She smiled with a rosebud mouth that was so red I knew she was wearing lipstick, and once I saw that I knew she was wearing more makeup. Well done, understated, but there were touches here and there that helped a striking, almost childlike beauty along.
Her pomme de sangknelt at her feet like a pet. The girl's long brown hair was piled on top of her head in a complicated layer of curls that made her look even younger than she was. She was pale, not vampire pale, but pale, and the icy blue of her long, old-fashioned dress didn't help give her any color. Her slender neck was smooth and untouched. If Musette was taking blood, where was she taking it from? Did I want to know? Not really.
A man stood between the fireplace and the large white couch with its spill of gold and silver pillows. He was the opposite of Musette in almost every way. Well over six feet tall, built like an overly large swimmer, broad-shouldered, slim-waisted, narrow-hipped, with legs that seemed longer than I was tall. His hair was black, black like mine was black--with blue highlights. It was tied in a thick braid down his back. His skin was as dark as skin that hadn't seen much sun in centuries could be. I was betting he tanned with very little effort. He just hadn't had much opportunity to catch any rays. His eyes were an odd blue green, aqua, like the waters of the Caribbean. They were startling in his dark face and should have added warmth and beauty. But they were cold. He should have been handsome, but he wasn't, the sour expression on his face stole all that. He looked as if he were always in a bad mood.
Maybe it was the clothes. He was dressed as if he'd stepped out of a centuries-old painting. If I had to go around in tights, I might be grumpy, too.
Though I had a man on either arm, it was definitely Jean-Claude who led us between the two overstuffed chairs, one gold, one silver, with their piles of white pillows. He stopped in front of the white wood coffee table with its crystal bowl of white and yellow carnations. Damian also stopped instantly, standing very still under the touch of my hand. Jason flopped, gracefully, into the gold chair closest to the fireplace. Asher stood on the other side of the silver chair, as far away from Musette as he could get without leaving the room.
Musette said something in French. Jean-Claude replied in French, and I actually understood that he'd told her that I didn't speak French. She said something else that was a complete mystery to me, then she switched to a heavily accented English. Most vampires have no accent, at least in America, but Musette had a doozy. Thick enough in places that I knew if she spoke too fast, English or not, I wouldn't be able to understand her.
"Damian, it has been long since you graced our court with your presence."
"My old mistress did not care for the life of the court."
"She is an odd one, your mistress Morvoren."
I felt Damian's body react to the name like he'd been slapped. I stroked the top of his hand the way you'd sooth a worried child.
"Morvoren is powerful enough to compete for a council seat. She was even offered the Earthmover's old place. She would not even have had to fight for it. It was a gift." Musette was watching Damian, studying his face, his body, his reactions. "Why do you think she refused such a bounty?"
Damian swallowed, his breath shaky. "As I said," he had to clear his throat, to finish, "my old mistress is not one for court life. She prefers her solitude."
"But to give up a seat on the council without a battle to risk, that is madness. Why would Morvoren do that?"
Each time she said the name, Damian flinched. "Damian answered your question," I said, "his old master likes her privacy."
Musette turned those blue eyes to me, and the flat unfriendliness of the stare made me half wish I hadn't interrupted.
"So, this is the new one." She walked towards us, and it wasn't just gliding, it was a sway of hips, there were high heels under the skirt. You didn't get that sashay without them.
The tall dark and scary man moved behind her like a shadow. The young girl stayed sitting in front of the fireplace, her pale blue skirts spread around her like they'd been arranged. Her hands were very still in her lap. She looked arranged, too, as if she'd been told sit here, like this,and she would sit there, like that, until Musette told her to move. Definitely yucky.
"May I present Anita Blake, my human servant, the very first I have ever called to me. There is no other, there is only she." Jean-Claude used his hand in mine to sweep me outward away from the coffee table, and incidentally, Musette. It was almost a dance move, as if I was supposed to curtsy, or something. Damian followed the movement, making it look like a very graceful game of crack the whip. The vampires bowed, and, caught between them, I had little choice but to do what they did. Maybe there was more than one reason that Jean-Claude had put me in the middle.
Musette swayed towards us, her h*ps making a dance of the billowing white skirt. "You know the one I mean, Asher's servant, what was her name?" There was a look in those blue eyes that said she knew damn well what the name was.
"Julianna," Jean-Claude said, voice as neutral as he could make it. But neither Asher nor he could say Julianna's name without some emotion.
"Ah, yes, Julianna, a pretty name for someone so common." She'd come to stand in front of us. The tall dark man stood behind her, menacing by his very size. He had to be damn close to seven feet tall. "Why is it that Asher and you choose such common women? I suppose there is something comforting about good, sturdy, peasant stock."
I laughed before I could think. Jean-Claude squeezed my hand. Damian went very still under my other hand.
Musette didn't like being laughed at, that was plain on her face. "You laugh, girl, why?"
Jean-Claude squeezed my hand tight enough that it was just this side of pain. "Sorry," I said, "but calling me a peasant isn't much of an insult."
"Why is it not?" she asked, and she looked genuinely puzzled.
"Because, you're right, as far back as anyone can trace my family tree I have nothing but soldiers and farmers. I am good peasant stock and proud of it."
"Why would you be proud of that?"
"Because everything we've gotten, we've made with our two hands, the sweat of our brows, that kind of thing. We've had to work for everything we have. No one has ever given us anything."
"I do not understand," she said.
"I don't know if I can explain it to you," I said. I was thinking it was like Asher trying to explain to me what you owed a liege lord. I had nothing in my life that prepared me to understand that sort of obligation. I didn't say that out loud though, because I didn't want to bring up the idea that I owed Belle Morte anything. Because I didn't feel I did.
"I am not stupid, Anita, I would understand if you would explain yourself clearly."
Asher moved from behind, to the other side of us, still as far as he could stay from Musette, but it was brave of him to draw attention to himself. "I attempted to explain to Anita earlier what one owes a liege lord, and she could not understand it. She is young and American, they have never had the . . . benefit of being ruled here."
She turned her head to one side, disturbingly like a bird just before it takes a bite out of a worm. "And what has her lack of understanding of civilized ways to do with anything?"
A human being would have licked their lips, Asher went still, quiet. (Hold still enough, and the fox won't know you're there.) "You, lovely Musette, have never lived where you were not subject to a lord, or lady, or where you did not rule others. You have never lived without knowing the duties one owes one's liege."
"Oui?" she made that one word cold, so cold, as if to say, go on, dig yourself a deeper hole to be buried in.
"You have never dreamt of the possibility that being a peasant, owing no one, would be a freeing experience."
She waved a carefully manicured hand, as if clearing the very thought from the air. "Absurd. 'Freeing experience,' what does that mean?"
"I believe," Jean-Claude said, "that the fact that you do not understand what that means is Asher's exact point."
She frowned at them both. "I do not understand, thus it cannot be that important." She dismissed it all with a wave of dainty hands. Then she turned her attention back to me, and it was frightening. I wasn't sure what it was about the mere gaze of those eyes, but it chilled the marrow in my bones.
"Have you seen our present to Jean-Claude and Asher?"