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Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:54:09

He nodded. 'Needing to make it does not automatically give you the ability to do it, Anita Blake. That you had the skill within you under trying conditions was ... impressive.'

'Bet you hate saying that,' Wicked said.

Mischa glared at him. 'Our Dark Mistress was a weapon; she had no need of guns and blades and training with us. She was more dangerous than any of us could ever be.'

'So does that mean that Anita is more dangerous than all the remaining Harlequin?' Wicked asked.

'No.' Mischa almost spat that one word.

'You said that the Mother of All Darkness was more powerful than any of you; then wouldn't whoever killed her be more powerful than any of you, too?' Truth asked.

Mischa shook his head but said nothing.

'They debate between themselves on how a mere human woman could have slain their dark mistress.' A man stepped out from the adjoining bedroom. He was taller than Mischa by several inches, broader through the shoulders, just bigger all over. He had short brown hair that curled carelessly and eyes that were deep reddish brown. If you didn't know what you were looking at you'd think they were human eyes, but they weren't; they were bear eyes, big fucking ancient cave bear eyes. His name was Goran and he had been a werebear before most of the great cities of the world had been more than a wide place to sell your cattle, and Mischa was even older. If I let down my shields and let my necromancy feel them, they were old enough to make the bones along my jaws ache.

'There isn't a human being in this room,' I said. 'Where's Jean-Claude?'

'He's on the phone in the other room,' Wicked said, and there was the faintest tone to his voice. Whoever Jean-Claude was talking to, he didn't like it.

Mischa had no problem saying out loud what he didn't like. 'Our lord and master is on the phone to the sodomite who has him pussy-whipped.'

'He's talking to Asher,' Wicked said, 'but I wouldn't let Jean-Claude hear you talk about his beloved that way, Mischa.'

'Wait, you can't be both a sodomite and pussy, or did the slang change?' I asked.

'It didn't change, he's just trying to be objectionable,' Truth said, and gave the other vampire an unfriendly look.

I walked toward the vampire and his big bear of a sidekick. 'I can't argue the sodomy part, but wouldn't it be pecker-whipped, or maybe cock-whipped?'

Mischa glared at me; he knew I was making fun of him, but he wasn't quite sure how. I'd noticed that almost all the older vampires had trouble with modern slang; even the ones who'd mastered some of it hadn't mastered all of it. Slang didn't travel well from one language to another either.

Truth was at my back, and Wicked was moving up through the coffins on the other side of the huge conference table that dominated the main part of the room. There was also a couch and coffee table pushed to one side of the room to make room for more coffins. The kitchenette wasn't movable, so it just took up the room it took up.

'The fact that our Dark Master is begging that sodomite to come back to St Louis is embarrassing to all of us.'

'I let you call him that once,' I said, 'and I let you know I didn't like it, but maybe I'm too tired for subtle.'

'You yourself said that you cannot argue the charge of sodomy against them,' Mischa said.

'What we all do in the privacy of our bedrooms doesn't matter to you unless you're our lover, and since you're not, why does it matter to you what we do or who we do?'

'It is an insult to all of us who call him our prince that he lets another man use him so.'

I frowned at him. 'So you're objecting because you think Jean-Claude is bottoming to Asher?'

Mischa seemed to think about it, and then he nodded. 'I've never heard it called that, but bottoming is quite accurate under the circumstances.'

I smiled, almost laughed, and was just too tired to not say what I was thinking. 'Well, if that's all that's bothering you, don't worry about it, Mischa. Jean-Claude isn't bottoming to Asher; he definitely tops him, not the other way around.' The fact that I was using BDSM terms that really had little to do with actual sex, homosexual or otherwise, went over the vampire's head, way over.

'You mean Jean-Claude uses him and is not used by him?'

'If you want to put it that way, yeah.' I had recovered myself enough to think, but not say, As far as I know, when I'm with them. If they switched the other way around when I wasn't with them, that was their business and I wasn't sure it bothered me anyway, but I hadn't seen it swing that way, but that didn't mean ... oh, hell. I was too tired to worry about something that didn't bother me anymore.

'You know, Mischa,' I said, 'I like men. I like watching the men I love together, knowing that all that strength and beauty will be aimed at me later, so stop being all homophobic. I'm too fucking tired to mess with it tonight.'

I don't know what he would have said next, because the door opened behind them and Jean-Claude stepped out. Mischa gave a look to us, and the look was enough. He would never have said what he'd just said to me to Jean-Claude. The ex-Harlequin might have been saying mean things about Jean-Claude and Asher, but he said them only to me, which showed a lack of respect for me. He feared what Jean-Claude would do, but not what I would do. I filed the thought away for later when I wasn't achingly tired and covered in the drying blood and bits of the dead I'd helped make deader.

Jean-Claude's eyes widened just a bit. 'Ma petite, you have had a busy night, I see.' His French accent was as thick as I'd heard it in a while, which meant he was feeling strong emotions that he couldn't quite hide, but he was trying. I appreciated the effort, because the accent alone meant that what he wanted to say was his version of, You are covered in blood and worse, which means you were in horrible danger and probably nearly died ... again! How can you keep risking yourself like that when I love you so much? Instead of picking a fight he just glided toward me and held his hands out to me, as graceful as if he meant to dance when he got to me.

It was one of those moments when I felt very ordinary, or maybe clunky. I had good hand-eye coordination, and speed, and skill at using my body, but I would never rival his grace and beauty of movement. He had too many centuries of practice on me, and nearly all of it showed as he walked toward me. It was that, that finally clued me in on the fact that maybe fear of my being in danger wasn't the only strong emotion he was fighting not to show.

He'd been talking to Asher. The conversation had gone either really well or really badly. Even as he took me into his arms, I couldn't tell which. I went up on tiptoe to meet him bending down over me, and the moment his lips touched mine I felt the excitement in him. The kiss grew from our normal tender, but fairly chaste kiss in front of the newer guards to one so passionate that I had to work to make sure we didn't cut my lips on the dainty fangs just inside his mouth.

I drew back from the kiss breathless and smiling almost stupidly up at him. I was energized, befuddled, and entirely too happy. It wasn't vampire powers; it was just the effect Jean-Claude had on me.

He smiled down at me so broadly that he flashed fangs, which he almost never did with just a smile. He was so obviously pleased with himself that I knew the talk with Asher had gone well, better than well.

'It is almost dawn, my lord; there is no time for sex,' Mischa said in a voice that dripped with disdain.

Jean-Claude looked at him, and the look was enough. Mischa bowed, sweeping his arm down and close so that you could almost see the hat with its feathered plume that should have been in the hand to go with that gesture. All the Harlequin had great bows and gestures of obedience, but a lot of them also had Mischa's gift for making the gesture only after they'd insulted us or turning the gesture into a snide remark of its own. The only thing that made them worth putting up with was that they were almost as good as they thought they were, and good enough that when Claudia wanted to bring the best with her she'd picked some of them.

Jean-Claude's voice came smooth and nearly devoid of accent, centuries of control sliding back into place within seconds. 'Tell me, Mischa, how did you stay alive being so snide with the Mother of All Darkness?'

There was the faintest stiffening of his shoulders, but Mischa's voice was rich and almost empty of emotion as he said, 'She valued my skills as an assassin and spy above petty concerns of flesh and hurt feelings.'

It was another insult, and perhaps even a threat. I wasn't the only one who thought both, because Wicked and Truth moved up on either side of us, a little ahead, not blocking our view of the other men, so not technically between us, but they were in place if needed.

'Do you delude yourselves that you could win in a real fight outside the practice arena?' Mischa asked.

'Yes,' Wicked and Truth said together. Their hands were already near weapons. I stepped away from Jean-Claude's embrace so I could have my hands free for weapons, too. Logically, Mischa was just being shitty, which was very him, but logic is seldom what starts a fight.

'I value your skills, Mischa, Goran' - Jean-Claude nodded at the second man - 'or I would have left you both back in St Louis, but I do not value your skills enough to be insulted, and if I will ask plainly, did you mean to threaten me?'

'No, my lord, I did not,' but his voice was tight when he said it, as if the words and the emotion behind them didn't match.

'Then you are admitting that your language is that imprecise,' Jean-Claude said in a voice that was mild, even pleasant.

'No,' Mischa said, as we'd all known he would.

'Then you did threaten me.'

Mischa looked confused. 'No, my lord, not ...' He seemed to think about what he'd said and finally added very lamely, 'not on purpose.'

'Goran, is your master this much a disaster as a spy?'

'No, my lord Jean-Claude,' Goran said, but there was the quirk of a smile on his lips as he bowed. He was so much bigger than Mischa that you expected the movement to be less elegant, but it wasn't. The werebear's bow was as graceful as the vampire's had been. I guess he'd had nearly as many centuries to practice.

Mischa's hands were in fists at his side. He was obviously fighting to control his temper, and that was just weird in a vampire this old. They were the ultimate in control. He'd been like that from the moment I met him, whereas most of the other Harlequin were smooth and controlled, even empty, as if they waited for the next emotion to be given to them, rather than already owning it themselves. I found that a little disturbing, but that was just vampire creepy; Mischa had a temper.

'It must gall you and many of the other Harlequin that I am your new lord and master. I know that the Dark Mother sent out her guard to spy on the vampires she felt were powerful enough to be on her council, or powerful enough to be a threat. I am betting I wasn't on the watch list, that I never entered her mind as a threat or rival to anyone, let alone her, am I right?'

'Yes, my lord,' Mischa said.

'It was a game of patience and subterfuge worthy of one of us,' Goran said, and he smiled as he said it.

'A lovely compliment,' Jean-Claude said.

Mischa scowled at them both.

'What bothers you more, Mischa: that Belle Morte's concubine is your ruler, or that none of the all-knowing Harlequin saw me as a power to be reckoned with until it was too late?'

'You make them wonder what else they might have missed,' Goran said. 'It undermines their sense of superiority.' He smiled when he said it.

Mischa whirled in a movement faster than the eye could follow, or faster than mine could. I actually didn't see him hit Goran in the face, just the blur and the big man staggering backward, blood scarlet on his mouth.

Wicked and Truth were just there, one second beside us, the next on either side of Mischa. Truth was there to block Mischa's arm as he tried to strike Goran backhanded as his fist returned its arc from the first blow. Mischa's other hand came at Truth, and he blocked that, too, which led to a knee coming up, and the fight was on.

I had trouble following the moves, but it looked like neither of them was landing a blow on the other, so it was like a full-speed, full-contact practice bout, except they meant to harm each other, if they could get through the other's guard. Then Goran moved at Truth's back, but Wicked was there to back the bigger man up, and suddenly we had two impressive fights in a space barely big enough for one.

Why didn't the guards from the hallway come rushing into the room? Because they were all nearly silent; only the impact of flesh against flesh and sharp exhales of breath, cloth, shoes on the carpet, noises I never heard when I was fighting were suddenly loud in the silence of the room. Jean-Claude watched, and I debated on what to do. They were all four our bodyguards, his bodyguards, and here they were fighting one another. They could end up wounded themselves, until we'd be down some more guards. If it had just been me I might have tried to stop it, but Jean-Claude was right there, and he was the king, the prez, the head of all the vampires. If he didn't stop it, was it my place to step in, or did I wait? Question was, what was I waiting for, and if I did decide to try to stop the fight, how would I do it?

Mischa tried for the beginnings of a roundhouse kick, but there wasn't room, and his leg hit a coffin, which stopped the movement and tumbled the coffin over. It also made him stumble, hesitate, and that was all Truth needed.

He hit Mischa in the solar plexus enough to double him over and followed it with a blow to the face that spun him half around and collapsed him over another coffin.

I heard the outer door open and glanced away from the fight long enough to see Lisandro and Emmanuel spill into the room, guns drawn. I held up my hand, not sure if it was needed; I didn't want anyone to get shot, but the silence was suddenly nothing but the labored breathing of fewer men. I turned back to find Goran collapsed on the ground and Mischa still draped motionless over the coffin.

Wicked and Truth stood, chests rising and falling with their breaths, which you didn't always see in vampires, because they didn't always breathe. It meant they'd worked hard to win the fight, but they had won; more than that, they'd knocked them both cold, which wasn't easy against either a vampire or a wereanimal. The brothers grinned at each other, a fierce baring of happy teeth. Wicked grinned wide enough to flash fang, which I'd never seen him do; I could only see the back of Truth's head, so I missed seeing his fangs do their happy, tired flash. Blood started to trickle down the side of Wicked's face, proving that Goran had landed at least one blow.

'Wow,' said Emmanuel.

'I can smell that Goran's alive, but is Mischa?' Lisandro asked. His gun was pointed at the carpet, but not holstered.

It hadn't even occurred to me that when vampires fight among themselves, they might be able to kill each other by snapping the spine. I said out loud, 'Mischa's too ancient and powerful to die from a snapped spine, isn't he?'

I glanced at Jean-Claude.

He sighed and started forward.

Truth started to bend over Mischa, as if to check for a pulse.

'No,' I said, loud and firm.

Truth looked at me but kept back from the fallen vampire. 'What's wrong?'

'Other than the fact that you may have killed one of our bodyguards?' I said.

Truth had the grace to look embarrassed then, but he said, 'Yes, besides that.'

I took out the Browning Hi Power and placed it against Mischa's temple, gun to flesh. 'Now check for signs of life,' I said.

Truth looked a little puzzled, but he bent over the fallen vampire.

I didn't keep looking at where my gun was pointed; I'd feel if his head moved. I looked farther down the body like you do in a fight; you look at the center of the body where the arms and legs attach to see if they move, because if the center does not move, nothing moves. I saw his hand tense not on his holstered gun, but near it.

'Don't move, Mischa, not an inch.' My voice was low, careful, honed down with practice and control, because when you have the barrel of your gun pressed to someone's temple, your finger on the trigger, you have to have control, because without it you might flinch and blow their brains out.

'How did you know he was bluffing?' Truth asked.

'I hunt vampires, remember?'

'Lisandro is going to disarm you, Mischa, just until you cool down.'

'I can disarm him,' Truth said.

'No, you can't,' I said. 'If you touch him he might try to kill you, and then I'd have to shoot him.'

Wicked said, 'Goran is coming around.'

It was Jean-Claude who said, 'Goran, can you hear me?'

The werebear's voice was a little shaky and too deep from the dregs of the extra testosterone from the fight. 'I hear you, my lord.'

'This fight is over, do you understand me?'

'Lisandro is going to disarm your master so he will not do anything unfortunate.'

Mischa spoke carefully, and I could feel the small movements against my gun as he enunciated his words. 'That won't be necessary. I am quite calm.'

'You were going to shoot Truth as he bent over you,' I said.

'I thought about it,' he said, 'but your gun against my head dissuaded me.'

'And when my gun isn't against your head, what's to dissuade you then?' I asked.

'My temper is hot, but your cold steel has dampened the flame of it.'

'Fancy talk, but how do I know you won't get all hot and bothered later?'

'Mischa,' Jean-Claude said.

'Give us your word of honor that you will not in any way, through any means, seek retaliation against Truth, or Wicked, for this incident.'

Mischa went so profoundly still that I could feel the change in his body through the barrel of my gun against his head. I knew that if I'd dared to raise my gaze from his center body mass to his face, it would have that unreadable emptiness to it that the old vampires got when they went very still, as if they were well-crafted statues rather than people.

'Mischa,' Jean-Claude said, 'give your word.'

'Then ma petite will finish this argument for you.'

'My death may take Goran's life, as well.'

'It would be a shame to lose him for such an inexplicable reason, but he understood the risks when he joined the battle at your side.'

'Truth stopped Mischa from hitting you a second time,' Wicked said. 'Why did you join the fight on his side?'

'He is my master,' Goran said, as if that explained everything.

'Wives attack the police when they try to take their abusive husbands to jail. It's one of the reasons that police hate to go on domestic disturbance calls,' I said.

'Why would you help your abuser?' Truth asked.

'I don't know, but they do,' I said.

'Better the devil you know than the unknown,' Jean-Claude said.

'Never mind, ma petite; Mischa, give us your word and we can all go to bed for the day.'

Now that he'd said it, I could feel the press of dawn above us like the hand of some giant hesitating over a butterfly, except we were the butterflies and knew what was about to happen.

Mischa gave his word.

'You may put up your gun, ma petite. Old-school vampires are many things, but we are not oath breakers.'

I hesitated for a fraction of a second, but he was right. It was one of the few things that made dealing with the really old vampires better than dealing with the weaker modern ones. Modern vampires lied just as easily as people did, and their word wasn't worth shit.

I took my finger off the trigger and eased my gun back. The mark of my barrel was imprinted on his skin where I'd pressed it tight. If he'd been human it might even have bruised. I stepped back before I raised my gaze enough to meet his blue eyes. I expected to see anger in his eyes, but instead I saw respect, even admiration. I had not expected that.

'May I get up?' he asked.

Jean-Claude said, 'You may.'

Mischa kept looking at me and didn't move.

'You heard your lord and master,' I said.

'But he will not kill me and you will.'

'He won't shoot you,' I said. 'That's not the same thing as not being willing to kill you.'

'Fair enough, my dark queen, but you have the gun and he does not.'

'Get up, Mischa, but don't do anything stupid.'

He sat up carefully, never taking his gaze from me. 'You would have killed me.'

'It's my job description,' I said.

'Killing someone you have a warrant of execution for, who has already taken human life, is one thing, but you would simply shoot me for thinking about harming Truth. Either you value him as your lover more than we thought, or you would have done it to protect any of your guard.'

'I don't point a gun at someone unless I'm willing to pull the trigger. I don't pull the trigger unless I'm willing to kill. And I never bluff, Mischa; do we understand each other?'

'No, but if you are asking, do I believe that you will kill me, then yes, yes, I do. I'm looking in your eyes and there is no remorse, no relief that you didn't have to shoot me. You simply don't care one way or the other, no real emotion at all about what has just happened. I didn't know that about you.'

'Know what?' I asked.

'That you killed coldly. I thought you would kill in hot blood like you fuck.'

'I don't enjoy killing,' I said. 'I enjoy sex.'

'I enjoy killing,' Mischa said, and smiled just a little bit when he said it, which was disturbing. He watched my face and I knew he'd caught that flicker of distaste from me. 'That bothered you, that I enjoy killing. Why did that bother you? I am no worse than your werelion, Nicky, but he is your lover. If you were squeamish about such things, why would you fuck him?'

'Enough,' Jean-Claude said, and his voice was harsh enough that everyone looked at him.

Mischa and Goran bowed low again. Truth and Wicked did more bows from the neck and put their right fists over their hearts. I couldn't see what Lisandro and Emmanuel did, but I doubted either of the wererats showed that formal a reaction. I just stood there not quite sure why everything had turned so stylized.

'Dawn is almost upon us.' He held his hand out to me and I went to him, holstering my gun as I moved. He took me in his arms and kissed me less thoroughly than he had earlier, but I could feel the sun on that edge of hovering nearness. There had been nights when I fought just to have the sun rise and help save me from the vampires, and now I was in the arms and heart of the biggest vampire in the country. The irony wasn't lost on me, but I'd stopped worrying about it.

Jean-Claude spoke low, but quickly. 'Asher will be here tomorrow night. The territory he is visiting is close enough that he will be driven here and then fly back with us when we leave.'

'And he wanted to see you sooner,' I said.

'He wanted to see all of us,' Jean-Claude said.

I sort of doubted that, but I kept it to myself. I knew who Asher loved best, and it sure as hell wasn't me, or Nathaniel. I was pretty sure it was Jean-Claude but wasn't positive where Dev fell in the list of Asher's affections.

'So the talk went well?' I asked.

'Very well,' Jean-Claude said, and smiled, giving that flash of happiness I'd noticed when he first walked out of the back room. It made me smile and I went on tiptoe to press my smile against his, because when someone you love is happy, you're happy for them, even if what they're happy about is another love of their life. Or that's how it works for us. The only person in our little group who suffered from jealousy was Asher. Here was hoping that when he came back to us, he left the green-eyed monster behind. I'd have crossed my fingers if they hadn't been too busy touching Jean-Claude.