"And others," Asher said.
I looked at Jean-Claude. "Others?"
He had the grace to look embarrassed, but it didn't work completely, his eyes looked pleased. "If Musette can report to Belle that I have a harem of men, then Belle will cease to be worried about you."
I shook my head. "I don't think so, Jean-Claude. I think she's got a taste of me now. She's either going to be afraid of me, or attracted to the power."
"I believe she marked you once to torment me, ma petite.She does not truly want you as her human servant, but she is angry with me, angry with you for having me." He shook his head. "She thinks like a woman, ma petite,and not a modern one. You think more like a man, so it is hard to explain to you."
"No, I think I've got an inkling. You're going to try and convince Belle's people that you didn't dump her for any woman, but for a lot of men."
"And if the sight of a lot of gorgeous men torments Paolo, too, so much the better."
He smiled, but it left his eyes hard and unpleasant. "Oui, ma petite."
I didn't say it out loud, but Belle Morte wasn't the only one who rarely did anything without having more than one motive.
The banquet was in one of the inner rooms of the Circus. One I'd never seen before. I knew that the place was huge and I'd seen only a fraction of it, but I hadn't realized I'd missed a room this size. It was literally cavernous, because it had originally been a cave, a huge, towering, space that water had carved out of solid stone over a few million years. There was no water now, only rock and the cool air. It was the way the air tasted, the way it touched your skin that let you know somehow that all this dark splendor was nature's handy work, not man's. I don't know what the difference between natural caves and man-made ones is, but the air feels different, it just does.
I expected torches for the night, but was surprised to find that there was gas. Gas lamps placed around the room, chasing back the dark. I asked Jean-Claude when he'd installed the gas, and he said that some bootleggers had done it during prohibition, that the cavern had been a speakeasy. Nikolaos, the Master of the City before Jean-Claude, had let the bootleggers pay rent for the space. Her vampires had also fed on the drunken revelers. It was a good easy way to feed without getting caught. Since the prey was already breaking the law, it wouldn't go to the police, to say where the vampire attack had happened.
I'd never been in a room that was lit entirely by gas lamps. It had that soft edge of firelight, but it was steadier and burned cleaner. I'd half expected there to be an odor of gas, but there wasn't. Jean-Claude informed me that if I smelled gas it would mean there was a leak, and we should probably run like hell. Okay, what he actually said was we should leave as quickly as possible, but I knew what he meant.
The banquet table was both beautifully--and oddly--arranged. It gleamed with golden flatware, and the gold picked up the delicate gold pattern in the white fine-boned china. There were gold napkin rings around white linen napkins. The tablecloth was triple layered, one long and white that nearly dragged the floor, a gold edge of leaves and flowers embroidered around its hem. The middle layer was a delicate gold lace. The top was a different layer of gold--white and gold--as if someone had taken gold paint and dabbed it sponge-like on white linen.
The chairs had white and gold cushioned seats and richly carved backs in a dark, dark wood. The table sat like a gleaming island in the midst of the gaslit dark. But two things confused me. First, there were way more golden utensils at each place than I knew what to do with. What the hell do you use a tiny two-tined fork for anyway? It was set at the top of the plate, so it was either for seafood, salad, dessert, or something I hadn't thought of. I was hoping for seafood or dessert, since I thought I knew which fork was for salad. Having never been to a formal vampire banquet, I tried not to speculate on other possible uses for the two-tined fork.
Secondly, there were a number of complete place settings on the floor. Each setting had a white linen napkin spread under it, like miniature picnics. The place settings on the floor were spaced between the chair settings, so there was room to pull the chairs in and out. It was . . . odd.
I stood there in my black and royal blue gown with its faint sparkles of deep blue, tapping the toe of my black high heel, trying to figure out why there were plates on the floor.
Jean-Claude glided through the long black drapes that covered the entrance between this room and the smaller adjacent chamber. Everyone was mingling in the other room. I hated mingling under any circumstances, even at normal dinner parties. But tonight was like small talk, combat style. Everything had double or triple meanings. Everyone was trying to be subtly insulting. All so polite, so back-stabbing, so painful. My small talk skills were pretty limited, and among Musette and her crew, I was unarmed. I'd needed a break, before I started breaking things for real. At least Musette's underage pomme de sangwas missing from tonight's festivities. We'd been told the girl had been sent back to Europe because her presence seemed to upset me so. My guess was Musette just didn't want to lose her toy, if things went badly.
Asher slipped through all that blackness like a golden vision, but he didn't glide after Jean-Claude, he hurried. Musette wasn't entirely ready to believe that Asher was truly ours. Since I wasn't a hundred percent sure he was either, it was hard for her not to smell a lie on me, even though it wasn't exactly a lie. I should never have left Asher on his own, but I was tired. Tired of vampire politics. Tired of digging out from problems that I didn't start, and didn't truly understand.
"Ma petite,our guests are asking after you."
"I'll just bet they are."
Jean-Claude did that long, slow, graceful blink that usually meant he was trying to figure out what I'd meant with a bit of slang or sarcasm. I used to think the blink was to show off his impossibly long eyelashes, but trust him to make something enticing out of what for anyone else would have been an irritating habit.
"Musette really is asking after you," Asher said, and he imitated her voice, "Where is your new beloved? Has she abandoned you so soon?" His pale blue eyes flashed white, showing that edge of panic that was just below the surface.
"It is not like you to wander off on such an important and potentially dangerous occasion. What is the matter, ma petite?"
"Oh, I don't know, an international terrorist following me around, the vampire council back in town, an evening of some of the most politely vicious small talk I've ever heard, Asher being his usual temperamental self, one of my friends and favorite policemen having a nervous breakdown, a serial killer werewolf on the loose in my town, oh, and the fact that Richard and his wolves haven't arrived yet, and no one's answering their phones. Pick one." I knew the smile on my face wasn't pleasant when I finished. It was a challenging smile. It said why wouldn't I be uptight?
"I do not believe anything has happened to Richard, ma petite.'"
"No, you're afraid he's going to take a pass on the whole evening. That would make us look damned weak."
"Damian flies almost as well as I do," Asher said, "he'll find them, if they are close."
"And if they're not? I mean, Richard is shielding so hard that neither Jean-Claude nor I can reach him. He doesn't usually do that without a reason, usually a pissy one."
Asher sighed. "I do not know what to say about your wolf king, but I know that he is not our only problem." He looked at me, and there was a stubborn set to that handsome face. "I am not being temperamental."
I didn't bother to debate him. Asher was temperamental, he just was. "Fine, but the problem is that Musette can smell this lie. She asks me if you're mine, I say, yes, she doesn't believe me. She doesn't believe me because I don't quite believe it. You aren't totally mine. It's too new to feel that real, and that's what she's picking up on. She's practically chased me around the room finding new ways to ask if I'm f**king you, and even that caught me." I shook my head, and missed the feel of my hair against my skin. I touched the back of my bare neck and it felt vulnerable.
"If it is only for their visit, I understand," Asher said.
"No, no, damn it, it's that we haven't had intercourse."
Asher looked at me, then raised his gaze to Jean-Claude. "In this she is very American. If you have not had intercourse, you have not had sex with ma petite.It is a very American mind-set."