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“I can’t afford sentimentality.” Eric was stroking the sponge over Sookie’s shoulders. He’d settled behind her in the bathtub, pulling her against him. He pretended he was paying attention, but Sookie could feel his detachment through their bond.
“I’m not being sentimental!” she protested. “I’m reminding you Rubio is our friend. He saved me, Eric! If it wasn’t for him, I would have been beheaded in that warehouse and we wouldn’t be here.” She’d been trying to make him discuss this since they’d come upstairs, but with little success. Growling, she twisted in his arms, bringing them face to face. “What about Rick? George is one of our son’s best friends. You’ve just started getting close to each other. How will Rick feel if you send his friend’s Father away?”
Rather than being persuaded, Eric snarled. “It would seem our evening is over,” and he heaved himself from the bath, throwing the sponge aside. He didn’t bother waiting to drip off. Instead, he stepped on to the floor, allowing puddles of water to form at his feet, toweling as he walked through to the bedroom.
“That’s it?” Sookie heard the carping edge to her tone, but didn’t care. “You’re just going to walk away from me?”
“Why not? You aren’t going to listen to reason,” Eric snapped from the other room. “I’ll go find someone who isn’t going to nag me with what can’t be,” and Sookie both heard and felt him leave their quarters.
Collapsing back into the warm water, Sookie indulged in a long, low growl. Once this sound would have made the hair on the back of her neck stand up, but now she found it most satisfying. The range of vocalizations that came with being vampire could be more expressive than words and tonight, it expressed her feelings exactly. Sookie picked the sponge back up, filling it with water and stroking it across her chest. She closed her eyes, trying to relax. The scent of lavender filled her nostrils and soft music still played. She focused on the sensation, but the picture her mind formed was of Eric’s hands and hot smile and it only reminded her of how unfairly her husband was behaving.
There had been two more attacks in Area Five. No one was seriously hurt, but property was damaged. That brought the total to a dozen unanswered incidents and no suspects in hand. Thalia demanded an example be set. Eric was on board with banishing the Hermosas and finding a replacement. Sookie was clear that exile was not the punishment Thalia had in mind and the small vampire didn’t bother hiding her feelings on the matter. “Think!” she bristled at Eric. “You know what others will say if you let him live!”
“These are different times,” Eric shrugged, smooth as silk, but Sookie knew better. She felt the snake’s snarl that ran under his calm surface. It pissed her off that after everything Rubio had done, Eric wouldn’t just shut Thalia down. He should have at least defended his Sheriff, but he didn’t. Instead, he said Rubio Hermosa wasn’t worthy of more than exile.
Even banishment seemed extreme to Sookie. “Why don’t you just send him someone to help?” she’d suggested as they walked upstairs.
“A Sheriff who can’t handle his own territory is not worth having,” Eric replied in that superior tone that made her want to slap him. “If I send someone to bail Hermosa out he’ll lose the respect of his vassals, not to mention his peers. I might as well stake him myself! It would be kinder than what will happen. At least if I send him into exile, his family will be protected from becoming collateral damage.” When Sookie pressed further, Eric got cold and snapped his stock answer, the one that pissed her off the most, ‘It’s our way.’
Sookie shook herself, closing her eyes again, and inhaling deeply. She willed herself to settle in the warm water. ‘Think!’ she scolded herself, trying to dissect the problem of Rubio Hermosa the way Eric would. She was sure she was missing some key component. No one ever stepped into a new job knowing everything there was to know. She thought of the hours both she and Eric spent with Thalia, Stan, and others, forming relationships. She knew if they ran into trouble, Eric needed only pick up the phone and allies would come to their aid. ‘Favors! Of course!’ and a plan of action suggested itself.
Rising from the tub, Sookie hurried, although, she showed down enough to use a towel to wipe up the standing water. She couldn’t be damaged by falling, not really, but it would still hurt and her Gran hadn’t raised her to be a woman who left a mess. By the time she’d picked up the wreck Eric left in their room she was in full grumble mode. She’d heard any number of women complain about their messy spouses and, at least in this respect, Eric was more human than vampire. She was still feeling waspish when the elevator opened to the basement. She was so preoccupied with what to do she barely registered the blond woman she’d fed from before, gesturing toward the nearest couch. Sookie turned her plan one way and then another, looking for holes and before she realized it, she was back on the elevator and heading upstairs.
‘Is that how they do it?’ she thought, catching herself. Maybe the trick to feeding without side effects or guilt was simply not to think about it. It gave her a moment, but then the doors opened and she re-focused her thoughts on the more pressing problem of saving Rubio Hermosa.
Her path took her past the office she and Eric used for most of their meetings. The guard had opened the door as she approached, but Sookie didn’t enter. Instead, she glanced in to see who was there. Eric was listening to another report from Thalia. No one else seemed to be in attendance. Eric looked up, his mouth firm, his earlier irritation still written on his face. ‘Fine by me! Stew in it!’ Sookie thought shrewishly as she walked past. She didn’t really blame him. Eric was who he was and she figured it was nothing a little red lace and wet tongue couldn’t set right later. So, she headed toward the stairs, asking the guard, “Have you seen Pam?”
“I believe she’s still in her resting place,” he told her.
Sookie took the stairs and knocked on the door. Pam had occupied her current suite of rooms since Eric’s takeover of the kingdom. While Thalia was officially Eric’s Second, Pam oversaw much of the business end of the kingdom, so it seemed only right that she had taken over the second floor of the Palace, transforming it into her own set of apartments. “Come!” she called, and Sookie opened the door.
Pam was walking down an interior hall. Her face was hidden behind a towel she was using to wrap her hair. She was still in her bathrobe and her voice was little more than a growl. “Whatever it is, make it quick. I’m getting ready to travel and I don’t have much time…” and then she glanced up. “Oh, Sookie! I didn’t expect to see you. Is everything all right?”
“I didn’t know you were planning on going somewhere,” Sookie replied.
“Last minute,” Pam shrugged. “Karin called. She’s getting ready for another assignment. It sounds as if she might be away for a while so I thought I’d head up to see her before she goes.”
“Why is she taking so many assignments?” Sookie knew Eric worried about his eldest daughter, but whenever she asked, the answers she got seemed to assume she knew more than she did. At first, Sookie had been willing to accept it, but she noticed Pam had started visiting Chester with grim regularity.
“She’s building up a bank,” Pam shrugged.
And that was it. Sookie was done with half answers. “I need you to explain this to me, Pam,” she pressed. “Karin acts like it’s no big thing, but no one else does. Eric frets and you could start your own charter service with the amount of time you’re spending up there. What’s really going on?”
For a moment, Sookie thought Pam would shake her off, but instead her friend flopped into a chair, throwing her head back. “Karin’s decided her luck’s running out. She wants Peter to be cared for and for that, she’ll need lots of money. Peter wants to remain in Chester, living that backwoods life of his and Karin’s willing to do just about anything to make sure that happens.” Pam’s eyes when she looked at Sookie were sad. “And, Tania’s a fucking bitch.”
‘Does Peter know?” Sookie asked. She’d known Peter most of his life and couldn’t imagine the soft-spoken musician purposely putting Karin in danger. “Has she told him what this is costing her?”
Pam grinned, “Are you kidding? Tell the human what you think? Who in this family ever does that? No, Karin’s ‘protecting’ him.” Pam’s face lost its animation, “She’s forbidden me from saying anything. She’s so invested in this scheme she can’t see reason anymore.” Pam looked so sad when she added, “She’s been my sister for as long as I’ve been in this life. I don’t always get along with her, but I can’t imagine continuing without her.”
Sookie’s mouth opened. It was on the tip of her tongue to tell Pam how she’d speak with Peter, assuring Pam that once Peter knew, he would find another way, and then she caught herself. If she said it aloud, Pam would know, which meant Pam would be obligated to tell Karin, particularly if Peter said something. Rejoicing in her epiphany, Sookie said, “So, tell me, if something were to happen, if Peter were to suddenly change his mind about Chester and want to live somewhere else…someplace that wasn’t in New England… Would that end Karin’s obligation to Tania? I mean, she doesn’t have a contract in place that obligates her or anything, does she?
Pam’s expression shifted. She looked for a moment as though she was going to ask a question, but then, instead, she sat up. Leaning forward, Pam stared directly at Sookie and she said, rather carefully, “I’ve never asked my sister about the formalities of her arrangement, but I could.”
“I’d be curious,” Sookie said just as carefully. “Just as a matter of family, you understand. After all, she is my sister in a way, too, and that’s what sisters do. They pry into each other’s business.”
“Right,” and Pam continued to stare. “It’s not as if you asked me for any particular reason. You’re just being nosy.”
“Nope, no reason at all,” and emboldened, Sookie moved on to ask the question she’d come her to ask in the first place. “Pam, when you were a Sheriff, if you had another Sheriff show up and ask you to mentor them, say as a way of gaining training or learning about the kingdom, would you have accepted that offer?”
Pam’s head cocked to the side. “If the circumstances made sense,” she answered.
“So,” and Sookie sat down across from her, “if someone, say a Sheriff, was new to their job or new to their territory, it would be logical for them to reach out to one of their peers, right?” Pam became very still in that way vampires did and Sookie wondered how long it would take her friend to figure it out. Pam had been in the room when Thalia delivered her report on Area Five and as Sookie watched, Pam’s eyes widened.
“Of course,” Pam answered. “If it were me stepping into a new Area, I’d look for someone with interesting problems, someone who was well established. Partnering is a good way of learning the job fast.”
“And what if that Sheriff was returning from being away, say in a different country for a while? Would it still make sense for that person to look for a mentor among their peers?” and Sookie waited.
Pam’s eyes narrowed, but then she relaxed. “Why, under those circumstances, it would be odd if the Sheriff didn’t contact their counterparts, seeking advice. It’s one thing when you’ve always been in the territory. You’ve seen how things develop and you get a sense for the direction things and people might take. It’s dangerous when you leave and return. Things have changed, alliances shift, but your old memories may lead you into making dangerous assumptions. It’s important to go slowly and relearn what you know,” and Sookie knew they were on the same wavelength.
“Thank you,” and Sookie rose to leave. “When is your transport coming?”
“Within the hour,” and Pam stepped up. “You really are figuring this out, aren’t you?”
She couldn’t help sighing. “Becoming a vampire should come with a guide book,” and Sookie thought again about what she’d just learned.
“Better watch out,” Pam laughed. “If you decode all the rules, someone will decide they have to kill you.”
Sookie groaned, “Why does it have to be so hard?” Pam just laughed, which was fine. Sookie hadn’t really expected an answer. It was in the way vampires walked, the way they held their heads. Pride was in their every movement. They counted coup on each other for little things and held onto each piece of information as if it were gold. ‘Secretive… possessive…’ Sookie chanted the list of things that pissed her off about vampires in general, things she was determined to do differently for herself.
Still, she couldn’t help feeling she’d won as she returned to the rooms upstairs. She checked to make sure she was alone before pulling out her phone and calling Rasul.
A month had passed since the Mardi Gras Vampire’s Ball, but it seemed much longer. In Boston, there was still snow on the ground, but here in Florida, it was already hot. Rick heard the gulls calling a few docks down. There were people who lived on their boats and every time they cooked, the gulls crowded, hoping for handouts. Rick was sitting on a bench near the yard where new boats and old were sitting in cradles. He could see Professor West’s boat. It wasn’t large compared to some, but it looked solid.
There were four of them who would be taking the boat across the ocean. Rob and Greta were professional boat people. Brigid knew of them and they knew of some of the boats Brigid had crewed. Rob was a veteran of a dozen trans-Atlantics and Greta had done several herself. When they’d first met, Rob had quizzed them about the state of their relationship. He reminded them that once they were offshore there’d be no place to hide if they were fighting, but, in the end, they’d decided they could all stand each other’s company for a month or so and things were settled.
Since Rob and Greta were the professionals, most of the provisioning and logistics fell to them. That’s where they were today, doing the last review on what stores would be delivered. That left the more physical chores to Rick and Brigid. Today they would sand the bottom of the boat to prepare it for the layers of blue anti-fouling paint. It was a job that could have been left to the marina workers, but the Professor had set them a budget. Any money left at the end of the voyage would be evenly distributed among them, a bonus in addition to their pay.
Usually, Rick didn’t worry about money, but right now he didn’t dare hit his bank account. He’d made a number of withdrawals before they left Boston, telling his Mom it was for books and other unexpected school supplies. Brigid was avoiding her bank card, too, and both were watching their pennies until the boat launched.
Brigid had taken the extra step of leaving her phone behind. They sprung for a pay-as-you-go phone as soon as they arrived and were making due with its limited number of minutes. Rick held onto his own phone, using it to call his Mom. His local number would show regardless of where he actually was located and so far, things seemed good. He knew he ran the risk of having someone in New Orleans ping him, but since they hadn’t yet, it didn’t seem likely. ‘Unless they get suspicious,’ a small voice nagged.
One more week. One more week, maybe a little longer, and the boat would be in the water, provisioned, and they’d be on their way. Rick checked the time again. Twenty more minutes and he’d call his Mom. Not for the first time he considered coming clean, telling her where he was, and what he was doing. ‘But then again, maybe it’s better to wait,’ he thought. He could see his parents finding out and trying to send boats after him. Hell, if they caught on soon enough, his Old Man would probably fly out to grab him. ‘Yes,’ he thought, ‘Better to wait until you’re too far offshore to find easily.’
Rick glanced up the dock to see Brigid coming through the gate. She had two shopping bags and her face was flushed. Rick took one of the bags from her. She held onto the second one, shaking her head, and Rick realized she was upset. “What is it?” he asked.
“I got lectured.” Brigid was trying to make light of it, but her cheeks were stained red. Once her hand was free, Brigid fished a pamphlet from her pocket. The graphic on the front was crude, but it got the idea across. A young girl was smiling, seemingly oblivious to the fanged monster lurking behind her. ‘Protect Your Own!’ the pamphlet warned. “I was standing in line at the checkout and this woman just took it upon herself to start ranting at me!” Brigid had gone to the row of local stores to buy two six-packs of TruBlood to pack in as stores. It was perishable and even refrigerated wouldn’t last long, only a couple weeks, but Rick insisted they have some. He had been going to get it, but Brigid teased she needed the exercise.
“The cashier got nasty, too,” Brigid told Rick. “She said they might stop carrying it since it was too much to expect good people to have to cater to bloodsuckers.”
“She didn’t have any problems with it last week,” Rick snorted.
“Last week she didn’t have an audience,” Brigid sniffed.
“I can’t believe how ignorant people are down here,” Rick sighed.
“I don’t think it was always like this,” Brigid told him. “I’ve visited this area before. It’s a resort town, lots of people coming through from other places. It wasn’t like vampires were in your face, but you knew they were here. This business,” and she jerked her chin toward the pamphlet, “this is new.”
“Well, we know it’s not like this everywhere. I mean, we never saw this kind of trouble in Boston.” As he spoke, Rick found himself rubbing Brigid’s back. It was almost unconscious, but just touching her made him feel better. “And you know this kind of crap wouldn’t fly in New Orleans. My parents can’t go anywhere without their fan club.” Rick turned, leading the way toward the boat, “I’m glad we’re leaving soon. I’m not sending you into any more stores around here to buy me TruBlood.”
“Suits me fine!” Brigid answered a little too brightly. “I don’t think you should have to drink that crap at all. I’m sure it’s full of preservatives, Rick. You know I’m better for you.”
That made Rick stop short. He swung back, saying, “Cut it out! I’m not going to feed just from you for a while! Brigid, you’re burning yourself out. You work twice as hard on the boat as me. You just don’t stop, and once we get on the water, you’re going to have to spend even more energy helping me round out my sailing skills.” Rick swallowed, “I won’t even begin to pretend lake sailing is like blue water sailing. I know my line from my sheet, but that’s about it.”
Brigid just eye-rolled, assuring him, “You’ll be great! It’ll be fine!”
“I’ll get it,” Rick agreed, “but it’s going to take some doing on your part to get me there. There’ll only be the four of us and you need to be at your best, just in case.” Rick ran his thumb along the dark circle that had appeared and remained, a stubborn fixture on her face along with its twin just under her eyes. “I can see you’re tired already.”
“I worry,” she confessed. “I’ll be able to relax once we’re out and gone.” Brigid swung up the ladder, climbing the rungs to the boat deck, and then leaning over to take the bags from Rick.
Rick followed more slowly, scooping up the second bag where Brigid left it. “What is it?” he asked. “You are so afraid of them. What do you think your family would do if they caught you? Do you even know?”
“I don’t,” she said tightly. “Not really.” The whir of the ship generator kicked in and Brigid collapsed on the locker next to the chart table. She worried her thumb before saying, “Ever since I was little, I just knew they had power over me. They told me where to go and they could make me do things I didn’t want to do.” Rick pulled her thumb down, but almost unconsciously, it returned, a sure sign Brigid was more upset than she was saying. “I just have this feeling that if they grab me this time, I’ll never come back.”
Rick wrapped his arm around her, pulling her close. He couldn’t hold himself back. He had to know what she was thinking, and so he dipped. What he found worried him more. Brigid honestly didn’t know what would happen, but her fears about her family were deep-seated. Happy she couldn’t tell, he withdrew from her mind before asking, “Do you really think turning twenty-one will make a difference? Brigid, they’re your family. Just because I turn twenty-one, it doesn’t mean my family cuts me loose.”
“I have to believe it,” Brigid whispered. “I have to,” and she curled into him. Suddenly, he could smell something bright and sharp. It made his nose twitch and his cock take notice. ‘Tears,’ his mind registered while the rest of him acknowledged scenting them this way was another step toward becoming more vampire.
“I have you,” Rick assured her and as he held her, he found himself working through his plan. Forty-six days until her birthday and if Brigid was right, the end to her worries. Escaping was key, and Rick was certain that once alerted, his family would put Brigid’s to shame in the tracking and retrieving department. ‘I’ll send a letter,’ he decided. It would let him fully explain his reasons while at the same time being slow enough that they’d be far offshore by the time his family received it. He could assure his Mom that he’d be returning, freeing him to hit his bank accounts once they arrived in England. He knew he had more than enough money for plane tickets back in his account and by then, if the voyage went well, they could return in peace. “I love you,” Rick told Brigid. He was leaning in to kiss her when they were interrupted.
“Hello!” Rob called from below.
“Rob and Greta are here,” Rick said unnecessarily, but it prompted Brigid to hastily wipe her tears away, and get moving, storing the TruBlood in back of the ship refrigerator.
“Everything okay?” Rob asked as he and Greta dropped into the belowdecks.
“Brigid got bullied in town,” Rick told him. “She was buying me TruBlood.”
“Things have taken a turn,” Rob nodded. “You and your people should take care. I’ve seen these things before in other places and they have a way of gaining oxygen.” He smiled as Greta wrapped her arms around Brigid, “Don’t worry, Liebling, we’ll be with the great ocean soon and far from these worries.” He tapped Brigid’s nose, “Europe isn’t like this. Where we are headed, there is civilization and an appreciation for beautiful things and that includes beautiful creatures like your Rick.”
Rob and Greta knew what and who Rick was, but they didn’t care. It was the way of boat people. There was only the now and as long as Rick and Brigid’s worries didn’t follow them onto the voyage, there was no issue. “But we know it’s not just being with a vampire that’s worrying you,” Greta scolded. “You,” and she stared at Brigid, “You are running from something and he is helping you.”
Brigid tried to look surprised, but Rob was having none of it. “If there is a warrant on the other side, or some complication, the boat could be impounded. I need this money. If there’s some other problem here, we need to know.”
When Brigid glanced at him, Rick nodded. She sighed before saying, “It’s not the law or anything like that. It’s my family. They would stop me if they found out.”
“But, you aren’t a minor,” Rob shrugged.
“Brigid has some kind of guardianship until she’s twenty-one. That’s next month,” Rick told them. “Once that happens, the trust thing is over, and she gains access to her money.” Rick wasn’t exactly sure that was true, but it sounded more plausible.
Greta shrugged, “So, I don’t understand. You are twenty. You like this one,” and she glanced at Rick. “Why not end their hold over you?”
“I will,” Brigid answered, “As soon as…”
“Marry him,” Greta interrupted.
Rick’s mouth fell open and Brigid gasped, “What?”
“You don’t have to stay married,” Greta shrugged. “You can get a divorce once you return, but it will stop your family from interfering with you now. It’s one of the things about this country. A husband has more right to his wife than her family does.”
Rob nodded, “They can still cut off your money, but from what I know about this one,” and he nodded at Rick, “you won’t be poor.”
“Sue him for half of everything he owns!” Greta laughed, and then she sobered. “It’s not civilized, but it’s the law here. If you really think they’ll try to interfere with you, it’s a possibility.”
“But all that takes time,” Brigid said thinly. “There’s licenses and blood tests.”
“Not in Florida,” Rob grinned. “We could take you down to Town Hall and you could be married this afternoon. You’re non-residents so they won’t make you wait. Better than Las Vegas!”
“You’re sure?” Rick asked. “It’s that simple?”
“We helped out some young friends before,” Rob winked.
Brigid’s mouth hung open and Rick found himself taking a deep breath. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her and his mouth went dry. When he did turn toward her, his stomach was doing flips. She was looking away, her thumb to her lip, and when he said it, his voice came out like a croak, “Would you?”
“What?” Brigid asked. She was still staring at Greta and beyond.
There was something about her expression that prompted Rick to dip into her head. What he found were no clear thoughts, just snippets and panic. Taking another deep breath, Rick decided. He used the words that would make it crystal clear. “Marry me, Brigid Meaney.”
She didn’t answer right away. She looked like some cornered animal, struggling to find freedom and his heart sank, but then she steadied. Brigid’s too-old eyes met his and she took his hand, “No, Rick” she told him. “Not like this,” and although he felt disappointed, another part of him sighed with relief.
Fran Miller was dead. She’d ended her life the way she’d lived it, fighting. Two members of the Protect America group were being held on charges of involuntary manslaughter. According to the City police, they’d followed Fran home after a confrontation in a local book shop. They walked into Fran’s garden and they swore it was Fran who attacked them. They said she’d swung her cane, then lost her balance, and fell. The official cause of death was heart attack. The funeral was scheduled and people from all over the world were planning to attend. A fair number of them were Supernaturals and that meant Tania’s people were busy. The press already knew that among those coming to Boston to pay their respects were Eric and Sookie Northman.
Russell Edgington was not coming. He let Tania know, and then proceeded to offer his sympathy, calling every few nights to chat and check up on her. He assured her he was concerned, offering his support, and asking how she was holding up. “Such a bother,” he purred. “But isn’t that like a witch, always making things inconvenient?”
Tania shared Russell’s opinion when it came to the Northmans and to the Mississippi King’s delight, much of their conversations focused on complaining about the Louisiana couple.
“I was surprised the Viking decided to come at all,” Tania carped this evening once the preliminary greetings were over. “They’ve spent so much energy consolidating their assets, I’m not sure how the precious Northmans could spare any time for coming here.” Russell knew that Tania was really angry about Karin the Slaughterer. Within a few weeks of returning from Louisiana, the assassin had informed Tania she would be leaving. Before Tania could react, Karin and her pet were gone. Tania’s agent found nothing in Chester but a locked, empty house.
The swiftness of Karin’s departure had taken Tania by surprise and while no one disputed Karin’s right to leave, Russell heard the assassin’s defection had left Tania in a predicament. “I don’t know why you’re surprised about any of this, my Dear,” Russell crooned, and then he let drop the little pebble of information, which was his real reason for calling. “After all, when one’s child disappears, it’s only natural for one to become more grasping about the rest. The Viking will want his Pam and Karin closer to him, especially at a time like this.”
“The boy has disappeared?” Russell smiled at Tania’s catching the hint he’d served up. “I was told this Rick was on an extended vacation. He dropped out of his human school. I assumed he was traveling under the Viking’s protection.”
“Apparently not,” and Russell warmed his tone. “In fact, their creature hasn’t been spotted in weeks and there’s a rumor a certain letter was received at the Palace. It sent the infant Queen into a frenzy. Of course, Northman’s pretending all’s well, but my friends overseas tell me there’s quite the reward being offered for any information about Rick Northman and Thalia is the contact.”
“Thalia’s his,” Tania said shortly. “Well, so their ‘progeny’ has run away? How interesting! It would explain some things. Of course, the Viking would pull the rest of his children closer to home. Why run the risk of having more than one in danger?”
“At least the Slaughterer is capable of defending herself,” Russell purred. “I’ve met the dhampir. He’ll be an easy target for the next vampire who locates him,” and the King paused, allowing his words to sink in before pitching his voice just a little lower. “I have to confess, I think the Viking’s reputation for protecting his own is going to take a beating. This Rick really is a stake waiting to happen.” Russell sighed loudly before saying, “I really think Karin really could have remained in your territory being productive. Northman’s being saddled with a useless creature shouldn’t impact real vampires, but there it is.”
“I treated her very well,” Tania sniffed. “Now, I’ll have to find a replacement.”
“As if there are any who can match Karin’s skills,” Russell said sympathetically. “I hope you don’t have too many disappointed clients, Tania. You know how angry our kind can be when they are disappointed.” Of course, Russell did know. It was an open secret that the Boston Queen had made a number of informal agreements, promising friends and potential allies their work would be handled by that most secretive and elegant of assassins. She might try to argue the lack of a formal contract, but vampires who didn’t live by their word tended not to survive long.
“Everything’s in hand,” Tania declared in her most imperious tone.
Russell wasn’t fooled. “Of course,” he soothed. “Still, we do seem to live in interesting times.” Russell decided he’d pushed enough on this topic and moved on to planting his next poison pill. “So, tell me, Tania, how are the troubles up there? I hope the arrest of the radicals who killed Fran won’t make things worse.”
“It’s still too early to tell,” Tania answered. “It’s possible the witch’s death was just coincidence, a random crime. I haven’t heard any hint that this was tied to Fran Miller being Supernatural, but it is worrying. It’s not like before. Russell, I wish we’d never decided to mainstream. There’s no hiding for us now. These humans know who we are and where we live. If they decide to turn against us, I fear they could finish the job they started and wipe us out forever.”
“And we would have no one to blame but ourselves,” Russell agreed. “But surely, it can’t be as bad as all that, my friend.” Russell hadn’t heard any particular reports about problems in the Northeast, but closer to home it was a different story. He’d been keeping an eye on the religious fringe in his kingdom and Betty Jo had reported a few incidents seemingly aimed at Supernaturals. Still, it was nothing compared to what was happening in some of the larger cities across the country. “From what you’ve told me, Fran Miller was always an unpleasant person. It could be exactly as it appears, an attack the witch brought on herself. You said it earlier. She was old and her magic was failing.”
“Yes,” Tania conceded, “It could be just that, but still…” Russell smiled to hear the worry in the Boston Queen’s voice. “It’s one thing to confront an old woman. It’s another to follow her home.”
“She wasn’t assaulted,” Russell reminded Tania.
“No, not physically, but they followed her into her courtyard. I think she was trying to reinforce her wards when she had the heart attack.” Tania sighed. “It started in a store close to her home. She’s been a recluse. I can’t imagine what drew her outside. Did you ever meet Fran Miller?”
“I make it a policy not to consort with witches,” Russell sniffed.
“Then more’s the pity for you.” Tania sighed, “Witches can be most useful, and Fran was an original. She was sharp-tongued. I liked that about her, but in the end her temper brought her trouble that for all her charms and magic, she couldn’t push away.” Tania sighed again, “You know, it’s said that when a witch loses their power, all the sins of their past come to claim them.”
“I’ve heard that, too,” Russell agreed. “While your witch seems to have behaved herself lately, I know that wasn’t always the case.” He waited a moment before adding, “You were a good influence on her, dear Tania, a steadying force.”
“I had nothing to do with it,” Tania answered primly. “Fran Miller chose to live in my kingdom and she chose to live by my rules, but that doesn’t mean I had any sway over her.” Russell wasn’t fooled. He heard the Queen’s protests and knew his words were stroking Tania’s wounded pride.
“Of course…” and Tania hesitated again before saying, “Fran did mind her manners and she honored the debt she owed me for providing her a safe place.”
“Allowing her to live in your territory as she did was a great concession, one most Rulers would not have offered,” and Russell decided it was time to introduce the last of the bits of poison he hoped would take root.
“You know, it occurs to me that had Fran Miller not become involved with Sookie Stackhouse, I might have forgotten about her altogether.” Russell pitched his voice just so, sounding as if he’d just stumbled across a new thought. “You know, it’s interesting. It’s all tied together, the Viking, the creature, and Sookie.” He paused just a beat before bringing up the story. “You know, Sookie was involved with witches down here before.”
“I heard she and the Northman fought witches during the Witch Wars,” Tania volunteered.
“Only a few witches were actually killed during that War,” Russell lied. “And Northman was rumored to have been placed under a spell. Did you know Sookie was friends with a witch down here? They were confederates, both before and after the War. I don’t know what happened to the woman, but they say this witch broke Sookie’s bond with the Viking.”
Tania gasped, “She must have been a powerful witch.”
“She was a good friend to Sookie,” Russell replied. “And look at them now. So popular! I don’t think I can walk through a store without seeing their faces on something.”
“Notoriety is not always a bad thing,” Tania said slowly. “The Viking is smart to exploit it. Sometimes it isn’t enough to succeed. Sometimes you need something to draw others to your kingdom. Fran Miller provided that for me. Just having her here attracted a certain type. I fear I will be a little less popular now that she’s gone.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Russell mused. “Perhaps it’s for the best. I suspect the witch’s passing will continue to have far-reaching ripples,” Russell mused, “Ripples you won’t want attached to your name. I’m not surprised you mentioned the Viking. Who knows how long Fran Miller has been influencing that success?”
“What do you mean?” Tania asked, and Russell fought to keep the note of triumph from his voice.
“Well, everyone knows Northman’s newborn Queen lived with the witch I mentioned earlier, her friend, when the Viking went to Oklahoma,” Russell pointed out. “When you look at how things turned out in that light, it does suggest a few things. How else but through witchcraft do you explain the creature?”
Russell could almost feel Tania’s talons dig deep. “I thought the forming of the dhampir was explained,” she said carefully. “I was told they are a natural occurrence for those males who live long enough. The Viking is among our oldest. He mated with a human…” but Russell interrupted the Queen before she could get started on the tale they’d been told.
“A brilliant cover story, don’t you think? And from none other than their favorite local doctor. Amy Ludwig has a reputation, but she owes much to the Viking. I don’t doubt for one minute that she’d lie for them. After all, no one among our kind would rest easy, knowing they’d created that thing from witchcraft.” Russell paused. This was it. Tania would either accept his suggestion or reject it out of hand.
“I always wondered,” Tania sighed, and Russell knew he’d won.
“Think about it,” Russell soothed. “Stackhouse knew witches, consorted with them. She was desperate to keep the Viking. You know how these fangbangers can be when your interest starts to wane.”
“A desperate act by a desperate woman,” Tania mused. “Still, it doesn’t explain why Northman went along.”
“Why indeed?” and Russell paused before letting the next domino fall in place. “Have you ever known Northman not to be planning two steps ahead?”
“He has a reputation for craftiness,” Tania readily agreed.
“And does his kingdom have problems now? From humans?” Russell asked.
“No.” It was in the way she said it.
“No,” Russell repeated. “Whether he’s a willing accomplice or acting under a spell, it’s clear Northman’s dhampir is being used to disrupt all the progress the rest of us have made in mainstreaming. The fanatics are accusing us of purposely deceiving them, preying on them when we have other means to reproduce. You have unrest. I have churches telling their congregations we are devil’s spawn. I’m told the federal government has become interested in regulating us again. But Northman? He and his child Queen are riding floats and lording it over the rest of us. He’s holding himself out as the shining example of what vampires should be, a family, a human family, with their custom-made child.”
“And he’s recalled his true children, keeping them close,” Tania huffed.
“And left the rest of us hanging,” Russell agreed. “All so neat, except it would seem his little dhampir has gone renegade. Yes,” and Russell sighed dramatically, “the vampire who captures Rick Northman would have the Viking by the short hairs.”
“It’s an interesting observation,” Tania said dryly, “but tell me, Russell. With whom else have you shared this little insight?”
Russell laughed. He should have known Tania was too smart to completely fall for his scheme, so he told her the truth. “Why, everyone, dear Tania, everyone!”