"I might as well not exist when you first enter a room for each other," the jeweler said with a voice that still held the first echoes of her homeland. It had been somewhere in what would be the Middle East today, but I think had been Mesopotamia then, yeah, as in the cradle of civilization. She gave her name as Irene; I doubted it had been her birth name, but I'd learned that it was rude to ask a vampire or human servant's original name. Whatever name they came with was their name. I guess you can't go through centuries being mud-dabble-wat-wat, so Irene it was.
I blushed, but Jean-Claude continued to pull me close, and said, "But isn't our very absorption with each other part of what fascinates you?"
I wanted to say, Please stop calling him that, but Jean-Claude had made me stop correcting her or her master. First, if someone wants to call you a king, or queen, let them. Second, when I suggested president, Irene had called him, "My lord president," which sounded totally wrong.
He stayed seated, so for once I was the one who had to lean down to kiss him. In all the thousands of kisses we'd shared, I couldn't remember if I'd ever been the one who had to bend to him. Sitting down, he couldn't even go up on tiptoes like I did most of the time. I put one hand on the side of his face to steady me as I touched my lips to his, because even now sometimes just a kiss could leave me unsteady. It was a light kiss by our standard "hello," but we had company, and business company at that. One thing I had learned over the last few weeks was that everything about a big wedding had some sort of business attached to it.
Irene's thin, long-fingered hands were clasped in front of her, where she usually held them, unless she was touching something. It was as if she held on to herself to keep her from touching everything. She was shorter than me, barely five feet tall, with hair as black as ours, but coarser and intermingled with gray. Her face was thin and angular, her body bird-thin, not in the way that models who diet forever are, but as if there had just never been enough food. Her skin was brown both in color and from the sun, and her eyes were the black that both Jean-Claude's blue and my own brown promised, but never quite delivered.
"My master has given me an impossibly long life, and I can say with long observation that it is rare for a couple to still be so taken with each other."
Jean-Claude smiled at her, his arm pulling me down into his lap. I might have protested, but first I wanted to be as close to him as possible, and second there was nothing wrong with what we were doing. It was just a little far for modern American affection outside a club or party atmosphere. "We are searching for the perfect wedding bands; surely that is early enough, Irene."
"But you have been dating for six years, isn't it, my lord?"
"Something like that," I said. It had been more off-again, on-again than most of the vampire community seemed to think, and definitely more than the human media did. I'd been a legal vampire executioner when Jean-Claude and I first met, and he'd been a vampire, so romance hadn't been the first thought on either of our minds. I'd believed that all vampires were just walking corpses, and that killing them had been ridding the world of monsters. Then I'd met a few vampires who seemed nicer than the people I was dealing with, and I began to wonder just who the monsters were. Dominga Salvador had been one of the human beings who helped convince me that evil could have a heartbeat. Now, we had someone who was doing the most evil thing the Senora had imagined. She was dead, I knew that, I'd killed her, but if the animator talking offscreen had been female I might have wondered if someone had raised her from the grave and gotten some secrets. Of course, since I'd technically murdered her, self-defense or not, her zombie should have tried to come after me first. Murder victims crawl from the grave with only one thing on their minds--vengeance. They will tear through anyone in their way in an attempt to hunt down and kill their murderer. It was the reason you couldn't just raise the victim of a homicide and ask them who killed them. It had been tried and the death count was always higher than just the one murder they'd been trying to solve.
Jean-Claude stroked his hand down my arm. "You are suddenly very somber, ma petite."
"Sorry, work was . . . hard today."
I felt his energy stroke at the side of my thoughts, almost the way his hand had touched my arm. I tightened my shielding down just a little more, and he didn't press. The images from the zombie videos were not what I wanted to share with him as we talked about wedding rings. I was pretty sure it would be a mood killer.
"I do not understand why you do a job that steals the light from your face, Anita," Irene said.
I looked at her, and there must have been something in the look, because she gave a small bow. "I meant no offense."
"As long as you weren't going to join the vampires who think I should give up my job once I marry Jean-Claude, no offense taken."
Irene rose from her bow laughing. "I would never say that; I have had the same job for a very long time and I still find new things to learn. Why, the new technologies and metals are a constant amazement to me."
I smiled at her. "Sorry that I jumped to conclusions."
"Anyone who has asked you to give up your job is probably a vampire who hasn't led a very productive afterlife. I find that the vampires who have no business or occupation grow bored, and bored immortals find ways to amuse themselves that are most unpleasant." She shivered a little, and her face lost some of its eager glow.
Jean-Claude hugged me where his one arm lay around my waist. "Do you think that boredom is the cause of evil among vampires?"
"Forever is a very long time to do nothing, my lord."
He smiled and nodded. "Yes, yes it is."
"If I may be so bold, my lord."
"You may," he said, though I wasn't sure what she was asking, exactly.
"Many think that one of the reasons you are so reasonable and just is that you have been running businesses for hundreds of years. The fact that you perform at some of your clubs is another example of how you occupy yourself in a positive manner."
"Some of the older vampires see it as unseemly that their king is a performer."
"I have heard the gossip, but those who say it are old-fashioned and trapped in the past. They still believe that rulers are to concern themselves only with power, but your joy in performing onstage radiates from you, my lord."
Jean-Claude did the head tilt as we both looked at Irene. I asked the question. "When did you see Jean-Claude onstage?"
She blushed and cast her eyes down. "My master feels that the more we know about the people we design our rings for, the better we will please them."
"Were you there on a night when I was introducing the acts?" he asked.
She kept her eyes down, hands clasped tight, as she said, "You did introduce most of the acts."
"But I did not introduce myself."
"No, my lord, one of your charming young men did the honor of introducing you." She stared studiously at the floor.
"I have only been onstage at Guilty Pleasures once since the engagement was announced. I did not see you in the audience."
"I stayed near the back, my lord. I was there to observe, not to participate by being one of the audience you interacted with." She finally gave a quick look up, and then back down.
Jean-Claude had caused a near riot stripping onstage after the engagement hit the media. He'd put together a new act that had more romance at the beginning, but the end was romantic only if you considered "sexy as hell" romantic. I tended to think of it that way, but the human media had been split between headlines stating I was jealous and angry at him for going onstage again, to wondering how long until I might join him onstage. I had done it a few times as the pretend "lady victim" from the audience for some of my lovers, but not lately. One, the customers didn't like the idea of a plant in the audience who had already had the pleasure of, um, meeting the men for real, and two, the U.S. Marshals Service didn't think much of one of their officers going onstage at a strip club. Technical
ly I wasn't stripping, but just helping out the show with a "victim" who wouldn't make a fuss or pressure the dancers for real sex, but somehow helping out a friend didn't cover getting up onstage at a strip club. The vampire community thought their king shouldn't be shaking his booty onstage for a bunch of humans.
"I am an exhibitionist; do you know what that means, Irene?"
She blushed again. We took that as a yes.
"Did you enjoy the show, Irene?" and he added just a touch of power to her name. I felt it thrill down my skin and tug at things low in my body. I watched Irene to see if it affected her that way. She stood very still, and then, very slowly, raised her eyes to stare into his face the way that mice must stare at cats when they are too tired to run anymore and begin to realize just how beautiful the cat is, and how it wouldn't be a bad way to die.
My voice was very firm as I said, "Stop it."
"You don't mind, do you, Irene?" Every word was thick with power.
Irene's eyes were huge, her face slack, as she nodded.
"It's what you've wanted since you saw me onstage, isn't it?"
"Since before that, my lord; how can any of us stand near the flame of your beauty and not want to be closer to the heat of it?"
"But I am cold, Irene, not hot. There is no flame here, no light, only the chill of the grave and darkness."
"She is your heat, my lord, and the shapeshifters, they burn very hot indeed." Her voice was eager now, and when she said heat, I felt the temperature rise, and burn; it almost made me flinch, hot, holding the press of high summer.
"Do you feel it, ma petite?"
"Yeah," I said, and got off his lap to stand at his side, just our fingers intertwined. "Cut the mind tricks, Irene, that shit don't fly here."
The next words from her lips were someone else's; the inflection was wrong, as if a stranger were borrowing her voice. "You tried to take over my servant. I am merely demonstrating that we are not helpless against you." Irene's hands were at her side, feet apart, shoulders more straight, and just something about the way she stood said male.