The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Eleven)

But in the way of women, she took her time about it. The noise of the distant crowd had died off, the increased traffic in the pavil- ion area alerting them that the current tournament was over. A mead seller informed them that the main jousting tournament would be in a half hour. So he wandered hand in hand with his lady, looking over articles of clothing, jewelry, weaponry, goblets. Jacob was watching her consider a set of beaten silver goblets when he heard his name called. Turning, he saw Elijah Ingram coming their way, holding the hand of his six-year-old grandson. "Happy birthday, " Elijah offered as they approached. "Mrs. Went- worth was kind enough to invite us to join in the party tonight. Were you surprised?" "Immensely. " Jacob shook the man's hand. Dressed in jeans and a golf shirt, Ingram looked different. When he drove the limo, he al- ways wore a dark suit and tie, and usually was armed. Even in the more casual clothes, the black man had an authoritative presence that suggested he wasn't to be trifled with. His grandson had no fear, how- ever. He gripped two of the man's fingers in his small hand,his eyes full of Lyssa as she turned from making her selection. "Pretty lady. Princess. "

"Yes, she is, " Mr. Ingram said. "This is Mrs. Wentworth, John. She invited us to the party tonight. What do you say?" "Thank you, " the boy said and then lifted the item he had in the other hand. "They made me a balloon dog. I'm going to take it home and let Whiskers pop it so she'll grow up to be tough. Won't be afraid of no dogs. " "Any dog, " his grandfather corrected. "Whiskers?" Lyssa smiled. "That must be our little grease mon- key. " "Monkey is right. The cat is into everything. " Ingram tried to re- turn the smile, though Jacob noticed it didn't quite reach his eyes. There was a wariness to his posture even as he continued, his gaze shifting between Jacob and his Mistress. "Tough I don't know about. If she isn't sleeping in my armpit at night, she screams like there are ghosts in the house. I'd have been happy to drive you tonight, Mrs. Wentworth. And you are looking mighty pretty, " he added, some- what stiffly. She waved a hand. "I'm becoming fond of the motorcycle. " "A regular biker chick, " Jacob agreed. "Before you know it she's going to have the Harley T-shirt and fringed jacket. " The little boy giggled, and she winked at him, squatting down. When Elijah tensed, Jacob abruptly understood the man's reserve. Lyssa caught it as well.

From the tightening of her facial features, he suspected she would have straightened and turned away, that haughty veneer falling into place to mask her reaction, but she was already down to John's level and he moved into her space without hesitation. Elijah reached after him. Jacob put out a hand, drawing his atten- tion and firmly stopping the gesture. Elijah's gaze snapped to him and Jacob met it with a level stare of his own, a slight shake of his head. "I love Whiskers. Thank you for giving him to me. You smell good, " John informed her as he reached out and touched her hair, checking out the jeweled hairpiece. "You're very lucky to have such a wonderful grandfather, " Lyssa told the boy. "He's as brave as any knight here. I'm going to go look at jewelry.

You can go with me, ooorrr . . . "–she drew out the syllable as the boy wrinkled his nose at the idea of jewelry shopping–"you could go see that juggler over there. We just saw him pull a ball out of a boy's ear. " When she rose, she met Ingram's gaze. "As mistakes go, I think he may be your son's most beautiful, " she said. She left them then, walking toward the jeweler's tent. In her mind, Jacob caught a flash of a delicate ear, a misshapen cheek. A velvet cloth being pulled over a baby's face, then the curtain fell back over the thought. He didn't think his lady knew he'd seen it. Elijah's actions had struck a vulnerable point in her, enough that she hadn't guarded her thoughts as she usually did. At least that's what he told himself as he struggled to handle the images which hit him hard and low in the gut. The knight's daughter. His daughter. Their daughter. "I'm sorry, " Ingram said, keeping one eye on John, now involved with the juggler. "I just . . . You know what she is, Jacob. " Jacob watched her study the rings and noted the jeweler stepping back to let her look, not yet engaging her in dialogue. She used that unapproachable air when she needed it. Like her seductive talents, it was even more effective than a vampire's compulsion at giving her space when she wanted it. "She's many things, " he said quietly. "But she'd stake herself be- fore she'd harm a child. Human or otherwise. Don't hurt her like that again, Elijah. She invited you here because she knows we're friends, but she also invited you because she likes you. She might be pretty damn near invincible in our terms, but her heart can be bruised just like anyone else's. " He pressed a hand to the man's arm to let him know they were square, but then he left him to go to Lyssa's side, surprised at the protective anger swirling through him. The rings were tied with ribbons and hung from the tent frame, which also served the purpose of having them catch the light of the trio of candles the jeweler kept on the counter. The candles rested in a tray of water and polished rock for aesthetic effect. Jacob slid a hand to the small of her back and reinforced it with a touch from his mind, a wordless reassurance.

She put her hand up on her hip, her fingers curling over his. No response in words or thought, but he felt her accept both offerings like a comforting em- brace. As she looked at the designs, he reached out to touch one he liked. A simple and delicate thing with a sapphire center stone. The stone rested in a fairy's lap, her tiny metal-etched hand resting atop it. She lay reclined in the clasp of her lover who appeared to be hu- man. The sinuous intertwining of their bodies made up the top half of the band and the setting for the stone. Lyssa pressed closer to his shoulder, examining it. "It's quite deft, isn't it?" He nodded, glanced at the jeweler. "How much?" To him, it was expensive. He knew to Lyssa it was a paltry sum. The night he'd met her she'd been wearing a necklace the equal of which he'd only seen on movie stars and fashion models. So he wasn't sure what made him nod and dig the money out of his pocket. It constituted about a week of the salary he accepted from Lyssa. "For an admirer of yours?" she asked in a neutral tone. Jacob lifted his shoulder in an uncomfortable shrug. "A token, my lady. You may keep it or gift it, if it's not to your liking. I just . . . " He'd never given her a gift, and today he wanted to do so. "I thought it would please you. " She was giving him that arch look she did so well, and he wouldn't be baited. She'd never struck him as the type who wanted slavish devotion, preferring Bran's dignified and unquestionable loyalty to slobbering affection. But she knew full well how much Jacob felt when it came to her, so it would do no good to hide it. He couldn't bear her laughing at him, though. So he shrugged again and began to pocket the ring. "I'll give it to someone else, and not trouble you. " Clasping his wrist, she stopped him. Extended her left hand. "Let's see if it fits. " Nodding, he tried her middle finger first. The ring was too tight. "If you'd prefer the right hand, my lady, we can put it–" "I prefer the left hand, Jacob. "

He thought her dark green eyes could rearrange all the shadows of his soul into the shape of herself. "After all"–her voice was soft as their gazes held–"you did promise me forever, didn't you?" She put his heart in his throat so easily he wondered she didn't just pull it out completely. If she didn't, he was sure he'd choke on it one day. When he slid the ring over her ring finger it fit perfectly, snugly at the base as it should. He gripped her hand for a moment, her fingers linked with his.

Abruptly, she turned, drawing him on- ward. "It's about time for the joust, isn't it?"

The knights were galloping across the field to the cheers of the as- sembled crowd as they arrived. Though the wooden bleachers were filling up quickly, there was a space in the center portion of the third row. Lyssa accepted Jacob's hand as she navigated to the cushioned seat, holding up the edge of her skirt to avoid tripping on it. When she sat, she spread it beneath her, folding a triangle of the excess fab- ric over her thigh and crossing her ankles, her back straight. Though she could tell Jacob was pleased by his surroundings, there was a pensiveness to him, too. She could feel the swirling nu- ances of his mind. He wasn't caught up only in his Faire circuit memories. "Jacob?" She touched him. "Are you all right?" "Yes, my lady. " Shaking his head, he ran a hand along the back of his neck. "God. It gets clearer and clearer, the longer we're together. I remember . . . It was dim, in that closed tent, and hot. I noticed you weren't even sweating. You . . . Had me disrobe. You honored me by bathing me. I was embarrassed that I was so . . . Aroused before you. " A touch of color rose in his face, amusing her even as it made her heart clutch. Even being bathed by that cool water, a treasure in the desert, couldn't cool my ardor. You dried my feet with your hair. It was the knight's voice, his formal cadence of speech in her head, and the hair rose on her arms at the sound of it. "You fell asleep at one point with your head in my lap, " she managed.

Turning his head to look at her, the breeze moved his hair on his shoulders, tangling against the gleam of his beard. "With the taste of your grapes in my mouth. Your sweet breath on my face . . . " His brow knit. "Why did I leave you?" "You were joining a battle elsewhere. I wanted to keep you, but since you were a man of honor and had come to my aid, I quelled the urge to turn you from your path. " An ironic smile touched her mouth. "It was a struggle. Then as now, I'm not your equal in honor. Fair play isn't always in my vocabulary. " "You have an honor and sense of duty that rivals that of the entire Round Table, my lady. But you'll not hear me argue about fair play. " Catching her swatting hand with a laugh, he kissed it, then looked back at the field. "I loved doing the circuit, but probably the best times were after, when it was just us. The players. It felt the way it should. Real. Sometimes . . . Well, a man's imagination gets away with him, then, doesn't it?" I'm not Gideon, Sir Vagabond. I'm not going to laugh at you. His jaw tightened. "If there is such a thing as reincarnation, and if they were who we'd like to believe they were, I wondered if you'd find Gawain and Lancelot, maybe even Arthur, someplace like this. So they could be as close as possible to the wistful dreams of lives gone before. " A wry smile touched his lips. "With the conveniences of cable and microwave pizza within reach instead of draft y castles, invading hordes and winter food shortages. " "Perhaps. But I tend to think spirits of men that strong couldn't bear to live only in the shadow of what they once were. They would need a new quest, equally important. " She glanced at him. "Isn't that why you left?" The trumpeters lifted their instruments, forestalling a further reply as they heralded the beginning of the tournament. Elijah and John joined them, sitting in the row just below them. Having both Jacob and Elijah close, seeing this plan for Jacob's birthday come to fruition, gripped Lyssa with a quiet contentment she hadn't experienced in some time. She turned her attention to the field, eager to see what would happen next. A horse in trappings of red silk cantered onto the field. The other knights had cantered back out of the ring, into the large canopy tent set up next to the arena entrance.

This knight was in gold and silver armor and bore the Faire pennant. As he came to a stop on the other side of the wall dividing the tournament field from the audience, the horse made a knee, bowing with his knight. "My lords and ladies"–the knight turned his mount in a stylish circle and his baritone resounded through the air–"the hour grows late, and so it is time for a very special tale. I must ask you all to lis- ten carefully, for this tale has never been told at our Faire before, and it never will be told again. You also will see something no one else will see again. So you must pass it on to your children and your children's children. That is how all legends endure. " Jacob's brow furrowed. While it had been some time since he'd been with the Faire, he knew Terry enough that if his player said the story had never been told before, it hadn't. He wouldn't take the risk of having someone attend his Faire twice, as many often did, and hear the "story that had never been told" twice. "Once, a long, long time ago, " the knight continued, "there was a horse of unparalleled beauty. Fate placed her into the hands of evil men. As many of us know, evil cannot accept the existence of some- thing beautiful. They do their best to twist it, make it ugly. So they hurt her. Beat her. " The volume of his voice swelled, carry ing his dramatic but genuine tone of outrage to the corners of the field. "They tried to take away her spirit. When they couldn't, they were determined to destroy it utterly. " Unbidden, an image of Rex flashed into his head. The first night he'd seen Lyssa, when he'd been with Gideon. Watching at a dis- tance as her husband broke her arm. Rex had done it just to see her reaction. Jacob curved his fingers protectively over his lady's delicate hand. Lyssa glanced at him curiously, telling him she'd been listen- ing to the knight and not to his thoughts. He pushed the dark im- ages away, not wanting to take her there. "When they thought they'd broken her, she was sold. She was scarred, her beauty gone. Frightened and bitter, she fought the touch of man however she could. It was almost as if she wanted to be de- stroyed. When the heart is so painfully abused, it can no longer see the light of love, the warmth of hope.

All it desires is escape from a world that seems to be only darkness and evil. " Lyssa's gaze shifted to young John, sitting on the far side of Eli- jah. The shape of the child's small skull, his ridiculously delicate neck. Leaning forward, she placed a hand on Elijah's shoulder. He turned as she moved, telling her he was staying well aware of her whereabouts, but he accepted the touch, met her gaze. She nodded, easing some tension in his shoulders as he received and understood her unspoken gesture. No, she didn't blame him at all for being over- protective. "But she was bought by a knight, " the man in the arena contin- ued. "A knight with a true heart so pure, he was able to heal this noble steed with patience and love. " The narrator paced the horse forward, deliberate, slow steps, stopping just a nose from the arena wall. He pitched his voice lower, but it still carried to all present. "For you see, this man didn't mark time the way we do. `Do I have time to do this today? Can I get this done before I'm old and gray? Wouldn't I rather be doing something else?' " She glanced surreptitiously at Jacob. He was leaning forward, his body language saying he obviously recognized the horse in the story, but she knew he didn't know all that was planned yet. Her intuitive knight, so clever at reading other people, so oblivious to things about himself. "He measured deeds, not time. And so he healed her heart, a priceless gift to us all. Unfortunately, when one deed is done, it's time to move on to the next. So in time he left her in loving hands to undertake his next quest. " The knight backed the horse now, crabwalking her to a left-facing profile. The lights around the bleachers disappeared and the spot- lights turned, focusing on the entrance to the large pavilion tent. The baritone voice reverberated out of the darkness. "She has become the star of our show. Though she bears the scars of her trials, we feel she is more beautiful now than before. She brings light into our souls just by existing. " Two knights came out of the tent entrance, each one bearing a length of ribbon in their hands that threaded back through the closed curtain.

"My lady . . . " Lyssa found Jacob's hand, squeezed it. "Tonight, Boudiceaa's knight has come home. She will bear no man's hands on her while he is present, so her usual rider has stepped aside. You are all witness to a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime experi- ence. We call this knight from the stands to take his place among our ranks again. " One of the two men holding the ribbons pushed back his visor, showing a broad grinning face. "Aye, enough of this maudlin non- sense, " he shouted out. "I, Sir George of Canterbury, want to see if he's grown soft. I intend to kick his arse. " The children burst out laughing, but quickly quieted as the nar- rator boomed out, "Boudiceaa, come find your master. " Tears pricked Lyssa's eyes at Jacob's expression, something she could detect even in the darkness. She'd never been able to surprise Rex with a gift like this. Jacob's speechless amazement made her feel a way she wasn't sure she'd ever felt before. She wasn't sure if she wanted to embrace him, or run off where he couldn't find her to compose herself. In the end, she simply watched with the others as another damsel he'd saved erupted onto the field to the astonished cries of the audi- ence. She was sure most of them had never seen such an overwhelm- ing sight in their lives. An Andalusian galloping full tilt, mane flying, tail flowing. The ribbons George and the other knight held were at- tached to her light halter, so as she galloped past, they snapped free, fluttering back toward them. Centuries of breeding had created the almost unreal beauty of the premedieval warhorse. Though the Andalusians eventually had been replaced with breeds more capable of carrying a knight in full armor, she was a treasure for the lighter garb of modern Faire knights. To Jacob she was wholly beautiful, despite the scar she bore across her nose and that had taken her eye. There was also a long scar running down her back haunch, results of the cruelty that had brought her to auction.

In teaching her to trust him, she'd broken his arm, left teeth marks in his shoulder, clipped his temple with a hoof. He'd made so many trips to the emergency room during her training that Terry had threatened to put a gun to her head and end her misery and hatred. But Jacob had prevailed. Aching for his brother, confused by the emptiness in his heart he hadn't known how to fill until he'd met Lyssa, the mare had been priceless to Jacob. By giving him the chance to save her, she'd res- cued him in return. She unerringly headed in his direction as the lights were restored to the bleacher area. A performer and also female, she deliberately slowed down to maximize the effect of the fluid gait, crested arch and flowing tail. Murmurs of awe swept over the children and par- ents like a wave. But when she reached the wall she lifted her head, snorted, put up a hoof and banged the lower boards, causing squeals from those seated on the other side. "You have to go to her, " Lyssa murmured. "I would never stand between such a love. " Jacob turned, placed his forehead against hers. You knew I needed this. I love you. I wanted you to know what that means to me, no mat- ter what happens between now and the end of it. His eyes darkened with emotion. Cradling her face in both hands, he kissed her fair brow. When he rose, holding on to her hand as long as he could, the knights shouted their approval. It got the crowd started as well. Jacob noted many of the Faire players from the pavil- ions had come down and were now lining the arena wall to the left of the bleachers. It was the easiest thing in the world to simply put a hand on the wall and vault stylishly over it. He was glad the boots he was no longer familiar with didn't trip him up and shame him. In a blink, Bou was on him. He embraced her, pressing his face into her muscular neck. When he lifted his head he found that Terry, the other knight holding a ribbon, had dismounted and was grinning at him from a foot away. He handed his reins to a squire who trotted his horse off the field.

"So I hear you've become a kept man these days. " Terry raised his voice for the benefit of the audience. "I'll just go keep your fair lady company while you're impressing us–or not. " Jacob gave him a narrow look. "Behave yourself with her. " Terry laughed and stepped close enough to grip his shoulder. A fierce look crossed his countenance. "It's good to see you again, Ja- cob. Happy birthday. " Jacob glanced at Lyssa, sitting in her blue and silver colors among a sea of mostly brown faces. One or two children had moved close enough to finger her skirt. After assuring their chaperone or parent it was quite all right, she was touching the head of one little girl with an assortment of pigtails. His gracious lady. When it suited her. Bou butted him in the chest, nearly knocking him down while the children giggled. His heart swelled at the bright, healthy look in her eye. Terry and his troupe had cared well for her, continued to nurture her spirit to even greater heights, as he knew they would.

When Terry came to sit by her, Lyssa made room for him with a wel- coming nod. "Look at some of my newbies. " He nodded toward the squires and a couple of the knights leaning on the wall who weren't part of this tournament. "They're wondering who the hell this interloper is, taking Martin's regular ride. They've heard stories about him of course, but they'll expect him to be rusty, or not as familiar with the moves. " Terry wore his sandy brown hair in a Roman style, short at the nape, his face clean shaven. His hands were callused and gnarled from hundreds of camp breakdowns. In his twinkling hazel eyes, Lyssa saw a man who loved where he was and what he did. Who made no apologies for preferring the romanticized past to the jaded present. He grinned as the horse bent one knee to Jacob, inviting him to mount. Lyssa caught her breath as Jacob took hold of a hand- ful of mane and swung up on her bare back in one lithe move, cant- ing her into a pretty circle, his movements flowing easily into hers.

Not too long ago, she thought she'd like to see him on a horse. Her reaction to it, body, heart and soul, was as absurdly overwhelmed as she'd expected it to be. "Martin rides her well, but you can see it's the difference between day and night. You should have seen her when she came here. The most foul-tempered and frightened bitch I'd ever met, of any spe- cies. No one could handle her. Only Jacob knew her soul was still underneath all that. Looking back, I think she knew she could trust him the minute he touched her. She just had to knock him around a bit to prove it was her idea. " Yes, Lyssa thought. It's just that way. Jacob leaned forward, spoke in the mare's ear in a loud mock whisper, mindful of his audience, falling into the mannerisms of a natural performer as though he'd never left. "See her? That's my lady. " The horse's ear swept back. "Want to show off for her a bit, make me look impressive?" Leaning back, he tossed Lyssa a grin before he uttered a com- mand in Spanish. The horse began to perform a high prancing walk. When he changed the command she moved sideways at that gait, and then back again, forming a cross. The spotlight returned, zero- ing in on Jacob and Bou. The mare paused, all muscles quivering. Jacob let the anticipa- tion build. Lyssa saw the children as well as their chaperones come to the edge of their seats. He barked a one-syllable command. Boudiceaa leaped straight up in the air, kicking out her back and front hooves at once as the chil- dren cried out in reaction. When she landed gracefully, she turned in another circle, bowing her arched head, tossing her mane as if well pleased with herself and the applause. "Do it again, " several children called out, making Jacob laugh and comply twice more, earning a dramatic whinny from Boudiceaa on the last jump. "That's a battle move, " he explained to the amazed group. "Knights used it to help them fight in close quarters. The horse was a soldier, too. " Looking toward Terry, he called out, "Are you still doing open jousting, or have you become complete pussies, lugging around that tilt barrier everywhere?"

"I can't wait to see George knock you on your arse, " Terry re- sponded dryly as the children and parents responded with laughter and oohs. Glancing at Lyssa, he spoke loudly. "George hits like a bat- tering ram, my lady. I'm afraid there will be nothing but pieces left. You should pick yourself out another knight. " The kids offered appropriate jeers to that remark as the flood- lights came back on, displaying the full sandy arena again. George trotted his horse forward, impressing them with a half-rearing motion where his horse appeared to wave his front hooves mock- ingly in Bou's direction. "What say you, skinny Irishman? I think your gentle bones might break if I knock you off that pretty horse. " Jacob snorted, but couldn't help but grin at George's broad wink. When he turned Bou to accept a lance from one of the squires, he glanced over to see Lyssa smiling, leaning against Terry's arm as he whispered to her. "My lord, I suggest you get your lips away from my lady's ear, or perhaps George will not be the only thing impaled today, " he de- clared. Terry grinned, lifting a brow. "My thoughts were running along those very lines. She's quite fair. I can't imagine you're anything but an annoyance to her. You think I'm afraid of your tiny lance?" "No. I think you're afraid of your wife. " Laughter at that from the adults. Terry's wife, the charming and not-at-all-worried Beatrice, still managed to give him a threatening look from where she stood with the other members of the troupe, hands on her hips, a fetching pose in the tavern maid garb she wore. She shifted her attention to Jacob and gave him a smile, a welcoming and warm embrace itself. With lines along her attractive face and her auburn hair pulled back, she looked as maternal and lovely as he remembered her. "Your lady has been telling me she is willing to give the jeweled net in her hair to the man who wins the joust today, " Terry an- nounced.

"My lady, you best tie the favor to my arm now, for I can tell you I'm the best of this sordid lot. " This from George. "George has been hit numerous times running the quintain, " Ja- cob pointed out. "It explains why he has delusions of grandeur. " Which of course led to the children, now actively part of the game, calling out for an explanation of the quintain. While George was handling that, Lyssa saw a fift h man come onto the field. He was dressed more like a wild Pict than an English knight, for he wore only a pair of breeks and no shirt on his upper body, unless one counted the Celtic tattoos on his well-developed biceps. He brought his mount up to the rail, so close that the geld- ing's large head reached over and his velvety lips were in range of the children. They squealed and shrank back, but at a calming word from Beatrice, they reached out tentative hands to touch the soft nose. "Warrick, " Terry murmured to her. "God's gift to women. Too many of them don't disabuse him of the notion because of his fair looks. " Lyssa hid a smile. The narrator with the baritone, who Terry whispered was called Elliott, had picked up after the quintain expla- nation and was now on to another history lesson to entertain the audience while the field was being set. "Does anyone know how the giving of the favor came about?" "I shall explain it, " Warrick boldly asserted. Quite deliberately, he shifted his attention to Lyssa. She cocked a brow, amused as he began to speak as if he was talking to her alone. Jacob was a few paces away, and he and Bou had nearly matching expressions of dis- gust, entertaining the audience. She wondered how he'd trained the horse to do that. "A knight could fight in honor of a nobleman's wife, perhaps even his liege lord's woman. If he won, he could treat her as his own wife . . . For one night. " "A sanctioned form of adultery, " Lyssa noted in a low voice to Terry. Elijah shot her a glance over his shoulder, humor flitting through his dark gaze. "Secularly at least. " The Faire owner grinned. "The Church frowned upon it.

I suspect problems arose if the lady in question was more pleased with her `night with a knight' than all her days with her husband. " When Warrick continued to boldly stare at her, Lyssa returned the favor. Gave him a slow and thorough appraisal, her green eyes darkening. His skin shuddered, visibly. Whinnying, his horse began to back up. Jacob had sidled Bou closer and now pushed against Warrick's mount, breaking the eye contact. He shot Lyssa a deprecating look. I told Terry to behave, my lady. I didn't think I'd have to tell you. He clapped a hand on Warrick's back, startling the man out of his sudden stupor. "Believe me, Warrick, she will eat you for breakfast. Stick to the tavern wenches. " "She can have me with bacon and eggs on the side, " Terry quipped. "Does she have as deft a tongue as face?" This from a knight in purple and white, filling in on the rowdy banter since Warrick seemed to be having trouble finding his own tongue. "I wonder–" The crowd burst into laughter as he had to do a quick duck, for Jacob twirled the lance dexterously, nearly taking his head off with its reach. Lyssa found herself delighted to watch them, a complement of well-conditioned men, circling one another and exchanging insults. It was obvious this ritual of genuine heckling had been a mainstay of their competitions with each other, which gave it the tension of a serious sport rather than the distracting sense of a performance. They'd decided to give the children a taste of the rings first, so with those set up at the edge of the field, the trumpet sounded. Jacob did not even need to tap his heels. Boudiceaa was off and running. Lyssa watched, her heart in her throat as much as anyone as five men charged down the field toward four hanging rings, Boudiceaa a full two lengths ahead. "Speed is confidence, my lady, " Terry explained. "A man not as sure of his aim will hold back. Look at him, riding her with nothing but his knees guiding her, and her going flat out. Not even a bridle. " They reached the end of the field. Jacob speared his ring with the lance, spun his steed and managed to cut and bump against George's, making the man drop his lance before Jacob left him behind.

Bou galloped with spirited abandon back up the field. "Holy Christ!" Terry laughed out loud. "Wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it. That boy is unstoppable. " George roared for another lance as soon as they came up the field, making a great show about the insult done him. He faced the children, voicing his outrage as Jacob and Bou pranced behind him, mimicking his gestures and making them laugh. When George whirled, the pair immediately looked serious and repentant. Bou executed a little dip over her front leg, her forelock hanging down, and Jacob bowed from the waist. George glared at them, then spun to address the crowd again. Boudiceaa began to do a high step trot in place, moving left, one set of legs coming over the other as Jacob held one hand in her mane only. When George whipped around, catching them this time, Bou froze in place, one hoof still in the air. Jacob made a show of looking around as if he was seeking what was upsetting George. "He's very good, " Lyssa said over her own laughter, as well as Eli- jah and John's. "Oh, he's an outstanding player, " Terry agreed. "You've given us all a gift, my lady. We're delighted to have him back, if only for a night. I don't think George has a chance, but it would be fun to see the young upstart knocked on his tight arse for once. " Jacob had been brought a breastplate, helmet and buckler. Once donned, he hefted his lance. Elliott summoned the trumpets and then, when the squire whipped the flag down, the men charged. Ja- cob surged forward on Boudiceaa with a bloodcurdling yell. George and his steed thundered toward them across the open field. Lyssa remembered the actual medieval tournaments where jousts had been done with a tilt barrier, where the lances had to be held at an angle over the knight's body. It was impressive and a little fright- ening to now see it done the way it had been done before that, two men charging each other on powerful horses, the lances leveled straight for each other. With three marks, Jacob was more protected than George. She told herself there was no chance the lance was going through the breastplate, not with the tip guarded by a coronal.

The lances struck the bucklers, splintering the weapons and forc- ing both men back against their horses' haunches with the impact as they galloped by one another. Squires raced out with another lance for each man. With barely a pause for action they were charging one another again. Halfway there, George's mount stumbled and he dropped his lance. He kept coming on with a roar, however. A few strides off, Ja- cob tossed his away. When the horses were abreast, he lunged out of his seat, his knee pressed up high on the seat to propel him across. They fell with a resounding thud to the far side, clear of George's horse, tumbling in a tangle of arms and legs. Lyssa realized she'd come to her feet. Terry eased her back to her seat. "The first thing a player learns is how to fall, my lady. No worries. " "So this isn't . . . " Real was not the word she was seeking. As if in agreement with that, Terry shrugged. "George and Jacob have a long history of competition. They tend to like to beat the pride out of each other before they call it quits. It makes for a good show; that's for certain. " As the two men separated, the squires ran out with long swords. The kids were having the time of their lives, on their feet, calling out for their favorite. John was likewise hollering and clapping, stamp- ing. Elijah had a firm hold on his shirt so he wouldn't bounce be- tween the planks of the seat and the floor of their row, though she noted their somber limo driver was shouting out his support for Ja- cob along with his grandson. By the time the squires were there with the swords, both men had shed the armor and helmets. The clash of swords was loud in the brightly lit arena, clods of dirt and grass chipping up around them from the footwork. George spun and struck and Jacob retaliated, moving forward. Neither man seemed to get an advantage for too long, though there were a couple of near misses where Jacob ducked under a slice of the sword. Lyssa's heart jumped into her throat again. The children gasped as Jacob was knocked to a knee, rolled away.

As George came after him, bringing the sword down, Jacob writhed around it, punched him in the jaw and followed it up with a shove from his foot. George toppled backward. In the blink of time he was on his back in the dirt, Jacob was up, his blade at his throat. Imme- diately, he backed off, bowed and awaited George's next move. "I yield, " George called out with a rueful smile.

There were some cheers, some groans, depending on which knight the child had de- cided to champion. Grinning, Jacob handed George up and the two men embraced. George said something that earned a quick laugh from Jacob. He rubbed his arm, as if indicating George's sword blow well could have turned the tide in his favor. Then her servant turned, found her in the crowd. Seeking his la- dy's approval of his victory. Emotional and physical response flooded her in such a hard wave she drew in a breath as if she'd just felt a sharp pain. As he moved toward her, his eyes rested on her face with that potent absorption that made her have a craving to devour him alive, their impressionable audience notwithstanding. Trying to slow her rapid heartbeat, she let her attention move from his face to the broad shoulders and the sweat that dampened the front of the thin tunic. The capable way he still held the sword, as if it were an exten- sion of his hand. The graceful power of his body as he walked to- ward her. Looking at him was not doing a thing to slow her heart rate. Bou was walking alongside without reins to guide her. When they reached the wall, the children were already pressing forward with the supervision of the Faire people. As Bou bent her head to al- low herself to be touched, Jacob placed a hand on her neck. "My lady, " he spoke. "Have I won your favor? Am I deserving?" More than you know. However, Lyssa rose, tossed her hair. "I know not.

Perhaps it was as much luck as skill that won you the game, since the other man's horse stumbled, costing him the second lance. " There were jeers and boos. Jacob placed a hand over his heart as if he'd been struck, staggering back to laughter. "What say all of you?" she called out. The children shouted out their opinions immediately, and Terry guided them on the pre- dominant call of "Favor! Favor!" even as George scowled ferociously and yelled his disagreement, waving his arms in a gesture to silence them all.

Jacob raised a brow as they quieted at last. "It seems they have more faith in my abilities than my lady does. " I have too much faith in your abilities. It makes me fear for you. Despite the dark thought she blocked from Jacob, she accepted Terry's hand to proceed down the bleachers until she stood just above him. Removing her scarflike net and kissing the jeweled fab- ric, she tied it on his arm, letting her hand linger on the sleeve of his tunic to feel the muscle beneath. As the audience cheered, she heard John hollering out his approval and Elijah's whistle. Jacob wound his fingers in a loose lock of her hair and tugged, giving her one of his smiles. "Fortunate scarf, to get a taste of your lips. " Those vivid blue eyes locked on her. "What must I do to win such an honor? Slay a dragon? Lead an army?" Refuse to do anything, even in my service, that would make you turn away from me or love me less than you do today. She covered his surprised mouth with hers before he could re- spond to the thought she'd given him as clearly as a spoken sentence. She knew how much of his heart was worrying over what he would help her do next week, knew there was nothing she could do to stop it. He was right. She had to have the blood. Perhaps, with the time being as short as it was, she should have been like Carnal and simply taken a criminal life. But as powerful as she was, and knowing what the disease could do to her emotional control in its later stages, she couldn't take the risk of being influenced by the blood of an evil car- rier. Nothing could make me love you any less, my lady. I love you more every day. How many times must I tell you that my life is yours to command? Earlier, she'd told him she loved him. It was not the first time she'd said it, but now she knew she should never say the words again. How could it even come close to meaning what it meant when he said it?

She was accepting the type of love from him she'd already given up the right to offer in return. She knew the world was more than the two of them. During ra- tional moments, she knew giving him the third mark had made sound sense. He'd as much as pointed that out. But during other moments she wondered if the stories and legends she'd always ig- nored had been right. If vampires were in fact evil, and she'd drawn a good man into Hell. Because he wasn't just sacrificing his life for her. He was offering her everything, including the right to tarnish the integrity of his soul.