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

When he came, so did Lyssa, once again surprising her with how responsive her body was to him. Particularly in her current state. The demons pounding on the inside of her head had been driven back by the tender lovemaking he'd initiated. When she took control, needing the sense of holding the reins to tilt her world back to the correct axis, they returned like a building storm, their strength increasing the harder and faster she rode him, so even when the orgasm convulsed her body, she had to shut her eyes against the pain.

They dressed in silence. She didn't search his mind, but she sensed his quiet acceptance of her mood, such that he respected her silence, helped her with her clothes that now felt unbearably damp and uncomfortable. When he got her settled on the bike, he pressed his hand briefly over one of hers resting at his hip before he started the engine. He took them home via forest paths and sleeping neighborhoods, putting them on the main roads only briefly before he reached her drive.

By the time he stopped the motorcycle by the fingerprint reader, she was dizzy. She managed to put her thumb up to it, though her body jerked, alarmingly.

He was watching her closely, but she had no energy to spare as she settled back on the bike, pressing her cheek to his back again. Somehow that helped ease the pain roaring through her head, as if he possessed a magnetism opposite to her own that helped open the blood vessels.

He stopped by the kitchen entrance. When Bran bounded out of the darkness followed by his brothers and sisters, she raised a hand to fend off his usual rambunctious attack, but Jacob intervened.

"Bran, no. " His tone was sharp, authoritative. The dog stopped in midbound, backing off.

Jacob took her outstretched hand, concerned by the quiver in it as he helped her off the bike. "My lady, are you well? What can I do?"

"Yes. " Her voice was muted. Too labored to project. "It was beautiful, Jacob. So perfect. I'm sorry. "

"Sorry for–"

Before he could finish the thought, she spun away from him and hunched over, a shudder rolling through her slight frame. When he closed his hands on her shoulders, his palms partially touching her bare skin below the short sleeves, he found she was burning hot to the touch. She began to vomit into the grass, bright red blood, the force of the expulsion yanking her forward. When she cried out, his heart lurched in alarm.

Filled with pain for her, as well as questions he wanted to demand she answer, he held her until she finished. When she did, she was quivering in his arms, weak as any time he'd yet seen her.

"My lady. " He pressed his hand over her feverish brow. Her shaking hands rose, clamped down on his to hold it there, either to ease the pain or give her the comparative coolness of his palm, he didn't know. Her veins were beating violently, a migraine like he'd never felt before. "Don't speak, my lady. I'll get you to bed. Just hold on. "

***

Thomas had a form of autoimmune blood disease that had mutated in his altered servant's body, accelerating quickly with no hope of cure. Had Thomas known he was giving Jacob yet another invaluable lesson when Jacob had become his primary caregiver during those last terrible months? There'd been no doctor to call, no hospital to visit. Not even a diagnosis of the ailment because it hadn't been logged by modern medicine and never would be, as long as vampires and their servants remained the shadowy stuff of fiction and nightmares. As he had then, Jacob fell back on remedies and first aid he knew, as well as simple things the monks at the monastery had taught him. He wasn't certain if they would work, but that wasn't the main concern hammering in his mind now.

Though the symptoms between his lady and the monk were very different, Jacob had no doubt they were somehow connected. The cold fear in his vitals told him what he could not ignore or drown out any longer. She was dying. Whatever this ailment was, it was going to kill her in the end. The awareness of it was in her eyes, the same way it had been in Thomas's. In fact, now that he'd given a name to the hollow sickness in his gut, he recalled that awareness had been there all along, in many of the things she'd said or done, the silences she'd maintained, the looks she'd given him. Even the way she touched him, as if she wanted to savor each sensation to the fullest. Vampires were sensual creatures, so he'd overlooked the significance of her exceptional desire to dwell on the experience of a single touch, the beauty of one finite moment.

He'd been angry at her bluntly stated refusal to give him the third mark. He'd uncharitably thought it was more of her tests, holding a carrot just beyond his nose. Seeing now what he hadn't wanted to see, he realized she thought she was saving his life.

With a third mark, if the vampire dies, the servant dies with her…

A goddess had the full picture of the journey, its goals and obstacles, in a way a mortal did not. Faith was required to follow her lead. As she'd admitted with no apology, vampires in their stunning arrogance imposed the same relationship on their human servants. But she was a woman as well as a vampire queen, and he wanted her to know she didn't have to play at omnipotence to command his loyalty. He'd have done anything at this moment to ease her agony, given anything for the truth to be a lie.

"The pain… It went away during… " Her voice was a whisper as he laid her on her bed. She'd had him take her to her hidden bedchamber. "But afterward. It was like a flood. So beautiful. I ruined it. "

"Ssshh. You did nothing of the kind. I should have paid closer attention. It was my fault. "

"See. Told you. I ruined it. "

Another shudder racked her. After giving her the vial of medicine he carried, holding her chin to steady her as she took it down, he turned up the gas logs, for now she was shivering, her skin gone from fire to ice. Reluctantly, he went into the bathroom to get what he needed.

So many things about her were human. So many were not. When he'd helped her across the driveway, since she'd initially refused to be carried, a convulsion had seized her. Her hand had flown out, striking the side of the Mercedes, her personal car. It had put a dent deep in the side that tore the metal, cutting her skin. The wound had healed to a thin scar almost before he got her a towel.

How could nothing else hurt her, but this disease take such a toll? He wished like hell for Thomas. The monk's scholarly mind would have put two and two together and figured out the correlation between the two diseases, ways to slow or ease it. Thomas could have done that for himself, but Jacob had sensed the monk was doing only what was necessary to be around long enough to prepare Jacob to serve his Mistress. Without the connection to Lyssa and no hope of it ever being reinstated, Thomas simply hadn't the will to live. On all other subjects, Thomas had filled him in on every detail he could recall. But on the series of events that had given him the terminal disease, he'd said little, not even how he'd contracted it. He'd just noted brusquely it had to do with Rex's punishment and why his Mistress had to shun him.

Jacob wrung out the cloth in the first of the two basins he brought to the bed. The steaming water burned his hands as he laid it on her forehead. "I need to know what this is, my lady. Let me help you. "

"I've told you–"

"With respect, I believe the time is past for that. " He met her gaze, frustrated by the shuttered look behind the pain. "I have no leverage, no way of compelling you to heed my request. But Thomas trusted me. I think you trust me, too, no matter how uncomfortable that makes you. I insist on knowing, and that's that. I know giving me the third mark will not only help with the issue of trust, it will help me anticipate your state of mind and health better. You can draw strength from mine whenever you have need, even from a distance. "

"It's also a death sentence. Much shorter than you'd get as a mortal. Bran would outlive you. "

Her confirmation of it made something twist agonizingly in his chest, but he inclined his head. "I'm aware of that. "

Her eyes closed. "Why would I be worth such a sacrifice, Jacob? Does it have anything to do with me, or is it that insufferable code of honor you gratify?"

"Both, my lady. And the sex alone is worth dying for. "

"Jacob, this is not a joke. " If her head was not about to explode, he suspected she would have screamed it. As it was, she choked it out as a snarl. He cupped her face, his thumb stroking, reassuring.

"Sshh, my lady. Sshh. Aye, it's not. What must I do to convince you that you're worth it to me, my lady?"

"It's not worth it to me, Jacob. Please, stop. Just… Cease. "

When she turned her face back into the pillow, shutting him out, her body quivering with pain, he knew he had to let it go. For now.

He began to hum, a soft Gaelic tune. After his parents' death, he'd had to get accustomed to the idea that he would never again feel his mother's hand touch his brow before he went to sleep at night. During those first months he'd often wake in the dark of the night, feeling afraid and alone. As if their mother had left her maternal alarm clock implanted in his body, Gideon would rouse. Jacob would hear the soft shift of his body in the other twin bed, the rustle of pajamas, and feel such relief when his older brother came and sat on the edge of his own bed. He'd rest a hand on Jacob's leg and sing the songs of their mother's people off tune, the soothing tones of a boy's voice too fast changing to a man's.

So he kept up the tune while he cleaned her up, hoping it was providing comfort to them both. He eased her out of her clothes and tucked soft blankets around her. Sitting on the edge of the mattress, he removed the compress and slid an arm under her back,folding her up against his shoulder. Her forehead rested on it as he very gently unpinned her hair and brushed it out, knowing she'd feel more comfortable with it tended. Then he lowered her back to the pillow and replaced the hot compress.

"Was it Carnal that brought this on, my lady? This was not like the last time. "

"No. This is new. " She kept her eyes closed, though her lips twisted wryly. "I won't say he didn't contribute. "

Jacob picked up one of her hands and began to massage between her thumb and forefinger, carefully kneading the pressure point.

Some of the tension in her shoulders eased, the pounding mallets lessening in force. Lyssa cracked open her eyes. "Oh. That helps. "

"Acupressure. It's good to know we're not so different in some things. "

Lyssa looked at his hands, tan and strong, at the calluses she would never have. At the contrast of her pale skin, paler than he'd ever have unless he was out of the sun long enough to lose the pigment. "You did this with Thomas. "

"He taught it to me. " He nodded. "My lady, if it doesn't cause you more pain, will you at least tell me how you came to… Send Thomas away? I know it's somehow related to your sickness. And his. "

Lyssa closed her eyes again. Jacob did deserve to know. More important, he needed to know. There'd been something different about Carnal tonight. He was always a mocking son of a bitch, but she'd sensed something brewing in him, a kind of suppressed excitement. Like a boy dying to tell someone a secret, but savoring the smugness of knowing what someone else didn't. Whatever it was, or even if it was just her imagination distorted by her current state, Jacob deserved to have enough knowledge to protect himself against her enemies.

She took deep breaths, absorbing the touch of his hands as much as the compresses, letting the pain wash over her without resistance, hoping it would soon ebb.

"When I was married, " she began softly, "it would have been better if I'd had a female servant, but we tend to do better with servants of the opposite sex. But Thomas was a quiet, scholarly man. He was a monk when he became my servant. I exempted him from the sexual ways a servant is expected to submit to his Mistress. "

She felt his mind absorb that. As he remembered some of the images from earlier in the night, his visions made a lazy stir in her blood despite her current state. Then she recalled the point of the conversation and her reaction chilled.

"Rex didn't understand it. He'd thought of so many twisted things to do to a man who'd taken a vow of celibacy. My husband was not an easy vampire, not ever. He and Thomas did not get along well, and over time it got worse. "

Because Thomas knew he was a sociopathic monster, Jacob thought, then winced as her eyes opened, reminding him his thoughts were no longer guarded. But she kept on without comment.

"I encouraged Thomas to take a short sabbatical to his monastery in Madrid. For all his love and loyalty to me, which I did not credit as I should have, he needed a place from which to draw energy for the nourishment of his own soul. That was the place for Thomas. 'It's just a piece of land, a pile of stone, ' he'd say to me. But I knew his heart. I kept encouraging him to go, take some time. Things were well in hand here. No pending threats on our borders, though I suppose I forgot to look within as well as without. "

Her fingers closed into balls on her abdomen, and Jacob moved his massaging touch back there, loosening them. He knew he should tell her to rest, but he couldn't ignore his gut, which told him understanding all the pieces to this puzzle were critical to caring for his Mistress. He didn't know how much time he had.

Enough, Jacob. Be easy on that. This will pass.

Lyssa had no way of knowing if he believed she was telling him the truth. The easing of his brow helped reassure her, however, as if drawing him into her illusion gave her confidence, making the lie forgivable and possibly even truth. She would have enough time, damn it. Because nothing else was acceptable. She had to get through the Council Gathering. Once she did that, it would be five years before there would be any close scrutiny on her or her Region.

"Thomas understood, as I have been trying to teach you, that you don't interfere between vampires. We don't view you like children, from whom we will suffer interruption. You are tools, instruments serving as extensions of our will. Thomas, having lived as a monastic, understood better than most the concept of obedient service. He was well suited to the way of life of a human servant. " She paused, her fingers whispering along his leg, crooked on the bed as he traded the now cold compress for another hot one.

"Your pardon, my lady. " Reluctantly he left her to refill the basin with more hot water.

"You are not, " she murmured.

Jacob lifted his gaze to the mirror. Too late, he remembered her reflection would not be there, though his stricken look was, revealing his reaction to her words before he could mask it. The mirror was one-sided, the way she was saying he must accept their relationship to be.

He pushed that away and came back to her to set the next compress while her fingers slid down to play with his bare ankle under the jeans' cuff. He took it as a good sign she was caressing him, though he noticed she wasn't succumbing to sleep the way she had after the first attack he'd witnessed. Perhaps the change in symptoms had made the sedative effect of the powder less effective.

She sighed. "Physical violence was part of our marriage, a part Thomas did not understand and abhorred. But he held his tongue for I bid him to do so, even as Rex became more and more erratic, trying to make our relationship into something it could never be. Then one night Rex tore out my rosebushes in a fit of rage. Thomas came upon me in the garden, trying to replant them. " She pressed her lips together, obviously struggling with the memory. "I was crying. I suppose I'd gotten a little frayed on the edges as well. "

Reaching out, Jacob cupped her face, drawing her gaze to his face. "My lady. "

She shook her head. "My mother died at five hundred, Jacob. Vampires do die for reasons other than murder by staking or cutting off their heads. Immortality is a gift, but it also has its drawbacks. As mortals pass over the threshold of old age, most eventually get past fear and resistance to the idea of death. This acceptance grows with the years, for they see so many cycles… Life, death, growth, change. They start to see how things remain the same even as the faces change. Because of that, they become less interested in keeping pace with the world. They want to be quiet, to rotate on the axis they've always known, knowing when Death is ready it will come and they will find renewal then. "

She touched the compress on her head. "As you pointed out, we have things in common with humans. We can lose interest in life, in seeking change and growth, only we do not die. Unless a vampire figures out how to get past that phase–think of it as a midlife crisis–he loses his sense of meaning. Things stop having lasting value, for you feel as though you've seen and done it all. While you don't acknowledge it directly as such, your immortality becomes a curse, a prison during that time. You rattle those bars or obscure their presence with a haze of excess. Violence, cruelty and lust for power are drugs of choice for the powerful and purposeless. Quick rushes that don't last, and like drugs, you need more and more fixes. More and more excess, as you rail against the fate that you feel has you in thrall. "

Jacob watched her gaze drift to the fire. "We call it the Ennui. It is the greatest risk vampires face as they pass the fourth-century mark. Many don't live to see five. They meet the sunrise. Or they are murdered by one of us or human hunters like your brother, because they choose more destructive ways to deal with it. My mother chose to meet the sun. I hadn't seen her in fifty years when she did that. "

He tightened his hand on the side of her throat, and she gave him an indulgent look, but there was sorrow under the attempt to shrug off his sentimentality.

"Vampires are predators, and kind is not a word to describe us. But predators can be fair, consistent, and have a reliable integrity. They are not incapable of compassion. Rex was… Susceptible to excess. He viewed humans differently than I did, did not appreciate your diversity and value except as it served his needs. Many of my kind are like that, but perhaps there was a little more of an edge to his feelings on the matter. I noticed it, it bothered me, but it never went far enough to be more than an irritation between us. But as the world wore on him, that weakness began to become his strength, and it did not stop with humans. Cruel, manipulative games that involved lesser vampires as well as humans absorbed him like a teenager hooked on the worst of the violent computer games. I tried to minimize the damage, keep him under control. "

She kept the focus on herself, made herself his most challenging sparring partner. Jacob remembered Thomas's words, but he hadn't had this information to fill in the blanks. He felt the deceptively fragile network of bones and muscle beneath his hand, the line of her throat. When the delicate edge of her jaw brushed the base of his hand so she could rest the side of her face there, he felt an impotent anger at the destination toward which her words were driving them. Her bones would heal, yes. But they could break. Over and over and over. The nervous system of humans and vampires was another common denominator between the two species. Pain was pain.

"He became infatuated with a young man at the turn of the century. Cecil Miles, an innocuous name for one who would never be more than a New York banking clerk, or would not have been except he stumbled on Rex feeding in an alley. Rex turned and saw Cecil standing there, completely fascinated. He became his new playmate. It was as if their meeting was fated by an evil sprite, for Cecil had an unhealthy fascination with pain and suffering. Rex nurtured his burgeoning bloodlust to keep him company in places I refused to go. He petitioned to make Cecil a vampire, and it was permitted. I should have opposed it. "

She drew away now and rose from the bed, letting the compress drop away. Moving to the chair by the fire, she sank into it, turning partly away from him. While Jacob was glad for evidence the attack was receding, he could see the weariness in her. He moved to her side, knelt by the chair.

"Cecil learned quickly, but… You remember what I said?"

Jacob nodded. "That made vampires are more bloodthirsty, less disciplined. "

"He was… What was that word you used? A sociopath as a mortal. By his cleverness and Rex's influence, after only a hundred years he acquired himself a small territory in Mexico. Not an influential one. We are not complete fools. But it will not be enough. He will always want more. "

"Carnal. "

She nodded. "It was Rex's pet name for him. At a certain point, it was what he preferred to be called. I'm not so sure if whatever it was that made Rex more susceptible to the Ennui and his own weaknesses enhanced Carnal's bloodlust. Transferred in the blood during the siring. "

She shook her head. "Cecil wanted to be fully in control of Rex, and he realized I was his greatest obstacle in that. Over time he guided Rex more and more toward the things where I had to run interference, increasing Rex's frustration and mistrust of me. Carnal also exacerbated the sickness in Rex's mind, feeding it with more and more creative entertainments, which I am selfishly glad I did not know much about. " Her lip curled. "I didn't act any differently from a wife married to a serial killer or a pedophile, who denies to herself what is happening. I deserved the punishment of Thomas's loss, but Thomas certainly didn't. "

When Jacob reached out, she shook her head, a sharp movement.

"The night it happened, we had a dinner party planned for midnight. I was dressed in a black dress I think you would have liked. " An image of her appeared in his mind briefly, standing in this room, putting on her earrings, showing him the low-slung back of the dress, the short skirt with a fringed hem that drew the eye to the exposed lengths of her thighs.

"I like it, " he responded, though he couldn't smile.

"I burned it after that night, but it was one of my favorite dresses. " Grim humor passed through her gaze. "Rex and I had fought earlier. It doesn't matter about what. It was meaningless. He came to our room, asked my forgiveness. Touched my face and asked if I would bring some cut roses to the dinner table because they always added such a lovely touch of color to the meal. " She swallowed. "When I went to the back garden, I discovered he'd torn them all out of the ground. Only then did I realize why his hands had smelled of the earth.

"Thomas came to find me, " she said after a brief pause. "Rex knew I cultivated those roses in honor of my father. But I think I was crying because I knew that was going to be the end, that I could tolerate no more. Then it got worse. "

She fell silent. Jacob curled his hand on the chair arm, wanting to touch her, offer comfort. Turning her head to look at him, she reached out, touched his face, ran her fingers over his lips. He swayed as images unfolded in his mind, a sensation disconcertingly like a television flipping on. It obscured his vision as he struggled to manage reality against the flashback she'd chosen to show him graphically.

Thomas stroked her hair, then picked up one of the broken branches. "We will make it all right, my lady. I'll go get a shovel. "

The pictures apparently were not adequate, however, for the images kept rolling 'through his mind as she narrated the event which had sealed Thomas's fate.

"Something alerted me. It took a cursed few precious seconds to pick up on the strained tone of his voice, the delicate way he'd picked up the branch, as if it were made of glass and he was afraid his grip would break it. I found the knife later in the kitchen. Imagined him picking it up and slicing off the end of that branch to a pointed angle with one cut, as if he'd been born a samurai. My monk who regularly cut his hands on small steak knives. "

Whether it was the power of the images or she was intentionally letting him inside her mind further than he'd expected, Jacob felt the fear she'd felt then. Not for herself, but for Thomas. Her narration ended, and there were only the images, a movie he knew was not going to end well.

***

She didn't bother with the door. She ran toward the house, her gaze on the upper level where the bedroom was, where she knew Rex would have been standing, watching, waiting for her reaction. Anticipating the bitter enjoyment of her pain, her struggle to put the rosebushes in the ground. She leaped, soaring. Vampires could not fly, but like squirrels they were capable of catapulting themselves remarkable distances.

Jacob felt his own stomach lurch with the unfamiliar sensation, flinched as she didn't slow down for the master bedroom window but went through it, a priceless stained glass art depiction of the dragon and St. George. It exploded around her, cutting her skin. He realized she'd never had it recrafted. It was a curtained picture window, one of the few non-stained glass windows in her home.

Thomas had reached the bedroom a single handful of seconds earlier, probably knowing he had little time before she'd realize his intent. Rex had not expected anything. Thomas was already driving the branch of thorns with its sharpened end toward his back.

The vampire spun just before she came through the window, perhaps sensing Thomas's rage-driven attack. The rosebush stake sliced through the shirt and into his skin but went high, shooting upward and tearing muscle rather than stabbing through it.

Lyssa slammed into Thomas. As he was catapulted into the wall by the impact, she took the blow in the face that Rex had intended for Thomas's chest, had the monk had been there a bare second before.

Lyssa spun, grappled with her husband, and they crashed into the bed frame, shattering it and tangling them both in the covers.

"No, " she was saying. "No. "

She was adamant, fierce. Pleading, but not for Thomas's life, Jacob realized. That wasn't in question. She would not permit Rex that transgression. She was pleading for him not to force the conflict between them to a point of no return.

Rex backed off, his fangs bared, his shirt bloody, the wound visible under the torn fabric. Even now it was mending. Lyssa watched him warily, her body tense and ready, moving to keep herself between him and the dazed Thomas, struggling to get to his feet.

"I will send him away, Rex. But you cannot kill him. I won't permit it. " "Your loyalty is to him?" Rex snarled. "He intended to murder me. "

"You've been trying to murder my soul for so long it knows not how to draw a deep breath anymore, " she said in a terrible voice. "You don't see me piteously whining about it, the way you are about a mere human's scratch. "

Fury flashed through his eyes, but now she straightened, her expression assuming that dispassionate calm Jacob already knew well. "Thomas, " she said without taking her attention from Rex.

"Go and pack. You'll go to your monastery in Madrid until I bid you return. "

"Never, " Rex spat. "He shall never return. Because I will hunt him the moment your back is turned and kill him. Torture him slowly and let you feel every moment of his pain. You'll have to kill me. Show everyone your pathetic weakness, that you would choose a human over your husband. "

Lyssa studied him for a long moment. Jacob wondered what thoughts were going through her, for that was something her vision did not reveal. Thomas had made it to his feet, was holding his ribs, his spectacles gone. His hands were shaking, but the fury was still in his eyes. He was even insane enough to dart a quick look around for the sharpened branch, though his face fell when he saw it had rolled under the bed behind Rex.

Lyssa took a step forward, drawing Rex's attention. "A human can't last long under torture. Is that what you want? A blink of distraction, followed by the quick grunt of a snapped neck, the gurgle of a heart being ripped out? Wouldn't you prefer the sweetness of my cries? That's what this is always about, isn't it?"

"My lady, no. " Thomas stepped forward, and her hand shot up, pointed like the finger of God toward the door.

"Get out of my sight, servant. I will not permit your death, but I will not tolerate an attack on my husband. Your punishment is banishment. Go, " she snapped. "Obey me. " She looked toward him, and Jacob saw the crumpling of Thomas's expression as she dealt him a mortal blow with her thoughts. You've brought this upon me. If you have any love for me at all, you'll go before you make it more than I can bear.

He stumbled from the room as she shrugged out of her sexy sequined dress as casually as she might before preparing for a shower. Stripping off underwear, tossing it aside so she was completely naked, completely vulnerable. Rex, his eyes already alight with anticipation in a way that elicited nausea in Jacob's belly, drew a bullwhip from a baroque armoire. It was the type of whip Jacob had seen used on elephants in the circus.

"Thomas. " She stopped her servant at the door, her voice as cool and remote as ever. "Remember to contact our dinner guests on your way out and let them know we will reschedule. "

The vision evaporated, snapped off like a television, her mind closing the door before he could see more. His mind could imagine it too well, however. Thomas's heart had broken that day. Jacob knew it, because he'd seen it in the man's eyes whenever he'd even hinted at what had driven him from his Mistress's service. The wound her words created had not been the shattering blow, however. Jacob suspected it had been her screams coming through the walls as he stood in the servants' quarters, folding socks, placing shirts in a suitcase with his trembling hands.

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