The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Fifteen)

She slept deeply after that. Jacob slept some with her, but when the sun came, he was up and taking a morning run around the castle grounds. It was a different place in its peaceful early daylight soli- tude and even more beautiful, if that was possible. By happenstance, Devlin was also out and joined him. The Aussie said little, simply keeping Jacob company while he sweated out his demons. As they made their circuit, Jacob noted that with the exception of Devlin, it was primarily the servants of the more highly ranked overlords, Region Masters and Council members moving around this early in the morning, confirming old ties and establishing new ones. Net- working. Since that was his purpose as well, with Devlin's help he identified several servants of vampires who had received vital com- munications from Lyssa in the past few months. He took the oppor- tunity to confirm those communications had been received and understood. None of those communications revealed his lady's illness, of course, but she was officially verifying the commitment of those vam- pires to the Council's purpose, as well as unofficially laying the tracks of an underground railroad for her fugitives and even her legitimate vampires if they ended up needing it. Since Lady Danny was loyal to Lyssa's cause, even if she didn't have a lot of influence to lend to it, Devlin was exceptionally helpful, providing Jacob insights and pointing out other servants of newer, younger overlords his lady might want to approach while she was here.  

For personal as well as other reasons Jacob had hoped to see Debra, or even Lord Brian, but apparently Seanna was correct. Brian was likely sequestered in his temporary lab. Debra was probably burning both ends of the candle to do his lab work when she wasn't required to serve as entertainment. Had Brian made a breakthrough in the Delilah virus? Or would his news at the Court be about some- thing else entirely, crushing the narrow window of hope Jacob was grimly holding open? The Australian stayed respectfully silent during the interchanges, but when they made it at last to the back side of the grounds where there was just the stretch of ocean, he slowed to an in-place jog and raised a brow. "Done with wanking now? Or you got anything left?" With a shove to throw Jacob off balance, he was off and running, throwing insults over his shoulder as Jacob raced after him. When he caught up, he found he had to stretch himself to the limits of his body to stay even with the man's powerful stride. They completed the last mile of their run dead out, taking the stairs to the verandah three at a time, lungs burning. "You're no wuss, are you, mate?" Devlin gasped, his hands on his knees. Straightening, he winked. "I'm off to play fairy godmother on my lady's dress for tonight's doings. She's heard rumors about some of the other outfits and thinks it needs some fussing up. Bloody shei- las. Come find me tonight if you have time and I'll shout you that drink. Hell, since they're all free, I can afford a slab. " Jacob waved a hand in assent. Although he was fighting to regain his breath as well, the festering ache he'd been carry ing had dissi- pated to a manageable anxiety. When Devlin left him with a slap on the shoulder and a "She'll be right, mate, " Jacob found himself grate- ful for a friend. Uneasiness had been simmering in his gut since they'd driven away from her Atlanta home and she'd watched Bran in the rear window until she could no longer see him. While at first he thought he was just anticipating his proximity to so many vampires or the many possible public ways he might be compelled to perform sexual acts for his lady's stimulation, after last night's episode on the beach, he knew it wasn't that. As the day progressed, he stayed busy with an odd mixture of the political and domestic.

The evening's event was an early dinner and entertainments rumored to be as elaborate as an erotic three-ring circus. Normally it would cause him trepidation, but she was his fo- cus tonight. As it got close to dusk, he prepared her bath, chose the oils he thought would suit her mood best. Ironed the ribbons to dress her hair and selected her lingerie, one of his favorite tasks. A silver-gray bra that was sheer except for a delicate embroidered pattern of swirls that would stretch along the sides and lower portion of her breasts, leaving the nipple delightfully in view beneath the shimmering net of the cup. A matching lace thong, which gave him the welcome dis- traction of imagining sliding the garment onto her, his thumb caught under the straps curving over her hip bones. Everything was ready, the sun starting to sink. Sitting by her bed, he watched her continue to sleep, her internal alarm silenced by her body's fight to keep up its strength. He didn't want to wake her. The need of a lover to protect warred with his duty as her servant, making it difficult to wake her from a sleep he knew might give her the strength to live just a bit longer. When he at last bent over her, he hesitated. Usually he spoke or touched her shoulder to wake her. Sometimes the curve of her cheek. Instead, he placed his mouth over hers, a kiss he drew out and deepened, coaxing her lips to part, his tongue touching hers. Giving in to desire, he curled his arms around her slim body, heated it with his own. He registered that her skin felt its normal, slightly cooler temperature, though he detected she needed to eat. As she began to rouse, his third mark also registered her strength and vitality had returned. He held on, wanting to savor it. She needed to be home. But his lady would never shirk her duty. Had her soul been in the body of Guinevere, Camelot would never have fallen.

She'd been less than a couple of centuries old when he'd come to her as a knight during one of the Crusades. Yet he saw little difference in her self-possession and confidence between that time and this one. Since she was born, she'd been groomed to be a queen. As far as he knew, she'd never harbored any resentment over that. Scornful of those who eschewed their responsibilities in her own Region of territories, she punished them swift ly and decisively. In a correspondence to one of her young overlords, she'd stated it baldly. "There are those who spend their whole lives wishing they had power, leadership. If you are given it, you live up to it. It's a gift Fate believes you can handle. If you are wise, you don't disappoint Fate. " Now, in the present, his queen and liege lady indicated by light pressure she wanted him to draw back. He did so reluctantly, but only a few inches as she cupped his face and ran her thumb over his lips, moist from her own mouth. Lyssa had been in a half doze, enjoying the awareness of him moving around the room. When he sat down, she expected the touch on her face or the quiet murmur of his voice. His brief hesita- tion had been her only warning before he'd leaned forward and given her the touch of his lips. A wake-up kiss. Something a lover or husband would do. "It's almost time to join the others for dinner, my lady. I've laid out your clothing. " He also had hot water and a cloth for her face as usual. Taking her hand, he gave her his strength to lift her into a sitting position so she had to use none of her own. Sliding his arm behind her, he of- fered her the brace of his shoulder as she got her bearings. She yawned. "I never used to wake up groggy. Is this what you humans face each day? I wonder that you get up at all. " His gaze was on her face, registering her skin tone. "You need blood, my lady. May I offer you something?" She shook her head. She didn't want anything, though she knew she should. Her limbs felt heavy. When he opened his mouth to press the issue, she gave him a quelling look, as effective as a verbal snap.

She didn't reach out to his mind, too raw to deal with the worry she knew would be there, and that made her irritable. Merging with Jacob's mind first thing was something she anticipated almost as much as seeing him upon rising. Turning away from him, she brought one knee onto the bed. "Do you want your hair up or down today, my lady? Or some- where in between?"

Closing her eyes to enjoy the sensation of brushing, she didn't respond, but knew he wouldn't repeat himself. He was used to her long pauses, particularly in her "morning" phase. The brush stroked firmly, pulling out the tangles without yanking, massaging her scalp. His hand passed before it to run fingers through the strands. When he'd first begun the ritual, it had been to feel for tangles, but now she knew he did it to touch. She liked it as much as he seemed to, so she never skipped the brushing unless he'd angered her. A smile touched her lips. He did that about one third of the time. "Tell me how you'd like me to wear it . . . And call me by my name. " She'd not made that request ever, even in their most physically intimate moments. His hand stilled on her hair, the brush pausing in midstroke. Call me familiar. I command it. "I want you to leave it down, Lyssa. With just a piece here. And here. " He took a lock from either side of her temples. "To hold it back. " When his fingertips drifted down, she turned her cheek into his hand, holding it there between her shoulder and jaw. "When it's all the way down, like this, " he said quietly, "it reminds me of when you're riding me, all your glorious hair falling around your face. If you wear it that way, I'll think of you that way, all evening long. " Say it again. She wanted to hear it. Rising to one knee behind her, he wrapped his arms around her body, dropping the brush to the covers. He was wearing slacks and a tailored cotton shirt, his hair brushed and gleaming, queued back.

He smelled fresh, bathed. She detected the provocatively light blend- ing of the cologne scent of his deodorant and aftershave. His well- groomed beard pressed against her temple now. She curled her fingers around the forearm he pressed across her bosom as his hand clasped her shoulder, holding her back against his solid chest. "Lyssa. " He murmured it against her ear. "My heart. My soul. My lady. " She closed her eyes, nodded. She could be what she needed to be. Cruel when she had to be. He would stand behind her. Always, my lady. I will be whatever you need me to be. She hadn't meant for her thoughts to be open to him, but she knew her control of that was slipping. She found she could even ac- cept it, at least at this moment. At length, he released her and began to tend her hair again. Reaching back, she put her hand high on his thigh. "Any tenderness?" "None. I could have used this healing ability when I was a kid, as frequently as Gideon tried to kill me. " "You fought that much?" He chuckled. "No, my lady. We did fight, but we were most likely to kill each other during play. " He tugged her around, the brushing done, and guided her touch to a bump on his head just under his hairline.

"We couldn't find our baseball one day, so we decided to pitch rocks. Gideon was first at bat. He insists if my head hadn't been in the way, he would have hit a line drive clear out of the field. Since he fractured my skull, our aunt was inclined to agree with him. " Jacob was glad to see a smile on his lady's lips again. He was hav- ing difficulty turning his thoughts from his concerns, and he knew she was likely staying a safe distance from them as a result. Though her strength had returned, he could sense her fragility, an impres- sion he'd never been able to detect this long after an episode. Do you think I don't know I'm getting worse, Jacob? The disease had to start progressing at a certain point, and of course it's Murphy's law that it would do so here, where it's so important that I appear healthy and well. "I think I better take that breakfast you say I need, Sir Vagabond, " she said before he could respond to that.

"Are you up for it? No weakness from yesterday at all? Before you lie to me, recall I can still hear your thoughts. " Her eyes glinted. "There are many punish- ments available to me here. " Yesterday Lady Helga showed me a thick metal collar she'd had made by a jeweler who is displaying her wares at this Gathering. It's nearly three inches in width. I could lock it around your throat and keep the key on a chain around my neck, dangling between my breasts where it would tease you. "You think you need a key to tease me with that sight, my lady?" He raised a brow, struggling to maintain a mild expression and hammer down the lust her words provoked so easily. She continued, that sultry half whisper weaving itself among the rational centers of his brain, fogging his ability to think. There are two tiny spikes on the inside that press against the throat, irri- tating the skin and reminding the servant of his bond to his Mis- tress. Their location is marked on the outside with a pair of bloodred rubies. Whenever she wishes, the vampire places her fingers on those two rubies and presses. After the spikes puncture the side of the throat, the lady may partake of the blood by holding a lovely matching goblet against her servant's flesh to catch the flow. But I wouldn't use it. I'd wait until the stream of blood reached your nipple and start there, lapping it up all the way back to your throat. He closed his hand over hers. She'd effectively driven any thought out of his head but the images she'd created, and he had to bite back a smile at the satisfied gleam in her eyes. "I can serve your needs, my lady, whatever they may be. Your blood nourished me well. Let me offer the same gift to you. " She studied him another moment before she nodded. Leaning forward, she bit into his throat, into the area that had begun to show a dual puncture scar because of her repeated use of it. Though she preferred the throat, when her hand brushed high on his thigh, his mind immediately turned back to one night when she'd chosen the femoral artery. His cock had stood hard and heavy as her cheek brushed his testicles, her throat working against the muscle of his thigh as she swallowed the alarming rush of blood that came from the area.

When she was done, she'd put her mouth over his cock, and he'd immediately exploded against the back of her throat. She'd tied his hands to the bed rails that night so he was at her mercy. He'd looked down to see traces of his own blood on his genitals, markings from her mouth upon his length. Now he settled his arm around her back, holding her close to him, her body cradled between his knees. Her hand curled loosely around his hip, letting him hold her weight in his one arm as she drank. Despite her pleasurably distracting thoughts, holding her this way made his mind turn back to his primary concern. He wished she'd let him take her home, care for her. With every passing hour, a dread was growing in his belly. He wanted her to be where she was happiest. With her roses and her dogs. Devlin wants to buy you a drink. Why don't you plan on joining him after you get me ready? You can meet me at the outdoor pavilion for the dinner.

I won't need you there until around nine. I have some things to do. Some acquaintances to meet. She pulled away, taking his hand and placing it against the bite, a reminder to hold pressure. Rising and moving toward the bathing area, she slid off the straps of her nightgown, letting it pool at her feet. She stepped out of it, continued toward the tub. "He's a good man. I'd like you to honor him with your company. It will send a message to his Mistress that she has my favor. " He cursed his overprotectiveness, which often provoked this need in her to push him away, force him to acknowledge his first re- sponsibility to her as her servant. Her tone was indifferent, her atti- tude as imperious as ever as she left the gown for him to pick up. Gliding into the bathing area, a small, raven-haired goddess with skin like cream, she closed the door, sending a ripple of annoyance through him. As he was sure she knew it would. There was nothing, no emotion she couldn't wrest from him. He supposed that was the way loving someone was. Adventure, exhila- ration. Quiet contentment. The desire to strangle her. Or maybe that was just the way being in love with Lady Lyssa was.

He'd never been in love with anyone else. Not in this life, and perhaps not in any other.

"You know, in the central courtyard they're offering drinks served on the bellies of women. The women lie on a marble slab, tip the wine onto their stomachs and men suck it off their skin, drinking from their navels. " "You saying you'd rather be doing that than drinking a beer with me?" Devlin gave Jacob a sardonic look. "It's a privilege offered to the vamps. Or I'd ditch your arse, no worries. " "I'd have beaten you there. " Devlin chuckled, touching his beer to Jacob's as they sat com- panionably on the lower verandah wall, feet dangling over the twenty-foot drop as they faced the ocean view. "Bullshit. You're gone over that Mistress of yours. Plus, you run like a one-legged girl. " "That's a long fall there, " Jacob noted. "Yes. Yes, it is. " Devlin grinned. "Anytime you feel lucky, Irish. " Jacob would have retorted, but his eyes had narrowed. Carnal. He knew Carnal was here, but it was the first time he'd seen him. The tall vampire wore a tuxedo and cape–a pretentious affectation in Jacob's opinion–and had his dark hair pulled back from his face, emphasizing the angular, cruel planes. He strode over the lower lawn, meeting two other vampires who were obviously waiting for him. He had no servant with him, but Jacob didn't dare to hope that meant he hadn't picked another victim to replace Melinda. "Friend of yours?" "Hardly. Who's he meeting there?" "Different versions of the same brand of wanker, " Devlin observed frankly.

"That's Lords Hollenbeck and Martingale. They fancy them- selves rebels against the establishment, but they're thugs. To my way of thinking, Council's gone soft on their kind. They think they can reason with them, give them bones to keep them in line when anyone with eyes can see all they're out for is the wholesale destruction of the Council so they can set themselves up as supreme tyrants.

And God help humans–not just the servants–if they succeed. " "You think they're up to something?" Jacob watched Carnal move away with the other two, taking wine from a passing servant with barely a glance at her. "Rumor is they're planning some political coup at the big meet- ing tomorrow. " Devlin took another swallow from the beer as if try- ing to clean the taste from his mouth. "That they're going to introduce a motion on the floor to overthrow the policies they find so irritat- ing. Like not being able to tear open a human's throat in broad moon- light on busy city street corners every other day. " "They make motions. " Jacob tried to get his mind around that. "Abso-fucking-lutely. They're fanatical about their Roberts' Rules of Order. " But Devlin looked uneasy. "Sometimes I think our world is about to change, Irish. And with vampires, it was already a pretty unstable world to begin with. They could try to oust the Council. If they get enough votes,they could do it. All hell will break loose. " They drank in silence for another few moments. There was no answer to it. Jacob knew it, just as he suspected Devlin did. They just had to be prepared for what would come. "Psychopathic poser, " Devlin muttered, watching Carnal disap- pear through one of the castle archways. Jacob bit back a smile. "That's a Yank term. " "And a good one. Malachi's impressed with your skills, by the way. " Devlin shifted to a lighter tone. "It's not easy to spar with him, let alone a real fight like that. " "Particularly when he called in reinforcements. " "Ah. " Devlin waved his beer dismissively. "Malachi's actually not a bad sort when it comes to most things. He was following his Mas- ter's orders. Belizar wanted you taken down a notch and tested. "Malachi is a sexist asshole, though. He's got that whole cultural, men-should-hold-all-the-power thing going. He's been a servant for ninety years; you'd think he'd get past it. But he got powerfully ticked off the other night when Lord Brian's servant showed he didn't know what the hell he was talking about when they got into a debate on global warming. "

"Debra?" "Yeah, that was her name. Soon after that, she got drafted into being one of the entertainments. Malachi probably ratted her out, told Belizar there was a midlevel new servant who wasn't doing her time in the trenches. " "I should have speared him through his balls. Why would Belizar feel I need to be tested specifically?" Devlin gave him a sidelong glance. "I keep forgetting how new you are. Malefemale vampire dynamics have some very old-world prejudices. Male vamps think the females are at risk for getting overly attached to their male servants. Something happened a few years back and a male servant was executed. It struck a spark on the fertilizer pile of the theory. " "Executed?" "I was at the Gathering where it happened. " A shadow crossed Devlin's face as he looked out at the ocean. "A female vamp in the higher ranks was acting all moony over her servant, openly favoring him in situations where servants are supposed to take a backseat. And he was getting full of himself over it. He mouthed off to a Council member, and was stupid enough to throw a punch. The fe- male vamp didn't call him to task. Instead, she tried to protect him. Even offered her own life as forfeit. Bam, it was all over then. He was executed on the spot, and she was imprisoned in a coffin for a month. She was forced to marry a vampire lord senior in age and chosen by the Council. She chose to meet the sun. " As Jacob looked down pensively, Devlin shook his head. "It was bad before then, but in a low-level way. Now the male vamps are positively rabid on the issue of female vamps and their servants. My lady thinks it's just a typical power-play issue. Male vamps are pos- sessive, but they also like power. They don't necessarily like sharing it with the females, and they're looking for ways to relegate them to second string. " He sighed. "When it comes down to it, no matter how much we love our ladies, we love them best by remembering our place. You won't find me stepping out of line, not if it means I'd endanger my Danny. " He smiled sheepishly at Jacob's ironic glance. "Lady Daniela, I mean. "

He tapped his beer against Jacob's. "Your Mistress is under the microscope these days in particular. " Jacob's head rose. "What do you mean?" "This can't be a surprise to you. " Devlin gave him an even look. "How did the most powerful vampire on earth let her husband get murdered by a mere human? How did a mere human kill the second most powerful vampire on earth without help? The only thing that has kept those questions to a dull roar is that Lyssa killed her servant for his transgression, and a select few in power knew Lord Rex was succumbing big time to the Ennui, which is basically the vampire brand of Alzheimer's. " Jacob turned and brought his feet back to the Mexican tile floor of the verandah, leaning his hip against the wall. "Did you know Rex?" Devlin shook his head. "Not much. My lady knew him . . . Before he changed. " He glanced cautiously at Jacob. "She said he was pow- erful, intelligent. Not a warm, nurturing sort, very competitive. But he loved your lady. Lady Danny said his love was so strong for Lady Lyssa it almost made up for his weaknesses. Until they caught up with him. " He turned and leaned back on the wall, mirroring Jacob. "Lady Lyssa is considered a fucking force of nature. No one really knows the full extent of her strength. The only one who might be able to stand toe-to-toe with her is Lord Mason. Like her, he has more secrets and mysteries than the rumormongers can keep up with. " "And that's bad?" "Not bad. Just peculiar. Vamps like a mystery. If they don't un- derstand it, they do their best to pick it apart. But it's more than that with her. Lady Lyssa is very important to all the Council supporters for what she symbolizes, as well as what she knows and can do. Danny doesn't make any bones about it. Lyssa isn't just queen. She's the Council's champion. " "Their muscle. " Jacob recalled his earlier thought. "You got it. Whereas Carnal and his crowd would build their kingdom on the illusion of power, and use blood to keep it painted as reality. Watch your lady's back, mate. Part of the reason I wanted a beer with you is to let you know folks like me will help watch yours while you do. "

He grinned. "You're okay. I like the way you handle yourself, and some of these buggers can get awfully stodgy and hoity-toity. We can help keep their reality a little bit more real. That's what mates are for. " He straightened, checking his watch. "Time to go. If you can, come back here around noon tomorrow. There's a gathering of ser- vants, sort of a tradesman meeting. It's a chance for those like you who haven't been in it as long to ask questions, the insider tips on things to make our jobs easier. Then, after that, we get pissed on drink and tell stories. " He winked, then sobered somewhat. "It's a good way to loosen up some before the Ball and the Court after that. If something intense is going to happen, it's going to happen at one of those. Just between you and me, I always wish we could go home after the second day. "