Page 6

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

Voices from outside the plane made us look up from the warm circle of us. I tried to look down the steps to see what was making people raise their voices, but I couldn't see past Nathaniel's broad shoulders and chest. He could see, and Micah had a better angle, so I asked, 'What's up?'

'Nicky is blocking the stairs and the other guards aren't happy about it,' Nathaniel said.

'Nilda isn't happy about it,' Micah added.

They moved to either side so I could see for myself. Nicky stood at the bottom of the foldout steps like a wall of blond muscle. He was just under six feet, so Nilda towered over him by five inches; at six foot four she was the second-tallest woman I'd ever met and she hit the gym seriously. It had given her long arms smooth tone and muscle, but she was one of those women who didn't put on muscle easily. She looked strong and imposing, but Nicky's shoulders were almost as wide as I was tall, a huge spread of muscle that nothing would give Nilda no matter how many weights she lifted. I muscled up faster than she did. It was just one of those genetic things. Her summer tan was a light gold that contrasted strongly with her white-blond hair and made her blue eyes stand out in the high cheekbones of her strongly Scandinavian face like an advertisement for Norwegian Vacations-R-Us. Her full name was Brunhilda, after one of the Valkyries, and yelling into Nicky's face, her shoulders and arms straining with tension, her face enraged, she looked it. She was one of the Harlequin who had been the bodyguards, spies, assassins, judges, and executioners of vampirekind for centuries. So deadly that to even speak of them could get a vampire hunted down and killed. They had been the elite guards of the Mother of All Darkness, the legendary first vampire, the darkness made flesh, and she had used them to keep her control absolute. Then she grew bored, or old, and fell into a 'hibernation' for centuries and her control slipped, and the Harlequin began to fracture into those who believed in their original purpose and those who didn't. Nilda was the animal to call of one of the master vampires who had been Harlequin, and she was now with us. There were days when I was pretty sure Nilda would have stayed on the other side with the Harlequin who were still pissed that we'd destroyed their mistress, but Nilda's master was old-school, which meant it had never occurred to him to give her a choice. She was his animal to call, and to the old-school vampires that meant she was just an extension of the vampire, a walking, talking, fighting machine that he occasionally fucked, but sometimes I think he saw it more as masturbating, as if she weren't real to him. No, I didn't like Nilda's master much, but I wasn't particularly fond of her either. She was on this detail in an effort to merge the Harlequin guards into our own, but some of them fit better than others. I wondered what Nicky had done to set her off. Nilda had a temper, but this was off the charts.

I moved toward the open door and could see two of the other guards sort of off to one side. Dev, short for Devil, which in turn was a nickname for Mephistopheles, was standing there grinning like he was enjoying the show. His handsome golden face was shining with happiness, only his blue-hazel eyes were softer, more careful. I didn't have to be closer to know that his body would be tensed and ready to do something if the argument got physical. He was halfway between the other two in height at six foot three; even his shoulders were halfway between Nilda's and Nicky's in width, though both of them had more muscle development than Dev. He was naturally big, naturally athletic, and it made him a lazy cat in the weight room. He worked out like a son of a bitch in weapons and hand-to-hand training, but he didn't like lifting the way the other two did.

Ethan watched it all, face serious, body language unhappy. He was only five-eight, one of our shorter guards, but he seemed to work all the harder for it. He was always the last to leave the practice mat and first to volunteer for learning something new. His short hair was a soft mass of curls, longer on top, so that it almost did a natural pompadour. His curls were a blond that was almost white with what looked like gray highlights in it. There was one streak of dark red from the back of his head to his forehead as if he'd added it for dramatic effect, but it was all-natural color. His eyes were a soft gray that matched the highlights.

'I've never seen Nilda lose it this bad,' Nathaniel said.

'Me either,' Micah and I said together. I moved out from between the two men and went for the stairs and the almost-fight. I'd try to see if I could keep it from turning into a real fight. I would have thought that Nicky had said something to bait her, but I couldn't think of anything that he could have said that would have caused this reaction. The Harlequin guard were supposed to be the ultimate spies, so they had to have iron-willed control, but what I'd noticed was that some of their wereanimal members had serious therapy-worthy issues. Their vampire masters were trying to use it as a way of saying, See, they need a tight leash, because they're just animals. I thought it was more that the wereanimals had been abused for centuries, some a thousand years' worth or more, and now they had the freedom to be a person and they didn't know how. Or now that they were allowed their real emotions they were just so angry, and they couldn't take it out on their masters, so they took it out where they could. Apparently, today Nilda was taking it out on Nicky. Fuck.

I came to the top of the steps and called out, 'Nilda, chill out.'

She didn't seem to hear me but poked a finger into Nicky's chest. I watched his shoulders stiffen. She'd touched him, escalated the fight, invited the physical. I yelled this time, 'No fighting! That's enough, Brunhilda!'

She glared up at me with her huge blue eyes gone almost gray. Gray meant that she was close to losing herself to her anger. In the months she'd been with us, we'd all learned that tell from our Viking maiden. The next tell was worse. Energy rolled off her in a wave of heat as if I'd stepped too near to a blasting furnace. In the old system, flaunting this much power would have made most other wereanimals back off and concede the fight or flash their own power. Now it breathed along my skin in a near-scalding heat, power so hot it took my breath away for a second. Even for Nilda this was a lot of power flaunting.

'You say we are one of you, but you always take their side! We served the Dark itself and now we are nothing!' she yelled, and it was as if the scalding heat spilled out her voice so that each word growled power, as if I should have been able to see the words hanging in the air between us like flame.

I kept my voice even but forceful as I said, 'You're the one yelling at me, Nilda. You're the one who's losing control in public like a newbie. Where is the famous discipline of the Harlequin?'

'You do not know what discipline means,' she growled. 'You are a little girl who has not lived a lifetime yet. We are Harlequin!' Her power poured around me, so hot it felt like it should hurt to touch my skin. I fought not to flinch and wondered how Nicky was standing so stoically barely an arm's length from her. Proximity made the effect worse, and touching could be downright painful, yet Nicky stood like a boulder in the rush of that river of power. If he could do it, I could do it.

I stepped down two more steps and it was like wading into a scalding bath, so hot you knew it would leave your skin red and hurting. 'You guys fight good, but so far I haven't been impressed with anything else. And this little girl is in charge of your ass, all your asses.'

'Jean-Claude is in charge; you are less than an animal to call, you are only a human slave. You should not be in charge of anything!'

Ah, here we had it. It was worse than being just the girlfriend, who everyone perceived as being given a management job because she was sleeping with the boss. In the old system of vampireland, preternatural power gave you rank - vampires first, then wereanimals, then human servants. Plain humans were pretty much just food.

'You are not the boss of me, human, and neither is Nicky!' She took a step closer to the big man who stood so silent in front of her.

'He's not in charge of you,' I said, and I let down my shields and very deliberately touched the beasts inside me. I called my own otherworldly heat and let it trickle down into hers. I took two more steps down into the heat of her rage, and my voice growled low and deep as hers. I held tiger, leopard, wolf, and lion in me; all she held was bear. It was one of the brown bears related to Kodiaks and grizzlies, but bigger. Some of the ancient wereanimal lines held the last genetic link to some extinct animal lines. There were several werebears among the Harlequin's animals to call, and they were big fuckers, but a bear was only one beast; I carried a menagerie in me. Jean-Claude's vampire marks kept me in human shape, or had so far, but I held the beasts inside me, including every bloodline of weretiger. 'I am!' I let those two words carry my power.

I was close enough to watch her eyes swim to dark reddish brown, her beast eyes in her human face. The eyes are usually the first to shift when a wereanimal begins to change. In all her displays of temper Nilda had never let her eyes change. Shit. My flashing power back should have calmed things down, because it showed I was ready to back down her threat with my own. Instead her eyes had gone. I so didn't need this today.

'You're behaving like a first-moon rookie. Control yourself or go back to the Circus. We don't need this shit.'

'My orders are that you need six guards. I'm the sixth. I won't disobey my orders.'

'Fredo takes orders from me. If I say you go home, you go home.'

She lowered her head, and I could almost see her power shimmer around her like a heat haze above a summer road. She swallowed it back, and when she looked up again her eyes were just blue and human, though the rage was still there plain to see. That was fine, she could be pissed; what she couldn't be was out of control.

'I will not disgrace my master.'

Things were calming down, but it was too late as far as I was concerned. I didn't have time to babysit Nilda's issues. I felt sorry for her, even understood some of her rage, but Micah needed me and that was my priority. 'I don't have time to babysit your issues, Nilda. I'm sorry that your afterlife has sucked, but it's not my problem today. Go back with the driver and the car. I'll phone Fredo and tell him to expect you.'

She looked up at me, and there was no anger now. She was studying my face, trying to read me. That was another thing I'd noticed particularly about the Harlequin's werebears; they didn't seem to be good with facial expressions, as if they had trouble interpreting human faces. I still had trouble reading the faces of those nearest and dearest to me when they were in animal form, so I hadn't asked about it, but maybe I should. Later I would, but not today.

'I have swallowed my power back. I have done as you asked. Why are you still sending me back?' Her voice was so reasonable, as if I were the one behaving badly.

'Because I can't afford to have you doing what you just did around Micah's family. His father is a law enforcement officer, which means there will be other cops around the hospital, and if you go all otherworldly around them they might just shoot you first and ask forgiveness later. Remember, this is a western state; they can kill you in human form, and if your blood test comes back showing lycanthropy, and it will, it's a legal kill. And if you want to come along and get yourself killed, that's fine, though it'd be a bitch to have your master die with you because you're being a undisciplined baby, but you're likely to get people I care about hurt, and that I won't allow.'

Her wide eyes went even wider, like blue pools in her face, and I realized tears were standing in them. If she blinked the tears would fall, and she was fighting to keep that from happening. Fuck.

'Please,' she said, 'please, if you send me back he will know I have failed. You do not understand what he will do to me if I fail him.'

'He doesn't get to do anything to you without Jean-Claude's permission, so all that will happen is you get restricted guard duty, local only and out of media sight for a while, that's it.'

Her breath came out in a long sigh, and she swallowed convulsively. The tears shone in her eyes but still did not fall. 'You think you control the old Harlequin, but you do not. They hold with the old ways and punish us in private like whipped dogs.'

'I wouldn't let any of our people beat their dogs either. Are you saying that Gunnar beats you in private?'

She covered her face with one hand and stepped away from Nicky and the stairs. I guess that was answer enough.

'Shit,' I said, softly, but real feeling.

Micah stepped up beside me, and I knew Nathaniel was just behind him; without turning to see, I could feel them both at my back. 'I've run into old masters across the country who treat their wereanimal to call like that.'

'We're leading by example, damn it; that means that no one here in St Louis gets to do shit like this.'

'If you send her back, then Jean-Claude has to take care of it,' Micah said.

'We can't take her with us,' Nathaniel said.

We both turned around and looked at him. He was the most submissive of us, so gentle most of the time, and then he'd get a look in his eyes, and you could see the steel inside him. He didn't want to be in charge; that didn't mean he wasn't strong.

'You sound sure,' I said.

'I am.' His face relaxed a little, softening his expression, but he shook his head. 'She feels safer than she's been in years. Sometimes when that happens after a lot of abuse you just fall apart, because you can. You've finally got people to catch you when you fall, but if she's about to uncover centuries of abuse, she can't do it on this trip.'

I looked into his serious, handsome face and realized that he understood her pain better than most, and he was still not going to let her pain manipulate him. It was a type of strength that I was only now learning. I was a dominant personality; my instinct was to take care of people, but Nathaniel was right. Hard, but right.

'I was Chimera's special whipping boy for years; I sympathize with Nilda. When we get back I will help you do anything necessary to keep her from being abused by her master, but right now she is not my priority,' Micah said.

I studied the faces of my two men. 'Am I wanting to help her more than you do because I'm a girl?'

'No,' Nathaniel said, 'because you haven't had as much therapy as I have. It's all about boundaries, Anita, personal boundaries. You've only known Nilda for a few months. You don't love her. You aren't even friends. She tries to cut down all the other shapeshifters, and the humans are just beneath notice, except for you, because she can't ignore you, but she doesn't like you. Don't mistake her cry for mercy for anything but self-serving. It's all about her and her pain. We're all like that, but we have lovers who love us and we love back in that almost-married way; we have our support in place, and she doesn't.'

'I don't think she had a chance,' I said.

'We didn't abuse her, Anita,' Micah said.

'If we don't take care of ourselves first,' Nathaniel said, 'we can't take care of anyone else.'

It was logical. He was right, so why did it feel so bad?

'Anita,' Micah said, and he put his hands on my arms and made me face him directly. 'Even this delay could be the difference between me seeing my father one more time and him dying before I get there. I don't owe Nilda that.'

I nodded; put that way, he was right. 'I'll call Jean-Claude and Fredo from the plane so we don't delay anymore.'

'Call Jake, too,' Nathaniel said, naming one of the other wereanimals who were Harlequin.

'Jake will explain to the other Harlequin that you'll be unhappy if Nilda or any of the other animals to call are harmed, until you get a chance to discuss it with everybody.'

'The Harlequin respect Jean-Claude more than me,' I said.

'Some do, but I trust Jake to explain one important difference between you and Jean-Claude.'

'Jean-Claude wants the clout of having the Mother of All Darkness's assassins and bodyguards work for him, so he'll hesitate to kill them; you won't.'

'I'm human, Nathaniel; I can't afford to fight any of the Harlequin. All I can do is kill them.'

I frowned. 'I don't want to kill them.'

'But you will,' he said.

'Let's get the other guards on board and get in the air. No more delays,' Micah said, and that was that - though Ethan stayed behind to help the driver keep Nilda in the car. The driver was human and we didn't trust her not to go berserk and tear him up. Strong emotions can bring on the change; grief works almost as well as anger. Which made me worry about Micah as the plane left the ground. I'm usually most afraid on takeoff and landing, but as I held my love's hand, I was too worried about him to worry much about me. Easiest takeoff I'd ever had.