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”Why aren’t you ready?” Thalia’s eyes narrowed and her lips compressed to a thin line.
Rick glanced over Thalia’s shoulder at the car idling in the driveway. “I assumed I’d travel back with you tomorrow night,” he answered.
“The Hermosas should have kept you better informed.” Rick knew Thalia didn’t think much of Rubio Hermosa. He wasn’t old enough for her and she felt he hadn’t proved himself in ways that mattered, and for Thalia, that meant age and battle.
“It’s not their fault,” Rick told her. “I’ve been spending most of my time in Bon Temps. I went back to my Mom’s house yesterday and spent the night. The rental car people just dropped me off. Mr. Hermosa’s been getting ready to head out with you. Maybe I missed something.”
“What do you mean, you’ve been traveling?” Thalia hissed before pulling back a bit. “Of course, I understand it is your Mother’s property. Who went with you?”
“I dragged George out there a couple times,” Rick told her before confessing, “but yesterday I headed out there on my own.” When Thalia’s eyes narrowed, Rick tapped his head, “It’s not like I can’t tell when people… anyone is coming. All I have to do is think about it. Humans, Weres… you know. I can hear them all.”
“So, if trouble had come, how would you have escaped?” Thalia asked. “Have you gained your Sire’s ability to fly?” Rick swallowed before shaking his head. Thalia grimaced, “No. You would have been forced to flee on foot. There’s only one road in or out of that place, and any enemy would have blocked it. Once you’re on foot all your gifts would have served one purpose. You would be able to ‘see’ your death approaching.” She hissed, “Foolish! You are like your Father. Your pride leads you into danger.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Rick said by way of apology before adding, “I can’t explain it. I just like being there. It’s… it’s like the place draws me.”
Thalia rocked back on her heels. She seemed to make a decision, turning toward the car and waving her hand. “It’s possible,” she told Rick. “How much do you know of your Mother’s heritage?”
“The Fae thing?” Rick had heard plenty of stories, including that once there’d been a portal to the Fae world close to his Mother’s house. “That’s what I was wondering, too. I didn’t notice it the last time I was there.” The ‘last time’ had been when he and his Father were searching for his Mom. He had walked all around the house and even though he was distracted, Rick was sure he would have noticed the strange feeling he got when he visited now.
“Perhaps we should take a drive out there,” Thalia said quickly. “We can go after Assizes.”
They both turned as Sheriff Rubio Hermosa walked from the house. He was wearing his suit as he did for all formal occasions. He bowed to Thalia before turning to Rick, “Mrs. Hermosa has dinner on the table, Rick.”
“He’ll be coming with us,” Thalia answered.
“To Assizes?” At one time, Rubio would have let it drop, but he turned a little so Rick was almost behind him. “You think that’s wise? You know what we’re doing tonight.”
“Did he tell you he’s been visiting Hummingbird Lane?” Thalia countered.
Rubio’s eyes flicked to Rick, “Yes, I knew. I’ve been in touch with the Packmaster in the Area.”
“And you knew he went there alone?” Thalia asked Rubio.
“No, he didn’t,” Rick spoke up. “I didn’t meet Mustapha,” Rick confessed. “I… I needed to be there alone. I needed to just be in the place.” He flushed, embarrassed. “I apologize. I shouldn’t have lied.”
Rick didn’t need to poke into Mr. Hermosa’s head to know he’d damaged any trust the Sheriff had for him. “Foolish!” Thalia hissed before adding, “yet an interesting development. It seems we will need to visit your Mother’s house. If the Fae have returned, it should be reported.”
“A compulsion?” Mr. Hermosa asked.
“A call,” Thalia clarified, before turning from Rick who was now pretty much persona non grata. “For now, you will stay where I can see you.” Turning to Rubio, Thalia said, “We will ride to Fangtasia with you. The Packmaster will be there tonight. He will take us to Bon Temps,” and she gave Rick a look that let him know how little she thought of him. “Perhaps I should also arrange a leash for this one.”
Rick opened his mouth to protest, but Rubio cut him off, simply saying “We should go,” and headed for his car.
There was no offer of dinner or bathroom break before they left. Rick wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t the first time his impulsive behavior had landed him in trouble, but Thalia’s words were starting to sink in. ‘When will you grow up?’ his inner voice asked. Brigid’s face came to mind and for the first time, he considered what his death would mean to those he cared about. It was alien, considering consequences, and it kept Rick quiet the rest of the journey.
They were turning off an exit ramp when Thalia talked about what would happen tonight. “You are ready for this trial? Do they have many supporters?”
“Yes, I’m ready,” he answered. “Indira has come. We anticipate a large crowd. A few are local but there is also one whom none of us know. He says he’s a newcomer. Were. He’s not the ring leader, but he was in it.”
Thalia turned to Rick, “I will need that favor,” she told him. “You read Weres.” She didn’t say it as a question. When Rick nodded, she asked, “Do you need to be in the same room to hear them?”
“No,” Rick answered, “but not too far away.”
“Good,” and Thalia skewered Rick with a look he knew was serious. “You will stay where I put you, Arseling. This is vampire business, and I don’t have anyone to spare for babysitting you.”
“Anything you say,” Rick whispered. He knew both vampires could hear him perfectly well. The parking lot was packed as they swung around the back of the club. As soon as they got out of the car, a tall vampire swung open the back door.
“Who came?” Rubio asked.
“Everyone,” the doorman answered. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had one of these. People are on edge. It’s vampires, Weres. Some have brought their humans.”
“This isn’t a circus!” Thalia snarled.
“They are looking for the King’s justice,” Rubio snapped.
“And you think you are up to that task?” Thalia hissed back.
Rubio drew himself up. For a moment, he didn’t look like George’s Dad. He looked every bit as fearsome as Thalia, and Rick found himself swallowing hard. “I know my duty,” Rubio said stiffly. “I have called this tribunal. My agents found them. I arrested them.”
“And you invited me,” Thalia sniffed.
“Did you think I was asking for help?” Rubio snorted. “I asked you here as the King’s enforcer. I want to send a message that there is no escape from our King’s reach. I asked Indira because she’s having trouble, too. These same vampires may be responsible. Soon, we will know.”
Thalia leaned back a little, “I see. Then, I will stand near the Packmaster. I understand one of the Weres is his?”
“Mustapha says he came into the Area last year. He seemed to fit in, but Mustapha’s not protesting.” Rubio started moving down the hall, opening a door to the right. He stepped into the office Rick recognized from long ago. The furnishings were largely the same, but the particulars had changed. There were pictures of the Hermosa family on the bookshelf and the couch was different.
Thalia glanced around and Rick saw her lips quirk up. He figured she was remembering other nights in this room, and then she turned to him. “You stay here. If you can’t ‘hear’ properly, text me.” She pushed him down on the couch. “Sit,” she growled, and then, “Stay.”
Rubio was taking off his suit jacket and then his shirt. He opened a file cabinet drawer and pulled out a plastic bag. It held a different shirt, black, and made of some slippery material. He opened the closet and walked in. When he walked out, he had a sword in hand. He stopped short of the door and for the first time since they’d left the house, he looked at Rick. “I am disappointed,” he told Rick. “If something had happened to you, my life would have been forfeit.”
Rick’s eyes widened, “But…”
“He speaks the truth,” Thalia cut Rick off. “Chew on that, Arseling, but not so hard you can’t listen.”
“I’m sorry,” Rick stammered. He could hear Rubio’s disappointment and Rick knew it would be a long time before he was invited to stay with the Hermosas again. It added to the misery he felt at his own failure in judgment. “I shouldn’t have lied,” he said aloud once the vampires left. He thought of Brigid, and spoke his promise, “I will be a better person. I will do better.”
His thoughts were interrupted by a sound from the other side of the door. It sounded like someone banging a stick on the floor. Hissing erupted and Rick took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and started sifting through the minds crowding the space beyond. There were so many; vampires, Weres, and humans. Rick tried to focus on the Supernaturals, but he couldn’t help it. He dipped into a human. What he found felt fuzzy, a sign that person was glamoured. So many minds, each with their own thoughts, their own motivations. Most were excited. They anticipated death. Rick felt his empty stomach clench and he quickly sought to put some emotional distance between himself and the minds he traveled.
There was a shift. The Were he was reading was thinking about the first of the prisoners being dragged before the Sheriff. Rick got a clear view of Rubio Hermosa sitting on the King’s throne, his sword in hand. There was a woman behind him. ‘Indira,’ Rick realized. She held a sword, too. The Were was impressed. This was the first time he’d seen Mr. Hermosa looking like a badass. He was thinking about previous Assizes, but they’d been more like the Court you see on TV and he’d wondered if this Sheriff had the balls to make the hard calls. Then the Were thought about Rick’s Father. He remembered Eric Northman on this same throne and how he’d torn the arm from a vampire who disrespected him. Rick recoiled. The Were had a vivid imagination and Rick realized that what he’d hear tonight would likely haunt him for a long time.
Rick knew vampires could be violent. His Mother told him all the time that Supes were dangerous, but until now, he wasn’t sure it really registered. Yes, he’d heard his Father killing Bill Compton, but he hadn’t been able to read vampires then. He’d read memories of battles and punishments from many vampires since, but this was the first time Rick would experience it through the mind of someone going through it. He thought again of Mr. Hermosa, his saying Eric would kill him. Before he could consider that more, there was a long wail from the other side of the door and Rick felt a collective sense of relief. It was as though the crowd was anxious to start. Rick thought of pictures he’d seen in history books, crowds gathered to watch a hanging.
Rick knew what he had to do. He found the mind of the vampire being questioned and started sifting through his thoughts. He was easy to find. His level of fear was like a beacon, and Rick dove in. His name was James. He was from around here. He blamed one of his companions, a blond vampire named Vic, who had recently joined their nest. Vic liked to play tricks. James had rejoiced in his newfound feeling of power, fed by Vic’s nonstop chatter about the superiority of vampires.
It hadn’t taken long. James and his nestmates escalated from glamouring to damaging. James found it funny, watching humans try to explain how they’d become injured. Vic introduced them to a couple Weres he described as friends. Fueled by Were blood, their actions became more audacious, crueler. James stopped remembering, his attention focusing on implements he saw that were meant to torture him. His anxiety sky-rocketed. Rick felt his chest tighten and he found it hard to breathe.
“Come with me!” Thalia’s sudden appearance made Rick jump so high he half-fell from the couch. She seemed to find his reaction amusing. She made that dry, wheezing sound before scowling, “Let’s go! We don’t have much time.”
Rick stumbled to his feet and followed her toward where he knew the crowd was gathered, but before they stepped into the main room, Thalia turned into another room that looked like a storage closet. There were two vampires standing there along with a Were. They were secured by guards. “Don’t say anything,” Thalia hissed at Rick, and then she looked directly at the Were. There was a scream from the other room and Rick jumped again. It was like seeing a horror movie. Rick didn’t want to know, but at the same time felt an almost overpowering desire to poke back into James’ mind. “Focus,” Thalia scolded.
It was enough. Rick probed the minds of the prisoners in front of him instead. They were shaken, distracted by the sounds of suffering on the other side of the door. The vampires were resigned. One was certain that she would find her final death tonight. The Were was thinking that no amount of money could compensate for this. He was thinking of his Packmaster, but it wasn’t someone from around here. Rick wasn’t sure how he knew, it was in how the Were remembered a conversation he’d had before coming to Louisiana. Thalia was watching him. “This one,” Rick said, pointing at the Were. “He took money. He came from somewhere else.”
“Shut up!” Thalia hissed, and taking Rick by the arm, dragged him back to the office in back. She pushed him toward the couch. He was sure she was going to lecture him, but instead she pulled out her phone, her fingers flying. She leaned against the edge of the desk, skewering him with her stare. There was another scream from outside, and Rick couldn’t take it. He stared at the door and broke into a cold sweat. There was a knock on the door. “Come,” Thalia called.
It was Mustapha Khan pushing a young woman ahead of him. “Been a while,” the Packmaster greeted Rick.
There was another scream, louder than before that trailed off. Rick looked at the woman, but she didn’t react. Instead she stared ahead, a dreamy smile on her face. “Feed,” Thalia growled. “It will help.”
Mustapha looked relaxed, and for some reason, that helped Rick catch hold of his ragged emotions. “I’m not sure I can,” he stammered.
“I know it sounds bad,” Mustapha said kindly, pushing the door closed. “It’s our way. They knew what they were getting into.” He jerked his chin at the woman, “Now, don’t turn down my gift. I might take it personally.”
Rick stood, feeling more eight than nineteen. He stood behind the woman, licked her neck, and struck. Thalia was right. The minute her blood hit his tongue, Rick did feel better. It was as though by feeding he became a part of those around him; he belonged. It was oddly comforting. “Heal her,” Thalia growled. “Night is wearing. We still have to visit that house.”
There were people in the corridor as they headed out back. Mustapha took the lead, starting his truck, and unlocking doors. It was one of those four door pickups, ‘Crew cab,’ Rick thought. He climbed into the backseat, and as they accelerated on to the highway, Rick asked, “What will happen to those people?”
“It’s none of your concern,” Thalia answered. Mustapha glanced at him in the rearview mirror, and Rick knew he shouldn’t ask again.
Rick found himself thinking of Chester, yearning for it. He thought of Brigid’s face, the way she laughed when they made love. ‘I never want to come back here,’ he thought, but he knew he was lying. Already, his eyes were searching the road ahead for the signs that signaled they were close to the house and the land that surrounded it.
“Turn there,” Thalia instructed.
“I know where I’m going!” Mustapha snapped back. He glanced in the rear-view again. “How you doing back there?”
Rick shook his head as though he could shake away the memories of tonight. “Okay,” he lied. “Fine.”
“Sure, you are,” Mustapha replied, and then after a moment, asked, “Do you still play fiddle?”
“All the time,” Rick answered, looking out the window.
Mustapha leaned toward Thalia, “You know, I’ve tried to get more than a screech to come out of that fiddle of mine for years. I figured it was broken, but this one walked into my house and made it sing. It pure ruined it for me!” and Mustapha laughed.
Just the sound of it, warm and rolling, unbent something in Rick. “How’s Warren?” he asked.
“He’s doing fine,” Mustapha nodded. “Told him I was going to see you tonight. He said to pass along his hello.”
“Surprised he didn’t come,” Rick sighed, trying to hold up his end of the conversation. Just talking was helping. He realized he’d been clenching the armrest because his fingers hurt as they relaxed.
“Oh, Warren’s particular about who he visits,” Mustapha joked, and then jerked his chin toward Thalia as if to say that Thalia wasn’t the right company.
“I don’t like him, either,” Thalia deadpanned, her eyes never leaving the road ahead.
“It’s not you,” Mustapha continued, “It’s your dress code. Black, black, black,” and then his eyes flicked back to the mirror. “You’re different,” he assured Rick. “You make it work.”
“It’s okay,” Rick shrugged. “I’m okay.”
“Sure, you are, little Northman,” Mustapha nodded. He navigated a sharp turn and Rick heard the gravel under the tires. “Tough guy.”
“Not really,” Rick sighed, and they were there.
The moon was near full. Rick hadn’t noticed when they’d pulled into Shreveport, but here, far from city lights and the whine of traffic, it seemed all he could see. Thalia glanced his way and then was gone. The house stood dark in front of them. Rick found himself stretching out his thoughts. He tracked Thalia as she raced through the woods, but there was no one else anywhere nearby. An owl hooted. There were no frogs. It was too cold. “I used to come out here a lot,” Mustapha smirked. “Always something to drop off for your Mom. Clothes, tickets. The Viking liked sending her things. I think he felt it connected them.” Mustapha turned to Rick, “How are they doing? Their pictures look good.”
“The pictures don’t lie. Mom had fun with that Christmas parade thing. They’ve got folks in and out of the Palace a lot now. She’s happy…” and Rick found himself looking around again. “Do you feel that?” he asked.
“What?” and Mustapha looked around.
Rick wasn’t sure he could explain it, but he tried. “It’s like feeling something warm flowing through you. It starts with my feet and just travels around me. It’s like a warm breeze or being under water.”
Thalia returned, “I don’t smell Fae anywhere.”
“Rick says he can feel something here,” Mustapha informed the small vampire.
“It’s like belonging,” Rick explained.
“It could be residual,” Thalia explained. “The Sky Prince, your great-grandfather, blessed this place before he left and closed the portals. That may be what you’re feeling.”
Rick found himself staring at the house. This was where his Mother had grown up. This was where his parents had laughed and made love. This was where he’d been made, if he believed his Father’s version of things. He found himself glancing toward the old cemetery. His Mother’s family was buried there, and it’s where he’d found his Mother after her turning. His feet felt as if they’d taken root. ‘Home,’ something inside him sang, and that voice seemed made of small bells and music.
They drove back to New Orleans that night. It was late, and most vampires had already gone to their day rest. It wasn’t until the next night that Rick found himself listening to Thalia deliver her report. Both Eric and his Mother were in the room.
That’s how things were now. His Mom attended pretty much everything that had to do with vampire business. Thalia reported the Were Rick identified had given up the names of others after they’d tortured him. Indira was hunting for some of those named in her Area and Rubio was rounding up others.
“And where was my son during the interrogation?” Eric asked. It was the way he said it.
Thalia didn’t so much as twitch, but Rick could tell she was worried. Her shoulders tensed and her head moved. “In the back office,” she replied.
Rick watched his Father lean forward and his eyes glittered. “Why was he there at all?” Eric didn’t raise his voice, but Rick was reminded of a great snake coiling, ready to strike.
Thalia glanced at him. “Your son asked a favor. He agreed he owed me one in return. I needed his skills, so I allowed him to repay it.”
Eric swung toward Rick and Rick felt the full weight of his Father’s stare. It wasn’t comfortable. “This is true?” he asked.
“It is,” Rick nodded.
Rick realized he was holding his breath, but his Father straightened. He looked less fierce, more thoughtful, before saying, “I hope what you received for that favor was worth the price, my Son.”
Rick thought of his Skyping with Brigid an hour ago. She was headed back to Boston in a few days, anxious to see him. Since Thalia’s favor, Brigid hadn’t been bothered again. Then Rick thought about the nightmare he had on waking tonight, one of those really terrible ones he hadn’t experienced since he was a child. He awoke sweaty and disoriented, the echoes of the vampire’s agony chasing him. “It was worth it,” Rick said aloud, as much to convince himself as to answer his Father.
They hadn’t shared blood, not in a long while, but it was as if his Father knew. He laid his hand on Rick’s shoulder before saying, “To stand for your commitments is an honorable thing, Rick,” and the matter seemed settled.
Thalia continued her report. Rick’s thoughts were a jumble, but he still caught some of what the fierce vampire was saying. They had tortured the rest, but none of them seemed to know who was behind the trouble-makers. The Were was either too loyal or under some deep form of glamour. He’d died without giving them more useful information.
Thalia said something about the King of Mississippi. His Mom snorted and his parents did their flirty thing. Then, his Mom let slip that she’d killed a vampire at the Mississippi King’s Palace once and his Father mentioned Bubba. Rick wasn’t sure who Bubba was, but they both seemed to think it was funny. It was another of those jarring moments where Rick found himself wondering how the woman in front of him, someone he’d known all his life, could also be someone he didn’t really know at all. Then Thalia told his parents about the house on Hummingbird Lane.
“Describe how it made you feel,” his Mother demanded, and when he did, she replied, “Yes, that’s how it feels when they’re near.” Rick knew the ‘they’ she was talking about was the Fae.
“You’re sure you didn’t smell them?” Eric asked Thalia.
“I’ve instructed Heidi to go there,” Thalia answered. Rick knew Heidi from the time they’d been looking for his Mom. Her vampire gift was a heightened sense of smell which made her an excellent tracker. He knew if there were Fae anywhere near the house, Heidi could find them.
“I wonder if he still lives,” his Mother sighed, and his Father pulled her into his arms.
Rick heard his Father whisper, “Niall will always exist, Älskade, even if it’s only in our memories,” and Rick saw it, that moment it was just the two of them and no one, not even him, existed. Before he’d met Brigid, Rick hadn’t understood it. Now, he thought he might.
When it was time to leave, Eric walked them to the front door. His parents kissed. Rick watched the tourists watching them, taking pictures, and then he and his Mother were on their way to the airport, and Boston.
“I know what your Father said earlier, but I don’t want you promising any more favors to vampires, Rick.” His Mom waited until they were in the air to say it. Rick knew she’d thought it earlier at the Palace. She’d become a pretty clear broadcaster.
“I won’t say I thought it through or even that I knew what it meant at the time,” Rick confessed, “but it was the right thing to do, Mom.” He lifted his chin a little higher as he added, “I understand it now, and the consequences. I will make up my own mind about this.”
His Mom’s eyes narrowed, the way they always had when he sassed her. “This isn’t a discussion,” she said sharply. “You don’t understand this world. I do! You could have been killed or worse.”
“I’m an adult!” Rick protested. “I am perfectly capable of making my own decisions.”
“Not about this, you aren’t!” Sookie hissed. She caught herself. She took a breath. Rick knew she was struggling with her temper. She’d always had one, but being vampire amplified it. She closed her eyes and took another breath, and when she felt more settled, she opened her eyes again. “I can’t believe how stubborn you are!” she scolded.
“Look who’s talking!” Rick grinned.
“You are just like your Father,” his Mom sighed.
“Bullshit!” Rick called. “I’m just like you!”
His Mom’s eyes widened, and then she smiled. “I guess you are.” She reached over and took his hand in hers. “I just worry about you. I know you have all the goodies, fangs and gifts, but you don’t have our indestructible bodies, Rick. Not yet.” She glanced at their joined hands, his warm and hers cool. “Their rules would rip you apart, literally, but since you don’t regenerate…” She paused, her eyes full of worry. “I want something better for you, something that doesn’t have you stuck in all this Supernatural stuff.”
“Like Hunter?” Rick knew it was kind of a low blow. “So, I’m too good for it, but you sure pulled my cousin in.”
“I didn’t want to,” his Mom confessed, “but your cousin’s situation is different. He’s not you. He grew up different. He wasn’t able to mainstream, not where he was. He fits in now and he’s happy.”
Rick let the silence lie between them before asking, “What do you think my future holds?”
Sookie smiled, “Anything you want it to, Baby Boy.”
“I’m serious,” Rick sniffed. “I’m going to get this college degree, and what do you really think I’m going to do with it? Find a job in some office?”
“I know you don’t have a firm idea,” Sookie answered, “but lots of kids don’t when they start college. You’ll learn about different things, talk to people, and you’ll find what you want.”
“If you mean what makes me happy, it’s playing music,” Rick answered. “It’s building things, working with my hands. You think I’ll learn how to be a tinker? Do they even have those anymore?”
His Mom was getting agitated. “Rick, everyone feels anxious at this time in their lives. You’re growing out of being a kid, looking into your future…”
“That will never end,” Rick interrupted. “I don’t have some expiration date facing me, Mom. I don’t have to train into some profession fast so I can earn money to support me.” Rick knew he wasn’t saying it well. “I mean, of course I want to pay my own way. I just want to be happy while I do it.”
“What about hotel management?” Sookie suggested. “You could take over the B&B.”
“And where would Peter go?” Rick asked. “He’s there for his lifetime, and I’ll need to make some money before then. Besides, I don’t think hotel management is really for me. You have to be there all the time. I’m not like Peter. I want to see the world.”
“When you were little, I used to take you walking through Harvard,” his Mom told him. “Do you remember?”
“No,” Rick answered. He knew he’d been about two when they’d moved to Chester. Before that, they had lived with Aunt Fran in Boston.
“I remember pushing you in your stroller, watching all those bright, happy young people and dreaming that one day you’d be one of them.” She grinned at him, “You were such a happy baby!”
“And now, I’m a happy grown-up,” Rick teased.
“Do you even like school?” Sookie asked.
“I’ve always liked learning,” Rick assured her, “but classrooms? Tests? I just don’t know.”
“It’s only been a semester,” Sookie told him. “You like it better now than you did when you started in September. Just give it time.”
Rick thought of Brigid. “I just don’t know if college is really for me,” he told his Mom, echoing his lover’s words.
For the first time, his Mom seemed to hear him. She sat back, but her eyes were sympathetic. She sighed and then said, “Give it your best shot. Finish the year. If in May you still think it’s not for you, we’ll figure out something different. Maybe if you were closer to home…”
“And where is that?” Rick asked.
“Closer to us,” Sookie answered, “Me and your Father.”
“I don’t know,” Rick sighed in return. “It doesn’t really feel like home to me. I’m not sure I know where home is these days.” He glanced at his Mom and grinned brightly, “Look, I’m not complaining. I just have to figure it out,” and Brigid’s face came to mind.
He squeezed his Mom’s hand, “I’m not trying to make you feel bad. It’s something I have to do on my own.”
“That’s what your Father says,” Sookie sighed.
It hadn’t occurred to Rick that his Mother talked with his Father about him. It was odd he hadn’t considered it, but it made him curious. “What else does he say about me?”
“He tells me you’re a man and you need to find your own way,” his Mother replied. “He says I hold you too tightly. He says you need to make your own decisions and your own mistakes.”
“Then why don’t you respect that?” Rick asked. “Why don’t you let him be my Father?” It wasn’t what Rick meant to say, but it was something he’d wondered.
“Why would you say that?” Sookie asked. “I do respect him…”
Rick laughed, “No, you don’t! He says stuff and you just wait until we’re alone to tell me to ignore it. Eric didn’t like my making a deal with Thalia, but he respected it. You get me alone and the first thing out of your mouth is ‘ignore your Father.’ How is that respect?”
His Mom looked as if he’d hit her. He almost apologized when she said, “You’re right. I haven’t done right, not by him or by you. I’m sorry. I… I don’t know what to say.”
“It’s okay,” Rick assured her. He didn’t like seeing his Mom looking so stricken.
“No,” she whispered, “No, it’s not, but I promise you, Rick. I’ll try harder.” She sounded watery, but she pasted that bright smile on her face, the one she pulled out when her heart was hurting and said, “What are your plans for that carving you started?” Rick had used his tools he’d received for Christmas to start smoothing a piece of wood. Eric had offered suggestions and shown him how to handle the various chisels.
“I was thinking something abstract,” Rick answered. “I keep seeing waves and water.”
“Eric, your Father, he told me his Father taught him how to work with wood. Your Grandfather…” and Sookie looked surprised. “I love you very much, Rick.”
“I love you too, Mom,” Rick told her. “So, what do you know about Dad’s human life?”
“Not a lot,” his Mom answered, “but let me tell you what I do know,” and they spent the rest of the trip talking about what it must have been like to grow up Viking.
Betty Jo stepped forward, placing herself between the vampire and her King. “Explain again how you know this, if you weren’t there.”
“I glamoured two Weres. They saw everything. They said the kid was in the back. They had him in the office, and then Northman’s minions pulled him into the closet where they were holding Anthony.” Anthony was one of the Weres they’d sent into Louisiana to stir things up. “When the kid left, Northman’s people knew things.”
“And you’re sure it’s Northman’s progeny?” Russell Edgington asked.
“The Weres both identified him from his picture. Yeah, it’s Northman’s spawn.” Vic, the vampire confirmed.
Russell rocked back on his heels. “This complicates things,” he said, holding out his hand. Vic pulled the photo from his pocket and handed it over.
“Such a pretty mouth,” Talbot exclaimed. “I think we should meet this handsome young person.” Russell couldn’t help but stare at his companion. He and Bartlett Crowe of Indiana had been married for over twenty years. The attraction lingered, but distance and their nature convinced them to reject monogamy. Talbot had been back in Russell’s life for years, but there were times, like now, when the King wondered why.
“Northman has a reputation for protecting his own,” Betty Jo was reminding Talbot. She didn’t bother to hide her impatience.
“You are vampire,” Russell reminded Talbot. “I am vampire. We consort with vampires. That,” and he shook the photo, “is something else. I don’t care whether he had fangs or not, he’s unnatural.” Talbot started to pout and it was enough. Russell turned on his heel and motioned Betty Jo to follow.
Once they were alone, Russell asked his questions. “Why were my people there?”
“Fun and games,” she shrugged. “You know how it is. Louisiana’s been a free for all, ripe for picking. Over the past year, Northman’s started paying attention. The eastern border firmed up fast. Not everyone got the message.”
Russell growled, “He doesn’t deserve to rule.”
Betty Jo rocked back on her heels, “I heard he used to visit your Palace, him and his Maker.”
“Not with his Maker,” Russell confirmed. “He’d long since gained his independence. Appius was a great vampire. I met him in Europe before I came here. I’m sure he did his best to teach the Viking. The fact that Northman still walks among us is testament to the lessons he received. And Sophie-Ann. Now, there was a great Queen, a true vampire. Her children were all the proof you needed. She understood the Viking. I think she’s the last one who could keep him in line.” It was impossible to keep the sneer from his face. “But once De Castro took control, Northman spun out of control. A human wife?”
“She’s vampire now,” Betty Jo reminded the King.
“Barely,” the King sneered, “and badly trained. She has no Maker, no influence, and yet, he’s made her his Queen.”
“It’s difficult to understand,” Betty Jo agreed.
“It is more than difficult,” Russell fumed. “It’s a betrayal! We have all of us been trained to survive. We know what’s required, the control it takes. No one enters this life prepared for its challenges. It takes decades, centuries, to become what we are meant to be. She’s been a vampire for what? A year? Two years?”
“Five years,” Betty Jo provided.
“A child!” Russell spit out. “Each of us has earned our way to our throne. We have proven we are capable of doing what’s necessary to lead our people, but her?”
“Northman’s no better,” Betty Jo sniffed.
“He is old,” the King countered, “but since De Castro, he has turned from us. Even his Maker knew. Why else send his progeny into Oklahoma as a mere consort? He knew the Viking was losing his way. He knew he needed a firm hand and a strong reminder of what it is to be vampire.”
“It didn’t last long, and now, he’s returned,” Betty Jo acknowledged.
“Yes,” Russell nodded, “With all his ideas and the chaos that comes with them.”
Russell’s Second pointed toward a magazine lying face-up on the table. “That may be so, but he has become the face of mainstreaming. You know what humans call him? The King of the Vampires, as though there were no others.”
Russell stared at the magazine. The cover was a photograph of Northman grinning idiotically at his simpering wife. Once upon a time, this Stackhouse woman had a reputation as a killer, but that was then. Now, she was just another weak vampire turned past her prime. “Who cares?” Russell sneered. “Since when do the ideas of humans’ matter?” Deep down, Russell knew mainstreaming was a mistake. It wasn’t something he said often, but with Betty Jo he didn’t need to hide. “We are vampire. We are not some mistake of nature. We are, each of us, chosen for this life.”
“Unlike this son of Northman,” and Betty Jo sniffed.
“Abomination,” Russell agreed. “There is a reason those creatures died out. They were never meant to be. This ‘child’ is a slap in the face to everything we are. He wasn’t chosen. He wasn’t made or trained. In the old days, Northman would have been up on charges.”
“We could skip the Vampire Ball this April.” Russell had debated an entire week before sending the RSVP to Louisiana. Betty Jo knew it galled him. It was one thing to speak with Weres or humans when things were needed, but socializing crossed a line.
“I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction,” Russell sniffed. They both knew Stan Davis planned to attend, and there was a rumor Isaiah of Kentucky was coming. “Besides,” and Russell glanced at the magazine again, “It is time those creatures saw a true King.”
“What of Northman’s son?” Betty Jo asked.
“He will return to his fancy human school soon if he hasn’t already,” Russell replied. “He’s Tania’s problem, and I don’t want to make waves there.” There was a shuffling sound from the hallway. ‘Talbot,’ Russell thought. His lover was listening in again. He’d need another lesson. “He came home to see his Mommy once,” Russell concluded, “He’ll come again, and then we’ll see.”
Betty Jo bowed as Russell rushed from the room. There was a scuffle and a sharp slap followed by Talbot’s cry. She waited until the hallway was clear before exiting, the list of things needed forming. When the Viking’s spawn returned, her King would know.