I'D BEEN COMPLAINING to Jean-Claude for years that his decorating scheme was too monochromatic, but one look at Narcissus's bedroom and I knew I owed Jean-Claude an apology. The room was done in black, and I mean black. The walls, the hardwood floor, the drawn drapes against one wall, the bed. The only color in the room was the silver chains and the silver-colored implements hanging from the wall. The color of the steel seemed to accentuate the blackness rather than relieve it. Chains dangled from the ceiling above the huge bed. It was bigger than king-sized. The only term that came to mind was orgy-sized. The bed was four-postered, with the largest, heaviest, darkest wood I'd ever seen. More chains dangled from the four posts, set in heavy permanent rings. If I'd been on a date, I'd have turned and run for it. But this wasn't a date, and in we all trooped.
My understanding about most people who were into D and S was that their bedrooms were separate from their "dungeons." Nearby perhaps, but not the same room. You needed somewhere to go to actually sleep. Maybe Narcissus just never rested from the fun and games.
There was a door in the opposite wall, and the drapes were drawn over the middle of one wall. Maybe his real bed was behind door number two or the drapes. I hoped so.
The only chair in the room had straps attached to it, so Narcissus offered us the bed to sit on. I don't know if I would have sat down or not, but first Jean-Claude, then Richard did. Jean-Claude settled against the black bedspread as he did everything, with grace, settling his body against the pillows as if he felt utterly comfortable. But it was Richard who surprised me. I expected to see in him some of the discomfort I felt about the room, but he didn't seem in the least uncomfortable. In fact, I realized for the first time that the heavy leather cuffs at his wrists and the collar at his throat had metal hooks in them, so they could be attached to chains or a leash. He'd probably worn them so he could blend into the club scene, as I'd worn the boots. But ... but I could feel that he was calm about the room and everything in it. I wasn't.
I looked at Jean-Claude and Richard and knew I'd decided to sleep with both of them tonight, however we arranged it. But seeing them on the bed in the middle of all this, watching them at home in it, made me wonder about my decision. It made me think that maybe, after all this time, I still didn't know what I was getting myself into.
Asher was wandering the room looking at the things on the wall. I couldn't read him like I could read the others, but he, too, seemed unruffled, and I didn't think it was an act. Narcissus had swept into the room with Ajax at his back. He'd agreed to leave everyone else in the hallway, or downstairs, in exchange for us leaving our extra wolves outside the room. I guess for true privacy you did need less than a double digit worth of people in a room.
Richard held his hand out to me. "It's okay, Anita. Nothing in this room can hurt you without your permission, and you're not going to give that." That wasn't exactly the comforting comment I'd wanted, but I guess it was the truth. I used to believe that truth was good, but I'd begun to realize that it is neither good, nor bad. It's just the truth. Life had been simpler when I believed in black-and-white absolutes.
I took his hand and let him draw me to the bed, between Jean-Claude and himself. Well, Narcissus had already made a play for Jean-Claude, so I guess we needed to make the hands-off point. But it still bothered me that Richard put me between them, not simply beside him. The warm, fuzzy feeling I'd had from the marriage of the marks seemed to be receding at an alarming rate. Magic does that sometimes.
I felt stiff and uncomfortable on the black bed between my two men. "What is wrong, ma petite? You are suddenly very tense."
I looked at Jean-Claude, raising my eyebrows. "Am I the only one here that doesn't like this room?"
"Jean-Claude liked this room very much, once," Narcissus said.
I turned and looked at the werehyena as he paced the room in his stocking feet. "What do you mean?" I asked.
Jean-Claude answered, "Once, I submitted to unwanted advances because I was told to do so. But those days are past."
I stared at him, and he wouldn't meet my gaze. His eyes were all for Narcissus, as the other man paced around the bed.
"I don't remember you being unwilling," Narcissus said. He leaned against the far post of the bed.
"I learned long ago to make a virtue of necessity," Jean-Claude said. "Besides, Nikolaos, the old Master of the City, sent me to you. You remember now she was, Narcissus. Refusal of an order was not allowed."
I'd had the horror of meeting Nikolaos personally. She had been very, very scary.
"So I was an unpleasant duty." He sounded angry.
Jean-Claude shook his head. "Your body is pleasant, Narcissus. What you like doing with your lovers, if they can take the damage, is not ..." Jean-Claude looked down as if searching for the right word, then raised his midnight blue eyes to Narcissus, and I saw the effect that his gaze had on the shapeshifter. Narcissus looked like he'd been hit between the eyes with a hammer--a handsome, charming hammer.
"Is not what?" Narcissus asked, his voice hoarse.
"Is not to my taste," Jean-Claude said. "Besides, I must not have pleased you very much, for you did not do what my late master wished you to do."
I was the reason that Nikolaos was the late Master of the City. She'd been trying to kill me, and I'd gotten lucky. She was dead, I wasn't. And now Jean-Claude got to be Master of the City. I hadn't planned that. How much of it Jean-Claude had planned was still up for debate. It is not just prejudice on my part that makes me trust him less than Richard.
Narcissus put one knee on the bed, one hand still around the bedpost. "You pleased me very much." The look on his face was too intimate. They should have been alone for this conversation. But, then again, watching the way Narcissus looked at Jean-Claude, maybe that wouldn't have been such a great idea. From Jean-Claude all I sensed was a desire to soothe any injured feelings. But I was betting if I could peek inside Narcissus's head I'd find a different kind of desire.
"Nikolaos thought I failed her and punished me for it."
"I could not ally myself with her--not even for you as my permanent toy."
Jean-Claude raised an eyebrow at that. "I do not remember that being part of the deal."
"When I first told her no, she sweetened the offer." Narcissus crawled onto the bed. He stayed crouched on all fours, as if he were expecting someone to come up behind him.
"In what way did she sweeten the offer?"
Narcissus started to crawl across the bed, slowly, his knees catching on the hem of his dress as he moved. "She offered you to me for always, to do with as I wished."
A thrill of terror ran through me from my toes to the top of my head. It took me a second to realize it wasn't my fear. Richard and I both turned to Jean-Claude. His face showed nothing. It was his usual polite, attractive, almost bored mask. But we could both feel the cold, screaming terror in his mind at the thought of how close he'd come to being Narcissus's permanent ... guest.
It filled him with a fear that was larger than the shapeshifter. Images flashed through my mind, memories. Chained on my stomach on rough wood, the sound of a whip going back, the shock of it biting into my skin, and the knowledge that it was only the first blow. The wave of utter despair that followed that memory left me blinking back tears. I had a confused image of being tied to a wall, with a hand rotted to green pus caressing my body. Then the images stopped abruptly, like someone had thrown a switch. But the body the hand had been traveling down had been male. They were Jean-Claude's memories, not mine. He'd been projecting his memories on me and when he realized it, he'd blocked it.
I looked at him and couldn't keep the horror out of my eyes. My hair hid my face from Narcissus, and I was glad because I couldn't be blase about what I'd just seen. Jean-Claude didn't look at me but kept his eyes on Narcissus. I was trying not to cry, and Jean-Claude's face betrayed nothing.
Jean-Claude hadn't been remembering Narcissus's abuse, but others, many, countless others. It wasn't the pain I carried away from the memories, but the despair. The thought that I ... no, he. He had not owned his own body. He had never been a prostitute, or rather, he had never traded sex for money. But for power, the whim of whoever was his current master, and strangely for safety, he had traded sex for centuries. I'd known that, but I'd pictured him as the seducer. What I'd just seen had nothing to do with seduction.
A small sound came from Richard, and I turned to him. His eyes were shiny with unshed tears, and he had the same look of numb horror that I felt on my own face. We looked at each other for a long frozen moment, then a tear trickled down his face a second before a hot line of tears eased down my own.
He reached for my hand and I took it. And we both turned to Jean-Claude. He was still watching, even talking, though I hadn't heard any of it, with Narcissus. The other man had crawled all the way across that huge bed to be within touching distance of us all. But it wasn't us all that he wanted to touch.
"Sweet, sweet, Jean-Claude, I thought I had forgotten you, but seeing you tonight on the floor with the two of them made me remember." He reached out towards Jean-Claude, and Richard grabbed his wrist.
"Don't touch him. Don't ever touch him again."
Narcissus looked from Jean-Claude to Richard and finally back to Richard. "Such possessiveness, it must be true love." I had a ringside seat and watched the muscles in Richard's hands and forearm tense as he squeezed that dainty wrist.
Narcissus laughed, voice shaky, but not with pain. "Such strength, such passion, would he crush my wrist just for trying to touch your hair?" His voice held amusement and what I finally realized was excitement. Richard touching him, threatening him, hurting him ... He was enjoying it.
I felt Richard realize it too, but he didn't let go. Instead he jerked the other man off balance until he fell against his body. Narcissus made a small surprised sound. Richard kept one hand on his wrist, and he put the other to the man's neck. Not squeezing, just there, large and dark against Narcissus's pale skin.
The bodyguard, Ajax, had moved away from the wall, and Asher had moved to meet him. Things could go very bad, very quickly here. It was usually me that lost my temper and made things worse, not Richard.
Narcissus had to sense rather than see the movement, because Richard had him facing away from the rest of the room. "It's alright, Ajax, it's alright. Richard is not hurting me." Then Richard did something that made Narcissus's breath stop in his throat and come out harsh. "You may crush my wrist, if it's foreplay, but if it's not, then my people will kill you, all of you." His words were reasonable, his tone was not. You could hear the pain in his voice, but there was also anticipation, as if whichever way Richard answered, it would excite him.
Jean-Claude spoke. "Do not give him an excuse to have us at his mercy, mon ami. We are in his territory tonight, his guests. We owe him a guest's duty to his host, as long as he does not forfeit that right."
I wasn't a hundred percent sure what a guest's duties to his host were, but I was willing to bet that crushing their limbs wasn't among them. I touched Richard's shoulder, and he jumped. Narcissus made a small protesting sound, as if Richard had involuntarily tightened his grip.
"Jean-Claude's right, Richard."
"Anita councils you to temperance, Richard, and she is one of the least temperate people I have ever known." Jean-Claude moved forward, laying his hand on Richard's other shoulder, so we both touched him. "Besides, mon ami, hurting this one will not undo the harm already done. No drop of blood less will have been spilt; no pound of flesh less will have been lost; no humiliation will have been stopped. It is over, memories cannot harm us."
For the first time I wondered if Richard and I had gotten the same memories in that flash of shared insight. What I'd seen had been horrible, but it hadn't affected me like it had him. Maybe it was a guy thing. Maybe a white, Anglo-Saxon, upper-middle-class male like Richard would take memories of being abused and raped harder than I would. I was a woman. I knew things like that could happen to me. Maybe he had never thought they could happen to him.
Richard spoke low, his voice fallen to a rolling growl, as if his beast lurked just behind that handsome throat. "Never touch him again, Narcissus, or we'll finish this." Then Richard slowly, carefully, slid his hands away from Narcissus. I expected him to scoot away, clutching his injured wrist, but I underestimated him, or maybe overestimated him.
Narcissus did cradle his wrist, but he stayed pressed against Richard's body. "You've torn ligaments in my wrist. They take longer to heal than bone."
"I know," Richard said softly. The level of anger in those two words made me flinch.
"With a thought I can tell my men to leave her wereleopards to the mercy of their captors."
Richard glanced at Jean-Claude, who nodded. "Narcissus can contact his ... men mind-to-mind."
Richard put his hands on Narcissus's shoulders, to push him away I thought, but Narcissus said, "You've revoked your safe passage by injuring me against my will."
Richard froze, and I could see the tension in his back, feel the sudden uncertainty.
"What is he talking about?" I asked. I wasn't even sure who I was asking.
"Narcissus has a small army of werehyenas within this building and on the surrounding buildings as guards," Jean-Claude said.
"If the werehyenas are so powerful, then why doesn't everyone talk about them in the same breath with the wolves and the rats?" I asked.
"Because Narcissus prefers to be the power behind the throne, ma petite. It means that the other shapeshifters are constantly currying his favor with gifts."
"Like Nikolaos used you," I said.
I looked at Richard. "What have you been giving him?"
Richard eased away from Narcissus. "Nothing."
Narcissus turned on the bed, still cradling his wrist. "That's about to change."
"I don't think so," Richard said.
"Marcus and Raina had an arrangement with me. They and the rats dictated that my hyenas could never rise above fifty in number. To make this happen they used gifts, not threats."
"The threat was always there," Richard said. "War between you, us, and the rats, with you on the losing side."
Narcissus shrugged. "Perhaps, but have you not wondered what I've been doing since Marcus died and you took over? I wondered when the gifts would start arriving, but instead all gifts stopped, even the ones I'd begun to count on." He looked at me then. "Some of those gifts were yours to give, Nimir-Ra."
I must have looked as confused as I felt, because Jean-Claude said, "The wereleopards."
"Yes, Gabriel, their old alpha, was a dear, dear friend of mine," Narcissus said.
Since I'd killed Gabriel, I didn't like the way the conversation was going. "You mean that Gabriel gave some of the wereleopards to you?"
Narcissus's smile made me shiver. "All of them have spent time in my care, except Nathaniel." His smile faded. "I assumed Gabriel kept Nathaniel to himself because he was his personal favorite, but now that you've told me what Nathaniel is, I know that wasn't it." Narcissus leaned forward on his knees. "Gabriel was afraid to give me Nathaniel, afraid of what we might do together."
I swallowed hard. "You covered your reaction really well when I told you."
"I'm an accomplished liar, Anita. Best remember that." He looked up at Richard. "How long has it been since Marcus's death, a little over a year? When the gifts stopped coming, I assumed the pact was at an end."
"What are you saying?" Richard asked.
"There are over four hundred werehyenas now, some new, some recruited from out of state. But we rival the wererats and werewolves now. You will have to negotiate with us as equals instead of peons."
Richard said, "What do you ..."
Jean-Claude interrupted. "Let us come to terms." I felt the fear that was behind his calm words, and so did Richard. You did not ask a sexual sadist what he wanted. You offered what you were willing to give up.
Narcissus looked at Richard. "Are they Jean-Claude's wolves now, Richard? Do you share your kingship?" The tone was mocking.
"I am Ulfric, and I will set the terms, no one else." But his voice was cautious, the temper slowed. I'd never seen Richard like this, and I wasn't sure I liked the change. He was reacting more like me. As I thought of it, I wondered ... I channeled some of his beast, some of Jean-Claude's hunger, what did they gain from me?
"You know what I want," Narcissus said.
"You would be wise not to ask for it," Jean-Claude said.
"If I cannot have you, Jean-Claude, then perhaps to watch the three of you make love on my bed would be enough to wash this insult clean between us."
Richard and I said together, "No."
He looked at us, and there was something unpleasant in his eyes. "Then give me Nathaniel."
"No," I said.
"For one evening."
"For an hour," he said.
I shook my head.
"One of the other leopards?"
"I won't give you any of my people."
He looked at Richard. "And you, Ulfric, will you give me one of your wolves?"
"You know the answer, Narcissus," Richard said.
"Then what would you offer me, Ulfric?"
"Name something I'm willing to give."
Narcissus smiled, and I had a sense of Ajax and Asher circling each other as they felt the tension rising. "I want to be included in the conferences that run the shapeshifter community in this town."
Richard nodded. "Fine. Rafael and I thought you had no interest in politics, or you would already have been asked."
"The rat king does not know my heart, nor do the wolves."
Richard stood. "Anita needs to go to her people."
Narcissus smiled and shook his head. "Oh, no, Ulfric, it is not that easy."
Richard frowned. "You're to be included in decision making. That's what you wanted."
"But I still want gifts."
"No gifts pass between the rats and the wolves. We are allies. If you wish to be an ally then there will be no gifts, except that we will come to your aid when you need us."
Narcissus shook his head again. "I do not wish to be allies, to be dragged into every squabble between animals that do not concern me. No, Ulfric, you mistake me. I wish to be included in the conferences that set policy. But I do not wish to tie myself to anyone and be dragged into a war that is not of my own making."
"Then what are you asking?" Richard said.
"Bribes, you mean," Richard said.
Narcissus shrugged. "Call it what you will."
"No," Richard said.
I felt Jean-Claude tense a moment before Richard said it. "Mon ami ..."
"No," Richard said and turned to Jean-Claude. "Even if he could kill us all, which I doubt, my wolves, your vampires, they would rain down on this club and take it apart brick by brick. He won't risk that. Narcissus is a cautious leader. I learned from watching him deal with Marcus. He puts his own safety and comfort above all else."
"The comfort and safety of my people above all else," Narcissus said. He looked at me. "What of you, Nimir-Ra, how confident do you feel? Do you think if I had my people kill your kittens that the werewolves and vampires would lift a finger to avenge them?"
"You forget, Narcissus, she's also my lupa, my mate. The wolves will defend who she tells them to defend."
"Ah, yes, the human lupa, the human leopard queen. But not really human, is she?"
I met his gaze and said, "I need to go collect my leopards. Thanks for the hospitality." I pushed to my feet and stood beside Richard.
Narcissus looked at Jean-Claude, who still lounged on the bed. "Are they really such children?" he asked him.
Jean-Claude gave a graceful shrug. "They are not like us Narcissus. They still believe in right and wrong. And rules."
"Then let me teach them a new rule." He stared up at us, still kneeling on the bed, still wearing the black lace dress, and suddenly his power burst out before him in lines of heat. It slammed into my body like a giant hand, nearly staggering me. Richard reached out to steady me, and the moment we touched, his beast jumped between us, in a rush of warmth that raced through my body in goosebumps and shivers. Richard's body shuddered, and I felt his breath, our breath, catch. That otherworldly power curled between us, and for the first time I realized that the power came both ways. I'd thought what was inside me was an echo of Richard's beast, but it was more than that. Maybe it would have been different if I hadn't separated myself from him for so long. But now the power that had once been his was mine. The warmth spilled between us like two streams converging into a river, two scalding hot streams that spilled into a river that boiled over my skin. It was so hot that I half expected my skin to peel away and reveal the beast underneath.
"If she shifts, then my men are free to enter this fight." Narcissus's voice was shocking. I think I'd forgotten he was there, forgotten everything but the hot, hot power flowing between Richard and me. Narcissus's face began to grow longer. It was like watching sticks move behind clay.
Richard ran his hand just in front of my body, caressing the power that flowed off of my skin. There was a look of soft wonderment on his face. "She won't shift. You have my word," Richard said.
"Good enough. You always keep your word. I may be a sadist and a masochist, but I am still Oba of this clan." His voice had become a strange high-pitched growl. "You have insulted me and, through me, all that is mine." Claws slid out from his small fingers until he raised curved paws, not hands at all.
Jean-Claude came to stand beside us. "Come, ma petite, let them have room to maneuver." He touched my hand, and that scalding power poured from my skin to his. He collapsed to his knees, hand still pressed against my skin, as if the heat had welded it in place.
I knelt by him, and his gaze raised, drowning blue, the pupil lost in a rush of power, but not his power. He opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. He stared at me, and, judging by the look on his face, he felt lost, overwhelmed.
"What's wrong?" Asher asked from across the room, still facing Ajax.
"I'm not sure," I said.
"He seems in pain," Narcissus said. It made me glance up at him. Except for his face and hands, he was still in human form. The really powerful alphas could do that, partial changes.
"The power spills over him," Richard said, and his voice held that edge of growl. His throat was hidden behind the leather collar, but I knew if I could see it, that the skin would be smooth and perfect. His voice could howl from his mouth like a dog's without any change in his appearance.
"But he is a vampire," Narcissus said. "The power of the wolves should be closed to him."
"The wolf is his animal to call," Richard said.
I looked into Jean-Claude's face from inches away, watched him struggle through the hot, scalding power and knew why he wasn't dealing well with it. This was primal energy, the life and beat of the earth under our feet, the rush of wind in the trees, the stuff of life. And Jean-Claude for all that he walked and talked and flirted wasn't alive.
Richard knelt beside us, and Jean-Claude let out a low moan, half-collapsing against me. "Jean-Claude!"
Richard rolled him over into his arms, and Jean-Claude's spine bowed, his breath coming in ragged gasps.
Narcissus was above us on the bed. "What's wrong with him?"
"I don't know," Richard said.
I put a hand on Jean-Claude's throat. The pulse wasn't just racing, it was beating like a caged thing. I tried to use the ability I had to sense vampires, but all I could feel was the heat of the beast. There was nothing cold or dead in the circle of our arms.
"Lay him on the floor, Richard."
He looked at me.
He laid Jean-Claude gently on the floor, hand still touching his shoulder.
"Move away from him." I did what I asked of Richard, standing and moving around the vampire, pushing Richard back with my body until Jean-Claude lay alone beside the bed.
Narcissus's body had re-formed, until he was the graceful man we'd met downstairs. He'd moved off the bed without being told, but moved around so he could still watch.
Jean-Claude rolled slowly onto his side, and moved his head to stare at us. He licked his lips and tried twice before he could speak. "What have you done to me?"
Richard and I still stood in a cocoon of heat. His hands brushed my arms, and I shuddered against him. His arms locked around my waist, and the more of our bodies that touched the more heat rose around us, until I thought the very air should tremble like the heat of a summer's day off a tar road.
"Shared Richard's power with you," I said.
"No," Jean-Claude said, and he rose slowly to sit, propped heavily on his arms. "Not just Richard, but you, ma petite, you. Richard and I have shared much, but it never did this. You are the bridge between the two worlds."
Asher spoke. "She bridges life and death."
Jean-Claude looked up at him sharply, a harsh look on his face. "Exactement."
Narcissus spoke. "I knew Marcus and Raina could share their power, their beasts, but Anita is not a werewolf. You should not be able to share your beast with each other, wolf to leopard."
"I'm not a wereleopard," I said.
"Me thinks the lady doth protest too much," Narcissus said.
"Or wereanimal to vampire," Asher said.
I looked at Asher. "Don't you start."
He smiled at me. "I know that you are not a true shapeshifter, but your ... magic has changed because of the addition of Richard. There is something about you, that if I did not know better, I would say you were indeed one of them."
"Richard said the wolf is Jean-Claude's animal to call," Narcissus said.
"That doesn't explain this," Asher said. He knelt by Jean-Claude, reaching towards him.
Jean-Claude caught his hand before it could touch his face, and Asher jerked back. "You're hot to the touch. Not just warm, hot."
"It is like the rush after we feed, but more ... more alive." He gazed up at us, and his eyes were still drowning blue. "Go save your leopards, ma petite, and let us retire before dawn. I want to see how hot," he took a deep breath, and I knew he was drawing in the scent of us, "this power will grow."
"It is all very impressive," Narcissus said, "but I will have my pound of flesh."
"You're beginning to get on my nerves," I said.
He smiled. "Be that as it may, I still have a right to ask for the insult to be avenged."
I looked at Richard. He nodded. I sighed. "You know it's usually me that gets us into this kind of trouble."
"We're not in trouble yet," Richard said. "Narcissus is grandstanding. Why do you think I didn't change?" He stared at the smaller man.
Narcissus smiled. "And here I thought you were just decorative muscle standing behind Marcus."
"You won't fight unless you run out of options, Narcissus, so no more games." There was a coldness in Richard's voice, a firmness that could not be crossed or reasoned with. Again it echoed me more than him. Just how tough had the last few months been on him and his wolves? There are only a few things that will harden you this fast. Death of those close to you; police work; or combat where people are actually dying around you. In civilian life, Richard was a junior high science teacher, so it wasn't police work. I think someone would have mentioned if he'd lost family members. That left combat. How many challengers had he fought? How many had he killed? Who had died?
I shook my head to clear away the thoughts. One problem at a time. "You can't have any of us, or our people, Narcissus. You're not going to start a war over the refusal, so where does that leave us?"
"I will take my men out of the room with your cats, Anita. I will do that." He came to stand in front of me, his back to the bedpost, one hand playing with the chains attached to it, making the metal jingle. "The ... people that have them are not terribly creative, but they have a certain raw talent for pain." He stared at me with human eyes again.
"What do you want, Narcissus?" Richard said.
He wrapped the chain around one wrist over and over. "Something worth having, Richard, someone worth having."
Asher said, "Do you merely want someone to dominate, or are you interested in being dominated?"
Narcissus looked back at him. "Why?"
"Answer the question truthfully, Narcissus," Jean-Claude said. "You may find it worthwhile."
Narcissus looked from one vampire to the other, then back to Asher, standing there in his brown leather outfit. "I prefer to dominate, but with the right person I'll allow myself to be topped."
Asher walked towards us, making his tall, slender body sway. "I'll top you."
"You do not have to do this," Jean-Claude said.
"Don't do it, Asher," I said.
"We'll find another way," Richard said.
Asher looked at us with those pale, pale blue eyes. "I thought you'd be happy, Jean-Claude. I've finally agreed to take a lover. Isn't that what you wanted me to do?" His voice was mild, but the mockery came through just the same, the bitterness.
"I have offered you nearly all in my power, and you have refused all. Why him? Why now?" Jean-Claude got to his knees, and I offered him a hand up, not a hundred percent sure that I should.
He looked at the offered hand.
"If you think it's safe," I said.
He wrapped his hand around mine, and the power flowed in a burning rush down my hand over his, down his arm, and I felt it hit his heart like a blow. He closed his eyes, swayed for a second, then looked at me. "It was unexpected the first time." He started to stand, and Richard went to his other side, so that we held him between us.
"I don't know if this is good for you, or not," I said.
"You fill me with life, ma petite. You and Richard. How can it be bad?"
I didn't say the obvious, but I thought it really hard. If you could fill the walking dead with life, should you? And if you did, what would happen to that walking dead? So much of what we were doing between us magically had never been done before, or only once before. Unfortunately we'd had to kill the other triumvirate that consisted of a vamp, a werewolf, and a necromancer. They'd been trying to kill us, but still, they might have been able to answer questions that no one else could have answered. Now we were just swinging in the dark, hoping we didn't hurt each other.
"Look at you, Jean-Claude, between them like a candle with two wicks. You will burn yourself up," Asher said.
"That is my concern."
"Yes, and what I do is mine. You ask, 'Why him?' 'Why now?' First, you need me. Which of the three of you would be willing to do this?" Asher moved around Narcissus as if he weren't there, eyes on Jean-Claude, on us. "Oh, I know that you could have topped him. You can do it when you want, and make a virtue of necessity, but he's had you beneath him, and nothing less will satisfy him now." He stood close enough that the energy swirled outward, over him like a lip of hot ocean water. His breath came out in a shuddering sigh. "Mon Dieu!" He stepped back until his legs touched the bed, then he sat down on the black sheets. His brown leather didn't match as well as the rest of us had.
"Such power, Jean-Claude, and yet none of you wishes to pay the price for Richard's temper tantrum. But I will pay that price."
"You know my rule, Asher. I never ask of others what I'm not willing to do myself," I said.
He looked at me curiously, face unreadable behind the mask, except for his eyes. "Are you volunteering?"
I shook my head. "No. But you don't have to do this. We will find another way."
"And what if I want to do it?" he asked.
I looked at him for a second, then shrugged. "I don't know what to say to that."
"It disturbs you that I might want to do this, doesn't it?" His eyes were intense.
"Yes," I said.
That intense gaze moved past me to Jean-Claude. "It bothers him, too. He wonders if I am ruined and all that is left for me is pain."
"You once told me that everything worked. That you were scarred, but ... functional," I said.
He blinked and looked at me. "Did I? Well, a man does not like to admit such things to a pretty woman. Or to a handsome man." He looked up at us, but the only person he was really looking at was Jean-Claude. "I will pay the toll for our handsome Monsieur Zeeman's display of strength. But I will not be the whipping boy. Not this time."
Not ever again, hung heavy in the air, unsaid, but there all the same. Asher had had two hundred years of being at the mercy of the people who had given Jean-Claude the memories that Richard and I had flashed on. Two centuries more of that kind of care and torment. When Asher had first come to us he'd been cruel occasionally. I thought we'd cured him of it. But watching the look in his eyes now, I knew we hadn't.
"And do you know the best part of all?" Asher asked.
Jean-Claude just shook his head.
"It will cause you pain to think of me with Narcissus. And even after I am with him, he will still not answer the question you have been wanting, so desperately, to have answered."
Jean-Claude stiffened, hand tightening on mine. I felt him slam his own shields into place, keeping us out of what he was thinking, feeling, at that moment. The warm, roiling power between us began to dissipate. Jean-Claude had made himself part of our circuit. Now he was shutting us down, though I didn't think it was on purpose. He just couldn't shield himself from us and keep the flow going.
His voice came out calm, his usual bored, yet cultured, tone, "How can you be so sure that he will not talk?"
"I can be sure of what I do. And I will not give him the answer you want."
"What answer?" I asked. "What are you guys talking about?"
The two vampires looked at each other. "Ask Jean-Claude," Asher said.
I looked at Jean-Claude, but he was staring at Asher. In a way, the rest of us were superfluous, an audience for a show that didn't need one.
"You're being petty, Asher," Richard said.
The vampire's gaze moved to the man on my other side, and the anger in those eyes made the blue spill across the pupils in a frosted gleam. He looked blind. "Have I not earned the right to be petty, Richard?"
Richard shook his head. "Just tell him the truth."
"There are three people in his power that I would strip for, that I would allow to touch me, and answer that so important question." He stood in one graceful movement, like a liquid puppet on strings. He stepped close enough for the power to spill around him, bringing his breath shuddering from his lips. The power recognized him, flared stronger, as if he could act as our third, if we weren't careful. Did the power just need a vampire, and not specifically Jean-Claude? Richard shut down his side of the power, clanging a shield in place that made me think of metal, strong and solid, uncompromising.
Asher caressed the air just above Richard's arm and had to step away, rubbing his hands on his arms. "The power fades." He shook himself like a dog coming out of water. "If you would say yes, his torment could end."
I frowned at them both, not sure I was following the conversation, not sure I wanted to.
Asher turned those pale, drowning eyes to me. "Or, our fair Anita." He was already shaking his head. "But no, I know better than to ask. I have enjoyed shocking our so heterosexual Richard by my overtures. But Anita is not so easily teased." He came to stand in front of Jean-Claude. "And, of course, if he wanted the answer badly enough he could do it himself."
Jean-Claude's face was at its most arrogant. Its most hidden. "You know why I do not."
Asher moved back to stand in front of me. "He refuses my bed, because he fears that you would ... what is the American word ... dump him, if you knew he were sleeping with a man. Would you?"
I had to swallow before I could answer. "Yeah."
Asher smiled, but not like he was happy, more like it had been a predictable answer. "Then I will pleasure myself here with Narcissus, and Jean-Claude will still not know if I stay because I have become a lover of such things, or because this type of love is all that is left for me."
"I haven't agreed to this," Narcissus said. "Before I take second--no fourth choice--let me see what I'm buying."
Asher stood, turning so that his left side was towards the werehyena. He unzipped the mask and lifted it over his head. We were standing enough to one side so that I could see that perfect profile. His golden hair--and I mean golden--was braided along the back of his head so that nothing interfered with the view. I was used to looking at Asher through a film of hair. Without it, the lines of his face were like sculpture, something so smooth and lovely that you wanted to touch it, trace the movement of it with your hands, layer it with kisses. Even after the little show he'd put on, he was still beautiful. Nothing seemed to change that when I looked at Asher.
"Very nice," Narcissus said, "very, very nice, but I have many beautiful men at my beck and call. Perhaps not as beautiful, but still ..."
Asher turned to face the man. Whatever Narcissus was about to say died in his throat. The right side of Asher's face looked like melted candle wax. The scars didn't start until well away from the midline of his face. It was as if his torturers all those centuries ago had wanted him to have enough left to remember the perfection he'd once been. His eyes were still golden-lashed, his nose perfect, his mouth full and kissable, but the rest ... The rest was scarred. Not ruined, not spoiled, but scarred.
I remembered Asher's smooth perfection, the feel of that perfect body rubbing against mine. Not my memories. I had never seen Asher nude. I had never touched him that way. But Jean-Claude had about two hundred years ago. It made it impossible for me to look at Asher with unprejudiced eyes, because I remembered being in love with him, in fact, was still a little in love with him. Which meant that Jean-Claude was still a little in love with him. My personal life just can't get more complicated.
Narcissus drew a shuddering breath and said in a voice gone hoarse, eyes wide, "Oh, my."
Asher threw the hood on the bed and began to unzip the front of the leather shirt, very slowly. I'd seen his chest before and knew that it was much worse than his face. The right side of his chest was carved with deep runnels, the skin hard to the touch. The left side, like his face, still had that angelic beauty that had attracted the vampires to him long ago.
When the zipper was halfway down his body, baring his chest and upper stomach, Narcissus had to sit down on the bed as if his legs wouldn't hold him.
"I think, Narcissus," Jean-Claude said, "that after tonight you will owe us a favor." His voice was empty when he said it, devoid of anything. It was the voice he used when he was at his most careful, or his most pained.
Asher asked in a careful voice that didn't quite match the striptease he was doing, "What level of pain does Narcissus enjoy straight--how do you say--out of the box?"
"Rough," Jean-Claude said. "He can control his desire and not step outside the bounds of his submissive, but if he is to be topped, then rough, very rough. You do not need a warming up period for this one." Jean-Claude's voice was still empty.
Asher looked down at Narcissus. "Is that true? Do you like to start out with a ... bang?" That last word was slow, seductive. One word, and it held worlds of promise within it.
Narcissus nodded slowly. "You can start with blood, if you've the balls for it."
"Most people have to work up to that for it to be pleasurable," Asher said.
"I don't," Narcissus said.
Asher finished unzipping and lowered the shirt off his arms, held it in his hands for a moment, then struck out with a movement so quick it was only an after-image blur. He slapped Narcissus across the face with the heavy zipper once, twice, three times, until blood showed at the corner of his mouth and his eyes looked unfocused.
I was so startled by all of it that I think I forgot to breathe. All I could do was stare. Jean-Claude had gone very still between Richard and me. It wasn't the utter stillness that he was capable of, that all the old masters were capable of, and I realized why. He couldn't sink into that black stillness of death with the lingering touch of the "life" we'd pumped through him.
Narcissus used the tip of his tongue to taste the blood on his mouth. "I am an accomplished liar, but I always give fair trade." He was suddenly more serious than he had been, as if the flippant tease was just a mask and underneath was a more solemn, thinking person. When he looked up, there was a person in his eyes that I knew was dangerous. The flirt was real, too, but it was partially camouflage to make everyone underestimate him. Looking into his eyes, I knew that to underestimate him would be a very bad thing.
He turned those newly serious eyes to Asher. "For this, I will owe you a favor, but only one favor, not three."
Asher reached up and undid his hair, letting the heavy sparkling waves fall around his face. He stared down at the smaller man, and I couldn't see the look he gave, but whatever it was, it made Narcissus look like a drowning man. "I am only worth one favor?" Asher said. "I think not."
Narcissus had to swallow twice before he could speak. "Perhaps more." He turned and looked at us, and his eyes were still raw, real. "Go, save your wereleopards, whoever they belong to. But know this, the ones inside are new to our community. They do not know our rules, and their own rules seem harsh by comparison."
"You warn us, Narcissus, thank you," Jean-Claude said.
"I think that this one would not like it if you were hurt, no matter how angry he is with you, Jean-Claude. I am about to let him bind me to this bed, or the wall, and do to me whatever he wishes."
"Whatever I wish?" Asher asked.
Narcissus's gaze flicked back to him. "No, not whatever, but until I use the safety word, yes." There was something almost childlike in the way he said the last, as if he were already thinking of what was to come, and not really concentrating on us.
"Safety word?" I asked.
Narcissus gazed at me. "If the pain grows too much, or if something is proposed that the slave does not want to do, you use the word agreed upon. Once the word is spoken the master must stop."
"But you'll be tied up, you won't be able to make him stop."
Narcissus's eyes were drowning, drowning in things that I didn't understand, and didn't want to. "It is both the trust and the element of uncertainty that makes the event, Anita."
"You trust that he'll stop when you say stop, but you like the thought that he might not stop, that he might just keep going," Richard said.
It made me stare at him, but I caught Narcissus's nod.
"Am I the only one in this room that doesn't understand how this game is played?"
"Remember, Anita," Richard said, "I was a virgin until Raina got me. She was my first lover, and her tastes ran ... to the exotic."
Narcissus laughed then. "A virgin in Raina's hands, what a frightening image. Even I wouldn't let her top me, because you could see it in her eyes."
"See what?" I asked.
'That she had no stopping point."
Having almost been a star in one of her little bedroom dramas, saved only by the fact that I'd killed her first, I had to agree.
"Raina liked it better if you didn't want to do it," Richard said. "She was a sexual sadist, not a dominant. It took me a long time to realize how big a difference there is between the two."
I looked at his face, but he was safe behind his shields, I couldn't read him. He and Jean-Claude had more practice at shielding than I did. But, frankly, I didn't want to know what was behind the lost look on Richard's face. I realized with a start that I had Jean-Claude's memories but not Richard's. It had never occurred to me to ask why that was. But later, later. Right now I wanted to be out of this room. "I want out of here."
Jean-Claude pulled gently away from both of us to stand on his own. "Yes, the night is running out, and we have much to do."
I didn't look at him, or Richard. I'd pretty much promised that if dawn stayed at bay we'd have sex tonight. But somehow staring at Asher's naked back, with Narcissus gazing up at him with a look somewhere between adoration and terror, I just wasn't in the mood anymore.