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

"So he went to Madrid. With the third mark, a vampire can't shield her mind from her servant when she's under great duress, " his lady explained. "It's a protection for the vampire, to ensure if she is exposed to sunlight or threatened in a way that makes her insensible, the servant can feel it and come to her aid. But when not under duress, a vampire can sever the link and then, even under duress, until she reactivates it, it cannot be felt. "

She met his gaze, reminding him of his unguarded thoughts earlier. "It's a loss beyond measure, " she confirmed softly. "To both of us, but at the time I thought it was the best thing. So many things went wrong after that point, I no longer know which one thing or group of things I could have changed to make it turn out differently. " She looked down at her hands, an unusually self- conscious gesture for her. "I'm old enough to know wishful thinking is simply pointless. "

"No one knows everything, my lady. Thomas never doubted your love for him. Never. You can look into my mind and see the truth of it. "

Though she kept her head bowed, he felt her reach out, confirming it. She lifted a shoulder. "That is meager comfort considering everything, but thank you, Jacob. "

"He wasn't sick at that point. Neither of you were. "

"No. "

He didn't want her to stop, but he knew some stories couldn't be told all at once. He had to be appreciative of how much she'd been willing to give him. When he looked at her drawn face, the shuttered eyes, he knew her head could easily begin throbbing again. Reaching out, he ran his knuckles alongside her face. "I want to know, my lady, but not at the cost of draining you. It's been a long night. Perhaps you could tell me later. "

She nodded. "But I do need you to understand this, Jacob. Never underestimate Carnal. I did, to my eternal regret. Carnal exploited Rex's struggle with Ennui and poisoned his mind, convincing him the other high-ranking vampires viewed him as little more than a sycophant, living off my riches and the power earned through my title and command of politics. "

Shifting to prop her head on the opposite side of the chair, she turned her attention back to the fire. "One of the unfortunate things you learn when you live a long time, Sir Vagabond, is that love can erode. Once it begins to do that, it can be sculpted by the right forces into any manner of vile and evil thing. Carnal was a master sculptor.

"You're right, " she said abruptly. "I'm too tired to tell you more. Leave me. "

Cursing himself, for he could see the pain back to simmering behind her eyes, he ignored her command. Instead, he left her to fix another compress and came back to her side, kneeling by the chair. Laying his hand over the cloth he placed upon her brow, he wished he could will the pain into himself, lessen the throbbing.

"I thought I told you to leave me. "

"Aye, you did. I disobeyed, as you tell me I tend to do. "

She had her eyes closed and said no more. Since she didn't order him to go again, he kept vigil quietly at her side, his hand over the compress, his thumb moving slowly over her temple.

As the fire crackled and stillness settled over the room, shadows began to collect in the corners of his mind. Shifting, moving. Becoming figures, voices. Offering him images and thoughts not his own. After a while, they drew his attention so he moved toward them cautiously, a man in the dark learning his way. A startled moment later he realized somehow he was following a misty path from his mind into hers. Suddenly, there was a lurch,and he stepped hip deep into the quicksand of her memories, so squarely he almost jumped at the sensation, for he'd expected more resistance.

Outside of his mind, his lady's lips were tight as she swallowed like a person fighting nausea, her color even paler than usual. Stroking her temples, he hummed the soft Gaelic lullaby. Her brow eased, her fingers reaching for his other hand, drawing it onto his lap to curl her fingers loosely around his. She didn't lift her head or open her eyes. It was a moment of simple pleasures, a stark contrast to the vision straight from Hell into which he'd stumbled. Rex had taken her down into some part of the mansion Jacob was thankful he hadn't yet seen and hoped had been destroyed. There'd been a rough wooden stock there, something directly out of a medieval village, but the cuffs were lined with some type of substance that burned the skin and made it difficult for a vampire to use her strength to free herself. He'd put her in that stock, gagged her with the bloodstained whip, fastening the two ends to the wood so it stretched her mouth like a horse's bit and kept her head up, her neck at a painful arch where he could see every nuance of her face. Because her beautiful hair was matted on her face, down her back, he gathered it up, twisted it into a knot and then nailed that knot to the wood, wrenching her head to the right. He'd then readjusted the hold of the whip so he could see her windpipe struggling to process air she didn't need but still rasped alarmingly in her throat.

Bloody fucking Christ. With the hair out of the way, Jacob could see Rex had flogged her until her skin hung off her back in strips, the welts so numerous and blood so thick her upper body was a mangled mass, as well as her buttocks. Since he was in her mind, surrounded by the hazy drift of her thoughts, he knew she'd managed to keep from screaming until the very end. She hoped until Thomas had left, despite the fact Jacob thought Rex might have eased off if she'd given in to the urge sooner.

Her teeth bit into the thick blood-soaked braiding while Rex fucked her from behind, digging his hands into the destruction of her back.

Jacob learned then that vampires could not pass out from too much pain. Her muffled cries made an eerie backdrop to the howling of Bran and his siblings. Rex had locked them out, and they were circling the foundation of the house, baying, Bran going mad at being unable to come to her aid.

But even as Jacob watched, horrified and loathing Rex, he was forced to see Rex through her eyes, because these were her memories. He saw in him what she saw. A man with a desperate emptiness taking him over, fixated on the subjugation of his wife as the answer to his need to feel, his ultimate victory that would make everything all right.

One dinner guest had apparently not been dissuaded from coming. Jacob felt his hot rage become ice-cold as Carnal entered the dungeon room, removing the tie of his elegant suit. His eyes greedily drank in the sight of Lyssa's naked and tortured body. He spoke, egging on his sire, telling him he was right to do what he was doing, that she had to understand Rex was the true Master of this Region and of her, now and forever. She was his property… His slave to share as he chose.

Jacob saw Rex's hesitation at that. Lyssa did not react to it at first. Apparently, the fact that Carnal had made such a suggestion did not shock her. However, when Rex's face reflected his decision on the matter, her reaction changed.

She'd not been able to hold back her screams, but she hadn't shed any tears. Only when Rex stepped aside and let Carnal take hold of her hips, driving his cock into her rectum with savage ferocity, did she cry. Rex knelt, kissing every tear off her face as if they were jewels he'd won, instead of the rain Jacob knew was washing away all vestiges of the bond they'd shared as husband and wife.

It wasn't the pain, though that was enough that even the residual experience of it made Jacob want to vomit and never eat again. It was the realization Rex was truly lost to her.

Jacob was so deep in her mind now he felt the impact of that in her soul, the searing pain as her heart shattered. But he also witnessed the birth of the ominous realization of what she had to do. She would have to be the catalyst to bring this tragedy to its inevitable conclusion. Only in its infancy then, the idea was a small enough voice to be denied that night. But if she had heeded it then, Thomas would have lived.

And his lady would not be dying.

White-hot pain shot through his mind, shoving him brutally out of her thoughts. Jacob only had a moment to reorient himself to the present before her hand clamped down onto his forearm. His lady twisted ruthlessly, coming out of the chair, slamming him onto his back on the carpet, one leg bent at a painful angle beneath him because of his kneeling position.

Another rough twist, and his forearm snapped under her grip. Agony took the form of fire burning up through his arm to his shoulder, wrenching a hoarse cry from his throat, particularly as she didn't let go, pressing forward, planting her foot on his chest. "You've no right. No permission. " It was a hiss, her eyes glowing red with a menace he'd never seen from her before. "You forget your place, servant. You don't know the meaning of what you just saw. It's something you can't understand so you won't judge it, you hear me? You won't judge me or my husband. I'm done with you tonight. Take your simple cures and be gone. "

She caught his other arm and hurled him–there was no other word for the explosion of strength that sent him hurtling toward the incorporeal entrance to this chamber. He closed his eyes, expecting to hit a door. A grunt left him instead as he hit the bedroom floor. The floor of her bedroom on the plane of reality he knew.

When he rolled, trying to regain his feet, he found he was alone with no access to her lower chamber.

"Son of a bitch… " He managed it through clenched teeth, cradling his arm. He didn't know whether to curse her or himself and he did both liberally, hoping she was hearing every word he had to say. There was too much pain roiling through him to sense whether she was there or not.

"Ah, Jesus. " He pressed his forehead to the carpet.

When she allows it…

She hadn't allowed it. Somehow, perhaps because of her illness, she'd been completely unaware he'd been able to walk into her mind, and he'd been unable to resist. Wanting to know, to understand answers she hadn't been ready to offer him. That he'd just told her he wouldn't push her to get. Rationalizing it, he'd figured it would be easier to get them this way, where she wouldn't need to talk about them. But that was hindsight. He hadn't thought at all, just walked through that portal between their minds, fascinated by the ability to use it, feeling that his feelings toward her gave him permission.

Earlier tonight, she'd opened to him, held him close as he made love to her. Touched his face. Everything they'd shared, her smiles at him, the touch of her lips, her body, the pensive look as she remembered things no one should have to remember. Playing in the fountain, letting him put his arm around her as he would a lover… It meant something to him. He'd assigned a significance to it that didn't figure on the vampire meter of trust at all.

You forget your place, Jacob.

I thought it was at your side. Your back. Wherever you need me, even if it's hip deep in the quagmire of your fucking psychotic mind.

But it wasn't her voice he heard, only the recollection of her statement and his current response to it. There were no shadows now. He felt her nowhere within him, though the link between them ached like a wound needing the pressure of a bandage.

There was a trembling low in his gut, an element of shock he recognized, and not just from the pain in his arm. He'd never been deliberately hurt by someone he cared about, not physically in the way a mortal enemy would have tried to hurt him. It wasn't just a moment of passion. She'd waited a key moment before she did it, made sure she had his attention so he'd know she'd fully intended to do what she did.

He'd never been treated as a slave. Hadn't that been his thought earlier? She was introducing him to a lot of firsts tonight. So where did that leave him? He couldn't think about it now. He'd do something wrong, something he'd regret later.

She wanted distance. Away from her was the last place he'd wanted to be only minutes before. Now if he didn't get some air he thought he'd try to stake her himself.

Fucking bitch. Broke my fucking arm.

Struggling to one knee, he wondered if he could hitch a ride to the emergency room.

***

"You know, for somebody who isn't in Mrs. Wentworth's employ, I seem to be ferrying you around a lot, " Mr. Ingram observed, looking down at the Danish Jacob had bought him from the emergency room vending machines. Feeling a moment of wistfulness, he bit into it.

"Does eating month-old pastry always make you choke up like a little old lady watching greeting card commercials?"

Boy was in a foul mood, but he was paying attention, Ingram noted. The kid watched everybody too close, and didn't know when to leave well enough alone. Probably why he was here. They'd given him some ice to help the pain, but they were backed up, and it would be a while before X-ray could take him.

"Makes me think about my wife, giving me hell for eating this kind of junk. "

"You have a wife?" Jacob glanced toward him, brow furrowed. "But–"

"No. " Elijah shook his head. "We were only together long enough to produce a baby and then she ran off. Died young of a life she shouldn't have got herself into. Must be genetic, because the boy's tryin' like hell to do the same. " He sighed. "But sometimes in my mind I like to paint life the way I wish it could have been. A wife to grow old with. Someone I'd have missed something awful if I'd lost her to cancer or a heart attack. So every time I have something like this, I imagine her old like me, fussing at me about cholesterol or my weight. The way you see people who love each other do. Not a big and flashy first-romance thing, just something you settle down into nice and easy as breathing. As long as you got your breathing, you got the chance to be anything. Without the breathing, it's pretty much over. "

Jacob snorted. "And you looked at me like I was crazy when you picked me up. "

"I'm just imagining the way it could have been with a good woman, " Elijah pointed out. "You're sitting over there obsessing about the one who snapped your arm like it was a matchstick. Maybe you'd be better off letting that one go and making up one, like me. "

Jacob leaned his head back against the wall, closed his eyes. "I'm tired, " he said. "Haven't slept normal hours of late. Maybe I am fucking crazy. "

Mr. Ingram made a noncommittal noise. Silence ensued for a few minutes between them.

"Lady's bad sick, isn't she?"

Jacob opened one eye, turned his head without lifting it from the wall. "Yeah, " he said.

Elijah nodded. "You know, I had an uncle, come home from the war in a wheelchair. He'd gone off all shiny and strong, everyone's hero. Comes back, okay at first, just quiet. Watching all of us, the way we all watched him. Then he turned into the meanest son of a bitch you'd ever want to meet. Drove off his wife, his kids… Ain't no complex psychology to it if you're paying attention. He'd always been invincible to his way of thinking. All of a sudden all the things he felt like people depended on him for were slipping away and he couldn't control it. Couldn't take care of his family no more. Every time he tried to be or do what he used to, something would happen. An infection, a new pain, or he got too tired and couldn't follow through on it. "

Jacob lifted his head from the wall then. Ingram took another bite of the pastry, thinking. Swallowed before he continued. Patted at his lips with the napkin.

"People treated him different, thinking because he was a cripple that gave them liberties no one should have without asking. Strangers assumed it was okay to lift him in the truck like a sack of potatoes. Women came up at the church picnic to dump his catheter bottle because his wife or mother said it was okay. Don't need to ask him. It's hard for a man to lose everything he thought made him a man. Don't seem fair for him to have all this potential to serve and then have it taken away. Can't imagine how to reinvent himself. Then he's got everyone acting like he don't have to be treated like a man anymore. "

The boy's gaze was steady, but the thoughts were there, running through his head like shit through a goose. Elijah could see it clear enough. He didn't know exactly what had happened between Jacob and the vampire lady. He might just be talking off his head, comparing what happened to one mortal man to what was going on with a woman who claimed to be an ancient vampire, but the boy was free to ignore the thoughts. Mr. Ingram didn't claim to influence no one's will. He certainly didn't have the type of hold Mrs. Wentworth seemed to have on this crazy boy.

Jacob rose abruptly. "We're going to the pharmacy across the street. I'll get a splint and some tape. I don't have time to wait, and if I can't show you how to tape up broken bones after I've seen Gideon do it a hundred times, then I deserve to have it grow back crooked. You don't have to take me back to her. I can hitch. "

"I'll get you home, son. "

***

After Jacob left, the house had the silence of a tomb and the desolation that came with it. Lyssa, rubbing her forehead, kneading at her neck, moved aimlessly out of her bedroom. Going to her study, she found the day's mail she'd not yet gone through. Jacob had left it in neat stacks as he'd done each day, properly sorted and processed.

She'd told him not to open personal correspondence, whereas he was welcome to open any correspondence from vampires in her Region, invoices from vendors, checks from business interests, things like that. So her eyes focused immediately on the two letters he'd set out separately from the things he'd already handled.

One was from Lord Mason, postmarked from Saudi Arabia. The other was from the monastery in Madrid. Since she paid for all the repairs to the structure and owned the land on which it rested to ensure it would forever remain a sanctuary for Thomas's spirit, she periodically received direct correspondence from Father Gonzalez on various mundane issues. Still, she chose to pick it up with Mason's letter and take them both with her as she moved back out into the hallway. She wasn't really sure of her destination until she arrived at the servants' quarters. Bran moved at her side, his body reassuringly pressed against her thigh. Curling her fingers in his hair, she held onto him to keep herself steady. Colors were still too bright. She suspected she'd tipped over the peak of this particular episode, but things weren't returning to normal as quickly as they had in the past. She had to believe they would, though. Any other answer was unacceptable.

Her head was pounding again, and the hammer seemed to be wielded by the image of Jacob's face as she broke his arm, the feel of the bone giving so easily beneath her touch. Yet perversely she sought to be as close to him as possible by standing here outside of his room. For some reason she was hesitating as if she were an interloper in her own house.

Pushing away the thought and shoving open the door, she viewed the room he used when she didn't command his company in her bed.

She hadn't come in here since he'd moved in. Seeing his few clothes hung in the closet, she put the letters on the dresser so she could run her fingers over the items, like the blue shirt he'd be wearing for the dinner. In the dresser she found neatly folded socks, underwear, spare belt, a few T-shirts and pairs of jeans. It made her chest hurt. But she stood there, the top drawer open, laying her palm on the T-shirt he'd last worn to work in the yard. It had a design from some kind of rock band on it, maybe a concert he'd attended, or maybe just something he'd picked up from a secondhand store. Most of his clothes, while in good shape and well-fitted, seemed likely to have been gotten that way. She ran her fingertips over the jeans, the pockets and front seam, the upper leg, thinking of how his body felt under the worn denim.

When she turned toward the bed, she stopped, nonplussed to find she'd picked up the T-shirt and was holding it in her hand. She brought it to her face and almost moaned as the cool softness of the fabric enveloped her throbbing forehead, her nose and lips buried in the cloth.

Rex had told her about Thomas. Lyssa had not felt well when she rose just before sunset that day. As Rex watched her, something in his eyes crawled into her stomach, making the nausea worse. Vampires never felt sick, but she didn't have energy to spare to worry about that, because he was in one of his erratic, pacing moods. She knew she needed to be alert, needed to appear calm and steady, to handle whatever brutal mischief he might foment. But she was so tired.

It had been a few months since she'd sent Thomas to the monastery. She'd visited him several times there, and she wanted him back. Wanted to stay with him or bring him back. It was time. Rex could stay or go, but she was bringing back her servant.

When Rex started talking about Carnal, she was in no mood to bear it. She retorted as she had countless times before. Carnal was simply using him, wanting to advance himself on Rex's power.

"He told me you'd say something like that. " Rex stared at her. She remembered a time when the dark eyes on either side of that aquiline nose had been provocative and mesmerizing to her. "You try to poison me against him. But I'm smarter than you. You tried to poison my heart, but I've done it to you first. And to your pious monk. "

She laid her brush down, stared at him. "What are you talking about?"

"You haven't been visiting your monk's mind lately. He's been very naughty. " Rex grinned, propping an arm on the windowsill. He was distracted, watching for the sun to set through the crack. He and Carnal would go out tonight and she would be blissfully alone for the evening, but at the moment she needed his mind here.

"Rex, what are you talking about?"

But she thought she knew. On one of her visits, Thomas had tried to make her smile. Told her of a dream he'd had of a young girl brings ing him a bouquet of wildflowers, begging for his help. Her brother was dying and had asked for the Last Rites. "You must come, Father. Right now. Please… "

"In my dream, my lady, I went to her room, though I tried to explain I was not a priest. There was no brother there. She put her back against the door and removed her blouse. She had beautiful black hair, generous hips, a full bosom … "

"Ah, this is sounding nothing like your skinny Mistress, my monk. "

Thomas had smiled, taken her hand. "I could not resist her in my dreams, my lady.. She knew me, took me places I have not been in a while. I awoke here. It has been a long time since I'd had such a dream. "

Rex was talking. "There's an herb with a white and gold flower, one of those long names no one can pronounce. It acts like a hallucinogen. Carnal told me of it. He has a great deal of wisdom for such a young vampire. Of course, I think he keeps questionable company. He likes to play with vampire hunters. But he doesn't know how I used the knowledge he gave me. That's between you and me. "

On her last visit, Thomas had not felt well. A flu bug, so she'd not fed from him as she had during times past. She was getting her blood elsewhere of course, but they'd both wanted the connection, the reminder of the bond they shared that must sustain them over a distance. That last time, she'd felt his hot forehead and simply held his hand, sitting in the garden at the monastery, talking about things they enjoyed, not talking about things too painful to discuss. When she'd left, she told him she was going to bring him home, even if she had to throw Rex out.

"You fed from him, didn't you?" Rex turned from the window, studied her. "Each time you go to see that human you love more than me, you feed from him, while you have denied me your blood as well as your body since the night he tried to take my life. Well, you may go to him, die together. "

She thought her heart had been ripped out the night Rex had allowed Carnal to rape her. But whenever a person thought she'd been scarred to the depths of her soul, there were even deeper wells to plumb.

If he'd only poisoned her, perhaps she wouldn't have done what she did. After what he'd allowed Carnal to do, she knew there was nothing left of the love between them. But Thomas… He'd taken Thomas from her, made Thomas suffer only for the crime of loving her too much. She hadn't deserved Thomas, but Thomas deserved justice.

A quiet calm had stolen over her, and she'd known it was time. In fact, since the night in the dungeon, it had been a countdown, and perhaps the nausea in her stomach was just the timer going off, telling her. She'd risen up from the chair, taken two steps… A moment later, there was just a body on the floor, a crushed heart in her hand. Rex's empty eyes stared at her in disbelief as she drew back the curtains and stood back, watching the last of him turn to ash on a carpet she would burn.

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