"I agree with everything you're saying," I said, slowly, "but it doesn't sound like you."
"No, I guess it doesn't." He looked at Jean-Claude, and I felt that first warm trickle of his energy. "Are you playing puppet with me again?"
"I swear to you that I am not, not knowingly, but these are all things I have longed to hear you say. With you at our side, Richard, I fear no one who has come to our territory. With one third of our triumvirate absent, or unwilling... tonight has made me doubt my decision to invite others to our lands."
He dropped his hand from Jean-Claude's shoulder. "Then let's go have this meeting. I can't promise that I won't freak again. I can't promise to like any of this, but I promise to try harder not to run away." He started walking toward the door, still holding me. I looked back at Jean-Claude, and the look must have shown what I was thinking, because he shrugged, as if he didn't know what the hell had happened to Richard either. It wasn't that we weren't happy with a more reasonable response from him, but it just didn't seem real. It didn't feel like the quiet rush after the storm has passed; no, this felt more like that false calm you sometimes get where the world is hushed and waiting. It feels quiet, but the air is charged and waiting, waiting for the storm to come. That's what Richard's new attitude felt like, like it was brittle and waiting to break. I applauded the effort, and the sentiment, but the pit of my stomach was afraid of what would happen when the new attitude met the old issues.
SOMEONE HAD CLEANED up the living room. The torn drapes were gone, and the remaining ones had been moved to make long swags of cloth against the stone walls. It didn't make cloth walls now, but it was pretty, and helped give the illusion that the carpeted area was its own space, and not part of the larger rock room. The electric lights seemed odd now that you could see the torches in the hallway.
We walked up hand in hand, me in the middle of the men. Richard's hand was oh-so-slightly damp. He was nervous, but it didn't show on his face. I wished I could have asked what exactly was making him nervous. But even if there hadn't been company I wouldn't have asked. He was being brave and cooperative, and I wasn't going to poke at it. Honest.
Asher rose from the chair where he'd sat and entertained our guests. There were half a dozen black-garbed guards scattered throughout the room. Claudia and her crew followed behind us like an honor guard. I think she'd decided no more taking chances tonight. We had enough manpower to fill a room, so she was going to do it. None of us were going to argue.
Asher glided toward us, and it was almost as if his feet didn't touch the ground, as if he were floating. He was always graceful, but not like that. He was one of the best at levitating that I'd ever seen, so that he could do what the legends say: Asher could fly. Tonight it was as if he could barely force himself to walk when he knew he had wings and longed to use them. He was like some earthbound angel waiting to fling himself skyward. His clothes helped the angelic illusion. He was all in white with gold and copper thread worked through the frock coat, and along a pair of silk pants that ended at his knees, where white hose took up, and ended in white high heels with golden buckles. The shoes reminded me that the original high heel was meant for men.
His hair was the color of the gold thread in his clothes, as if the seamstress had used his own hair to decorate the cloth. He used that hair like a shield, to hide the scars on the right side of his face. He'd been so worried about what the other masters, many of whom knew him before the scarring, would think of him, that he had requested we take down all the paintings that showed him before. The side of the face that showed beside that fall of truly golden hair was the face of some medieval angel, if you liked your angels sensuous, and a little fallen. That full, kissable mouth smiled at us all. His eyes managed to be both pale blue, and a vibrant color, as if a winter sky could burn with pale, clear blue. Only one eye showed clear; the other one seemed to wink and burn when glimpsed through the hair, as if light were glancing off glass.
He offered his hand first to Jean-Claude, and said what Jean-Claude usually didn't like to hear. "Master, our friend from Cape Cod begs a word." His words were utterly polite, but his face glowed with some suppressed excitement. Something had filled our usually solemn Asher with delight, but what?
Jean-Claude arched an eyebrow, as if he wanted to ask what was up, too.
Asher's voice floated through my mind. "The new power level is amazing."
I felt Richard jerk, as if he'd been hit.
I looked at him, and saw from his wide eyes that he'd probably heard it, too. The next mind whisper held a trace of laughter to it. "My apologies. I only meant Jean-Claude to hear, but I confess to having some trouble controlling all the new abilities."
Jean-Claude squeezed my hand, and it was his voice that came next. "Calm, we must all be calm for our guests."
Richard let his breath out slow, and gave a small nod. His abilities didn't lie with the dead, so he wasn't used to vamps, other than Jean-Claude, talking mind-to-mind with him. Even I wasn't used to them doing it by accident. How much power had he gained from this one feeding, and how much had others of our vampires gained? There were one or two I wasn't sure I wanted more powerful than they already were. Meng Die, for one.
Samuel and Sampson stood in front of the love seat. Asher led us to the couch across from them. The white carpet seemed emptier than normal. Oh, the coffee table was missing. Had we broken it after the ardeur rose? I couldn't remember.
I had my best professional smile plastered on my face, the one that's bright and cheery as a lightbulb, and about as warm. But it was the best I could do. I'd had about all the out-of-town visitors I could deal with for one night.
"Samuel, Sampson, you have not met our Richard."
Samuel bowed toward us. "Ulfric, it is good to meet you at last."
Sampson bowed a little lower than his father, and let him do the talking. They both looked way too solemn for my tastes, as if something else had gone wrong.
"Samuel, what brings you back to us tonight?" Jean-Claude asked. If he was tired of visitors it didn't show in his voice. He sounded pleasant, welcoming, the perfect host.
"First, the apology I owe you on behalf of my wife. I worry that something about her nature affected your servant, and may have helped cause what happened tonight."
I blinked at him, felt my smile slip a notch. Was this all someone else's fault? Was I going to have someone else to blame? Goody.
Jean-Claude sat down on the white couch, not so much pulling me down with him as leading, as you do in a dance. He sat, and I followed his lead, and Richard followed mine. Jean-Claude kept my hand in his, but Richard let go, and put his arm along the back of the couch. He was touching mostly me, but his hand moved along Jean-Claude's back, and ended lost in the thick curls of his hair.
"Where is your lovely wife, and your other sons?" Jean-Claude asked.
Asher sat in the overstuffed chair closest to us. He matched the chair and pillows perfectly, all white and gold. He still looked entirely too pleased with himself, like the proverbial cat with cream.
Samuel sat down on the love seat, and Sampson followed his father's lead. "They are at a hotel along with our two guards. I did not feel it wise to bring Thea and Anita together again tonight."
"What did she think of the show?" I asked.
Jean-Claude's hand tightened on my hand, where he held it in his lap. The squeeze was enough: Be nice, he was saying. I'd be nice. My version of it.
Richard had gone very quiet beside me, his arm tensed against my back. But it wasn't a warning to be careful, because his body temperature went up, as if he was thinking what I was thinking: was there someone else to get angry with, someone besides ourselves? Richard and I both preferred to be angry at other people.
"Thea was much impressed," he said, and his voice was mild, empty. His tone told nothing.
"If she was so impressed," I said, "then why isn't she here?"
Sampson smiled, and had to turn away to hide it.
"What's so funny?" I asked.
His father gave him an unfriendly look. Sampson fought to control his face, but finally burst out laughing. Samuel gave him his best ancient vampire disdain. "I'm sorry, Father," Sampson said in a voice still choked with laughter, "but you must admit it is funny. 'Impressed' does not begin to cover Mother's reaction to what Anita and Jean-Claude did tonight."