The Killing Dance (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #6) - Chapter 35~36

35

There would be no backing down for Marcus tonight. He had to die, one way or another. Richard wasn't arguing anymore. But there was still the chance that Raina would lead a revolt of the other lukoi. Their loyalty was divided enough for a war, even with Marcus dead. Jean-Claude came up with a solution. We'd put on a better show. A better show than Raina and Marcus? He had to be kidding. Richard agreed to let Jean-Claude costume him up for the night. As his lupa, that meant I had to get dressed up, too.

Jean-Claude took Richard off to dress him. He sent Cassandra with a white cardboard clothes box to me. She was supposed to help me change, she said.

I opened the box and all that was in it was a pile of black leather straps. I kid you not. I drew it out of the box and it didn't improve. "I don't know how to get into this, even if I was willing to."

"I'll get Stephen," Cassandra said.

"I don't want to undress in front of Stephen."

"He's a stripper," she said. "He dressed me last night at Danse Macabre, remember." She patted my hand. "He'll be a perfect gentleman."

I sat down on the bed and scowled at the door. I was not wearing this crap.

An hour later, Stephen and Cassandra were turning me in front of the bathroom mirrors so I could see myself. It had been embarrassing at first having a man help squeeze me into the thing, but Cassandra was right. Stephen was not only a perfect gentleman, he simply didn't seem to be moved at all by the fact that I was mostly naked. It was like having two girlfriends help me. One just happened not to be a girl.

The top was mostly a leather bra with lining for comfort. It was one of those that lifted and showed your cleavage to absolute best advantage. But it was tight and held in place. Nothing was falling out. My cross was visible, though. I taped it. I'd peel the tape when I left the Circus. Werewolves on the menu tonight, not vamps.

The bottom was sort of leather shorts, except that where the shorts stopped, straps took over. I wouldn't be caught dead or alive in something like this, not even to make a good show of things for Richard, except that there were extras.

Two leather sheaths covered my upper arms, complete with a knife apiece. The knives were high quality, high silver content. If the hilts were a little elaborate for my taste, the balance was good, and that's what counted. Two more sheaths covered my lower arms with two more knives, smaller, balanced more for throwing, though they both had hilts and weren't true throwing knives. The bulge under Harley's T-shirt had been throwing knives, the real McCoy, slender and innocent looking until you saw them used.

There was a leather belt around the top of the shorts that my Browning's shoulder holster fit on nicely. Edward had bought me a new Browning. It wasn't my very own gun, but it was still nice to have. Harley had fished a clip-on holster for the Firestar out of his duffel. The small clip-on rode to one side of my waist for a cross draw.

The straps down my legs had small silver loops, sheaths, two more knives, one on each thigh. No knife sheaths below the knees because boots came with the outfit. Jean-Claude had finally gotten me out of my Nikes. The boots were soft black suede with heels only a touch higher than I would have liked. A tiny stoppered vial fit in small loops just below the top of each boot. I held one up to the light, and knew what it was. Holy water. A nice gift from my vampire boyfriend, heh?

I stared at myself in the mirror. "How long has Jean-Claude been planning this outfit?"

"A little while," Stephen said. He was kneeling by me, tugging the straps into place. "We all had a running bet that he'd never get you to wear it."

"Who's we?"

"His flunkies." Stephen stood up, stepped back, and nodded. "You look amazing."

"I look like a biker slut from hell meets soldier of fortune pinup."

"That, too," Stephen said.

I turned to Cassandra. "Be honest."

"You look dangerous, Anita. Like somebody's weapon."

I stared in the mirror, shaking my head. "Somebody's sex toy, you mean."

"A dominatrix maybe, but nobody's toy," Cassandra said.

Why didn't that make me feel better?

Cassandra had insisted on helping me with my makeup. She was a great deal more skilled at it than I. Years of practice, she'd said. My hair was tight and curling, falling just below my shoulders now. It needed a cut. But for tonight, the hair was perfect. The face was still pretty. Makeup is a wonderful thing. But the outfit stripped away the pretense. I looked like what I was: something that would kill you before it would kiss you.

We walked out of the bathroom and found Edward and Harley waiting for us. They had brought two straight-backed chairs to sit on the white carpet, facing the bathroom door. I froze as Edward stared at me. He didn't say a word, just sat there with a sort of half-smile on his face.

"Well, say something, dammit."

"I would say it isn't you, but in a way, it is."

I took a deep breath. "Yeah."

Harley stared at me with vacant eyes. He was smiling, but not at the outfit. Smiling at some internal music or vision that only he could perceive.

There was a long leather coat on the bed. "One of the vampires dropped it off," Edward said. "Thought you might want something to cover up with until the big unveiling."

"You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

"I'd feel better if I could guard your back."

"You're going to do that with a rifle from the closest hill, remember."

"Night vision and scope, fine, but I can't kill them all from a distance."

"You couldn't kill them all if you were johnny on the spot, either," I said.

"No, but I'd feel better."

"Worried about me?"

He shrugged. "I'm your bodyguard. If you die under my protection, the other bodyguards will make fun of me."

It took me a second to realize he was making a joke. Harley looked back at him with an almost surprised look. I don't think either of us heard humor from Edward much.

I walked towards Edward. The leather made that little creaking sound it makes. I stopped in front of him, legs a little apart, staring down at him.

He widened his eyes a little. "Yes."

"I can't imagine anyone making fun of you, Edward."

He touched one of the leather straps. "If I went around dressed like this, they might."

I had to smile. "You probably would be dressed like this if you were going to be down in the clearing with us tonight."

He turned pale blue eyes to me. "I've worn worse than this, Anita. I'm a fine actor when I have to be." The humor drained away from his face, leaving something feral and determined behind. Edward would still do things that I wouldn't, still had fewer rules than I did, but in some ways, Edward was a mirror for me. A warning of what I was becoming, or maybe a preview.

Richard would have said it was a warning. I hadn't made up my mind yet.

There was a knock on the door. Richard came in without waiting for an invitation. He was scowling, but the grumpy look faded when he got a good look at me. His eyes widened. "I was going to come in and complain about my

outfit." He shook his head. "If I complain, will you just shoot me?" A smile spread across his face.

"No laughing," I said.

The smile got wider. His voice was a little choked, but he managed, "Wonderful. You look wonderful."

There are only two things you can do when you're dressed like Barbie Does Bondage; you can be embarrassed or you can be aggressive. Guess what my choice was.

I stalked towards him, putting a little extra sway into my walk. The boots made it easier, somehow, giving just the right roll. I put into my eyes, my face, what the outfit promised: sex, violence, heat.

The humor faded from Richard's face, replaced by an answering heat and a hesitation, like he wasn't exactly sure we should be doing this in public.

He was wearing black leather pants with soft suede boots that were almost a match to my own. His hair had been slicked back, tied off with a black ribbon. His shirt was silk and a vibrant blue, somewhere between turquoise and royal. It looked splendid against his tanned skin.

I stopped just in front of him, legs apart. I stared up at him, defying him to think it was funny. I put a finger to his lips, trailing my fingertip down his cheek, his neck, caressing the edge of his collarbone, tracing the skin until it vanished down the buttoned front of his shirt.

I stalked to the bed, fetching the leather coat. I threw it over one shoulder so that it trailed down like a limp body, not hiding much of the outfit. I opened the door and stood for just a moment framed in it. "Coming?" I said. I walked away without waiting for an answer. The look on his face was enough. He looked like I'd hit him between the eyes with a sledgehammer.

Great. Now all I had to do was try the outfit out on Jean-Claude, and we could go.

36

The May woods were a warm, close darkness. Richard and I stood outside the barn where Raina shot dirty pictures. The pack meeting place was among the trees around the farmhouse. There were so many cars that they were parked on every bit of spare ground, some so close to the woods that they touched the trees.

There may have been a full moon up there somewhere, but the clouds were so thick, the darkness so complete, that it was like standing inside a cave. Except this cave had movement. A small oozing wind trailed through the thick, night-darkened leaves. It was like some invisible giant trailed fingertips through the trees, bending them, rattling the leaves, giving movement to the night that made my shoulders tight. It was like the night itself was alive in a way that I'd never seen before.

Richard's hand was warm and slightly moist. He'd dampened that creeping energy so that it wasn't uncomfortable to touch him. I appreciated the effort. His leather cloak whispered as he moved closer. It was tied across his chest, covering only one shoulder. The cloak, combined with the full sleeves of the brilliant blue shirt, made the whole outfit seem antique.

Richard pulled on my hand, bringing me against his body, into the circle of his arms, the brush of the leather cloak. The clouds slid apart and suddenly we were bathed in a thick, silver glow. Richard was staring outward. He seemed to be listening to something that I couldn't hear. His hands convulsed around my hands, an almost painful squeeze. He stared down at me as if just remembering I was there.

He smiled. "Can you feel it?"

"What?"

"The night?"

I started to answer, no, then stopped. I looked around at the hurrying woods, the feeling of movement. "The woods seem more alive tonight."

His smile widened, a brief flash of teeth, almost a snarl. "Yes."

I tried to pull away, but his hands tightened. "You're doing it," I said. My heart was suddenly thudding in my throat. I'd thought to be afraid of a lot of things tonight, but not of Richard.

"We're supposed to share power. That's what I'm doing. But it has to be my power, Anita. The pack won't be impressed with zombies."

I swallowed past my beating heart and forced myself to stand very still. Made myself return the grip of his hands. I hadn't thought what it would mean. I wasn't going to be in charge. Not my power but his. I was going to be fuel for his fire, not the other way around.

"It's Jean-Claude's mark," I said. "That's what's doing it."

"We hoped it would work this way," Richard said.

And I knew that the we he was referring to didn't include me. "How does it work?"

"Like this." That trembling energy broke over his skin like a rush of warmth. It plunged through his hands into my hand. It rode like a wave over my body, and everywhere it touched, the hair and skin of my body raised and shivered.

"Are you all right?"

"Sure," but my voice was a breathless whisper.

He took me at my word. Some barrier went down, and Richard's energy crashed into me like a fist. I remembered falling, and the feel of Richard's arms around my waist, catching me, then it was like I was elsewhere. I was everywhere. I was over there in the trees, staring at us with eyes that tried to turn and see me, but I wasn't there. It was like the wind that opened inside me when I walked a cemetery, except it wasn't power that was spreading outward. It was me. I flashed through a dozen eyes, brushed bodies, some furred, some still skinned. I hurried outward, outward, and touched Raina. I knew it was her. Her power lashed out like a shield, casting me away from her, but not before I felt her fear.

Richard called me back, though call implies a voice. I slipped back inside myself in a rush of curling golden energy. I could see the color behind my eyes, though there was actually nothing to see. I opened my eyes, though I wasn't a hundred percent sure that they'd been closed. That golden energy was still there, swirling inside, along my skin. I curled my hands over Richard's shoulders and felt an answering energy in him.

I didn't have to ask what I had just experienced. I knew. It was what it meant, at least for someone as powerful as Richard, to be alpha. He could fling his essence outward and touch his pack. It was how he kept the werewolf from changing form two days ago. It was how he could share blood. Marcus couldn't do it, but Raina could.

Jean-Claude's power, even my own power, never felt so alive. It was like I was drawing energy from the trees, the wind, like being plugged into a vast battery, as if there was enough magic to go on forever. I had never felt anything like it.

"Can you run?" Richard asked.

The question meant more than just the words, and I knew that. "Oh, yeah."

He smiled, and it was joyous. He took my hand and flung us into the trees. Even if he'd been human, I couldn't have kept up with Richard in a dead run. Tonight, he didn't run so much as flowed into the woods. It was like he had sonar telling him where every branch, every tree root, every fallen trunk would be. It was like the trees moved away from him like water, or maybe moved into him like something else that I had no words for. He pulled me with him. Not just with his hand, but with his energy. It was like he'd entered me and tied us together somehow. It should have been intrusive and frightening, but it wasn't.

We spilled into the great clearing and Richard's power filled it, flowed over the lycanthropes like a fire springing from one dry branch to another. It filled them and made them turn to him. Only Marcus, Raina, Jamil, Sebastian, and Cassandra were

untouched. Only they kept him out by force of will. He swept everyone else before him, and I knew that part of what let him do that was me. Distant as a dream or a half-remembered nightmare, was Jean-Claude, down that twisting power that was almost buried under Richard's shining light.

I felt every movement. It was like the world was suddenly crystalline, almost like the effect from an adrenaline rush, or shock, where everything seems carved and hard-edged and terribly, frightfully clear. It was like being dipped in reality, as if anything else would forever be a dream. It was almost painful.

Marcus sat in a chair that had been carved from rock so long ago the edges were rounded with weather and hands and bodies. I knew that this clearing had been the meeting place for the lukoi for a very long time.

Marcus wore a brown satin-lapeled tux. The shirt was of gold cloth, not gold lame, but the real deal, as if they'd melted down jewelry and beaten him out a shirt. Raina curled on the edge of the stone chair. Her long auburn hair was done in an elaborate swirl of soft curls on top of her head, down along her face. A gold chain cut across her forehead with a diamond the size of my thumb in it. More diamonds burned like white fire at her throat. She was absolutely naked except for a sprinkling of gold body glitter, done thick enough on her nipples to make them seem metallic. A diamond anklet glittered on her right ankle. Three gold chains rode low on her hips, and that was it.

And I'd complained about my outfit.

"Welcome, Richard, Anita," Marcus said. "Welcome to our happy family." His voice was deep and thick. It flowed with its own edge of power, but it wasn't enough. It would never be enough. Richard could have worn his jeans and T-shirt, and still he would have won them over. There are things beyond clothing that make a king.

"Marcus, Raina." Richard released my hand slowly, and as he pulled away, the tie remained. It was a shadow of the way I'd bound Richard and Jean-Claude's auras to me, but more. He took a few steps away to stand a little in front of me. I could feel him like a large, shimmering thing.His energy was amazing. The closest thing I'd ever felt was the power of a Daoine Sidhe, a fairie of the highest court.

"You naughty boy," Raina said. "You've made her one of us."

"No," Richard said, "she is what she always has been: herself."

"Then how can you ride her power? How can she ride yours?" Raina pushed away from the chair, stalking along the ground in front of it, pacing like a caged animal.

"What have you done, Richard?" Marcus asked.

"She is my mate."

"Raina, test it," Marcus said.

Raina smiled, most unpleasant, and stalked over the open ground. She swayed, transforming walking into a seductive dance. I felt her power tonight. Her sex rode the air like the threat of lightning, prickling along the skin, drying out the mouth. I felt every male watch her, even Richard. I didn't resent it. Hell, I watched her. She was magnificent in her sheer, naked lust. It was like sex for Raina was power, literally.

I slipped off the long, black coat and let it fall to the ground. There was a collective gasp from the human throats. I traced my hands over the bare skin of my waist, trailing down my leather-clad thighs. I laughed. A loud, joyous bark of noise. It was Raina. I was riding her power, dancing along the edge of her energy.

I stalked towards her, not waiting, but meeting her in the middle of the circle. We moved around each other, and I could match her dance. I pulled her aura of sex and violence into me, pulled it like a hand reaching inward and stealing bits of her. Fear widened her eyes, brought her breath faster.

She knew how to protect herself against another werewolf, but my brand of power was just different enough that she didn't know what to do with me. I'd never done anything like this before, didn't understand exactly what I was doing, until Raina backed off. She didn't run back to Marcus, but the shine was gone. She slunk back with her tail between her legs, and I could taste her inside my mind like I'd licked her skin.

I turned back to Richard and stalked towards him in the high-heeled boots. I felt every man watching. I knew it. I wrapped it around me and threw it all back into Richard. He stood almost frozen, his dark eyes filled with a heat that was part sex, part energy, part something else. And for the first time, I understood that something else. I heard that music, felt it dance inside my body.

I grabbed the leather cloak and pulled him down to me. We kissed and it burned, as if more than flesh was mingling. I released him abruptly, and my eyes didn't go to his face but fell lower. Without touching him, I knew he was hard and ready. I could still feel the pack, distant, but touchable. Jason's great wolf head brushed my thigh. I dug my fingers into that thick fur and knew that if Richard and I made love, the pack would know it. Here tonight, they'd be along for the ride. It wouldn't just be sex. It would be magic. And it didn't seem shameful or pagan or wrong.

"You can't let them do this," Raina said.

Marcus pushed himself to his feet. He seemed tired. "No, I don't suppose I can." He looked at Raina, naked, beautiful, fearful. "But it is not your blood that will be spilled tonight, is it, my love?" The irony was thick enough to walk on, and for the first time, I realized that Marcus knew what Raina was, maybe had always known.

Raina went to her knees in front of him, hands clutching at his legs. She rubbed her cheek along his thigh, one hand smoothing perilously close to his groin. Even now, it was what she knew best. Sex and pain.

He touched her hair gently. He stared down at her, and the naked tenderness on his face made me want to look away. It was a terribly intimate look, more intimate than sex, more powerful. The fool loved her.

If he hadn't been paying to kill me, I'd have felt sorry for him.

Marcus stepped away from Raina. He began walking across the clearing. His power opened like a door, flowing like electric water across the wolves, across me. He undid his tie, opened the first few buttons of his shirt. "No more preliminaries, Richard. Let us do this."

"I know you tried to have Anita killed," Richard said.

Marcus stopped in midmotion. His small, sure fingers hesitated. Surprise chased across his face, then changed into a smile. "You have surprised me twice tonight, Richard. Let's see if you can make it three."

"I will kill you tonight, Marcus; you know that."

Marcus shrugged out of his jacket. "You can try."

Richard nodded. "I'd planned on giving you the chance to just leave."

"I tried to have your mate killed. You can't leave me alive now." He undid the cuffs of his shirt.

"No, I can't." Richard undid the cloak's tie, letting it fall to the floor. He pulled his shirt out of his pants and slid it over his head in one quick movement. The moonlight made shadows on the muscles of his arms and chest. I suddenly didn't want him to do it. I could shoot Marcus, and it would all be done. Richard would never forgive me, but he'd be alive. They wouldn't kill each other with power. They'd use claws and teeth for the killing. All Richard's trembling, eager power wouldn't keep him from getting his throat ripped out.