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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:50

It was late enough in the day that the vampires had begun to rise in the underground beneath the Circus of the Damned, so when I called to see if we could borrow the private jet, Jean-Claude was awake enough to take the call himself. His voice held none of that sleepy edge because he didn't really sleep; he died during the day, so when he woke it was abrupt and instant 'awake.' Vampires sleep more like a switch: on, awake; off, dead. His body would even cool over the hours, not as cold as a real corpse, and there was no color change, because the body wasn't really 'dead,' and it wasn't beginning to rot. If you were really dead, and human, the body began to rot as soon as the heart stopped. It's like cutting a flower in your garden; you can put it into water, delay the process, but from the moment you pick it, it begins to die. The flower looks pretty for a long time, but it's just a waiting game, the end is inevitable. Jean-Claude was a vampire, Master of the City of St Louis, and he'd been dead and beautiful for about six hundred years; his end was not inevitable. Theoretically, he could still be fresh as an unblemished rose five billion years from now when our sun finally gave up the ghost, expanded, and ate the planet. Of course, I'd killed enough vampires in my job as a legal vampire executioner to know that even being master of a territory and head of the newly formed American Vampire Council didn't make him truly immortal, just fucking powerful. That was one of the reasons he was awake with the sun still shining in the sky. If he hadn't been deep underground in what had begun as a natural cave system but had been carved out decades ago into luxurious rooms, even he would have still been dead to the world.

'I can feel your anxiety, ma petite. What has happened?'

'I can arrange for you and Micah to go, but I will not be able to follow until I have reassured the master of that territory that we are not coming to take over his lands.'

'It hadn't occurred to me that we'd need to clear it with the local vamps to visit Micah's dad in the hospital.'

'If you and he were simply a couple, then no, but you are my human servant, one leg of the triumvirate of power that we share with my wolf to call, our reluctant Richard. If it was Richard, two of us heading into another's territory, they would be certain we were coming to destroy them.'

'We just need to get Micah to his dad's bedside before it's too late, that's all. Surely they can just check and see that the man is in the hospital.'

'It is never that simple to cross from one land to another for master vampires or for the leaders of wereanimal groups. Micah and you are the Nimir-Ra and Nimir-Raj, leopard queen and king, of our local pard. Are there wereleopards in Micah's hometown?'

'I don't know,' I said.

'You need to know,' he said, quietly.

'Shit,' I said, and put real feeling into it. 'This is going to piss me off really soon.'

'The new vampire council is very new, ma petite; we cannot afford to be seen as tyrants and bullies. If you enter other territories without at the very least alerting them, then it will be viewed as arrogance. It will seem as if you - we - feel that the entire country is ours to visit and use as we see fit. It will make the lesser leaders nervous and even be used by our enemies to stir up more rebellion against us.'

'I thought we took out the last rebels, or do you know something I don't?'

'I do not know of rebels in our country, but I know with certainty that there is discontent, because there is always discontent. Never in any government of any form is everyone in an entire country happy with being ruled. It is the nature of the political beast to be hated.'

'So you're saying they hate us because we formed a council to keep them safe from all the rogue vampires?'

'I'm saying that they ran to us for safety, but now that they feel safe, they will begin to look at the very power that enabled us to keep them safe, and they will begin to mistrust it, even fear it.'

'Well, isn't that just peachy. So, Micah, Nathaniel and I can't go to see his father.'

'He's our third. Micah wants him to come.'

'Ah, I thought perhaps you were taking Nathaniel as your leopard to call, and Damian as well, as your vampire part of your own triumvirate of power.' A super-powerful vampire could form a three-way power structure between their human servant and a wereanimal whose beast form was their normal animal to call, but I was the first human to be able to do my own equivalent of it. Jean-Claude thought that the fact that I was a necromancer and his human servant had enabled me to do the metaphysically impossible, but honestly, we didn't know how I'd done it, just that I had.

'I hadn't planned on taking Damian. He's part of my power base, but he's not our sweetie.'

'He is your lover on occasion.'

'If I took everyone who was my lover on occasion, we'd need a bigger plane.'

He laughed, that wonderful, touchable sound that thrilled down my skin as if he were touching me over the phone. It made me shiver. His voice still held that deep edge of masculine laughter as he said, 'Very true, ma petite, very true.'

I had to swallow past the pulse in my throat. He'd made me breathless with just his voice. 'God, Jean-Claude, stop that. I can't think when you do that.'

He laughed again, which didn't help at all. I realized he was doing it very deliberately when I felt the weight deep inside my body like the promise of orgasm. 'Don't you dare!'

The power began to retreat. He'd never been able to make me do the full-blown orgasm over the phone with just his voice until he'd been made head of the new American version of the vampire council. I'd known that it meant that all the master vampires had to make a fealty oath to Jean-Claude as their leader, but I hadn't understood that it came with a power bump, or what that might mean. We'd had no choice. It was us in charge or someone else, and I trusted us.

'I am sorry, ma petite, this new power level is a heady thing. I can see why the other masters fear the head of the council, because to be head and take the oaths of their leaders means we have a little bit of all their power. It is a great deal of power.'

'You're saying if you weren't a better person that power corrupts and this much power would corrupt you absolutely?'

'I am not always certain that it is I who am the better person, ma petite, but together we are the better person.'

'I don't think I'm always the civilizing influence, Jean-Claude.'

'Nor do I, but through all the metaphysics we have Richard's conscience, Micah's sense of fellowship, Nathaniel's gentleness, Cynric's sense of fair play, and Jade's memories of the terrible use that her master made against her of his ultimate power. The people we have gathered and bound to us have helped make us powerful, but they also help me remember that I am not a monster and do not wish to be.'

'Can you not be a monster just by deciding not to be one?' I asked, and he knew me well enough to know that it wasn't his impending monsterhood I was worried about.

'You are not a monster, ma petite, and if we are both conscious of the possibility I believe we can avoid becoming such.'

'So, what do we need to do before Micah, Nathaniel, and I show up at the hospital?'

'Are you intending just the three of you to go?'

'Well, us and the pilot, yes.'

'You must have bodyguards with you, ma petite.'

'If we take guards, won't the locals be even more sure we've come to take them over?'

'Some, perhaps, but if our enemies were to realize that my human servant, her leopard to call, and her King of Beasts were all alone and unguarded, I fear the temptation would be too great to see what would happen to the rest of us if the three of you died.'

'Kill enough of our power structure and the rest die with us; yeah, I remember the theory.'

'It is more than theory, ma petite. You have seen Nathaniel and Damian almost die when you drained them of energy. You have felt the loss when Richard and I were injured. Let us not test the theory of what would happen if three of us were injured simultaneously.'

'Agreed, but it has to be minimal guards, Jean-Claude. We're going to be seeing Micah's family for the first time. Let's not scare them too much.'

'You feel confident that you can protect yourself and them with minimal guards?'

'With the right ones, yeah, I do.'

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'So confident, ma petite. It is both admirable and a little frightening to me.'

'Why frightening?' I asked.

'Just because you are dangerous, even deadly, and kill easily and well, does not make you bulletproof, ma petite.'

'Or bombproof,' I said. 'I'm not Superman. I know I can be hurt, and I'll have Nathaniel and Micah with me. Regardless of the metaphysical fallout, if they got hurt I don't know what I'd do.'

'And if it were I that were hurt?'

And there it was: This beautiful, amazing man could still feel insecure, still wonder if I loved him, or at least how much. Since we could all feel each others' emotions when we weren't shielding like sons of bitches, it was interesting that we could all still be insecure sometimes. In Jean-Claude, whom I'd once thought the ultimate ladies' man, it was endearing and made me love him more.

'I love you, Jean-Claude; I wouldn't know what to do without you in my life, my bed, my heart.'

'Very poetic for you, ma petite.'

'I've been hanging out too much with Requiem, I guess.'

'When this crisis is taken care of, we will need to decide if he should return to Philadelphia permanently.'

'And become Evangeline's second banana for good,' I said.

'You know, my dad used to breed beagles when I was little. I never wanted to give up any of the puppies, and when I got old enough I always worried the new owners wouldn't take care of them the way we did.'

'I did not know that,' he said.

'We're giving away a hell of a lot more than puppies, Jean-Claude. These are our people, our lovers, our friends, and we're sending them away. I don't mind the ones who are going to rule their own territories as new masters, but the ones we're giving over to other masters as second-in-command, that sort of bugs me.'

'That is why we have a trial visit, or three, to make certain it is a good fit and that our people are being well treated.'

'Requiem doesn't love Evangeline,' I said.

I sighed. 'I didn't mean for him to fall in love with me.'

'And I did not mean for you to acquire the power of my ardeur, my fire of lust, and become a living succubus to my incubus, but the damage is done. We are what we are, and now you know the power that you possess during sex when you feed the ardeur.'

'Requiem is a master vampire, Jean-Claude, and he broke the initial unintentional binding.'

'I believe he loves you, ma petite, not because of the ardeur, but because of you, and him. Love is never about the object of our love, but always says more about us than them.'

'What does that even mean?' I asked.

'It means that Requiem needs to love someone. He has always been a hopeless romantic, and what is more hopeless than being in love with someone who is in love with others?'

'You make it sound like he needs therapy.'

'It would not hurt,' he said.

I sighed. 'You think he'd see a therapist?'

'If we ordered him to do it, he would.'

'We can order him to make appointments and talk to someone, but we can't force him to actually do the work. You've got to be willing to work on your issues. You've got to be willing to face hard truths and fight to get better. That takes courage and force of will.'

'He has courage, but I do not believe he wishes to recover from this sickness of love.'

'I can't help that he cares for me more than I care for him.'

'Back to the crisis at hand,' I said.

'You've had enough of this topic, I take it.'

'Yeah,' I said. I'd actually had more than enough of it, but ... 'One crisis per day, okay?'

'As you like,' he said.

'This isn't what I like, Jean-Claude. I didn't know if I'd ever meet Micah's family, but I didn't want to meet them this way.'

'No, of course not, ma petite. The plane is at your disposal. It only remains to choose the guards to accompany you.'

'How many is minimum?' I asked.

'Two apiece,' I said.

'Can you arrange for the plane while I do the guards?' I asked.

'Of course, and I would suggest that most of the guards be your lovers. You will need to feed the ardeur, and Micah's grief may make his interest in such things less.'

I nodded, knew he couldn't see it, and said, 'Agreed.'

'I have regretted in the past not being able to take you home to visit my family, because they are long dead, but moments like this remind me that there are worse things than having lost them long ago.'

'Yeah, losing them here and now sucks a lot.'

He gave a small laugh. 'Ah, ma petite, you do have a way with words.'

'I am frowning at you right now, just so you know.'

'But you do not mean it,' he said.

I smiled. 'No, I don't.'

'Je t'aime, ma petite.'

'I love you, too, master.'

'You always say that with such derision and usually an eye roll. You will never, ever, mean it.'

'Do you really want me to mean it?'

'No,' he said, 'I want true partners, not slaves, or servants. I have learned that is why I chose you and Richard. I knew you would fight to remain free, to remain yourselves.'

'Did you know just how hard we'd fight?' I asked.

He laughed then, and it shivered over my body, making me shut my eyes and shudder at my desk. 'Stop that,' I breathed.

'Do you truly wish me to never do that again?'

My breath came out in a shaking sigh. 'No,' I said, at last. 'I'll call Fredo and see whom he can spare from the guards I want, and if he agrees with the mix of skills.'

'I trust you and our senior wererat to work out such details.'

'Thank you. There would have been a time when you would have insisted on picking them yourself.'

'There was a time when you were attracted to weaker men, but that has ceased to be true.'

'Remember, I was attracted to you in my weaker-men days,' I said.

'You have made me a better man, Anita Blake, as you have all the men, and women, in your life now.'

'I don't know what to say to that. I feel like I should apologize or something.'

'It is in the nature of some leaders to bring out the best in those around them.'

'Hey, I'm not in charge of this little metaphysical bus; you are, remember?'

'I am the political leader, but in an emergency most of our people will take your orders over mine.'

'That's not true,' I said.

'In a fight, they will.'

'Okay, if it's violence, then yeah, it's what I'm good at. You're much better at the politics and dinner party stuff.'

'You have your moments in the political arena.'

'And only a few of the Harlequin are better than you with a rapier.' In fact, I'd been a little amazed at how good he was with his chosen weapon. He'd turned out to have been a famous duelist in his day, as a human and young vampire. He'd explained that his blade work had been what allowed him to survive; the masters of the day had challenged him, and he'd chosen his weapon and he'd killed them. I'd never known until he started practicing in the new gym where the other guards and I could see.

'Are you salving my ego, ma petite?'

He laughed, and this time it was just humor. 'I do not need it. I am king and you are both my queen and my general. One who leads the charge from the front and always will. You know our guards' strengths and weaknesses better than I, because you practice and work out with them. You have quite shamed me and some of the older vampires into exercising more.'

'Most vampires can't gain muscle; the body at death is what it is, unchanging.'

'But I can, and my vampires can.'

'One of the rebel vampires said it's because you take power from them.'

'That helps me be powerful, oui, but I believe it is more that my ties to our wereanimals are more intimate. I accept their warm power more as an equal instead of the master/slave relationship that most older masters had.'

'Yeah, none of this treating the wereanimals like pets and property on our watch.'

'It is one of the bones of contention with some of the older vampires.'

'Yeah, they can just suck it up; the wereanimals are flocking to us because of the more equal rights stance.'

'It is impossible to make everyone happy, so in the end we make ourselves happy and do what we can for others. I want no slaves in my kingdom.'

'I must hang up to make the plane ready for you,' he said.

'You are delaying. Why?'

I had to think about it for a minute, and then I gave him the out-loud, honest answer that once I would have died before admitting. 'I don't know if I'll get a chance to talk to you again, and I'll miss you.'

'That makes me happier than I can say, my love. You have quite surprised and pleased me.'

'If I don't say it enough, Jean-Claude, I love you. I love seeing your face across the table while we eat, and watching you root at Cynric's football games, and watching you read bedtime stories to Matthew when he stays with us, and a thousand surprising things, all of it, it's you, and I love you.'

'You will make me cry.'

'A smart friend told me that it's okay to cry; sometimes you're so happy it spills out your eyes.'

'Jason, Nathaniel, or Micah?' he asked.

'One of them,' I said with a smile.

'Smart friends indeed. We must go and do our tasks, ma petite. Je t'aime, au revoir, until we meet again.'

'I love you, too, and see you soon.' I hung up before I could get any sillier or more romantic. But a little bit of squirming embarrassment was totally worth it for the happiness in his voice. If we'd dropped our metaphysical shields we could have felt every breath and emotion, even some thoughts of each other, but it was still good to say the words and to hear them. No matter how weird and magical we might be, having the people you love tell you they love you and mean it ... it never goes out of style. Since we're made in God's image, this must be from Him, so even God must need an 'atta boy,' an out-loud, in-your-head 'Thank you, great job on that sunset, and the platypus was a brilliant fun idea.' Maybe that's why we're supposed to pray the way we do, because without it God would be lonely. Sometimes I thought my friends who were Wiccan had something with this whole God and Goddess thing. If people worked better paired up and in love, and we were made in God's image, then logically it seemed like God needed a Goddess. As I got happier in my own love life, I'd started wondering if God was lonely without His Goddess. Maybe I was hanging around with too many pagans?

I said a prayer of gratitude for my own happiness, and a prayer for Micah's dad, and let God go back to taking care of His love life as He saw fit. I called Fredo to arrange the guards and shook my head at my own weirdly romantic religious thoughts; so girly, to wonder if God needed a Wife. That was above my faith pay grade. Picking out dangerous men to guard our backs, that I understood.