The Harlequin / Chapter 25-26

Chapter 25-26


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Chapter Twenty-five

HE SMILED DOWN at me, shaking his head. Standing there, looking down at me, he looked pleasant, and like the end product of a few generations of WASP breeding; blond hair, blue eyes, maybe a little short at five foot eight, but he would have fit in in so many places. Then the polished charm began to melt away, like magic. I watched the real Edward fill his eyes and turn them from warm to cold as a deep winter sky. The color of his eyes was the same, but the look in them wasn't. The face was still and showed nothing. If I hadn't had vampires to compare with, I'd have said Edward gave better empty face than anyone I knew.

Once, seeing Edward at my bedside would have meant he'd come to kill me. Now, it meant I was safe. We were all safe, or as safe as we could be. Edward couldn't do much about metaphysical powers, but I trusted him to take care of the Harlequin's weapons and fighting skills. The magic was my department, but no one did armed combat better than Edward.

"Hey," I said, and my voice still sounded dry.

His lips twitched. "Couldn't stay alive for just a few more hours, huh?" His voice held an edge of the smile that had been there, then settled to that empty middle-of-nowhere voice, no accent, no hint of where he'd started life.

"I'm alive," I said.

"They had to restart your heart twice, Anita."

Lillian, who had made herself scarce, came to stand beside him. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't scare my patient."

"She likes the truth," he said, without even looking at her.

"He's right, doc," I said.

She sighed. "Fine, but let's ease her into it; she's been mostly dead all day."

It took me a second to realize she'd made a joke. Edward gave her a look, then turned back to me. "According to the vamps, we don't have time to ease you into it."

"Tell me what's been happening," I said.

"There's too much, Anita. If I tell you everything, it will be dawn and your little vampires will be dead for good."

"Tell me what I need to know, then," I said.

"Jean-Claude used a lot of energy to wake every vamp in the city before he passed out."

"I was there when he did it."

"Don't interrupt," and he was way too solemn for my comfort. "The vamps and shapeshifters came up with a plan that they think will net the most power for you to feed into Jean-Claude and Richard in the shortest amount of time."

"Why are you telling me this? Why not Asher, or..."

"You interrupted," he said, eyes cold, and face still so serious.

"Sorry," I said.

Lillian made a noise that made us both look at her. "You said she'd take the news better from you, but I didn't believe you. I believe you now."

He gave her a look.

"Sorry, I'll stand over here and stop wasting time." She moved away from us.

He continued, "I don't like the plan and you're going to hate it, but I've listened to their reasoning and it's the best plan we've got."

I raised a hand.

He actually smiled, but it never quite reached his eyes. "Yes."

"You think it's a good plan?" I asked.

"I couldn't come up with a better one."

I looked at him. "Really?"

He nodded. "Really."

The fact that he couldn't come up with a better plan said a lot. Said enough that I didn't argue. "Okay, tell me the plan," I said.

"You feed the ardeur on the head of another animal group, and take their energy the way you did the wererats'." He didn't flinch or hesitate, even though he'd only known about the ardeur for a few hours. He'd landed in the middle of a crisis of metaphysical proportions and it hadn't fazed him, or if it had, it didn't show. In that moment I loved him, in a guy-buddy sort of way. He'd never fail me, or fuck with me, and I loved him for it.

"Which animal group?" I asked.

"The swans," he said.

I gave him surprised face. "Say again?"

He smiled, that cold smile, but it was a real smile; he was amused. "I take it the swan king is not your buddy."

"Not in that way. He and all the heads of the animal groups have been over to the house for dinner, but..." I shook my head and swallowed past that feeling of something in my throat that wasn't there, like a phantom pain. "I've never thought of him in that way, and there are larger, more powerful groups in St. Louis than the swans."

"You knocked most of the wererats cold when you fed on their king," Edward said.

"I did what?"

"You heard me."

I remembered Jean-Claude's voice in my head, saying no when I went back for that last bit of energy from Rafael. "I didn't mean to," I said.

Lillian peered around Edward's shoulder. "You're just lucky I was one of the few who didn't go down."

"Why didn't you?"

She looked thoughtful, and sad, and then shook her head. "I don't know."

"We don't have time to worry about the why," Edward said.

"Agreed," Lillian said.

I just nodded.

"The wererats still aren't a hundred percent, Anita. You did a real number on them. We can't afford for you to do the same to the werehyenas."

"Not a problem. Narcissus is sooo not on my to-do list."

His lips twitched, almost a smile, and then he gave in and laughed. "I've met him now, and..." He just shook his head, and said, "I wouldn't want to do him either, but he did come through for us. He let us have all the werehyenas that we asked for."

A thought occurred to me. "If most of our muscle were knocked out, why didn't the Harlequin attack us?"

He nodded. "I don't know why they didn't attack."

"They're supposed to be this uber-fighting team. Sort of you as a vampire - they should have attacked."

"Asher and the other vampires have speculated a lot why the Harlequin didn't push the advantage. I'll tell you all of it later, but right now..." He made a movement as if he'd take my hand, and then his hands fell back. "Do you trust me?" he asked.

I frowned at him. "You know I do."

"Then I've got the defenses covered, Anita. But only you can channel enough energy to Jean-Claude to keep the little vampires alive."

I wanted to ask so many things, but he was right. I had to trust Edward to do his job, and I did, but... "There aren't that many swanmanes in the city," I said.

"We asked the werelions first, but their Rex refused."

"Joseph refused to help us?" I was shocked, and let it show.

"Yes."

"We've bent over backward for the lions. Hell, I saved his life once, or twice."

"His wife said he wasn't having sex with anyone but her."

"This isn't about sex, Edward."

He shrugged.

"The lions would let the vampires die." I said it out loud, because I needed to hear it. I couldn't quite believe it.

"That's how I'd take it," he said.

We looked at each other, and I felt my eyes go as cold as his. I think we were thinking the same thing. The lions would suffer for this. Ungrateful bastards.

"Less than two hours, Anita," he said.

I nodded. "Which means we don't have time to be wrong, Edward. Are the swans enough energy?"

"Donovan Reece is the king of every swanmane in this country."

"I know. He has to travel from group to group, looking in on them, settling problems. He's also begun talking to other cities about how well our furry coalition is doing here. He's not trying to start another coalition, just talking about it. We've actually had some phone calls from other cities, wanting details about how it works."

"A politician," Edward said.

I nodded. "Being swan king is an inborn power; I think you actually do come with the skills you need. Donovan says that usually a swan queen is born in the same generation, so they rule together, but for whatever reason there was no baby born with the birthmark, or the power to help him. It means he has double the duty."

"He says that he leaves his swan maidens in the care of your leopards when he's gone for a while."

I nodded. "There's only three of them in town."

"They've stayed over at your house," Edward said.

"Yeah."

"Why?"

"They need someone to look after them sometimes."

"Donovan said that, that you took care of his people. He says you rescued them once, and almost got killed doing it."

"Yeah," I said.

"He says that if you risk your life for his people, he would do the same for you, so what's a little sex between allies?"

"He didn't say that last part," I said.

Edward grinned and shook his head. "Okay, but he did say, 'I would risk my life for Anita and her people. This is a small thing you ask of me.' "

"That sounds like Donovan," I said.

"He's offering to let you feed on every swanmane in the United States. There's maybe one to six in most major cities."

"I had no idea there were that many of them."

"I don't think anyone did but Donovan. He gave up a lot of intelligence, Anita. He didn't make me promise not to use it against him if I got a contract from someone who wanted me to go swan hunting."

"Edward..."

He held up a hand, stopping me. "I'll promise you, if you ask."

We looked at each other a second, and then I said, "Promise me you won't use anything you've learned against any of the animal groups."

"I won't hunt any more swans," He said.

"No, Edward, I mean it. You're going to have to learn things about vampires and the shapeshifters that you could use against them. I need your word of honor that what you learn won't come back to haunt them, or me."

His face went to that cold, empty look. It was almost the look he used when he killed, except for a hint of anger in his eyes. "Even the lions?" he asked.

"They're members of our coalition."

"That mean they're off limits?"

"No, it means we have to kick them out of the coalition before we do anything to them."

He smiled then. "So honorable."

"A girl's got to have standards," I said.

He nodded. "As long as the lions answer for it, I'm cool."

"One crisis at a time, but yeah, they'll answer for it."

He gave that cold, pleased smile. It was Edward's usual smile, the real one. The smile that said the monster was home, and happy to be there. I didn't need a mirror to know that the smile I gave back was almost a match for it. I used to worry about becoming like Edward. Lately, I counted on it.

Chapter Twenty-six

WHATEVER WE WERE going to do with the local lion pride had to wait. One emergency at a time. Funny how when Edward comes into my life, or I come into his, we're almost always running from one emergency to the other. The difference this time was that the emergency couldn't be handled at the point of a knife or gun barrel. A flamethrower wouldn't even help, though Edward had probably brought one. How would he get it through airport security? It's Edward; if he wanted to, he'd manage to get a Sherman tank through security.

I had less than two hours to feed. Less than two hours to keep Willie McCoy, with his loud suits and louder ties, alive. The love of his life, Candy, tall and blond and gorgeous, and so in love with the small, not-so-handsome vampire. I thought of Avery Seabrook, who I'd stolen away from the Church of Eternal Life. Avery with his gentle eyes, so newly dead that even to me he still felt alive sometimes. I thought of so many of the lesser vamps who had jumped ship from Malcolm's church to us in the last few months. I couldn't let them die, not if I could save them. But I so didn't want to have sex with Donovan Reece.

There was nothing wrong with him. He was tall, pale, and handsome in a preppy, clean-cut sort of way. He was an inch shy of six feet, broad shoulders tucked into a baby-blue sweater that complemented a milk-and-cream complexion so perfect it looked artificial, but it wasn't. The faint pink blush on his cheeks was just his own blood flowing under that white, white skin. He was as pale as a Caucasian vampire before they'd fed. But there was nothing dead about Donovan. No, there was something incredibly alive about him, as if at a glance you could tell that his blood ran hotter. Not hot as in passion, but hot as in hot to the touch, as though if you spilled it into your mouth it would be hot, like sweet, metallic cocoa.

I had to close my eyes and hold up a hand before he got right beside the bed. I spoke with my eyes still closed. "I'm sorry, Donovan, but you hit the radar as food."

"I'm supposed to be food."

I shook my head. "Not food for the ardeur, but food-food. I'm wondering what your blood would taste like going down."

"I was afraid of this." A female voice. I opened my eyes to see Sylvie, Richard's second-in-command, his Freki. She was a little taller than me, short brown hair, a face that could be pretty in makeup, but she usually didn't sweat it, so that your eyes had to adjust to the plainness of her eyes and skin before you could realize that she was pretty just as she was. With the right makeup, she'd have been beautiful. I wondered if people thought that about me sometimes. Since I was wearing a hospital gown, and probably looked like shit, who was I to comment?

Sylvie filled the room with a prickling run of energy. She was small and female and had managed to fight her way to second-in-command of a large pack of werewolves. She'd have probably been in charge if I hadn't interfered a few times. Richard could have beaten her physically, but Sylvie had the will to win, the will to kill, and there are fights when that will win the day over superior strength. Then, a while back, Richard had called her challenge, and he had hurt her, badly. He'd proven that he had the will to back the strength. On one hand, I was glad; it meant the question was answered. On the other hand, it had cost Richard a piece of himself that he'd never get back. I mourned that piece of him, almost as much as he did.

"You were afraid of what?" Edward asked from near the door. I hadn't realized he'd followed Donovan back in.

"Anita is like a new lycanthrope. It means her hungers are not under her control completely. Donovan may be powerful, but he's a prey animal, and her beasts smell that," Sylvie said.

I nodded from the bed, my hand falling to the white sheet. "What she said."

Donovan looked at me; his blue-gray eyes, as changeable as the sky, had gone to rainy gray. "Would you really tear my throat out?"

"Probably a gut wound, actually, soft underbelly."

He raised those soft, pale eyebrows.

"No oral sex," Sylvie said, and anyone else would have said it with humor; she was utterly serious.

The door opened behind them. I got a glimpse of some tall, dark-haired man who I didn't recognize. He looked too young to be standing there, but then there were a couple of other guards that I thought the same thing about. Then the doorway was full of people and I had to look at them, but I promised myself that I'd talk to Claudia about putting an age limit on the guards here. I'd voted out Cisco for being eighteen, but apparently I hadn't made it clear that it was the age, not Cisco himself, that was the problem. If we all survived today, I'd make that more clear. No, not if, when. When we survived. To think anything else, well, it had to be when.

I looked for Asher in the vampires who came first through the door, but he wasn't there. It was as if Requiem read my mind, or at least my face, because he said, "Oh, my evening star, you look eagerly past me, as if I am not here. Asher wakes seventh among us. When dawn comes he will die, but those who stand before you now have a chance to remain awake long enough to see this through." His face was a glimpse of white flesh between the black of his hooded cloak and the beard and mustache. His hair was lost in the blackness of the hood. The only true color to his face was the brilliant blue of his eyes, with that hint of green in them like sea water in the sunlight he would never see again.

London, with his short dark curls and black-on-black suit and shirt, came next. He always looked like a cross between an executive Goth and a movie hit man. His nickname for centuries had been "the Dark Knight." Yeah, long before Batman, there was London. He was also almost perfect food for the ardeur. Feeding me actually gained him power, instead of draining him. But like all the secondary abilities in Belle Morte's bloodline it was a double-edged blade. He was the perfect food, but he was also almost instantly addicted to the ardeur. One feeding had undone centuries of abstinence when he'd fled Belle's slavery. One feeding and he'd been more tightly bound to me than any civil ceremony could have made us. But feeding, even from London, wouldn't be enough for what we needed now. He smiled at me and came to take my hand. He knew he wasn't the love of my life, nor I his, and we were both okay with that. He would be the leading contender to be my pomme de sang, if only he were available in daylight. His hand was warm in mine, which meant he'd fed on some willing donor. So many people were willing to open a vein these days, there was no reason to force anyone. People lined up for it.

He raised my hand and laid a gentle kiss on the knuckles. "We are here to see that you do not eat the swan king for real." His smile widened and filled his dark eyes with happiness. Requiem and other vamps who had come from England with him said they'd never seen him this relaxed, and hadn't even known he could smile.

I smiled back at him and nodded. "That would be bad."

Jason peeked around the much taller man. He grinned at me, but there was a flinching around his spring-blue eyes, a hollow look that said he'd been crying. I held out my other hand to him. London moved out of the way so Jason could hug me. He practically climbed into the bed to do it. We were friends, and sometimes lovers, but his reaction surprised me. I patted the top of his short blond hair, sort of awkwardly, and it wasn't just the IV that made it awkward, though that pulled. That was sooo going to have to come out before I fed on Donovan.

"Jason," I said, "it's all right."

He shook his head against my shoulder and raised a tear-stained face. His voice was thick with tears as he said, "Liar." He tried to smile, but didn't quite make it.

I touched his face with my free hand. "Jason, I..." I didn't even know what to say. This reaction was more than a friend's reaction. Then I thought, maybe the grief wasn't for me. His Ulfric and his master were both near death. If they died, his world would never be the same. The next Master of the City might not have a use for him as a pomme de sang.

I tried to cup his face, but the IV caught again. "Can someone get this out of me? I can't feed the ardeur hooked up to tubes."

Lillian threaded her way through the growing crowd and took out the needle. I carefully looked away at the crucial moment. I was better than I used to be, but I still didn't like seeing needles go in or out of my flesh. It just creeped me.

Jason moved away enough for the doctor to work, but he kept my hand like it was a lifeline. Jason was usually so together that sometimes I forgot that he was only twenty-two. He was actually the same age as some of the werelion college students that Joseph had let me choose from. His excuse on the age had been that older lions had jobs and families. At the time I hadn't questioned, but now, well, I'd probably be questioning everything the lions did for a while.

"I'm your wolf in case your beast decides to rise," Jason said.

"I thought Sylvie..."

She spoke from in back of the crowd of shapeshifters. "With the ardeur raised in the room, I'm not staying. Nothing personal, Anita. I mean you're cute, but I don't do women, and with you this weak, and Jean-Claude out of it, I don't want to take the chance that this thing spreads through the room." She came to the bed and patted my shoulder, a little awkwardly. She wasn't much better at the buddy thing than I was. "The wolves will do everything they can to get you all through this."

"Better than the lions," I said.

"It's not their Rex in the next room, it's our Ulfric," she said, and there was a flare of her beast, like the hot breath of the monster in the dark. I shivered, and she shut the power down. "Sorry, I'm going." With that she went for the door. As she went out, someone else came in, and I cried out, "Micah!"

He didn't exactly run to me, but it was close. He was still wearing the dress shirt and slacks I'd last seen him in, but they were covered in dried stains. Blood dried to black and brick red. Maybe I stared at the bloodstains, because he unbuttoned it as he came and threw it on the floor. For once, seeing his chest and shoulders bare didn't make me think of sex. All I could think of was whose blood it was, Richard's or Jean-Claude's. Micah said, "Don't reach out to them with power, Anita."

"How did you know that's what I was thinking?" I asked.

He smiled, but his eyes were tired, relieved to see me up and around, but tired. "I'm your Nimir-Raj." That was often his answer to things when I asked how he read me so well. He was Nimir-Raj to my Nimir-Ra, and that seemed answer enough for him. He kissed me, and I expected Jason to let go of my hand so I could hug Micah, but he didn't. Micah and I glanced at him, and I saw the fear naked in Jason's eyes for a moment. I'd never seen his eyes like that. That one look let me know how terribly close we'd come to dying, and how close we still were. One look, and I knew that we weren't out of the woods yet.

I looked up into Micah's chartreuse eyes. "It's not just the little vampires that the energy is supposed to save, is it?"

Jason's hand tightened on mine. Micah hugged me, and I put my free hand over that smooth, warm, permanently tanned skin. I breathed in the scent of his neck, so precious to me. "Tell me," I whispered.

He drew back enough to see my face. "When Jean-Claude dies at dawn he could take you and Richard with him." I searched his solemn face and found only truth there. Truth, and fear, behind his eyes, hiding better, but it was there.

I called out, "Lillian!"

She was there. "Yes, Anita."

"How likely is it that Jean-Claude will drag us with him?"

"Truthfully, we don't know, but it's a possibility, and we'd rather not find out." She touched my forehead the way a mother takes a temperature. "Feed on Donovan, Anita. Take the energy he offers so we don't have to worry about it."

"You're not sure this will work, are you?"

"Of course we are."

"I don't need to be a vamp or a shapeshifter to know that was a lie," I said.

She stepped back, suddenly brisk and all professional. "Fine, we aren't certain, but it will be enough energy to save some of you. Whether all of you will be saved, we just don't know. This is new science here, Anita. New metaphysical science, which is always an uncertain thing."

I nodded. "Thanks for telling me the truth."

"You asked," she said.

Edward came up through the crowd. "They told me it would work."

"We said it was the best idea we had," Lillian said. "That is not the same thing."

Edward nodded. "All right, I heard what I wanted to hear." He gave me a very serious look. "Don't die on me. The other bodyguards would never let me live it down."

I smiled. "I'll do my best to protect your reputation." I had a thought. "Now you get to wait outside."

"What?" he said.

"I don't think I can have sex in the room while you watch. Sorry."

He grinned at me. "I guess I'd have trouble in front of you, too." Then he did something that surprised me. He moved Jason away from my hand and took it, firm and certain, in his. He held my hand, and we looked at each other for a long moment. He opened his mouth, closed it, shook his head. "If you die, I promise the Harlequin will pay for it."

Apparently, the secret was out, and we were just calling a spade a scary shovel. I nodded. "You didn't have to say it, I knew you would."

He smiled, squeezed my hand, and left. I almost called him back. Surrounded by men I loved, and had sex with, but strangely I felt safer with Edward in the room. But the danger I was about to face wasn't his kind of danger. In the room or out of it, Edward couldn't help me now.


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