The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Eighteen)

Mason paid court to Lyssa, ignoring any attempts by anyone else to speak to him. When the dance was over, he offered her his arm and escorted her to a quiet and secluded spot on the far end of the outside verandah. Moonlight provided a spectacular view of the ocean. When she leaned against the rail, he casually pressed against her back, looping an arm around her waist to give her body his support if she needed it. "When did you last feed?" "A few hours ago. " She looked out over the rail, her gaze coursing over the view. "The boy is very devoted to you. " "I've learned many things about Jacob. Enough to know he's not a boy. I was blessed to have him come into my life at this point. " Lyssa laid her head back on his shoulder. "I guess we'll be fueling the gossips, you and me. Where have you been, Mason? You've been missed. " "Only by you. The rest just miss my influence and wealth. " "Well it's hard to miss you for your charming and affectionate nature. " He smiled, ran his knuckles along her cheek. "You break my heart, dearest. "

She tilted her face up at the tone of his voice, and saw the pain in his eyes. "You know. " "Thanks to Thomas. And to the delicacy of this beautiful face of yours. " At her alarmed look, he shook his head. "No one else would see it. I just know you. I can tell something is draining your strength. " Shaking her head, she turned her face into his large palm. "I don't know what to say. I'm grateful, Mason. " "Oh, bollocks on that, " he murmured. "How will I get along in a world that doesn't contain Lady Elyssa Wentworth? The only woman who can terrify me with nothing more than the sound of her voice. " "The only woman who's ever beaten you in a fair fight. " "Now, I wouldn't say that. I was in a weakened condition. Wal- lowing in misery and trying to poison myself with alcohol. You knocked me around and told me to stop feeling sorry for myself. " She reached up, touched his jaw. "You didn't have to come. " "I know that. But I have very few people I love, my lady. God has made my heart extremely stingy in that regard. You are one of them. And the boy you consider a capable man is still human and very outnumbered here. " She shook her head again. "Your heart isn't stingy. If anything, it's too tender. I saw one like you less than a month ago. A mortal. Jacob's brother. Eaten up by his hatred and grief, his guilt. You men of honor. Such foolish creatures you are. " "We are. But it's unforgettable women such as yourself who de- stroy us with your loss. " He paused. "He took the third mark, even knowing. " "He did. " She looked away, out into the gardens. "He insisted and I . . . Couldn't deny him. " "Good. " At her surprised look, Mason shrugged. "He's yours en- tirely, body, heart and soul. You'd break him only if you left him be- hind. Trust me. " His amber eyes flickered. "I know. " Tears welled in her eyes and she hastily blinked them back as Mason gallantly pretended not to see, though his hand rose and lay on her nape. His thumb stroked her there, following the strands of her hair over her shoulder.

"It's funny, " she said quietly at last. "Before Jacob, I was ready to die. Had accepted it. These past two years . . . The awfulness that Rex became. Thomas's loss . . . When I found out I was sick, it didn't bother me so much, not from a personal standpoint. But then Jacob came, and he's like something I've been seeking my entire life. Now that I've found him, I just want more. More time. How greedy is that? To have been given so much time and want more?" "When you find the right love, eternity isn't long enough. " "Lady Lyssa?" Lyssa straightened and turned with Mason. Brian stood a re- spectful distance from them. "There you are. " She cleared her throat, attempting a lighter tone. "I'd intended to grace you with tonight's dance and had to settle for this scoundrel who didn't have the courtesy to arrive on time. I'm not even sure he has an invitation. " Brian looked between them, something obviously filling his mind to the point he couldn't quite comprehend the banter. "It would have been my honor to dance with you, my lady, " he said at last. "But . . . I apologize. Lord Belizar and the others have convened in the Council chambers on an important matter and need your attendance most urgently. Lord Mason, they asked if you could attend as well. " "It's a long walk to those chambers in high heels, " Mason ob- served. "Perhaps a chair could be arranged . . . " "I can walk, " Lyssa said. "Certainly, " Brian said at the same time. He gave a low bow to her, an apology for the interruption. "We've already arranged for it. " Even now a traveling chair was being brought onto the verandah via the stairs by a quartet of the naked and masked servants. Seeing them reminded her of a group of executioners, their faces hidden. When they came to a halt, they blocked the stairs. "I've not lived this long by being stupid, or unaware. " When Ma- son reached out a hand to her, Lyssa stepped back to the balcony rail. Jacob, where are you? She struggled with the effort to hold back her panic when her attempt to establish the mind link was met with a black fog of confusion.

The holes in her shields were so frequent now she barely expended the effort to keep his mind out of hers ex- cept when absolutely necessary, perhaps because she didn't want to know when she completely lost the ability to do it. Like a person go- ing deaf, wondering why everyone was mumbling. She hadn't questioned her decision to permit him full access to her thoughts during the last several weeks. Or why more and more she preferred to hear him speak aloud in addition to thinking thoughts when he was at a distance. It had increased the strength of her reception. Now, she could hear him only like a murmur of static through a cell phone, devices she'd always disliked intensely and never needed. She strained to bring that voice in focus. Knowing he was talking to her, she nevertheless couldn't hear him clearly. The panic that flooded her now was another wave of what she'd felt at the ocean when Jacob was hurt. Brian and Mason had moved a step forward, as if they were closing in on her like she was a wild ani- mal. She could go over the rail, tumble to the ground, get away. If she didn't break a limb. If she did, she wouldn't have time to heal before they'd be on her. You'd muss your dress, my lady. It's a beautiful dress, all the more so because you're in it. She closed her eyes, her hands balling into fists at the effort of grasping that voice, holding on to it. Her temples started to pound. Nausea heaved in her stomach, and her skin was tingling along her back, a faint burn, something new in her category of symptoms. Jacob, where are you? There was a vocal reaction of surprise and affront in the gardens below. A breath later, Jacob finished scaling the trellis, a shorter dis- tance from the ground than the winding stairs. He dropped lightly onto the tiles in bare feet, tux still in place. He was breathing hard, as if he'd come at a dead run from wherever he'd been. "I am here, my lady. At your back, as always. " Lyssa closed her hand on his forearm. His hand settled over hers, warm and reassuring. She wanted into his head. Still couldn't get there. "What's going on?"

"There's nothing for you to fear at all, my lady. " Jacob smiled at her, his pleasure genuine enough to make her draw a wary breath of reassurance. "Brian has good news to share with the Council. He's found the cure to the Delilah virus, and he can administer it to you here. He was testing the serum and so brought enough dosages. " Despite their audience, he cradled her face, tipping it up to his. "You'll be around to enchant men for as long as you wish. " "You told them . . . " She swallowed, keeping the bile down with effort, though the headache was starting to make speech difficult. "It was time, my lady. When I heard about the cure from Debra, I knew–" "I can't hear you . . . Inside me . . . I need . . . " "I'm right here, my lady. " Without permission, he simply bent, lifting her in his arms. He shouldered past Brian and Lord Mason to the chair, gently setting her on it. She held on to his neck, drawing his face close. "You are telling me true?" "I told you I would never be false to you, my lady. Let's get to Council chambers and we can get it taken care of. " "I will want to know how it works, " she said as they lifted her. "I won't have"–she let go of him to press her fingers to her temple as his brow creased in concern–"it resulting in warts . . . Or my hair falling out. There are . . . Worse things than being dead. " "Yes, my lady, " he said, a ghost of a smile crossing his face as he urged the servants forward with their precious cargo. He exchanged a glance with Mason. The Middle Eastern vampire as well as Brian fell in behind them. They got down the stairs well enough, but as they reached the bottom and rounded the corner to traverse the gardens, Jacob stopped abruptly. "Wait. Put her down. Now. " Brian spoke the question behind him, but Jacob shouldered the vampire aside. Snatching up an ice bucket left on an outside table, he quickly dumped it and moved to his lady's side, blocking Mason and Brian's view with his broad back as she doubled over, a cry coming from her lips. He held her hair out of the way as she vomited blood, but when she rocked forward on another spasm, her body contorted as if she'd been struck.

Pain exploded in his own body. Jacob staggered, the ability to breathe suddenly restricted, weakness overwhelming him. Mason leaped to his side as he dropped the bucket, stumbling to one knee. When his lady desperately reached out for him despite her own pain, he managed to lock his fingers around hers. Mason was not quick enough with the bucket to keep her next expulsion from splattering the front of her dress. She vomited far more than Jacob had ever seen. When Brian eased her back, she had the pallor of a true corpse, something that would never be mistaken for a vampire despite the lore. Her limbs were shaking. "Jacob. " The light in her eyes was crimson, her fangs lengthen- ing. "Take her quickly, " Brian snapped. The servants hesitated. Though it felt as if he were ripping off a limb, Jacob extricated his fingers. His lady's face warred between panic and a Herculean effort to maintain her composure. The disease was taking away the control of a lifetime, both mentally and physically. It pained him as much as the symptoms to see her fighting such a battle with it. "I'll make sure he's behind you every step of the way, my lady. Council chambers. Go. " Mason snarled the command. The servants bolted forward. The next wave of pain knocked Jacob back to his knees. "No. Jacob–" Lyssa cried out to him, struggling to get past Brian. He was holding her fast on the chair, moving with the servants, his expression grim. "I shouldn't have done this to you. Help him. Ma- son. Help . . . " "I've got him, my lady. Be easy. We'll be right behind you. " Mason knelt and got Jacob's arm over his shoulders, helping the other man to his feet. "Hold the mind block between us as long as you can, " Jacob mut- tered. "We need to get her to Council chambers. " "She may not want this, " Mason said under his breath as they moved after the chair. They could hear Brian reassuring her, glanc- ing back often to confirm for her that they were there.

"She's not herself right now, " Jacob managed to keep an even tone, though it felt as if a baseball bat was being applied to his rib cage. He didn't want his lady feeling this kind of pain. "Let's save her life, then solicit her opinion. " "She would say that's typical male thinking. " "Lady Lyssa is a force of nature. A constellation. A guiding force. They need her. Bad things coming if she goes. " How many like his brother would die if Carnal and his kind took over? What would happen to servants like Debra or Devlin? At the tightening of Mason's mouth, Jacob knew he understood. Just being with her for a handful of months and training with Thomas, Jacob knew her influence was felt far outside of her terri- tory. Would the Council be able to maintain control of vampires like Carnal without her? Not just her power, which was considerable, but the power of example, the ideal they sought to emulate? So inspiring that for centuries the bulk of them had been willing to control their bloodlust to be like her, and the rest had been too afraid of her power to go against the Council. "I've been successful keeping her out of your head only because she's not yet figured out it's not the disease separating you. If the episode she's having ebbs, she'll know. And tear a strip from my brain obliterating the shielding. " "Then we need to get there quickly to preserve your sanity. " "She's not going to agree to this. " "She's not herself, " Jacob repeated and grunted. Mason slid his arm around his waist, taking more of his weight. "If you're going to throw up, do let me know so I can move out of the way. " "You . . . Let my lady's blood ruin her dress. She'll consider it . . . Equal payment. Christ, this hurts. " If this was anything like the agony his lady was suffering, he admired her all the more for not screaming. "You . . . " He gripped Mason's coat at the shoulder, his hold strong and desperate enough to rip the seams. "I can do this. She needs me for this. But . . . She's so . . . Lonely. I'm just . . . A human. She . . . You make sure; you swear to me . . . Take care of her. She may be a goddess, but she gets so lonely.

Help her . . . Tend her roses. She likes company when she does that . . . Or she gets sad. Stay with her. Don't go back to the desert. She needs . . . You. " "Sssh . . . Easy, boy. Come on. " Mason spoke gruffly, took most of Jacob's weight on his arm and broke into a trot to keep pace with Lyssa's entourage. They reached the chamber before Mason's prediction came to pass, thank the gods. Just as Jacob gained the threshold, the vam- pire's grip on him faltered and he shuddered, his jaw flexing. He looked at Jacob, then his gaze darted across the room. "Let it go, " Jacob gasped. "We're here, my lord. Do not suffer fur- ther on our account. " The pain was receding, a blissful sign the attack was passing. However, the fact it had affected him as harshly as it had his lady told him they were close. The next one could be the final one. When Mason's expression eased, his lady burst into Jacob's mind with the force of an asteroid, knocking him to his knees once more as her energy spun around wildly. First she reassured herself of the connection, then she sought understanding of what had been block- ing her. Feeling her hands on his head, he looked up as she gripped his chin, her nails biting cruelly into the skin beneath his beard, into the vulnerable throat. The relief at the pass of the attack fled as he realized it might be far more difficult to get her to agree to the treatment when she had the ability and strength to resist it. But though strength surged back into his own limbs, a curious lassitude remained, telling him she hadn't recovered fully despite the appearance to the contrary. Her eyes glittered with fire, her mouth tightening into a hard line. Before he could call out a warning or protest, she'd left him. Mason was slammed up against the wall, so hard the elegant, thick planking cracked. Lyssa's head whipped around as several Council members started forward. Her fangs glittered, her eyes glowing with hellfire. When Jacob stood, he had to hold on to the edge of the table. He wondered where she was finding the reserve of strength to put on this show when he could feel her weakness in the marrow of his bones.

There was a tingling, unpleasant heat in the same location, as if he was being microwaved. It was making the room warmer than it should have been. Her eyes moved in slight, erratic motions as if she were reading small type, then her expression shifted to Brian and Debra. For the moment Mason was not fighting her hold, though his hand had closed over the wrist of her hand, holding him pinned. There was a tray on the table with sterile pads. A cloth covered whatever else was on it. The Council members were arrayed tensely around the chamber, their faces somber. Watching her. "No, " she whispered. She released Mason. "No. " More firmly. "Lady Lyssa. " Lord Uthe spoke first. "Perhaps your servant mis- represented the situation. Lord Brian has found a cure to your ill- ness. You can walk out of this room in thirty minutes, completely healed. " "No, " she said. I'm sorry, my lady. But I will not let you die. Lyssa turned. The Council members were moving into a semi- circle around her. Brian looked torn between a scientist's overwhelm- ing eagerness to prove his cure before the most prestigious of his sponsors, and a man's concern for her. Lyssa knew he had compas- sion, but it was misplaced at the moment. He should be worrying for his own well-being. "I will not submit to this. " "With the greatest respect, my lady, our queen. " Lord Uthe bowed. His expression was stern, implacable. "We believe your judg- ment is already too impaired to make that decision. We seek only to restore you to yourself. " She curled her lip. "Then I suggest you try to make me. " Despite the blood still spattering her dress, no one doubted she could be deadly. If anything, Jacob knew it just reminded all present of what she could do. The amount of strength she had was the only thing in question. He suspected he and Mason were the only ones who knew it was not as formidable as it appeared. When Uthe's expression shifted to Mason as if reading Jacob's thoughts, Lyssa's did the same.

"Don't even think of challenging me, Mason. " "On a good day, a fight between us might go either way. Today, I think you know I'll win. " He met her furious gaze with a steady am- ber one, a determined light there that said he would make good on the promise. "But it would break my heart. Please don't make me prove it. " "My lady, don't–" Jacob spoke as she turned to square off with the vampire. Mason tensed. You be still. When she flicked her attention at him like the sharp end of a knife, she was the lady he knew, even as he could feel the vibrations of dull pain. There was no separation in their symptoms now. Her body was like the shore before a tide, getting ready for the next flood of spasms to roll in. My lady, please. We don't have time. Her gaze shifted to Brian. "I'm understanding his thoughts cor- rectly, am I not?" Her voice was ice, and Jacob didn't blame Brian for the hesitancy with which he responded. They were watching her like a roomful of children trapped with a poisonous and angry snake. "Yes, my lady. We have found a cure. If we inject the serum into your servant and you drink from him, it will destroy the virus entirely. That is what our cell models and data from our test subjects tell us. "Test subjects?" Her voice dropped, deceptively soft. "Servants you murdered. " "Servants who sacrificed themselves for the betterment of our species. Their loss regrettable but valued. " Belizar spoke when Brian could not seem to find an answer, his discomfiture obvious. "I was not speaking to you, " she snapped. Her gaze never left Brian. "So the serum is injected into Jacob. What then?" "My lady. " Jacob felt his heart lurch with a different but no less potent pain as she refused to turn and acknowledge him. "You said you trust my judgment. You've said as much numerous times over these past several months. " "I was wrong. "

Brian swallowed, pressed on. "It infects his blood, mixes. How much does he weigh?" "A hundred and ninety-eight pounds, " Jacob said before she sent him a searing look. "It will take approximately eleven minutes for the integration, " Brian said hastily. "We draw a sample to be sure. Then the vampire drinks. " He paused. "You drain his blood, though we think someone of your size would be cured with no more than two quarts. " "But it will still kill him. " "The serum is deadly poison to a human, even a marked one. " He nodded once, a quick jerk. "He is already dead if you die, my lady, " Lady Helga offered in a quiet voice. "You serve no one with your sacrifice. " And if you live, my lady . . . Jacob interjected the thought and was rewarded with a flash of pain through his head like electric current. Don't make me tell you again. His jaw hardened, and he reached out, clamped a hand on her wrist, drawing her startled attention. He straightened to his full height despite the fire in his gut, meeting her fiery expression with the flared temper of his own. "You told me. Protect what is mine. No matter what, that is my first priority. " If you live, the people of your territory remain safe until you can get this Council to agree to a per- manent pardon or changing the rules altogether. You can make sure that Carnal and his cronies don't take advantage of this group. This Council needs their queen awhile longer. You know they do. She pulled her arm away. "You bastard. " He inclined his head. "It doesn't change the truth of it, does it, then?" She was furious, frightened,hurt and dangerous. While he knew some of it was the disease, much of it was her resistance to losing control of the situation. Perhaps it would have been better that first night if you'd let me put you on the St. Andrew's Cross. Put the mana- cles on you, the ones you couldn't break. You told me, "True submis- sion is not only the most courageous act a person can commit to another, it's an act of faith. Of trust. " Like now.

She turned a startled gaze to him, her mind on that night with him, when everything had been dark sensuality, their relationship all tempting possibilities. But was she capable of fully trusting any human, even him? Perhaps I could have handled this better, my lady, but there was no time. The next attack will likely kill us both. Give me the gift of your trust. He knew his thoughts were a book for her to read, though he could tell nothing yet from the angry swirl of her own. "Will he suffer, Brian?" She pivoted. "Lie to me and I will rip your throat out. " "Yes, my lady. " He swallowed again, glanced toward Jacob. "The pain is excruciating. But it's not long. After you drink from him, we may end his pain, but he will die within fifteen minutes of the se- rum's administration. " She turned back to Jacob. "When did you learn all of this?" "About half an hour ago, my lady. " "And you . . ." She shifted her gaze to Mason. "You, who value your self-determination so much you're willing to leave our species rudderless to preserve it. You jumped in with both feet to take away mine. To block me from reading my own servant in order to trap me here. " Mason did not flinch from her accusatory glance. "As I told you, my lady. I have very few friends. " "I understand why much better now. " Please do not blame them, my lady. You know this disease impairs judgment. Think. Why should both of us have to die if there is an option where one of us may live? It is possible, isn't it, that your judgment is impaired? Don't you want to do what needs to be done to get it back? Jacob stepped in front of her. Tension emanated from the others at his back as he dared what no one else in the room did. Reaching out, he closed his hand on hers again, twining his fingers in hers. She kept her arm rigid at her side, but did not withdraw it. She was staring at his mouth, refusing to meet his eyes. He extended his other hand, caressed her chin with gentle pressure, asking her by that gesture to raise her gaze.

I used the best judgment I had, my lady. I don't think I was wrong. He couldn't stand the dispassionate stare another moment lon- ger, the wall of silence in her mind. Only his royal-blooded Mistress would divert precious energy at such a moment to convey her dis- dain. His temper broke. "Damn it, woman, you wouldn't have listened. You would have just seen in my mind that it meant my death and refused. Does that make logical sense?" He grasped her upper arms, gave her a frus- trated shake as her green eyes shot fire at him, her mouth com- pressed in a hard line. Energy was building around her, her body quivering with nerves or fury. "For centuries, you've believed that humans are here to serve your needs. Why in the hell would you be willing to die with me when I could willingly give you your life?" Because I don't want to lose you. The wall shattered, and he was flooded with emotions so strong they scalded his insides. She gripped the front of his shirt. As she pinned him with her gaze, she told him with her body language and her thoughts that this moment was just the two of them, consequences be damned. "Because I've lived all those centuries and never wanted anyone, anything, the way I want you. No matter what anyone in this room believes, including you, Jacob Green, that is real and true, not illusion. " His stunned gaze couldn't move from her tortured expression, the love that was there as well as the sorrow. "My lady–" "No. No. " She shook her head vehemently, stepping back from him but perversely keeping a grip on his shirt. He ran his hands up arms that had become ice cold, like her hands. "We're leaving. I want to go home. " They wouldn't make it beyond this room, but Jacob was spared the effort of pointing that out. When she turned toward the double doors, Mason shifted, blocking them. "Don't make me do this, Lady Lyssa, " he exhorted her. She moved faster than Jacob expected. He could barely follow her until she caught hold of Mason's lapels and tossed him out of her way. Yanked at the door. Just as fast, the vampire was back on her, holding her fast from behind. She shoved away from the door, trying to shake him off.

Her struggles became something else, more violent and erratic. Jacob fell to one knee again, grabbing at the edge of the table. "Mason, " he rasped, "ease your–" "She's having another attack, " Debra cried out. Fire roared through his blood. The head-splitting pain and nau- sea made him want to throw up his internal organs to get rid of it. Her shields had kept her pain from him for so long, but now he ab- sorbed her every physical and emotional reaction such that it was hard to separate what belonged to whom. Lyssa seized in Mason's arms, convulsing, her eyes rolling back. As she thrashed, dark, oblong marks appeared on the tender under- side of her forearms. The smell of burned flesh filled the room. Coun- cil members gasped, shrank back. "Do it, now, " Uthe ordered Brian. Two Council vampires moved swift ly, yanking Jacob to his feet despite the fact he was doubled over and gasping for air. They lifted and slammed him down on the conference table, each holding one side of him. He cried out in agony despite himself. "No. " Unintelligible a blink before, Lyssa's voice rolled like thunder. The hoarse sound a demon emerging from Hell would make. Mason still held her fast, her feet barely grazing the floor. Her hair was snarled, blood running from a corner of her mouth where she'd ap- parently speared herself with a fang. She looked decidedly vicious. "Let me go, " she hissed at Mason, her gaze red fire. "You've made your point. This is going to happen, my will be damned, so you let me go be beside him. Now. " Mason cautiously complied, keeping between her and the door. Fast as a snake and just as venomous, she spun when he released her, raking his face with her nails, slicing deep enough to tear ribbons of flesh that caught on her nails and fluttered gruesomely there. He caught her wrist, his own gaze flaring with temper. Then he dropped his touch, apparently startled at the thinness of the skin under his hands. It started to peel back and blacken as soon as he let go, as if the abrasion had spurred the process in that area. Though her face was rigid with the pain of it, she didn't let it diminish the contempt on her face by so much as a flicker.

"You son of a bitch, " she said quietly. His eyes were gold flint. "If you live, you may choose, as we all can, to take your own life. But it will be your choice, as is our way. Not the way of humans, who must face the inevitability of their own mortality. I won't let you die, not knowing if it is your true wish or the disease speaking. " "If he is dead, nothing matters. Nothing. " "That does nothing to convince this assembly that my judgment is unsound, and if you were in your right mind, you would know that. " "You don't understand. " "Don't I?" This time there was an undercurrent of anger in his tone, of bitterness so sharp it could almost draw blood. She ignored him, focusing on the two Council vampires holding Jacob to the table. "He has acted with honor his entire life, " she said in a quiet, ter- rible tone. "Though he's chosen to sacrifice everything for me, you treat him as a coward. Get your hands off him. If you don't, I swear if I survive this I will stake you myself. "