Authors: Laurell K. Hamilton
Musette came to stand on the other side of Jean-Claude. “Our mistress thought, since you are together again as of old, that you would enjoy this little reminder of days gone by.”
The look I gave her around Jean-Claude's shoulder was not a friendly one. I saw the girl who was her
pomme de sang
on the other side of the couch. I hadn't even been aware she'd moved away from the fireplace. If the bad guys had wanted to take me out, they could have done it, because I had seen nothing for a few minutes but the painting.
“The painting is our guest gift to our host, but we have a more personal gift just for Asher.”
Angelito moved up beside her like a dark mountain, a much smaller painting in his hands. There were remnants of the paper and twine that had covered it like a discarded skin on the floor. It was half the size of the other, but obviously in the same style, realistic, but in glowing colors, hyperrealistic, very Titian.
The only light in the painting was firelight, the glow of the forge. Asher's body was colored gold and crimson with the reflected firelight. He was nude again, the edge of the anvil hid his groin, but the right side of his body was
bare to the light. Even his hair was tied back in a loose ponytail so that the right side of his face couldn't be hidden. His arms were still strong as they pretended to forge the blade that lay on the anvil, but the right side of his face, the right side of chest, his stomach, his thigh, were a melted ruin.
These were not the old white scars that I was used to seeing, these were raw, red, discolored, angry lines, like some monster had slashed and gouged at his body. I was suddenly overwhelmed with a memory that was not mine.
Asher lying on the floor of the torture room, freed of the silver chains, the men who had tormented him slaughtered around him, in an explosion of blood. He reached out to us, his faceÂ .Â .Â . his faceÂ .Â .Â .
I swooned, and Jean-Claude and I fell in a heap on the floor, because I was experiencing directly what he was remembering.
Damian and Jason moved up beside us, but Asher stayed well back. I didn't blame him in the least.
SHER, COME AND
see your gift,” Musette called.
Damian was already on the ground beside me, his hands on my shoulders, fingers digging in. I think he was afraid of what I would do. He should have been.
Asher's voice came strained, but clear, “I have seen that particular gift before. I know it well.”
“Do you wish us to return to Belle Morte and tell her you did not appreciate her gift?”
“You may tell Belle Morte, that I have gotten exactly what she wished me to get out of her gifts.”
“And what is that?”
“I am reminded of what I was, and of what I am.”
I got to my feet, Damian still with a death grip on my shoulders. Jean-Claude rose gracefully like a puppet pulled by invisible strings. I would never be that graceful, but tonight it didn't matter.
Musette turned back to Jean-Claude. “We have given our gift to you Jean-Claude, and to Asher. We await our guest gifts.”
His voice was empty, so bland it was like listening to silence. “I have told you, Musette, our guest gifts are weeks away from completion.”
“I'm sure you can find something to stand in their stead.” She stared at me.
I found my voice, and it wasn't bland. “How dare you come here three months early, knowing we won't be prepared and make demands on us?” Damian was clinging to my back a little frantically, but I was polite, for me. After what she and Belle Morte had just done, I was downright kind. “Your
rudeness, will not be used as an excuse to force us to do anything we don't want to do.”
Damian's arms slid over my shoulders so he was cradling me against his body. I didn't fight it, because without his presence I think I would probably have struck her, or shot her. Which sounded like such a good idea.
Jean-Claude tried to smooth things over, but Musette waved him aside. “Let your servant talk, if she has something to say.”
I opened my mouth to call her a heartless bitch, but it wasn't what came out. “Did you believe that gifts worthy of such beauty could be hurried? Would you really take some poor substitute in the place of the magnificence we had commissioned?”
I stopped talking. All of our men were staring at me, except Damian, who was hugging me for all he was worth.
“Ventriloquism,” Jason said, from the other side of Jean-Claude, “it's the only answer.”
Jean-Claude nodded. “A miracle indeed.” Then he turned to Musette. “All, save one, pales before your beauty, Musette. How could I offer anything less than something beautiful to grace your loveliness?”
Her gaze turned back to me. “Is she not a beauty to equal mine?”
I laughed. Damian's arms tightened enough that I had to pat his arm so I could keep breathing comfortably. “Don't worry, I've got this one covered.” I don't think anyone believed me, but I did, honest. “Musette, I know I'm pretty, I can admit that, but compared to the otherworldly triplets here, I am not the most beautiful person on our side.”
“Triplets,” Jason said, “why do I think I'm not included in that threesome?”
“Sorry, Jason, but you're like me, we clean up nice, but with these three standing here we are out of our league.”
“You include Asher in the three beauties?” Musette said.
I nodded. “If you are cataloging beautiful people and Asher is in the room, then he always makes the list.”
, but not now, not for centuries,” she said.
“I disagree,” I said.
I looked at her. “You're a Master Vampire, can't you tell when someone's lying, or telling the truth? Can't you feel it in my words, smell it on my skin?” I watched her face, those beautiful but frightening eyes. She couldn't tell if I was lying, or not. I'd only met one other Master Vamp that couldn't tell truth from lie, and that was because she was lying so badly to herself that truth would have gotten in her way. Musette was blind to truth, which meant we could lie through our teeth to her. That had possibilities.
She frowned at me and waved it all away with those tiny well-manicured
hands. “Enough of this.” She was intelligent enough to realize she was losing part of this argument, but she wasn't bright enough to know why. So she was moving on to something she thought she could win.
“Even Asher with his ruined beauty is more lovely than you are, Anita.”
It was my turn to frown at her. “I think I already said that.”
She frowned again. It was like she had been sent with certain lines to say, and I wasn't making the replies she'd expected. I was throwing her performance off, and Musette didn't seem to enjoy improvisation.
“It doesn't bother you that you are not more beautiful than the men?”
“I had to make peace with being the homely one of the group a long time ago.”
She frowned so hard it looked painful. “You are a very hard woman to insult.”
I shrugged as much as I could with Damian's arms still wrapped around me. “Truth is truth, Musette. I've broken the cardinal girl rule.”
“And that would be?”
“Never date anyone prettier than you are.”
That made her laugh, a surprised burst of sound. “
non, the rule is never to admit it.” The smile faded. “You truly have noÂ .Â .Â . difficulty with me saying I am more lovely than you.”
I shook my head. “Nope.”
She looked completely lost for a moment, until her own human servant touched her shoulder. She shuddered, took a deep shaking breath, as if remembering who and what she was, and why she was there. The last sign of laughter faded from her eyes.
“You have admitted that your beauty cannot rival mine, thus taking blood from you would not be a gift worthy of replacing the bauble that Jean-Claude is having made for me. You are correct, also, about your wolf. He is charming, but not as charming as the three of them.
I suddenly had a bad feeling about where this was headed.
“Damian is somehow yours. I do not understand it, but I can feel it. He is yours the way Angelito is mine, and you are Jean-Claude's. As Master of the City, Jean-Claude cannot be drink for the taking, but Asher belongs to no one. Give him to me for my guest gift.”
“He is my second in command, my
,” Jean-Claude said, still in that empty, means-nothing voice, “I would not lightly share him.”
“I have met some of your other vampires this night. Meng Die has an animal to call. She is more powerful than Asher, why is she not your second?”
“She is another's second and will be going back to him in a few months.”
“Why is she here then?”
“I called her.”
The real reason was that while I was off doing my soul-searching Jean-Claude had needed more backup. But I didn't think he'd share that. He didn't. “A master calls home his flock periodically, especially if he thinks they will soon become masters of their own territory. A last visit before he loses the power to call them.”
“Belle was most perturbed that you rose to Master of the City without that one last visit, Jean-Claude. She woke speaking your name, saying that you had struck out on your own. None of us thought you would ever rise so high.”
He gave a low, sweeping bow, and she was standing so close that his hair almost brushed her skirt. “It is not often that anyone so surprises Belle Morte. I am most honored.”
Musette frowned. “You should be. She was mostÂ .Â .Â . unhappy.”
He stood slowly. “Why would my rise to power make her unhappy?”
“Because to be Master of the City is to be beyond the ties of obligation.”
Ties of obligation seemed to mean more to the vampires than it did to me, because I felt them go all quiet. Damian was so still around my body that it was like he wasn't there at all. Only the weight of his arms let me know he was still clinging to me. The beat and pulse of his body was gone, tucked away somewhere deep inside.
“But Asher has not risen so high. He could still be called home,” she said.
I glanced at Jean-Claude, but his face was utterly blank, that polite nothingness that meant he was hiding his every reaction. “That is, of course, within her purview, but I would need some notice before Asher was called away. America is less settled than Europe, and fights for territory are much less civilized.” His voice was still empty, emotionless, nothing mattered. “If my second were to simply vanish, others would see that as a weakness.”
“Do not worry, our mistress is not going to call him home, but she admits to being puzzled.”
We all waited for her to go on, but Musette seemed content to let the silence stand.
Even with Damian hanging on to me, I broke first. “Puzzled about what?”
“Why Asher left her side, of course.”
Asher moved up closer, though still keeping a much greater distance between himself and Musette than the rest of us. “I did not leave her side,” he said, “Belle Morte had not touched me in centuries. She would not even watch entertainments where I wasÂ .Â .Â . featured. She said I offended her eye.”
“It is her prerogative to do with her people as she sees fit,” Musette said.
“True,” Asher said, “but she bid me come to America with Yvette as my overseer. Yvette died, and I had no more orders.”
“And if our mistress ordered you home?”
Silence, ours this time.
Asher's face was as empty of emotion as Jean-Claude's. Whatever he felt was hidden, but the very blankness of both their faces said that it did matter, and it was important.
“Belle Morte encourages her people to strike out on their own,” Jean-Claude said. “It is one of the reasons her bloodline rules more territories than any other, especially here in the United States.”
Musette turned those beautiful pitiless eyes on him. “But Asher did not leave to become a Master of the City, he left to have revenge on you and your human servant. He wanted to extract payment for his beloved Julianna's death.”
See, she had known the name all along.
“Yet, here your servant stands, strong, well, and unharmed. Where is your vengeance, Asher? Where is the price Jean-Claude was to pay for his murder of your servant?”
Asher seemed to close in upon himself, so very, very still. I thought if I blinked, he'd have vanished altogether. His voice came distant, empty. “I found that, perhaps, I had blamed Jean-Claude in error. That, perhaps, he too mourned her loss.”
“So,” she snapped her fingers, “like that, all your pain, your hatred is forgotten.”
“Not just like that,
, but I have learned many things that I had forgotten.”
“Such as the sweet touch of Jean-Claude's body?” she asked.
The silence this time was so thick I could hear my blood roaring in my ears. Damian felt like a ghost against my body. All the vampires, I was sure, were wishing themselves away.
Either Jean-Claude and Asher had been doing it behind my back. Which was not impossible. But if not, to answer the question truthfully would be bad.
Jason caught my eye, but neither of us dared even shrug. I don't think we were sure what was going on, but that it would end some place painful was almost certain.
Musette swayed around Jean-Claude, to stand closer to Asher. “Are you and Jean-Claude a happy couple, once more, or,” here she looked at me, “is it a happy mÃ©nage Ã trois? Is that why you did not come home?” She pushed past Asher and Jean-Claude, making them move back, so she could stand in front of me. “How can the touch of such as this compare to the magnificence of our mistress?”
I think she'd just implied that I wasn't as good in bed as Belle Morte, but I wasn't entirely sure that's what she meant, and I didn't care. She could
insult me all she wanted. Insulting me was less painful than so many other things she could be doing.
“Belle Morte is sickened at the sight of me,” Asher said, finally, “she avoids me in all things.” He motioned at the painting that Angelito was still holding up. “This is how she sees me. How she will always see me.”
Musette swayed her way back to stand in front of Asher. “To be least among her court is better than ruling anywhere else.”
I couldn't help myself. “Are you saying it's better to serve in Heaven than rule in Hell?”
She nodded, smiling, seemingly oblivious to the literary allusion. “
. Our mistress is the sun, the moon, the all. To be parted from her, only that is true death.”
Musette's face was rapturous, glowing with that inner certainty usually reserved for Holy Rollers and television evangelists. She was, indeed, a true believer.
I couldn't see Damian's face, but I was betting it was as carefully blank as the rest. Jason was staring at Musette as if she had sprouted a second head, an ugly, spiky second head. She was a zealot, and zealots are never quite sane.
She turned to Asher with that radiance still suffusing her face. “Our mistress does not understand why you left her, Asher.”
I did. I think everyone in the room did, except maybe for Angelito and the girl who was still standing on the other side of the couch where Musette had put her.
“Look at the painting of me as Vulcan, Musette, see what our mistress thinks of me.”
Musette didn't bother to look behind her. She gave that Gallic shrug that meant everything and nothing.
“Anita does not see me that way,” he said.
“Jean-Claude cannot look at you without seeing what was lost,” she said.
“The time when you could speak for me, Musette, is long past. You do not know my heart, or my mind, you never truly did,” Jean-Claude said.
She turned to him. “Are you truly telling me that you would touch him, as he is now? Be careful how you answer, Jean-Claude, know that our mistress has seen deep into your heart and mind. You may lie to me, but never to her.”