said, finally. I was too lost to bluff and I was technically the boss of her, so I could admit weakness. She wouldn't think less of me for it, because she thought so little of me already.

"The Harlequin, Anita, the Harlequin; you killed their dark mistress, the queen of us all, and they went from being her spies-assassins-bodyguards to belonging to Jean-Claude and you. You dumped over twenty of the finest warriors ever to grace vampirekind into our territory, but the real insult was that you dumped in their animals to call, as well. They'd lived hundreds, or thousands, of years because their masters and mistresses were undying."

"Yeah, they're powerful and they're a pain in the ass sometimes, there's always a learning curve," I said.

She laughed, high and brittle. "You call it a learning curve; have the werelion show you her wounds. Ask her how she likes being behind the curve."

I looked at Kelly, and in looking I saw Lita's face, too. Lita didn't look any happier with Meng Die than I did. I'd have thought they might bond over their mutual disdain for me, but apparently not. I filed that away for later, and looked at Kelly.