The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Four)

On principle, Jacob made Gideon wait, paging through Debra's romance novel. He found a scene or two that engaged his pruri- ent male interest, with at least one interesting idea to try out on his sensual lady. When he finally departed the library, he found Gideon as well as Elijah Ingram waiting in the parking area. Elijah sat in the driver's side of his limo, while Gideon leaned against the side of his own car close by, thumbs through the belt loops of his jeans. Standing, Gideon looked even more like the mean son of a bitch he was. A couple of inches taller and broader than Jacob, he'd inher- ited their father's dark hair rather than their mother's auburn brown mix as Jacob had. They shared the blue eyes, and though Gideon shaved, the dark shadow along his jaw never fully went away. He was pure muscle. There were no soft spots anywhere on Gideon, unless one counted the mush behind the rock-solid skull. He and Elijah were eyeing one another. Since each possessed the skill to take the measure of the other within three blinks, they'd settled down like a couple of yard dogs determined not to fight, ig- noring each other while not missing a single twitch. "This man says he's your brother, " the limo driver offered as Jacob approached. "Funny. Last time I saw him he said the exact opposite. "

"Mmm. " Elijah squinted through the open window. "You still need a ride? I don't have anywhere to be until late this afternoon. " "I guess not. " Jacob cut a look at his silent sibling. "If you can run the things you picked up by the house and just leave them in the lockbox behind the column at the security gate, that'll be good. Be sure and send me a bill for your time and gas. Gideon'll give me a ride after he says his peace. If not, this is a college area. I've still got a working thumb. " "Don't let no cute college girl pick you up. Might do something you'll regret. Get the other arm broke. " "Or he might realize the smart thing is to go home with her and not look back. But he's never been all that smart. If you can't be smart, be pretty. " Gideon straightened. "If you think that, seems to me you got the cuter ass, " Ingram observed, deadpan. Jacob stifled a chuckle as Gideon's lips twitched. "Seems you've been making friends without me, " his brother said. "They're easier to make and keep without you around, " Jacob said without rancor. "You don't tend to approve of my choices in friends. " The humor disappeared. "Lady Lyssa isn't your friend, Jacob. Whatever else you think she is, fine.

But I can promise you, she's not your friend. " It was uncomfortably close to what Debra had just told him. Jacob wasn't in the mood for it. "If that's going to be the tone of this conversation, I'll just ride home with Elijah here. " Gideon scowled. "Oh, pull the railroad spike out of your ass and get in the damn car. " "There's that brotherly affection I know and love. " Jacob nodded to Mr. Ingram. The driver turned over the ignition. "You have my number, son. " "He's a little protective of you, " Gideon noted as the limo pulled out of the parking lot. "When did you break your arm?" "Your spies are falling down on the job. A while ago. " As Gideon turned to open the car door, Jacob noted his brother had a new scar at his temple, disappearing into the hairline. It looked like an impact wound, possibly from having his head smashed against a brick wall.

He wondered what their parents would think of them now. The parents they'd last seen alive on an idyllic day at the beach, when the only vampires were in movies and the imaginations of young boys. Even there they hadn't dwelled long, for a child's mind was a crowded merry-go-round of graphic possibilities. As if he were following the direction of his thoughts, Gideon's expression altered from hard purpose to grudging affection. "There's a good diner around the corner. Let's go there and talk. "

The brunch offering was good. As if they both were aware of the po- tential for disruption if they tried to talk before satisfying their ap- petites, they ordered and consumed the special in silence. The portions were sizeable, catering to the construction workers who came in from their work on new office buildings to refuel on the higher calorie count they needed. The exception was one table near the two men, where a pair of elderly women shared a postbreakfast pot of coffee. Since the construction workers were similarly indisposed to talk- ing while eating, the diner was relatively quiet except for the com- forting chatter of the two women. Gideon flipped up the top of the ketchup, pushing it and salt to- ward Jacob's left side just as he thought about needing it. While Lyssa would call it more evidence of the psychic intuition she sus- pected ran through his family, Jacob knew it more likely was long familiarity. Gideon had always been good at taking care of his younger brother. He thought he knew Jacob through and through, and in a way, he did. Gideon just preferred to pretend certain things didn't exist. As they both slowed down and came up for air, Jacob laid down his fork. Here goes nothing. "How long have you been in town?" he asked. "A couple weeks. When Carnal left his territory, we thought we might have a shot at catching him vulnerable. No such luck, though. "

"You're hunting Carnal?" The day might be looking up. "He likes to think he's a badass. He takes out his full Council- sanctioned quota of humans every year. We suspect he's gotten cockier and is taking more, though he's good at covering his tracks. Most of his victims in the past two years have been violent crimi- nals. Unless you count his servants. " Draining a person infected with evil spurred the natural aggres- siveness of a vampire to a higher level, increasing the problem of uncontrolled bloodlust that would encourage unwelcome attention from human society. Jacob knew Carnal didn't need any encourage- ment in that direction. A vampire needed blood to live, but actually only needed to fully drain one human annually to maintain their full strength and faculties. Lyssa had argued strongly for limiting the number of human lives taken by a vampire to one kill per year as a result. The Vampire Council had compromised with a higher num- ber to placate those like Carnal who were strongly opposed to any limits at all. "Lately he's been in the mood for sweeter meat. Seven women, all young. He's found a loophole. There's no limit on the number of ser- vants a vamp is allowed to kill in the course of a year. We figure he's going to pay Lyssa a visit while he's here, etiquette and all, and be- cause he's always had such an obsession with her. So we thought–" "Don't, Gideon. " Jacob held up a hand. "I can't hear any of your plans. " "Are you listening to me? Seven women. Young girls he seduces, then traps into being his servant for a while so they don't `count' to- ward the quota. " "You're not telling me anything I don't know. " Jacob struggled to keep it easy, friendly. "Let's not talk shop. What's going on with you, other than staking vampires?" Gideon stared at him. "You don't want to hear anything about a guy murdering innocent girls? Even if you're in a position to help? We're trying to–" "Gideon, " Jacob said sharply, "shut up. I'm carry ing a third mark. "

His brother went stock-still, his fork frozen in midgesture. His hand shot forward, fork still in it, forgotten so that when Jacob inter- cepted, slamming his brother's wrist to the table between them, the silverware clanged. Water glasses and plates jumped, drawing star- tled glances. "You don't have to see it, " Jacob said evenly. Gideon jerked back. "I knew you'd lost your fucking mind. Your moronic pacifist ideas about vampires–" "Not pacifist. I just don't believe being a vampire should be a death sentence. " "No, of course not. Just because they kill humans, it doesn't make them all bad. " "Contrary to popular myth, you know vampires only have one food source, " Jacob retorted. "Human blood, taken fresh. They have the right to survive. They're predators, Gideon. Like wolves or lions. They're not automatically minions of evil. " Gideon blew out a ferocious breath. "Yeah, Carnal's just your basic trying-to-survive guy. Tell that to the sixteen-year-old home- less runaway corpse he drained. But hey, guess we can consider it charity, since it interrupted the burgeoning kiddie porn career her pimp boyfriend planned for her. " Jacob shook his head. "I'm not saying Carnal isn't scum. I'd stake him myself given the chance. I'm saying they aren't all like that. " "But Lady Lyssa isn't like you, Jacob. Don't make the mistake of thinking she is. " Gideon enunciated each syllable between clenched teeth. When Jacob pointedly picked up his juice, took a swig, he blew out another exasperated breath. "I completely lose touch with you for months except for the occasional postcard, and then you resurface right under my nose as some vampire bitch queen's lackey. Did you even think about what's involved? She seduced you, is that it?" "Gideon. " Jacob put down the glass carefully. "I'm not twelve. I need you to listen to me. " His brother brightened. "That's it, isn't it? She compelled you, whatever you want to call it. You can break out of it, Jacob. Shit, she's queen of all of them. She can screw with any man's head. It doesn't matter if you did it in the heat of the moment. That's their talent, seduction. Even this bastard Carnal, when he turns on the charm, no woman can say no to him. "

"Gideon–" "We could trick her. Get her into a coffin, bury her underground or put her in the center of a concrete slab. She couldn't do anything to control you–" "You even think about hurting her, I'll kill you. " While most of their conversation had been pitched low enough that the remarkable parts of it were lost in the women's chatter and the sounds of utensils and waitstaff, the cold statement hit a pocket of dead air. Jacob paid no attention to the turning heads, furtive glances. He kept his gaze locked on Gideon's. In his most dangerous moment, he'd never thought himself as intimidating as his brother. However, the startled look that flashed across Gideon's face made him suspect he might have grown in that regard since Gideon had seen him last. Perhaps because he finally had something he'd defend with every- thing he was. No matter what she did to him. "I'm sorry. " Jacob wiped his mouth, set aside his napkin. "I didn't mean to throw it down like that, but you don't listen. I trained to be her servant for almost a year. I have lash scars on my back, my fealty oath. " Thomas had given him those fift y lashes on the cold stone floor of the monastery before he'd ever come and offered himself to her. Now those marks were overlaid by the serpentine scarring of the third mark, and Jacob felt their presence at all times, like her physi- cal and mental touches. "I've committed myself to her. She's the woman I'm meant to be with. To protect. " My lady. He would have said it, but he didn't want Gideon to mock him. Truth was, he hadn't wanted to say any of it, knowing how Gideon would react. But Gideon was his only family, his only constant in life except the restless desire that had driven him to find his lady. For that reason alone he had to say the simple truth. Maybe it would have been better if they'd fought before the meal. He'd still be hungry, but hunger was better than having the break- fast roiling in his stomach and this leaden weight in his chest. "She dies, you die. You understand that? You stupid, fucking idiot. "

Gideon shook his head, ignoring the sharp looks from the women across the aisle from them. "I don't get this at all. Does this have something to do with us? With our parents? What?" "It's a choice I made, and it has nothing to do with you. I don't agree with everything you do, but I've helped you kill vampires that crossed the lines. " Jacob inclined his head. "There's a balance in na- ture, and vampires are part of it. " "They threaten our survival–" "How?" Jacob demanded. "Billions of us, less than five thousand of them. Their offspring are rare, while we breed like rabbits. " "What if the Council is overruled and more made vampires are allowed? What if those like Carnal get the upper hand? What then?" Gideon's eyes narrowed. "Yeah, I'm not as dumb as you think I am. We do have our spies. We know the political climate is changing. The first imperative is human survival, Jacob. " "The first imperative is honor. Integrity. " "Oh, Jesus. " Gideon sat back in the booth, scrubbing his hand over his unshaven face. "The chivalry bullshit–" "Yeah, that bullshit, " Jacob interrupted him, his own annoyance kicking up. "You used to remember it. Believe in it. It's why you started doing what you do, and that's why I followed you, at first. But there's a difference between killing for a just cause and murdering to satisfy the emptiness in your own soul. You need love to remember that, Gideon. To balance it. " His brother stopped pressing at his temple and stared at him. "I love you. Look how well that's turned out. " "Cheap shot, " Jacob said. "She's been alive for centuries. You've never hunted her. Why is that? You could have taken her out the first night I saw her, when I was with you. When her husband broke her arm and she was off by herself. " Gideon picked up his iced tea and took a swallow as if he tasted something bad. "She keeps the bigger monsters in line. The Council she created serves that purpose. " "No, that wouldn't be enough. It's more personal, Gideon. Why isn't she a target?" "She saved my life. Once. " He swiped at his mouth with a napkin.

"Got knocked out in a fight with a vamp. Nasty one that was killing anything that moved. Apparently one of her and Rex's territory vamps. Woke up in an alley with her sitting next to me and the vamp dead. She nodded to me, walked away. Well"–he shrugged irritably–"after she told me I was an idiot and that I'd have a longer life as a Christian missionary in the Sudan. " "That sounds like Lady Lyssa. " Gideon ignored that. "But the debt's even now. She saved my life but stole my brother. Even if she's one of those who only take out one human a year, those are healthy, decent human beings who don't deserve to die. " "I'm not saying the situation doesn't suck. " Jacob spread open his arms, linked his fingers behind his head and tapped at the base of his skull, his muscles tense. "It's a Hobson's choice. But say you've got a decent vamp who takes their one kill a year to stay alive and in con- trol of their powers. And you have a decent human who has to die. A one-to-one relationship. How do you make that judgment? One vamp or one human? You don't see the deer herd going off and killing all the wolves when they come and take down one of their number. It's a balance, Gid. Not fair, not kind, not even close to com- passionate in many ways. A balance. A vamp is going to choose a human and that human will fight. He should fight. Defend himself whatever way he can. Maybe he'll get away; maybe he won't. Maybe he'll kill the vampire. " "You're saying that it's okay for a vamp to kill humans. " "I'm saying that we're the only species that doesn't accept that be- ing prey may be a part of Nature's cycle for us. " Jacob blew out his breath, brought his hands slapping down on the table surface. The waitress who'd been approaching with more coffee backed off, went to another table. "We're expected to try and stay alive. Whatever the Powers That Be, I don't think they intended us to exterminate an entire species to make us a hundred percent safe. " Gideon's eyes narrowed. "What are you going to do, little brother, when she orders you to help her take down her annual kill? Tarnish that armor of yours? Lure to his death someone like your Mr. In- gram, a guy who thinks he has a purpose for living beyond being dinner to a vampire?

Hell, I know you. You're not comfortable with that. You're not a killer. " "I was a killer when I helped you. " Jacob pushed his plate to the side. "A killer takes someone's life intentionally, against their will, whether justly or unjustly. I haven't got all the answers. I just know I'm where I'm supposed to be. " "I don't understand you at all. " "Yes, you do. " Jacob met his gaze. "You just don't want to. The first girl you ever loved died at a vampire's hand. " A muscle flexed in Gideon's jaw. "According to your logic, I should have said `that's Nature' and walked away. " "No. Actions have consequences. Vampires know that as well as we do. But Gideon, you were eighteen and Laura was sixteen. You're getting more bitter, year by year. Would she have wanted this–" "Stop crawling around in my head. " Gideon jabbed a finger at him. "I don't care about their motives. If I can kill every last one of them, I will. " So no man will ever again have to grieve until his heart cannibal- izes itself. Jacob remembered Laura. He'd thought she was too fragile for his brother's strong personality, but she had a sweetness no man could resist wanting to protect. So the man who chose to love her would have felt doubly responsible when he couldn't keep her from getting killed. Particularly a man who had lost his parents when he was only twelve, left with the self-imposed responsibility of looking after his eight-year-old brother. His brother would keep driving himself with hate and blood un- til he was dead. The signs had been there for a while. Like any person with a family member addicted to a destructive path, Jacob had tried everything, even joining him. In the end the only thing he could do was walk away, refusing to support the self-destruction anymore. With a sinking heart, he realized that it appeared only to have made his brother more committed to his violent path. It was now Gideon against the whole world and all it had done to hurt him, manifested in the form of shadowy creatures of the night with gleaming fangs. "Why, Jacob? Just . . . Why?" Why have you done this to me? To us? It was as clear as if Gideon had spoken the thought.

Because he couldn't harden himself against the anguish in Gide- on's voice, Jacob took one more stab at honesty. "She was in my dreams long before I even met her, Gid. You know how I've always felt like I was searching for something? That night we saw her, sud- denly there was this huge relief inside me. There you are. Boom. The monk that trained me believed I've served her before. In previous lifetimes. " Seeing Gideon's lip curling up in a sneer, he continued stub- bornly, "I don't know whether I believe that, and it's not relevant, regardless. Now's the important thing. You remember how you felt about Laura? Barely even met her, and you couldn't imagine life without her from then on. " Gideon's gaze frosted over, chilling the air between them. In a blink, any progress Jacob thought he'd been making evaporated.

"She's nothing like Laura. Don't you ever put her and one of those bloodthirsty cunts in the same category. " "Young man. " The lady across the aisle spoke sharply, even as her friend reached out a quelling hand to her. "That's enough. " Gideon glanced toward her. "Mind your own business, bitch. Stick your head back in the sand with all the rest of them, my stupid fucking brother included. " "Gideon, " Jacob snapped. He nodded apologetically to the two women and noted the hostile looks from the construction workers seated behind them. Leveling a warning look at his brother, he spoke quietly. "I don't even know who you are anymore, Gideon. " "Same goes on that score, little brother. " Biting back a response, Jacob laid a twenty on the table. "I think we're done here. I'll cover this. " "With her money? I don't think so. " "It's my money, Gideon. " Jacob stood, studying him. The large hands curled in helpless fury on the tabletop, the blue eyes glaring, the jaw so rigid it looked like it would crack under the strain. "As long as you're like this, there's nothing we have to say to each other. " "Don't think I won't hesitate to kill you if you get in my way. " Once, two boys had run through the surf, sunlight flashing on the water they kicked up, making it sparkle.

Laughter had bounced be-tween them like a tossed ball. He'd tried to grab Gideon, knock him into the water, but Gideon caught him in a headlock and they both tumbled in. Jacob tried to grasp at that image to block the pain of the icily delivered threat, but he couldn't hold on to it. "You sick son of a bitch. " He pitched his voice low, picked up the money Gideon had swept onto the floor and laid it deliberately back on the table, under his coffee cup. "Fuck you. " He turned away, wanting nothing more than to go off somewhere and get a shot of the strongest proof alcohol he could find. He won- dered what Lyssa would think if he came home with his blood over- loaded with sugar, caffeine and alcohol. It was the gasp from the women, followed by a call of warning from one of the workers, that alerted him. He spun just as Gideon surged up from the table with a clatter of tableware to ram him mid- body. They hit the edge of the ladies' table and toppled it along with its crockery as they tumbled to the floor. Gideon landed one eardrum-shattering punch high on the jaw before Jacob rallied, rolled, broke the hold. "You're coming with me. You're not going back to her. " Jacob swung, a hard uppercut that sent Gideon staggering back several steps and bought him the time to scramble to his own feet. "No, I'm not. You stupid, thickheaded–" With a roar, Gideon came back at him. This time he managed to take them both over the dividing wall between two rows of booths. It tangled them with its occupants, a group of workers who reacted far more belligerently than the elderly women. A rough shove and a few blows took him and Gideon back to the floor, baptized by spilled food and drinks, and even more colorful curses that would have the ladies' ears burning. Jacob blocked an- other punch, Gideon's he thought, then caught his brother's thrown fist and turned the both of them, wrestling, trying to pin him. Gideon was strong, seasoned, but Jacob was faster, and they were both armed with Irish temper. It had always taken longer to rouse in Jacob, but once unleashed it was no less violent. Gideon ducked un- der the next blow and rammed his fist into Jacob's stomach. Jacob reacted with another punch to his face, hitting his lip and winning first blood.

The restaurant was clearing, people were shouting. Jacob was vaguely aware a couple of the less sensible workers had jumped into the fray, trying to pull them apart. In the end, they had to give up and stand back to avoid being casualties, for the two brothers were too skilled at fighting to countenance interruption and the workers just kept being tossed to the outside. Jacob maneuvered them to the corner, caught Gideon by the scruff and slung him against the emergency exit. The alarm deto- nated when the crash bar gave way under Gideon's weight, but by then they were in the alley and out of the area involving innocent bystanders or destruction of property Jacob knew he didn't have the funds to replace. He charged Gideon with a yell, tumbling them into a collection of garbage cans that scattered like bowling pins as they landed among them. In some distant part of his mind, Jacob knew they were riding the rage, letting it drown out the memories of loss that had bonded them so closely as well as driven them apart. It drowned out everything, including the police sirens.