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The Vampire Queen's Servant (Chapter Twenty-five)

The chandelier lights lowered to a dim setting supplemented the candlelight throughout the dining room. Flatware and crystal shone softly, providing a sense of intimate warmth. Instead of a candelabra or candleholders as a center piece, he'd used an old breadboard, the wood cracked and the color of deep chestnut. He'd formed a pyramid of pillar candles upon it in deep burgundy, rose and pink hues. As they burned, their wax ran down the sides of the pyramid, forming twining designs of the colors and blending in pools within the cupped sides of the board.

The catering staff was quiet and efficient. Her guests had been pleased with the artful display of the salad in the plates chosen, the tiny bouquets he'd put at each place setting. Lyssa noticed she had a slightly larger bouquet, a more delicate arrangement of flowers. He'd also cut several of her garden roses and inserted them. The whole thing was tied with a trailing ribbon arranged in a swirl across her plate until the first course was brought. Since the catering company was operated by one of the vampires in her Region, there was nothing they would see or hear tonight that would alarm them. They did not blink as they came to collect the salads from which only a mouthful or two had been consumed, to return with soups that would be barely touched.

But watching the way her guests inhaled the fragrances and took the one or two tastes they could, absorbing the beauty and smell of the food, Lyssa thought vampires actually enjoyed the food more than a human would if it had been placed before him. After all, while she preferred her blood in certain ways, it had a functional quality that couldn't be overlooked.

However, as her gaze flicked to Jacob, she admitted she did sometimes appreciate the way her blood was presented. She'd always chosen her food carefully. Perhaps that was part of what had rankled her at first, Thomas choosing for her. But he'd left the final decision to her, and of course Jacob was turning out in just a short time to be many intriguing things. Functional as well as something to savor. When he moved to take up his position behind her chair, his attentiveness warmed her back, the nape of her neck. The flow of his thoughts was like mulled wine slipping down her throat. She kept her awareness of it to a quiet murmur while she focused her attention on her guests. It was like the comforting but blurred sound of someone else's voice in the house when one didn't want to feel entirely alone.

Tara Beauchamps and Richard Carlyle, the overlords of the Alabama territory, were both made vampires, but fortunately with more sturdy constitutions than many of the made vampires she'd met. Though she'd changed her name, Tara had been born and made in the Middle East. Part of a Bedouin tribe, she'd gotten separated from them during a sandstorm and found a cavern inhabited by a solitary vampire. Mason had turned her out of loneliness, groomed her, and then brought her into the world for a few years. When he tired of vampire politics and again returned to his caves, he gave Tara freedom from his side. Having been part of a world where she'd had no rights, no value at all except as it was denned by others, treated little better than a pack mule, she was highly cognizant of accumulating power and influence and was accomplished at both with her exotic looks. Dark almond eyes, straight dark hair, eyebrows like slips of silk, and features refined by her vampirism to mesmerizing.

Mason had shown little interest in Tara since he'd let her go, or she in him. Perhaps he sensed it would take centuries to exorcise Tara's fear of being inconsequential again, enough to let her discover the potential depth of character she had. Lyssa was inclined to agree, but she'd seen other, lesser miracles occur. She also liked Tara's wit and sharp mind, even if her ambition required a close eye.

Lyssa still hadn't decided if her pairing with Richard was a fortunate turn of events or not. He seemed compatible with her, unexpectedly. Richard had an austere formality about him, tempered with a dry humor and keen intellect. With a good command of diplomacy while always looking for opportunity, he was a master politician and likely would rise to Council in time. All vampires were blessed with good looks, but his were particularly appealing in their uniqueness, because he was made in his forties. Therefore he had handsome silver threading in his chestnut hair to compliment his gray eyes, as well as the interesting character that lines of age created around them.

Tara and Richard had been together a handful of decades. Most vampires did not marry. If it was difficult enough to make a human marriage work over forty or so years, it was nigh impossible for vampires. Younger, made vampires sometimes married under human law out of nostalgic sentiment despite having to deal with the difficulties of eradicating the paper trail. After all, one couldn't get divorced at a hundred and twenty years old and not raise some eyebrows. Older vampires who married did so under vampire law, which was more like a civil ceremony with no spirituality to it. She and Rex had been a political match. The bond of any vampire marriage could be dissolved by appeal to the Vampire Council. Another attempt to appear civilized. She supposed she and Rex had adhered to more of the human ideal, in a macabre fashion. Until death do us part…

No illusions of great love there, but there was a fondness between Tara and Richard, and they ran their territory very well. As long as Lyssa made her expectations clear, they followed her mandates. Occasionally they did indulge in some excesses, but that was simply the nature of the vampire. A driving, primal lust to exercise their power, to enjoy its many fruits, sensual or painful.

They were typical of the middle echelon vampire hierarchy. Usually smart enough to know when to choose wisdom over blood lust, and that making fair decisions was in their best interest as long as they were in Lyssa's Region. Another decade and it might even come naturally to them. They might enjoy being wise instead of brutal leaders and recognize the respect and devotion it could earn them. Another advantage of immortality. To the intelligent, open-minded vampire, there was usually time to change.

However, for now they would no doubt exercise every possible way to know all of Brian Morris's weaknesses and strengths and exploit them. She shifted her gaze to him. Young, just over eighty years old, but with a brilliant scientific mind, Brian had already acquired multiple degrees in different fields. One of the attractions of her area was a research facility in the Tuscaloosa area that focused on issues related to vampires behind its facade of an engineering research company.

The other thing that afforded him a measure of regard and rank he wouldn't have otherwise to protect him was that he was a born vampire. A half-breed, with a vampire father and human mother. As she'd told Jacob, his father was an important Master of a Region in Britain. The human mother was the vampire father's servant. Most couplings between humans and vampires did not result in offspring. The rarely occurring child was always a vampire, however.

Brian had an earnest intensity reminding her of a young Thomas. His thirst for learning and ability to think beyond the lines of known scientific thought meant he had a good chance of achieving and even surpassing Lyssa's age.

While his neatly cut blond hair and pleasant hazel eyes suggested an easy mark, the solidly cut chin and the shrewdness of his gaze as he assessed and measured Tara and Richard told Lyssa the vampire who tried to intimidate him would be making a mistake. He might not be as worldly and experienced as the two overlords of the Alabama territory, but he could think on his feet. His father had apparently taught the boy well.

Boy. She almost winced. She thought of the eighty-year-old Brian as a "boy, " but Jacob, fifty years his junior, elicited no such maternal compulsions.

"I understand Carnal was in your Region recently. " Richard was addressing her. "Do you suspect he's of a matrimonial bent?"

"He'll be disappointed if so, " Lyssa replied neutrally. "I won't marry again. "

Richard and Tara exchanged glances. "But it was assumed–"

"Yes. But I won't. There's no one of royal blood left, not a direct descendant. Rex was only distantly connected at best, and no one would expect me to condescend to marry beneath my station. "

"There are some Council members–"

"They've accumulated their wealth and standing through power, not blood. So what is the research project you will be doing in our area, Brian?" Lyssa pointedly made the subject change.

I think Lord Richard is mightily disappointed, my lady. I suspect he would have liked you to entertain a suit from him.

I was lucky enough to survive one marriage in a millennium. I'm not strong enough to survive two.

You're very strong, my lady. I have the bruises.

She'd kept part of her mind open to Jacob for much of this night so he could follow her thoughts and understand more about her guests and the politics involved. He'd been quiet and listening without comment for the most part, but now she bit the inside of her cheek to hide a smile. He had an amazing aptitude for the mind play. Thomas had needed far more time to accustom himself to the feel of her in his head, to overcome the seasick feeling. After only a few days, Jacob interacted with her easily on the link. But true to his promise on that vulnerable night, he did not try to probe her mind, so she did not have to expend energy to ensure her shields were holding against him. She knew she could trust his word on that, as much as she knew she could trust he'd rebel against her in other ways because it was in his nature, no matter his resolve.

She looked forward to it.

"I'm working on the Delilah virus. "

Lyssa's gaze sharpened on Brian. "I thought you were pursuing your latest degree. "

"I am, my lady. But I'm also here to work with the scientists at Tuscaloosa Techco on the virus. We were fortunate. One victim of it–the Russian vampire–agreed to be preserved. I'm bringing his body here because they've agreed at Techco to help with the research. Truth, I may get so immersed in it, I may put off the degree another decade. Thirteen vampires in five years… " He looked pensively into his blood-laced wine. "There are not many of us. It strikes without discretion. It can take someone as exalted as yourself, my lady. " He sketched a bow in Lyssa's direction. "Or someone barely out of boyhood that no one would miss, like myself. "

Tara lifted a brow. "Sounds more like those thirteen should have been far more careful. Why should we expend effort on vampires who have unscrupulous and careless dietary habits? It's a weeding out, in my opinion. Darwinian. " Brian's expression hardened, but before he could find words, Richard spoke. "Easy to say, love, until you have it. I visited with Antonio a month before he succumbed. Headaches, vomiting of blood, sudden weakness at very inopportune and unpredictable moments. Those aren't even the worst of the symptoms at the end. " He grimaced. "I can only imagine what that body you're carrying looks like. "

Jacob, I think we need more wine.

There's not an empty glass, my lady.

Go to the kitchen.

No.

"Jacob, " she spoke out loud, drawing their attention. "We're ready for the next course. Only I've decided I'd like it on the Tannen plates instead of the Dresden. Please go supervise that personally. You know how particular I am about the Tannen. "

She was fairly certain she heard his teeth grind together. Richard raised a brow. While she assumed her servant hadn't reached out to choke her, there apparently was some evidence in Jacob's face of the struggle going on between them. She would not attempt to cover it or dissemble. That would be worse, suggesting she thought she needed to cover his disobedience rather than handle it.

"Jacob. " A ripple of menace emanated from her. "I will not ask twice. "

Her coldness swept over her guests. The vampires were old enough to weather it, though they immediately became still, watchful. Richard's servant, a tall black woman named Seanna who'd been with him thirty years but looked as if he'd made her his servant when she was barely out of girlhood, shuddered, but fought to control the reaction and remain impassive. Liam, the blond male behind Tara, almost mirrored her. However, the two of them stilled almost simultaneously, likely steadied by a mind touch from their Master and Mistress. Brian's servant Debra was a thin blonde woman who looked as if her main purpose was to serve as his lab assistant. She appeared the most shaken of the three, telling Lyssa she was the youngest, or that Brian kept her sequestered in labs more than he took her to ritual duties at vampire functions.

"My lady. " Jacob's voice was cordial, no inflection, but the anger and frustration in his mind hit her like the blast from a furnace. But you do yourself no service, hiding this from me.

She met his gaze as he came around her chair and bowed, his blue eyes cool. He left them for the kitchen.

"I can't believe you chose an Irishman, Lady Lyssa, " Tara commented. "Overly sentimental one moment. Absolutely bullheaded the next. They take everything too seriously or not at all. Laugh and cry equally easily. He's not really appropriate material for a human servant, is he? Though I will say, he's very easy on the eyes. I can understand your desire to have something for bedsport, as dynamic as Rex was. "

Lyssa noted she did not mention Thomas at all. Carnal's reference to him at the mall had been considered highly inappropriate, but of course Carnal's entire presence had been inappropriate. It would be assumed Lyssa wouldn't wish to speak or even think about the servant who had purportedly killed her husband. However, most vampires also wouldn't venture into the subject of her preferences in the bedroom so directly. It wasn't the first time Tara had sought a more intimate footing. Sometimes Lyssa wondered if the woman simply desired friendship with another female vampire, not having much opportunity for a peer in her own territory. But it was far more likely that Tara was seeking the advantages of a familiarity with someone of Lyssa's rank.

"He is appropriate to my needs, " Lyssa said mildly. "Just very young. He doesn't understand his place yet. We all know how easy it can be to forget that sometimes. "

The woman stopped, her wineglass poised just below her lips. As Lyssa waited silently, she swallowed, set down the glass. "My apologies, Lady Lyssa, if my comments were too familiar. " Lyssa turned her attention back to Brian. "Have there been any advances with Delilah?"

"The lab I worked in out of Egypt had some very intriguing results. That's another reason I've come here. The Tuscaloosa lab has some correlating data. We think if we run some tests together… Well, we'll see. If it's successful, we hope to have a cautiously optimistic report for the Council Gathering. Having the preserved body gives us a unique situation. We can study many things about ourselves we haven't resolved yet. Sensitivity to sunlight, our need to sleep during daylight hours. What our internal organs are like, the composition of our blood… There's more to be gained than just insight into the virus. "

"I wish you well, then. Humans are our food source, Tara. " Lyssa glanced toward the woman as the catering staff returned to replace the soup bowls with the main course, suitably arranged on the Tannen. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Jacob reenter the room and take his position behind her again. "If we can't rely on them without worry of this disease, then we must address the issue before it threatens our extinction. There are only a few thousand of us in the entire world, that we know about. "

She could have raised the issue that born vampires had been declining in percentage with each decade, which came with the implication of the weaknesses of made vampires. But given that she sat at the table with two made vampires who already felt a mild competitiveness toward Brian because of the privileges his origin afforded him, she decided to curb that thought. After all, it was intended to be an amicable gathering.

"Richard, Tara. Have you made arrangements for Brian?"

For the next few moments, she listened to them explain how he would be quartered in Tuscaloosa, in enough detail to assure her they'd prepared adequately to integrate him into the community. As they discussed that and other matters mostly related to their mutual business interests, she watched Tara and Richard shift, exchange looks, giving appraising looks to Brian's young servant. And to Lyssa's.

They understood there was a ritual to such events. The formality of a meal, conversation, an update on business concerns. Then, as the moon began to wax, there would be the desire for a performance. For pleasure.

She'd also noticed Tara and Richard's servants studying Jacob closely. She knew there was a kinship between human servants of sorts, and a new one in the upper ranks was always of interest. Brian's servant was too young to understand the nuances. In fact, she wasn't sure Brian himself understood the rituals involved in a vampire social event like this, but she was about to enlighten him and his young servant, for Jacob needed the lesson as well.

The desserts were laid out. Jacob's choice of brownies with raspberry sauce, timed to come out of the oven right now with their wonderful aroma, unwittingly stoked the anticipation of sensual delights. Tara inhaled the brownie and put the raspberry sauce on the tip of her tongue with an expression of absolute reverence that made Lyssa smile. Decadence, chocolate.

Candlelight flickering and four very attractive servants awaiting their bidding. One who had openly defied her, giving her the perfect opening to segue into the entertainment the vampires would expect.

Richard watched Tara with similar amusement. "I think the female relationship with chocolate transcends the species barrier. I have a German shepherd at home, a bitch that adores it. Her mate has no interest in it at all. " Tara made a face at him, and he smiled affectionately in return before he shifted his attention to Brian. "Lady Lyssa is being very diplomatic tonight, Dr. Morris. From past conversations I've had with her, I don't think she necessarily believes in researching vampire weaknesses. "

Richard enjoyed teasing Lyssa on her politics, and she'd known him long enough that he'd earned the right, but it didn't stop her from narrowing her eyes at him. He was less affected than Tara, however, and just gave her a charming grin as he signaled one of the caterers for more wine.

"You don't believe it's important to research things like the effect of sunlight on our bodies, Lady Lyssa? Or Ennui?" Brian asked, his expression earnest and puzzled. "If we could discover a chemical way to curtail it, to retain the zest for life? What if we could figure out a way to walk in daylight? Wouldn't you like to feel the warmth of the sun on your body without pain? Or discard the lethargy that comes upon us when the sun is at its zenith?"

Goodness, he was overflowing with enthusiasm for his work. She had to suppress amusement, for she knew he'd think she was laughing at him.

"I believe there's a balance. " Lyssa placed a bite of the brownie in her mouth. The taste exploded through all of her senses. The desire to chew, swallow and keep eating more was almost unbearable, even though she knew she couldn't digest it, would never feel full or satisfied from it. Jacob's pleasure in her approval of it was satisfying on a different, more disturbing level. She put down her fork. "As far as we know, vampires are immortal. If nothing adverse happens to them, they live forever. Again, as far as we know. Yet at a certain age, many begin to lose the will, the interest in life. Who's to say that's not Divinity's way of telling us it's our time to die? That we are mortal, just not in the way that other species are? Perhaps we're more like the members of aboriginal tribes who simply know when it's time to lie down and let the soul go. We do fancy ourselves enlightened, after all. "

"But you've not experienced the Ennui, Lady Lyssa. " Richard tapped his fingers on the table. "Again, no disrespect, but perhaps as I told my Tara, it's easy to shrug off the need for a cure when you don't have the disease. Not having experienced when the soul of you wants to live, but the rest of you is heedless. "

"Perhaps, " she said in a neutral tone. "But while survival is important, it should never be considered more important than other things. Honor, integrity. Dignity. As any of us at this table know, a species that abandons those priorities in favor of survival becomes a mob with no rules but savagery. That savagery can run rampant in a lab even more quickly than in a dark alley, because it can be more quickly justified as being for the greater good. "

Brian frowned, but before he could speak, Richard chuckled. "I won't argue with the convictions of our greatest matriarch, even if I think her ideas might be a bit old-fashioned. " He winked at Lyssa as she arched a brow. "Regardless, my timing is pathetic. It's dessert and time to enjoy ourselves, not darken our minds with these types of thoughts. Lady Lyssa, are you up to a game of challenge or am I now out of favor, rushing your itinerary for our evening?"

"I'm quite ready for it, Lord Richard. You are only out of favor insomuch as your implication of a woman's age. I expect you to make amends with your challenge. Let's address the last piece of business before us, which I think will dovetail nicely into that. Brian, are you willing to accept my mark to remain in my Region, knowing it will always be with you?"

Brian hesitated, which immediately captured her attention and sharpened the focus of the other two vampires at the table. "I am, my lady, " he spoke carefully. "But first I must ask. Do you approve of the work I'm here to do?"

A shrewd mind as she'd said, and no pushover. She considered him long enough that she saw him question the wisdom of his conditioned response, but then his jaw firmed and he met her gaze squarely. She smiled.

"Dr. Morris, I believe in the quest for knowledge. I believe that in itself is the cure for Ennui. It only requires the will of the vampire to take advantage of it. "

"But all vampires are not strong enough to do that, " he argued.

"Then they have decided it is their time to die, " she said matter-of-factly. "A form of Tara's Darwinism, I know, but one I believe to be appropriate. I respect that. I don't fear death, and I don't feel my fellow vampires should either. Faith and morality must be the foundation for the quest for knowledge, always governing our actions with regard to it. If we don't disagree too stringently on that, then no, I don't disagree with the work you've come here to do. You are most welcome in my Region. "

As she let him think that through, Lyssa took a sip of her wine, tasting the metallic fragrance of Jacob's blood mixed in with the fruits of the vintage. She typically had limitless patience for these moments, but she hoped Brian would finish his deliberations soon.

Since their mental altercation, she could feel Jacob's restlessness increasing. For most of the evening he'd remained virtually motionless when behind her chair, determined to live up to her description of other servants. To a physically active man like him, being compelled to stand still in an environment like this was probably akin to torture. But his internal restlessness made her edgy as well. She could feel the heat of his body. He'd gotten his hair cut, brushed it out so it was like fine copper silk, the tips grazing the broad shoulders covered with the midnight blue shirt. Thinking of his strong lean thighs planted and slightly spread, his arms linked behind his back in a pose of waiting was more than distracting, especially now that her guests' minds were turning to the same type of thoughts.. But she was the hostess. She would exercise control.

Even if those black slacks did mold his ass perfectly. When he'd moved out of the hallway to the kitchen, her attention had lingered on his waist, the fit of the belt. Reminding her of the other belt and the mark she'd put on his ass. It had taken several days to heal, giving her the distinct pleasure of viewing where she'd landed the blow. The second mark didn't give him the almost instantaneous healing powers of the third, but the repair was exponentially more rapid than he experienced as a human. There was no evidence of where she'd struck him in the face as well. Even the bone in his forearm had knitted quickly, as she'd said it would, such that he didn't even wear a wrist brace tonight. He was favoring it, but had used the hand of that arm several times to lift plates without any obvious discomfort.

"Then I am ready to accept your mark, gracious lady. " Brian inclined his head at last. "Though I know it is a requirement of being in your Region, and I have a keen desire to work at Techco, I want you to know I trust you as I do my father. I will be honored by your mark. "

"Well said, " she responded, impressed . Despite herself. "Then come to me and prove it so. "

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