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

No matter her reputation, the Council would have had to act against such a transgression. At the least, her Region would have been taken from her. It was Thomas who had suggested the course of action.

I'm dying, my lady. Tell them I killed Rex when he was off guard. They all knew we did not get along well. They also all knew he'd gotten unstable, no matter what they claimed to your face. Tell them you killed me.

She'd thought of a hundred other options, none of which would have adequately protected the three hundred vampires in her territory. Things were too unstable. Thomas had been right, and she'd hated the truth of his words even as she'd finally capitulated. She severed their link and laid the blame for Rex's death square on the shoulders of the man who'd served her loyally to the end. She'd put magical protection on the monastery, made it effectively disappear from the sight of the vampire world until Thomas's death in case Rex had ever told anyone like Carnal its location, but that had seemed woefully inadequate compared to her servant's last gift of sacrifice.

Perhaps the burning of souls wasn't punishment. Perhaps it was Hell's way of doing what she had done, taken something forever ruined and removed it from existence, as if that could fix anything. If only the memories could be burned with the body.

She sank down on Jacob's bed, lying down. Bran showed his familiarity with the room by jumping up behind her and lying along her back, a comfortable bulwark. Turning her face into the pillow, she smelled Jacob. His aftershave, the striped soap he used with the clean scent it said it had in the commercials. The smell of his skin. Her joints were aching, keeping up an alternating staccato with the drumming in her head.

Thomas had gone on to his God. Cleansed, pure, the painful fire in his blood likely rinsed away with the cool touch of holy water.

When she broke his arm, had Jacob seen a light in her eyes like she'd seen in Rex's? Was it coming to that? Was she becoming so lost in this disease she no longer could see past it? Was she making up her own reality, her own idea of what was a threat? Perhaps there was nothing left for her to do and she could go. Maybe everyone wanted her to go. Maybe it didn't matter. Maybe it just needed to be over.

Opening Mason's letter, she unfolded it, still lying on her side so the creased paper sat on the mattress and she could skim it with half-closed eyes.

He wished her well, the desert vampire rarely seen by any of his own kind. This was the first missive she'd had from him in over twenty years. They'd once been close, long before Rex. But Mason hadn't believed in the dream of Council and civilized behavior for vampires. He didn't care enough to try anything different either, and so they'd parted ways. He just wanted to be left alone in his barren world.

Typical for Mason, he cut right to the purpose of the letter:

You and Rex were the monarchy of us all for nearly a century. You, not Rex, helped set up the Council with its rules, because you know a king and queen are only as good as the two individuals involved. But you are still a queen, Lady Lyssa. I will tell you now what I should have told you long ago. I consider you my liege. If our world forever could be ruled under your justice, there would be no need of Councils and elaborate laws. Rex had deteriorated to the point his passing was a blessing, however it occurred. If I could absolve you of any guilt you carry, I would. Give you a penance or a rosary to say so you would worry on it no more.

I know pressure on you to remarry will be fierce, my fellow vampires crudely thinking their seed might find fertile soil. I do not think you are barren, my lady, if I may be so bold. I simply think there is no man on this earth who is worthy of being a father to a child of your making and your body knows it. I also know a threat is brewing against all you have built, though I've not yet pinpointed the shape of it. I have come out of my sandbox, as you always call it, and am keeping my ears open.

If I may make amends for the ignorance and apathy I showed to your noble cause years ago, if it would be of use to you, I offer myself to you however you need me, even if it is to relieve the crass pressure of matrimony.

You know I do not seek power or even your physical affections if you do not wish to share them. I just offer it as proof of my support of what you value. Even if I cannot believe in it as you do, I know what is valuable in this world. You. You are the Council's strength and they are still too young to be without that. I will stand behind you.

As long as you believe in what we can be, I can believe in your conviction. That is probably as close to a faith as I will ever have.

Mason's senses had a far reach. He obviously had detected the same dark undercurrent of vampire politics she herself had been picking up on of late. Those opposed to the civilized constraints imposed on them by Council code were becoming more vocal, and more numerous. The younger vampires, the ambitious made ones like Carnal. It was important that leadership be strong and unwavering to hold the commitment of the many who stood on the fence. Those were the ones who could upset the balance of power if they turned to apathy instead of cautious support for order.

Her lips twisted. But perhaps the attempt at civility had run its cycle. She'd lived centuries and seen governments rise and fall, philosophies change and die, be reborn and called something else. If the majority opposed the current structure, and the minority could not hold it against their onslaught, change would happen. But a world overrun by the brutality of a host of Carnals…

Closing her eyes, she placed her hand on Mason's strong script. Perhaps this was another sign. Mason at last had made a commitment. He would step into the breach. He wouldn't really need her. That had been the root of her disappointment so long ago. If Mason had committed to their cause, nothing would have stopped him from seeing it become a reality. He cared not for diplomacy, but he was good at it, as good as he was at being a benevolent or sometimes not-so-benevolent dictator. He had no problem with totalitarianism as long as the ruler was just. But then, therein lay the problem with absolute monarchy, didn't it? It only worked as long as the person in the crown made it work. But if Mason stood for her, it would be all right. He would not thank her for leaving him with the responsibility, but his word was good.

Bran whined as Lyssa pressed her mouth into the pillow, fought the heaving of her stomach. I will not throw up. I am tired of that, you hear me? Stop it.

The wave passed sullenly, and she blinked watering eyes as she opened the letter from the monastery. A smaller envelope fell out of it. An envelope that bore Thomas's seal.

She stared at it for a moment, then her gaze flitted to the short handwritten note in the abbot's script.

Mrs. Wentworth, Brother Thomas gave this to me several weeks before his passing. He asked that I send it to you on this date specifically. I hope it contains words that bring you comfort. We are glad he has finally been accepted into God's House, though he is greatly missed. Thank you for your continued patronage.

Why didn't Jacob bring it? Perhaps it had been additional surety, if Jacob had failed to gain an audience with her. She turned it over in her hands, studied the seal, then broke it open. My Lady, By now, I'm sure you've cursed my presumption a hundred times, and I am feeling the lick of flames from the sins I've committed to ensure Jacob was accepted in your service. But I cannot feel shame in at last saying my love for you and my love for God have always been as one, interchangeable in my heart. On good days, I hoped that was just an indication my service to you also served God's will. On bad days, I thought I was perhaps deluding myself and the last hundred and fifty years of my life had been a war between Lucifer and God for my soul, though I cannot imagine I would be of such importance.

I tire easily, and I could not dictate this to Jacob or anyone else, so I will speak frankly. By now I suspect you are confused and torn in your feelings, wondering why you want him so much, this man you've barely just met. For I have no doubt that Jacob succeeded in being accepted into your service, both because of the will of the man and because of what I believe him to be.

Despite a surge of dizziness, Lyssa sat up on the bed, gripping the paper harder.

I know the prejudices of your world, certainly. You know I do. But hear me as I tell you that Jacob is the other part of your soul You probably gave him the first and second marks with barely a hesitation, startling yourself. Now you are held from giving him the third only for fear of sentencing him to an early death. Did you think I didn't know you were infected and dying when you never came back again? When you sent me your last missive, severing our ties completely? Do you think I know so little of you?

Tears stung her eyes, and she blinked them back. "Foolish monk, " she whispered.

Knowing that has only strengthened my belief in the things I will write to you about in this letter. Remember that life is a finite, precious thing, but what makes it precious is what we do with it. You have always treated humans as inferior to your species, though with respect and humaneness. Jacob confuses you because he fills a part of you which you thought could only be filled by an equal. Ergo, he is an equal.

I know you had little patience for my spiritual explorations, but in tracing your long and colorful history, and through other methods also likely to damn my soul, I believe–fully and completely–that Jacob has served you before, in two previous lives.

Do you remember the knight who saved your caravan from vampire hunter attack during the Crusades? He was only with you a short time before he continued his quest, but you remembered him so vividly… That was Jacob. Then there was the samurai guard assigned to you as a child. The one who was killed protecting your retreat when your father's house was overrun by his enemies. You are shaking your head…

Lyssa stopped the motion, frowning.

but now that I have planted the seeds, you will start remembering many things, including the things these two men have in common with the man in your service now. Jacob knows my theories on this, and though he too has some of your skepticism, he cannot deny his inexplicable compulsion to serve you. Please hear me, my lady. His soul will not survive being parted from you again. Let him make his own choice before you try to make it for him.

I would have liked to have ended my life at your side. That would have been my last wish. But by sending me away from you, it told me God had another plan. To find Jacob for you and give you the soul mate you've always deserved, the love of a man that will fill the emptiness of your woman's heart. That's something you've never had, not in all your many years of life.

I puzzled over why it was that his spirit served you as the samurai guard and the knight, two lifetimes that were within two centuries of each other, but did not cross your path again until now. Unfortunately, I believe it is because he comes to you whenever your life is truly, genuinely in danger. Bless your extraordinary abilities, that has only been three times. God gifts the strong sparingly, only when they have grave need.

As I said in my introduction, Jacob is the last gift I can help God give to you. Please trust your heart, for it is the strongest part of you, even if you do not believe that. You are the most remarkable woman I have ever met. You will always have my love, and I believe you have God's love as well.

Your faithful servant Thomas

Bran lifted his head, laid it on her hip as she sank back down on the pillow, fisting the letter in one hand, the pillowcase in the other as she turned her face into where Jacob laid his head.

No. Thomas had been a sick man, deluded by his illness, imagining he could give her something that didn't exist, a romantic fantasy. If she believed it, she would kill Jacob with her own selfishness and desires. Perhaps like Mason's letter, it was a sign. A sign she needed to end it before she left another body in her wake.

***

Jacob got home a handful of moments before dawn. Urgency was gnawing at him so hard during the last few miles that without knowing why he asked Elijah to speed it up. The man glanced over at him and flattened the gas pedal. When he wasn't driving a limo Elijah drove a serviceable pickup that was practically antique. However, he had some skill with engines, because it jumped up to ninety with no problem.

Bran was waiting for him in the gravel driveway, whining. It made his skin turn to ice. Jacob barely managed to thank Mr. Ingram before he was in the kitchen, running down the hall, taking the stairs three at a time, Bran on his heels.

The sun was starting to emerge. She'd broken the east-facing stained glass window in the upper hallway. Her palms were still stained with the blood, though the wounds were healed. She held a large shard of colored glass in either hand as she lay on the floor, right where he knew the sun marked a big square of filtered multicolored light each day. She couldn't walk through it when the sun projected directly on the glass, but she could skirt the edges and enjoy the look of it.

With an oath, he pulled her out of the dangerous area, feeling the touch of the early morning breeze coming through the open hole as he went down on his knees next to her. There was blood on her lips. Black and brown, it was also on her chin and the top of the loose dress she'd donned. She'd thrown up again.

"Lyssa. " He gathered her up, lifted her despite the fire that shot through his tightly taped forearm. She stirred, opened her eyes. The grogginess of early morning had her firmly in its grip, and perhaps the effect of the drug he'd given her had kicked in at last. She wouldn't have felt the sun until it had her pinned down and burning, searing her to the bones. He would have found a pile of ash outlining the shape of her. He swallowed, cursing himself as he strode back to the bedroom, laying her down on the top of the covers.

"I won't become Rex, " she whispered. "Even if I must abandon my responsibilities. This is the way a vampire's life ends. We know it's time to go, but we cannot die, so we simply place ourselves in the right situation to have it ended. "

"No. "

Elijah's words and this moment made the truth all too clear for him. For the first time, Jacob understood some of what she'd been trying to teach him. More important, why she'd been trying to teach it to him, even if he didn't totally agree with all of it.

Gideon had once told him the wise man knew when to let go of pride to grab hold of wisdom. Raised in a society that held an individual's worth and uniqueness as right, and submission to the will of another as wrong, he'd been fighting the very oath he'd taken from the beginning, putting conditions on it.

He placed his fingers on her lips before she could speak further.

"Forgive me, my lady. " Bowing his head, he dropped to one knee by the bed. Guiding her hand, he put it on his head as if she sat on a throne, completely in control and beautiful and unmarred, rather than too weak to sit up, weary and stained with her own blood. "You were right. What I did was unforgivable. I'm your servant, and I never should have entered your mind without permission. You won't have to guard your thoughts against me. Ever. I'll never again try to do that without your leave. I beg your forgiveness for my disrespect, though I shall never deserve it. "

He stayed that way for long minutes, determined not to move until she bid him to do so, despite how urgently he wanted to cosset her. Clean her up and take care of her to make her feel more like herself.

Her hand slid off his head to his shoulder. Touched his jaw.

Before the illness, there were no slips. You never could have known so much about me, so quickly. Don't you think that's why? This sickness…

There was a particular urgency to her words he wasn't sure how to answer. "Well then, at least there is something about this damnable disease that is a blessing, " he murmured. But I think you're wrong, my lady. We would have known each other this deeply, this quickly, no matter what. The first moment I saw you, I knew I was meant to be with you.

When he lifted his face, her jade eyes were full of things that confused him as well as tore his insides to shreds. She lowered her touch to his unbroken arm, tugged.

Uncomprehending at first, he rose. She turned away, drawing him onto the bed to curl behind her. Encouraging him to cradle her hips in the curve of his, press his back against hers and lay his head over the top of hers on the pillow. When she let go of his arm, he folded it under his head as she captured his injured forearm, bringing it across her waist so she cradled his hand and wrist against her breasts. She dropped her head and kissed the bandage and splint, nestled her cheek against them.

Sleep, Jacob. You need the sleep.

I need to care for you, my lady.

You do, Sir Vagabond. In ways I can't begin to explain. Obey your Mistress. Sleep. If you can bear my stench.

I would happily join you in a pig wallow, my lady.

The sense of her pained smile eased the knot of tension in his chest, helping him settle in behind her, nuzzle her hair with his nose and lips. She was silent then, for so long he thought she'd drifted off, but then her voice came into his mind once more.

Do you know Bran broke out the basement window that night? It was barred so he couldn't get through, but he charged the glass, rammed his head right through it. His skull and shoulders were bloody. He never stopped trying to protect me… You remind me of him.

"It's a good thing your husband is dead, lady, for nothing would have kept me from killing him. Even if I had to accomplish it from the grave by making a bargain with Satan himself. Some acts don't deserve the mercy of love. "

Like this? Her fingertips touched his arm. He pressed his face into her hair, breathing her in. "That's different. I will bear any pain to be near you, to serve you. "

"It's no different. What is it we talked about? Love is raw, not pretty. It's visceral as blood. " Another pause. "I'm glad you came back. I didn't think you would. Maybe you shouldn't have. "

"Carnal raped you. " Jacob stroked her temple, the gentleness in his hands in contrast to the rage he felt in his heart. "He hurt you. I invaded your mind without permission. "

"No. You're nothing like him. " Her fingers tightened on his hand. "And that night was… It's complicated in the vampire world, Jacob. You must understand that. "

"My heart does not tell me false, my lady. " He gave her words back to her. "I saw it in your eyes when you spoke to him. I even felt it when you clung to me in the woods afterward, my body inside yours. It was a betrayal that was soul deep, a wound inflicted on a part of you that will never heal. You're not allowed to act as if it's a crime worse than murder, but it is, because you must live with the violation forever. And for you, my lady, forever is longer than for most. "

"You make forever seem far shorter than I'd want it to be, Sir Vagabond. " Her fingers whispered over his bandaged arm. A quiet pause. "I'm sorry, Jacob. It doesn't make up for it, but I'm very sorry. "

Her voice was soft, vulnerable, and he couldn't hold any anger against it. "So am I. " He straightened the arm beneath his head and slid it under her neck, taking it across her chest to cross it with his other arm, holding her close.

"It will mend quickly, with the second mark, " she said quietly. "By the night of our dinner, it should be little more than a twinge. "

He fitted his fingers into the spaces between her ribs, feeling the fragile network of bone that guarded her heart. Would her heart press against those bars and reach for his fingertips, a cautious answer to the great emotion in his own chest?

Leaves fluttered in the early morning breeze, making shadowed patterns on the stained glass window on the north side of her bedroom. "I wonder if I can give you anything, " he said. "Even a thought you haven't had. "

She turned then, pushing him to his back, and propped herself up on his chest to look down at him thoughtfully. Her hair fell over her shoulders, and he gathered some of it up, spreading it out like a peacock's plumage, holding it like the skeins of time from the Fates' loom. With reverence and respect for the miracle it was, for the ability to touch and influence it in any way.

"Why do you think old people go to the park to sit and watch children play? Part of it is to remember things they might have forgotten with the passage of time. Time and memory are circular. Yes, you accumulate wisdom as you age, if you're open to wisdom and not hardheaded. " A smile touched her mouth as she gazed at him. He made a face at her, reading her expression well enough on that count. "But no matter how long I live, and how long you live, we will both look at the same flower and see different things. You embrace life with open joy and a fierceness I've never had, never will have. I'm drawn to that joy like a flower is to the sun. Something I sense I need to nourish me, give me a reason to keep blooming. "

He sobered, cupped her delicate face in his much larger hand. "My lady, I don't deserve such words. "

She shook her head. "I've seen things, Jacob. I've met Chinese dragons whose whiskers feel like feathers when they brush them across your face. I've seen wars begin and end. Seen people do so many things I didn't expect, and many things I did expect, and dreaded. That is why the Ennui does not affect me. Terrible things always outnumber the good, but the overall power of a single good thing is so much greater. "

Reaching down, she traced his lips with her thumb, bowed her head to rub it against the back of his knuckles. "Like this moment. "

Her hair tangled in his fingers. As he watched, she took the time to extricate it, making sure she didn't pull on it and hurt his arm. It was a simple, tender courtesy, as gentle as earlier she'd been brutal. Her quiet words stroked him. "Life is never as dramatic as we pretend it is in a normal life. But it can be intensely amazing, or quietly desperate, as Thoreau said. If you woke each day with a genuine awareness which allowed you to appreciate everything as if you were seeing it for the very first time… Or the last… "

She bent down, pressed her lips to his. Lightly, so lightly. Jacob, sensing her intent, remained still, absorbing the way that bare touch felt, spreading out over his skin from head to toe, her jade eyes so close, the slim line of her nose.

"We are so absorbed in ourselves. In each other's creations. " She whispered it, eye to eye with him. "An incredible movie, a book, a castle… We forget the amazing creations that were not ours–the sky, the tree… A man's lips. The feel of his body, of the life that courses through it. "

From the growing light in her eyes, she was finding her way back to herself, and he thanked whatever deities there were for having prompted him with the right question to ask.

"Ah, a woman's body is so much more amazing, my lady. " Moving his touch down, he cupped her breast, his fingers passing over the nipple, kneading. He didn't have the strength to follow through on it, but he liked being able to do it. She didn't seem to mind either.

Twisting her fingers in his hair with whimsical intent, she held his face still as she coiled the strands over her knuckles. "Do you believe in other lives, Jacob? That you get more than one life?"

He stilled. Had Thomas told her? He couldn't tell from her expression and he thankfully didn't sense her in his mind, seeking his reaction, since he wasn't sure of it himself. "I know there are a lot of people who do, my lady, " he said carefully. "I'm not sure I'm one of them, but I can't say the possibility isn't there. "

She nodded, propped her chin on his shoulder. "If I could choose any life, I would choose to be a creature in the forest. Moving through each day as part of what goes on there. Nothing earth shattering, nothing more dramatic than the daily search for food and survival. "

"I think you would miss having your hair brushed, my lady. Your hour-long baths. "

He caught her wrist in his uninjured hand as she tugged his hair, hard.

"Your resolve to be respectful didn't last very long. You delight in teasing me. "

"I like your smile, my lady. Your laughter. "

"Hmm. You remember at the fountain?" She tucked her head under his chin, laid her arm across his chest as he gathered her to him, held her against his side.

"Yes. "

"Carnal was right about that one thing. It was unwise to unleash compulsion that strong where any supernatural being would have felt it, but I looked around at all of them, and thought–why can't you feel it? When you see the fountains in that mall, you know someone felt it and was striving to make a connection to a natural world mortals abandoned so long ago. I wanted to give them that moment, that taste of memory. Do you remember how they responded, Jacob? The way they all splashed in, suddenly not worrying about anything except dancing in the flow of the water, celebrating the life of it?"

"I remember. " He remembered how she'd laughed and watched them all, the feel of her hands caressing his neck. Turning, he tugged her to lie face-to-face with him, curling her hand in his, forming a link between them. "I've led a very different life, my lady. At the end of it, I would like to know I've lived it fully. And I need you to know I understand that has nothing to do with time. You're my goal. Without you, I won't have a purpose. If there's anything I can do to help you live to see forever, I will. But if you die, I want to follow you. "

A shadow crossed her gaze. Before she could open her mouth, he slid his arms around her back, ignored the pain to bring her close to him again, tuck her head back down against his chest. "You don't need to say anything. I just wanted you to know. I was wrong, what I did tonight. I'll do better at trying to . Understand what it means to serve you, but there are things I won't give up on. You're one of them, even if you order me to do so. "

There was a long silence, where he sensed things he didn't understand affecting her above and beyond his words. "You are a pain in my ass, " she said.

"It doesn't seem to have affected it adversely, my lady. I'm quite fond of looking at it. " He brushed his hand over it. Not a sexual demand, just enjoying the feel of the soft curve and wanting her to know she had his desire. As well as everything else.

"Impertinent knight. "

He nodded against her skull. He knew it was time to let her sleep, but he wanted to say one more thing, let her take it into her dreams.

"If it had been me, and I knew I was losing my mind, I would have taken my life before ever causing you pain, my lady. Should I have hurt you even once before I realized I was capable of doing so, I wouldn't have allowed myself to live to see the next sunset. "

"Yes, you would have, " she said. "For I would never allow you to leave me like that. God help you. "

Before he could respond to that startling statement, her even breath told him she'd succumbed to the dawn. While he had much to think about, the drain of the night had taken its toll. He surrendered to it, following her into dreams, hoping he could defend her there better than he'd done this night.

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