The Killing Dance (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #6) - Chapter 15

15

I turned to find another new vampire. He was tall and slender with skin the color of clean white sheets, but sheets didn't have muscle moving underneath, sheets didn't glide down the steps and pad godlike across a room. His hair fell past his shoulders, a red so pure it was nearly the color of blood. The color screamed against his paleness. He was wearing a black frock coat like something out of the 1700s, but his chest gleamed lean and naked inside it. The heavy cloth was nearly covered in thick embroidery, a green so vivid it gleamed. The embroidery matched his eyes. Green as a cat's eyes, green as an emerald. From the waist down, he was wearing green lycra exercise pants that left little to the imagination. A sash was tied at his waist like a pirate belt, black with green fringe. Knee-high black boots completed the outfit.

I thought I knew all the bloodsuckers in town, but here were two new ones in less than two minutes. "How many new vampires are in the city?" I asked.

"A few," Jean-Claude said. "This is Damian. Damian, this is Anita."

"I feel silly in this outfit," he said.

"But you look splendid, doesn't he, ma petite?"

I nodded. "Splendid is one way of putting it."

Jean-Claude walked around the new vampire, flicking imaginary specks of lint from the coat. "Don't you approve, Anita?"

I sighed. "It's just..." I shrugged. "Why do you make everyone around you dress like they stepped out of a sexual fantasy with a high costume budget?"

He laughed, and the sound wrapped around me, tugged at things lower than he'd ever gotten to touch. "Stop that," I said.

"You enjoy it, ma petite."

"Maybe, but stop it anyway."

"Jean-Claude has always had a killer fashion sense," Damian said, "and sex was always one of his favorite pastimes, wasn't it?" There was something about the way he said that last that made it not a compliment.

Jean-Claude faced him. "And yet, for all my foppish ways, here you are, in my lands, seeking my protection."

The pupils in Damian's eyes were swallowed by a rush of green fire. "Thank you so much for reminding me."

"Remember who is master here, Damian, or you will be banished. The council themselves interceded with your old master, rescued you from her. She did not want to give you up. I spoke for you. I ransomed you because I remember what it was like to be trapped. To be forced to do things you didn't want to do. To be used and tormented."

Damian stood a little straighter but didn't look away. "You've made your point. I am... grateful to be here." He looked away, then to the floor, and a shudder ran through him. "I am glad to be free of her." When he looked back up, his eyes had returned to normal. He managed a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Wearing a few costumes is not the worst thing I've ever done."

There was a sorrow to his voice that made me want to ask Jean-Claude to let him change into a pair of pants, but I didn't. Jean-Claude was walking a very fine line here. Damian was over five hundred years old. He wasn't a master, but that was still a hell of a lot of power. Jean-Claude might be able to handle Liv and Damian, but if there were more, Master of the City or not, he wasn't up to the job. Which meant these little dominance games were necessary. The others couldn't be allowed to forget who was Master, because once they did, he was done for. If he'd asked for my vote before he put out the invitations, I'd have said no.

A door at the far side of the room opened. It was a black door in the black walls, and it seemed almost magical as a woman stepped out. She was about my own height, with wavy, waist-length brown hair that foamed over the shoulders of her ankle-length black coat. She was wearing a pair of hot turquoise exercise pants with a matching sports bra. Crisscrossing straps went from pants to the bra, emphasizing her small waist. Black vinyl boots reached to her knees, with a small projection that covered the knees. She walked down the steps and strode across the floor with a free-swinging walk that was almost a run. She entered the room like it was her room, or maybe she was her own room, comfortable wherever she went.

She stopped by us, smiling, pleasant, hazel eyes greener because of the strip of turquoise around her neck. "What do you think?"

"You look lovely, Cassandra," Jean-Claude said.

"You look better in yours than I do in mine," Damian said.

"That's a matter of opinion," I said.

The woman looked at me. Her eyes flicked down the length of Damian's body. She met my eyes, and we both laughed.

Damian looked puzzled. Jean-Claude looked at me. "Share your humor with us, ma petite, please."

I met Cassandra's eyes again, swallowed another laugh, and shook my head. I took a few deep breaths. When I was pretty sure I could speak without laughing, I said, "Girl humor, you wouldn't understand."

"Very diplomatic," Cassandra said. "I'm impressed."

"If you knew how hard diplomacy comes to ma petite, you would be even more impressed," Jean-Claude said. He had gotten the joke, as if there'd been any doubt.

Damian was frowning at us, still puzzled. It was just as well.

Jean-Claude looked from Cassandra to me and back again. "Do you two know each other?"

We shook our heads in unison.

"Cassandra, Anita. My newest wolf, meet the light of my life. Cassandra is one of your guards for the night."

"You're very good. I wouldn't have picked up on it."

Her smile widened. "Richard said you didn't know he was a werewolf at first, either."

Instantly, a little spark of jealousy flared. Of course, if she were a werewolf and with Jean-Claude, then she was one of Richard's followers. "You weren't at the meeting."

"Jean-Claude needed me here. He couldn't do without both Jason and me."

I looked at Jean-Claude. I knew what Jason did for him. He bled Jason when he woke, and sucking blood was damn close to sex for a vampire. "Really," I said.

"Don't worry, ma petite. Cassandra won't share blood with me, either. She and Richard have many similarities. I believe that Richard chose her for me because she bears a certain resemblance to you, not just physically, but a certain je ne sais quoi."

"Je ne sais quoiis French for nothing," I said.

"It means an indefinable something that is difficult to put into words, ma petite. A quality that transcends vocabulary."

"He does talk pretty, doesn't he?" Cassandra said.

"He has his moments," I said. "You can't be draining Jason every morning. Even a werewolf needs a little recoup time."

"Stephen is a willing donor."

"Why wasn't Stephen with you last night?" I asked.

"Is that an accusation?" Jean-Claude asked.

"Just answer the question."

"He had requested an evening off to spend time with his brother. Who am I to stand in the way of familial obligations?" He stared at me while he answered like he wasn't completely happy with the

conversation. Tough. Neither was I.

Stephen's own brother had betrayed him, acted as bait for the trap. Damn. "Where is Stephen?"

"He's in the back room," Cassandra said. "He helped me get into this thing. I couldn't reach all the straps." She dropped the coat off her shoulders and turned so I could see her back. The straps formed a tight web, most of them in places you couldn't have fastened without help. She slipped the coat back on and turned, looking at me. "You're taking this alpha female thing seriously, aren't you?"

I shrugged. "I'm serious about Stephen's safety."

Cassandra nodded, face solemn, thoughtful. "I like that. Sometimes alpha female is just a token position. Just a word for the pack leader's lover. Most of them aren't as active as Raina." She made a face when she said the name, like she'd tasted something bitter.

Jean-Claude interrupted. "I will leave you two girls to your conversation. I have things to attend to before the club opens." He kissed the back of my hand and was gone, leaving us standing in the middle of the club, alone. Damian had gone at his heels as if he'd been asked.

For a moment, I was nervous. Cassandra and I were very much in the open. "Let's go over there." I motioned to the steps that led to the next level. We sat down on them, me having to smooth my skirts down. Even that didn't help. I had to keep my feet and knees together or I would have flashed the room. Sigh.

"Let me guess," I said. "Raina wanted you for her movies."

"She wants everyone that is remotely attractive for her movies. Though sometimes sharing her bed for a tryout can get you out of it. She offered me to Gabriel for my tryout. That damn leopard is not even a pack member."

"If he were, she'd make him pack leader," I said.

Cassandra shook her head. "Gabriel couldn't defeat Marcus, let alone Richard. He's the leader of the wereleopards only because there's no one stronger. He's an alpha, but he's flawed. It makes him weak."

"Sexual perversion doesn't always mean you'll lose a fight," I said.

"It's not that," Cassandra said. "He's into dangerous sex. Lycanthropes can take a lot of damage." She shivered. "The things he wanted to do to me." She looked at me, and the fear showed in her eyes. "He says you nearly gutted him once while he had you pinned to the ground."

I looked away. "Yeah."

Cassandra touched my arm, and there was no sense of power. She was every bit as good as Richard at hiding what she was. She made Sylvie look like an amateur. The touch made me turn back to her. "He's hot for you, Anita. I didn't tell Richard because, well, I'm new in the pack. Got into town about two weeks ago. I was afraid that if I told him what Gabriel had said about you, he might do something stupid. But meeting you, maybe telling you is enough. You can decide whether Richard needs to know."

She looked so serious. It scared me. "What did Gabriel say?"

Cassandra took a deep breath. "He has a fantasy about you. He wants to arm you with knives and let you try to kill him, on film, while he rapes you."

I stared at her. I wanted to say, you're kidding, but I knew she wasn't. Gabriel was just that twisted. "How does the movie end in his version?"

"With you dead," she said.

"While he rapes me?" I said.

She nodded.

I hugged myself, running my hands down my arms, tensing my back, feeling the weapons I was carrying. I was armed. I was safe, but shit.

She touched my shoulder. "You all right?"

"Well, isn't this touching," a man's voice on the stairs behind us. Cassandra was on her feet, facing it in an instant. I slid my hand into the open purse and drew the Seecamp out. The gun caught a bit on the cloth lining and cost me a couple of seconds, but it was out and ready. I felt better. I'd twisted on the steps, coming up on one knee, not bothering to stand. Sometimes, standing made you a better target.

Sabin stood about five steps above us. Frightfully close for neither of us to have sensed him. He was dressed as I'd seen him in the office; hooded cloak covering him from head to toe. I could see under the cloak now. There were no feet. He was floating above the step. "I wish you could see the look on your face, Ms. Blake."

I swallowed my pulse back into my mouth and said, "I didn't know you'd be here tonight, Sabin."

Cassandra took a step towards him, a soft growl oozing from her throat. "I don't know you," she said.

"Calm yourself, wolf. I am Jean-Claude's guest, aren't I, Ms. Blake?"

"Yeah," I said. "He's a guest." I stopped pointing the gun at him, but I didn't put it up. He was awfully damn good to have snuck up on me and a werewolf.

"You know him?" Cassandra asked. She was still standing above me, blocking the vampire's path. She was taking this bodyguard thing very seriously.

"I've met him."

"He safe?"

"No," I said, "but he's not here to hurt me."

"Who is he here to hurt?" Cassandra asked. She still hadn't given any ground.

Sabin eased down the steps, cloak billowing around him in an odd motion, like the sleeve of an amputee. "I have come to watch the night's entertainment, nothing more."

Cassandra backed up to stand a step ahead of me. I stood but still kept the gun out. I was jumpier than normal. I was also remembering how Sabin had bled me from a distance with his laughter. Keeping a gun handy seemed like a good idea.

"Where's Dominic?"

"He's here somewhere." His hood was a cup of darkness, smooth and empty, but I knew he was watching me. I felt his gaze like a weight.

He stayed on the step just above Cassandra, two steps above me. "Who is your lovely companion?"

"Sabin, this is Cassandra; Cassandra, Sabin."

A black-gloved hand slid out of the cloak. He reached towards Cassandra as if he'd caress her face.

She jerked back. "Don't touch me."

His hand froze in midmotion. A stillness washed over him. I'd seen other vampires fill with that utter quietness, but I'd thought it was made up of visual clues. There was no visual from Sabin, but that same emptiness flowed outward. The illusion was almost better this way as if it was just an empty cloak somehow hovering on the stairs.

His voice came out of that stillness. It was startling. "Is my touch so repulsive?"

"You smell of sickness and death."

Sabin drew his hand back inside his cloak. "I am a visiting master. It is within my rights to ask for a bit of... companionship. I could ask for you, wolf."

Cassandra growled at him.

"No one's forcing anyone into anyone's bed," I said.

"Are you so sure of that, Ms. Blake?" Sabin asked. He floated around Cassandra. The cloak brushed her, and she shuddered.

I couldn't smell him; I didn't have a werewolf's sense of smell. But I'd seen some of what was under

that cloak. It was worth a shudder or two.

"Cassandra is only on loan to Jean-Claude. She belongs to the pack, so yeah, I'm sure."

Cassandra glanced back at me. "You'd protect me?"

"It's part of my job description now, isn't it?"

She studied my face. "Yes, I suppose it is." Her voice was soft, the growling like a distant dream. She looked terribly normal except for the outfit.

"You've seen what I am, Ms. Blake. Do you shudder at my touch?"

I moved down a step until I was on the floor. Better footing than the stairs. "I shook your hand earlier."

Sabin floated to the floor. The darkness faded from inside the hood. He pushed it back to reveal that golden hair and that ravaged face.

Cassandra let out a hiss. She backed up until she hit the banister. I think Sabin could have pulled a gun and shot her right that second, and she wouldn't have reacted in time.

He smiled at her. His beautiful mouth pulling the rotted flesh loose. "Have you never seen anything like this?"

She swallowed hard enough for me to hear, like she was trying not to throw up. "I've never seen anything so horrible."

Sabin turned back to me. His one eye was still a clear, pure blue, but the other had burst in the socket in a welter of pus and thinner liquid.

I did my own swallowing. "Your eye was fine yesterday."

"I told you it was virulent, Ms. Blake. Did you think I was exaggerating?"

I shook my head. "No."

His gloved hand came out of hiding once more. I remembered the way his hand had squished when I shook it yesterday. I did not want him to touch me, but there was a look in his beautiful eye, some pain on what was left of his face, that made me hold still. I wouldn't flinch. I felt sorry for him, pretty stupid, but true.

That black glove hovered beside my face, not quite touching me. The Seecamp was forgotten in my hand. Sabin's fingertips brushed my face. The glove was liquid-filled, like some kind of obscene balloon.

He stared at me. I stared back. He spread his hand over my lower jaw and pressed. There were solid things inside the glove, thicker pieces, and bone, but it wasn't a hand anymore. Only the glove gave it shape.

A small sound crawled out of my throat. I couldn't stop it.

"Perhaps I should ask for you?" he said.

I eased back out of his grip. I was afraid to move too quickly. Afraid that sudden movement might tear off the glove. I did not want to see him spill out in a flood of foul-smelling liquid. He was a horror show enough without that.

Sabin didn't try to hold me; maybe he was afraid of the same thing.

"Are you abusing my hospitality again?" Jean-Claude said. He stood on the dance floor, looking at Sabin. His eyes were pure blue light. His skin had gone pale and smooth like carved marble.

"You have not yet shown me true hospitality, Jean-Claude. It is customary to offer me companionship."

"I didn't think there was enough of you left to have such needs," Jean-Claude said.

Sabin grimaced. "It is a cruel illness. Not all of my body has rotted away. The need remains, though the vessel is so grotesque that no one will touch me, not by choice." He shook his head, and the skin split on one side. Something black and thicker than blood oozed down the side of his face.

Cassandra made a small sound. My bodyguard was about to be sick. Maybe it smelled bad to her.

"If one of my people angers me enough while you are in my territory, you may have them. But I cannot give someone to you just because you wish it. Not everyone's sanity would survive it."

"There are days, Jean-Claude, when my own sanity is in doubt." Sabin looked from Cassandra to me. "It would break your wolf, I think. But your servant, I think she would survive."

"She is off limits to you, Sabin. If you abuse my hospitality with such an insult, council edict or no council edict, I will destroy you."

Sabin turned to him. The two vampires stared at each other. "There was a time, Jean-Claude, when no one spoke to me like that, no one short of the council."

"That was before," Jean-Claude said.

Sabin sighed. "Yes, before."

"You are free to enjoy the show, but do not tempt me again, Sabin. I have no sense of humor where ma petiteis concerned."

"You share her with a werewolf but not with me."

"That is our business," Jean-Claude said, "and we will never speak of this again. If we do, it will be a challenge between us, and you are not up to it."

Sabin gave a half bow, hard to get the leverage for it without legs. "You are Master of the City. Your word is law." The words were correct. The tone was mocking.

Liv came up to stand behind and to one side of Jean-Claude. "It is time to open the doors, Master." I think that last was deliberate. Jean-Claude usually chastised his flock for calling him master.

Jean-Claude said, "Everyone to their places then." His voice sounded strangled.

"I will find a table," Sabin said.

"Do so," Jean-Claude said.

Sabin raised the hood back into place. He glided back up the stairs, headed for the tables on the upper level. Or maybe he'd just float in the rafters.

"My apologies, ma petite. I believe the sickness has progressed to his mind. Be wary of him. Cassandra is needed for the show. Liv will remain with you."

I looked at the tall vampire. "She won't take a bullet for me."

"If she fails me, I will give her to Sabin."

Liv paled, which is a neat trick for a vampire, even one that's fed. "Master, please."

"Now I believe she'll take a bullet for me," I said. If the choices were sleeping with Sabin or getting shot, I'd take the bullet. From the look on Liv's face, she agreed.

Jean-Claude left to make his entrance.

Cassandra met my eyes. She wasn't just pale, she was green. She jerked her gaze from mine as if afraid of what I'd see. "I am sorry, Anita." She went for the door she'd first entered through. She seemed embarrassed. Guess I couldn't blame her.

Cassandra had failed the bodyguard test. She was a powerful lycanthrope, but Sabin had totally unnerved her. She'd have probably been just fine if the vampire had tried violence, but he'd just stood there and rotted at her. What do you do when the monsters start being piteous?

The doors opened, and the crowd flowed in like a tidal wave, spilling in a wash of thunderous noise. I slipped the gun back into the purse but didn't shut it.

Liv was at my elbow. "Your table is over here." I went with her because I didn't want to be alone in the jostling crowd. Besides, she was suddenly taking my safety very seriously. Couldn't blame her. Sabin's diseased body was a wonderful threat.

I'd have felt better if I hadn't believed Jean-Claude would do it. But I knew better. He'd give Liv to Sabin. He really would. There was a look in the vampire's eyes that said she knew it, too.