Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
“I have to congratulate you,” the tall, skeletal, red-headed publicist drawled, her New York accent making her seem just a little taller, “You made the right decision. Calling me was the best thing you could have done under the circumstances.” She finger-waved to Brock, her assistant, “Come along!” As she stood at the door, waiting for Brock to pull it out of her way, she turned and said, “I’ll be in touch with a proposal within the week. Ciao, ciao!” Brock brazenly winked at the Kings, and, with a click of high heels, the door closed, leaving the room feeling as though a vacuum had suddenly sucked it dry.
Bartlett settled back a bit before glancing at his mate, “Rusty, do you think we’ve made a mistake?”
“No, Bartie,” Russell grinned, “No, I don’t. I think Cruella and her flying monkey are exactly what we need!”
Bartlett nodded. He was feeling better about this having seen how the woman had prepared for this initial meeting.
Maude made the recommendation. When they called Minnesota, they asked to speak with Pam Ravenscroft. Since Pam was in the entertainment business, they thought her the most logical choice to advise them, but Pam had not been in the Palace, Maude didn’t leave it at that. She wheedled the reason for their call from them and then announced, “Oh, you don’t need to ask Pam! I know exactly you who want!”
Maude went on to describe the publicist, Twy, in glowing terms. She described her history with Eric Northman and how Pam was so impressed with the woman’s ability to pull off minor miracles that she hired her to work on the ground floor of her new events planning venture, the one Pam launched under the Fangtasia brand. Maude assured them the woman and her work were brilliant, and she gave them Eric’s name as a reference. The Kings had met Twy before. They knew she was arranging things for Bill Compton at the upcoming Moshup Summit, but this was the first time she would be working for them directly. “If she’s all that,” Bart had asked, “Then why would Pam part with her?”
“Trouble in paradise,” Maude sniffed. “There was a personal relationship, but you know Pam. Pam is ready to move on, but who lets Pam go gracefully? I know you won’t make the same mistake of playing with your food. Stay out of her bed and out of her vein and I think you’ll be thrilled with the result.”
Within 24 hours of their call, the publicist was in their study in Jackson, projection board in place, and a clicker in her hand. Her grasp of their situation, and the way she demonstrated that knowledge blew them away.
Twy started by recapping the current status of vampires, and Bartlett Crowe personally in Indianapolis, and then Indiana in general. She accurately identified the key players in the local Witness movement and those local politicians and authorities who were either actively supporting the Witnesses or passively allowing them to harass vampires. Twy moved on to recap the Kings’ history in the community. She, or her assistant, had done a lot of homework. They had pictures and facts that went back over a hundred years, from when Bartlett had first taken over as King. She documented the donations he made to universities and the new businesses he started that employed state citizens. “That’s one thing you people do that no one else does,” Twy smirked, “You vampires keep it in the states. You don’t outsource!” When Russell asked why that was important, Twy pointed out that places that were dependent on manufacturing, like Gary and Indianapolis, had suffered when those jobs moved overseas. “You provide steady, predictable employment for humans. You make a difference. You are the best-kept secret in this country!”
She presented a listing of the more well-known of Bartlett Crowe’s business holdings, his auto parts design and manufacturing operations. She had statistics including tax revenue and how many people he employed. She had some information on how many were employed elsewhere because there were jobs in Bartlett’s businesses, including shipping companies and assembly plants across the state border. “Vampires are investors in those, too, aren’t they?” Twy asked. The King told her about his minority ownership in those firms. Isaiah held the largest share in the assembly plants. “See?” she said triumphantly, “and no one knows this! By fighting against you, humans are literally biting the hand that feeds them! You guys are as American as apple pie!”
Bartlett had rolled his eyes as the publicist ladled it on thick, but Russell patted his hand, silently asking his patience.
Twy went on to talk about some of Bartlett’s more private holdings. She knew about his foundation work and his contributions to both Engineering and Graphic Design Departments at state universities. She had names and outcomes of students that had benefited from a scholarship program Bartlett personally funded. “And no one knows about this, either!” she said as if the King should feel badly about not making the public aware.
Twy moved on to talk about state demographics. She painted a picture of Indiana as a place with a long history of self-determination and hard work. “This is the Crossroads of America,” she declared, using the state’s motto, “a place where everyone meets. That implies that this is a place you wish to be, but that is not the vampire experience at the moment, and it goes against everything the state stands for. Something drastic happened, but people are so caught up in the moment, they can’t see that it is not vampires that are the danger, it’s the new criminal element, and you are the only one who is standing up and offering to help.”
Twy ran a short clip of Bartlett that had seen very little air time in which he asked for a partnership between police, government, and vampires to address the rogues and the damage they were doing to their community. When the clip ended, Twy turned, “I really think there is a story to tell here!” and she flashed forward to a montage of Bartlett, Russell, and then pictures of the two of them together.
“This is a story about a loving couple who have dedicated themselves to living quietly and respectfully within their community. This is a couple who doesn’t try to hide what they are, but are mindful of the sensibilities of others.” Twy had photos of the two of them at benefit events. There was a photo of them applauding the Fishers High School Debate Team at a regional meet. There was another photo of the two of them attending a meeting of their local Jaycees. There was a photo of Bartlett handing a gavel to his human successor at a Business Chamber meeting. They were both smiling and shaking hands. In another photo, Bartlett was applauding at an affair where there were a great number of uniformed police in attendance. “You have gone above and beyond to fit into your community. You have brought jobs that pay a living wage and you have made an effort to improve things for everyone. What sets you apart from most vampires is that we can show you interacting with humans. I don’t know if you are really such Dudley Do-Rights, or if you are doing it to scout out dinner, and it’s none of my business. These photos and your history here will let us sell you as someone who is just plain folks, oh, and who happens to be a vampire.”
Twy flashed pictures of the Fishers Renaissance Faire. There were smiling people looking at the lighting the vampires had contributed, and photos of the Kings in costume surrounded by some of the actors who played parts during the festival. “Sure, you have a fun-loving side, but all in all, you are conservative. You support clean, fun, family-oriented events. You have money and you own businesses, but you don’t live in a way that pushes it in your neighbors’ faces. Even though you don’t have children of your own, you provide support so that the children in your community have a better chance,” and then Twy turned to them and said, “You don’t feed from children, do you? I’m not going to find some kind of sordid, sex scandal lurking to derail all this?”
Bartlett flashed a quick look at Russell. He knew his mate had run a kind of floating boy toy party for years here in Jackson. Once they married that had stopped, but it wouldn’t surprise either of them to find out minors had been involved. “Nothing in Indiana,” Bartlett confirmed. “I am pretty much all those things you say, conservative and quiet. I do have a donor pool,” and he glanced at Russell again, “but those people are adults and they chose this. I haven’t… well I don’t know anyone who sources their pools by abduction anymore.”
Bartlett had anticipated the New Yorker would react negatively to that bit of news, but instead she just nodded, glanced at her assistant, and said, almost to herself, “I’ll need the dates and more background. We should be able to finesse that without looking like we’re hiding something.”
When she turned back to them, she said, “I think we sell the idea that you are strawberries and fresh air! When bad guys moved into your neighborhood, you did the all-American thing. You sounded the alarm and you offered your help. You were willing to stand up against the criminal element in your own community, but what did it get you? You found yourselves unfairly labeled a criminal, too, just because you happen to be vampires.
“Well,” Twy concluded, “I don’t know how a state that contributed so many of its native sons to this nation’s wars could be so short-sighted. Like those warriors of the past, you were ready to sacrifice yourself to fix this, and a few small-minded people just threw that offer back in your face!
“We are going to tell the story of a couple who has tried to do everything right, a couple whose efforts resulted in their being made a target of the worst kind of prejudice. We talk about how you’ve rolled your sleeves up and succeeded through good, old-fashioned hard work. Where you have donated you’ve done it anonymously, not insisting that your name be on the building, or by flashing around big money. That’s important out here. These are people who respect people who work hard. They don’t like glory hounds and braggarts.
“I have assembled a list of those people in positions of influence that I think could be of the most help.” She had names, titles, and contact information of humans across the state. “We start with personal outreach before we start public appeals. If we can get some of these folks to stand beside you on television, it should go a long way to making these humans stop and think about what they’re doing.” When she hit the last slide, she rocked back on her heels and waited.
Bartlett had lived in Indiana for a long time. While his time walking openly as himself was recent, only since the Great Revelation, he had formed an opinion about the people who came and stayed in Indiana. They had been farmers at first, willing to work long hours and face the uncertainty and hardships that entailed. They formed great cities and built factories that made metals and machines. Stubborn and quietly proud were words the vampire associated with Indiana and he was impressed at how the publicist had captured that spirit.
Now, with Twy gone, Bartlett looked at his mate. Russell said very little during the presentation, and now he appeared to be waiting for Bartlett to start, so he did. “Okay, this might work, but she is going to try and package us up to look like that couple on the television show.”
“You mean “Modern Family?”” and Russell nodded, “She will want to sell the gay couple angle. It admits we are different, but in a more acceptable way. The other ‘little’ difference that we also happen to be vampire, can get shuffled a little lower on the radar. It makes it more acceptable to humans that way,” and Russell looked at the bottle of blood in his hand. He started toying with the label.
“What?” Bartlett caught him out. “I can tell something is bothering you, Rusty. Out with it!”
Russell knew that once they were made to look like the poor, misunderstood gay couple, it would be difficult to maintain their leadership of Amun Clan. Vampires would understand the need for using humans by creating stories, but the portrait of victim, in other words, weak, that this woman would paint would be convincing. They would have enough trouble enforcing their wills within their states while keeping it out of the public eye. It would do no good to spend time and money to create this fantasy, only to have it undone by an unexpected power play or forceful word. Holding onto their kingdoms would be challenging enough without having to worry about the Clan as well.
Both the Kings knew they would likely find themselves the butt of jokes for some time to come, but instead of saying what needed to be said, that Bartlett needed to step down as Clan Chief, Russell said, “Do you suppose she will make us dress in pastels and plaids?”
Bartlett rolled his eyes, “I suppose she will insist on turning us into Ken dolls. I don’t know what you’re complaining about. You look wonderful in pastels. They make me look sallow,” and then Bartlett shook his head, “Besides, that’s not what you really want to say. You want to tell me that I should hand over my role as Clan Chief until this thing blows over,” and Bartlett gave his mate an arch look.
Russell couldn’t hide his look of surprise, “Bartie! How did you know…?”
“Like you could hide anything from me!” The Indiana King walked over to sit on the arm of the chair. He wrapped his arm around Russell’s shoulders and kissed the top of his head. “You really are a terrible secret keeper! I’ve been watching you wrestle with this for weeks.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Russell asked.
“Because I wanted to see how long it would take you to work up the nerve,” and Bartlett hugged him. “Rusty, don’t you know that you never need to be afraid to discuss anything with me?”
“I didn’t want to hurt you, Love,” Russell said softly and then turned his face to kiss Bart. “Don’t you know you are the most important thing to me?”
“Well, aren’t we just the most precious couple?” Bart chuckled.
“Well, yes, Bart, I believe we are,” Russell chuckled, too, and then he pulled Bartlett into his lap so he could more fully claim his husband’s mouth. When Bartlett pulled back, leaning his forehead against Russell’s, the Mississippi King asked, “So, do you want me to call, or will you do it?”
“Northman is the only logical choice,” Bartlett sighed.
“I agree,” Russell nodded.
Bartlett sighed again, “Do you think she will make us pretend to like children or adopt mindless animals?”
“Stop stalling!” and Russell pushed Bart to his feet. “Go get it over with, and then we can head upstairs. I could find all the places your ego is bruised and kiss them all better.”
“Oh, well, if there’s a reward involved!” and Indiana kissed Russell’s forehead before he fished his phone from his pants pocket. “I love you, Rusty,” he said.
“I know,” Russell Edgington replied.
Thierry’s day man bowed and then walked out of the room, pulling the door closed behind him. The Sheriff stared at the envelope. He didn’t need to see the crest to know who sent it. Most vampires today embraced the electronic age. They texted and surfed the net. They bought and sold electronically, they face-timed and Skyped. Only the oldest among them, and those few who affected to appear old, held firm to the old ways. ‘I wonder if she saw it,’ he thought, and had the question answered in the next moment when Thalia walked into the study.
“You have a healthy correspondence,” the small vampire observed.
“I am fortunate in the interest of my former employers,” he answered, skirting the real question and proposing a possible answer.
“Of course, you have informed your current King of your former’s continued interest,” and Thalia met Thierry’s eye. The French vampire knew he had a choice. He could lie, which would make her attack him, or he could tell her everything. Thierry knew either option was a gamble, but only one gave him the possibility of avoiding certain final death.
“I have encouraged the New York monarch’s correspondence,” he said evenly, never dropping his gaze. “I have given him the impression that I am willing to spy for him. I have assured him that if I see something of interest I will pass it along.”
“And what have you offered that keeps him coming back?” Thalia was stepping to the side, her words slow, her head tilted, capturing the Sheriff in a raptor’s stare. Thierry had been in danger many times, but nothing compared to the chill he felt now under this vampire’s gaze.
“I gave him information about the fallout between Pam and the Master. I told Misha of the slowing of the nomads in Louisiana. I told him of the actions of the Witnesses and the problems we are having with witches.” Thierry remained perfectly still, even when Thalia stepped out of his span of vision. She was behind him now. It was everything he had not to turn or flinch. He hoped by standing his ground she would understand he had nothing to hide.
“What else?” she purred in his ear and he did jump, and then cursed himself for his weakness. “What else do you tell this great friend of yours? Do you tell him how much you miss him? Perhaps you think he will help you with some great ambition?” Cool fingers closed over the side of his neck. She need only twist and he would be finally dead. “You sleep with a Queen. You correspond with a King not your own. I find that vampires who play the game of kings wish a crown for themselves. Is that what you seek, Frenchman?”
‘She knows!’ he realized. She might not know everything, but she knew enough. “Yes,” he said steadily, focusing his gaze on a particularly fine piece of crystal, thinking that if he had to choose one last thing to see in this unlife, it should be beautiful. “I do wish a crown. I wish to rule, but far from here, and not for the reasons you might think.”
The hand stilled and he counted, ‘One, two, three,’ before she hissed so close to his ear, “Good, little Sheriff. It appears you can still tell a truth when you wish.” The hand withdrew and it was everything he could do not to collapse. Thalia moved back into his field of vision. “And you have pulled your King’s other Sheriff into your ambitions?”
“Thomas knows I wish to take New York,” Thierry said out loud. “He knows my reasons and understands my resolve. He has made it clear that his first duty is to the North Man,” and Thierry drew himself up before he added, “As is mine.” When Thalia sneered he explained, “I wish to make the Viking my ally. I wish to demonstrate my skills and my worthiness. When the time comes, I will ask for his support.”
“You would place him and his kingdom in danger!” she hissed.
Thierry lifted the heavy envelope that rested in his hands, “Misha already places my King in danger!” he countered. “These nomads who have ravaged us, endangering our relations with the humans? I know they are tied to New York.”
“What proof do you have?” Thalia leaned forward, less threatening, more interested.
“None,” and he could see her eyes turn cold again, “but I know it is there. Their point of origin is within his borders. Indiana has been particularly hard hit…”
“What does that have to do with it?” she challenged.
“Misha hates Bartlett Crowe,” Thierry nodded. “It is too much of a coincidence.”
“And you caused that problem?” Thalia asked. Her voice was soft now, a snake once more, waiting for an excuse to strike. Thierry rocked back and gathering himself, he told her the story. He told of his relationship with the King, how Misha kept him close for his laughter and his sense of play. He spoke of how their friendship grew stronger and how Misha sent him to Indiana, a spy in the form of a gift. He told Thalia about how Bartlett nearly destroyed him, crushing bones and ripping limbs, before sending him back to New York.
“Misha was angry,” Thierry stated, refusing to allow emotion to color his words. “After Misha punished me for my failure, he swore to me that Bartlett would be sorry. He said that maybe I should wear Bartlett’s crown.” Thierry’s eyes dropped, “I told him it was not possible, because my Maker lived.” Thalia hissed. When Thierry raised his head, he felt his blood tears spill.
“I had no idea my words would have such consequences. He found her, my Maker, and he killed her before me. He told me he was freeing me for my destiny.” Thierry drew himself straighter, “And, Thalia, he was right. Every step I have taken from that day has been to find a way to destroy Misha. It will be that bastard’s dust that will be my dance floor, his fangs will dangle from my wrist! That is my destiny!”
“And where does Nabila fit into this great plan of yours?” the small vampire asked.
“She represents money,” he said smoothly. “She is a Clan Chief, a means to an end, no more.”
Thalia nodded, but Thierry could see she didn’t wholly believe him, but why should she? He didn’t wholly believe himself. “And you would recruit Thomas into this disaster?” and her eyes narrowed.
“Thomas is my brother,” Thierry nodded. “As I said, he has told me his first allegiance belongs to our King, but he will help me if there are no conflicts.” When Thalia continued to stare at him he added, “Karin also knows of this. She pledged her talents.”
“What you do with your ambitions better be on your own time!” she hissed. “It’s thin, this suspicion of yours, but if you’re right, then Misha presents a danger to our King,” and she waited to allow what she was saying to sink in. “But if I find that your side project is to the detriment of this kingdom, I will end you. Since you have so conveniently told me you have no Maker, I won’t have to worry about paying retribution, except to your King.” She leaned into him, “You swore your fealty to Eric Northman, and you would do well to remember that! Your first priority is to his safety and that includes making sure his progeny are safe. Karin is rash. If you steer her into harm’s way, know it will be me you answer to first and the Viking next.”
Thierry nodded, and then looked again at the envelope in his hand. “Thalia?” he asked, “If you are so faithful, why have you abandoned him?”
Thalia sneered, “Who says I have?”
“He believes it,” Thierry persisted. “I traveled with him recently. He does not speak of it openly, but it is between every word. He wonders what he did to offend you, why you avoid him now.”
“My motives are none of your business,” Thalia smiled. It was a hard, cruel smile, one that made him feel colder. “But I have not abandoned him. I am doing what is necessary, staying near, but not too close. In time, all will be revealed, but believe me. There is purpose.” Thalia rocked back on her heels, that same smile playing across her face, “And know this, little Sheriff, never doubt my loyalty to Eric Northman. I will stand with him until the mountains are dust and you are one more faded memory to our kind.” When Thierry nodded, Thalia glanced at the envelope, “Now, open it, Sheriff. Let’s see what your victim has to say to you.”
Thierry smiled, that open, sardonic smile that gnawed at Thalia, and with a flourish and a bow, he held the envelope out to her, “If you will do the honors, Ma Dame!”
Thalia sneered at him for a moment, and then jerked the thick, heavy paper from his outstretched hand. “This isn’t making points with me,” she hissed.
“I think it did,” he replied and then straightened, rocked back on his heels, and crossed his arms, “He tends to ask direct questions. Last time he asked whether Bubba was real.”
“What did you tell him?” Thalia asked as she pulled out the single card.
“That Bubba was a myth until you heard him sing,” Thierry answered in an equally distracted way.
Thalia’s brow furrowed. “He asks if the rumors that Pam Ravenscroft came from an upper class family are true.”
“Is that all?” Thierry asked, and Thalia flipped the card around so the vampire could see the writing as clearly as she did.
“Does he code or cipher other messages?” she asked.
“No,” Thierry shook his head. “He does not. He feels that messages delivered through any means should be crafted to be read in an audience. If he has a message for ears only, he contrives a way to send a messenger.”
“And has he?” Thalia asked him point blank.
“No,” Thierry responded, ‘Not yet,’ he thought.
“Pull up the interior on the camera. I wish to see the rooms.” Misha waved the woman holding the laptop closer to the bathtub. She was using her finger on the touchpad to bring the images into focus.
“All the oriental elements have been removed,” the voice of the designer came through the feed. “Fortunately, the former tenant retained the original woodwork and cabinetry. The house was built for a family with strong ties to the shipping industry. There are many small embellishments and details that are most charming.”
“Tranh was nothing more than an opium whore who rose from her ashes,” Misha said dismissively. “I didn’t expect that her tastes would be acceptable.” Misha jerked his chin and a young man extended his arm. The King licked twice to numb him, then bit and sipped. He didn’t require much, and the blood from the donor was acceptable if not extraordinary. With a wave, he dismissed the donor, turning his attention back to the screen. “Show me the master bedroom,” he instructed. The image moved chaotically as the person following the decorator climbed stairs. One flight, and then two, and a room painted in buff with dark wood trim was revealed. The bed was a large canopy affair, “It’s not the original?” Misha asked, half joking.
“Actually, it is,” the decorator nodded. “We found the headboard and footboard stored in the basement. As soon as I saw it I knew that it had been created specifically for this space. Look at how perfectly it is proportioned for the ceiling…” the decorator continued, rhapsodizing about first one detail and then another. The furniture was created by famous New England builders; the rugs were antique Persian.
“It will do,” the King interrupted, and then signaled to have the feed terminated. He turned to Carlo, “You can give my suite at the Colonnade to our Clan Chief, my gift to honor her visit to my city. Have my things moved to my new Beacon Hill residence.” He smiled, and turning to the woman charged with making arrangements for his contingent at the Moshup Summit. “Oh, and inform Pam Ravenscroft that she is welcome to come to my city so far in advance. She will be my guest, and have her taken to the Beacon Hill house.”
Carlo chuckled, “You don’t think she will protest?” Pam had sent back his last two gifts.
“Of course she will,” Misha chuckled, too. “Tell her that I will not stay in the residence unless she invites me.”
“Are you sure you want to give up your suite, Majesty?” his organizer asked. “Accommodations are becoming difficult to arrange. I wouldn’t…”
“You worry too much!” he chided her. “I will have a place to stay. Did you make the other arrangements?”
The woman nodded, “The Chamber Music Society will perform the selections you requested. The Boston Symphony Hall has been secured for the evening. There will be the one table. You will be quite alone. Once the concert is concluded, you will be taken across the street to the Museum of Fine Arts. A private viewing of the Textiles and Costume collection is arranged, and the Monet gallery will be open just for you.”
Misha nodded, “Good, good. Take care of the details yourself. I want yellow roses in the residence and on the table during the performance.” Misha nodded. It would be enjoyable, spending a night with a companion who appreciated such things. “Now, take me through the Summit agenda.”
The woman nodded and opened her portfolio. There was an official ‘unofficial’ event the first night for a private showing of “Viking’s Bond.” This was the romantic movie based on Bill Compton’s books. The human stars of the movie would be there. There would be cameras and carpets, interviews and an after party. According to advance reviews, the movie was acceptable. No one was talking about awards or Oscars, but it was hoped it would capture the young female audience. The official opening would be in Rhodes in five months’ time.
After that, activities would fall into the usual way these things ran. Business meetings were held the first night. Kingdom business and Clan business were conducted the second night. There were no trials or pledgings this Summit, so the Ball on the last night would be thinly attended. Misha intended to sit in on the business presentations for the sex club franchise. He knew Pam was involved. Her partner, Felipe de Castro, would be in Boston. While the Kings ran in the same circles and even competed on some deals, Misha had never met the Nevada King. The Summit of Clan Chiefs on the witch problem was the second night. Misha smiled. As the host King, he was entitled to sit in that session. He wondered who else he would see there.
When the woman left, Carlo sat in the slipper chair in the corner of the bathroom, “You are quite taken with this Ravenscroft woman.” The King knew his second was asking a question.
“She is special,” the King nodded. “I can’t explain it myself. There is something about her. I have inquired about her background. She is different from most female vampires, Carlo. She is no guttersnipe who had the misfortune of beauty, no whore plucked from the brothel by a vampire’s desire. I believe she comes from aristocracy, perhaps some minor house to a lesser son. It’s in the way she holds herself, the way she speaks. She has the unmistakable stamp of quality. It is… beguiling.” The King said that word without any effort to hide the amazement he was experiencing at his own reaction to her. It was unprecedented. The more she sent back his gifts, the more she politely deflected his suggestions, the more he wished to be with her.
“Enough,” the King announced, and stood up, water streaming from him. Carlo picked up a towel and tossed it to his monarch. “Tell me how our other projects progress,” the King prompted.
“Your friend in Indiana is still licking his wounds. He and his fuck buddy remain in Jackson,” Carlo examined his fingernails. “The Indiana troubles continue. The humans have been ranting on their televisions, but don’t have the balls to do what needs to be done.”
“What are they suggesting? Do they think slapping hands or placing fines will stop blood-thirsty vampires?” and Misha giggled.
Carlo knew this was a sign the King was honestly amused, “Perhaps they will offer them community service next,” he suggested.
“Humans are weak,” Misha agreed, “Monitor the rhetoric. There are vigilante groups starting. I will suggest we form a coalition at the Summit. We will be able to leverage our contacts here in New York and in Washington to form a task force and get a hearing. Once we move in and clean it up we will be one step closer in both directions.”
“Unofficial enforcers for humans and Bartlett Crowe deposed,” Carlo supplied the remainder of the speech he had heard more than once.
“Yes,” Misha’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t like having his speeches trumped. It grated his ego. “What about the Carolinas?”
Carlo dropped his eyes and sketched a half bow, correctly gauging the need for subservience, “The information has been fed to the Witnesses who picket her palace. Our people will ‘stumble’ across the documents that will spell out how she has been bribing officials and bank executives. I must say, photoshopping is an amazing thing. I would never be able to tell those images were fakes. By the time she gets to the Summit, she’ll be wondering if her house will still be standing when she returns.”
“I will enjoy being Clan Chief,” Misha drew in a deep breath. “King and Clan Chief! Who would have guessed…” and he grew silent, lost in memories of times when he had not been powerful or surrounded by beautiful things. After a moment, he flicked his eyes back to Carlo, “And you are sure no one can trace it?”
“We have been careful, Majesty. All is either by hand or in cash. The only records are kept here.” Misha nodded. He hadn’t survived this long by being rash.
“Any word on who will be in the Amun contingent?” Misha asked.
“Not yet, Majesty,” Carlo replied. “It is possible our friend will be here. The business agenda includes several presentations on solar and wind initiatives. It would be logical that he would be interested. By all reports, Northman continues to favor him and he does well.” Misha smiled. There had been a video that had been intercepted of the French vampire singing alongside the Michigan King. Misha had watched it several times.
“It would be perfect,” Misha had dressed in a robe and soft pants, “He could add to Carolina’s woes by tossing her aside, making her destruction complete.” Misha was aware of Thierry’s affair with Nabila. He knew it was his favored one doing as he had been taught, taking what was offered and waiting for the opportunity to see what advantage it would yield. In this case, the opportunity would be one last stab at Nabila before she would slink back to her sinking reputation. ‘Another piece of gutter trash,’ Misha thought, ‘Not worth the blood that was wasted in making her.’
Misha checked the clock. It was time and he jerked his chin at Carlo, “I am satisfied. You have done well. Now, my friend, I have another appointment.”
Misha walked Carlo downstairs to the front door, and then, once the door was locked, continued down the stairs to the sub-basement. The walls had been dressed simply, but retained their dirt-colored brick texture. It brought back the memories and allowed the King what he needed. In his more self-reflective moments, Misha realized this was a ritual, a reenactment of his own history. The difference was that in his version, the young boy was not left bleeding and broken on the dirt floor. In his version, the boy was already a professional prostitute. They each played their part. Misha played the part of Appius Livius Ocella, an ancient Roman vampire who had come to the city when the Five Corners still functioned as its own kingdom. The part he had played, a scrawny human sold to the highest bidder, was now acted by a succession of boys over the years. They had all been instructed beforehand on what to say, how to act. Each did well, according to their skills.
Misha would walk through the moments, embracing each one through the role play, and then, at the right moment, he would kill the boy, snapping his neck cleanly. He would give the child the release that he had not been given, taking back his control of the situation. It was a freeing moment for him, cathartic.
He did not reenact as often as he once had. He considered that progress in this strange therapy. Still, he didn’t blame the ancient Roman. In fact, he thanked the experience for making him what he was today. There were nights Misha wondered if the Roman had thought him dead, but he knew, somehow, the ancient had known he lived still. He would have heard the ragged heartbeat, the breathing through a throat raw with screaming. He knew now, as he knew then, that Appius Livius Ocella had left him alive for a reason, and now, Misha was fulfilling that destiny.
The call from the police in New Orleans came the next evening. Eric had already risen. Sookie knew right away it was official business from the way he turned his body from her and dropped his voice lower. When he started moving from the room, she laid her hand on his arm and shook her head. He held her eyes as he said, “Of course my people will cooperate, but I will insist my attorney be present at all interviews. While we have nothing to hide, there have been some ugly things said, and I want an impartial witness.”
“Which one was that about?” Sookie asked when Eric disconnected the line.
“Meg,” he replied. “Lover…”
Sookie shook her head, “Don’t,” she told him. “I’ve had time to think about this. I am not happy about any of it, but I know you, Eric Northman. You are not some savage killer. You did what you needed to do,” and Sookie forced herself to smile, although she knew she wasn’t looking very convincing.
“You mean that, Älskade? You are not blaming me?” and Sookie could see the skepticism. “You are being sarcastic?” and he searched her eyes again.
“No, I am not being sarcastic,” Sookie huffed. “I am your wife, and I…” and Sookie didn’t get any further. She was being crushed against a very happy Viking. He was twirling around and, at some point, she was sure they were a foot off the floor and floating toward the ceiling. When they landed and he let her go it was only to give her the mother of all kisses, and it seemed selfish not to return the favor a little. One thing led to a naked thing and the next time she was coherently thinking, her head was hanging over the edge of the coffee table and her breath was racing her heart.
“You know I love you,” said her husband.
“Uh huh,” Sookie answered, not able to find the strength to raise her head to look at him.
“I don’t know how to say this, Sookie, especially now that you have made me so happy.” Now the telepath did raise her head. She gave her husband the stink eye and he laughed, “It’s just that you smell different.”
“I know,” Sookie sighed. “Grandfather told me it’s the hormones. Once the injections are over, I should return to normal.”
“Good!” and Eric gave her a big, goofy grin. He laid his chin on her belly and stroked her passage slowly with his fingers. Sookie ran her fingers through his hair, but there was something, and then it clicked.
“It’s not just my smell that’s changed, is it?” she asked, and her fingers slowed. “Are you telling me that I don’t taste the same either?”
“It is a little… medicinal,” he chuckled, “and your blood…”
“Cheese and rice!” and Sookie sat up, shaking him from her. “So I’m like making love to a big old medicine cabinet? That’s just great!”
Eric wrestled her back under him, “But it’s temporary, lover, and in a few weeks this part will be over. We will stay in the Shreveport house and visit the clinic more often, and,” the Viking turned his head and nipped the skin next to her navel, “soon you will be smelling even more sweetly. I will be unable to resist, and you will be able to ask anything of me.”
“There’s a possibility it won’t take,” Sookie swallowed. She didn’t want to consider having to do this all over again.
“No, Sookie,” and Eric’s face had been serious, “It will work. With you, all is possible,” and he had kissed her briefly before drawing her up to move on with their evening.
“I must really stink!” Sookie exclaimed. When Eric’s eyebrows drew together, she explained, “Since when do you stop at once?” Eric laughed, but he hadn’t made any move to get busy again, and Sookie figured she had her answer.
The official visit came two nights later. There was a knock at the door and Charles escorted Alcee Beck and Andy Bellefleur into the front room. The men were detectives on the Bon Temps police force and they knew Sookie and Eric. Andy attended their wedding the year before. Once they were settled with iced tea, Andy said, “I’m so sorry to bother you folks, but I have to ask you a couple questions. There is a woman in New Orleans who is missing. She used to work at the place you all have down there…”
“This is about Meg, isn’t it?” Sookie asked. She was surprised how easily she was able to say it, as if she was truly concerned about the young woman.
“We received a call from the New Orleans police two nights ago,” Eric supplied.
“Yes, Meg and…” and Alcee Back flipped some pages in his little notebook, “there is another woman, too, Amelia Broadway. Former roommate of yours, isn’t that right, Mrs. Northman? Some folks thought she might be visiting here. Seems she’s gone missing from her home in New Orleans and no one’s seen her in days.”
“Can you tell us where you all were five days ago?” Andy asked, and then he squinted a bit and said, “Oh hell, I’m sorry. I guess I should be saying, five nights ago.”
“It’s no big thing, Andy,” Sookie assured him. “We’ve been here. We traveled up, what, about a week ago, and we’ve been here ever since.”
“So, no side trips to Shreveport or New Orleans,” and Alcee Beck looked at them both in a way that reminded Sookie how much she disliked the detective. She could hear him thinking he wouldn’t believe anything they told him, that between her oddness and Eric’s fangs, they were probably responsible for plenty. There had been inquiries over the years, men and women whose paths led right to his parish and somehow disappeared. Alcee was convinced in his heart that the Witnesses were right and vampires, like the stone cold killer sitting across from him right now, were responsible.
“Nope, no side trips,” Sookie shrugged. “Just hanging around here.” She could feel Eric watching her and she cut her eyes to see him grinning.
The way the Viking was doing it made Sookie blush, but before she could enjoy the moment, Alcee saw it, too. He must have thought it meant something else because he said, “You sure look like you’re guilty of something,” and then he fixed Sookie with his best detective stare.
“My wife and I are making plans to start a family,” Eric said smoothly. “We have to be close to the clinic, which is in Shreveport. In a few weeks we will not be able to have sex, so we are using our time wisely,” and he smirked at Sookie again, making her glow brighter.
“Well, that’s great news!” Andy said a little too enthusiastically. Sookie knew he was uncomfortable with Alcee’s behavior and the situation in general. Eric’s interaction with Jason Stackhouse’s children had made a big impression on Andy. “You all will make wonderful parents and I wish you the best of luck,” he said, and Sookie could feel his sincerity.
As the police wrapped up their questions and rose to leave, Alcee warned them he might be back. He told them they needed to let him know if they planned to leave town, but Andy Bellefleur let them know it wasn’t too serious when he rolled his eyes behind Alcee’s back.
As the car lights disappeared down the road, Eric wrapped his arm around Sookie, pulling her a little closer as they stood on the front porch. There was movement to their right, and Bubba appeared at the edge of the woods and then walked up to join them. “Think we’ll see those police folks again?” he asked.
“Could be,” Sookie told the formerly famous vampire. “But I think we’re safe for now.”
“Come, Lover,” and Eric kissed her hair briefly, “It is time for training. Tamsin will scold me if you are not showing progress.” Hand in hand they walked to the barn. There was a space cleared out in the central area where Eric and Sookie sparred. Once inside, Eric opened a cabinet and pulled out a dagger which he tossed to this wife. Sookie deftly caught it, a skill she wouldn’t have considered herself capable of only a week before. Each day brought more confidence. Sookie dropped into her stance and waited for Eric’s advance. He wasn’t using weapons, but then again, he didn’t need to. Bubba settled himself on a hay bale and hummed as the couple lunged and feinted. The second time Eric caught her and threw her to the ground, Sookie lost her temper. She was really angry with herself. She realized her mistake a second too late and the thumping was her reward. Still, she could feel her otherness rush forward and she was hissing in frustration.
“Damn, Miss Sookie, that’s as scary as any fairy face I’ve ever seen,” Bubba chuckled. “You make me want to stand up and run!”
Sookie blushed, but Eric scolded, “No Lover! Don’t be embarrassed! If you had shown this part of yourself at the Assizes, they would have fallen on their knees. Never be afraid to show your strength!”
Sookie brushed the hay from her butt, “You really think that? You think if I’d gone all nasty Fae it would have made a difference.”
“Sookie!” and Eric kissed her forehead, “I know it would! Come with me, Lover, and you will see. You will stand by my side at the next Assizes. There is one scheduled before the Summit. There will be an opportunity for you to become angry, and when that happens, I will step back and you will reveal your beautiful face.” When she bit her lip and nodded, Eric leaned in and added, “Oh, and make sure you show them the claws!”