Home > Crimson Death

Crimson Death(Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter #25)(17) by Laurell Kaye Hamilton

17
 
NICKY WENT AHEAD so he wouldn’t keep Jake waiting, but he agreed to wait for us to get there before the actual practice began, if we hurried. Nathaniel and I changed into clothes that we could wear on the practice mat. The braid that he’d done to help me cope with my hair’s lack of product, and fuzziness, was perfect for working out. Magda was at the gym with her blond hair tied back in a tight ponytail; she was wearing a sports bra and a pair of jogging shorts that would have made Nathaniel happy, which meant that she was wearing very little. I admit to being a little distracted by the way her breasts mounded at the edges of the sports bra, and the way the tiny shorts fit as she stretched over the long legs that made up most of her five-ten height. I don’t think I’d ever been so distracted by a woman in the gym, but then I’d never been lovers with one who worked out like I did. Something about all that tall Valkyrie genetics made her muscle up even better than I did, but you’d never mistake her for a man as she stretched out over first one long leg and then the other. In the right clothes she could dress up and pass for a man, but the clothes that would have allowed that needed layers to hide the curves. Without makeup her face could be stark, her gray-blue eyes cold, and that was enough to make some people think masculine for a woman, especially a tall woman, but those were people who looked on the surface of things, and that wasn’t how I saw most people, and it certainly wasn’t how I saw Magda anymore.
 
Cynric was beside her stretching out. His forehead touched his knee, all that long torso bending over the even longer legs. He was six-three now; when I met him he’d been ten inches shorter, but then he’d been sixteen and now he was nineteen. His hair looked black in the gym lights, but in brighter light, it was shades of dark blue from navy to cobalt. He got people asking him where he’d gotten such an amazing dye job, but it was his natural color. It was back in a tight ponytail for the workout; he still hadn’t figured out how to braid his own hair because it, like the rest of him, had been shorter once. Usually one of us braided it for him, but this morning he’d woken up on his own in his bedroom down the hallway from ours.
 
His ass looked as nice in his little shorts as Magda’s did, but he’d added a pair of compression shorts and a loose-fitting tank top to cover most of his chest, so only the muscled arms and shoulders gave a hint of how nice the rest of the view would be.
 
There were only a few other people stretching out for the workout. The early-morning Saturday class was just whoever showed up and wanted to work on things. It meant that you’d have people working hand-to-hands or weapons drill; it all depended on what they thought they needed to work on most, or what they could get someone to help them work on. But today there were enough people for a full class.
 
Nathaniel and I joined the stretching group. If there’d been room we’d have gone to Magda and Cynric, and used the preparation before class to ask her the preliminary questions about Ireland, but there wasn’t room without making people move, and that just seemed rude. I tried not to pull the boss card more than I had to, and I could move us up beside Magda and Cynric when we all lined the edges for drill practice. It wasn’t worth making a half-dozen guards stop stretching and move out of our way to do it minutes earlier.
 
Nathaniel didn’t like fight practice of any kind, but he’d started coming at least once a week after I insisted. I insisted after he’d ended up having to wrestle a bomber who had planned to kill him, me, and several others we loved. I didn’t want him to just rely on his otherworldly speed, strength, and dexterity. I wanted him to have actual fighting skills if he ever needed them again. Wisely, he hadn’t argued, just found time in his schedule to do it. He wasn’t great at it. It was one of the very few physical activities that he wasn’t a natural at. Claudia, who taught the main hand-to-hand class and made Magda and most of the men look tiny, said it wasn’t natural skill that Nathaniel lacked; it was the will to win. He just didn’t like being that forceful in practice, and nothing she’d been able to figure out seemed to get him out of his own way. He practiced and he improved, but he didn’t come to win.
 
Cynric—Sin—wanted to win, but he was usually up against one of the professional guards and that meant he wasn’t going to win, no matter how hard he tried, but he kept trying, and in the end, that’s what counts. I didn’t win much either. The fact that I won occasionally still bothered some of the guards, especially if I was winning against someone who was more than a foot taller than me and outweighed me by a hundred pounds of muscle. Magda wasn’t one of the people I won against, but a slender figure only a few inches taller than me was stretching out on the mat, too; she was a different story. Pierette looked almost delicate as she stretched out in the nearly knee-length compression shorts and short-sleeved T-shirt. She never showed much skin in the gym, or elsewhere. She was also one of the few of the Harlequin who used the name of her alter ego that used to come with a mask and an outfit that hid everything. The idea behind the Harlequin had been that they were sexless, formless almost, and their outfits had reflected that from capes to clothing that wrapped around, or slid into, the next piece, sleeve into glove, pants into boot, scarf or balaclava on the face so the mask that hid the middle part, covered the last bit of them. Only their eyes had shone out and some of the Harlequin had gone modern and put mesh or reflective surfaces in the eyeholes so that even the color of their eyes had been a mystery. Most of them, including Magda, had gone back to the names they’d had centuries before, their birth names, or nicknames, but Pierette was now simply Pierette, in workout clothes or her assassination getup. She hadn’t been the first Pierette among the Harlequin; she had only replaced one who had died. The names didn’t change, only the people who bore them.
 
Her dark hair was cut very short and the strands clung to her triangular face in an almost delicate lace. I was never sure how she got her hair to do something so perfect, and since her hair was baby fine and utterly straight, whatever worked on hers wouldn’t work on mine anyway. The fact that she’d styled her hair and put on makeup before coming to fight practice puzzled me, but maybe it made her feel better.
 
Sin had spotted us and wasted a very nice smile our way. He’d been so unfinished when I met him, and now he was all handsome and sexy. I still hadn’t made the transition to what box he was in in my head, or at least not a graceful one. He put a little more heat into the smile he directed at me, as he moved his clasped hands behind his back in a shoulder stretch that didn’t actually go as far as mine did. I bowed my head so he couldn’t see the blush that crawled up my face at that last smile from him. He was over a decade younger than me, but that didn’t mean he was more flexible. He was more flexible than he’d be when he was older unless he kept working at it, but even being a weretiger didn’t make him more flexible than I was, let alone Nathaniel. If he wasn’t careful he’d turn into one of those big men who lose flexibility as they gain muscle strength. At nineteen it wasn’t an issue, but in five years it could be, depending on the training he did. He’d been a track star and quarterback in high school, but with college coming up he’d had to choose between his sports. Football was winning out, because it opened up more chances for scholarships and professional money later. He’d been offered scholarships for track, but not as many and nothing as close to home as football had offered. I thought he’d go off to college somewhere and this heat between us might cool. Maybe he’d find a nice girl his own age, but he’d made it clear that wasn’t part of his plans. The fact that I thought he didn’t have a big enough piece of my life to make him happy was my issue, not his, or so Sin had told me recently.
 
Nicky and Jake walked out of the side room that was both a snack room and a place for the instructors to plan. They were almost the same height, just under six feet. Jake looked shorter, because he usually rounded his shoulders and just held himself in such a way that he tried not to stand out. His hair was brown, neither too dark nor too light, not too straight, but not exactly curly, cut short so that it was in a hairstyle that had been in style for decades and would probably still be in style decades from now. His eyes were a brown that was, again, not too dark, not too light, just medium brown. Even his skin tone was medium; in fact everything about Jake was medium. He was one of the Harlequin who most made me remember they were the ultimate spies, as well as the ultimate assassins. Jake didn’t even look all that perfectly Caucasian. We had Hispanic guards from some of the South American countries and parts of Spain who were as pale as he was, and who probably wouldn’t tan any darker. He was the man from nowhere and most-wheres. Jake always made me think he was what James Bond was supposed to be, a man who could walk into most places and go unnoticed, while his stalking horse asked for his martini to be shaken and not stirred.
 
If Jake was the antithesis of Bond, James Bond, Nicky looked like he would have made a great Bond villain with all that muscle on display and the skull eye patch. It was a touch of theatricality that seemed very much like a movie bad guy. I guess if you’re as muscled as Nicky you can’t exactly hide that you’re a bad-ass, so why try? He could have calmer energy more like Jake was giving off in nearly peaceful waves. In fact, Nicky could be nearly neutral, like a good bodyguard that could sink into the background until they were needed, but he wasn’t trying to hide today. He radiated attitude that said clearly, he was the biggest, baddest thing in the room, period, end of story. It was the same kind of posturing that dogs will do either as a warning to the other dog or as a way to start the fight. He’d had that attitude when I first met him; it hadn’t impressed me then, and it didn’t really impress me now, but then I knew he was out of my weight class. The display wasn’t for me, or any woman in the room. It was aimed at the other men. If you think that’s sexist, you’re right, but it’s still the truth. Men do not see women as physical competition, with rare exceptions. Magda was one exception, but she was the only one in the room; even Pierette, who was fast enough to hit almost anyone twice before they could touch her once, wouldn’t make Nicky posture like this. It was almost as if something about teaching with Jake had freed my big werelion to be as masculine as he wanted to be with no apologies. It made me wonder just how much my attitude dampened down this part of him.
 
We all moved our stretching to the edges of the mat, so that Jake and Nicky had the center of the mat. Nathaniel and I moved to Magda and Sin, and he happily helped us make sure we were all sitting together. Some of the other people in the room had just stopped stretching to watch our two instructors. Jake smiled out at everyone.
 
“We’re going to spar today.”
 
“I hate sparring,” Nathaniel whispered.
 
I glanced at his suddenly unhappy face. His lack of aggression in practice meant that he was really bad at sparring.
 
“I love sparring,” Sin said.
 
There were a few others who made noises against it like Nathaniel, but not many. Sparring was a safe-ish way to learn how to fight in the real world, or to find what you needed to work on the most. Almost everyone in the room made their living from some form of violence, which meant we all needed to be better at it, or at least better than whoever was trying to hurt us. Even Sin used aggression to help him focus and be better on the football field; only Nathaniel had a job that fight practice probably wouldn’t help him be better at. If he had needed to be in better shape for taking his clothes off onstage, then MMA would have been a great workout for him, but Nathaniel was in fabulous shape already.
 
Magda wasn’t one of the people who groaned. She was like me; we came to the gym to work out, not whine. Besides, we were women, and there’s only one way to be successful in martial arts, or combatives, and that’s to be as tough as the men, or tougher. Is it fair? No. Is it still true? Yep.
 
“You are improving on sparring, but your groundwork needs more attention,” Magda said.
 
“And if someone throws me, then I’ll get to work on my grappling and groundwork,” Sin said; he wanted to get better at anything he tried to do physically.
 
Nathaniel sighed, heavily. This was the first physical thing where he whined and complained. He really did hate it, but my life was too dangerous to have someone in it who couldn’t do the minimum in self-defense.
 
Jake motioned Scaramouche to come join them in the center of the mat. Scaramouche stood up, his long black hair in a tight bun at the nape of his neck. He always looked tall, and in regular clothes he looked slender, almost delicate, and always elegant like he was some maharaja’s son gone off to the West to dress in designer clothes and forget everything he owed his family in India. Shirtless, wearing nothing except workout shorts with all that medium-brown skin showing, he looked lean, muscled, and much more warrior than spoiled prince. He walked onto the practice mat like he had springs in his feet and legs. He still looked delicate compared to Nicky, but he also looked fast, strong, and was giving off his own version of come and get some energy. When he bowed to Jake, muscles played in his back and across his shoulders. He didn’t have Nicky’s bulk, but it would be a mistake to think he was weak.
 
Jake bowed back as a sign of respect, but he was careful to keep his gaze on the other man. I knew Scaramouche had done the same thing when he bowed without having seen his face. It didn’t take long for you to learn that taking your eyes off any potential opponent on the practice mat, at the dojo, was a mistake.
 
Nicky and Scaramouche put on pads, shin guards, and fight gloves. The gloves were padded on the front of the hand, but with bare fingers so the men could grab and hold on, but not tear their hands up as badly as they would without protection. They bowed to each other and this time I could watch them watching each other.
 
I felt Nathaniel tense beside me. He leaned in just enough for his bare shoulder to touch my arm. Now that he wasn’t having to worry about sparring himself, he was worried about Nicky. I was a little surprised that Jake had let his teaching assistant spar with anyone rather than just instruct. That must have meant something was up. Maybe there’d been more than one reason for Jake to tag Nicky to help him today.
 
I looked around and realized that there were more Harlequin here than normal, and most of them were ones like Scaramouche and Pierette, who had made it known that they weren’t entirely content here in St. Louis. Hortensio, the animal half to his vampire master, Magnifico, was sitting near Pierette, much as we’d moved closer to Magda and Sin. Some of the Harlequin had been given their names by their dead queen, but others had chosen their names with permission of their queen. Magnifico was one of those, so I guess if that’s the name you choose, your ego is going to be large enough that you are going to be a problem. Hortensio reflected his master’s attitudes in almost every way, which made him seriously irritating without his master’s suave and debonair manners to offset it. Funny how most of the Harlequin who had kept the names of their masked alter egos, the names they killed under, were all pains in our asses.
 
Nicky and Scaramouche both dropped into a fighting stance, but it wasn’t the same one. I knew Nicky didn’t always telegraph his fighting style like that, but the two men had fought before and had watched each other spar with other guards. They had no deep, dark fighting secrets from each other. It was a plus to know your fellow soldiers’ strengths and weaknesses, but it was anything but if you actually had to fight against them and not with them. Nicky knew that, so he wasn’t trying to be coy.
 
Nicky feinted a kick at Scaramouche’s leg, and the wererat returned the favor, but neither of them put much power behind it. The wererat feinted a punch at Nicky’s face. He bobbed to the side, letting it go past, and then Scaramouche moved in a blur of speed with his other hand. Nicky’s arm was just in front of his face, blocking the other man’s fist. I hadn’t even seen him move to block; it was like magic. Scaramouche tried to follow with a punch to Nicky’s ribs, but the werelion blocked with his elbow and moved just enough, so that missed, too.
 
Scaramouche gave himself some distance from the other man, hands still raised up protecting his face, elbows tight in over his ribs. “You should not be that much faster than I am, lion.”
 
“I’m Rex of our pride, rat.”
 
“It doesn’t matter. You are not Harlequin. You should not be faster than me.”
 
Nicky faced him with his own arms up, elbows tucked tight against the side of his body; he was on the balls of his feet, almost bouncing in place. Someone his size shouldn’t have bounced like that either; he’d always been more agile than he looked, but I agreed with Scaramouche on the new speed. I’d never seen Nicky move like that.
 
“Don’t you mean that you shouldn’t be this slow?” Nicky said; his voice already held an edge of growling to it.
 
“Yes, that is exactly what I mean, lion. Only the Harlequin are so swift that another wereanimal cannot see them move.” Scaramouche kicked at him, but Nicky moved out of the way of it, no need to block. Scaramouche moved in suddenly with a rain of blows and kicks that were just a blur of motion. I couldn’t follow it all, but it was as if Nicky’s hands, arms, and legs were just there, where they needed to be. Scaramouche was a dark blur, but Nicky was so fast my eyes couldn’t even see the blur of his motion. The last time I’d seen anyone that fast, it had been some of the Harlequin before we killed their dark queen. All but one of those particular Harlequin had died rather horrible deaths, so the preternatural wonder speed hadn’t helped them all that much, but I’d never seen one of our people be this fast.
 
Frustration in a fight can lead to four things: You give up, you fight harder, you fight worse, or you cheat. Scaramouche was Harlequin; they didn’t give up. He fought harder, but when that didn’t get him past Nicky’s guard, his arm swung a little too wide. Nicky landed a fist on the exposed ribs.
 
I felt the warm rush of power, and for the first time, it was my inner rat that responded to the energy as Scaramouche lashed out. Nicky rocked back and his cheek was bleeding, but Scaramouche hadn’t hit him. I’d have seen that.
 
Jake was between them, moving so fast, it was as if he’d just appeared to separate them.
 
“No claws—you know that, Scaramouche.”
 
I saw the claws curling from the fingers of his gloves now; both hands had sprouted claws, which meant he was powerful enough to shift just that much and no more. Micah could do it, but he was Nimir-Raj; Nicky couldn’t do it, and he was Rex. Nicky touched fingertips to the small cuts on his face. He’d kept the claws from doing much more than touching his skin.
 
Jake started to stop the fight, but Nicky said, “Let’s do this.”
 
“No claws, no shifting,” Jake said.
 
“Only because the Rex is not powerful enough to do a partial shift.”
 
“And you aren’t good enough to beat me without shifting,” Nicky said.
 
Scaramouche made a low evil sound that I think was a rat equivalent of a growl, because again a small, dark-furred shape inside me reacted to his beast. Rafael had shared his beast on purpose with me, but it was still new.
 
“I can defeat you without changing form.”
 
“Prove it,” Nicky said.
 
Jake made the wererat show his hands, making sure his fingers were just human digits again.
 
“Are you certain you both want to do this?” Jake asked.
 
“Oh yeah,” Nicky said.
 
“Very much so,” Scaramouche said.
 
“If you bring out your beast again, I will finish the fight in Nicky’s place. Is that clear, Scaramouche?”
 
The wererat’s eyes widened a little, but he bounced in place to loosen his body up and said, “I will defeat the lion fairly.”
 
“Scaramouche,” Pierette said, but he ignored her as if she had not spoken.
 
Nicky did his own bounce. Jake stepped back and said, “Fight.”
 
They took Jake at his word; even blocking the punches and kicks had force to it. They both made harsh involuntary noises, but there was none of the yelling that they teach you in some martial arts classes. Yelling when you didn’t have to was for show. The two men weren’t putting on a display. This was a fight, a real fight. Only their combined skill kept it from being even more violent because neither was able to get through the other’s guard. They were both so fast, I couldn’t follow all of it.
 
Nicky’s fist came through all Scaramouche’s punches and caught him in the mouth. It staggered the wererat, and I saw blood. Nicky followed it up with a hook to the ribs that he blocked, but Nicky landed a knee to the other man’s thigh. Scaramouche covered up as much of himself as he could as Nicky blew into him, raining punches, kicks, and elbows down on him.
 
People were looking at Jake to step in and call it, but he didn’t.
 
Scaramouche came up under everything that Nicky was throwing at him and hit him with an uppercut right on the chin. He’d taken the damage until Nicky got carried away and gave an opening, and then he’d gone for it. It staggered Nicky and rang his bell hard. If it had been a real UFC fight they might have called a knockout, because his one blue eye was not focusing. He was still standing.
 
Scaramouche came up and around with a roundhouse kick aimed at the side of Nicky’s head. Nathaniel’s hand squeezed mine tight. Sin gasped. Nicky’s hand was there just in time to keep the kick from connecting and to grab the leg and get a joint lock on the knee. Scaramouche dropped to the ground trying to unbalance Nicky, but the werelion had more mass and stayed firm. Scaramouche ended up with his hands on the mat as he swung his other long leg up in a kick for Nicky’s face. Nicky didn’t try to block it; he finished the joint lock. I heard the wet, meaty pop. Scaramouche screamed, even as his kick bloodied Nicky’s mouth.
 
Jake stepped in then and stopped the fight. He helped Nicky lay Scaramouche on the mat. His leg was bent in a way that legs aren’t meant to bend. Scaramouche was trying not to writhe in agony. He looked green with pain and was probably trying not to throw up.
 
Pierette knelt beside him. Hortensio stood glaring at Jake and Nicky. “What was that supposed to be?”
 
“That was not sparring,” Pierette said from where she knelt.
 
“No, it was a lesson,” Jake said, and his voice was as cold and threatening as I’d ever heard it.
 
“A lesson about what?” she demanded, holding Scaramouche’s hand.
 
“That the Harlequin must learn to respect our new comrades in arms,” he said.
 
Scaramouche’s voice was strained with pain. “They have not spent centuries earning our respect.”
 
Nicky took out his bloody mouth guard and said, “I’m fine with earning your respect by beating the shit out of you.”
 
“You are not king over me, lion,” he said between gritted teeth.
 
I’d walked out on the mat with Nathaniel shadowing me, though I’d made him drop my hand. Tempers were high, and I wanted both my hands free just in case. Magda and Sin were at my back. I wasn’t sure how much help Sin would be, but the lioness at my back would make them think twice before doing something stupid in our direction. I’d have liked to think that I’d give them pause, but I knew better. Most of them considered me a poor substitute for their lost queen; no matter what my title was, I was just not good enough for some of the Harlequin.
 
“How about me? I’m supposed to be your queen,” I said.
 
“You are Jean-Claude’s fiancée, but you are not a vampire. How can you rule us as one?”
 
“Anita is Nimir-Ra, to the wereleopards, too,” Nathaniel said. “She is Queen to Micah’s Nimir-Raj.”
 
“She does not shift into leopard form; I will not acknowledge a Nimir-Ra who is trapped in human form,” Pierette said.
 
“She may not change shape, but she is still a necromancer and our new dark queen,” Jake said.
 
“No. No, she is not. She is not our dark mistress. It was luck that allowed her to drink down the power that was ours, and now she has given it to him.” She pointed a dramatic finger at Nicky.
 
“Not just him,” Magda said, in a low voice.
 
“No, all the Harlequin that sleep with you and Jean-Claude have kept their powers, or regained them,” Pierette said.
 
Hortensio made a sound that was half laugh and half snarl. “Scaramouche wanted to be your moitié bête, your rat to call, and your lover. He said he would show you what a true moitié bête can do for a queen. That boast is why your Bride crippled him.”
 
I glanced from Nicky to Jake. Nicky said, “Scaramouche bloodied me first. I just ended it.” I looked at Nicky for a minute. “Do you want him to think he can win you like a prize?”
 
I turned back to Scaramouche. “I’m sorry you’re hurt, but even if you managed to take the crown from Rafael, your rat king, I would not make you my beast half, or my lover. If what you want is to be closer to Jean-Claude’s throne and me, then hurting my lovers gains you nothing.”
 
Green with pain, his leg bent damn near backward, he glared up at me from his dark brown eyes with more anger than pain, and more arrogance than I’d have been able to manage if it had been me. “I would make a better king for the rats, and do not turn down what you have not tasted, for I know that what I would serve you would be far sweeter than anything you have had before.”
 
“Wow,” Sin said, “with four of us standing right here and you’re going to insult all of us.”
 
“I know my worth,” Scaramouche said.
 
Hortensio said to Sin, “You are a boy. He”—motioning at Nathaniel—“is a catamount more skilled with men than women. The Rex is as brutal in bed as he is in the ring. No woman wants that kind of brutality.”
 
Nathaniel, Sin, and Nicky all laughed at the same time. I said, “You’ve got to know your audience, and you obviously don’t.”
 
“What about me?” Magda asked.
 
“You are a woman,” Hortensio said. “You are not competition in this arena.”
 
I felt the warm rush of energy from her before the low, soft growl trickled from between her human lips. “You have always been a fool.”
 
Hortensio took a step toward her, which put him closer to me, but he was looking over my head at Magda. “Back up,” I said. He ignored me. I hit him with a short jab in the solar plexus. He’d been totally unprepared, so it took all the wind out of him and doubled him over. I grabbed the back of his head and pulled it down as I drove my knee up as fast and hard and as many times as I could. I’d caught him completely by surprise, so he never even tried to fight back. When I saw blood pouring over my leg and onto the mat, I shoved him away from me and he crumpled to his side on the floor. He didn’t move. His lower face was a mass of blood so thick that I wasn’t even sure how much damage I’d done. I knew his nose was broken. His eyes were open, but like after the punch that had staggered Nicky, they weren’t focusing.
 
Pierette looked pale and a little less sure of herself. Scaramouche still looked angry and arrogant, in pain and nauseous, but there was something new in his dark eyes. I think it was uncertainty. He’d made his plans on the idea that I wouldn’t be able to fight back. I think he was reevaluating that. Good.
 
“I am your queen, Hortensio; that means when I say back up, you back the fuck up!”
 
“I don’t think he can hear you,” Sin said.
 
“Then Pierette and Scaramouche can repeat it to him later, right?” I said, looking at Pierette mostly.
 
She let go of Scaramouche’s hand and knelt in front of me, putting her head to the floor in front of my feet; it was about as low a bow as she could make. Her hands were politely back near her shoulders so that her head was the only thing near my feet. It was the real deal, but then she’d had centuries to practice bowing in all sorts of ways.
 
“She’ll stay like that until you tell her to rise,” Jake said.
 
“That sort of works for me right now,” I said.
 
Jake made a little movement with his mouth like I’d surprised him but pleased him at the same time. “You are the queen.”
 
“That’s right, I am, and the next time one of you forgets that, it won’t be my knee that I use to bloody you. Is that clear, Scaramouche?”
 
“Are you saying you will kill us yourself?”
 
“No, that is not what she is saying,” Jake said, quickly.
 
“I don’t want to kill you, damn it. It’s a waste of centuries of talent and power, but if you force me to make the decision, I will.”
 
“I believe you,” Scaramouche said.
 
Pierette’s voice was muffled against the floor as she said, “Yes, my queen.”
 
“Get up, Pierette.”
 
She raised her head slowly, cautiously. “Do you wish me to stand, my queen?”
 
“Stay with Scaramouche, or stand. I don’t care; just don’t do anything stupid.”
 
“Yes, my queen.”
 
“You have tamed another leopard, Anita,” Scaramouche said.
 
“How about you, Hortensio? Are you still going to be a pain in my ass, or have I made myself clear?”
 
He had his hands pressed gingerly over his nose. It made his voice sound odd, but it was understandable as he said, “Very clear, my queen.”
 
I looked down. “And you, Scaramouche? Are you tamed?”
 
“I will never be tamed by anyone save my master.”
 
“Then are we clear?”
 
He wasted a serious hate-filled look at Nicky, then looked back at me. “You and your Bride have been most clear.”
 
“Great, then we won’t have any more problems between us.”
 
“We will not disrespect you, but we have a problem, our queen.”
 
“And what would that be?” I asked.
 
“That the people you are having sex with have acquired our old speed and skills, or regained them in the case of Magda and other Harlequin in your bed, while those of us not in your graces continue to lose both skills and power.”
 
I opened my mouth, closed it, and looked at Jake. “Is he right?”
 
Jake sighed, shrugged, and then said, “It is not a hundred percent certain, but as a hypothesis it has unfortunate merit.”
 
“Well, fuck,” I said.
 
“Not enough,” Scaramouche said.
 
“We can’t fuck everyone.”
 
“If I cannot regain my former glory with a plan worthy of a warrior and a king, then I would agree to whatever arrangement Jean-Claude wishes.”
 
I stared at the wererat. “Do you understand what you’re saying?”
 
“Or is the pain speaking for you?” Jake added.
 
“I know what I am saying, and for the return of my power, I would be whatever Jean-Claude needed me to be,” Scaramouche said.
 
Pierette just shook her head and looked scared. She wasn’t willing to be whatever was needed, and I didn’t blame her. That was too much carte blanche to give anyone.
 
“I will not be Jean-Claude’s catamite,” Hortensio said; his voice sounded worse as his nose continued to swell. He coughed and started to choke, having to struggle to sit up enough to throw up blood on the mat, which made his face hurt so that he moaned with the pain.
 
“We need to get them to medical,” Jake said.
 
“Yeah,” Nicky said, “they’re bleeding all over the mat.”
 
I looked to see if he was making a joke. His mouth was still bleeding enough that he was having to dab at it with the back of his hand. He’d taken off his gloves sometime during all of this. If he was being sarcastic his face didn’t show it. The marks on his cheek weren’t nearly as bad as his mouth.
 
“Or everybody could shapeshift and heal themselves,” I said.
 
“They’ll get goopy stuff all over the mats,” Sin said. “Claudia has told us we aren’t allowed to shift in the gymnasium.”
 
“Fine. The hallway will work.”
 
“I dare not, my queen,” Scaramouche said.
 
“It’s a dislocated knee. Shifting should heal it.”
 
“Yes, but in my beast form I would need food to regain the energy I expended in the rapid healing.”
 
“Yeah, so you walk down to the area where the live food is kept.”
 
“No, my queen. If I shifted form, I could not guarantee that I would not see you and others as food for my beast.”
 
“Are you saying that you wouldn’t have enough control of your animal form to keep from attacking us?” I asked.
 
“I am ashamed to admit it, but it is true.”
 
“You are the Harlequin, the ultimate spies and assassins. That means you have ultimate control over yourself, or that’s what I thought it meant.”
 
“Once that was exactly what it meant, but when our powers began to fade, so did our control of our inner demons.”
 
I looked from him to the other two troublemakers. Pierette bowed her head and wouldn’t meet my gaze. Hortensio was rolling around in fresh pain; apparently he’d squeezed his nose too hard.
 
“Are you saying that none of you can control your beast half?”
 
“When we first turn, we must eat flesh. Once we have eaten, we come back to ourselves and can control the beast, but until that first feeding we are mindless and will attack as if we are new lycanthropes who have not gained control of ourselves yet.”
 
I looked at Jake and Magda. “Is this true of all of you?”
 
“I have not diminished in my abilities,” she said.
 
“Because you are sleeping with them,” Pierette said, her voice bitter. She stared down at the floor as soon as she said it, as if afraid of her own reaction.
 
Jake’s face was as blank and unreadable as he could make it. “I have retained my abilities as well, and I am not sleeping with our new leaders. Kaazim is also fine and not their lover.”
 
“Wait, Jake, Magda. Are you saying that neither of you knew about this either?” I asked.
 
“I did not know,” he said.
 
Magda just shook her head.
 
“You guys are supposed to report to Jake,” I said, looking down at the others.
 
“He is one of the ones who betrayed our Dark Mother,” Scaramouche said.
 
Hortensio found his voice again, though it was thick and harder to understand as his nose continued to swell. “He helped hide the golden tigers from us. If they had been killed as the Mother of All Darkness commanded, then you would never have been able to rise to power. You had to possess the power of the Father of Tigers and become the new Father of Dawn, and for that you needed the gold cats.”
 
Scaramouche said, “Jake and Kaazim were both part of the traitors who knew the gold tigers had not been slaughtered, and now that they have won they still have their powers, while those of us who were ignorant of their plot do not.”
 
“So maybe it’s more than just sex with Jean-Claude and the rest of us,” I said.
 
“Perhaps,” he said, but not like he believed it, or maybe he didn’t want to believe it, because if sex wouldn’t fix the problem, then they were screwed in more ways than one.
 
“Does Micah know about this?”
 
Scaramouche and Pierette shook their heads. “We have told no one of our shame,” he said.
 
“If we had decided to send you out on a mission like Kaazim just came back from, would you have told anyone then?” Nicky asked.
 
“We don’t owe you an answer, Bride,” Hortensio said.
 
“Then pretend I asked it, because it’s a good question and I want the answer.”
 
“None of the leaders here trust us enough to send us out,” he said.
 
“We are trapped here in this small city when we had the world to travel for centuries,” Pierette said, and she looked—grief-stricken was the only word. I had for the sudden haggard look on her eternally youthful face.
 
“I guess it is a change,” I said.
 
“If they cannot shapeshift safely, then we need to get them to the infirmary,” Magda said. If she felt pity for her fellow warriors’ plight, it didn’t show.
 
“I would request a stretcher, for I cannot walk,” Scaramouche said.
 
“What have you done to deserve a stretcher?” Nicky asked.
 
“Nothing, but I would humbly ask of my queen and her princes that they be magnanimous and show mercy.”
 
“I’m not big on mercy,” Nicky said.
 
“Nor I, especially for warriors who keep forgetting about me,” Magda said.
 
Scaramouche swallowed hard enough that I heard it, and he said, “My queen, her princes, and her princess, I beg for mercy and to be allowed a stretcher.”
 
I wasn’t sure Magda was my princess, but I let it go. We were winning; never quibble when you’re winning. We let him have a stretcher. What the hell? We’d made our point.