The Vampire Queen's Servant (Chapter Ten)
She'd felt his attention shifting between her and Jacob during their exchange. Probably trying to determine which of them was more in need of a mental ward. She sensed a melting pot of reaction from Mr. Ingram, but it was as uncomplicated as a homemade soup. With Jacob, it was a potion of intricate response and intent affecting her with its provocative scent.
"I called my boss on my cell while I was waiting on you. Told him I'd be late, didn't know how long. Gave him the address in case he needed to come reassemble my body from a basement freezer. "
He said it matter-of-factly, amusing her again. He was an anachronism–competent, discreet, diplomatic but not insincere. The room was full of anachronisms, and three very disparate ages at that. Fate was an interesting creature.
"I'd like to offer you a job as my full-time driver, " she decided. "It would involve a great deal of travel. I move around the southern states quite a bit. The living area and bedrooms down that hallway, where the bathroom is, are quarters for my staff. There are similar accommodations in my other homes.
"I know you don't have family, except a grown son who doesn't deserve to carry your name. " He started, but she pressed on. "I'll pay you what you're worth, which is about four times more than your current annual income, and I'll cover whatever expenses you need. Food, gas, et cetera. Your salary will be entirely unencumbered by daily living expenses. "
"Sounds like a much better deal than she's offering me, " Jacob commented, moving to the center island to take a seat on a stool.
"Him I have a use for. " She gave Jacob a deprecating look. "You
I intend to chain in the yard and give the scraps the dogs don't want. "
"I don't get to sleep at the foot of the bed?"
"The floor, if you're good. "
Her words brought that half smile out to play on his lips. When he sat down, he crossed his arms over his bare chest. His knees were splayed, one foot braced on the floor and the other hooked in the rung of the stool. He looked as enticing as first blood from a wound. She wanted to pour herself a glass of her favorite wine and chase her first swallow down with a bite of him.
When she swayed at the power of the feeling, it reminded her that feeding was a decision she needed to make soon. Steadying herself, she didn't think she'd displayed any weakness, but a quick glance showed Jacob's eyes had narrowed. He obviously had an exceptional attention to details. Usually a blessing in a servant, but a curse at the moment.
"What do you think, Mr. Ingram?" she said.
The driver came a step closer at her gesture, but kept the island between them. "I'm not sure if my soul is as strong as the boy's, " he said carefully. "You want more than a driver, that's the way it seems to me. It wouldn't be fair to commit to a job and then back out, so I need to know what it is I'm really dealing with. "
She understood clearly the "what" was referring to her.
"I'm a vampire, " she said simply. "You may not believe that. You may decide I'm a mentally unstable person and make your polite though hasty farewells. But you asked for honesty. " She inclined her head. "I have enemies. Many. Which is why I take so many precautions on my property and when I go beyond its boundaries. As long as I appear ready for them, it's unlikely they'll ever attack. They wait for the moment of weakness only. It is the way of our world. My enemies also rarely target staff unless staff members get between them and me. I'll never ask you to do that. "
"That's gracious, ma'am. But I'm not a coward. I'm also not so easy to kill. " His dark eyes glittered.
"I don't doubt your courage, but they'd kill you with as much effort as swatting a fly and it wouldn't even slow them down on their way to me, " she said bluntly. "Good staff is hard for a vampire to find, so we don't sacrifice them frivolously. It's not unheard of for a vampire to slay another and then promptly turn around and offer the dead vampire's staff positions in his own household. After all, you've already worked for one, what's the difference in working for another?" She lifted her shoulder in a casual shrug. "Though I admit, some of them wouldn't give you a choice. There is some danger involved. "
The black man removed his cap, scratched his head. There was gray in the close-cropped cotton of his hair. "I suspect a person in your circumstances has to break a few laws to live under the radar. So what I need to know, ma'am, is if you dishonor what I consider one of the more important Commandments. Do you kill?"
At her ironic look, he set his jaw. "I've broken it myself, when I served. Even had to do it once or twice in this job. I know it's not something a person should break lightly, which is why I'm asking. "
Lyssa pursed her lips. "An extraordinarily honest question. Are you asking to give yourself time to think your way out of a crazy woman's house? Because if that's the case, the door is there.
Neither I nor my dogs will keep you from leaving, and I'll wish you no ill will. "
Ingram glanced at the door, then at Jacob.
"He's not yet bound to my service, " she said in an even tone. "He's also still free to go. If I decide to keep him, I'm sure I'll regret him for the nuisance he is. "
Jacob wisely chose not to comment on that. Ingram cleared his throat, met her gaze squarely. "I knew when you got into my car tonight you weren't human, ma'am. I got a sense for it. You're not the first of your kind I've driven. "
That was a surprise. "Indeed. Yet you drove me. Most wouldn't after recognizing it. "
"I thought about driving away. But when I say I'll do a job, I do it. Never left anybody who paid my boss for a ride without one. "
They studied each other for a few minutes in silence. The night was waning. Lyssa wanted to go to bed. She rarely let physical factors impair her judgment, but it was possible this was one of those infrequent times. She'd made several very impetuous decisions tonight. However, seeing Elijah Ingram's large hands turning his cap in that methodical way as if it represented the cog of his mind, she knew her intuition was sound. She just needed to speed up the interview process and hope the loss of finesse wouldn't lose her the possibility of his service.
"All right then. " Perching on the stool at the end of the counter, she took the seat directly across from him. "When I have a human servant, I take blood from him. If he maintains his health and diet adequately, that sustains me and I don't crave additional blood. If I'm somewhere he's not and I need it, I can seduce and temporarily command the mind of a person to draw blood from him. Not in a lethal dose. We prefer to know the history of our donors, though, so that's usually an unexpected event. "
She paused, her glance shifting between the two of them. "Once annually, in order to retain my full strength, I have to take a healthy adult in the prime of his life and drain him dry. I take his life, " she added quietly, so there was no misunderstanding. "He has to be a good person, not the dregs of society. Blood infected with evil impacts a vampire… Negatively. "
"Draining him doesn't make him a vampire?"
The question came from Mr. Ingram, because of course Jacob would know all this. However, she saw the forced strain around his mouth, the sharp focus of his eyes. He might know it, but it didn't make hearing it any easier. And she wouldn't dress it up for either of them.
She shook her head. "You do have to drain the body to do that, but to convert a human requires a special secretion from the fangs. You have to prep the person with three different marks, like a servant, and make them drink from the sire first as well. "
"You always take a man? For your kill, I mean. "
She rolled it over a moment. His generation held to certain moral tenets that he would never dismiss no matter his own circumstances. That suggested not only what motivated the question, but the proper answer for it. "Always a man. Never a woman. Absolutely never a child. "
She didn't add she chose a healthy male because she was a female vampire. As such, the taste of a male was just preferred. Sweeter to her palate.
From Jacob's expression, she saw he understood the nuances in her response in a way Mr. Ingram would not. He wasn't pleased with the revelation. She decided to ignore the ridiculous twinge of lust his possessive reaction sent through her vitals. Obviously a lingering side effect of her medicine.
"I try to pick a person with few ties, but that's not easy when you're seeking a person of integrity. When I go on the hunt, my driver and servant–for it's best to have both to do this though not completely necessary–help me with transportation and disposal of the body. "
Had Jacob truly understood what would be required of him during her annual kill? Or like the requirement of sexual submission, had the significance been lost on him because it was so far from what he knew the world to be? If he'd truly hunted vampires, he wouldn't be completely naive about her kind. But she wondered.
Drawing herself up straight in the chair, she spoke unapologetically. "If I don't do this once a year, I weaken.
Within ten years I'd become a living corpse, even with regular feedings. It's a form of what you would think of as rigor mortis. Unable to move, I'd suffer an eternity of starvation. It's likely from that state some of the myths about our being dead have sprung. A human, stumbling upon a vampire in that condition, gets too close and the vampire is just strong enough to grab hold and restore some of his vitality by draining him. But he will have lost some of his faculties from the deprivation, and control of his bloodlust will be much harder. Human blood in a terminal quantity from a living donor once a year is the only thing that prevents imbalance in our constitution. "
"Are there those who do it more than once a year?"
Apparently, Elijah had kept his wits about him enough to catch the subtle notes of what wasn't being said as well as what was. "Yes. " Lyssa nodded. "For the pleasure of it. For the added strength they perceive it gives them, like taking an overdose of vitamins. But I am not one of those vampires. "
There was a cap on the number of humans that could be killed by a single vampire in the course of a year. The number was higher than she liked, but she was not Council and her influence had kept the quantity lower than initially proposed. She'd had to be satisfied with that.
Ingram swallowed. His jaw flexed. "The explanation's appreciated. I understand from your way of thinking you're just treating that one person the way I have to treat my dinner. But when you're the same as that dinner, it's different. "
"We may be human in appearance, but vampires are a different species. We exist and thrive in very different environments. There are many mysteries we don't understand about one another. "
Her voice was becoming more flat, her body language minimal. Feeling Jacob's close regard again, Lyssa knew she was showing her weariness. While she didn't have to retire at the first glimpse of the sun, this evening, including her fainting episode, had drained her. She'd done her best for now. If they wanted to leave, well, that would be fine. But even as she had the thought, her gaze drifted back to Jacob, his bare shoulders and firm mouth. When a pang of yearning clenched a cold fist in her belly, she had to push it away with a surge of effort.
"That's my philosophy on it, " she continued. "But it's not shared by all my kind. Many view you as tools, fodder for entertainment, food, experiments. The same as many of you view other species. Not equals in any sense, not deserving of any rights we haven't given you. Beings who have the simple misfortune of being treated as a product instead of a sentient being with its own right of existence. "
She lifted a shoulder. "It's an understandable deduction. For the most part, the weakest of us is superior to you in strength and longevity. Most of us that live to one hundred years outstrip your experiential intelligence, because if we don't, we don't live to see two hundred. "
"So you don't agree with that viewpoint?" This from Jacob, his mind working over her words so hard she could see it in his expression.
"Yes. And no. " She leaned back in the chair. "I'm a predator, Jacob, and humans are my prey. I'll never view them in a way comfortable to you or your kind. But like the hunter who's finally learned to respect the stag enough to kill few and far between, and only when necessary for food, I've learned there's far more to you. An essence whose value is separate from my needs. However, while a human may sit down to a burger, despite the fact there's a salad bar nearby with enough lower food chain nutrition to fully sustain him, for a vampire there is no salad bar. There is only human blood. "
Time ticked away for a quarter of a moment as she waited. Jacob picked up Ingram's keys from the counter as the driver at last raised his gaze, meeting hers with visible effort. "I'll think about it awhile, but if you're… Interviewing elsewhere, I'll tell you it's likely I'll say no. There are just some things it's hard for a human to do. It's hard to watch a cat catch a mouse and not help the mouse, isn't it? I could maybe drive you around while you're here, for your manicures and errands. I'd have to think about that, too. I'm just not sure I'm your man for the rest. "
"I understand. I appreciate your honesty, more than you realize. " Rising, she came around the counter and extended her hand. "Thank you for considering it. "
He hesitated. When she began to lower her hand, her gaze frosting, he surprised her by reaching out, albeit awkwardly. A light shake, the way a big man tended to handle a woman's fingers. It almost made her smile, though his honest words had stung. Not because she was ashamed of what she did to survive, but because she liked him.
"I'm finding it hard to believe you're letting me go so easy after telling me all that. "
"Well, again, Mr. Ingram, who would believe you? But there's another reason. " She withdrew her hand. "No one serves me except by choice. "
She shifted her attention to Jacob so he would not miss the warning note in her voice. "Once the choice is made, I become far more territorial. "