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Sookie knew that even were she not a vampire, she would never forget the look on Rick’s face as he stared down at Brigid. She watched her son lean down and kiss his mate’s still lips. He brushed the hair that was already less lustrous from Brigid’s forehead.
Amy had done a credible job hiding the worst of the damage. Sookie wondered if the doctor had been the one who dressed the body. It was a kindness. Sookie had seen Brigid earlier. Sookie didn’t love Brigid. There’d been times she didn’t like her much, either, but it had still been hard seeing this woman’s body so battered and torn.
Sookie knew they’d have to talk about what came next, but that time wasn’t now. “Do you want me to leave you alone with her?” Sookie asked. Rick didn’t answer with words. Instead, he pulled a chair close to the gurney and leaned forward, resting his forehead on the mattress.
Eric had their travel coffins brought to Amy’s hospital and for once, the doctor didn’t complain. It didn’t mean Amy wasn’t shooting them all evil looks. They had, for all intents and purposes, taken over her hospital, and Amy Ludwig liked her space.
Sookie stepped outside the room where Brigid lay to find Mustapha Khan standing with Eric, Pam, and Rubio. She knew Mustapha and his Pack had spent another day out at the house searching for clues while she and the other vampires rested. Sookie expected Mustapha to look stressed, but that wasn’t what she was seeing. Instead, the Packmaster was standing tall, his arms crossed over his barrel chest, facing off against Eric and the others. ‘Battle mode,’ Sookie recognized.
“Then, expand the search,” Pam hissed. “This isn’t the kind of thing that stays quiet. Whoever they were, they had to be paid, and it had to be more than one person in on it. Whoever did this wasn’t vampire. It’s only a matter of time before someone talks.”
“If these people weren’t from around Bon Temps they would have been noticed,” Rubio added. “Strangers stand out in any small town. No one could have known when Jason and Rick were leaving for Shreveport. The people who did this had to be locals, or they had someone close enough to send word and more nearby who could get to the house fast.”
“There had to be serious money involved,” Pam added. “Anyone around here would know what we’d do to them if they crossed us.” That was when Sookie saw it. Mustapha sneered. No one else seemed to notice. Pam kept talking, “These local yokels are stupid. That kind of money will stand out. It shouldn’t be that hard! We put the word out to watch for anyone with an unexpected inheritance.” It was Pam’s turn to sneer. “I really thought your Weres would be more of a help,” and Pam turned before she saw Mustapha’s reaction. “But Rubio’s right. Whoever did this is close and that means we know what we’re dealing with. There aren’t enough braincells around here to keep mouths or wallets shut. These assholes are going to surface.”
Mustapha drew in a deep breath when Pam said the bit about his Pack and his jaw tightened. “What does Jason say?” Sookie asked, trying to defuse the tension she could feel growing around her. When all eyes turned her direction, she explained. “My brother still lives in town, he’s lived here all his life. He knows everyone for a couple towns around. Pretty much every family has had someone who worked with him on the road crew. You know Jason, people just talk to him.”
As if on cue, Jason came down the corridor. Sookie thought her brother looked terrible. There were dark rings under his red-rimmed eyes. “What’s going on?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer, volunteered, “I was just over Merlotte’s. Kendra stopped me. Rumors are starting to fly. She asked what happened out at the old house and pretty much told me she’d be taking a trip out there.”
Eric glanced at Rubio, “Call your people. Make sure there’s nothing for the human law officer to find.”
Rubio left in a hurry. Jason opened his mouth. He was looking at Mustapha and Sookie knew her brother was thinking the same thing she was. The Packmaster was Eric’s go-to guy when it came to getting things done, but now her mate was sending his own Sheriffs, ignoring Mustapha altogether. Sookie decided to jump into the silence that followed. “I didn’t know Kendra was still the law in Bon Temps.”
“You know how things are around here,” and Jason half-grinned. “Nothing changes much around Bon Temps.” Taking a deep breath, he turned to Eric, “What do you need me to do?”
“Dig,” Eric instructed. “You know who to ask. It takes a particular kind of person to attack a pregnant woman. Pam thinks it was someone local and I agree. But Stackhouse, we don’t need too many humans knowing our business.”
“Folks around here are pretty tight,” Jason shrugged. “You tell one, you’ve pretty much told the town. Still, I’m guessing the people that did this don’t spend much time at the Church Revival tent.” He glanced at Sookie, “I’ve told Sam. You know he’ll keep his mouth shut, but I figured with all the folks in and out of Merlotte’s, he might hear something.” Then he looked back at Eric, “I’ll head down to Hotshot, too. There ain’t many left there, but those that are still get around.” Sookie had the feeling Jason meant more than idle visiting.
“And, you,” and Eric turned to Pam. “Pass the word through all the Areas. Enlist our vassals. Offer money. Anyone who violates a vampire’s mate won’t hesitate to attack a vampire. They should use all their talents.” Sookie’s chin lifted. The old Sookie would have protested. What Eric was ordering meant using blood influence and glamour, but all she could think of was her son’s face as he stared down at his dead mate.
“My people are already on it, too,” Mustapha growled. “You want to know what we’ve done locally? Ask!” The air between Mustapha and Eric felt charged like the electricity you felt before a thunderstorm. The Packmaster’s hair stood on end, and Eric’s eyes narrowed.
“You told me this was a bodyguard assignment,” the Packmaster continued. “You never told me there was an active threat.”
“We’re vampires,” Pam snorted. “There’s always an active threat!”
“There was no reason to believe there would be an attack,” Sookie intervened. “Rick and Brigid were up here on their own, but still they were in the middle of our kingdom. They should have been safe. We couldn’t have foreseen this.”
“Bullshit!” and Mustapha leaned forward. “Kyle was good people. I had big hopes for him. We all did. His Mom’s broken up about this,” and Mustapha turned his head to meet Eric’s eyes. “You think it’s so easy to flash your name and get results? It’s just like old times, Viking! You’re letting your pride do the talking, and it’s the two-natured that are bearing the consequences!”
“You don’t mean that!” Sookie protested. “We feel just terrible about Kyle. Rick can’t talk about it without tearing up. I saw the pictures from the cemetery. Anyone could see Kyle did his best to protect Brigid.”
“He shouldn’t have been there at all,” Mustapha growled, but Sookie could hear the Packmaster’s grief. “It was just dumb luck.”
“What do you mean?” Sookie asked.
Mustapha shrugged. “Kyle wasn’t supposed to be there. He was night shift, but his day relief had family issues.”
Sookie could feel Eric’s sudden interest as the same thought occurred to her. “What kind of family issues?” her husband asked the Packmaster.
Mustapha looked surprised, but then he just shook his head. “It’s not the first time, okay? Jace and Lyla have been married a while. They’re a good couple, both two-natured, but they’ve been going through a rough patch. Their oldest just started shifting and he’s giving them a run for their money and Lyla’s business hasn’t taken off.”
“So, they have money problems,” Eric said. It was the way he said it.
Mustapha’s eyes widened, “You’re wrong!” he protested, “I’ve known Lyla and Jace for years. Jace wouldn’t do that! He and Kyle were like brothers!”
Eric wasn’t backing down. “Hunter Savoy will be here tonight. Bring your vassal in now! If he’s as faithful as you say, he’ll be happy to clear his name.” Eric had his arrogance on full display and Sookie could almost taste the testosterone tingling in the air.
Sookie turned to Mustapha, thinking to defuse the situation. “You know about the weird glamour we’ve found in some humans. Well, we found it in Weres, too. It’s possible your man was influenced and doesn’t even realize it.”
Her gambit didn’t work. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?” and Mustapha Khan snarled every bit as effectively as her husband. “I’m sure you can’t imagine a world where everyone doesn’t love the wonderful Eric and Sookie Northman, but I can tell you for a fact, there’s a decided faction out there that doesn’t!” Mustapha’s eyes shone. “Not everyone was happy to see the Viking take over as King. Things weren’t great under De Castro, but at least he was an honest crook. But that’s not good enough for you!” Mustapha drew himself up. “No, now we need to give every bit as much as we did before, but in addition we need to love you as well! Well, I for one ain’t ready to bend the knee anymore!”
“You were paid for your services!” Eric hissed.
“Not enough!” Mustapha shouted back. “There was no need for my man to die. If you’d been honest with me from the beginning, we wouldn’t be standing here now!”
In his anger, Mustapha leaned closer to where Sookie stood and he brushed against her. She wasn’t prepared and Sookie fell to the floor. It was an honest mistake, but it was enough to put Eric over the edge. “You failed! You’re lucky I don’t demand physical restitution!” Eric’s fangs were fully extended and his eyes glowed. He hunched forward, ready to lunge.
“And there it is! That’s how it always is with you, Northman. I lost one of my own, but the only thing that matters to you is you and yours!” and the air around Mustapha started shimmering.
“Whoa, now!” and Jason jumped between them. “Just take a step back!” He placed a hand on Mustapha’s chest. “You lost one of your Pack and that’s a hard blow,” and then he turned to Eric. “You lost your son’s woman and you lost Karin’s friend. I’ll grant you, both were hard losses, but not the same as losing progeny. In fact, if it wasn’t for Mustapha and his man, you would have lost that little baby, too, and she is blood. Am I right?”
It was a cruel thing to say and Sookie could think of a dozen ways Jason was wrong, but for Eric, it worked. “They shouldn’t be dead. They were under my protection,” he growled.
“Like Kyle was under Mustapha’s protection,” and Jason nodded. “You need to remember who the real enemy is here. We have three dead people and we don’t know anywhere as much as we should We know that whoever did this moves during daylight. That means you’re going to need help hunting them.” Jason turned to Mustapha, “You may have heard some things about Northman and my sister, but fact is, they are the vampire rulers in this state. You’re influence pretty well ends in Shreveport. The people who did this may be here, but you can bet dollars to donuts the money that bought them came from somewhere else.” He stepped back to stand beside Sookie, “If you’re going to get justice for your own, you’re going to need to cooperate with each other.”
When he stepped between the two alpha males, Sookie was sure Mustapha and Eric would just manhandle Jason out of the way, but she had to hand it to her brother. His stunt worked enough to make them both back down a little.
It was the opening she was looking for and Sookie put up her finger and started scolding them both. “I can’t believe the way you’re talking to each other! You’ve known each other a long time. Don’t let this terrible thing claim another victim.” She gave Mustapha her full-on Southern Belle. “I don’t want to imagine how things would be if you and Warren weren’t my friends. Jason’s right. I owe Diana’s life to you.”
“Diana?” Eric asked.
“Your granddaughter,” she told him, then laying her hand on her husband’s chest, she crooned, “Our granddaughter.”
“You saved her,” Eric said over Sookie’s head. She knew he was speaking to Mustapha and she turned, hoping Mustapha understood, too.
It wasn’t a sure thing, but Mustapha didn’t look as fierce as he had before. “Warren’s waiting for me,” he said gruffly.
Sookie nodded, “Get some rest. You have to know we’re including Kyle in everything we do.” She smiled before saying, “They liked each other, you know? Rick told me stories about Kyle and Peter, and how Brigid was feeding them all. I wish I’d known him better, but I know our son’s going to miss him.”
“Thank you for saying that,” and Mustapha Khan bowed a tiny bit before leaving.
“He knows it’s his fault!” Eric growled softly.
“I don’t believe that,” Sookie countered. “And I don’t think you do, either.”
“I’ll start making calls,” Pam told them. “Come on, Stackhouse. You can help.”
When they were alone, Eric asked, “Diana?”
“Have you seen her?” Sookie asked, sure of the answer, but then Eric surprised her.
“Several times. She favors you, Lover.” Eric touched her hair. “She has your stubborn chin.”
“You can be pretty blind, Northman!” Sookie teased. “She’s Viking through and through.”
Eric glanced toward the room where Brigid lay. “Go to our son, Sookie. He is forgetting his obligations in this world.”
Sookie started toward the room before it hit her. “You fed him your blood?” She wavered between appalled and impressed. “When did you do that?”
“Our son needs to feed. I arranged it with Amy while you spoke with him,” Eric explained. He wasn’t smiling. “Rick can’t end himself by meeting the sun, but he might try to harm himself in some other way. He is too much like you. He feels too deeply and sometimes he acts on those feelings without considering the consequences.”
Sookie felt her chin go up, “We’ll talk about your bad attitude when it comes to me later, Eric. And I can’t say I’m one hundred percent behind what you did to Rick, but I always knew you were a tricky vampire!”
“Tricky?” and Eric smiled. “I like the sound of that, wife.” In an instant he had her crowded against the wall, and ground his hips against her so she could feel him. “If Mustapha and I fought and I injured him, I wonder if you would have gone to his aid or mine?”
It was there, the testing she felt with him more often now. It made her breasts ache and her eyelids heavy. “I am yours,” she told him and was rewarded with a hard, swift kiss.
His hands swept up her body, his lips ghosting over her neck and, in the next instant, he was standing away from her, leaving her staggering. “Soon,” he hissed, and then flicked his eyes toward the door and their son. “He needs you.”
“He needs us both,” Sookie reminded Eric.
“Now is a time for mourning,” Eric told her. “Our son is a man, but in these times all men are boys who need the comfort of their Mothers. Better his tears are witnessed by you alone. It will be three nights he has sat with her and her ghost should be satisfied. Tomorrow night I will speak with him and we will arrange her funeral.”
‘And where are you going?” Sookie asked.
“Nowhere. I’ll stay here,” he told her. “Take our son away from here. It is my turn to keep his mate company.”
Eric hung back until Sookie encouraged Rick to come away from Brigid’s body. “Go with your Mother,” Eric told Rick as they walked past. He touched his son’s hair, and Sookie could see that Eric had judged the situation well. It was in the way Rick looked away, ashamed to show his Father his face. He was broken and Sookie tightened her arm around him. She thought of all the times she’d comforted him as he grew, sometimes over little things like lost toys, but sometimes over greater sorrows. It occurred to her this was the first time Rick had experienced death, but then she remembered Fran and that she herself had been dead and she knew in her heart that, although it would take time, Rick would recover from this, too.
Eric waited for Sookie and Rick’s steps to fade before he turned off the harsh lights that illuminated the room. The candles were where Amy told him. It only took moments to set up a single taper at Brigid’s head and another at her feet. Once the candles were lit, Eric laid the coins on her eyes and stood back, prepared to stand watch for the hour that was tradition. She was his son’s mate, a member of his family, and she had fallen to his enemies, for anyone who would harm her was his enemy.
Amy had done well. She’d drained the blood from Brigid’s body and sewn the rents. She’d molded the face into some semblance of peace, but Eric knew how the ugly wound just below the scarf made any illusion of peace a lie. Amy told him Brigid’s death was probably an accident, that Brigid had stumbled or fallen onto the broken fence, which suggested whoever attacked her was trying to take her away.
Eric was interrupted from his thoughts by footsteps behind him. He recognized Thalia from her gait. “I’m surprised you placed the coins,” she said. “That was Appius’ tradition, not yours.”
“My people would had laid her in a boat with her goods and gold,” Eric answered. “She would have arrived in Valhalla with all she needed for her life among the gods. The least I can do is make sure she has the price of the ferry to cross the river.”
“Valhalla is reserved for warriors, Viking.” Thalia shifted beside him. “This woman was no warrior. She fell like an animal, hunted and unprepared.”
“If you have nothing kind to say, perhaps it would be better that you left,” Eric growled. Thalia’s words stung, for all they were true. He’d forced his son to learn to defend himself, but he hadn’t insisted that this woman, his son’s woman, be trained, and now she lay before him.
“I’m told you have another child,” Thalia said.
“A child of my child,” Eric replied. “In all my long years in this life, I never thought to be able to say that.”
“It’s beguiling,” Thalia agreed. “But I’m sure you recognize the danger. With each child born of Rick’s body, the jealousy among your peers will grow.”
“Do you think that’s what was behind this?” It was something Eric had considered, that the possessiveness of vampires would turn deadly.
“It’s the obvious answer,” Thalia replied.
“Russell?” Pam had told him they needed to look to Mississippi, but Eric wanted to hear Thalia’s opinion.
She didn’t speak, not until he turned to her. “Everything I heard in Europe supports it,” she said at last. “The researchers thought it was you, or at least someone here in this part of the country. Madden pointed to Russell.”
“But you don’t believe it?” Eric asked.
“It fits,” Thalia shrugged. “Not that Edgington wants natural progeny, but he hates what the Revelation has brought.”
“Dhampirs predate the Revelation,” Eric pointed out.
“But they were nearly impossible. We didn’t survive long enough or interact with humans in any way that would create them. Now, that’s changed.” Thalia turned from the body to look straight up at Eric. “And, he hates you.”
Eric nodded, “Yes, there is that.”
“Still,” and Thalia turned back toward Brigid. “There’s something that isn’t right.”
They stood quietly while Eric considered, but then he rocked back on his heels. “Sometimes the simple answer is the answer.”
“Sometimes,” Thalia replied, but he knew she was still troubled. “Where’s Karin?” she asked.
“She hasn’t come,” Eric replied. He’d felt his daughter’s grief in waves for two nights.
“You need to summon her.” Thalia’s order surprised Eric. Once a Maker freed their child, summoning was not done. It was reserved for those who’d broken a law or transgressed in some other irredeemable way. When he remained silent beside her, Thalia pressed. “She must come here, Viking. She must make her goodbyes or she’ll never recover. You’ve been in the villages after a battle. You’ve seen what happens to those left behind. Would you condemn Karin to that?”
“You think she’ll meet the sun?” Eric asked.
“I think it will be worse,” Thalia answered. “For the first time in all the years I’ve known her, Karin is afraid.” Thalia touched Eric, “You must make her confront this or it will chase her.”
Eric remembered a woman whose man had fallen. They’d been together since childhood, best friends since before they were joined. It didn’t happen often in his village, love matches, but theirs had been. There’d been no children and when her husband didn’t return from battle, the woman had gone mad. In his mind’s eye, Eric saw his daughter, alone and dirty, surrounded by broken things. He closed his eyes and opened what he’d closed centuries earlier, calling her, and when Karin resisted, he leaned his Maker’s command into his call. “It’s done,” he told Thalia.
“I’ll remain here until Karin arrives,” Thalia promised. “You must hold off Peter’s mother until she does. The human is already making noises about taking him home to bury in Chester. You must force Karin to do what you did for Brigid. She must prepare his way into the underworld and free herself from his ghost.”
“And if she can’t?” Eric asked.
“She’s your child,” Thalia replied. “It will be difficult, but you will help her find the strength to move forward. She’s a warrior, like you. You know what she needs.”
“Revenge,” Eric told the night, his eyes glowing.
“A mission,” Thalia corrected. “Revenge will come, but once it’s purpose is served, Karin needs something to carry her forward.”
Eric considered what Thalia was saying. Of his two children, it was Pam he turned to when he needed a Second. Karin was too much like the woman standing beside him now: fierce and independent. “She has her work,” he said aloud.
“She’d been hiding in her work,” Thalia told him. “I don’t think she’s enjoyed it in some time. I could tell you the human changed her, but I think he came at a time when she was ready for him. Karin has become more than an assassin. She needs more, Viking.”
“I will consider what you say,” Eric promised. “But this,” and he stared back at Brigid’s still form. “This needs an answer. All else will wait.”
“As soon as Hunter is ready, we will start with the humans from the store,” Thalia told him. “Pam has arranged it.”
“We should question Mustapha’s Were,” Eric growled, “Jace.”
“Let Pam handle it,” Thalia cautioned her friend. “I heard about what happened earlier. Mustapha’s pride is almost as insufferable as yours. We will question him one way or another, but there’s no need to go to war with our allies,” and Thalia chuckled. “That’s one of the things I admire about you, Northman. You have good assets. Hunter doesn’t need to be in the same room, or even in the same house. His gift will allow us to pick any of these creatures clean from a distance!”
Thalia’s nose wrinkled. “We need to get them buried,” she growled.
“Stackhouse will arrange it,” Eric decided. “We’ll have Amy prepare her. Sookie will want her buried near her family.”
“You’re sure about that?” and Thalia made a sound as if she was choking, but then sniffed. “Of course. Where else? And what will you tell their authorities?”
“That she died in childbirth,” and for Eric it was settled.
It was getting late. Eric could feel the pull of dawn. Sookie would be settling soon and she would want to share his coffin. To those around her she was a tower of strength, but he could feel the truth as he knew she could feel his. She was emotionally exhausted, her feelings a roller coaster of happiness over the child and the sorrow she shared with their son. It left her off balance, and that pulled against him.
He wouldn’t blame her for his mishandling of the Packmaster, although it would be easy. ‘No, that was your own foolishness,’ he acknowledged.
Pam had headed for her home. Rubio left as well. Hunter and Sarah Chandler would be at the hospital during daylight. Eric hoped that upon his rising Karin would arrive, and then the real work of finding who did this could begin.
Eric wandered down the hallway. Sookie and Rick were with the baby again. He stood in the doorway, watching as they fussed over her. ‘Diana,’ he thought, imprinting the name to the baby he saw before him.
Rick looked his way. His son’s eyes were bloodshot. “You need to get some rest,” he told Rick. “There will be others here tomorrow. Your Mother and I will not be able to be with you.” Rick didn’t say anything, but as he shuffled past, Eric told him, “Tomorrow night we will finalize her arrangements. It is time.”
“We can talk about that tomorrow,” Sookie said quickly. Eric could see she was trying to shield their son, but Eric knew he was right. It was time.
Sookie followed Rick, leaving Eric alone in the room with Diana. As he’d done before, he leaned over and picked her up. It brought back so many memories, the feel of Diana’s slight body in his hands. She wasn’t small. He needed both hands to lift her and he marveled at her composure. He held her away from him, staring into solemn eyes that appraised him as he appraised her. Her features were still unformed, but Eric was certain he could see his stamp. Despite what he’d told Sookie, he was sure the child’s chin was his own and her forehead. Then, she yawned and Eric couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face.
“You should have been given a good Norse name,” Eric told his granddaughter. “Something that shouts to the Gods that you have arrived.” He brought her back against him, settling her into the crook of his arm before piercing his finger with his fang and offering it to the baby.
She latched onto it, suckling greedily, her eyes wide. “Yes, Little One, that is the power of my blood,” Eric crooned, “but it is your blood, too. Blood of my blood, child of my house.” They were old words, similar to the ones any Father of his Clan said when welcoming a child into his family. Of course, in his human days, Eric’s Father never would have fed a baby his blood, but this was no human child.
It wasn’t the first time he’d had the baby take his blood. He’d been delighted when Amy told him Diana was a blood-feeder. It facilitated the formation of their blood tie. Not only could Eric feel Diana’s emotions, he could track her, and that allowed him to rest easier.
There was no question in his mind. Diana and Rick would come back to New Orleans and live in the Palace where they’d be safe. Eric thought about what it would mean to have a child in the Palace. There would be challenges, not the least of which was accommodating another day walker, like her father. “It is right you should be raised in the house of your Grandfather,” Eric said aloud. “Your Mother has gone to the Gods and your Father has work to do. Better you learn your place among us from the first.”
In his human days, it was tradition for the children of those who fell in combat to be fostered by the eldest male member of their family. Eric thought of Aude’s children. ‘My children,’ he reminded himself. The baby in his arms mewled and Eric felt his heart move toward her. It occurred to him he had never felt the depth of attachment to them that he did already for this one child.
“I was a fool,” he confessed to Diana. “I spent my days looking forward to the next adventure. I never wished to be wed. I did my duty and that included children.” Eric remembered their eyes as he left that last night on his trip to find them a Mother who would care for them and warm his bed. The little ones watched him like puppies hoping for scraps, but the eldest had already learned to resent him. “I swear to you,” he said solemnly, pulling his finger from her mouth and stroking her forehead, “I will guard you and foster you as I should.”
“And will that include playing Horsey and letting her climb your leg?” Sookie asked from the door.
Eric had felt his mate watching so he wasn’t surprised. “Yes,” he smiled gently. “Diana will never feel that her own kind are strangers to her,” and he looked past Sookie, “Not like our son.”
Sookie’s smile dropped. “It wasn’t intentional, Eric,” she told him.
“It was,” Eric corrected, “but there’s no fault.” He crossed the floor, moving his granddaughter to his shoulder. “I don’t blame you. I blame the Fates.” It was easy to cradle Diana against him, his hand opened to balance her rounded bottom while he used his other hand to cup Sookie’s cheek. “We will train them both,” he told his wife. “We will see to it they aren’t helpless against their enemies.”
Sookie sniffed, her emotions running high, “Rick knows how to fight, but it didn’t save them.”
Eric nodded, “He handles a sword, Lover, but he doesn’t think like a vampire.” With his words came his regret, and Sookie felt it, too.
“This wasn’t your fault,” his mate insisted.
“It was,” Eric confessed, and kissing the bright head that now slumbered against him, he pledged, “I will see to it that I don’t fail them again.”