Author’s Note: Happy Saturday for those in this part of the world, and happy weekend to the rest. Thank you to all my readers and hope you’re enjoying the start of another wonderful year.
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.
Sookie picked up the phone to text downstairs. “Who are you calling, Lover?” Eric’s hair was still damp from their shower, and that, combined with his ear-to-ear grin, made him look too boyish to be a thousand-years old.
“I figured Twy would have the hairdresser. She generally does,” and Sookie’s eyes narrowed as her vampire plucked the phone from her hand. They were due to appear in Jackson Square in two hours to meet the Mayor starting the Second Line parade that the television commentators were calling ‘the social event of the year.’
“You don’t have what you need in here?” and Eric looked around while at the same time holding the phone above his head.
“What’s going on, Eric?” and Sookie squared off, her hands on her hips.
The Viking glanced at the clock before smiling down at her, “I just thought you might want to get ready here, with me,” and he pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. Sookie knew he could feel her suspicion. He gave her his best round-eyed look as he asked in an oh-so-innocent voice, “Would you braid my hair, Sookie?” The telepath could only shake her head as Eric maintained his sincere grin. Whatever was going on would reveal itself, of that Sookie was certain. She pulled his hand toward the nearby chair and as she worked, they heard the commotion from the hall.
“Get out of my way!” Pam shouted.
Sookie could hear Charles say in a loud, distinct voice, “The King said he wasn’t to be disturbed, Regent. I will let you know as soon as he is available.”
“I know you’re in there, Eric! That was just low!” Pam yelled.
Sookie’s hands stilled, his hair in her grip, “What did you do, Eric?”
The Viking’s shoulders were shaking with suppressed laughter, “Pam is learning not to be so footloose under my roof.”
“Footloose?” and Sookie pulled his hair a little before her fingers started to fly again. “And how exactly did you tell her?”
“Let’s just say she won’t be kicking her heels up in her pumps any time soon.” Eric glanced over his shoulder, his face alight with glee.
“You are such a bad boy!” Sookie scolded him, “And you left the guards out there to deal with her?” Sookie couldn’t hold her scowl long. “Exactly what did you do, North Man?” she asked, using Thalia’s favorite name for him. Eric turned around, wrapped her in his arms, and pulled her into his lap. He buried his nose in the place where Sookie’s neck met her shoulder, and he drew several deep breaths before loosening his grip.
“I may have glued her shoes to the floor,” he grinned in her face.
“Which shoes, Eric?”
“Why, I couldn’t tell which were her favorite, so I glued all of them, Lover,” and the way he said it, with such an innocent face, had Sookie first gasping, then shaking her head, and finally laughing so hard tears streamed down her face.
“You are a dead man, Eric Northman! She’ll never forgive this!” and Sookie stroked her lover’s cheek.
Eric captured her hand, nipping her palm before quipping, “Well, since I’m already a dead man, no worries!” He stood, tumbling Sookie from his lap to the floor and winked as she sputtered. “Come on, Sookie! We are expected to be dressed!” and he walked back into the bedroom.
Sookie picked up the phone from the table where he’d left it and texted Twy. As expected, the answer demanded she present herself downstairs as soon as possible. “I’m taking my life in my hands and heading downstairs,” she called out. “I’ll let the guards know you’ll be hiding behind them for the rest of your existence!” Sookie pulled the door open and smiling at Charles said, “Now you really know what it means by dead man walking!”
“She looks determined,” Charles agreed. “I wouldn’t want her after me!”
Sookie laid her hand on his arm, “If I were you, I’d ask for combat pay!”
“If I get caught in the crossfire, I’ll think about it, Majesty,” the Were nodded.
James stood to the other side of the door, “Best of luck, tonight, Majesty,” he bowed. James was a strong broadcaster and Sookie could hear his good wishes echoed in his thoughts.
Owen was off tonight, but she knew he would be watching the event on his computer. The whole parade was being streamed live on an Internet channel, an advertisement for peaceful interspecies coexistence. Viewers were promised interviews and special events, including full coverage of the band concert to be held at the end in Louis Armstrong Park. Sookie knew Eric had donated money to furnish refreshments under the name of SHUER and he likewise donated money to pay for the bands playing in the Park.
When Sookie was feeling noble, she thought of this as helping. Tonight though, the pageantry and publicity made her feel less celebrity and more circus act. Sookie pushed her uneasiness to the back of her mind as she walked down the stairs to the bedroom that held the bridal dresses.
The wide-skirted white dress she would wear tonight was waiting for her, and as she reached the open door she saw Tara, Twy, Brock, and a woman she didn’t recognize inside awaiting her. Sookie wasn’t surprised. It had only been a few months, but already she was starting to become comfortable with the routine. She felt less guilty now than she had at the beginning to be sitting idly while some person fixed her hair and did her makeup. ‘Won’t be long, I’ll be eating just the yellow M&Ms and having folks brush my teeth for me,” Sookie scolded herself, but she had to admit, these professionals had a way of making her look more glamourous than she could herself.
Brock took up station behind her, watching each step. From time to time he would make a suggestion or ask for a change. Tara was already dressed and Sookie could tell she’d had her hair and makeup done, probably by this same woman. Twy’s hair was piled high and to one side with an Avant-garde hair clip that looked like a large, white plate set at an angle. It looked odd, but on the stork-like woman, almost attractive. Sookie kept glancing over her shoulder, using the mirror. She could hear banging and rustling in the shoe room next door and she figured Pam was on an impromptu shopping trip. Since the shoes next door were for Sookie, Pam’s success would be limited. Sookie’s feet were larger.
The obligatory misting of hair shellac was just finishing when Pam made her appearance. “Any luck, Sweetie?” Twy asked her.
“Enough,” Pam sighed. She walked up to Sookie and leaned down to kiss her cheek, “You do look wonderful. Too bad your marriage will be so short.”
“You could just stop,” Sookie said hopefully. “You got yours. He got his. He’ll let it go if you will.”
Pam’s eye roll told Sookie that would be a cold day in hell, “He wishes! Believe me, he won’t see it coming!”
“Won’t see what coming, Pam?” Eric was at the door, Thalia right behind him. It was customary for grooms to wear black suits for these events, and Eric was certainly wearing black, but instead of a suit, he was wearing his Fangtasia uniform. His long legs were encased in tight, black denim and he wore a black wife beater t-shirt. He had carried his signature black leather jacket slung over his arm and he held a closed black, feathered parasol in his free hand.
“I’m going to look like a Christmas tree topper dancing around a bag of coal!” Sookie laughed.
“Beauty and her Beast,” Brock smirked.
Sookie smiled, but she didn’t find it as funny as she’d like. Pam rose, reached her hand out to Twy, “You do look wonderful. You’ll have them eating out of your hand.”
“Truce?” Eric asked, reaching up to touch her face.
Pam smiled thinly, “Well, at least for tonight.”
Eric nodded, then pulled Sookie’s hand through his elbow. Pam, Twy, and Tara walked with them to the elevator for the ride downstairs.
As they stepped out the front doors, the cheers from those on the sidewalks erupted. Cameras flashed and the bright lights of camera crews flared. Eric stopped so they could wave, first in one direction and then in the other. “You do this every night?” Tara asked.
“Pretty much,” Sookie confirmed through smiling teeth, never pausing in her movements.
Thalia and Charles would accompany them on the walk. Sookie held onto Eric’s hand, allowing his quiet to keep the pressure of those around them playing at a low hum in her head. As they drove down the street, Sookie could feel the excitement of the city buzzing like a hive of insects. The tourist shops they passed were overflowing with memorabilia and tchotchkes, all with a vampire theme. There were mannequins dressed in wedding attire complete with fangs set up on the sidewalk. Sookie felt as if she was stepping into her most tacky nightmare, but Eric seemed to find it all endlessly amusing, cracking off one-liners and sending his high spirits through their bond. He made a point of drawing her attention first to a shop with flying vampires suspended over the door, and then to a group of humans dressed as Eric and Sookie look-a-likes. “It’s just crazy!” Sookie felt schizophrenic, rocked between humor and panic.
Eric’s smile fell, but he sent her another deliberate wave of humor, “Don’t worry, Lover. I’m here with you.” He waggled his eyebrows, and Sookie resolved to do Eric proud. She would have fun tonight and she willed her spirits to lighten and sent it Eric’s way.
The police had barricaded off the area near the Square allowing the limos to drop them close to St. Louis Cathedral. They were escorted to the church steps where the Mayor was waiting. He gave a short speech, but Sookie barely noticed. Eric had her hand in his and as soon as the Mayor finished, he kissed her hand and then twirled her before releasing her and raising his parasol. Sookie raised hers as well, and the first of the bands started to play. The band turned and started walking, and Sookie and Eric fell in behind. The beat was compelling and Sookie found herself doing a combination dance step and stomp. Eric shimmied a little beside her and the crowd on the sidewalks laughed and cheered. Sookie turned to see the Mayor, Emil Touissant, and others she recognized walking behind them. They were waving handkerchiefs and stomping and dancing as well.
The whole group traveled almost a block before the first group of professional dancers appeared. They wore feathered headdresses and they danced in front of the band, performing a routine before they dropped back, joining those who followed. The band played on, Eric strutting and walking. He stomped and shimmied, and Sookie twirled and danced right along. When they made the swing onto Royal Street, Sookie could feel herself tiring.
A second band walked out of one of the side streets, and while the bands traded places, a shop keeper brought Sookie a bottle of water. Sookie could see Thalia’s eyes almost glowing in the darkness as she stood nearby, a barrier between them and anyone who would come from the sidewalk. Tara walked forward, her face wreathed in smiles, and took the empty water bottle from Sookie, giving her a quick hug. “This is just amazing!” she gushed, and then police sirens sounded, warning traffic and pedestrians that they were underway again. At a nod from Eric, the parade continued, the progress made to the syncopated beat.
As they rounded onto Bourbon Street, people leaned from upper floors, dropping confetti. Musicians and patrons walked out of bars and joined in. When they approached the turn that would take them to the park, a couple came forward carrying a large broom that they laid down across the road. Eric turned to Sookie and held his hand out. Sookie placed hers in his and together, they jumped over the broom, earning more cheers from those around them. The parade resumed, Sookie laughing and Eric twirling her, dancing them both down the streets.
Once they arrived at the Park though, Eric dropped his teasing, charming behavior, sweeping Sookie under a cloak Thalia handed him, hiding the white of her dress. Within seconds, they were in the door of a waiting limo and headed back to the Palace. Eric pulled her against him and turned to stare out the window. The humor he sent her throughout the evening was replaced by a stronger sense of relief. “You were worried about our safety,” Sookie said out loud.
“Every step of the way,” he replied, not looking at her.
Bartlett ran his fingers through cropped golden hair. The news today hadn’t been good, but that wasn’t any different from any other night over the last few weeks. Ever since the Summit, things seemed to have taken an ugly turn. While in past these Summits worked to improve relations with humans, this most recent one only served to remind humans of something they wished to forget. Business partners were pressing terms. Negotiations for an extension on delivery for some auto parts become angry, and then broke down. Bartlett didn’t need to be a mind reader to see the way people backed away from him. The vandalism of his Tesla hadn’t been the end of it. Someone painted messages on the sidewalk in front of his Fishers home, hateful words. The vampire-friendly Belle Etoile hotel in Indianapolis in which he and Russell held a financial interest, was targeted by the Silent Witness Movement. Every day people were standing near the entrance with signs in hand. The signs had pictures of people who were missing and captions suggesting vampires were to blame. Now, this same group had people standing across the street here in Fishers, too.
Bartlett’s kingdom had been overrun by traveling vampires who turned destitute people, and then abandoned them after burying them. These orphans emerged hungry and disoriented. It was taking everything to pay others to round up these problems every night. The Kings took a ‘destroy now, regret later’ attitude. After all, staked vampires left very little evidence. Still, the City had more than its fair share of those who could be victimized, and the numbers of those who met their second deaths was becoming an embarrassment.
Tonight, Bartlett’s Head of Security informed him the photographs on the posters matched many of those who were rounded up and destroyed. It was as if someone knew and purposely steered these humans in Bartlett’s direction.
But what were the alternatives?
There was no possible way these vampires could be registered and absorbed into the kingdom. There were too many, and most were turned without any consideration as to their condition or mental status. In their current state, most were little more than killing machines and there was only the slimmest of possibilities that this could be changed. In a distant past when something like this happened, vampires would be brought in and the entire village or encampment destroyed to stop any further infection. Now, that was not possible.
Bartlett even considered the possibility of turning to the local police for help, but Russell cautioned him against it. His mate pointed out that at no time in their history had turning to the human police for help ever turned out well. “How long will it take for them to want more details than we are willing to offer?” Russell asked. “Do you really want to alert them a situation that crosses state lines? You know the FBI will be their next stop.”
There had already been talk of forming a federal bureau whose purpose was regulating vampires. The Donor Program was part of that Bureau, the good part. The less-genteel side was represented by a minority of voices calling for formal registration of vampires and restrictions on travel and location. Bartlett had seen the poster warning of the faceless, fanged figure standing near a schoolyard, stalking small children. Never mind the fact that human schools functioned during daylight hours. It was an image created to foster fear and suspicion. If word of these widespread turnings became public, Bartlett was certain the numbers listening to that minority would grow.
Russell came into the study. “Come out and take a look at this, Sweetheart,” Russell pointed toward the screen on the wall. “Northman is at it again. There are places in this country that just love us. They are throwing him a parade.”
“Is it their Mardi Gras event?” Bartlett smiled, welcoming the distraction. He heard about the Second Line through Maude, who had it from Pam. There was some advertising as well, and the vampire hotline picked it up and was spreading the word. The reception it received from vampires depended on where you landed on the vampire/Fae alliance, where you landed on vampires pledging to non-vampires, or someone not a vampire being declared a Queen. In other words, like everything else the Viking did, was controversy attached to it.
Russell pulled Bartlett into their family room and pushed him toward a chair. He grabbed the remote and turned up the volume. The host was asking several people sporting matching t-shirts with images of the North Man and the caption ‘King Me’ where they were from. The humans said they’d traveled from Florida to be here for the big day. They were giggling and giddy. One young woman could barely speak without dissolving into what appeared to be some kind of shrieking fits. “What’s wrong with her?” Bartlett asked.
Russell shot his mate a skeptical look, “You don’t recognize it? Remember the Beatles? They are fans!”
“Of the North Man?” and Bartlett couldn’t suppress a shudder.
“Of course,” Russell continued in a reasonable tone of voice, “He has invested time and money into making himself a public figure. He has kept his image in human media and makes every effort to look almost human.”
“And then he marries a near human,” Bartlett said almost to himself.
“Do you doubt him?” Russell asked. The feelings he was receiving from Bartlett were different and he wasn’t sure he understood.
“I’m not going to pretend this is my comfort zone,” Bartlett shook his head. “I hadn’t realized until the pledging was over, but there is something about having to treat her as a Queen that doesn’t sit right.”
Russell’s eyes widened, “Bartie! I never would have taken you for a blood snob!”
“I never would have thought it about myself, and I feel ashamed!” The King looked back at the screen. There was a distance shot showing a good part of the street and all the people. You could see the figure in white bobbing up and down and the figure in black circling around her. “I know this is our likely future, but I keep thinking, can’t we just leave things the way they are? Humans on their side and us on ours?”
Russell leaned forward, resting his chin on his hand, “You know that’s not realistic. Separate but equal never works.”
“Don’t get all logical with me!” Bartlett smiled, “I’m feeling angry and betrayed. I feel I’m being specifically targeted and I can’t think of any reason.”
“You’re Clan Chief,” Russell ticked off on a finger, “Jealousy is a good motivator. You’re solvent, which makes you an attractive target for some.”
“I’m married to the most marvelous man!” Bartlett got up to sit on the arm of Russell’s chair.
“A man who is having his own economic downturns, dear one,” Russell reminded him. The weather-related disasters to Mississippi’s crops seemed to be behind him, and the rebuilding of the warehouse that had burned down was slated to start, but it would take a year, maybe several years, before Russell Edgington was back to his former financial position. “Thank goodness Northman made good on his promise to lower the tariffs for New Orleans shipping. It will make a difference in the profits on goods we’re exporting. I can use every point I can get.”
They both watched the happy faces on the screen for some minutes before Russell observed, “You don’t see those protestors there, do you?”
“No,” Bartlett agreed. “Stan said his border Sheriffs are reporting nomads, too, but nothing they can’t handle. Nothing like the numbers we’re seeing.” There was a close-up as the Viking twirled Sookie, kissed her hand, and then dance stomping, leaving her to follow him. “Maybe this is a northern thing.”
“Perhaps,” Russell agreed. “You know what Ohio says. She’s overrun. Jessica in Pennsylvania, too.”
“James isn’t reporting too many,” Bartlett sighed.
“That’s because we are cleaning up this mess before they cross his border,” Russell pointed out, squeezing Bartlett’s hand. “He’s benefiting because you’re willing to do the dirty work. Rasul says he has some coming down from Canada. They appear to be heading south…”
“To me,” Bartlett groused.
“You don’t know that, Bartie! You know Pam Ravenscroft reported they have them, too.”
“But not like this!” Bartlett stood up. “What is he seeing?” and the King waved at the Viking’s image on the television screen, “A dozen a week? Twenty? Rusty, we saw over seventy this week, and the number grows.” His eyes dropped, “I’m afraid.”
Russell sat back, considering the facts, “I think it’s time we doubled down on gathering information,” he said reasonably. “We are here until November. No one will question our presence.”
“I do feel better, knowing Bill Compton is keeping an eye on things in Jackson,” Bartlett breathed. They had received word that Bill moved back and he made it sound like he would be staying for some time.
“He is well known and respected,” Russell agreed. “That movie is due to be released early next year,” and the Mississippi grinned at Bartlett, “You don’t suppose they would consider premiering it in this part of the world? It’s bound to be popular. Good press couldn’t hurt.”
“We can ask,” Bartlett shrugged. “More human on vampire romance,” and he rolled his eyes.
“You used to quite like playing with them,” Russell tugged at Bartlett’s hand.
“Playing with food, Rusty. They punish little humans for that, did you know?”
Russell looked back that the screen. Humans were smiling and waving posters, declaring they loved King Eric and wishing the King and Queen best wishes. “It will be a good change, Bartie, and we would do best to embrace it.”
“I know you’re right, Rusty, and I will, just give me time.”
“What else do we have, Dear Heart? You and I are forever,” and Russell drew his husband close for a kiss. ‘One hundred years is not enough,’ he thought, ‘not even by half.’
Maude and Deirdre sat at the kitchen table, the laptop open so they could watch Sookie and Eric’s parade. “She looks wonderful,” Deirdre remarked, “Happy.” They were sorting seeds for some new hybrids they would experiment with this year.
“They are wonderful together,” Maude agreed. The Minnesota monarch received word from Pam yesterday, asking for shelter in Minnesota. The wording was cryptic. Maude knew she would have to wait for the call on her private line to get details, but she wasn’t feeling patient. She searched the screen for a sign of her favorite adopted daughter and was rewarded by the sight of the smiling, blond vampire mincing in impossibly high heels several feet behind the happy couple. Pam appeared to be very friendly with the woman Maude recognized as the unpleasant New York creature. ‘She won’t be welcome,’ Maude thought uncharitably. The planner’s voice put Maude’s back up. She couldn’t imagine hearing that person under her own roof on a regular basis. “If I know Pam, she’s probably got one use for that tongue,” Maude’s thought continued down the mean path and over the next nasty hill.
“Don’t mind me,” Maude replied, “Just seems like there’s more to all of this than meets the eye.”
Maude made an effort to relax her shoulders and work on her project. Occasionally she’d glance at the screen, but mostly it became white noise that allowed her to think. Tonight she would be talking with Phoebe Golden. The Queen of Iowa was overly sensitive and far too proud, but she was also smart as they come. Maude was making overtures, asking her fellow Queen to reconsider withdrawing support from ventures associated with Eric Northman or, specifically, Sookie Stackhouse.
Phoebe had been the one to give Jane, the vampire who was setting up the biological research firm in Shreveport, her start. Jane was the Iowa Queen’s protégée and Phoebe sent her to Eric Northman with a recommendation to fill one of his Sheriff positions. That was before Sookie Stackhouse was made Queen. In truth, Phoebe hadn’t been keen on the idea of the Fae hybrid pledging to the Viking, but it was the Pythoness conferring the actual title that had been the Iowa Queen’s last straw. Phoebe sent terse messages informing Jane and Maude she was cutting ties, and didn’t want to discuss it further.
Jane already had all the funding she needed to get her facility built, but it was the loss of access to researchers in Ames, Iowa that was the real blow. Maude was sure Jane was capable of recruiting her own research and development team, but putting it together took time and not a little luck.
Then, a week ago, Phoebe showed signs of cooling down. If Maude wanted to be cynical, she could suspect Niall Brigant of applying pressure. Maude knew the Fae Prince funded a substantial portion of the work done in Ames. Maude had no idea how deeply Brigant’s financial interest extended, but if he did have money invested in Phoebe’s facility, Maude was sure he wouldn’t hesitate to push Iowa to get his way.
Maude and Niall Brigant’s paths had rarely crossed, but Niall and Isaiah had history. As a person most at home in deep woods and open places, it was inevitable that Isaiah would run into the Fae. Maude didn’t know how far back they went, but she knew that if she had to tag it, she’d say Niall, Prince of the Fae, liked Isaiah more than Eric Northman, but less than Finn, King of Nebraska. She had it on good authority that Isaiah owed some part of his ability to experiment with employing Britlingen guards to the Prince.
Maude knew if Phoebe Golden denied Fae meddling, she could double check the story with Isaiah. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Phoebe. Most days she counted Phoebe as a friend, but there were times when Iowa got too wrapped up in her own importance, and when that happened, she could make dangerous decisions.
As the couple on the screen jumped across a broom laid on the street in front of them, the phone rang. Maude smiled, knowing that smiling would change the tone of her voice, “Phoebe Golden! As I live and, well, you know!”
“Let me guess,” Phoebe’s words were clipped, “You have the march of the toy soldiers playing.”
“If you mean the social event of the New Orleans season, I may have glanced at it. I saw Pam in the parade a couple times. Watching her strut in those heels makes my feet ache.”
“I suppose it is one way to enjoy our regenerative gifts. Your feet ache, but because we heal almost immediately, the pain in manageable.” Maude could tell Phoebe was attempting humor, so she chuckled. It must have encouraged the Iowa Queen because she added, “There seem to be a number of vampires in that parade. Everyone looks well-behaved.”
“I have always believed it was possible to co-exist. If I didn’t, I never would have agreed to the Revelation.” Maude wasn’t lying. She did believe in the possibility of peacefully living among humans, but even she was surprised by the degree of acceptance Northman was enjoying. She kept thinking things always looked best just before they went to shit, but she wasn’t going to share that with Phoebe. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a mixed race couple would get the benefits first. Talk about mainstreaming!” Maude cut herself off. Even she could hear she was selling a little too hard.
“Love to prove that, wouldn’t you?” Phoebe called her on it.
“Look, sometimes you say a thing and it becomes a thing,” Maude backpedaled. “You know I’m hoping for the best. My Pam’s future depends on it.”
“Your Pam is delightful, a true vampire,” Phoebe sniffed, then as if remembering that she was supposed to be more accepting, she added, “but I suppose all of this will force us to change our definitions.”
Maude decided it was time to call her friend out, “So, that sounds like a change of heart, Phoebe. To what do we owe your new direction?”
“I realize I might have been a little hasty,” Phoebe said carefully. Maude didn’t buy it.
“Phoebe, you are the most careful woman I know. You gather your facts and you check them twice before committing to anything. It’s the scientist in you, so don’t tell me you made some careless call. I know you too well. There is something behind this, and before I get all choked up and start singing Kumbaya, I want to know.”
“Why?” Phoebe challenged, “What possible reason would I have for being false?”
“Well, you could be trying to draw me in so you can use my relationship with Pam to gain access to the North Man. Could be you are working for some unknown enemy.”
“Is that what you really think?” The Minnesota Queen could hear Phoebe was sputtering. People rarely called her out, but most people weren’t Maude.
“I’d be crazy if the thought didn’t cross my mind and you know it. Phoebe, you have been so strong in condemning the match and now, less than a month later, you are suddenly the Queen of Compromise. How could I not doubt?”
Phoebe didn’t say anything for a bit and Maude thought the conversation might be at an end, but then she said, “I may have been provided with new information that demonstrated a compelling point of view.”
“Must have been some information!” Maude replied, and then she waited again.
“Well, there might be other considerations,” Phoebe’s words were sounding more clipped.
“Okay, Iowa, out with it! Someone hit you with leverage and this little back and forth is making me itch!”
“You know I do work for the Fae…”
“I knew Niall was wrapped into this!” Maude interrupted. “They are just tricksy, those Fae! What did he offer you? His leprechaun pot of gold? The mortgage to your facility?”
“The leprechaun gold is closer,” Phoebe said testily. “I didn’t realize that he’d given the largest part of the Shreveport facility to his great grand-daughter as a dowry. He wants her to have independent wealth.”
“A very reasonable course of action,” Maude agreed. “I have to hand it to him, he does seem to care about her. So, if you’re withholding support that means she has to wait longer for her fortune. I get it, but what inducement could he offer you?”
“Access,” Phoebe answered.
“Access?” Maude questioned, “Like access to what? Their time shares in Nebraska? Their portals? Believe me, you don’t want to travel where they go! I hear it’s always day and there’s things there that eat you.”
“Access to their… well, their persons,” Phoebe stammered, “So I can conduct research on their magic.”
“They are going to let you see their magic?” Maude was floored. It was unprecedented. It would allow a vampire to be closer than any ever got to their traditional enemies. Phoebe’s work could result in better defensive weapons and strategies, or better yet, a way to recreate what the Fae seemed able to do with very little effort. Maude was suddenly suspicious, “It seems like an awful lot just for being supportive. What else are you expected to give?”
“Well, I have to share all the results,” Phoebe said, “but nothing much beyond that.”
“I have the feeling there’s more to this,” Maude muttered.
“Well, if there, is it will require a re-negotiation,” Phoebe confirmed, “In the meantime, all I have to do is be supportive of the Northman and, of course, the Fairy…”
“Guess that means you’ll have to call her Queen, right?” Maude wasn’t going to let Phoebe off the hook.
There was a long silence and then a sigh, “Yes,” Phoebe said at last, “I will have to get comfortable with the charming Queen Sookie.”
It sounded like the word was causing Phoebe’s lips to curl, and Maude couldn’t help it. She laughed loud and long. “Damn,” she finally gasped, “I can’t believe I don’t have a recorder on this phone.”
“Lucky me,” Phoebe said wryly, “Otherwise you’d make it your ringtone. I know you, and you are an evil bitch.”
“I’m so happy we’re not fighting any more, Phoebe Bird,” Maude laughed. “You and the Fae? People will talk!” Maude looked across the table at Deirdre who was watching her, open-mouthed, and Maude winked. There was plenty to worry about, but at least one thing had righted in the world, and it was going to be a wonderful night.
Nabila trailed her long fingers along the clean lines of Thierry’s back. “I am so happy you decided to invite me,” she purred.
“As my personal guest,” Thierry reminded her. His voice was light, but his eyes were not.
“Of course,” she teased, but then, catching his expression, she sat up on her knees. She was an elegant woman. Her black hair hung over her high, small breasts in natural waves that cascaded as though placed there with curling irons. “I understand that this is in no way associated with your position as Sheriff…”
“Or your position as Queen,” he finished her sentence. Thierry rolled over on his side so he could look into her face more fully. Even here, naked and tousled she looked every inch the role she played. Nabila may have started her life as a girl born into poverty in Egypt, but now she was every inch the Queen she was born to be.
“Maybe you should tell me why I am here,” and Nabila started to move toward the edge of the bed.
Thierry grabbed her hand and pulled her until she looked back at him, “You can’t believe it’s about affection?”
“No,” she said sharply. “Try again.”
“You are wrong, beauty,” Thierry crooned, letting her hand go so he could run his fingers up the bones of her arms. “I admire you. I admire your determination,” and he shifted so he could run his fingers higher, “I admire your intelligence,” and he rolled onto his knees so he could face her. “I admire your wit, Nabila,” he said as his fingers traced her lips, “You are a clever woman.”
Nabila’s mouth parted and, for a moment, she wanted to believe what her likewise clever lover was telling her, but then her survival instinct kicked in, “And you are too clever for your own good. You say fair words, but it would be a fool who would hand her heart into your keeping. Thank the gods, I have no heart to give,” and this time she did move away to cross the room, reaching into the refrigerator for a bottle of Royalty. When he shook his head, declining the offer of a bottle for himself, she walked to the microwave, hitting the ‘Blood’ button. “”So, let’s try this again, Sweetling, why did you invite me?”
“Affection is involved,” the Frenchman said in a tone that was not affectionate. “I like you, Nabila. I like all the things I mentioned. You are an accomplished lover. You have spent time in your existence learning what other species have to offer.” Thierry smirked, “Of course, your musical taste is abominable!”
“You have no fine ear for the intricacies of oriental music,” Nabila scolded him. “Our music is based on increments, not the dull plodding of full notes.” She turned and hummed a few bars of the Lamma Bata Yata Thanna. “My music is the rhythm of life, the flow of waters, the breeze that caresses the land,” and she sang, “When she began to sway, her beauty amazed me. She imprisoned me with a glance.”
Thierry was behind her, his arms wrapped around her waist, “And is it so hard to believe that you have imprisoned me?”
Nabila shook him off, “Don’t play me for a fool! We are compatible here,” and she gestured with her chin toward the bed, “but you are like me.” Nabila turned and poked his chest, “No heart!”
“Vampires don’t have the luxuries of hearts that feel,” Thierry shrugged.
“I believe your boss would disagree with you,” Nabila smiled tightly, “He is ready to give up everything to be with his Fairy. There are some who say Brigant’s get used magic to enchant him.”
“No,” Thierry shook his head, “He is hers by choice.”
“I know,” and Nabila’s smile held no mirth, “I have seen it too. It is a selfless, foolish indulgence…” and Nabila’s eyes wandered, “but one that I envy them. To find that kind of bond is rare.”
Thierry found himself thinking of Teresa. His dead heart ached and he felt momentarily vulnerable. “You are not jealous, then?” he asked to gain himself time.
Nabila’s eyes flared. She had seen… what? Something, but she answered the question that was asked, “No. I can’t think of anything more unpleasant than being the third wheel in a true romance. There would have been no room for me and I would have resented it.”
“I can’t imagine you are kind to those you resent, Beauty,” the Frenchman smiled again.
“It is true, I am a deadly enemy to make.” Nabila used her free hand to wrap around Thierry’s neck and pull him to her, grinding her lips against his, sending a message that needed no words.
Thierry answered by shifting his head and demanding entrance to her mouth with his tongue. He ground himself against her, allowing her to feel his readiness, and then, as the kiss continued, using hands and movements to sooth and then gentle. “I will never betray you,” he whispered once the kiss ended, “unless you betray those I am bound by honor to obey and defend.”
“Northman,” she murmured.
“I have given my word,” he smiled gently, smoothing her chiseled cheekbones with his thumbs. “But he is not my only interest.”
“And what would you entertain me with now?” and Nabila rolled her eyes and walked further away. “Would you tell me tales of sports and gambling? Would you have me believe you are satisfied, climbing the rungs of the energy industry?” She threw herself down in a chair, “Regale me with your feats and fascinations!”
“Every inch the Queen!” Thierry willed her to see the respect he held for her. “No, Beauty, I won’t bore you with my everyday tasks. No, I was thinking more of our mutual interest. Our friend to the north?”
Nabila’s expression softened, her worry manifesting in the smallest twitch of her lips, “I don’t know what to make of it,” and she smiled. “He does nothing overt, but every day feels to me as if I am borrowed time.”
Thierry realized he wished to comfort her. It was unsettling, and he tamped down any sympathy he was feeling to say, “You are right to be suspicious. Misha plays the long game well. He thinks into the future, spinning plots to trigger when he judges the time is right. You know he sent my Queen a gift?”
Vampire gossip being what it was, Thierry wasn’t surprised when she nodded, “Tranh’s dragon. She told me it was her personal totem, her good luck charm. She had her Maker’s hair incorporated into its casting, and his Maker before him. She believed as long as she wore it, she would be protected.”
“It failed her,” he crossed to sit in the chair opposite the Carolinas Queen. “Misha sent a fang as well. A single fang.”
“A warning,” Nabila nodded.
“And one my King has heard.” Thierry did not tell Nabila that Eric Northman was sending his child and her partner out across the kingdoms to gather information. It was a suggestion Thierry made. Thierry suggested himself for the role, but he knew neither Northman nor Thalia trusted him enough. He laid out the plan in detail to both of them, arguing his points and telling what he knew of Misha and his tactics.
In the end, the King thanked him. Even the great Thalia nodded, but then the North Man announced that for the present, the Frenchman would remain in Louisiana and complete the formation of the energy company. It was through the Were guards that Thierry learned it would be Pam who was sent. The Were guards in New Orleans overheard something, it was repeated, and now his guards in Lafayette knew, too.
The Weres here in Lafayette were from New Orleans. Emil Touissant was working directly with the local Packmaster to consolidate and gain intelligence from the local Were pack. So far the efforts were promising. It was possible Thierry would be able to trust the locals enough to hire them as guards and into other roles supporting his household. It was tricky. Thierry was only really comfortable with vampires, and he had several now who worked for him, but security during daylight hours was always a concern. Weres were the logical choice. Thierry knew that although the North Man was willing to hire humans as servants, he would not rest easy knowing any of those creatures were within his walls when he was vulnerable.
Nabila watched him, “And so Northman will remain safe behind guards and boundaries?”
Thierry shrugged, “He is not so long on his throne that he has consolidated his power. He has much to build…”
“And much to lose,” Nabila smiled archly.
“Yes, he does seek to protect her,” Thierry shrugged, “as is his duty as a bonded partner.”
“Yet she is defenseless,” Nabila observed.
“She had powerful allies,” Thierry leaned forward. Their conversation was turning into yet another of their probing talks. ‘We are like surgeons, both searching for a lump with only our hands to guide us,” the Frenchman thought.
“That has yet to be seen,” and Nabila looked away first. Thierry took it as a small victory.
The Frenchman rose and approached the Queen, kneeling to take her hands in his own, “Perhaps there is something I can do to help you,” he said gently, “something that would not betray my King. Perhaps we could work together for a common purpose.”
“You need my money,” she didn’t make it a question.
“I need to buy information, but I promise you, I know where to look. I will share everything I hear. I can have it funnel through you if that is your preference.”
“And you have this unique insight why? How?”
Thierry dropped his eyes and rubbed his thumbs across the back of Nabila’s hands, “Because, Lover, Misha still believes I am his spy.” Thierry raised his eyes, locking onto Nabila’s own, “He contacts me. I return the favor. I give him nothing and he allows me more access than he knows. I have friends in Misha’s Court, friends who are also worried that Misha’s dream will mean the end for us all.”
“And what does he dream?” Nabia asked.
“Misha would make a world that is ruled by vampires, a world where he is King.”
Bill Compton sat in the study of the main house sipping blood. He didn’t dare capture playthings to bring here, and since he was so well-known among the Packs of Jackson, he didn’t dare capture and play with anyone around the grounds either.
The large-screen television was replaying the parade in New Orleans. Bill had lived in Sophie-Ann’s court long enough to know about second lines. While he watched the parade, the camera would zoom in on Eric Northman dancing with his Sookie, and then it would cut away to some interview or other filler. Bill had recorded it so he could fast forward past the parts that were nonsense; so he could watch the parts that were just her.
Bill recalled that last conversation with the Viking. Eric told him in his sneering way that Sookie, his Sookie, no longer cared. Seeing her face on the screen, wreathed with smiles, he felt his heart drop. She danced and laughed. She readily stepped into the Louisiana King’s arms. Bill could see no hesitation, and he felt his love for Sookie Stackhouse waver. There were several times she looked weary. Her human friend was most often the one to bring water. He could tell these details based on the news coverage and the additional feeds he had taken from the street surveillance cameras.
It had been weeks since he’d received any news or photographs from his contact in the palace. Then he received word. She would no longer be able to be of service to him. Thankfully, news of this event had come out. This, along with a crime drama he watched on the Kings’ television set one long, lonely night had given him the idea of hacking into street cameras.
Hacking was not a new thought, and Bill knew his way around computers. It was just that the Southern vampire had never seen a practical use, one that would serve him. Now, that had changed. His Sookie went out from time to time. There would be events like this second line. He paid the right person and now he had several large boxes that powered a program that could automatically scour street cameras in the area around the Quarter and the palace, looking for her face.
Slowly, his special room in the cottage behind the garage was becoming a comforting place again. There were some images he would not be able to recapture unless he risked sneaking back to Bon Temps and gathering his photographs, but feared to do so. Rubio Hermosa and Indira had set up effective nets. They were aimed at capturing the nomad vampires, but Bill knew that with his luck, they would capture him, too. He had no doubt that if that happened, Northman wouldn’t hesitate to end him.
There was a particular moment when her face was aglow and her eyes were laughing. Bill hit the pause button and captured the image, cropping it on the screen, and then sending it to the printer.
The house around him was silent. With the Kings up north, there would be no visitors. Bill hit the play button and the images resumed. Bill turned off the sound. He considered adding his own soundtrack, making this a true video that he would play over and over, but then she grabbed Eric’s butt and he saw the look of surprise on Northman’s face. The look that his Sookie gave the Louisiana King made his heart plummet. He wondered if she had ever looked at him in just that way, and he knew that if he was truly honest with himself, he would admit she had not.
The small noises of the Spring night were all around him. “Why not?” Bill asked himself and he picked up the phone to call the number Matthias of Illinois had provided him.