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The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Two)

A s soon as he was certain Lyssa had retired for the day, Jacob headed out with a list of errands. When he was done, he dropped the Mercedes off at the garage for a transmission repair beyond his skill to do and got a lift downtown from the mechanic. On the way, he called Mr. Ingram. The limo driver Lyssa had hired to periodi- cally drive her around while she was staying at her Atlanta home agreed to swing by the stores to pick up the items he'd purchased and then pick up Jacob in a couple of hours. She was indifferent to how domestic tasks were performed unless they were done inefficiently. God have mercy on him if that were the case, for her tongue certainly wouldn't. He had to suppress a smile. His Mistress, so aware of everything else, yet so unaware of her royal hauteur. Also unaware–at least for the moment–about this particu- lar self-imposed last errand. Tomorrow the vampire scientist Lord Brian and his servant Debra would be leaving Atlanta for Tuscaloosa. They'd been waiting for a shipment, the carefully preserved cadaver of the Russian vampire Brian hoped would lead them to myriad developments regarding the only disease known to affect their species. The Delilah virus. While Lyssa could certainly find out what he was about to do if she looked in the right corner of his mind or asked the right question, Jacob was practicing the useful skill of not focusing on things he didn't want her to know so they didn't catch her eye when she was taking a stroll through his head.

And to hell with it if she found out. He'd rather ask forgiveness instead of permission on this one. His lady had the virus, though the two of them were the only ones who knew it. By carry ing the third mark, he'd willingly accepted the fact that the end of her life would be the end of his. The mark linked their physical flesh irrevocably. Some felt it even linked them spiritually, such that whatever the vampire's destiny in the afterlife, the servant followed. That was the way he wanted it to be, because she wasn't go- ing anywhere without him. Her desire to protect those in her Region and the society she'd helped build was now her primary concern, and he'd sworn to make it his as well. He just didn't mention he was going to have two first priorities, one of them being to see if there was a way to save her life. Jacob purchased coffee and a couple of donuts to compensate for his late night with his Mistress while waiting outside Debra and Brian's hotel. He didn't have long to wait. Debra headed out around nine o'clock and walked seven blocks to the library, carry ing a stack of books. Jacob followed at a distance, wanting to approach her when she was inside the building. He found her curled up in a comfortable chair in a secluded cor- ner. While an open scientific journal and notebook with scribbled calculations were open on her lap like a security blanket spread across her legs, he was bemused to see she was reading a romance novel. As he took a seat in the chair across from hers, pulling it close enough for a discreet conversation, she closed the paperback, eyeing him warily. From the color in her cheeks, he was sure she was remembering the dinner party where they'd recently met. Servants provided sex- ual entertainment for their vampire Masters and Mistresses at such gatherings, so at one point he'd had his hand deep inside of Debra, her pussy clutching his fingers as she screamed out her climax. While Brian, her Master, suckled the taut points of her breasts, Jacob's Mis- tress had watched it all, drawing in the energy like blood.

Such was a human servant's life. Dry cleaning, home repair, gar-dening. Arranging a table centerpiece and then replacing that cen- terpiece to perform as a sex slave in front of dinner guests. All in a day's work. "Are you doing well?" Seeing the trepidation in her face, his reas- suring tone was instinctive. Some of her apprehension appeared to recede. "Yes. Thank you. I . . . What are you doing here? Is Lady Lyssa displeased with my Master? Or is there something we may do for her? We leave tomor- row for Alabama, but I'm sure he'll be happy to–" Jacob shook his head. "I'm not here in an official capacity. I'm here for myself. Servant to servant. I was wondering if you could answer some questions I have. " He leaned forward, clasping his hands loosely between his splayed knees. "I hope I didn't hurt you the other night. I'm new to this, and . . . " "I've been Brian's servant for four years, " she admitted, dropping her gaze to worry the corner of the book with a short nail. "That was the first time . . . I'd heard of it, of course. It's considered standard practice to use human servants for that . . . But . . . I was Brian's lab assistant before I became his servant and he . . . I guess for the most part it's just the two of us and the research. Of course, he has . . . " The color deepened in her cheeks. "But nothing like that. I guess I'd rationalized it. You know, two lab partners blowing off stress at the end of a long research session, but of course, when it happens, it's nothing like that. I mean, he's utterly brilliant, but when that part of him rises, I mean, the vampire part . . . " Now she did flush all the way to her roots. Jacob bit back a grin. Beneath the pretty exterior, she was a stammering science geek. "He becomes something out of . . . Well . . . " She raised the romance novel. Registering his amusement, she shook her head. "I'm quite the unworldly fool, aren't I? My apologies. I wouldn't usually talk about this, but . . . Well, you're the first servant I've met that's newer to this than me. Most are so sophisticated and calm, they just look at me with this infuriating patronizing pity. Like Liam and Seanna, " she added, referring to the other two servants who had been at the party, servants of Lord Richard and Lady Tara, the Alabama territory overlords.

Jacob had been challenged–and commanded–to bring Seanna and Debra to climax at the same time. He'd succeeded, but like Debra it had been his first exercise in sating vampire lust in a group setting. Taking a deep breath, she laid the book flat on top of the note- book and folded her hands, smiling a little. "Of course I'll be happy to answer your questions, Jacob. Though I doubt I can answer any- thing that deals with vampire politics. As you can tell, I don't get out of the lab that much. " "It's your experience in the lab I'm seeking, " he assured her. Tak-ing his own deep breath, albeit a mental one so he didn't betray the urgent need he felt for answers, he met her gaze. "My lady won't tell me much about this Delilah virus, and I want to know more. " "If she's made a conscious decision to withhold the information from you, it's not my place to offer it. " Debra's direct answer told Ja- cob she was back on solid ground, but she tempered it with a quick touch on his arm. "Lady Lyssa is very powerful, and her patronage is vital to Brian. I can't do anything to offend her that might risk that. " Her eyes widened in sudden alarm. "Perhaps even this conversation is inappropriate, if she doesn't know you're here. She doesn't, does she?" "Hear me out. Please. " Jacob quelled the compulsion to try and block her way as she made to rise. While he couldn't appear desper- ate or overly determined, he wasn't leaving here without answers. "Lady Lyssa finds it amusing, my desire to protect her to the best of my ability. But I do consider that part of my responsibilities. I sup- pose most of us servants do, no matter how laughable our Masters and Mistresses find the idea. " That apparently hit a chord with her. She sank back down, her eyes intent behind her wire-framed glasses. At the dinner party, Brian had taken them carefully off her face and set them aside. But after that tender gesture, he'd returned to his chair, demonstrating his ruthless support of Lord Richard's command that she strip in front of the assembled guests and allow Jacob, a total stranger, to intimately fondle her body and bring her to climax before them all. He'd become part of a strange world. Innocence and dark carnality intertwined like a yin and yang DNA strand, creating an alternate reality with endlessly unpredictable twists and turns.

"I want to know how to protect her blood sources. The more I know about the virus, the more likely it is I can do that, right?" He kept his expression neutral, twisting the truth he had to safeguard. He was treading a very dangerous line. From his conversation with Lyssa last night, he knew if even a hint got out that the queen of the Far East Clan had the disease, all her work to protect her Region could topple. There could be other repercussions as well. Those who opposed the "civilized" structure of the current vampire society could erupt into bloody conflict with those who supported it, view- ing her imminent demise as a possibly correct sign that the Council had been severely weakened. "I give you my word, if Lyssa has any displeasure with our con- versation, she'll take it out on my hide. " In spades. "Not yours or Lord Brian's. I wouldn't speak to you, not another word, if I thought I was going to jeopardize your lord's standing with her. " That intent look again, telling him that while he was dealing with a woman with awkward social graces, her IQ was off the charts. "You have an honest face, " she said at last. "Very open. Most servants lose that quickly. You'd do well to do the same. Other vampires pick up cues from the expressions of servants, and they can use that against your Mistress. " Jacob inclined his head, despite the clutch of worry the admo- nition created inside him. In the past, his lady had intimated al- most the same thing about the ability to read his face. "I'll work on it, believe me. Tell me about the virus. How do I protect my lady from it?" "I find it hard to believe that Lady Lyssa needs any assistance in protecting herself, " she responded dubiously. She paused, then let out a sigh. "But I'll tell you what I can. " Taking her advice to heart, Jacob managed not to let out a victory yell of relief. Though he wanted to shout out questions that would tell him how best to help his Mistress's specific symptoms, he held his tongue. "The Delilah virus gets its name from Samson and Delilah, " Debra explained.

"Delilah cutting off Samson's hair, a mortal taking away a superhero's power, his immortality so to speak. That's the key to it. In a normal human it's a dormant condition, no more harmful than any other part of them. But if they have it and a vampire bites them, there's a strong likelihood the vampire will contract the dis- ease. Our research indicates that the dormant condition is becoming more common in humans, which makes safeguarding your Mis- tress's blood sources even more important. " "Why is it becoming more common?" She shrugged. "That's the type of thing that's hard to prove, mak- ing it easy to jump to conclusions. There are so many things we don't know about adaptation and evolution. I know the news reports more and more mysterious deaths where the victims have been bitten, their blood drained. Humans of course typically assign that to hu- man psychotics, killers with illusions that they're vampires. But we know it's evidence of vampires ignoring Council laws and taking more human kills to test their authority. So perhaps the virus is a defense mechanism developing in the human DNA. It would be a rapid adaptation, but we have proven to be a remarkably resilient species. " Debra's expression hardened. "Everything we're seeing in the lab tells us if vampires don't heed the warning signs, they'll have an epi- demic. That's why Brian is in such a rush to meet with the Tusca- loosa facility. He wants to be ready with as much data as he can to present at the Council Gathering. Our only blessing so far is that the virus is a limited, one-way street. It can only be passed from a human to a vampire. The vampire isn't contagious to another vampire and can't pass it to a human. Perhaps because once it's in a vampire's system it attacks the brain more than the blood, as far as we can tell. " Her face clouded. "However, with a human servant it's different. " "What do you mean?" She considered the notebook spread out in her lap this time, her brow furrowed. "Jacob, some of this isn't validated. So please . . . " "This conversation remains between us. Please. I couldn't bear to lose my Mistress like this. " Just in time, he managed to bite back the word can't. The hitch in his voice caused her gaze to flick back up.

From the softening of her expression, she seemed to take it as an emotional reaction. "Once contracted from a `normal' human, we think a vampire has about ten years before he or she succumbs to it. However, there's a far more virulent strain. We've only discovered it recently. In the Russian vampire. Ironically, Brian's excited about it because he said that difference could provide vital clues to a cure. " A brief hesitation, then she said through stiff lips, "Lord Andrev got the Delilah virus from his servant, Helina. She'd been his servant for eighty-six years. " "How . . . ?" Jacob's brow furrowed. "If they have the condition dormant in their blood, then wouldn't he have contracted it almost immediately, the first time he drank from her?" Debra nodded, her eyes somber, her tone telling him how revolted she was by the information she was imparting. "There's research on this disease going on elsewhere. In the labs of vampire hunters. We believe they figured out a way to inject the dormant condition into a human. Lord Andrev was not a very compassionate man. Helina could have just killed herself to escape him, but apparently she . . . " Debra shook her head. "I love my Master, Jacob. I could never coun- tenance such an idea, but I also know there are servants who are taken unwillingly into ser vice. They come to accept the idea over time. But when Masters are like Andrev . . . Helina apparently was brave enough to decide she wasn't going to let anyone else be brutal- ized by him. " "She had to be extremely clever as well. Focused. " Jacob consid- ered the effort it took him to misdirect his thoughts from his Mis- tress's notice, even knowing he didn't have a chance in hell of doing it when she was paying attention. "That's an understatement. Apparently, she did it by having thoughts of revenge and retribution constantly. Like staking him in his sleep, or setting vampire hunters on him, but she never followed through on the thoughts. A very deliberate `Peter and the Wolf ' strat- egy. Her vindictiveness and apparent cowardice amused him. He used it to taunt and torment her further. " "Why didn't he just kill her?"

"Andrev took joy in her misery and suffering, " she said sadly.

"He got off on punishing her for her wayward, disloyal thoughts. He didn't take her seriously, overestimated his ability to read her should she actually try to do something to him. " "Did she tell you all this?" "No. " Debra clasped her hands together, fingers pressing white circles into her flesh. "When he started having the first effects, she told him what she'd done in front of a gathering of his territory over- lords, like our dinner the other night. Laughed in his face. Spit on him right there. " She shook her head. "She had a knife with her Master's blood–God knows how she got that–and was going to plunge it into her heart, one sure way to kill a full servant, but unfor- tunately they stopped her. He had her tortured to death. Because of our resilience to wounds, it was a good two months before she died. And when she did, she wasn't recognizable as human. Some of the researchers were allowed to visit her, question her . . . " Debra swal- lowed. "I'm glad I wasn't one of them, as cowardly as that sounds. " Jacob closed his eyes. Remember how savage we are . . . His Mis- tress's own words, when he was learning his role in her household. "In the end, he went to extra lengths to help us understand the disease, even at the expense of his own comfort. I never knew if it was revenge on her, to make sure another servant couldn't have this power over her Master again, or if he was trying to make amends, as people facing their own end sometimes do. It doesn't matter now, regardless. Except to the two of them. "Based on the tests those researchers did, we know that a human servant injected with the dormant condition will get what we call the Delilah-B virus. The symptoms are somewhat different, but from the samples of her blood they took, they estimated she would have died in less than two years. Unlike a human carry ing the natural gene, who isn't affected by it at all. " Thomas had died in less than two years. Jacob forced himself not to react to the thought. Fortunately, Debra was focusing on the in- formation sifting in her mind. "It also accelerates the Delilah virus in a vampire. They don't have ten years. Lord Andrev was dead within two years as well. If he'd had a full servant at that point, it's possible he might have lived longer without showing signs of the disease, for as you probably know, a vampire can draw off the energy of a full servant.

"He didn't want to ask the question, but he did. "How does the disease progress, symptom-wise?" It was the most perilous question, and he knew he'd moved into those waters by the speculative look she gave him. He kept a quizzical expression, as if he asked purely for curiosity's sake. "It starts with a need to sleep longer. The vampire is more sensi- tive to the daylight and affected even when screened from it. As it advances, there are sudden spells of weakness that can cause faint- ing, vomiting of blood. You'll remember Lord Richard talked about that with his friend Antonio. " She sighed. "They start to lose the ability to control and guard their thoughts from a human servant. Andrev marked a volunteer human test subject so Brian could monitor the rate at which his abil- ity to block his thoughts degraded. A vampire typically is a vacuum- packed can. Nothing will escape his mind if he doesn't wish it. But a sick vampire will start to slip, revealing thoughts to those connected to his mind. Often he doesn't realize he's revealing them. As we know, in a healthy vampire, even if he's upset about something, shutting down the path is as easy as closing a book for you and me. " She demonstrated with the novel in her lap. Cold dread gathered in his lower belly as Jacob remembered the night Lyssa's mind had projected an image of Rex, her late husband, torturing her. It was an image she'd obviously not intended Jacob to see. She'd reacted violently when she'd discovered him in her mind uninvited. His forearm still occasionally ached from the break she'd infl icted, despite the healing powers that came with the second and third marks. "Because the attacks are so severe and abrupt in the first stages, " Debra continued, "it's remarkable how completely an affected vam- pire regains strength and self-possession between them, as if nothing at all is wrong. Then suddenly the vampire doesn't recover the same way anymore. At that point, he'll start failing drastically. The time between the episodes will be harder to predict. They can happen daily, sometimes even more frequently.

We call that Stage Three. Mood swings will be so sharp they can occur midsentence. " Given his lady's personality, Jacob reflected with grim amuse- ment, it might take some effort to detect an abnormal mood swing. "When the physical attacks come quickly on the heels of the emotional, the vampire has entered the final stage. It will be more rapid than any of the previous stages. In the fourth, impaired judg- ment will become significantly noticeable. There will be hallucina- tions, distorted reality, paranoia. Even bouts with suicidal thoughts, melancholy. Extreme emotional dependency. Neediness, " she clari- fied. "Wouldn't that be normal for someone dying? Needing to feel a connection to someone, to feel they're not facing death all alone?" She raised a shoulder. "Yes, but it's unusual for vampires, even under great stress. Being predators, they don't gracefully depend on others. " They also typically didn't face the overwhelming emotional drain and fear that could come with the inexorable progress of a terminal disease. However, considering he needed Debra's help, he held that layman's thought to himself. "Stages Three and Four are so close together and the symptoms can overlap so much, depending on the vampire, we debated whether to separate them. When the vampire starts losing control of the mind, there will be cycles of intense aggression, anger, followed by a total lassitude. Some have no interest in blood. They'd essentially starve themselves, but at that point they're very close to the end. One symptom unique to Stage Four is some kind of flesh-eating reaction which starts burning away their skin. It eats its way inward until there's nothing left to hold in the organs, the blood. It's as if they're turning to dust in slow motion, until the heart collapses, a self stak- ing, so to speak. Then it's over. Stage Four can occur and be over in less than a couple days. Sometimes hours. " When Jacob spoke, he considered his even tone a major accom- plishment, based on the visual overlay Debra had just put on his la- dy's body. Her lovely face. "How close do you think you are to a cure?"

"That's the million-dollar question for any disease, isn't it?" She pushed her hair back from her forehead. "It could be today, tomor- row, twenty years from now. We're more likely to find ways to pre- vent it, slow it, treat it, before we find a way to eradicate it. Like cancer. Though I'll say Brian's very excited about the connection between the servant and master. What they know in Tuscaloosa will be critical, how it meshes with his research. " "Have you found ways to slow it down, treat it?" Regret crossed her face. "So far, no. Just the basic techniques of pain management we use on humans, which have some limited suc- cess with vampires. As I said, having a full servant can help prolong the life of the infected vampire. While taking the one annual kill all vampires need in a timely manner helps, increasing the number of full kills in a year doesn't seem to have any appreciable effect. That's a good thing, of course, because you know some of the vampires would have used it as an excuse to up the annual quota, like a pre- ventive vitamin supplement. " She managed a grim smile. "And unfortunately, we haven't figured out a way to test humans for the dormant virus. We don't even know how vampire hunters isolated it, or if they even have. It's more likely they found the blood source of an infected vampire and are using that human's blood as a host to make up their vials. If they do, they could conceivably wipe out a significant number of vampires. Some of our best trackers are looking to find that research subject. " "No wonder you're concerned, " Jacob murmured. "Yes. It's one thing if the disease is contracted by an incautious vampire. Entirely different if the hunters choose to pursue a far more insidious and subtle method of hunting our Masters and Mistresses. That's why finding a cure is more important in this instance than prevention, though limiting blood donors to one's own servant and a carefully picked annual kill is the safest bet for the latter. We've had some reports that it's only an isolated cell of hunters trying this out right now. The majority of them still seem to have a fortunate aver- sion to it because of its similarity to a biological weapon. We all know how those can backfire. " Reaching out, she touched his hand. "The best thing you can do is to be very careful with your extracurricular bedsport, Jacob. You never have any idea who is watching Lady Lyssa, and she's very pow- erful.

Someone could drug you, inject you . . . " "I won't be with any other women. " Then, because the exception to the rule sat before him now, he added uncomfortably, "Unless she commands it. " "Oh. So your Mistress requires fidelity. That's interesting, consid- ering how old she is. " "No, she hasn't commanded it. Not specifically. " Debra cocked her head, considered him. "You're giving me that pitying look you just said you get from older servants, " Jacob observed darkly. "You're right. It's very pa- tronizing. And annoying. " "Do you know why I'm reading this?" With a faint smile, she lifted the romance novel. "Part of it is escapism. Part of it is to re- mind me what my relationship with my Master isn't. The bond be- tween servant and vampire is unique. Not family, not spouses, not lovers. The excess sex drive vampires have can force us into a decep- tive intimacy. We convince ourselves we're lovers, probably because the reality is beyond our ken and we don't know how to classify it. Since we can't reconcile the feeling with the reality, we use sex to Band-Aid it. " She tapped the top of the book again. "If you allow yourself to believe it's something different from what it is, you've fooled yourself in a way that will only bring you heartbreak. In the worst cases it'll result in bitterness. They'll drive that lesson home again and again, twisting the knife. " At his speculative look, she nodded. "The first time I assumed more about our relationship than there was, Brian invited a vampire home from the lab and took her to his bed. He commanded me to prepare them a meal. Made me stand there holding the tray while he put whipped cream on her breasts and licked it off. " She glanced away, obviously embarrassed by the revealing picture. "Later that same day . . . He took me. He hadn't even cleaned himself, so I could smell her. It was a lesson to show me the two acts had no relation to one another. Mind to mind, a vampire feels a closer bond to his or her servant than with anyone else.

I can deny him nothing. Even that day I didn't, knowing he'd been with another woman. " "I would have pureed a full box of laxatives into the whipped cream. " It startled a laugh out of her. She put her fingers over her lips, glancing around in apology at any readers close enough to have been disturbed. "You're incorrigible. " But then she sobered. "We're toys in the beginning. Something new to play with. At first, even they indulge in the pleasure of mu- tual infatuation. They like our besotted reaction and get caught up in it for a while. But we're tools. Very important tools. " Hearing too much of his lady's words in what Debra was saying, Jacob still wanted to deny it. "You've made it sound like a terrible fate. " "Then I've spoken of it wrongly. " She shook her head. "I'm doing research I would never achieve on my own in the human world. Brian has opened my eyes to impossible things . . . Experiences I never would have had. But in order to fully embrace and appreciate those things your Mistress can give you, don't get bogged down in what she can't. " "You know what I think?" He covered her hand. "Maybe you should think about this as a scientist. Why did your Master go to such great lengths to convince you of your place? If he's not an An- drev, who gets off on manipulating his servant's emotions–" "He's not. " Debra's response was quick. Jacob inclined his head. "Then why did he feel it necessary to drive it home so cruelly? You're bound to him forever. Why does he care what you think your relationship is, as long as you're serving him? Maybe because he has to remind himself of it, and that pisses him off. So he's cruel about it. " She pulled free abruptly. "I need to go. " Putting the materials on her lap on the table between them, she rose and gathered her tote bag to slide the notebook and journal into it. Jacob rose in automatic courtesy. He wanted to argue with her, but wryly he realized it was his Mistress he wanted to convince, not Debra.

"I think your desire to care for your Mistress is commendable. But just to prove the point . . . " She hesitated, then cupped his chin and kissed him briefly, her lips quiet and pleasurable against his be- fore she pulled away. "That would offend neither my Master nor your Mistress. Now, in an attempt to grasp at some level of sophistication that would make Seanna and Liam proud of me, I thank you for the other night. We may not be on equal footing with our Masters and Mistresses, but we can be with each other. " She shouldered the tote bag. "You'll be treated with high regard, high value, because of who you serve, Jacob. But always as property. " She gave him an even look. "Don't forget that. " "Thank you for the information, " he ventured. "All of it. " As she turned away with a nod, he caught her elbow. "You forgot this. " He'd picked up the romance novel she'd left on the table. Debra shook her head. "I think it's time I leave that for someone else. Some- one who can afford the indulgence. " Before he could offer anything in response, she'd turned on her heel and strode away, hurrying for the door. Jacob sat back down. Despite his resistance to Debra's words, he couldn't completely erase the doubts they'd created. Could any evi- dence that Lyssa felt more for him than what a vampire was expected to feel for her servant be a symptom of the disease? Impaired judg- ment . . . Hallucinations, distorted reality. Extreme dependency . . . "Bullshit, " he muttered viciously. There had been no distorted reality the other night, after his lady gave him the third mark on the meadow floor of her forest preserve. But he was disturbed enough to take the time now to close his eyes, give himself back every detail of that precious memory, hoping he was trying to embrace reality, not escape it.

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