Chapter 53

THE ROOM WAS bare stone walls. There was no pretense of comfort. It was the vampire's version of prison, and it looked like one. There were half a dozen coffins sitting on bare, raised platforms with silver chains around them, waiting to be raised and locked in place with crosses. The only crosses in the room were on the two closed coffins. Two? Two chained coffins. Damian was in one. Who the hell was in the other?

"Which one is your boy?" Bobby Lee asked.

I shook my head. "Don't know."

"I thought you were supposed to be this boy's master."

"That's the theory."

"Then shouldn't you be able to tell which box is which?"

I glanced at him, gave a small nod. "Point." I looked back at the door but it was still empty, just us. I didn't know where everyone had gone to, and I was so trying not to speculate on what might have distracted Micah and Jean-Claude.

I tried to concentrate on who was in the coffins, but I couldn't. Once upon a time I could sense Damian even before he woke in his coffin, but I got nothing from either coffin, except that there were vampires in them. I went to the closest coffin. The wood was pale and smooth. Not the most expensive, but not cheap either, heavy, well made. I passed my hands across the smooth wood, fingers caressing the coolness of the chains. Something banged against the lid of the coffin. I jumped.

Bobby Lee laughed.

I frowned at him, then turned back to the coffin, but I wasn't touching it anymore. I knew it wasn't possible with a blessed cross attached to the lid, but I'd had this sudden image of an arm tearing through the wood and grabbing me. Damian was supposed to be homicidally crazy. Better cautious than dead.

I put my hands just above the coffin, not quite touching. I drew my necromancy, like drawing a breath, and breathed it out through my body, not exactly through my hands, but everywhere. The necromancy was part of what I was, not just who I was. I started to push my power into the coffin, but it was pulled in, like water pouring into a hole. The water falls down because gravity pulls it down, and there is no stopping it; it's natural, automatic. My necromancy spilled into that coffin, and into Damian. I felt him lying in the dark, his body pressed against the thin satin. I saw his eyes stare up into mine, felt something flare inside him, something that recognized my power, but I couldn't feel him. There was no personality there, no Damian. I knew it was him, but there was no thought in him, nothing but that tiny spark of recognition, and barely that. I tried to reconcile the thing I felt to what I knew Damian had been, and it was like he had become something else. I said a quick prayer, and I didn't even feel odd praying to God about a vampire. I'd had to give up my narrow ideas of God a long time ago, or give up church and everything I held dear about my religion. The deal was, if God was okay with what I was doing, then I had to be, too.

"Where is everybody?" I asked it aloud, so Bobby Lee answered.

"I don't know, but if you come with me, we'll go look."

I shook my head staring at the other coffin. Who was in there locked in the dark? I had to know, and if I could, I'd get them out. I didn't approve of torture, and being locked in a coffin where you would never starve to death, but always go hungry, never die of thirst, but burn with the need for liquid, be trapped in a space so small you couldn't even turn onto your side, were all good definitions of torture in my book. I liked most of Jean-Claude's vamps, and I wouldn't leave them like this, not if I could persuade him that they'd been punished enough. I was pretty stubborn about things like that, and Jean-Claude was wanting to please me right now; I could probably get whoever it was out. I'd do my best. But who was it? Admittedly, there were vampires that I'd make more of an effort to save, just like people.

I went to stand beside the other coffin and pushed my magic into it. I had to push this time; it wasn't like Damian. Whatever was in this box didn't welcome me in. It wasn't anyone I had a connection with. I felt something, and I knew it was a kind of undead, but it didn't feel like a vampire. It felt emptier than that. It was fully dark outside; there should have been movement, life, of a sort, but there was nothing. I pushed farther into the thing, and found the faintest answering pulse. It was as if whatever was in there was a lot more dead than alive, yet not truly dead.

A sound turned me towards the door. Jean-Claude glided into the room, his robe tied tight now, like a signal that he was ready to get down to business He was alone.

"Where's Micah?" I asked.

"Jason has taken him to get some clothing. They should be able to find something that will fit him."

"Who is in this coffin?" I'd almost said, what, but I was betting it was a vampire, just not like one I'd ever sensed before.

His face was already careful, neutral. "I would think, ma petite, that you have enough to be concerned over with Damian?"

"You know and I know that I am not moving until I know who's in here."

He sighed. "Yes, I know." He actually looked down at the floor, as if he were tired, and because his face showed nothing, the gesture looked half-finished, like bad acting. But I knew that for him to be working so hard at keeping anything off his face, only to let his body betray him meant he was very unhappy. Which meant that I was really not going to like the answer.

"Who, Jean-Claude?"

"Gretchen," he said, finally meeting my eyes. His face told me nothing, the one word empty.

Once upon a time Gretchen had tried to kill me because she wanted Jean-Claude for herself. "When did she get back in town?"

"Back?" He gave it that little lilt that made it a question.

"Don't be coy, Jean-Claude. She came back to town still out for my blood, and you put her in here, so when?"

His face became like a sculpture, except with less movement in it. He was hiding as much of himself as he could, and the shields were like armor. "I say again, ma petite, she had gone nowhere."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

He looked at me with that perfect face, so unreadable. "It means that from the moment you watched me put her in the coffin in my office at Guilty Pleasures, she has always been here."

I blinked, frowned, opened my mouth, closed it, tried again, failed. I must have looked like a landed fish, because I couldn't think of a damn thing to say. He just stood there, not helping.

I found my voice, and it was breathy. "You're saying that Gretchen has been in a coffin for two, no three years?"

He just looked at me. He'd stopped breathing. There was no sense of movement to him at all, as if, if I looked away I'd never find him again; he'd be invisible.

"Answer me, damn it! Has she been in a coffin for three years?"

He gave the smallest of nods.

"Jesus, Jesus." I paced the room, because if I didn't do something physical, I was going to hit him or start screaming. I finally ended up standing in front of him, hands in fists at my sides. "You bastard." My voice was a hoarse whisper, squeezed out of my throat because to do anything else would have had me ranting at him.

"She tried to kill my human servant, who I also loved. Most masters would have simply killed her."

"That would have been better than this," I said, voice still a hissing whisper.

"I doubt Gretchen would agree."

"Let's open the coffin and see," I said.

He shook his head. "Not tonight, ma petite. I knew you would feel this way, and we can try and release her, though I have poor hope for it."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"She was not the most stable of women when she went in. This will not have strengthened her grasp of reality."

"How could you have done this to her?"

"I told you before, ma petite, she earned her punishment."

"Not three years," I said. My voice was beginning to sound normal again. I wasn't going to hit him, great.

"Three years for nearly killing you. I could leave her in for three more years, and it would not be punishment enough."

"I'm not going to argue whether the punishment was justified or excessive, or anything. All I can say is that I want her out of there. I won't let her stay in there another night. There's barely anything left now."

He glanced at the coffin. "You have not opened it, how do you know what is inside?"

"I wanted to know how Damian was. I used a little magic to explore what was inside both coffins."

"And what did you discover?" he asked.

"That my necromancy recognizes Damian. That Damian isn't there. It's like his personality is missing. Whatever made him, him, is missing."

Jean-Claude nodded. "With the vampires that are not master strength and never will be, it is often the Master of the City, or their creator, that enables them to exist as strong presences. Cut off from that, they often fade."

Fade, he called it, like he was talking about curtains that had been in sunlight too long, instead of a living being. Well, a sort-of-living being.

"Well, Gretchen is way past faded. There's almost nothing left. We leave her in even one more night and she may not be there."

"She cannot die."

"Maybe not, but the damage ..." I shook my head. "We have to get her out now, tonight, or we might as well put a bullet in her."

"Leave Damian in for one more night, and I will agree to release Gretchen."

"No," I said. "Damian is like one of those feral vamps. The longer he's like this, the greater the likelihood that he'll never be anything else."

"Do you really believe that one more night will damage him irreparably?" Jean-Claude asked.

"I don't know, but I know that if I wait until tomorrow night to get him out and the damage is permanent, I'll always wonder if that one extra night made the difference."

"Then we have a problem, ma petite. A hot bath is being run now in preparation for one released vampire. We only have one place suitable here at the Circus for such a recovery."

"Why a bath?" I asked.

"They must be brought back to life, to warmth. The process must be done carefully, or the risk is one of true death."

"Wait a minute. A vamp can be in the coffin locked away forever and never die, but getting them out can kill them? That doesn't make sense."

"They have adjusted to the coffin, ma petite. To bring them out after a length of time is a shock to their system. I have seen vampires die of it."

I knew he wouldn't lie; he was too unhappy about having to say it. "So we throw them both in the same tub, no big."

"But it is a big, ma petite. The attention and power needed to bring one back must not be divided between them. It will take all that I have to bring one at a time back. I cannot divide my efforts without risking them both."

"I know that you made Gretchen, but you didn't make Damian. His ties to you as Master of the City broke when he became mine, so you aren't his master in any way. I am."

"Yes," he said.

"Then isn't it my job to bring Damian back--my mystical connection with him, not yours?"

"If you were truly his master, another vampire, I would agree. But you are, for all your talents, still human. There are things you cannot do for him, and there are many things you will not know to do for him."

"Like what?"

He shook his head. "It is a complex process, requiring specialized skills."

"And you have those skills," I said.

"Do not sound so skeptical, ma petite. I was part of our mistress's emergency ... crew," he said. "She would punish others and we would be left to deal with the aftermath. It was often her way."

"We?" I asked.

"Asher and myself."

"So Asher knows how to do this," I said.

"Oui, but he is not Damian's master either."

"No, but I am. If Damian still has one, I'm it. So you take care of Gretchen, you loan me Asher, and he tells me what to do for Damian."

"After his little display in the other room, you would trust him?"

"I'd trust him with my life, and so would you."

"But not our hearts," Jean-Claude said.

"Why did it bother him so much to see you with Micah?" I asked. "He's seen almost as bad with Richard, and me."

"I believe that you as my human servant and Richard as my wolf to call were possessions, mine by right, and you were already in place when Asher arrived in St. Louis. Micah is not my animal to call. He has no ties directly to me. He is your Nimir-Raj, but nothing to me."

"And?" I asked.

"Asher was willing to share me with you and Richard because you were mine, but this Nimir-Raj is simply another man that has my favor when Asher does not."

"Micah doesn't have your favor, exactly, yet."

Jean-Claude gave a small smile. "True, but Asher does not see it that way."

"If it weren't for my ... social qualms would you be doing Asher right now?"

He laughed, an abrupt sound that didn't dance along my body; it just filled his face with glee. The closest I'd ever seen to real laughter from him. "Social qualms--ah, ma petite, that is precious."

I frowned at him. "Just answer the question."

The laughter faded, almost like a person, instead of that abrupt change he usually did. "Asher and I would likely have come to an understanding if it would not have cost me you, ma petite."

"An understanding. Now who's being coy?" I said.

He gave that Gallic shrug that meant everything and nothing. "You would not be comfortable with brutal honesty, ma petite."

"Fine, if I could have stomached it, would you have taken Asher back as your lover by now?"

He thought about it, then finally, "I do not know, ma petite."

"I know you love him."

"Oui, but that does not mean we could be lovers again. When he and I were happiest, it was with Julianna. You might be able to stand us as lovers out of your sight, as long as we did not act like lovers in front of you. I do not think you would like watching Asher and me hold hands in front of you."

Put that way, he was right. "What are you saying?"

"I am saying that Asher deserves better than a hidden relationship where we could never show public affection for fear of hurting you. I would rather give him up completely to someone else, male or female, than force him to play second--or lower--to you forever."

I opened my mouth to say that I liked Asher, even loved him in a way, but I didn't, because I didn't want to raise the possibility of a true menage a trois. What I'd seen with Micah and Jean-Claude had already bugged me a lot. I just couldn't deal with two men and me. Yeah, yeah, it was the Midwestern, middle-class value system, but it was the way I looked at the world. I couldn't change that, could I? And if I could, did I want to?

I didn't know. I just didn't know. The fact that the thought didn't make me run screaming into the night bothered me, but not as much as I thought it should have.