The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Fourteen)

Here he was, in a resort full of vampires, with no weapons. Not even clothes. Gideon would be laughing his ass off. But as he remembered her words, her touch on his body and his mind, Jacob's back straightened, his head lifting. He was Lady Lys- sa's human servant. The man granted the right to touch her, feed her. Given access to her heart, sometimes even her soul. And she wanted him seen. This was her world, and to be everything she needed, he had to be a part of it fully. It had been easy enough to find the resort area. It was on the southeast side of the palace where a huge lawn was sculpted with elaborate hedge gardens and open  spaces for a variety of games. The panoramic ocean was the backdrop to a spectacular view of the sur- real and fantastic. It was an Escher painting come to life in vivid color. A verandah of alabaster white railings and columns overlooked it all, following the line of this side of the castle. There were two exit points, marble staircases that made matching crescent shapes to the bottom, inviting guests into the gardens and play areas. It appeared that over a hundred vampires of various ranks were there, sipping drinks and lounging at chairs and tables on the verandah, socializing and watching the entertainments going on below.

Before he could follow their gazes, the smell of burning flesh and a strangled cry drew his attention toward a pavilion at the base of the closest set of stairs. While a servant knelt at his Master's feet, another man, apparently a blacksmith, applied a brand to the ser- vant's buttocks. When he removed the iron, the vampire considered the mark, amused as it began to fade. Except for the bitten back cry, the servant was motionless, awaiting his master's bidding. Because of Lyssa, Jacob had gotten in the habit of assuming all vampire-servant pairings were opposite gender, but he realized quite obviously it would vary depending on the sexual preference of the vampire. "A fun diversion, " the vampire said. "Perhaps we will come back later and do other body parts if you do not please me. " There was no fear in the servant's expression as he rose and fol- lowed his Master, telling Jacob the man enjoyed suffering such pain at his Master's demand. Or that he'd learned to mask fear well. No. His intuition had been deepened by his third mark connec- tion with Lyssa, and he'd been able to sense the absence of fear in the submissive male. Plus, as he'd seen vividly with Melinda, a servant didn't last long in the ser vice of his Mistress or Master if there was not some bond of trust between vampire and servant. He found himself lingering over the memory of how the vampire had looked at the mark, bent to pass his fingers over it. The emo- tional tremor of the servant's body at the touch, the unguarded re- sponse in the vampire's eyes when he wasn't affecting the amused boredom. When a hand brushed the bare skin over his ribs, Jacob managed to turn toward the touch with an expression of mild indifference, rather than jumping back like a cat in a room full of way too many fanged rocking chairs. Seanna gave him a thorough look. Her Master, Lord Richard of the Alabama territory, was apparently pleased to have her garbed in a creation of black straps that left her breasts bare. The straps criss-crossed, lift ing and binding the generous mounds.

Her nipples were captured in silver clamps connected by a decorative chain. While the skirt of studded straps she wore fell below her knees, the straps parted when she moved, showing her shaved mound and generous ass. Since she wore the fetish wear as if she bore the trap- pings of an Amazon queen, Jacob couldn't deny the outfit looked damn good on her. Enough to cause an embarrassing stirring of his cock. "Irishman. " "Seanna. " A smile curved her lush mouth. "So formal. Last time it was much more affectionate. `Arrogant bitch, ' wasn't it?" The teasing light in her eyes dissipated the anxiety he expected at having to deal with her. Seanna was emanating the respect of a peer, underscoring that he'd won his spurs as Lyssa's servant. Since she had connections with the servants of many other high-ranking vam- pires, he knew that was a good thing, even as he maintained a healthy wariness. "You made it difficult for me to walk that next morning, " she ac- cused him with mock gravity. "I'm sorry if I hurt you, " he said, seeking something safe to say. Her brows rose. "It was all a pleasure, Irishman. A pleasure I'd be happy to repeat with you if you're otherwise unengaged while waiting for your Mis- tress. We could go to the statuary gardens, become some of the live entertainment. " She nodded in the direction of the hedge gardens, where the at- tention of most of the vampires on the verandah appeared to be rest- ing. However, since an inordinate number of them now seemed to be studying him, he let Seanna take his hand and coax him down the stairs. As they got to the base and passed the blacksmith's pavilion, he realized what he'd thought were more statues in the hedge gar- dens were living humans. When Seanna strolled toward them, he saw they had been placed in poses in the midst of circles of flowers and elegantly landscaped shrubs and ordered to remain motionless.

One woman bent over, holding her ankles, her hair brushing the ground. Nine blond locks had been tied in knots and staked out in a fan shape on the ground with decorative wrought-iron wickets. A man stood behind her bur- ied to the ball sac, his hands gripping her hips, his head back as if in the throes of climax. Both were slightly quivering, showing the ten- sion of holding such a provocative pose. "She'll come before long, " Seanna confided. "See? Her Master has put a clitoral stimulator on her so she can't stop milking that slave with her pussy muscles. When she comes, her Master will punish her for everyone's enjoyment. " "And if he comes first?" "Then the male servant will have the honor of the punishment. " Seanna linked her arm in his, her hand whispering along his biceps as she guided him past the two. The same heightened senses which allowed him to detect emotions also brought him the smell of the girl's arousal. As they passed the copulating pair, Jacob could see the stretched pink lips of her pussy, the deep red flush of her nipples. Because he had no control of his cock, which had a mind of its own about such stimuli, he tried to ignore Seanna's appreciative gaze at it through her lashes. It was only going to get worse, for the garden was full of such sights. Not all vampires were on the verandah. Many wandered through the gardens just as they did, glasses of wine or other chosen drinks in hand as they gazed at the posings and commented on them. Seanna used the pressure of her hand to guide Jacob off the path as a group of six vampires came toward them. "Eyes down, " she whispered. Though it made him want to grind his teeth, he did it, because he knew the etiquette at this conference was even more stringent than when entertaining Lyssa's guests in her home. There was no purpose to insulting vampires Lyssa might need to secure the fate of her ter- ritory. "That servant of Lord Richard has a pair of superior tits, " one of the male vampires observed as they strolled past. "I'll have to see if he would be willing to let me borrow her and grease them up.

It's been a while since I've had a nice titty fuck. " "Lawrence,you're such a crude thing, " the woman chuckled. "Your alley street upbringing is showing. " "Shouldn't be a problem getting Lord Richard's permission, " the other man with them put in. "He likes to watch almost more than he likes to fuck. " "Not me, " the woman purred. "Why, Rodney, that's Lady Lyssa's new pet. Now he does look irresistibly fuckable, just as Lady Carola said. Look at the size of that cock. " Seanna's nails dug into his arm as the woman stepped to the edge of the sidewalk and gripped his privates as casually as she might have handled some of the landscaping to determine its origin. "I could take him to the grass right here, ride him until he begged for mercy. " If she didn't take her hand off him, she was going to be the one begging for mercy. She had disturbingly clever fingers, however. Rubbing up and down his shaft, massaging the skin over the hard core. "Ah, he likes that. " "Remember, Marta, he's not wearing a head mask. He can be briefly touched, but not taken. You'd need her permission for that. " Her hand withdrew reluctantly. "Idiot Council rules, " she mut- tered under her breath. "What does it matter if I fuck him now and she fucks him later? His dick will still be the same. " "He's her property, dear Marta. " This from the taller man, draw- ing her away. "That has nothing to do with the Council. I wouldn't suggest irritating Lady Lyssa for no cause. " Seanna loosened her fingers on Jacob's arm as they moved off, and gently reached down to pry open one clenched fist. "Easy, Jacob. That was pretty tame for this group. " Jacob nodded, a muscle flexing in his jaw. He could do this. He had to do this. Even so, instinctively he moved to Seanna's outside as they passed another group. She chuckled. "Chickenshit. Just enjoy the feel of it, " she said under her breath, smiling and giving a slight bow, a sweep of her lashes, as she passed a pair of vampire males.

They gave her breasts a passing caress, one briefly catching hold of a strap of her skirt and letting it flow be- tween his fingers to give them both an unencumbered view of her ass. She stopped, waiting, and when they released her, she kept walking. Since he knew getting out of here as fast as he could wasn't an option, Jacob tried to tune in to what she was saying, knowing she was trying to help, to distract him. He wasn't proud. He'd try any- thing that might keep him from bolting. "There are rules. Only brief touches and looks. Maybe five sec- onds at most, unless you're one of the servants marked as anyone's. One of the domestics, or those chosen as entertainment. As you probably know, those are most often servants of lower-ranked vam- pires. However, sometimes it's servants who are younger, newer, whose Masters and Mistresses want them to undergo more intense training at being a submissive.

Sometimes it's a veteran servant be- ing punished for a transgression. That's always fun to watch because the vamps are more outrageous with them. Those servants have a letter A painted on the forehead of their masks. " He moved on with her to another garden pose. This one involved five people in a chain of intertwined arms and legs. The first man bent over, his mouth pressed to the pussy of the woman lying on her back, legs up and spread. He had her lifted so the curve of her body and his formed a triangle. Behind the man, a woman with a strap-on had her hands braced on his back as she was embedded in him. Be- hind her, another man was buried in her pussy. A final man strad- dled the first girl's head, his cock fi lling her mouth as he reached up and kissed the woman who was fucking the man going down on her. The landscaped circle in which they were posed had an interior circle of rocks from which hidden fountains jetted arced streams of water, moistening their skin. Colored light worked with it to form patterns on their flesh. "Astounding, isn't it?" Seanna observed. "Each year, one set of territories is responsible for arranging the artistic entertainment for the Gathering. I think they've outdone themselves. This year the Latin American territories were responsible. "

She pressed her hand to her breast and fanned herself, winning a reluctant smile from Ja- cob despite himself. "Oh, my God. That hot Latin blood and imagi- nation. " "So for most of the vampires, this isn't a business get-together. " "Oh, never think that. This is extremely serious. Yes, the main point of being here is to pay honor to the Council. The `real' business is done on the third night, after the Ball. What they call the `Court' session, where disputes and political matters are discussed. " She so- bered. "But the whole three days are highly ritualized. Everything, from Lady Lyssa choosing a partner for the first dance at the Vam- pire Ball, to strolling in this garden . . . " She bowed her head as they passed another vampire pair and squeezed Jacob's arm to remind him to do the same as they passed. He was glad to keep moving even as he complied. "The Ball choice is just a formality. " She gave him a glance. "Formality has great significance to the vampires. During the time she was married, she always chose Rex, except when she was paying honor to a certain vampire's contribu- tion for that year, a platonic honor. But the year she married Rex, he was the one she chose, and it was significant exactly for that reason. Since she's no longer married, there's speculation that who she chooses this time might be her next consort, if not a marriage part- ner. Of course, she might choose Brian for his scientific work. " Lyssa had told him it likely would be Brian for just that reason. "Is he here?" "Yes. I saw Debra briefly. She's even skinnier than when we last saw her, and far more intense looking. Her face is going to crack if she keeps holding that serious expression all the time. " Seanna's voice dropped as if sharing juicy gossip with a girlfriend, amusing Jacob. "Another rumor going around is he's made some remarkable finds he'll be presenting at Court. He's set up a temporary lab here to finalize some of his notes. " "Did he say what about?" "No. Not even a hint. " Her lush lips formed a very distracting pout. "I don't think he intended to let Debra out of his lab to have any fun, but Lord Belizar put an end to that.

He made Lord Brian put her into the pool of servants available for entertainment. They're one step above those being used for domestic help, but Brian is too low ranked to get away with keeping her by his side the whole time. " Jacob thought of Debra subjected to the humiliations of the female servants in the corridor and rage flooded him. "She's not seasoned enough for this. That dinner was her first experience in this kind of thing. And this is . . . " He let his gaze course over the garden. "You'd have to do this for at least ten years before you could face it without sweaty palms. " "It's your first time and you're holding your own, " she pointed out with a chuckle. "It's all in the attitude. How do you think any of us learn? Don't worry. On this at least, the Council and the overlords know what they're doing. Vampires get terribly aroused seeing a ser- vant deal with all this for the first time. If she sheds pretty tears of humiliation, she'll earn a spanking and become everyone's particu- lar favorite. " At his expression of revulsion, her tone softened and she put out a hand. "I'm sorry. I'm teasing you too much. I forget you don't re- ally understand our ways yet. For a person who has chosen this life, the system works, Jacob. It really does. She may find it difficult, but by the time she leaves here, she'll have been brought to climax so many times, she'll start internalizing the intense pleasure of being a submissive. Even though your Mistress is highly ranked enough to keep you out of all that, it's obvious she's cognizant of the value of the process, to a certain extent. " Her gaze coursed over his naked body. "Aren't there things you'd have never thought would bring you pleasure that get you aroused now? The idea of her restraining you . . . The touch of a whip on your skin . . . Fucking your ass with her fingers . . . " Jacob shifted under her knowing look, and she let out a sultry laugh. "It irritates you, but it also makes you hot. " Jacob ran a hand over the back of his neck, kneading the tension there. "I feel like you're my guide on an erotic tour of Wonderland. " She gave a mocking curtsy, affecting the smooth tones of a tour bus coordinator.

"Why, perhaps we can interest Mr. Green in joining in our festivities today, after all. You'll find Castle Mason is an abso- lute playground for the games our Masters and Mistresses like to play. And you have your choice of a wide variety of partners. " "You look forward to all of this. " "Very much so. " She dropped her chin onto her shoulder, making it clear she was indulging in a view of his ass, and snickered when he adjusted his stance, which simply gave her a better view of his groin. "Vampires pick their servants for suitability of ser vice and submis- sion, but also for beauty. How could it not be a pleasure to enjoy that?" All around him he saw vampires taking advantage of the humans available to them, as well as each other. Imagining Lyssa indulging in the same pleasures, he knew he'd rather subject himself to the most humiliating sexual act this corner of the ocean had to offer than to suffer seeing another man touch her. You are far too possessive for a servant. He remembered her words, but he couldn't deny them, couldn't even say that continued expo- sure to her would meliorate it one bit. In fact, it was more likely to make it worse. Seanna took him into another section of hedge garden that was more animated. The servants here were openly, frenetically copulat- ing, a macabre orgy. One servant stood to the side, holding a bronze disk with a spinning needle, which he periodically stopped. When he did that, the servants had to switch partners and assume a differ- ent position. "The servant with the disk is judged for his ability to have them switch right before they can climax, " Seanna explained, a twinkle in her eye. "The servant who can leave the greatest number sexually frustrated is then allowed to pick one of them to fuck. " There were more vampires here, sitting on scattered stone benches. Their response to the display was obvious, and more than one had called a servant over to ser vice them orally while they watched. Jacob tried not to think that somewhere on the grounds the gentle Debra was being forced into such a position. "It's actually not all about sex. " Seanna turned him toward the ocean and gestured.

"Some of the vampires like to see gladiator sports, what battle skills their servants possess. Of course, since they're fighting naked, it's still very . . . Stimulating. " She ran a tongue over her teeth. "Let's go over there and I'll show you. " With another playful look, she took him toward the ocean. A field had been marked out just above where the sandy beach led to the tide edge. As they walked down the slope, he saw a group of servants en- gaged in mock battles on the open green. Sword fighting, wrestling, javelin throwing and footraces, as if revisiting the times of the early Olympians. If he participated here, he would be on display, but there'd be no demands on him sexually that might discomfort him. I thought you'd find that area rather quickly. He was pleased to hear her voice, to detect in it that the meeting was going tentatively well. They were taking a break to socialize be- fore resuming the agenda. While he couldn't say for sure, he thought he even sensed she was pleased with his desire to avoid the sex games. When he was inside her, he felt her desire to own him, body and soul. It was all consuming. He wondered if her purported indiffer- ence to his monogamy at other times was one of her games to prove to herself that he didn't have a similar hold on her. Don't anger me, Jacob. I'm busy. Go play boy games. "You're talking to her. " Seanna withdrew her hand. "You can tell when you're doing it. That night, I could tell you were defying her over something. And now . . . " Her expression softened. "It's good for you to love your Mistress. Wouldn't it please her to see us . . . Feel us . . . " Jacob shook his head, but managed to make it look regretful. Taking her hand, he kissed it. Diplomacy. Richard was one of Lyssa's overlords, after all. Truth be told, after spending this time with Se- anna, he didn't find her nearly as offensive as he had during the night of the dinner. Arrogant she might be, but she was entirely committed to the lifestyle she'd chosen. He was the one who didn't fit, as he'd been told often enough. "Not right now. But thank you for your kind offer. " Her hand rested in his as she studied him. Behind the cultured facade, Jacob caught a hint of the young girl from the New Orleans brothel who'd decided to follow Richard into a better life for herself.

"You're different, Jacob, " she said at last. "But then, so is your Mis- tress. Be careful here. Differences in servants are tolerated only as long as they amuse or arouse. When they disturb, your days will be numbered. Know your boundaries. " Not a threat, but a warning, similar in tone to what Debra had told him. Though it rankled, he could tell it was sincerely offered. When he nodded, she moved away, her provocative saunter suggest- ing she was going in search of company more receptive to her urges to play. Monogamous he was. Dead he wasn't. He couldn't help watching that generous ass swivel from side to side, the cleft tantalizingly re- vealed by her movements, the long legs. Intuition as well as countless hours of training with Gideon had him spinning around, ducking his head and throwing up an arm. The long end of the swinging javelin he caught would have smacked smartly into his back or ass, a successful attempt to hu- miliate him. The man who held the other end had an olive Medi- terranean complexion and dark hair cropped short, emphasizing patrician features. Jacob tightened his grip, hauling forward, but his opponent let go at the same moment, overbalancing him. Jacob took the roll backward across the soft turf and came to a half- crouch defensive position, the javelin tucked under his arm and firmly in his grip. The man's face darkened as several of the other men who had paused to watch expressed appreciation of the recovery. "He might just be quick enough for you, Malachi, " one of them suggested with a chuckle. He had a broad Australian accent, unruly red hair to his shoulders, and an open affability to his features. On his chest was a tattoo of a raven with wings spread over each pecto- ral. While Jacob wasn't in the habit of ogling men's genitals, the Aussie's were hard to ignore. Hung like a horse, literally. His eyes twinkled. "Like staring at your granny's face tumor, isn't it? Can't hardly look away. Have to have my pants specially tailored, which is more than these blokes can say. "

At the wave of jeering responses, he grinned. "Anyhow, Lord knows, we're all tired of getting thrashed. " He inclined his head to Jacob. "Knock this bastard on his arse just once, mate,and I'll shout you your first beer in Sodom and Gomorrah. " "You're Lyssa's new Irish whelp, then?" The observation was made by a muscular Viking with tied-back blond hair and clear blue eyes. His cock, while not as sizeable, was pierced with multiple gold rings. He towered over Malachi but stood at his back, making it clear he was the Mediterranean man's ally, if needed. The Aussie stood off to the side, his body language neutral, though Jacob sensed a level of concern under that amiable expression. Though he seemed noncon- frontational, he was all lean muscle and therefore a potential threat until he proved himself otherwise. Jacob kept his eyes on all three. "That's Lady Lyssa to you. " His tone stayed cool as Malachi took up another javelin and paced forward, making it clear he intended to engage. Jacob fell into rhythm, pacing a half circle around him as the others dropped back, giving them their space. Malachi had a muscu- lar, compact physique. He'd be quick and powerful, and wouldn't tire easily. "If you want a fighter, call a Roman. If you want a ballad, call an Irishman. Can I make you sing, Irishman?" He switched direction to pace out another half circle, moving the javelin in a comfortable rotor twirl, apparently to impress Jacob with his grasp of the weapon. Jacob stopped in place, choosing a closed grip on the shaft and a ready stance. He cocked his head. "Are ye goin' t'ask me t'dance then, or should we be proceeding with yer arse whippin'?" A burst of laughter emitted from the outside circle. Even Malachi curled his lip back in a fuck-you grin, telling Jacob his opponent had been gauging his capacity to be goaded. "My lord Belizar feels you need a lesson in humility. " Jacob flashed his own teeth. "Then see if you're the man to teach it to me. " Malachi inclined his head and sprang. There was precise skill and speed involved in using a double weapon, where both ends could be brought into play.

There were op- portunities for displays of raw power when the opponents held toe- to-toe, testing strength until one would get clever and shear off the wood, trying to come under and rap the shins or, better, sweep the feet. He and Malachi were well matched physically. Comparable heights and builds, almost equal training, though he suspected this was not Malachi's preferred weapon. He was trying to pull the sharp end into play more often than not, quickly telling Jacob the man meant to do him some damage as part of his Master's bidding, not just beat him. He was equally aware of a gathering crowd. The singularity of the sound of wood hitting wood told him other sports, both the sensual and physical, were coming to a halt to watch theirs. Which likely meant they had the attention of the upper verandah as well. Of course. They wanted to see what this new servant of Lyssa's could do. Malachi's javelin rolled, jerked back and turned faster than Jacob expected, rapping his knuckles hard enough to knock his hand off the upper part of the staff. Jacob dropped to one knee, took the brunt of the next strike along his weapon one-armed. The impact sang down the length of it and reverberated in his shoulder joint. When Malachi flipped the javelin to thrust with the point, Jacob dove into his legs, taking them both down. He didn't agonize over the mixing of weapons practice with hand-to-hand. This wasn't a match. Mala- chi was spoiling for an out-and-out fight. They rolled over the ground. The sudden wetness of soft sand told him they'd made it to the shoreline. Malachi drove his elbow in hard under his rib cage, and Jacob retaliated by getting a leg under him and connecting to his face with a yell and a strong uppercut that knocked his opponent back from him, making him stumble in the wet sand. Both men scrambled for their staffs, and Jacob spun in time to knock away the spear point that would have gone through his face below his left eye.

Not a fight then. Something deadlier. With a snarl, he rammed Malachi full body now, taking him into the water and rolling him, bringing the weapon into play to hold him under. After a satisfying moment on top of the struggling man, he shoved away, flipped and came back up in the same crouch as before. Only this time he had both spears, one balanced in each hand. Malachi got to his feet, his lip cut and bleeding. "You've fought to the death before. " He spat. Jacob raised a brow. "You want to push this that far?" Malachi's gaze flickered, just enough. Jacob spun in time to be struck a glancing blow on the temple by the Viking's javelin staff, instead of taking the full swing that could have compromised his skull. Malachi lunged forward, seized his spear and yanked, recov- ering it, though Jacob managed to hold on to his own weapon. He fell backward, bringing the two of them into his range, creating a melee of arms, legs, thrown punches. When a point grazed his thigh, he heard Malachi's curse as he missed the penetration angle. Jacob propelled himself to his feet with a roar and used his bare fist to strike Malachi as the man rushed him. Spinning, he engaged the Viking behind him, ducking under his guard and thrusting up- ward to deliver a sharp blow into his throat, again with his fist. The man stumbled back, wheezing. One out, back to one-on-one. Jacob, do not engage further. Back off and surrender. Malachi will cease. He is only seeking for you to concede dominance to placate his Master. He can wait for that until Hell freezes over. Jacob, obey me. This is important, for reasons more than your ego. Jacob gauged his opponent. I don't think that's going to do the trick, my lady. I know what Belizar seeks in this. I know my opponent. As he knew his. Jacob. He bit off a snarl. Knowing it was a mistake, and one galling to the point he thought it might choke him, he spread his arms, an open gesture.

Reluctantly he tossed the spear to the watching Aussie, whom he'd noted had not been one of the ones who'd tried to unbal- ance the struggle. "Your match. " He gave a slight bow, though he didn't take his eyes off Malachi. "My lady sends her high regards for your skill. " Malachi nodded, wiped his brow with the back of his hand and turned to offer his gasping mate a hand out of the water. Diplomacy. Jacob managed to create a mask of it as he turned to the Australian, though from the man's look he suspected he wasn't concealing his expression of murderous fury well enough. "So, this drink–" "Watch out!" The man shouted it a mere second after Jacob sensed it and spun. The movement kept the spear from going through his kidney. Instead, it tore into the meat of his thigh, the blade end as razor sharp as a sword. He had time to see the red spurt of blood, telling him Malachi had hit a vital artery. But that thought was immediately consumed by a surge of bloodlust so strong, he knew it didn't come all from him. Perhaps most of it didn't. Malachi and the Viking charged, slammed into his body and took him down into the water. Struggling for control of emotions not his own, plus the male fury that was, he reached out to her. My lady? Kill him. Every man had a reservoir of primal rage. He'd learned that in fighting at Gideon's side. When opened, fear disappeared, and there was only blood. Propelled by the force of his lady's reaction, it con- sumed everything but instinct now. The solid spike of fury in her response confirmed the source of the nuclear rage boiling through his blood. It made him understand why she commanded so much fear and respect. If she turned even a tenth of what was rushing through him on her enemies, none of them would survive it. Surging up, he seized the neck of the staff and twisted it deci- sively. Malachi had no opportunity to let go, crying out as Jacob broke his wrist and followed it up with a jab that shattered his nose.

His vision was graying, his leg going numb. Oh, no you don't, Ja- cob silently snarled to his weakening body. Not until we do our lady's bidding. He dispatched the Viking as an afterthought with a second pre- cisely aimed blow to the windpipe that crushed his airway com- pletely, if the sudden look of panic and clutching of the throat were any indication. Jacob flipped the spear as Malachi stumbled back to a fighting stance and raised his own,but Jacob's point was already against his chest, inside his guard. "Two against one . . . Some code of honor, " Jacob spat, noting that the knee-deep water in which he was standing was swirling with his blood. His leg was slick with it. "We have no honor other than what our Masters permit us to have. " Malachi dropped his weapon and went to his knees. Jacob had to give him points for bravado. His expression was cool and indifferent, though his chest was laboring, a tremor running through his hands. "My Master concedes the match. On his honor and mine, which serves his will, may his life be forfeit to your lady if he lies. " It was a mouthful to get out while facing the fatal end of a spear. Jacob forced himself to still his forward motion while keeping enough pressure to create a trickle of blood down the man's stom- ach. He was getting dizzier and didn't dare grip it harder or he'd betray himself by impaling the man. My lady? "Let him go, Jacob. " She spoke just behind him. When he tilted his head, he saw she was in the water with him. The surf made her skirts float in rippling waves around her calves and bare feet. Jacob managed five steps toward her before the spear fell from his fingertips. He barely felt it. His knees gave way, mortifying him, but she caught him, easing him to his back. The hands of the Austra- lian were on him as well, taking him to the wet sand, his friendly face and concerned hazel green eyes just to the left of his lady as he stepped back and gave Lyssa a respectful distance. His hands were red with blood. So were hers. Looking down at himself hazily, Jacob saw as fast as the water was washing it away, the blood was still spurting.

Then her hand was over it. "Femoral, " he said. "Going to be dead. " "No. It's already healing as we speak. Your third mark gives you a remarkable ability to knit wounds, though you'll need some of my blood. After you drink, you'll be as good as new in less than half an hour. " Her green eyes still held the glimmer of red fire he'd felt rac- ing through his whole body when Lord Belizar had apparently or- dered his servant to spear him through the back. "You won't be able to get out of your duties here that easily, Sir Vagabond. " Bringing her hand to her throat, she extended one finger, pressed into the artery in a practiced move that immediately welled with blood. Jacob blinked. His fuzzy brain slowly processed the fact she'd fitted an ornamental metal tip over her forefinger, allowing her to make the clean and fast puncture. "Other women carry lipstick. Breath mints . . . " "Sssh. " She bent over him, pulling her hair over to the opposite shoulder so it fell forward and curtained him as she brought her throat within reach of his mouth. "I command you to drink. Your ability to heal is phenomenal with the third mark, but you've not matured in it long enough for us to delay. " As she felt his lips close over the wound, drawing in her life force, Lyssa closed her eyes. The wound under her hand was slowing even now, but his blood loss had been great. At one time, she supposed she'd understood these power games that sated her kind's bloodlust, their need to prove domination. She'd drawn back from that in the past two years, after Rex and Thomas. As recently as the last Council Gathering, she would have ad- mired Lord Belizar's canny test to determine the suitability of her servant and the test of her own mettle. Power was always shifting, and a vampire was a vampire. Such challenges confirmed that those in leadership positions deserved to be there. She understood all that, had even helped tailor those dual strengths and failings into the present structure they had that kept the more brutal practices to a minimum, but it didn't make her feel any less furious, imagining that spear coming at Jacob's back. She'd worried so much about him not being prepared for this event, she'd overlooked her own need for a refresher course in vam- pire politics.

She was angry at herself. Just because she was weary of always being on her guard was no excuse for allowing herself not to be. Jacob had handled himself more than capably,winning the re- spect of the spectators. Servants would report back to their over- lords, Region Masters and Council members what they had seen, that Lady Lyssa had chosen her servant wisely. Instead of being glad, triumphant, it made her head hurt. Earlier he'd defied her as a male was wont to do in the face of another man's challenge, but when it came to the value of his own life, his obedi- ence to her had been more important to him. He'd waited for her permission to defend himself. What have I done to deserve you? What horrible thing did you do to deserve me? She didn't let him hear such thoughts, of course. She was aware of the others retreating. Malachi. Devlin, with a short bow. His Australian Mistress, Lady Daniela, was known and liked by Lyssa, for all that she ran a small territory and was not considered of much consequence among this Gathering. She was here, however, because she was a full-blood, born vampire. Lyssa would not soon forget her servant's aid to Jacob, which likely had saved him from an even more grievous injury. She also noticed he was regaining his lucidity, on several levels. His tongue had gone from a functional press against the wound to a swirling pattern, his lips pressing against her skin with remarkable sensual intent. He knew exactly how sensitive her throat was, having been a quick study from the first. Over their short time together he'd taken every opportunity to practice. It brought to mind one night in her rose garden, when he'd somehow managed to talk her into lying naked under the stars with him. He'd started at her toes, exploring every part of her with his mouth, asking with a combination of husky spoken words and thoughts how each contact felt. If she liked this better . . . Or that. By the time he reached her hip bone, words were no longer articulated. He was simply reading the swirl of her responses as an answer. Drinking a vampire's blood could arouse a human, for usually the vampire ensured the servant was ingesting the proper chemicals to spur that reaction.

With the second mark, Jacob had asked her never to use the pheromones on him again. Except for the night with his brother to override his objections, she had honored that request. It always moved her how aroused he got despite the pain. Or because of it. His choice not to explore that dark part of himself analytically might amuse her, but when he allowed it free rein, its power was overwhelming to her senses. His response could be explained in a variety of ways. But since he didn't have any pheromones to release, she found it difficult to ex- plain why the touch of his lips in this very public place caused an immediate flow of heat through her body, into fingers chilled from the lack of movement during her meeting with the other Council members. She had her arm diagonally across his hips, low, where she'd placed her palm on his thigh wound to gauge the rate of heal- ing, the stemming of the blood loss. Now his cock was hardening, pressing up against her forearm, making it an irresistible compul- sion to shift her grip and close over him. Because they were still within the tide line, a gentle surge of water lapped over his body, across his belly, over her folded legs and bare feet. The water rushed over her fingers, gave her knuckles a lick of cool foam while the heat of him increased, as well as the thickness which filled her so well. Since vampires expected sexual interaction between servants and their Masters and Mistresses, particularly here, there was nothing technically inappropriate about her indulging the moment. Except she had been with Thomas for some time, and she'd not made the monk break his vows of chastity except once. Even before that she tended to be more private in her personal, direct indulgences. Strad- dling Jacob, letting her wet skirts cling to his bare body as she rode him to sate the longing he stoked inside her would be a bit shocking, particularly for what they knew of Lady Wentworth. But God, how she wanted him. It never seemed to stop for either of them, no matter what they faced. Worry, anger, passion, joy, danger . . . Everything they felt together or about one another seemed to lead to this need to join, to reaffirm the inseparable bond the marks gave them. Or some- thing more.

A soft whisper of air escaped her lips when his large hand came up to cradle her face. He increased his fervency at her throat, the soft trim of his beard stroking her collarbone and the top of her ster- num. Jacob. Stop, before you embarrass me before this mob. Your taste is sweet, my lady. I must have you to regain my full strength. I'm sure of it. With an effort comparable to the removal of a vital organ, though she knew it only appeared as if she calmly extricated herself, she pulled back. As she rose and stood over him, he propped himself on his elbows and stared up at her face, raw hunger in his expression. She had to stifle a groan. His lean body lay in the shallow surf com- pletely naked, the blood washed away and wound almost completely healed, such that all she saw was an expanse of muscle slick with the water's passage over him in waves and moon-illuminated drops. The brace of his shoulders and elbows bearing his weight made his biceps round, his broad chest taut. Every curve emphasized, as well as his long, proud cock, the weight of his testicles. All of it hers to do with as she wished, when she wished. On her terms. The reminder as well as her surroundings helped her rein in her response. "I will have you when I say it's time, Jacob. Rise now. " At his ironic look, she bit the inside of her cheek. "Don't test me, Sir Vaga- bond. " A twinkle sparkled through his beautiful blue eyes as he got to his feet. The effort cost him, for she knew it would be a couple of hours before he was restored to full strength, but he made it into a smooth, lithe move, giving her a slight bow as he rose. He was so much taller than she that the moon haloed him, disturbing her. She couldn't help reaching up and threading her hands through the wet hair that brushed the tops of his shoulders, letting her fingers play along the ridge of bone and muscle there. She drew her hand away before he could take it as an invitation. His hungry cock was still erect and too temptingly close. Damn it, why the hell shouldn't she have him? Why did appear-ances have to matter so much?

She didn't care about any of this. His blue eyes were so bright, their color somehow getting more brilliant by the moment, more blue than she'd ever recalled before. Calling to her. Taking a step forward, the ground didn't seem to be where she thought it was. Jacob caught her hand when she stumbled, making it appear as a hitch in her stride caused by the weight of her clothes. "Be careful of your skirt, my lady. I apologize for making your clothes wet. Would you like me to carry you from the water, take you back to our rooms so you can change?" She wasn't sure if she nodded. She hoped she did, so it wouldn't look incongruous, her servant gathering her in his arms and lifting her to stride off the shore. She had to fight not to close her eyes. The colors were getting blinding. Nausea was surging forth at a rate that brought a flood of panic with it. Hold on, my lady. It's all right. Jacob's voice, soothing, helping her balance the desperation. She'd fought things in the course of her life that would have given an archangel nightmares. So this emo- tional panic attack–no other term for it–was a new symptom, something else out of her control. Everything was starting to be out of her control. She had to go . . . Fly . . . She couldn't . . . Why was the world so bright? It was like the sun, the threat of burning. The con- sumption of fire . . . "A good match, as I said. Tomorrow evening perhaps I can think of a suitable way for Malachi and Jacob to make up. Something we'll all enjoy. " Lord Belizar's voice. Where? To your left, my lady. Turn your head no more than an inch or two. Give him a smile with that touch of disdain you do so well. Let him worry whether he's displeased you. A good tactic. Hoping she did it successfully, she turned her face back to Jacob. She needed to give him an order, something that would make sense, of course. Dispel any suspicion. Her clothes were wet. None of this was adequate. She couldn't do this anymore. Her skin felt on fire.

Jacob's hands were like hot brands. Oh, God . . . It was not close to dawn, but she could feel the sun as if her skin was anticipating its eruption from the earth. She was responding to it. Suffering for it. I can't . . . Jacob. Where . . . ? I'm here, my lady. Sssh . . . Somehow they were in her rooms. It seemed only a few seconds had passed, but it would have taken him at least five or ten minutes to get her there. She could only hear roar- ing in her head. Her limbs were shuddering and she was over- whelmed by a fear so strong she didn't know how to control it. She was afraid. She'd never been this afraid. Jacob . . . I'm frightened. So frightened and no reason for it. Help me . . . He'd put her down and stepped back, and she was sinking. Just sinking. No. He had her. Stripping off her clothes. Leaving her naked and damp, shivering in his arms as he lifted her, took her to the cool touch of the sheets. She clung to his back, seeking him, his life, his presence. Her legs lifted, locked around his hips. He hesitated. Then in one gentle move he lay down upon her. Sliding his cock deep, he caused her to rise up to him and cry out as the fear and emptiness were severed inside her soul, like a two- headed monster he'd just cleaved with his decisive penetration, driv- ing out everything wrong. He settled in and stayed there. Pressing his forehead to hers, he framed her throbbing head with his hands, holding her body down,giving her a certain anchor. She didn't need to be afraid. He was here. Her words or his? It didn't matter. Only this mattered. This sensation of reassurance, his large body covering hers, his cock firmly seated, his arms around her. "Sssh . . . My lady. You're fine. I'm here. Hold on. " Her mind was completely open to him, telling Jacob she was un- aware or wholly unable to keep herself shielded from him. Her body now was sweating, her skin so hot it almost burned, but she gripped him to her as if she didn't want a fraction of space between them. A jumble of frightening images of her past and present fi lled his head, her fears for the future . . .

Those she protected hunted down. Everything she'd built with the Council destroyed by Carnal and his type of vampire, those who wanted savagery and chaos to rule the world. She thought they were up to something. They needed to be on guard, all of them, because she had no idea from which direction the threat would come, but one was coming. She might be able to protect her fugitives with a Council decision, but how could the Council hold together if she was gone . . . It was the first time she'd acknowledged what he suspected. She was perhaps the one vampire capable of keeping order all on her own. Not just with her royal lineage and wisdom, but the enormous power that was hers to command. She was their shield. She was the army that gave them the time to grow in wisdom and strength. While she understood she would not be around forever, she knew her death might be too soon. Far too soon. Then those images slid away and he was falling into the well of her soul. As he spiraled down into her unconscious, it reared up to meet him, blasted him with the desolation of her most personal fears. A storm of them, no order or reason. The nightmare stories of vampires being damned and soulless, facing Hell . . . Ruthless hands on her, Carnal and Rex hurting her, taking everything, leaving her nothing. Her voice cried out to him like a child's in the night with a trembling vulnerability. The image struck him like a fist, filling his mind so he couldn't deny it had the shape of a memory. Those beautiful green eyes in a little girl's face, silky dark hair wisping around her delicate features. She'd woken in tears, scream- ing of her stepfather's death. He'd held her, her favorite samurai guard. Sung her back to safer dreams. While he'd had very different feelings about her then, one thing had been the same. He'd known the small girl child in his lap was the most important thing in his life. The beginning and the end of it. Jacob was glad she had no ability to read his thoughts right now, for it tore his heart to pieces to feel her fear and pain.

But he could and would stand between her and any threat, even this one. Tighten- ing his grip on her, he began to stroke, slow and powerful, reaching deep into her mind in a way he'd never tried before. He'd stumbled into it one time by mistake, and she'd reacted violently. This time he wasn't prying. He was seeking her in that darkness. 'Tis bullshit, my lady. The light of your soul is so strong the sun dims before it. Your heart is so good . . . There's nothing to fear. We'll protect what is yours with all that we are, and what we cannot do, we must leave to a Power higher than ourselves. I'm here, and I bear your third mark. Wherever you go, I'll be right with you. You are never alone in this. In anything. I love you, my lady. So much I am nothing without you. You have become everything. She clutched his shoulders, her breath quickening. He slayed her dragons with the sharp edge of his words, giving her truth, not sen- timent. Increasing the strength of his thrusts, he encircled her hips with one arm, pressing his palm against one buttock to raise her for a deeper penetration. The whirl of her thoughts was slowing, focusing, replaced by an undulating red wave of response, clearing the debris of the storm her sickness had brought crashing down on her. It left space for the rip- pling tide he built within her. When her muscles convulsed on him, he bent his head, covered her breast with his mouth, tasted salt water and sand. Closing his eyes, he let his own tears fall where they'd merge with the dampness of her skin. Her hand touched his head, fingers tangling into his wet hair, her body beginning to match the cadence of his. Nothing you do shall take me from your side, my lady. You can't hurt me enough to make me leave you. As she began to climax, her nails pierced his flesh as he knew was her way, drawing blood she would lap from his skin before a drop was wasted. He shuddered in reaction to her body releasing beneath his, allowing him to give her pleasure and peace, restore her and send her flying at once. Even as he felt that miracle, he prayed for another one. "Jacob . . . "

He quivered, muscles rippling through his arms and across his back at that soft whisper. He hadn't asked, but she'd known he was waiting. Waiting for his Mistress's command in the way she'd taught him. The way he knew would help her regain her sense of herself. "Give me your seed. Come inside me. " It exploded from him, raw and aching as if he had a vise tight around his heart. As it pumped furiously, keeping pace with his re- lease, it was like a heart attack, heralding the agony of impending loss.