The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Seven)

Snever view you as an equal. Watch your back. Serious " HE'LL plans in the works. Guard your lady well. " That was the note on the nightstand in an uneven scrawl when Jacob woke. His body hurt all over, and his brother was gone. Reaching out with his mind, he found his lady had left her shields down enough to let him locate her, asleep in her underground bed- chamber. She'd gotten so she always went there when dawn came, rarely using the upper chamber anymore. It was about ten in the morning. She'd also left him a note, on the opposite side of the bed. "I made sure your brother took some breakfast with him. He thanked me for my hospitality and said if I ever hurt you he'd stake me out in the sunlight and happily watch me burn. I kissed him good- bye until his toes curled and he couldn't walk without embarrassing himself. Maybe we should invite him to join us for Christmas. " Christ on a pogo stick. He laid his head back on the pillow and groaned. This day was not going to go well.

As if the gods were laughing at him, when she woke, she was in quite a mood. She made him oil every curve of her body to moisturize her skin. As a result, he had to handle every part of her intimately, without sexual intent.

He was thorough, making damn sure when he finished she was as aroused as he was. But rather than sate their desire, she announced she wanted to work in her rose garden. She donned the dress she used for gardening and with smug amusement, commanded him to change into a pair of jeans. He was going to help her transplant rosebushes. She didn't let him wear a shirt. Or any underwear. When her gaze lingered on his chest, he saw in her mind the image of her mouth covering his nipple where she'd given him the second mark. To bite him anew, to feel that rush of energy from his pain and plea- sure both. Pulling the zipper up was an excruciating, cautious exercise. Insatiable. That was a word for vampire appetites. So insatiable that even when they were sated, they made sure the object of their lust would be primed and ready for them. His lady liked building sexual energy until it was explosive. Because she'd taught him it was worth the wait, he curbed the desire to try and leap on her like a dog. As he slid into his shabby loafers to join her, a smile passed through her eyes. She gave a soft "whuff " that made him chuckle and Bran's ears prick. Once they got to the garden and started working on the rose- bushes, fortunately the lust settled to a slow simmer, a more quiet intimacy descending. Lyssa trimmed while he dug the holes for transplanting. Though Jacob unearthed the delicate plants under her supervi- sion, Lyssa knew he hardly needed it. He courteously followed her lead as she put the bushes in almost the same arrangement she knew he would have chosen. She'd turned on music in the solar and opened the outside speak- ers so the soft, sultry tones of Jerri Adams floated through the air, singing about what her heart was telling her. The moon was high up in the sky now, a white, glowing pearl. In the corner of her eye, she saw Jacob light a couple of the tiki torches to add to their illumina- tion as she examined the leaves of the rosebushes, checking for blem- ishes or parasites. He didn't initiate conversation. He teased her in ways she unexpectedly enjoyed, gave her conversation when she needed to hear another voice, companionable silence when she didn't.

There were people who could pick up when a person didn't want to talk, but just ignored it, their inner need to express themselves overriding whatever else was happening. He wasn't one of them. He was precognitive, but that kind of sensitivity came from intu-ition. Just like now. When she noted his gaze sliding over her breasts, down to her abdomen, the thought that went through his mind took her by surprise. But he kept on with what he was doing, giving her the option of ignoring it if she chose. Perhaps because of his proximity to her, the way she felt about him, maybe even Thomas's damn nonsensical ideas about past lives, shadows rose in her subconscious. She blocked them. Not only did she not want Jacob privy to those memories, she didn't want to visit them either. "I suspect I'm barren, Jacob, " she said abruptly. "I've been alive all these centuries and I've lain with both vampires and humans. Very few vampire females are fertile. That's why born vampires are considered aristocracy. If they're conceived by two vampires, the rarest form of all, they're treasured. " "How are you considered, my lady?" He lifted his head. "Being of a vampire mother and your father a Fey lord?" She trimmed off several leaves on one of the bushes and discov- ered a hybrid bloom, an unexpected combination of crimson and white. Funny, when all the others on the same branch were red. Full bloodred. "I'm unique among the vampires, so I suppose they don't know what to consider me. Since my mother was not only royalty, but one of the rare children spawned of two vampires, I'm treated as full- blooded aristocracy. They simply choose to ignore my Fey blood, as long as it's evident only in ways that don't disturb their comfort zone. " At his curious look, she raised a shoulder. "My exceptional longevity, even for a vampire. Some discreet evidence of powers I have that they don't. No one knows about my ability to transform to a winged Fey form, Jacob. Only you. Not even Rex or Thomas knew. "

That surprised him, she could tell. As uncomfortable as it was to discuss this, she found it easier than discussing her fertility. She made the attempt out of deference to the type of night it was. Whereas yesterday or even tomorrow she might tell him to mind his own business. "The Fey and vampire worlds have a long history of enmity. The Fey consider vampires beneath them, and vampires have a savagery that has resulted in . . . Unfortunate incidents. Fey are also very pri- vate. Rarely seen in this world anymore, though we know they exist. " She gazed at the roses. "My parents were the classic story of the Mon- tagues and Capulets. When the Fey High Court found out about their love, my father was transformed into a rosebush and planted in the desert to die. So the story goes. I never met him. He was gone when I was born. My mother took refuge with the vampires and they de- fended her when the Fey made several assassination attempts before I was born. That's why I chose vampires as my dominant species. The vampires accepted her, probably because of her royal blood and the fact that she never spoke of my father, never denied or defended, probably to protect me. She made it easy for them to forget, to pretend the relationship didn't exist. When a truce on the issue was finally declared, she took a shogun lord as her human servant and married him for appearances. Thomas told you all of this, didn't he?" "Some of it, my lady. What would happen if the Council saw you in your shapeshifted form?" Jacob had found her Fey form wild and beautiful, like a winged, feminine gargoyle, gray skinned, slim and leanly muscled, fierce and dangerous. She cupped the hybrid rose in her palm. "It would disturb them. At the very least. At the worst . . . They might drive me out of my Re- gion. Make me an outcast. Or they might try to kill me. " He blinked at her matter-of-fact tone. She'd helped set up a "civi- lized" society for vampires and they'd prospered in ways they'd never enjoyed before. Despite that, she accepted without emotion that a difference in her physiology could cause her own to turn against her. It struck him then, why having a human servant might be so important to his lady.

Vampires had to dissemble and use subterfuge to exist in the human world. They needed nimble minds to handle the vicious politics of their own kind. But she'd had to conceal far more than most. Particularly in the past couple of years. "I never told Thomas, " she went on, "probably because I've guarded the knowledge of it for so long it never even occurred to me that he needed to know. He didn't, not really. It's a form I can consciously take or not, as I wish. I just do it sometimes in the woods to remem- ber my father, that he loved my mother. That he was willing to die for her. For us. " Jacob reached out a hand, brushed his fingers along her skirt, tugged. "I thank my lady for that trust. " For her love. Even if she's not comfortable calling it that. Lyssa saw in his blue eyes how much her words meant to him. It twisted in her own heart, reminding her how much he was willing to offer her. The most important things in life always seemed to boil down to just two–love and sacrifice. He'd sat back on his heels. There was a smudge of dirt on his cheek and sweat glittered in the cinnamon threads of chest hair from his exertions in transplanting the bushes and setting posts to keep the dogs out of the area. "Don't be stupid, " she said abruptly. "Don't do anything to get yourself killed. It would upset me greatly. " It was an ironic thing to say, considering he'd bound the candle of his life to the diminishing flame of hers. But unlike him, she would live if he was killed. She wasn't sure if she'd have the strength to continue if that occurred. For good or bad, for the first time in her life she realized she was dependent on the strength of another to get her through. She didn't know how much of that escaped the net of her mind to him, but as he studied her, he passed his forearm over his brow and managed to get more dirt on himself. The smile that tugged at her lips melted into her heart when he bent and kissed her leg, just above the anklet she wore. "That's one rule of yours I'll try to obey, my lady. Just help me out by doing the same. " When he nipped her, teasing her out of her mood, she reached down to caress his back, pass her fingers along the line of his spine, the abraded feel of the serpentine third mark.

He straightened after a time, hesitated before speaking. "We should talk about your annual kill. The one you've gone well over a year without. " "That's my business. " "The attacks you are having come closer and closer together. Like the third mark, the annual kill will help strengthen your resistance to the disease. " "Giving you that third mark has made you irritably patronizing. I simply need to get through the Council Gathering. The sacrifice you've made, taking the third mark, should help me do that. " "Should. But every bit of strength would help. " He sat back on his heels again and looked up at her, his gaze troubled. "Believe me, my lady, I'd like nothing more than to agree that it's not needed. But I can feel the doubt in your mind. You don't think the third mark will be enough to make it through the Gathering. " She tossed an annoyed look at him. "Have you ever killed a man in cold blood, Jacob? A man who means you no harm, a man whose spirit is good and kind? I cannot take a human whose blood is in- fected with evil, so I will be murdering this person. You will be help- ing me. Be sure what you ask or demand. " "You've already picked him out. I saw your notes. " "That was five months ago. He's likely moved. " "He hasn't. I checked. " Though his jaw was set, she could feel what he was blocking from himself but couldn't block from her. He was forcing himself to make this all about her. "You know Lord Brian is researching a cure. Every extra day you give yourself to fight this disease may give you time–" "Have you ever wondered at the way humans say they're `fighting a disease'? It's a force of nature, not a malicious combatant. " She snapped off another leaf, ignored the prick of a thorn. He pressed on. "You've told me before you shouldn't second-guess Fate. Why second-guess Her on this? Perhaps it's not your time to die. Your presence, your life, is far more significant than most. " "When you're dying, Jacob, one thing you realize very quickly is how insignificant you really are. "

She didn't like where this was go- ing, and she turned away, conveying her dismissal of the subject. But of course he refused to let it lie. "Illness skews your perspective. Maybe that's Nature's way of making it easier for you to let go when it's time. But you have other contributing factors. " "Don't go there, Jacob. " You lost your husband to madness, lived years with his increasing brutality, which ended in a savage act of betrayal. Rex murdered your human servant, then you had to kill Rex yourself. Though she'd closed her eyes, his fingers closed over hers with a gentle power she was helpless to resist. "I'm begging you to consider that your willingness to accept your own death may in fact be part of the terrible weight of guilt you carry. In time, the grief will ease and you'll embrace life again. If you have the chance to do so. I'm just asking you to give yourself that chance. " She pressed her lips together. "You won't make me cry, Jacob Green. I don't want to think about these things. I shouldn't be allow- ing you to speak this way to me. " "You told me on our very first night vampires don't cry. " He rose, turned her and took the tears away on his fingertips. "You know what I'm saying. It's logical. It makes sense. " It made sense. Perhaps it did still lay so heavily on her she pre- ferred death to the struggle to get past it. But what lay at the heart of her resistance to the annual kill was not that. It was her fear of what such a thing would do to Jacob. To the pure essence of him she was beginning to need for her own sanity, to cleanse her own dark shad- ows when they rose in her. "You honor me with your thoughts, my lady. But as I told you when we met, I'm far tougher than I look. And I look pretty damn tough. " She fought the smile he was trying to coax from her. Idiot. Arro- gant knight. Arrogant queen. "My lady . . . " She suppressed a sigh. "Set it up. But I'll handle it alone. You won't go with me. I don't need your help. "

"With respect, you said you would. That it was optimal to have the help of both a driver and a servant. You don't have a driver for this, so I'll be both. " He brushed his knuckles against her cheek, gave a half smile that didn't reach his eyes. I'm your human servant.