Merlin was sitting in a chair facing us. Adonis and the dark-haired woman from the chorus were sitting on the couch against the wall. Her name was Elisabetta, and her vaguely Eastern European accent was thick enough to walk on. Merlin's and Adonis's accents seemed to flow with their moods, but were mostly absent.
Merlin was answering my questions in that elegant from-anywhere-and-everywhere voice: "I wanted the show to be magical for the entire audience, not just the humans."
"So you tried to roll everyone's mind, including the master vampires and lycanthropes, because you didn't want them to miss the show?" I didn't fight to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. I'd have lost the fight, so why try?
"Yes," he said, simply, as if, of course.
Damian's hand squeezed a little tighter on my bare shoulder, his fingers caressing the edge of the collarbone scars.
"I find that a little hard to believe," I said. There, that was calm. I hadn't called him a lying bastard.
"Why else would I have done it?" he asked. His face was very calm. I knew his eyes were dark, pure brown, but other than color I couldn't describe them much, because I wasn't making eye contact. This vampire had damn near rolled us all with no gaze. I wasn't chancing it. He was tall, dark, and handsome. He was not European. No, something darker, farther east, as in Middle East. There was something very Egyptian about him, or maybe Babylonian, because he was old. Old enough that he made my bones ache with his age. Not power, just age. I was a necromancer, and I could taste the power and age of most vampires. It was a natural ability that had gotten better as my power had grown. Now that ability made my bones thrum with the weight of ages that sat smiling in front of me.
"Using power that way on a Master of the City is a direct challenge to his or her authority. You know that."
"Not if you don't get caught at it," Adonis said from the couch.
I glanced at him, avoiding his eyes. That made him laugh. He liked that he could roll me with his gaze. All right, that we both thought he could.
Asher spoke then. "Are you implying that Merlin rolled the minds of all the masters in all the cities that you performed in, and they did not know it?" His voice was empty, pleasant, even happy. It was a lie. He wanted Adonis to chat himself into a corner.
Merlin raised a darkly pale hand. That one gesture stopped Adonis with his mouth parted. "No," Merlin said, "no. We have answered the question of Jean-Claude's servant. When she speaks it is with his voice. But why are you here, Asher? Why do you sit so close and join these talks?"
"I am Jean-Claude's témoin."
"How have you earned this place of trust and power, Asher? It is not through strength. There are at least four vampires here, perhaps more, who are more powerful than you. And you were never known for your skill in battle. So why do you sit at his right hand, and now at hers?"
"I can tell you why he's here tonight, sitting beside me," I said.
Merlin gave me a quizzical look. It was so hard not to look him in the eye when he moved. I'd lost the knack of not making eye contact with vampires. "Do enlighten me, Miss Blake."
I reached in the drawer and wrapped my hand around the gun. I felt better holding it. The moment the gun flashed to the room, the tension level rose. I felt rather than saw Adonis and Elisabetta begin to move forward on the couch.
Claudia said, "Don't."
Merlin said, "Do not react. That is what she wants."
It was probably their master's voice, not Claudia's warning, that kept them on the couch. Or hell, maybe she'd been speaking to me.
I put the gun on the desk with my hand sort of caressing it. Not exactly holding it, but touching it. "I wanted to have the gun na**d on the desk when you came through the door. Asher talked me out of it."
"So he is here to see you do not do anything foolish."
"He is here because I trust him, and I don't trust you."
"You are not a fool. I would not expect you to trust me."
"And what would you do with your little gun?" Adonis asked.
"Shooting you and Merlin here seems like a possibility."
"On what grounds?" Merlin asked. "What laws have we broken? We are allowed mass hypnosis for theatrical purposes."
I hated to admit it, but he was right. I shrugged. "If I think on it, I'm sure I can come up with something."
"Would you, as you Americans say, frame us?"
I sighed, and let my hand fall away from the gun. "No, I guess I wouldn't."
"Then I say again, why are we here? What have we done to anger Jean-Claude?"
"You know exactly what you did," I said, "and why we're pissed at you."
"No, truly, Miss Blake, I do not."
"It's Ms. Blake, or Marshal Blake, to you."
He made a small gesture. "Ms. Blake, then."
"What would you have done if you had succeeded in rolling the minds of six Masters of the City?" Asher asked. His hair hid half his face, a golden distraction.
"I will not answer your question for you are not master here, nor powerful enough to be témoin."
"Fine, what he said."
Merlin looked at me. "What is that, Ms. Blake?"
"Don't make me repeat the question, Merlin, just answer it."
"I don't understand what you hope to gain by this little discussion, Ms. Blake. Truly, I do not."
"You tried to mind-fuck six Masters of the City, plus a half-dozen or more rulers of the local lycanthropes. Hell, we've got animals to call of several masters, plus human servants. You tried to bite off a great, big, bloody chunk, and you weren't master enough to swallow it."
"Merlin could have taken you all." This from Elisabetta.
I shook my head without looking at her. "No, he couldn't, or he'd have done it."
"What do you want from us, Ms. Blake?" Merlin asked.
"I want to know why you did it. Don't give me shit about wanting all your audience to enjoy the show. If you have truly been mind-fucking all the masters at all the performances, then you wanted to know if you could take them all here tonight. I want to know, why?"
"Why what, Ms. Blake?"
"Why try to roll everyone? Why run the risk of insulting all of them? Why throw this big a gauntlet down? You're a master vampire. You're so damn old you make my bones ache just sitting there. Vamps like you don't make mistakes, Merlin. Vamps like you always have a reason for everything they do."
"Perhaps I do not believe that a human who has barely seen three decades of mortal life would be able to understand my motives."
"Try me. Better yet, try Jean-Claude. You said it yourself; when you speak to me, you speak to him."
He went very still then. I knew the quality of that stillness. I'd surprised him in some way. Stillness could be as telling on a vampire as a gesture on a human.
"Touché, Ms. Blake." He made another small gesture with his hands. "You will not believe that I did it only to make our production more enjoyable to all."
"No," I said.
He did that hands-out gesture again. I was beginning to wonder if it was his version of a shrug. "Perhaps, after succeeding in city after city, I had simply grown arrogant. Perhaps I truly believed I could do you all."
"I believe you're arrogant. I might even believe that you rolled the rest of the masters individually. I'm not sure on that one, yet. I've felt your mind; I won't say you couldn't do it, just that you might not have tried."
"Then why did I try tonight?" he asked.
I smiled. It didn't feel like a happy smile, more like that curl of lips when I'm pissed. "That's what I'm trying to find out, and what you keep avoiding answering."
"Am I avoiding the question?" he asked.
I nodded, and this time my smile was almost happy. "Yeah, you are."
"Perhaps I have answered it, and you simply do not like the answer."
"Perhaps you're trying not to outright lie in case Damian, or Asher, or one of the others smells or feels the lie. But you are definitely not answering the question completely."
"Do you truly believe that if I wished to lie in front of the people you have in this room, that I could not do it successfully?"
I thought about that for a second. I fought the urge to look at Asher. Damian played his hand along my shoulder. "I think you could, but not without using more mind power than you want to use around me."