I CRIED UNTIL my knees went weak, and then Richards arms tightened around me and held me. He held me standing, pressed against his body, when my own body would have fallen to the floor. When the crying began to quiet and he could feel that I was standing again, he loosened his hold on me enough to bend back and see my face.
Well get through this, he said.
I looked up at him. His hair was trailing down from the edge of the hat. Shoulder-length waves of brown with that hint of gold in the lights trailed around his face and the long firm line of his neck. I wanted to see all that hair loose around those perfect cheekbones. I went on tiptoe, found it hurt a little, but did it anyway. I lifted the hat off, and watched a little more hair spill down, but not all.
He turned his head so I could see the really bad bun that someone had done for him. I started to reach for it, to free his hair, buTHE gripped my wrists and set me back flat-footed in front of him. Leave it.
Why? I asked.
He gave me a gentle smile. Because once you start playing with my hair you tend to get distracted. We cant afford that right now.
I nodded, agreeing with him. Im too sore to get too distracted for a while. I wondered why I felt so awful, but two days of it, that explains it.
He kissed my knuckles on both hands, then let go of them. Your face looks so lost.
I nodded again. I feel lost. I looked up at him. What happened to me, Richard? Why cant I sense Jean-Claude?
He seemed to think about it, then said, Turn on the water. The sound will help drown things out from the tiger.
I went to the shower without another word. I needed to get clean anyway. I could smell the men on my skin, whiffs of it as I moved. It wasnt a bad smell, really, but it was the smell of strangers. I had woken up with the perfume of someones skin against mine before, but never a scent I did not know. I knelt, slowly, careful of all that hurt, and turned on the water.
Richard started talking, Do you remember Marmee Noir?
I tried to look over my shoulder, but found that the big claw marks on my back hurt too much to do that, so I turned more of me to look up at him. The Mother of All Darkness is kind of hard to forget.
He looked relieved. Good, Jean-Claude wasnt sure how much of your memory shed wiped.
I stared at him. What are you talking about, Richard? Marmee Noir didnt wipe my memory. I remember every time Ive seen her, even in dream.
I did not like the look he gave me; it was too soft, too gentle, tootoo you-poor-baby. No, you dont.
Stop hinting and just tell me, Richard.
She rolled you two days ago. Shes the reason the ardeur went crazy.
I tried to think back. What was the last thing I remembered clearly? But it was like the harder I thought at it, the more my mind kept sliding away, as if the surface of the thoughts were slippery and I couldnt hold on. I shook my head. Im a necromancer; vampires cant just mind-fuck me. Especially not from thousands of miles away. Shes in freaking Europe. She couldnt have rolled me this completely from there.
He shrugged those wide shoulders. Then why cant you remember what happened? What caused the ardeur to rise out of control worse than its ever been before?
I dont know, but I swallowed hard enough that it sort of hurt. The water was too hot now, steam rising from it. I added more cold and tried to think about what hed said.
The tiger inside me went crazy first. It did things that none of my other beasts have ever done.
Like what? he asked.
I told him the quickest version I could think of. When I was done, he looked way too grim for comfort. What is it, Richard? Why that look? What the hell is wrong with me?
Were not a hundred percent certain, but you put out a call to all the weretigers in this country. Maximillian, the master of Vegas, called Jean-Claude with all sorts of threats. Said youd stolen or were trying to steal away one of his weretigers. He didnt mind you sleeping with him, but you werent allowed to call him as a mate.
What does this call mean? Crispin talked about it, too. Like it should be in capital letters or something.
Christine was the only weretiger we had to talk to, but shes not a natural-born. She survived an attack, so shes not an expert, but the call is a way for the dominant tigresses to get lovers, and eventually a mate. Only the very dominant can do it, and if Maxs fit was accurate, your call blanketed the country, or damn near. Max thought it was just his clan because you had his tiger, but when his wife contacted the other clans, just to seethey were all hit by this call.
What does that mean, hit? I asked. The water was the right temperature now. I badly wanted to get clean, but I wanted the information, too.
Apparently, the unattached males all felt your call. Only the strongest dominant queens were able to keep their males from getting on the nearest plane, train, or bus to answer that call.
I stared at him. What?
He spread his hands and knelt beside me. It wasnt you, Anita. Youre good, but youre not this good.
Youre saying that Marmee Noir used me to call the tigers here.
Why? What does she gain from it?
First, Jean-Claude wants neither you nor Jason to tell anyone that it was Marmee Noir that did this. Hes afraid that if the other vampires know she can use you like this, they may kill you to keep her from gaining more power.
I understood the reasoning. If it hadnt been me that would have to die, I couldnt even argue with it. Understood, but what does she gain from the tigers coming to me?
Jean-Claude isnt certain, but Elinore thinks that the Mother is gathering her forces. The vampire council has finally found something that can unite them. Theyre terrified of what will happen if she wakes from her sleep completely. They are very close to voting to make sure she never wakes.
I whispered, You mean the council is going to kill Marmee Noir?
The last intelligence Jean-Claude got is that there is a vote before the council.
Shit, Richard, shit, I mean, the I almost said the Harlequin out loud. I stopped myself because to say their name aloud was to risk death. Theyd hunt you down and kill you just for saying their name. The only exception to that rule was if they contacted you first. Then, since they were the spies, assassins, jury, and executioner of the vampire world, well, you were in deep shit.
Wed had a visit just in December. Though theyd been sent to police Malcolm and his vampire church. Theyd broken their own rules to give us a very solid scare. Wed lost good men in the fight. Hell, wed nearly lost Jean-Claude, Richard, and me. It had been a very, very near thing.
Once the Harlequin had been Marmee Noirs right hand, but the ones wed talked to seemed as frightened of her as the rest of the vampires. Theyd given me something to keep her away. What was it?
I looked at Richard, searched his face. They gave me something to keep her from manifesting around me. I know they gave me something, but I cant remember what it was. The first cold trickle of fear wormed its way through my veins. Most of the time with memory magic, the more you talked about it, the more you remembered. Not always, but for me, yes. Now this bit of knowledge was gone. Shed wiped it away. Wiped it away without ever being near me.
It was a charm. He made a circle with his thumb and finger. About this big.
Did it have a many-headed animal on it?
Yes, and he smiled. See, you do remember.
I shook my head. No, I dont, but I saw the mark on Crispins arm where it branded him. He said I jerked off my own cross and threw it away. He also said I did the same to my charm. I didnt remember the charm. I didnt remember it when I saw the shape of it burned into his arm. I still dont, Richard. I just remember the shape in his arm, thats it.
He looked way too serious again. You need to get in the shower, but theres more news you cant share with the weretigers.
Just tell me.
Marmee Noir damaged your connection to Jean-Claude.
Damaged it how?
Were not sure, but she cut his ability to sense you. Cut it so hard thaTHE thought you were dead, buTHE wasnt hurt, and I wasnt hurt. That was the only way we knew that it wasnt injury or death. Its like she just put a wall between you and him.
I swallowed hard again. Did she mark me? Did she give me her vampire marks in place of his?
She would have to drink your blood, and you hers, to do all four marks.
Its the Mother of All Vampires, Richard. She was the first vampire. She can do all sorts of things that the rest cant. I hugged myself tight, and didnt know what to do.
We dont think she did that. We think that even she needs to exchange real blood with you for the third and fourth marks.
But not for the first two, I said, and stared up at him.
His eyes were so sad. No, not for the first two.
So youre saying that she has given me her version of the first two marks.
Maybe? Doesnt Jean-Claude know?
Shes been asleep for a thousand years, Anita. He wasnt alive the last time she was mobile. We cant talk to most of the vampires who remember her awake without giving away whats happening. We cant risk them knowing.
You risked a lot coming here, Richard. You could get outed with this much media.
It had to be an animal she cant control. For whatever reason, she only does felines. Wolf is the only animal you have inside you that isnt a cat. He said the next in a rush. Jean-Claude thinks it might be a good idea if you carried some other noncat lycanthropy strains. He thinks that might make it harder for her to control you.
He thinks I should let some other shapeshifters cut me up?
If it would keep her out of your head and body, would it be so bad?
I thought about that, then had to shake my head. No, no, its not worse than her.
Jean-Claude is talking to the wererats and werehyenas about the possibility.
Id rather not get cut up again until I heal.
We need you safe from her, Anita.
He was right. He was so right. Okay, Ill think about it, but right now find the charm, and I need a new chain for my cross.
He reached behind his neck and lifted out a gold chain. He lifted a small gold cross out of his shirt. Id bought it for him for one of our first Christmases as a couple. The cross was a little oddly shaped, from where it had once melted into my hand. Marmee Noir had been to blame for that, too. I would bear the scar in the palm of my hand for the rest of my life.
Lift your hair, he said, softly. I did, but had to wince; something hurt across my shoulders. He fastened it around my neck.
He touched it where it lay against the bare triangle of my skin in the borrowed suit jacket. There, youre safe.
I looked at him. You might want to find the charm, too.
Ill do that.
He helped me, carefully, to my feet. We want to fly you home, but the other tiger queens cant seem to agree whether your fleeing and not being here when the tigers arrive is a greater insult to them. You made the call; you need to be where they can find you.
Find me, what does that mean?
It means what it means, Anita.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, but that was a mistake because even standing this close to Richard I couldnt smell his skin. All I could smell was strangers, and mixed in with that was Jason. I knew the scent of his skin, but it wasnt enough. I smelled tigers.
I licked dry lips, eyes still closed. Find the charm, Richard, please. I need to get clean now.
He kissed my hand again, and let me go. I opened my eyes to him walking to the door, then out. Something about watching him leave made the tears start again, but at least they were quieter.