The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Nine)

He did what she instructed. Using a Coleman lantern to give him light, he dug the grave. He worked fast, using the exertion to help him block out the horror of what he was doing until he was just mindlessly slashing at the earth. Plunge, step on the edge of the shovel, lift, heave. Sweat poured off him. Perhaps there were tears there, too, for his nose was running when he was done and there was a tremor in his hands. He used the ladder he'd brought to get himself out, then took Melinda down into the grave. As he started shoveling dirt, he had to close his eyes. "Go and be at peace, lass, " he said hoarsely to the weight of the darkness. "Don't stay here and look at this. Just go. " Because of the thought, in the end he didn't mark the grave. He didn't want the girl's spirit to come back and visit, seek any attach- ment to the place. She was much better off wherever she'd gone. When he was done, the forest was quiet. He had a cowardly de- sire to avoid his lady's company tonight. Go out and get stupen- dously drunk. Instead, when he got back to the house, he cleaned up and took a shower, letting the hot water run over him though he knew nothing would clean this away. Donning jeans and T-shirt, he headed for the study. She was there as he suspected. Reading, her head bowed over the large book in her lap.

Bran lay on her feet. The fire was going. As he stepped in, she didn't lift her head. "Did you know what he was about to do?" Jacob asked. If the wrong answer came from her mouth, he would have to walk away. Rejoin his brother and let the same bitter rage deaden his soul so it wouldn't ache like this anymore. Maybe Gideon had it right. Closing her eyes, she laid her head back on the chair, the flicker- ing shadows from the fire guarding her expression. Her face, while sad and tired, was heartbreakingly beautiful as always. It made something twist in his gut. He didn't know if he wanted to throw up or fall to his knees and put his head in her lap. "My world is a horrible and yet beautiful place, Jacob. Vampires are as deeply complex and unpredictable as humans. Carnal, how- ever, is simply a monster. A monster of his own creation. " "But he suggested . . . It was a courtship act?" Jacob didn't bother to hide his disbelief. Her lip curled distastefully. "Yes. As a vampire hunter and even under Thomas's tutelage, you weren't exposed to courtship strate- gies. Proving you can outmaneuver your object of interest is a way of gaining favor. I want you to burn that rug, " she said, raising her head and opening her eyes. "I don't want his blood from that cup in my house. " "So to court you I would have to become a cross between Ma- chiavelli and a serial killer. " "You don't court me, Jacob. " She sat up, her expression becoming closed to him again. "You serve me. But you matter to me, if that gives you any comfort. " "Were you part of making those laws? The specific ones that ap- ply to tonight?" The one that allows the murder of an underage girl to go unpunished? Lyssa cocked her head. "Yes and no. You're familiar with the fact the original draft of the Declaration of Independence included lan- guage to abolish slavery?" He blinked at the topic shift, but inclined his head. "They had to remove it, else they would have lost the support of the southern states, and the whole concept of an independent coun- try would have been lost to noble principle.

Everything is timing. Getting vampires to agree to ritualized behavior, which would mini- mize body count, had to be propped on the foundation of their supe- riority. Even then, we still had to endure the territory wars to get everyone under the umbrella of the Council. And there remain many like Carnal who've not gained enough power to satisfy them. They must be watched. It will always be a problem. " When her visage darkened, he realized he'd unwittingly reminded her that she could not help the Council do that for much longer. "My lady–" Her gaze snapped back to him. "Which comes back to another issue. Carnal could have killed you easily tonight. " "If my aim had been better–" "If you had killed him, what then?" She rose, tossing the book on the side table with a flat slap of noise. Bran rose and resettled several feet away, his eyes shifting between them. "Do you know what's done to a servant who kills a vampire?" "What the hell did you want me to do?" He pressed forward, al- most nose to nose with her. "Let you drink it?" "You have a mind link, Jacob. Why didn't you use it? No, be si- lent. " She flung up her hands in irritation. "You'd only tell me the same lie you're telling yourself. It was just male ego. You wanted to call him out publicly, rather than letting me know so I could have dealt with it another way. " "So you're saying I killed her. I'm responsible for her death. " His jaw was so rigid with anger he had trouble making his mouth move to say the hateful words. Lyssa shrugged. "She wouldn't have lived long in his ser vice. His servants never do. " "So that's a yes. " "I'm saying that you are my servant. Pride is not a luxury you have. Ego has no place in your ser vice to me. If the moment calls for pride, it will be at my behest, not yours. " She moved away abruptly, leaving her light scent teasing his senses and the slender nape of her neck begging for a stranglehold.

"I'm done with this. Begone from me tonight. Don't forget about the rug. " It was the wrong moment for a dismissal. The thoughts in his mind came at her like depth charges exploding in an ocean of black- ness. Lyssa almost flinched, but she faced the fireplace, ignoring him. Perhaps her timing was off, but he was expected to obey. That was all. She would have made concessions for his feelings after the terrible events of the night, but the defiance she felt rolling off him raised her own hackles. "Why can't you just learn to obey?" "Because a human servant isn't a trained monkey, " he snapped. "And because you keep wanting to draw a line between us you know doesn't belong there. " He'd stomped forward, back into her space, his blue eyes blazing, hands clenched. She had no concerns he would try to hurt her. That wasn't what the fury pumping off of him was about, but it had the ability to strike her just the same. Drawing herself up, she pivoted to square off with him fully, forcing a look of disdain on her face and securely locking her mind from him. "Jacob, even if we were the same species, pedophilia doesn't even cover our age difference. " "Don't give me that, " he said. "What about someone like Lord Brian? There's not much difference between us, about three or four decades. " "I do view Brian as a child, still a fledgling. " He rolled his eyes. "I'm a grown man and you're a grown woman. If Thomas's crazy theory is right, my soul is older than you because I was an adult guard when you were still in diapers. " She glared at him. "That's ridiculous, and it's not relevant. I de- mand your absolute obedience to my will, even when it conflicts with your bullheaded, outmoded ideas of chivalry. Thomas let it guide his actions, just once, and he ended up dead. " "It was his fault, then. For loving you too much? Just as it's my fault that girl is dead? It couldn't be because you vampires are totally fucked up. It's our fault for being idiot humans. " "No. " It burst out as a shout, startling her. She couldn't remember the last time she'd shouted. Often she'd felt impotent fury at Rex's actions, but it had to be controlled.

She let this loose, let it fill her, the whole useless mess that had been this evening. "It was my fault. For letting him believe he had the right to love me that much. For enjoy- ing his friendship too much, for forgetting that you can only serve us. It doesn't matter what I wish or want. You cannot be one of us. " "Who would want that?" While Jacob knew it was a mistake, Irish temper was Irish temper, and it didn't often respond to his reins any better than he did to hers. "Cold, ruthless, soulless crea- tures who think they're so bloody fucking superior to us, when they can't even get along without adopting rigid territory rules as if they live in medieval Europe. Who are no better than any species that thinks it has the right to brutalize other ones because they can't fight you. Who consider us nothing . . . " The girl's dying gaze flashed through his mind. "Nothing, " he repeated. "You consider me noth- ing, my lady. " A muscle twitched in her delicate jaw. He knew he should stop. Instead, he plowed onward. "But there are times when it all slips away, doesn't it? Then you're just like any of the rest of us that live and breathe . . . Need. Then I'm something to you, far more than you want me to be. Keep your mind closed like a bloody fucking trap all you want; I know it. I've felt it when you touch me, watch me when you don't think I know you're watching. And that cunt of yours that gets so wet for me doesn't mind stooping to take in the cock of a dumb animal, does it?" The strike was fast, snapping his head back as she took him across the face with her knuckles, cutting him with the rings she wore. But it wasn't about strength. She could have punched him through two walls, but she chose the act of female contempt in- stead. "I won't be spoken to like that. " Lyssa bared her fangs. Blood was trickling from his lip. Despite her rage, she found she had to fight to keep her voice steady and push away the overwhelming desire to slam him to the carpet, tear into the wound and force him to under- stand just what a vampire's nature would stoop to doing. "Get out of my sight. Don't seek me until I bid you come to me. " "Gladly. After all, you don't need me around until you need your hair combed or your ass wiped.

Things most of us inferior humans learn to do for ourselves before we reach kindergarten. " Snarling, he turned on his heel, leaving the room. The kitchen door at the back of the house slammed hard enough to vibrate the walls. She stood there, the fire crackling behind her, absorbing the an- ger in the room. It was as if the flames were swallowing the air as well, for now she was short of breath, her violent reaction draining away and leaving only the emotional pain she knew it had masked. She'd used it as a weapon, and her feelings for him had almost turned it against herself, with dire consequences for them both. The truth was he'd scared her to death. Each time she thought of him shooting Carnal, she experienced the terror anew, when she'd thought she wouldn't intercept in time. She also remembered her dark pleasure at the way he'd hurt Carnal. That second of entirely personal and vengeful satisfaction could have cost Jacob his life. The thought brought another disturbing, if far more distant, memory to her mind. Jun, her samurai guard, who had watched over her during her sleeping hours in the opulent nursery she had below- ground. Sometimes, she'd been able to coax him into taking his long dark hair out of its knot so she could press her face into it. Pretend- ing she was behind a curtain, she'd hide from him until he flipped it away and revealed a ferocious warrior's face that made her giggle. He played a flute to help her sleep, rocking her on his thighs, letting her hold on to his hair and sway, as if in the cradle of a solid oak's branches. The disturbing part came later, when his face was a mask of fe- rocity in truth, teeth bared, muscles bunched and running with sweat and blood as he took a spear through his abdomen and yet kept fighting. Holding on to the shaft, he'd cut down its bearer and snapped the end against a wall, pulling it free and charging forward, roaring at her maidservant to take her and run, run . . . Lyssa shuddered, pulling herself back to the present. When Ja- cob stood facing her just now, she'd smelled the soap on his hands from washing off the soil of Melinda's grave, scrubbing it from be- neath his nails. His eyes were sick with what he'd just done, and she'd wanted to comfort him. She'd made him bury her alone, just as she'd made Thomas die alone, and both of them had done nothing but serve her with complete loyalty.

She'd lost her objectivity. Every time she tried to reclaim it, she just ended up cutting him even more deeply. She was dissecting him in her attempt to understand herself. He'd been so angry at her, his fists clenching, eyes blazing, but all she'd been able to think about when she saw that trickle of blood on his lip was how much she didn't want to be arguing. She found him standing by one of her fountains, the one with the center sculpture of Pan. The dancing satyr among the artful sprays of water formed the backdrop to her rose garden. For the first time since she'd met Jacob, she found herself hesitant to reach out and touch. She simply stood, a shadow in the night behind him. It was foolish. By withholding her love she couldn't protect her- self from loss. Denying herself love was a far greater loss in the long run. So, taking a breath, she laid a palm on his back. She drew com- fort from the heat of him, selfish though it might be. His shoulders lifted and fell in a sigh. "Did I tell you Thomas found the meaning of my name amusing?" She shook her head. He glanced back at her, then looked up at the moon. "Supplanter, " he said. "Otherwise meaning to take the place of something, the implication being that the something you're re- placing is inferior, used up, no longer viable or relevant. " Lyssa arched a brow, uncertain of where he was going. "Thomas was a scholar, " she observed. "One with a wicked sense of self- deprecation. There were times I thought of choking him. " Jacob gave a halfhearted snort. "Yeah, me, too. But that was actu- ally better than the biblical relevance of the name. The one who took the birthright of his older brother through trickery. Genesis 25:23. `The older shall serve the younger. ' Jacob talked Esau out of his birthright by withholding food. He tricked their father, got the bless- ing meant for Esau. When his brother learned of his trickery, Jacob fled into exile from his brother's wrath. " It was not difficult to imagine him sitting by Melinda's grave, find- ing those Bible passages and attaching them to his own life. His brother believed Jacob had abandoned him. A young girl had died tonight while he could do nothing.

He was servant to a dying vampire he loved, but he could not save her, either. She didn't have to read his mind to know the flow of his thoughts, that he was drowning in them. What did what was appropriate matter anyway? There was just right now. His pain, and in truth, hers. Lyssa curled her arms around his waist and chest and went on her toes, holding him in her em- brace. As he bowed his head, she brushed his shoulder with her lips. "Gods, today was awful, " he muttered. She felt gratified when his fingers closed over hers on his chest. Loosening her grip, she coaxed him to turn and face her. Reaching up, she framed his face in her hands, feeling the softness of his trimmed beard under her touch. He shook his head. "I don't know how to get my mind around what happened tonight. All I feel is anger. I want to cry. I want to rage. I want to hurt something and I need . . . I don't want to have to think at all. I don't know how to be your servant right now. I'm . . . " He shook his head again. "I feel completely lost. I . . . I've been pre- paring myself for the annual kill, and that's been hard. Getting my mind around it, knowing it was going to happen. But this knocked my legs right out from under me. " He moved away from her touch, putting the fountain between them. Somehow his walking away now made her feel even more be- reft than when he'd left her in anger. She didn't want to let him go, but she didn't know what to offer him. Her life was what it was, and he had committed himself to being a part of it. "Jacob, " she spoke, bringing him to a halt. As the silence stretched out and he turned, raising a brow, she was surprised at how difficult it was to say the words when it was something that happened so long ago. "I lied to you, in a way. I do believe I'm barren now, but I did conceive. Once. Things happened . . . I ran into some difficulties and she was born early. Too early. I buried her in Jerusalem. " The baby had come out deformed because of her mixed heritage, Lyssa had thought. Fey, vampire and human, an aberration that couldn't live. At his shocked expression, seen through the wavering spray of water, she nodded. "It was the knight's child. "

She firmed her chin, raised it. His eyes had become brilliant, fierce on her face. "He died soon after he left me, so I was never able to tell him. Sometimes I thought it was better that she went to be with him, because he could always protect her, would always put her first. His soul was pure, untainted by politics and evil things. " He came back around the fountain, stopped within five feet of her. "Why did you tell me that?" "Remember I once said I could live ten thousand years and never understand some things, that none of us ever would? Like why some- one like Melinda dies, or my . . . Our child was born too early. " She made herself say the words, though she couldn't meet his eyes. Swal- lowing, she pushed away the recollection of the tiny body swaddled in velvet and silk, being laid in the earth. "We shed our tears and have to go on. I just know . . . If I was Melinda's mother I'd be glad it was your hands that held her at the last, safeguarded her to the next life. Never doubt your heart, Jacob. It's the best I've ever known. "The night of the third mark. I should have . . . I tried to let you go. But I couldn't. I just couldn't. I'm sorry. " It flashed in her mind, the baring of his throat, the deep penetration of her fangs. The mark he bore on his back, his binding to her. No, she couldn't let him go. He shifted, uncrossed his arms and turned away, this time obvi- ously fighting with his own emotions. He needed her. But he didn't know how to arrange the ugly confusion of grief and anger battling inside him to approach her in an acceptable way. She could see it in his mind, not as clear thoughts, but a tumble of response rising in him like storm wind. "Go–" She stopped herself. No, she wouldn't make this a com- mand. "If you wish, go to bed in my room. I'll come to you soon. You can sleep in my arms, or bury yourself in me in whatever way will help. Be whatever you need to be to deal with this night or whatever is coming. " His hands closed into fists at his sides and yet she saw in his mind the image of those same hands closing over her flesh, holding her with brutal need. She knew that life had a way of piling up horror upon horror, test upon test, on a soul. Like the weighting of stones on a witch's body until she was willing to say or do anything, sell her very soul for the crush to ease.

The only way to get through it was to remember what you were. What you intended to be, who you intended to be. He deserved that. He was not a supplanter, a pretender taking someone else's rightful place. Whether or not he was meant to be her servant, he was meant to serve her. Before her now she could see not only the present Jacob, but that knight. His large, capable hands and firm lips. Anticipation tightened in her lower belly as he turned, took a step toward her, then another. He wouldn't go to her bed alone.