“A birthday gift?” I parroted back, while trying to keep a lock on my emotions at this unusual turn of events.
Failing or succeeding, I had no clue.
I didn’t know what to think. How to take his gesture. I knew he didn’t fully trust me yet, but that was understandable. I could only hope in time he would come to see my pledge to him was true.
My intentions, pure.
I viewed myself as an extension of him. Both a shield, ready to take any blow aimed his way, and the tip of a spear, prepared to deliver death to any who dared threaten him. I cared nothing for how any other viewed me. I hadn’t come here to make friends. My life was dedicated to his continued existence until I went on to the Summerlands, so his opinion was the only one I valued. And while I enjoyed learning more about him during our nightly conversations, I had viewed his questions posed to me more as a test of my loyalty.
Gauging my answers against his blood in my veins.
So what should I make of his thoughtful gesture?
His next words confirmed my failure to keep my emotions in check because he replied, “Yes, a birthday gift. Why do you feel so…”
If I couldn’t put a name to my emotions, it was no wonder he couldn’t discern any one over the other either. But seeing him waiting on some sort of response, I went with what was going through my mind at that very moment by admitting, “I just…it’s…I’ve never gotten a birthday gift before. Thank you, Master.”
He stared back at me looking completely shocked.
Welcome to the club.
“Never?” he asked incredulously. “Do fairies not celebrate such occasions?”
“They do,” I admitted softly. But my words stalled, not wanting to admit to my secret ache.
It was something I was sure he could feel because he looked incensed and my ache only grew when he pressed the button on his intercom and barked at the driver, ordering him to resume driving towards our destination.
Answering my unasked question, he said, “Your first attempt at driving shouldn’t be in a limousine or any of the SUV’s traveling with us. You can choose one from my private collection at the southern estate when we arrive and you’ll practice in that.”
“Thank you, Master,” I repeated and let my eyes drift to the scenery passing by.
But no matter how much I tried to focus on the trees, I couldn’t shake the feeling he was drilling into the back of my skull with his eyes. I was both grateful and agitated my telepathy was of no use in his presence, but I wasn’t all that surprised when he eventually broke the uncomfortable silence by asking, “Why was your birthday not cause for celebration?”
I sighed – a human gesture that was the answer in and of itself – before replying, “I am not like the others. Unlike the others, my life’s purpose had been decided before I had ever been born. Each year the day marking my birth was observed by my trainers giving my great-grandfather their annual report on my accomplishments and my failings over the previous year. The only celebration to commemorate my birthday occurred moments after I arrived in this world and you accepted my pledge to your service.”
I bristled on the inside, recalling the reason why he had initially accepted my pledge, but just as quickly I pushed the past slight out of my mind and returned once more to staring at the tree line.
I didn’t want to see what expression he wore hearing my admission.
“Their disregard hurt you,” he mused aloud, not needing telepathy to know what I was feeling.
I shrugged again, only then realizing I had unconsciously been playing with the Mjolnir charm on my new bracelet, so I dropped my right hand back to my side and said, “A human flaw, I suppose.”
Thankfully he allowed the subject to drop, so I shoved Sookie back into her hidey hole and pulled Susannah out for the rest of the ride. Time passed by mostly in silence, only broken occasionally by me whenever I would test my telepathic range and report to him on my findings, but catching a stray thought from the tiger had my palm itching for the hilt of my sword.
“What’s got you so irate?” Master asked, looking up from his laptop.
“It’s nothing,” I lied, trying to force myself to believe my denial as the truth. His only response was an arched brow, but he didn’t push for a more accurate answer, so I didn’t provide one.
The tiger believed we were currently…copulating.
Like with the human Newlin’s thoughts, I was offended on Master’s behalf, but more than that there was something about the Were that raised my hackles. I just hadn’t figured out the cause for my distrust, but my eyes strayed of their own volition to the black SUV he was riding in directly behind us, with me wondering how much trouble I would get in if I popped in with a clean blade and popped back with a tiger stained one.
I had made sure to go through every vehicle in our convoy earlier that afternoon for just such a teleporting emergency.
But telepathy was both a gift and a curse I was still struggling to control, so instead of focusing on all of the ways I could skin a cat, I focused once more on the trees.
Well, more like the treetops.
They were all I could see beyond the royal fleet. Our convoy consisted of twelve vehicles in all and the six lane highway allowed for the King’s car to be situated directly in the center. Two SUV’s preceded his limousine, three trailed behind, with three others flanking each side.
But with my attention trained solely on the treetops and my telepathic shields still flimsy at best, it wasn’t difficult to catch the thoughts focused on us. I consciously dropped every barrier I had managed to erect around my mind and reacted without thought.
Master’s questioning, “Su…?” was cutoff when I flung my body over his and the remaining, “sannah,” fell from his lips in surprise just as we arrived in the backseat of the lead SUV.
The vehicle jarred to the right at our unexpected arrival, just as the limousine exploded behind us, taking out two of the SUV’s with it and causing a pileup of those trailing behind.
“A rocket propelled grenade,” I replied to the unasked question and pointed to the treetops from where the shooter still hid.
I didn’t wait for orders and popped back to the highway just behind the accident scene, sprinting towards the trees. I could sense two others now running deeper into the forest, but the shooter was still climbing down from his perch.
I met him halfway up the tree.
I had stayed focused on his thoughts, so I’d known he didn’t hear my approach and as soon as I had his leg in my grasp, I popped us back to where I had left the King only seconds earlier, now standing next to the halted SUV.
“The shooter,” I snarled, forcing him facedown into the ground and twisting his arms behind him, enjoying the sound of his painful cry when the bone of his right forearm snapped beneath my hands.
If I had my way, he would think that pain was nothing more than a gentle caress before this night was through.
Hearing my name fall from Master’s lips – much like that gentle caress I had just been thinking about – my eyes looked up.
And then fell back to the ground.
His fangs were out. His eyes were possessed with fury.
And something else I refused to give a name to.
Bloodlust was a perfectly normal reaction for any supernatural when their life had been threatened. It had nothing to do with me. Or birthdays. Or pretty bracelets I would have never thought to own.
Figuring I should be earning my keep, I focused on the cretin beneath me. With our bodies touching it was impossible for me to not hear every thought in his head, so I gave them a voice and related aloud, “He is a member of The Brotherhood.”
The Brotherhood was the most organized of the human militias that infected this world, but up until now, they had limited their attacks to other humans, preying on those they felt were traitors to their own kind. Wielding a bible in one hand and a gun laden with wooden bullets in the other, they preached to any fool who would listen.
They would do well to realize it was vampires who had saved them from themselves.
A hand appeared in my line of sight a moment later. Worn with calluses forged a thousand years earlier, I didn’t have to look beyond it to know who it belonged to. So I took it in my own and allowed him to needlessly pull me to my feet.
Well, one foot. The other remained firmly planted on the treasonous traitor’s back, holding his hands in place.
“Your Majesty! Are you alright?”
The panicked voice and heavy footsteps rang out above the raging fire still blazing further down the highway and my disappointment over his survival had me whispering out, “Damn nine lives.”
I didn’t realize I was still holding Master’s hand until I felt him give mine a gentle squeeze and meeting his eyes I could see his amusement at my unintentional admission.
Dropping my hand from his own, he crossed his arms and glared at the gathering of the remaining guards – a mixture of Weres and vampires – and nodded towards me, while he challenged, “No thanks to any of you.”
My own glare appeared on my face, catching the tidbits of thoughts coming from the tiger. My telepathy was only known to Master and his child, so the cat did nothing to try and hide his thoughts from me.
He thought I planted the shooter as a way to curry favor with the King.
Sookie was desperately trying to claw her way free and let the giant fur ball know just how she felt about being accused a traitor. But he had only accused me in his thoughts and it wouldn’t be prudent to give away my tactical advantage – the one that had saved our King – so I remained silent.
And amused myself by plotting his mysterious disappearance.
Turning his attention to the one called Rasul, Master ordered, “You will question the human and find out all that he knows.”
Turning to me he jutted his chin towards the SUV I had popped us into and said, “Since it appears I only need my personal guard, the rest of you will see to this mess before joining us.”
I had continued to scan the area in search of more humans, but didn’t find any. However since I hadn’t had the opportunity to tell him of the traitor’s coconspirators before now, I quickly did so in his ancient language and he gave orders to the others to track the human’s scent back into the forest in case there were more of them.
I don’t know why, but I was surprised when he climbed into the driver’s seat and indicated I should get in on the passenger’s side. I supposed it was because I was used to seeing most menial tasks done for him, but likely guessing at my feelings, once we were again driving down the road he offered simply, “I enjoy driving whenever I have the occasion to.”
“I wouldn’t know what that’s like,” I drawled out teasingly. “No one has bothered to teach me how yet.”
A smirk appeared on his face, causing a small grin to appear on my own. I enjoyed this side of him and knew I should count myself lucky to be given a glimpse of the man behind the crown. My servitude would be much more pleasant if I respected the man I had vowed to protect and so far, it looked promising.
I continued to blanket the surrounding area as far as I could reach with my mental nets, not wanting to be caught unaware, but I was eventually drawn back into conversation hearing Master say, “You heard his thoughts.”
It wasn’t a question, but I answered anyway with, “More like I saw your car in his crosshairs and felt his anticipation.”
But with his next words I felt nothing but shock.
“You realize you have now repaid your great-grandfather’s debt to me?” The denial was barely on my lips when he shook his head and said, “An eye for an eye. I saved Niall’s life. You saved mine.”
“But that wasn’t the agreement,” I argued, with my shiny new bracelet mocking me from my wildly gesturing hands. “I pledged my life in your service. Only when my life is over will the debt be settled.”
I hated how easily he had come to know me so well and so quickly when I hardly knew anything about the man.
King. A thousand years old. Has pointy teeth.
I could feel his eyes boring into the side of my face, but I refused to meet them, unwilling to see what I refused to hear.
I didn’t want to be released.
“Why?” he asked, making me suspect I had said my greatest fear out loud. “Don’t you want to have your own life? Do whatever it is you wish to do?”
I was surprised to hear the struggle in his voice as his next words fought their way free.
“What of marriage? Children?”
It was like I could feel the blade slicing into my skin all over again and tears pricked at my eyes. I heard his sharp intake of breath, feeling what I felt, but shook my head and looked away, softly begging, “Don’t.”
The next thing I knew, the vehicle was parked on the side of the road, with his fingers finding my chin and forcing me to look back at him.
“Why do you feel such pain?”
I closed my eyes and used every bit of strength I had in fortifying my shields that had nothing to do with telepathy. The only hope I had was if I told him of my…defectiveness, he would finally see once and for all that living my life in service to him was all I was good for.
“There was an accident,” I began and hoped now that I had started, he wouldn’t interrupt me with questions. “I was eleven, maybe twelve. I hadn’t yet experienced menarche, but the signs were there it would be happening soon. The cramps. The irritability.”
I smiled softly and chuckled, “More so than my naturally aggressive state.”
But seeing no humor in his expression, I went on explaining, “It was my own fault, really. Even though I’d known all along what my destiny was, I had allowed myself to get caught up in a silly fantasy. There was a boy, Coleman. I fancied him and I thought perhaps he fancied me as well. One day I was practicing with my sword, sparring against my great-grandfather. Coleman and several others were watching and I…I…I guess I wasn’t paying attention, too busy showing off. I didn’t see the lunge in time to deflect the blow.”
My hand automatically moved to cover the evidence of my mistake hidden beneath my clothes and I swallowed the lump in my throat as I attempted to gloss over the true nature of my injury by only admitting, “Great-grandfather felt horrible, of course. I nearly died, but he stayed by my bedside until I was well again.”
Trying to find the bright side, considering my current circumstances, I weakly offered, “But at least you won’t have to suffer me having monthly mood swings and smell the resulting bloodletting.”
“Sookie…” he softly entreated.
But before he could say any more, I held my hand up and whispered, “Please, Master. I am not asking for your pity by telling you this. I am asking for your understanding.” Forcing myself to meet his gaze, I spoke from my very core and said, “On my first night here you called me beautiful. You said my looks would be the cause for misconception from others and you were right, in more ways than one. You see, I may look like a perfectly healthy female. The curve of my hips is nature’s way of saying I was born to bear healthy children. But it is all a lie. I will never bear any young, no matter what. No man would ever want damaged goods, which is what I am. So please take to heart that I mean it when I say the life I am living in service to you is the only life I find worth living.”
I refused to break our mutual gaze first, needing him to understand. While a part of me probably should have found it sweet that he would even think of my wants or wishes, I didn’t. I found it absolutely abhorrent that he might consider the debt fulfilled.
And if he couldn’t see it in my eyes, then he surely could feel it in his blood in my body.
I don’t know how long we sat there mutely staring at one another, but he eventually broke the silence by asking, “What happened with the boy Coleman?”
The ghost of a sting prickled inside of me, as I replied, “He and my cousin Claudine are expecting their firstborn any time now.”
The tension in his shoulders slowly dissipated and with it, so too did the tension in the air surrounding us. I went to work on locking up the shame I felt over my mutilation and hoped he had all of the answers he needed to know I truly wanted to stay.
I had nothing else.
I suspected he let me have a small victory by breaking our stare down and watched as he looked forward. My insides were still strung up on tenterhooks awaiting his final decision, so I was pitifully flooded with relief when I heard him say, “Very well.”
But my relief was short-lived, soon replaced by a building wave of anticipation when he looked back at me and smiled, saying, “My estate isn’t very far from here. Would you care to fly the rest of the way?”