"Yes, one of the Harlequin could increase our emotions of desire. But only emotions we already owned. It was very subtle at first, then worsened. Truthfully, what has happened tonight to Anita went unnoticed among us. It simply seemed to be couples finally deciding to consummate their friendships."
"How did it worsen?" Nathaniel asked.
"I don't know if it was the same vampire, but they began to interfere when we used the powers of Belle's line. Making the lust go terribly wrong."
"How terribly?" I asked.
"The ardeur at its worst," he said.
"Shit," I said.
Nathaniel touched my shoulders and Jean-Claude opened his arms to pull the other man into our embrace, so that he hugged us both, and I was firmly in the middle of them. It was as if I could finally catch my breath. "Better and better," I said.
"The more you touch your power base, the more surety you have against them, at first," Requiem said.
"What do you mean, 'at first'?" I asked.
"Eventually, our master was tormented by them no matter who he touched. Whatever he touched turned ill, and whatever touched his skin was poisoned."
"Poisoned with what?" I asked.
"They turned our own powers against us, Anita. We were a kiss made up almost entirely of Belle Morte's line. They turned our gifts against us so that the blade bit deep, and we bled for them."
"They didn't torment Elinore and Roderick," Byron said from the couch.
The three of us looked at him, still clinging to each other.
"Not true. She was bothered at first like all of us. So smitten with Roderick she couldn't do her job."
"But, how did you say it, when the madness overcame us, they were spared," Byron said. There was a tone to his voice that held anger, or something close to it.
Jean-Claude hugged us both, and Nathaniel hugged back until it was hard to breathe, not from some vampire trick, but from the strength in their bodies. Jean-Claude eased away, and Nathaniel did the same. Jean-Claude moved us to the desk edge. He leaned upon it, drawing my back in against his body. He held a hand out to Nathaniel and drew him to the desk. Nathaniel sat on the desk, his feet dangling in the air. But he kept his hand in the vampire's, as if afraid to let go. I guess we all were.
"What do you mean, madness?" I asked.
"We fucked our brains out, dearie."
I tried to think of a polite way to say it.
Byron laughed. "The look on your face, Anita. Yes, sex is our coin, and we did a lot of it, but you want to have a choice, don't you?" He looked past us to Requiem. "You don't like having your choices taken away, do you, lover?"
Requiem gave him a look that should have stopped his heart, let alone his words, but Byron was already dead, and the dead are made of stouter stuff than the living. Or maybe Byron just didn't care anymore. "Requiem found that men were on the menu, didn't you, lover?" There was a purring insolence in his voice, bordering on hatred.
I got the implications; they'd become lovers after the Harlequin messed with them all badly enough. Requiem didn't do men, period. Belle had punished him over the centuries for refusing to bed men. To refuse Belle Morte anything was never a good idea, so he'd been serious about saying no. Someone on the Harlequin's team was very good at manipulating emotions. Scary good.
I hugged Jean-Claude's arm tight to me and reached out to Nathaniel. I ended up touching his hip, just running my hand lightly along it. Shapeshifters were always touching each other, and I'd begun to pick up the habit. Tonight I didn't fight it.
"You are never to speak of it," Requiem said, his voice low and very serious.
"How much does it bother you to know that I've had sex with Anita, too?"
Requiem stood in one swift motion, the black cloak swinging out, revealing that he wasn't wearing much under the cloak.
"Stop," Jean-Claude said.
Requiem froze, his eyes blazing with blue-green light. His shoulders rose and fell with his breathing, as if he'd been running.
"I believe that lust is not the only emotion the Harlequin can incite," Jean-Claude said.
It took Requiem a moment, and then he frowned and turned those sparkling eyes to us. "Our anger."
The light began to fade, like light moving away through water. "What are we to do, Jean-Claude? If they do not even observe their own rules, we are doomed."
"I will ask for a meeting with them," he said.
"You'll what?" Byron said, his voice squeaking just a little.
"I will ask for a meeting between them and us."
"You do not seek the Harlequin out, Jean-Claude," Requiem said. "You hide, cowering in the grass, praying that they pass you by. You do not invite them closer."
"The Harlequin are honorable. What is happening is not honorable behavior."
"You are mad," Byron said.
"You think one of them is disobeying the rules," I said, quietly.
"I hope so," Jean-Claude said.
"Why hope so?" I asked.
"Because if what is happening is being done with the full weight and approval of the Harlequin behind it, then Requiem is correct, we are doomed. They will play with us, then destroy us."
"I don't do doomed," I said.
He kissed the top of my head. "I know, ma petite, but you do not understand what force is against us."
"Explain it to me."
"I have told you, they are the bogeymen of vampirekind. They are what we fear in the dark."
"Not true," I said.
"They're bloody frightening, lover," Byron said. "We do fear them."
"The bogeyman of all vampires is Marmee Noir, Mommie Dearest, your queen. That's who scares the shit out of all of you."
They were quiet for a heartbeat or two. "Yes, the Harlequin fear the Queen of Darkness, our creator," Jean-Claude said.
"Everyone fears the dark," Requiem said, "but if the Mother of All Darkness is our nightmare, then the Harlequin are the swift sword of the dark."
Byron nodded. "No arguments from me on that one, duckie. Everyone fears her."
"What are you suggesting, ma petite?"
"I'm not suggesting anything. I'm saying, I've stood in the dark and seen her rise above me like a black ocean. She's invaded my dreams. I've seen the room where her body lies, heard her voice whisper through my head. Tasted rain and jasmine choking on my tongue." I shivered and could almost feel her moving restless in the dark. She lay in a room with windows, and they kept a fire below her, a continuous watch. She'd fallen into a "sleep" longer ago than most of them remembered. Once I'd thought they watched to celebrate her awakening, but I'd begun to realize most of them were as afraid of her as I was, which meant they were scared shitless. Marmee Noir liked me for some reason. I interested her. And from thousands of miles away, she messed with me. She'd made a cross melt into my hand. I'd have the scar until I died.
"Speak of the devil and you bring him closer," Requiem said.
I nodded and tried to think of something else. Oh, yeah, I knew what to think about. "The Harlequin are just vampires, right, which means they're subject to your laws, right?"
"Then let's use the law against them."
"What do you propose, ma petite?"
"This is a direct challenge to our authority. The council has forbidden any Master of the City to fight in the United States until the law decides whether you guys are staying legal or not."
"You're not suggesting that we fight them?" Byron said.
"I'm saying that we act in accordance with the law," I said.
"Don't you understand, Anita," Byron said, "the Harlequin are who we turn to when the bad things happen, sort of. They are the police for us."
"When the police go bad, they aren't police anymore," I said.
"What are they?" he asked.
"You cannot seriously suggest that we are to fight the Harlequin?" Requiem said.
"Not exactly," I said.
"What exactly then?"
I looked up at Jean-Claude. "What would you do if someone powerful moved in on us like this?"
"I would contact the council in hopes of avoiding open war."
"Then contact them," I said.
"I thought not everyone on the council liked us," Nathaniel said.
"They do not, but if the Harlequin are breaking the law, then that would take precedence over more petty concerns," Jean-Claude said.
"Have you forgotten how petty the council can be?" Requiem said.
"Non, but not all on the council have forgotten what it means to live in the real world."
"Which council member will you contact first?" Byron asked.
There was a knock on the door. All of us with heartbeats jumped. Nathaniel gave that nervous laugh, and I said, "Shit."
Lisandro's voice: "There's a delivery for you, Jean-Claude."
"It can wait," he said, his voice showing some of the strain.
"The letter with it says you're expecting it."
"Enter," Jean-Claude said.
Lisandro opened the door, but it was Clay who walked in with a white box in his hands. A box just like the one I'd found in the rest-room. I think I stopped breathing, because when I remembered to breathe, it came in a gasp.
Clay looked at me. "What's wrong?"
"Who delivered this?" Jean-Claude asked.
"It was just sitting by the holy-item check desk."
"And you just brought it in here," I said, my voice rising.
"No, give me some credit. We checked it out. The note says Jean-Claude is expecting it."
"What is it?" I asked, but was afraid I knew.
"A mask," Clay said. He was looking at all of us now, trying to see why we were so upset.
"What color is it?" Jean-Claude's voice was as empty as I'd ever heard it.
The tension level dropped a point or two.
"With little gold musical notes all over it. Didn't you order it?"
"In a way, I suppose I did," Jean-Claude said.
I stared up at him and moved away enough so I could see his face clearly. "What do you mean, you suppose you did?"
"I said I wanted to meet with them, did I not?"
"Yeah, but so what?"
"That's what this mask means, ma petite. It means they wish to meet, not to kill us, or torment, but to talk."
"But how did they know what you'd said?" Nathaniel asked.
Jean-Claude looked at me, and there was something in that look that made me say, "They're listening to us."
"I fear so."
"When was the mask delivered?" Requiem asked.
Clay was still looking at us, as if waiting for us to throw him a clue. "We're not sure. I went on break about thirty minutes ago. It must have come while I was off the door."
"How long have you been back on the door?" Jean-Claude asked.
"Maybe five minutes."
"They were listening," Requiem said.
"They knew what Jean-Claude was going to say," Byron said, and his voice held more panic than most vampires would have shown. He just couldn't quite keep all the emotion out of his face and voice.
"What is going on?" Clay asked.
"Something big and bad has come to town," Lisandro said. "They won't tell us about it, but they'll expect us to fight it, and die because of it." His voice sounded bitter.
"What are the rules about telling our soldiers about... them?" I asked.
Jean-Claude took in a deep, deep breath, and shook, almost like a bird settling its feathers. "Mutable."
"Mutable - oh, it depends."
Then I had a smart idea. "I believe we'd know if someone was listening in on us metaphysically, especially another vampire."
"They are very powerful, ma petite."
"Lisandro," I said.
He came to his version of attention; he gave me all his concentration. There was a demand to his dark eyes. If I widowed his wife, he wanted to know why. I thought he deserved to know why, but first things first. "I need this room swept for bugs."
"What kind of bugs?"
"Anything that would let someone listen to us."
"You think they are relying on technology, ma petite?"
"I don't believe that any vampire could spy on us like this without our sensing it."
"They are very powerful, ma petite."
"They are fucking ghosts, lover," Byron said.
"Fine, they're ghosts, but it doesn't do any harm to look for technology. If the room is clean, then we can blame it on spooky stuff, but let's look for tech first."
Jean-Claude looked at me for a long moment, then nodded. "It would be interesting if they used listening devices."
"Did you look for bugs in London?" Nathaniel asked.
Byron and Requiem exchanged a look, then both shook their heads. "It never occurred to us, duckies. I mean this is the bloody..." Byron licked his lips and stopped himself before saying their name, just in case. "They are ghosts, bogeys, walking nightmares. You don't expect the bogeyman to need technology."
"Exactly," I said.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked.
"It means that most vampires don't use technology much. If these guys use it a lot, then it would seem like magic, if you didn't know what it was."
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," Requiem said.
He stared at me. "My evening star, you are full of surprises."
"I just don't think like a vampire."
"Does Rafael have someone he trusts to clean a room of such things?" Jean-Claude asked.
"Yes," Lisandro said.
"Then do it."
"How soon do you need it?"
"We said we wanted to meet with them a minute or two ago, and the mask arrives with the invitation," I said.
"So, like yesterday," Lisandro said.
"Or sooner," I said.
He nodded. "I'll make the call." He hesitated at the door. "I'll put someone on the door, and I'll use a phone outside the club."
"Good thinking," I said.
"It's what I do." Then he was gone.
"Where do you want this?" Clay asked, motioning with the box.
"Put it on the desk with the other one, I guess."
He put it beside the first one. Jean-Claude didn't seem to want to touch it. I was the one who opened it and found the white mask staring sightless up at me. But this one looked more finished, with gilt musical notes decorating the face. I touched a note and found it was raised above the rest of the mask. The note with it said only, "As you requested."
"Is there writing inside the mask?" Jean-Claude asked.
I lifted it out of the tissue paper. Inside the smooth bow of the mask was writing. "Do not read it out loud, ma petite."
I didn't, I just handed it to him. Inside the mask was written "Circus of the Damned," and a date that was two days away. The date was written backward with the day first, then the month, then the year like they wrote it in Europe. They'd chosen one of Jean-Claude's own businesses for the meeting. Was that good, bad, or neither? Did it mean we had home-court advantage, or that they were planning to torch the place? I wanted to ask, but didn't want our enemies to hear the question. If we did find bugs in this office, we'd have to look everywhere. All the offices, all the businesses, my house, all of it.
I was praying we found bugs, because the alternative was that these vamps were so good that they could plant psychic bugs inside our brains. You could find and destroy mechanical shit in the rooms; if they were good enough to use magic inside our heads, then we were fucked. We'd die when they wanted us to die, or we'd live, and either way it would be their idea, and not ours. I never thought I'd pray to have our offices turn out to be bugged. Funny, what turns out to be the lesser evil some nights.