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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:51

Micah texted me that he'd called Nathaniel to pack for us so he could meet us at the airport. I let him know I'd gotten his message and called the other third of our couple. Nathaniel answered on the second ring.

'Hey, pussycat.' No, most men wouldn't have liked that as a nickname, but he wasn't most men. 'Micah told me you're packing for all of us. Can you bear in mind we're meeting his family for the first time, with the clothes?'

'I need some shirts that aren't low-cut, okay?'

'We love your breasts,' he said, his voice holding that upward lilt that said he was smiling.

I smiled. 'I appreciate that, I even approve, but let's not overwhelm his family with my assets the first time.'

'Would I pack so that all that creamy goodness was on display in every shirt?' he asked in that fake innocent voice.

'Yes,' I said, and laughed.

'I promise to pack some regular T-shirts, but most of your dressy tops are low-cut.'

'That's because the plain silk shell blouses don't lie right when I wear them,' I said.

'They aren't designed for someone with a triple-E cup, Anita. I didn't even know that you could have that big a cup size and be as lean as you are without surgical help.'

'Genetics is a wonderful thing,' I said.

'Yay, genetics!' he said with so much enthusiasm it made me laugh. 'I'll pack so we'll match but won't embarrass Micah. Promise.'

'Thank you. You're the only one I'd trust to pack for all of us.'

'I'll even wear a suit so we all match when we get to the hospital.' Nathaniel had beautiful designer suits, but since his regular job was as an exotic dancer he didn't have to wear them to work like Micah did. The suits were for special occasions like weddings and certain business meetings where all of Jean-Claude's main people had to show up looking businessy.

I realized that Nathaniel was strangely happy. It didn't quite match the reason for the trip. I thought about asking why his mood was so up, but my phone let me know there was another call trying to come through. 'I've got another call; let me make sure it's not Micah.'

'I'll wait,' he said, and again it was cheerful. Was it too cheerful, or was he just better at handling these emergencies than I was?

It was Jean-Claude on the phone. 'Hey, what's up?'

'Are any of the guards you have arranged werewolves?'

'Yes, it's Micah's rule and yours that we try to use as many wereanimals for our public bodyguards as possible.'

'You will need to make other arrangements, ma petite.'

'The local wolves have requested that you not bring anyone in who could challenge them. If there is need of a funeral, then they will understand us bringing in our wolves to call, but until that sad necessity they would like none of our wolves, as a sign of good faith.'

'Are you letting them boss us around too much?' I asked.

'If you want this initial visit to be about Micah and his dying father, no. If you want to have to deal with the local werewolves politically, and perhaps even frighten them enough to have it turn to violence, then by all means keep your wolf guard.'

'Okay, I'll switch the guard roster.'

'Is there anything else I need to know?'

'The master vampire of the area has forgone the usual politics and wishes our Micah well. In fact, he offered to put his people at our disposal for transportation and errands so that you could all concentrate on Micah's family.'

'That was very nice of him,' I said, and couldn't keep the suspicion out of my voice.

'It was nice of him, ma petite, but we are no longer just visiting masters from out of town. We are council members, or their people, and thus we are owed both allegiance and a certain deferential treatment.'

'So, now that you're on the council we don't have to do all the vampire political shit?'

'In part, yes, but on the other hand, it means we have to be even more conscious of other masters and their egos, unless you wish to feed the whispers of rebellion among them?'

'You know I don't,' I said.

'Then remember that when you are dealing with him and his people, please.'

'Are you afraid I'll be rude and spook them?'

'You, rude, ma petite, why would I fear that?' The sarcasm was not that thick, but the very delicate touch of it brought it home.

'I'll be good. It's nice of them to help us out at short notice.'

'They have little choice; the old European council would have seen a refusal of such niceties as a grave insult and would have acted accordingly.'

'What does "act accordingly" mean in this context?'

'You have met envoys from the council, ma petite. What do you think they would do to a master who was discourteous to them?'

'Scare the hell out of him, torment, torture, overthrow him maybe if they had someone to put in his place, or in some cases just for the hell of the chaos it would cause.'

'On one hand we are hampered by the old council's actions; it makes the others fear a council here in the United States. They fear we will go mad with power, but on the other hand, they will offer up service and courtesy in hopes of placating us and keeping us from having a reason to be angry with them.'

'So, on one hand the old council's reputation makes things harder for us and scares everyone, and on the other hand they'll probably behave better because they're more afraid of us.'

'Exactement,' he said.

'Wait, we had to offer food to visiting council people. Are they going to offer us food for the ardeur?'

'I have not arranged it, but if they do not then it is a sign that they are not giving us the same respect that they gave the old council.'

'You're using this as a test to see how Fredrico behaves toward us, toward you.' I fought not to sound accusatory.

'I did not engineer this visit, ma petite, but now that we have it, yes, it is a test for the local master. We must discover how well we rule, or how weak our rule is, so that we can decide how tightly we wish to hold the reins of power.'

'I'd rather not use visiting Micah's dying father as a test of loyalty for the local vampires.'

'Not just vampires, ma petite, but local wereanimals. Our Micah travels the country talking to various animal groups, helping them deal with their problems. He promotes better relations between normal humans and the lycanthrope community. He has become the public face of the movement and is often called to handle disputes hundreds of miles from our lands.'

'What are you saying, Jean-Claude?'

'We learned that the reason you have no other king of any other animal group as attached to you as Micah is that metaphysically you have your furred king. Through you, he has ties to many more animals besides the leopards.'

'I know, I know, we have ties to all sorts of wereanimals, and Micah is a real leopard king in the metaphysical sense, able to rule by supernatural power and not just force of will and actions. If I hadn't had a wereanimal in my bed that was a true king, then it wouldn't have worked that way, but I thought that was just here in St Louis. You're saying that the other wereanimals across the country are being attracted to Micah's power and don't even realize it?'

'No, I am stating that when he travels and meets them, the power of a true king follows him. People want to be protected, ma petite. In America they teach that everyone should be the hero of their own story, but most people are not suited for it. They want, and need, someone to follow. If they are lucky they find someone good to lead them; if they are not so lucky ...' He let the thought trail off.

'Micah's good,' I said.

'Yes, he is good and strong and thinks of the larger group, the bigger issues.'

'I don't think Micah has called and talked to the animal groups in his hometown.'

'That is why I did it for him.'

'You should probably tell him you did that.'

'I have,' Jean-Claude said.

'He was grateful for the help, and he told me that politics was the furthest thing from his mind.'

'Of course it is,' I said.

'But that does not change the fact that this visit is political, ma petite.'

'Oh, shit, you're going to say that since Micah can't, I have to oversee more politics.'

He gave a small chuckle. 'Not precisely, but I have spoken with Fredo not about your choice of guards, but about the possible political pitfalls. He said he would inform whatever guards you chose to take with you, though he did say that if it was a political visit he'd have chosen different guards. I told him that your safety is more important than the politics, so go with the original guards, whoever they might be.'

'You know, I totally trust that you didn't ask who we'd picked.'

'In choosing soldiers, ma petite, I would trust you implicitly.'

'Thank you. I trust you and Micah politically. Bad timing that it's me with the clearer head on this trip.'

'It is unfortunate,' he said.

I had a thought that I hadn't before, and felt slow. 'I'm feeding off Rafael the Rat King and Reece the Swan King. If either of them had been my lover before I found Micah, would they have been my "king" in the same sense that Micah is?'

'I do not believe so, but I do not know for certain. I do know that the rats and the swans are the only animal groups that have a countrywide ruler. I know you do not feed the ardeur on either of them often, but when you do I have felt the energy of everyone bound to their king.'

I shivered, and not from happiness. It was the most amazing feeling to feel people hundreds of miles away give up their energy to their king, and through him to me. I knew the faces of some of the swanmanes and wererats even though I had never seen them outside a metaphysical energy exchange.

'You think Micah is starting to be the overall king?'

'I believe that he has the unique opportunity to become the ... high king of most of the lycanthrope community in this country. I believe he has taken the wererat model as his working blueprint.'

'You and Micah have talked about this?'

'Don't you think I should have been included?'

'That he is their leader, or becoming their leader.'

'The fact that you did not see that is because you did not want to see it. You hate the politics. Micah is not wanting to be king, but he is too intelligent a leader not to see the possibilities.'

'Okay, so I've been slow and a little stupid, sorry.'

'Slow, but never stupid, ma petite; perhaps oblivious from time to time.'

'Fine, so what do I do with this visit since Micah is going to be too overwrought to do the politics?'

'Concentrate on Micah. Fredrico was very understanding that would be the priority for this visit.'

'Do we know any of Fredrico's background?'

'Yes, he was a Spanish conquistador and nobleman once.'

'Usually ex-nobles aren't very understanding of problems like Micah's,' I said.

'Very true, ma petite, but perhaps he is afraid of us. As a nobleman you learn to be very polite to those more powerful.'

'I prefer aggression myself.'

'Ah, but you have never had to survive at a noble court; it teaches you humility, ma petite.'

'Humility isn't my best thing.'

He laughed then, and it was a straight-out, laughing-his-ass-off laugh. I wasn't sure I'd ever heard him laugh quite like that. When he didn't stop right away I said, 'Fine, fine, laugh it up. I've got Nathaniel on hold.'

'I am sorry, ma petite, but you are one of the least humble people I have ever met when it comes to negotiations.'

'I prefer to negotiate from a point of strength.'

'Even if you do not have one,' he said.

'We are stronger than this Fredrico, right?'

'Then he was gracious because he didn't have a choice,' I said.

'Yes, ma petite, but when you see his people, please do not point that out. Let their master and them keep their pride. Fredrico comes from a time when you challenged people to duels to the death to avenge a slight to your honor. Do not make him feel he has been slighted, please.'

'Is wolf his animal to call? Is that why you were so polite with the local pack?'

'Non, ma petite, he does not have an animal to call. I was political with the main animal groups because that is how Micah would wish it. We are building our power structure on the equality of all preternatural beings, not just the superiority of the vampires. It is a novel approach, very American, very progressive. The younger among us approve; the older ones distrust it, or even disapprove of welcoming the lycanthropes into a broader position of power.'

'Fredrico is an ex-conquistador, so that makes him older. Does he have a problem with us including the furry in the power structure?'

'Not that he has stated.'

'No animal to call makes him pretty low-power for a Master of the City,' I said.

'It does, which was why his territory was initially in a rural area. No one could have foreseen the spread of human cities until his countryside lands became part of a city rich enough with life to make him a much more important master.'

'If he's that weak, I'm surprised someone didn't challenge him years back.'

'He kept up his sword practice, and as they challenged him he was able to choose the method of the duel.'

'You're saying he won because he's a kickass swordsman.'

'As long as the challenger is not a member of the council, then as the challenged he may choose his weapon, and it would be considered cheating to use animals to call when he has none.'

'So his weakness becomes a strength,' I said.

'But you are a member of the council, so how does that change things?'

'You fought beside me when the Earthmover came and tried to destroy us. As a council member he could have insisted on using every power he possessed. He could have used the very earth against us and reduced our fair city to rubble.'

'The Earthmover wanted to make humans afraid of vampires again. An earthquake wouldn't have done that, because no one would have believed a vampire did it.'

'True, but he would still have been within his rights to do it.'

'So, if you fought Fredrico we could bring all our wereanimals, everything, and just destroy his ass.'

'And put a master of our choosing in his place, oui.'

'So, we play nice, and let him save face.'

'Okay, I understand that.'

'Good, now talk to our Nathaniel. Do you wish me to call Fredo and tell him we need a new guard?'

'I'd rather help choose the substitute.'

'Then cut short your talk with our pussycat.'

'I will,' I said. 'Love you.'

'Je t'aime, ma petite.'

I switched back to Nathaniel. He said, 'You're on speakerphone; I had to keep packing.'

'What did Jean-Claude want?'

'I'll tell you on the plane; right now I have to finish arranging the bodyguards.'

'Love you more,' he said.

'Love you mostest,' he said.

I guess both of my wereleopards were feeling a little insecure. Hell, me, too.