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."
"Once, oui,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, non, the rule is never to admit it." The smile faded. "You truly have no . . . 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 temoin," 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 most . . . 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 was . . . 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, non,but I have learned many things that I had forgotten."