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“You drive.” Bernard could hear the strain in his voice as he threw the keys to Hunter. Heidi shot him a look and he pulled his lips up into what he hoped was a convincing smile. “You know, lovebirds up front, we third wheels in the back.” He needn’t have worried. They were still excited to be near each other and that kept them from looking too closely at him.
‘Leif!’ That name sang over and over again in his head. He’d known the dhampir was here. He knew his name, he’d heard it often enough from Russell and he’d known Rick Northman was connected to his Northman, but seeing him… He hadn’t been prepared for that! “I suppose he’s like his Father,” he said aloud.
“What?” Heidi asked, and then, “Who? You mean Rick?” and she shrugged. “No, not really. I think he’s a lot more like his Mom.”
“Sookie,” Bernard mouthed.
“He’s got her stubborn,” Hunter chimed in, “and her grit, but I’d say he has my Uncle’s luck.”
“Uncle?” Bernard asked, and then he stared hard at Hunter. “Of course,” and he forced himself to look away. ‘Leif!’
In an instant, he was back in the coffin, being held by those arms. Leif had known how to kiss and stroke. It had left every part of him tingling, begging. Leif had known things about him before he did. It had been the best sex of his life. He’d murmured things, they’d made promises to each other, and Bernard couldn’t help spinning tales in his head in the aftermath about how things would be. After all, no two people shared the kind of experience they did and then walked away! But, Leif did.
Bernard dug his nails into the palms of his hands, focusing on the pain to keep the knot in his chest from giving him away. Heidi was a tracker. If he didn’t pull himself together, Bernard knew he’d cry and that would prompt questions. He looked at the trees they passed and counted road markers until he had his emotions under control. It had been over twenty-five years and the bitter pill of Eric Northman’s betrayal still burned.
Bernard swallowed, trying to push the memories back but found he couldn’t. It was the hurt he had felt rising alone that next evening, that was clearest. He knew his lover was older, but he’d been sure his next rising would be in Leif’s arms. He remembered his surprise to find himself alone. He hadn’t bothered dressing, rushing downstairs to look through the donors’ rooms. He’d searched the grounds, asking everyone he saw, but Leif was well and truly gone. He remembered walking back to his room, how he searched the coffin and the dressers, looking for a note. It hadn’t occurred to him to look for his car keys until Betty Jo arrested him.
“Idiot!” she’d jeered as he defended Leif. It seemed stupid now, his refusing to believe anyone who had been so giving could be so cruel.
They’d taken him down to the dungeons and shown him video surveillance. He saw Leif rush from the front door of the Palace and across the grounds, never looking back. He heard Weres howling in pain a few rooms away. Betty Jo told him they were the day guards. Bernard would hear them howling for a long time, paying the price of their failure. In the end, their sentence seemed merciful compared to his.
They’d told him who it was who used him and they’d told him why. He knew Lorena, the King’s guest, was dead and that the woman, Sookie Stackhouse, was the reason. They told him how tricky the Viking was and mocked Bernard for being so easily fooled. “It was never about you!” Betty Jo hissed at him. “He was only here for her, the telepath!”
For his sins, Bernard was sentenced to ten years wrapped in silver and locked in a coffin. Guards opened the lid every few days to feed him a couple drops of precious blood. It was enough to keep him going, but never enough to heal the burns that covered his body. By the second year the guards started talking to him. They fed him bits of information and because they wanted him to suffer, they told him about Eric Northman.
Bernard heard about the takeover in Louisiana and how Eric Northman was the only Sheriff to survive. They told him about Northman’s infamous marriage and how badly things were for him under De Castro. Russell Edgington had forgiven Northman by then, even allowing him to officiate at his wedding, but that didn’t mean he forgot. The guards whispered that Northman petitioned the King, asking him as Clan Chief to intervene with De Castro. Russell refused and Northman was shipped off to Oklahoma. Bernard remembered his surprise when he realized he could still feel sorry for the vampire who’d betrayed him. He’d cried that night, the salt in his tears stinging the open sores on his face. ‘At least he doesn’t have her anymore,’ he’d whispered.
“What’s wrong?” Heidi was looking at him in the rearview mirror and Bernard realized he’d made a sound.
“Just thinking about poor Talbot,” Bernard lied. “I miss him.”
Bernard had emerged from the coffin thin, gray, and filthy. Betty Jo was waiting for him. “What have you learned?” she asked him as he stood swaying between the guards.
“Never to trust strangers,” he’d whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“So, you can learn,” she’d replied. It took another two years, living in darkness, but he recovered. It was near the end of his convalescence that one of the guards noticed his doodling. He’d always had a fair hand for graphics, so he was given a computer.
By the time he was ready to rejoin the Palace, he’d created banners for the King’s Internet site. It was something new they were trying, a way to ‘relate’ to humans. “We need to seem accessible,” the head of the area told him. A series of rooms had been converted into business offices, and that’s where Bernard reported. “We need someone with your flair,” he was told, and then the vampire laughed. “Just imagine!” and he’d angled a mirror so Bernard could see his own sunken features. “Something this beautiful coming from someone who looks like you!”
It was an easy job and Bernard found he had a talent for converting the patterns he saw in his head to the screen using a keyboard and mouse. He knew when the positioning wasn’t quite right and he happily pushed and shaded until the images gained a harmony. It required his full concentration and that kept other thoughts from intruding.
Slowly, the old Bernard started to peek out once more. He bought a scarf, and the day he couldn’t detect the gray pallor in his face, he bought himself a bright pink tank top. When he wore it, one of the new boys complimented him, and Bernard smiled, really smiled for the first time in years.
After that, Bernard started mingling with the others around the pool or out on the grounds. He danced and after some persuading, joined the orgy that happened every night in the pool house. Bernard still remembered how anxious he’d felt, careful not to shut his eyes lest he forget where he was and who was not there. When he’d returned to his room it was impossible not to compare those he’d kissed with Leif and he allowed himself bitter tears.
Still, his unlife was back on track. He’d see Russell walking the grounds from time to time and while they weren’t friendly, Russell didn’t look away. The King’s marriage to Bartlett Crowe was still happy. The Indiana King would visit, bringing his retinue, and then Russell would visit Indiana, taking his favored courtiers, sometimes for months at a time. Bernard was never asked to go.
It was during one of those trips that Bernard found Talbot. “Look, darling, our peacock is back!” Talbot teased. The ‘darling’ Talbot was talking with was a very limp human.
“You took too much,” Bernard cautioned. “He needs a transfusion.”
Talbot’s eyes narrowed in a way Bernard would come to recognize. It was when Talbot was at his most dangerous. “What do I care!” he hissed, dropping fang. “What are they going to do? Punish me?” and he’d thrown the barely conscious boy off the recliner. “Let him die!”
Accidents happened from time to time, but not on the King’s grounds. It brought the kind of trouble no one needed. Bernard made his decision, and adopting his most servile simper, said, “Don’t be a silly! No one as pretty as you deserves one moment of trouble. Let me take him! I’ll have him healed up and out of here in no time. You just look up at the stars and enjoy this wonderful night.”
“Oh!” and Talbot’s defiant face crumbled into self-pity. “What do I have to look forward to? I’m here all alone, left behind like trash!” He’d locked eyes with Bernard as the slighter vampire hoisted the human on his shoulder. “Like you!”
It stung, but Bernard forced his lips upward. “Now, you know that’s not right. You’re no one’s trash,” and Bernard stood. “You are the King’s favorite. He’s just doing what he needs to do to satisfy his contract. If he really didn’t love you, Russell would have banished you from his kingdom.”
Bernard had no idea if what he was saying was true, but it worked. “You’re sweet,” Talbot told Bernard, and then he said, “Thank you.” It was enough.
Bernard started to see Talbot more often. He didn’t know if it was just coincidence, or if Talbot engineered their chance encounters. They’d nod and after a bit, they started exchanging greetings. Several weeks passed before Talbot showed up in the business offices. He walked up behind Bernard, his hand stealing up to rest on Bernard’s shoulder. “Oh, it’s you who does all the artwork!” Bernard was pretty sure Talbot knew already. It was a small Palace and everyone knew everyone’s business.
“I loved how you arranged the photos for the Spring Festival,” Talbot purred.
Bernard clicked until they were looking at the screen Talbot mentioned. “You mean this one?” he asked, pointing to a series of photos that featured Talbot.
“You really captured me,” and Talbot squeezed Bernard’s shoulder before leaning forward a little more. Bernard turned and Talbot kissed him. “Thank you,” he whispered to Bernard. “You made me look desirable,” and he was gone.
It wasn’t Leif. It was Talbot, the King’s forgotten lover, and for the first time since that night, Bernard felt desire. Talbot knew. He must have known because, despite his searching, Bernard didn’t run into him. One night passed and then another. On the third night, they encountered each other near the pool house. “Were you looking for me?” Talbot asked.
“I was,” Bernard told him, and then confessed. “I was hunting you.”
“How flattering!” and Talbot reached out his hand. They made love once that night, one encounter amidst the many encounters one had in the pool house, but Bernard remembered it. They were both naturally submissive, but they made it work.
The next night they were at the pool house again, and the next. It wasn’t just the sex. It was the talking afterward. They’d sit on the benches or walk the grounds. Bernard talked about work. Talbot shared gossip. Eventually they shared their pain at being left behind. “I’m lonely,” Talbot said.
“I’m sorry,” Bernard replied.
“Sleep with me.” It was a simple request and one Bernard willingly accepted.
Of course, the other vampires in the Palace knew. Bernard’s co-workers cautioned him not to get too close. “You know how they are,” they whispered. No one believed Russell Edgington could remain forever faithful. It wasn’t in his nature and when he strayed, it would be to Talbot. “Where will that leave you?” they asked.
Bernard had seen it before. Russell would return. Talbot would take the King back and whoever was comforting Talbot in the interim would be pushed to the side or sent away. Russell with his affections elsewhere was one thing. Russell returned to Talbot was jealous and petty.
It didn’t matter. Bernard was happy for the first time in so many years and so, night by night, he and Talbot grew closer.
It seemed happiness had found him. The ten years in silver were replaced by ten years of contentment. There were parties and outings. He and Talbot, while not quite a couple, were more than friends. Bernard’s services extended, and while he would never be trusted to run security, he did help with correspondence, coordinating special events, and party planning. That’s how he gained access to the King’s official email.
Every monarch had those accounts, the ones they used for official business with their fellow monarchs. Mostly they shared information about Summits and trade deals, but sometimes they shared gossip. When Stan Davis wrote Russell Edgington, telling him how well Eric Northman was doing with Freyda, (‘He’s seducing her into a crown,’ he’d written), it brought back all Bernard’s unhappiness. “Don’t worry,” Talbot soothed him later, “Someday the Viking will pay.” He’d lifted Bernard’s tear-stained face to kiss him, joking, “No one puts Bernie in the corner!”
It wasn’t long after that Talbot realized he had his gift.
He’d stumbled across it, really. Talbot liked to glamour humans and make them do silly things. They’d cluck like chickens or fart when a certain word was said. Someone always took pity and removed the glamour, but it was amusing. One night, Talbot glamoured a human, planting the suggestion that every time he saw someone feed, he’d start singing Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog. Bernard watched him do it, but right away, it felt different, and he told Talbot so. His friend just laughed, and sure enough, when someone decided to take a taste, the young man broke out in song. They all laughed, but the boy had no voice and after seeing it twice, Bernard decided to intervene. He looked into the man’s eyes, felt for the thread and came up empty. He tried again, and then again, with the same result. “I can’t find it!” he hissed to Talbot.
Talbot did, but even he had difficulty removing the glamour he’d placed. Before long, they were experimenting, discovering what this new kind of glamour meant. Talbot announced he’d like to keep his new gift a secret but Bernard realized now that Talbot already had a plan.
It was the summer the Stackhouse woman resurfaced. It was the only thing that monarchs talked about and emails were flying, fast and furious. Felipe de Castro was crowing to everyone about how he’d hired the most famous telepath, and she was now a member in his retinue. Sibyl of Alabama sniped that Sookie Stackhouse was angling for another vampire lover. Phoebe Golden advocated for appealing to the Pythoness if De Castro didn’t allow the Stackhouse woman the ability to negotiate her own contracts. Once more, the name of Eric Northman was mentioned and all the old stories revisited. Did he know she’d resurfaced? Had he really moved on? No one forgot how hard he’d fought to set aside his contract with Freyda, and they traded experiences; who he’d asked for what favor and what he was willing to pay, each tidbit reminding Bernard how little he’d meant to his one-time lover.
He was so preoccupied he didn’t notice Talbot’s scheming. The first sign was a breach between Bartlett Crowe and Russell Edgington, one big enough to cause fighting and shouting. Russell announced he was coming home having cut short his visit, and everyone started speculating.
The story arrived ahead of the King. There were humans who confessed to being Bartlett Crowe’s lovers. They’d been examined, but there was nothing found to suggest they were lying. The details were lurid and everyone knew Russell Edgington was in a fury. Bernard found Talbot to let him know, but his friend seemed oddly complacent. “Fancy that,” he’d purred, and then said, “Probably better that you and I don’t look too friendly. You know how Russell can be…” It was how he said it and Bernard knew.
Within the week Talbot was back on the King’s arm. For his part, Bernard didn’t begrudge them. He spent more time in the offices, figuring it would be better to stay out of sight, but even laying low didn’t insulate him altogether.
It was like living in a soap opera. For a while, it was amusing, but soon the Palace tired of it. Bartlett protested his innocence. Russell forgave him. More problems surfaced and more fights ensured. Talbot should have stayed out of it, but he didn’t. He stirred up Russell’s suspicions, playing on his worst tendencies. It was inevitable that Talbot would slip, he was too emotionally invested. Russell found out it was Talbot behind the glamour, or ‘deep glamour’ as they started calling it. The King was furious, but by then it was too late. The royal marriage between Russell and Bartlett was in shambles.
Russell extracted his revenge. He forced Talbot to use his gift to make spies. He took other lovers and made Talbot watch. Bernard tried to stay out of it, but Talbot refused to let him escape. He’d corner Bernard, stroking and hissing, saying and doing the things the small vampire loved best.
To add to Bernard’s miseries, the worst news came from the West. The Viking had escaped Oklahoma and was now in Louisiana as King, and worst of all, he’d taken that Stackhouse woman back as his consort. Bernard found himself dreading each rising. It was as if he was living a nightmare. Good things had come to bad people and he found himself dodging Talbot, fearing what Russell would do should he catch them together. He thought about leaving, but found he couldn’t, he was so mired in his misery.
Bernard was in the throne room talking with Betty Jo when the news about the dhampir came through. “A child!” Russell was almost foaming. “He made a biological child with that redneck trash Queen of his!” Bernard remembered feeling as if someone punched him in the gut. Bernard couldn’t explain it, but his sense of betrayal twisted into something else. His anger made him feel less lonely for Talbot. He fed his rage every night, dreaming up ways to take revenge, and that led to a discovery. Bernard had a rare gift for hatred.
It didn’t take much to stoke Russell Edgington’s paranoia when it came to the Viking. A word here, a slight alteration to an email there. Soon enough, Russell had Talbot working overtime, sending spies into Northman’s Kingdom. Even Talbot didn’t seem to understand why Bernard was so angry at Northman, but he didn’t protest, actively helping take every opportunity to try to harm the Viking.
When Heidi appeared, Bernard pondered ways he could use her against Northman, but she disarmed him. She was kind and helpful. She kept to herself and when given the opportunity, defended him rather than join in the teasing with the others. And then, Talbot was killed.
It was a blow, but not in the way people assumed. With Talbot’s death, there were no more spies, no more ways to punish Leif. Bernard did mourn and he let people assume the reason. And then, out of nowhere, he intercepted the email from Edward Madden. The English King’s Second was talking about Fae and Cranes. These Fae were offering money for help kidnapping Northman’s dhampir and his mate. They failed in England and heard the dhampir moved to north Louisiana, just a few hours from Jackson. They knew of Russell’s hatred and thought he’d help.
It was the answer to Bernard’s prayers. What better revenge against the Viking than the loss of his child?
It was all so easy, the meeting, the introduction as Russell Edgington’s agent. Bernard met the Fae man once but everything from that point forward was done through intermediaries. Bernard hired locals and the Fae paid the money. He could tell they wondered that he was willing to accept so little, but fortunately, they looked at his appearance and assumed he was foolish.
They wanted the woman alive. It was all the same to Bernard. The men he hired were thugs. The only thing that really went wrong was Rick, the dhampir, wasn’t there. The others died, but no one that was really connected to Leif. The leader told him they were trying to drag the woman from the house. The Fae was there on the other side of the cemetery. It seemed he didn’t quite trust Bernard and had gone to Bon Temps himself to collect her. The Were intervened. There was a scuffle and the woman fell, impaling herself on a piece of broken fencing. The Were died, too, and his henchmen ran. Bernard had killed their leader. He was the only one Bernard actually met and it didn’t pay to have someone who could connect his face with the deaths.
The Fae weren’t pleased and they demanded their money returned, but Bernard dared them to try pushing things with vampires. He hadn’t heard from them lately and figured if they did sue, it would be Russell Edgington they’d chase, ‘and he’ll be dead!’ Bernard thought.
The car stopped, interrupting Bernard’s thoughts. “Time to settle accounts,” Hunter announced from the front seat. The way he said it, with such authority had Heidi turning her head. Bernard couldn’t figure out the dynamics between the couple in the front seat, but he suspected Hunter wore the pants. ‘Good,’ he thought. ‘It will make your loss all the more painful to your Uncle.’
He’d thought he knew what he needed to do. He’d had a plan. Russell Edgington would die, but seeing Leif… ‘The dhampir,’ he reminded himself. The plan was shifting. It was like snakes in his brain, making him doubt, forcing him to remember promises he made himself. ‘You’ll lose them all,’ he thought. It wasn’t enough to kill Leif, no, the Viking had to suffer, and tomorrow night he would.
When Hunter awoke it was late. He didn’t need to see light to know it. Years of living in the backwaters told him. Heidi was cold beside him. He smiled, thinking of how he’d pushed her last night. ‘Last night,’ a voice whispered. “Damn stupid!” he said aloud.
They were in the rooms above the garages. Bernard told them it would be easiest to get in and out of the Palace from here. The guards knew Heidi was entertaining and there’d been some teasing, but Hunter could tell the Weres here liked her. He was pretty sure no one would question his wandering a bit during the day. It was expected of human companions.
He leaned over and switched on a light. These were the same rooms Bill Compton was held in years ago when Aunt Sookie was just learning about vampires. Heidi told him. There was no sign of struggle or anything that might suggest the room was anything but a guest room. Still, that they were put here seemed more than a coincidence and Hunter felt the hairs on his arm stand.
He checked the clock. It was only four hours until sunset. He rolled from bed and found the burner phone. There was a text from Rick asking where he was. He considered making the drive there and back, but decided against it. The department store where he could get the clothes on the list was close. He could get there and be back in time for Heidi’s rising. He figured in a place like this there would be vampires who rose earlier than Heidi. Best not to be wandering when they started stirring.
“Stay put,” he texted Rick. “See you at 9.”
“Come get me,” Rick texted back.
“Too late,” Hunter sent. “I’m getting the clothes. See you later.”
Rick sent several emojis that had Hunter chuckling as he dressed. He rolled downstairs, pulling Bernard’s keys from his jeans. ‘Bernard.’ There was something about Heidi’s friend that didn’t sit right. He’d asked Rick if he read him, but his cousin rolled his eyes. Hunter knew Rick was creeped out by Bernard, too. It wasn’t just the way Bernard kept touching Rick; it was something more. He shook his head, “At least he has a big car,” Hunter sniffed.
The clothes shopping was easy. Heidi had been to the store before, as had Bernard. With their perfect memories, it was like grocery shopping. They knew what brand, size, and roughly where in the store everything was located. Heidi included clothes for him on the list, but since he was supposed to stay outside the club, they were basic black. “Pool cue boxes!” Hunter remembered. The store that had the billiard supplies was well across town, and he and Heidi had discussed it last night. The whole idea that carrying boxes into Club Dead wouldn’t be noticed seemed farfetched.
“Just leave it to us,” she’d told him. “We smuggle swords all the time.”
On the way back to the Palace, Hunter wondered what Bernard had in mind for Rick. There were no clothes on the list for his cousin, but Bernard said several times he had it well in hand. “He will look perfect,” the smaller vampire said as he left them last night.
The Weres at the gate waved as Hunter drove through. “Got to hurry!” he called out. “She’ll want me there when she rises.”
Everyone was smiling. Hunter didn’t think they’d be smiling in another few hours.
Russell Edgington was in the Palace. The itinerary was set. There was mention he had guests. Hunter hoped whoever it was, they’d know to hightail it out of the Club when things got started. He grabbed his bags as he got out of the car. The guards were watching him, so he waved to them, showing them the familiar logo on the bags. They must have been satisfied because they turned away, resuming their conversation.
He was barely settled when Heidi opened her eyes. It always surprised him. One minute she was a lump of grey and the next, animated and so alive. “Got the clothes!” he told her.
“Are you worried?” she asked.
“No,” he lied, and then, “Well, maybe.” He drew her to him, “I want you to keep out of it. Guard the door, but you don’t need to charge in; Karin can handle things, and Rasul. This is why they’ve come. Stand back and let them take care of it.”
“Don’t you know guarding the door is the most dangerous detail?” Heidi laughed. “It’s always the guy who has no real purpose in these things who gets whacked.”
“Don’t say that!” Hunter exclaimed, then catching himself, said, “Well, you do have a job, guarding me!”
There was a knock on the door and Bernard walked without waiting. “Well, lovebirds, ready?”
Heidi nodded, rising from the bed and Hunter handed her the shopping bag with her outfit. Bernard reached out, taking the bag from her. “That can wait,” he fussed.” I’ve arranged extra donors. Why not feed and then shower?” He gave Hunter a glancing look, “And you should go with her. I did my best, but there’s at least one in this group who’s going to push his luck. In case she hasn’t mentioned, the boys around here are hardly discrete!”
Heidi protested, but Hunter just laughed. “Of course, I’ll come. Someone has to guard your honor!”
Bernard followed them, waving them toward the larger room at the end of the short hall. Heidi was laughing, but then Hunter was shoved hard from the back. Heidi half-turned and then she was screaming. It all happened so quickly. Hunter felt something wet against his shirt. He reached down and his hand came back red. Then he felt it, the slow bloom of pain at his neck. ‘Bernard cut me.’ Some part of his brain understood that, but another part of his brain couldn’t accept what was happening.
He fell. Heidi’s arms were around him. They were jostled again and then it was dark. “Don’t leave me!” Heidi was crying.
“I won’t,” he said, but even he couldn’t hear the words.
He was tired now, and cold. His head hurt, and then his neck hurt more. “Drink!” Heidi was saying, and for the first time, her blood was warm in his mouth.