The arrangements for Bartlett and Russell’s gathering did not run smoothly. Like any other meeting involving busy people, finding a mutually agreeable date took longer than anyone anticipated.
Early on, the monarchs had decided to restrict the invitation. It was given that the invitees would be exclusive to rulers within the Amun Clan. Aside from Bartlett and Russell, Minnesota and Kentucky were identified as being critical to a successful conversation.
There was some discussion about including Alabama. The Queen there was active in the rule of her state, but she had also developed an unsavory reputation for gossip. Some dealings she had with the now deceased Sophie-Ann LeClerq at the Rhodes Summit had become common knowledge. Alabama had pledged support, then withdrawn that support in favor of a better deal from a competing faction. It left some uncertainty as to her trustworthiness. Bartlett and Russell were clear that the direction they wished to take the Clan would require that all those involved be united in both purpose and vision. There would be potential dangers and each participant needed to have complete trust in their fellow monarchs. At the end of the day, the decision was made to leave Alabama off the invitee list.
Tennessee was likewise dismissed. Again, there was an understanding that the King functioned as an extension of Isaiah of Kentucky. The men were friends and the situation was amicable. But both the planners agreed they added nothing to the discussion by including someone who would represent a second vote for Kentucky in all things.
In the end, invitations were extended to Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Kentucky and Iowa.
Michigan was the first to decline. The King was facing mounting financial pressures. The Detroit bankruptcy had left him in some uncertainty as to owed payments. While he appreciated the opportunity, he regretfully deferred conversation until the upcoming Nashville summit. The Queen of Wisconsin was next. She had other pressing matters, but authorized Maude of Minnesota to speak on her behalf.
Phoebe Golden of Iowa sent her acceptance. So did Maude and Isaiah.
As the days passed and the date was still being negotiated, Russell commented to his frazzled day man that this was to be expected of vampires. “After all,” he said, ‘What do we have but someone else’s time to waste?”
Finally all was settled. Accommodations were assigned. Donor arrangements were confirmed. Aside from Isaiah the other monarchs agreed to use the donor pool arranged through special charter with the Federal Bureau of Vampire Affairs (FBVA). Isaiah insisted on bringing his own donors with him, and additional housing that was convenient to the mansion was arranged. There would be an overlap with their ‘special’ guests. Once Lydia and Sookie left for the airport the next morning to take the trip north, Isaiah’s donors would be moved to the carriage house.
Flowers were arranged. Evening entertainment options were discussed. All the details required to make their guests comfortable and open to conversation were settled.
Maude was the first to arrive. The others weren’t coming until later in the evening. When the delegation pulled under the porte-cochere, Maude insisted that her hosts just show them to their rooms. “I don’t need to make any extra work for you. Just send me a donor in about an hour. I have a good book and I’ll just settle back.”
Russell and Bartlett had insisted the monarch join them downstairs in the study. When Maude arrived, she found both Russell and Bartlett seated with Lydia.
“Lydia! Oh girl, what a wonderful surprise! What in the world brings you to this part of the world?” Maude advanced on the woman who rose and hugged the monarch right back.
Bartlett smiled. “I had no idea you two knew each other. What a happy coincidence.” Bartlett directed his eyes to Russell. Russell nodded. They would need to talk about this later.
Lydia looked at the monarchs. Russell shrugged. When it looked like the kings had no objection, Lydia explained, “I’m here because I’m gathering up a new guest.”
Maude looked closely at her friend before turning to Russell. “Can I assume that your guest is the famous Sookie Stackhouse?” When Russell didn’t answer, Maude continued. “I would like to meet her. Pamela Ravenscroft is a particular friend of mine. I plan on seeing Pam after our time here. She would be happy to hear any news of her friend.” Maude turned back to Lydia. “Provided that wouldn’t cause any problems.”
Lydia looked down. Russell and Bartlett looked at each other. Finally Russell broke the silence. “Is our guest up to receiving visitors?”
Lydia raised her head and nodded. “Yes. I think that a visit with Maude would be welcome.”
Russell nodded in return. “Well, if you would like, you could go over now before she falls asleep.” The two women turned to leave. Lydia linked her arm through Maude’s. “And Maude,” the king continued, “Why don’t you come back here later?”
“Thank you Russell. I appreciate being able to have some time to just sit and catch up.” Maude winked. She and Lydia left the room with their heads together chatting.
Bartlett watched them turn the corner. “I don’t know Rusty. I feel we can trust her but the whole situation is making me uneasy.”
Russell took his partner’s hand. “I know. Lydia and Sookie will be gone before our other guests arrive. We are going to have to tell everyone anyway. You know how things are. She won’t be settled in that bed up north two minutes and news will be all over about where she is. Once that happens the call from De Castro will find its way here.”
Bartlett pulled Russell into a hug. “Regretting it?”
Russell remained silent, flipping through the possibilities. “No. No, this is the best option. The wild card is Northman.” The king drew and unnecessary breath. “If Northman chooses to hold on to that contract this is all a wasted exercise. And it could take us years to recover. You know that?”
Bartlett looked at his partner with affection. “Oh, Rusty! Have some faith!”
Maude and Lydia walked through the hallway and out the side door that led to the gardens. “Is she really all that?” Minnesota asked her friend.
“If you mean is she gifted? Yes. She is that.” Lydia gave Maude a measured stare. “You know that confidentiality is key. I won’t betray her confidences or the trust we are building. Not even for you.”
Maude shook her head and smiled. “Oh Lyddie, I wouldn’t expect you to. But you know I have heard some things about her. And then there is my Pamela. You know she was willing to risk all kinds of trouble to get this Stackhouse person to you? “ Maude shook her head again. “She must be very special.”
Lydia didn’t hesitate. “She is. More than she knows.” The healer stopped their progress toward the carriage house, causing her friend to stop as well. “She has gone through a great deal. You may wish to share some of your insight if she asks. I suspect she may be reluctant to talk about Pam. If she resists, don’t press her. “
“I heard she turned down the Viking and married a shifter.” Lydia thought about her response.
“I’m not sure if that is the exact way of it. I do know that she married a shifter and that the marriage was not happy.”
Maude snorted. “According to Pam he beat and starved her. Sounds like a sight more than unhappy.”
Lydia pulled her mouth into a straight line. She seemed to be weighing whether she would respond at all. Finally she made a decision. “I don’t accept people who have minor issues into Sanctum. The supe world is not kind, particularly to those who are not raised to it. You are vampire, and were made vampire pre-Revelation. Defense mechanisms and coping devices are things you have in spades because it was either figure it out or die. You had hundreds of years of hiding and blending and running. If a Sookie Stackhouse had crossed your path; any vampire’s path 20 years ago, she would have been drained and gone. “ Lydia looked at the lights in the carriage house. “We live in a different world now. Vampires and humans and all the other people that make up our world are public. Vampires in particular are going to have a hard time adjusting. It sounds easy, this idea of no hiding. But it changes everything. Those not vampire will not be able to accept the secrecy or the ancient ways of living. The old days of killing rivals and torture as punishment are going to have to come to an end.”
Maude made a face. “Well, there goes some of my favorite things.”
Lydia did not return the smile. “The day will come that we will not need Sanctum anymore. We will all learn to live together, and those that don’t will be captured and punished by some shared legal system. Whether supes accept it or not, being part of this world does not mean following some rules and not others.” She looked at Maude closely. “I fear that if vampires don’t make the adjustment, their secrecy will become an excuse to persecute them. You know mobs. They hate what they envy or don’t understand. Vampires qualify on both counts.”
“Hmmm. Do you think that’s what K2 wants to discuss?”
Lydia looked quizzical. “K2?” she asked.
“Sure. Two monarchs; two kings – K2” Maude laughed at her own joke, the linking her arm through Lydia’s said, “Come on. I want to put my eyes on the famous Sookie Stackhouse!”
Russell leaned his head back on the leather couch, a slight smile pulling at his mouth. His lover; his love was caught in the glow of the fire’s light; the reflection captured in his blond hair. As if he could sense him, Bartlett turned to meet Russell’s eyes and smiled back.
Bartlett turned back to Isaiah, King of Kentucky. “With all due respect, Isaiah, I don’t think any of us can continue fooling ourselves that we are not in an increasingly vulnerable position. Like Kentucky, my kingdom depends on manufacturing for its financial strength. And that means my investments don’t return if my companies can’t deliver what they sell. No delivery. No income. Any way you slice it, the Mississippi River and its access to the Caribbean is the key. And Felipe de Castro is cutting us off.”
“Yes,” agreed Isaiah. “The tariffs he’s charging for use of the ports and warehousing are painful. All the more reason Felipe should be coming to the upcoming Summit.” This was not the first time that the rulers assembled had made this statement. But it changed nothing. Felipe had made clear he would not be attending any more Amun Summits. He would conduct his business, including shipping negotiations at Narayana Summits. Any and all competing Clans would have to get in line and hope to make the agenda.
“It is all a power play. It serves no good purpose.” Phoebe Golden sat forward in her chair. Her slight figure was in contrast to the solid presence Maude projected. Where Maude was robust, Phoebe was ethereal. Her pixie face was framed by a bright golden cap. Her long fingers lay on the arms of the chair. “He believes that he will score points by posturing and forcing us to show ourselves on his home turf.”
Maude laughed. “Counting coup? Didn’t think he had it in him.”
“If only it were amusing,” Phoebe shook her head. “He is a hold over. He thinks that all that counts is influence and gamesmanship.”
“Maybe so, but for a slick gambler he sure latched onto the realities of shipping,” Russell reminded them.
Isaiah shrugged. “I don’t think that move was really his. I think Sandy Seacrest is behind it. According to my source in Nevada she’s been urging him to diversify for years. Course he can’t get his head around anything that’s not tied to a gold coin or tin whistle smile.” Isaiah stretched his long legs in front of him. “I think that gal decided to ask forgiveness since she was tired of asking for permission.”
Phoebe turned her head to consider Kentucky, then nodded. “If she is, then she is playing a dangerous game. De Castro prefers to be the only smart one in the room. He appreciates muscle and blind loyalty. Cunning and wiles in those around him makes him erratic.” Phoebe was one of the original monarchs. In a ruling structure where shelf life tended to be short with quick rises and precipitous falls, Phoebe was the exception. There were rumors that she was part fae. Certainly her appearance gave the impression that she had some other quality. In another time her face would have been called gamine. When she smiled her eyes sparkled and she looked like some mischievous sprite. Of course, then you saw the stake or net or the restraining order or the injunction; whatever the occasion required. Phoebe Golden was smart, inspired loyalty and took offense easily. She paired it with patience and guile. Phoebe was a scholar. Her basing her headquarters in Ames, Iowa was no fluke. She loved being close to the university and the access to knowledge and research it afforded her. If left alone or treated fairly, she was a fiercely loyal friend. If you crossed her it was likely the last thing you’d ever do. “Sandy Seacrest would be an asset in any kingdom. But she will see her end with De Castro if she’s not careful.”
Maude nodded. “Likely at the hands of that thug, Horst.”
Bartlett laughed. “Or that bitch Angie. You know we had them here a couple years ago. I found her scraping mud off her stilettos on the edge of my Chippendale table upstairs. Talk about class.”
Isaiah laughed. “I don’t know what hovel he picked her from but she is one cheap piece.”
Maude leaned back in her chair. “What I don’t know, Isaiah, is what you ever saw in her?” The Kentucky monarch shot Minnesota a sharp look.
“I can’t believe you are going to bring that up!” he growled.
Maude’s face settled into a Cheshire cat smile. Russell and Bartlett smiled too. They could sense a good story. The history between Maude and Isaiah stemmed back to their marriage over one hundred years prior. It had been described as stormy.
“It was just about at the end of the contract. And it was our what? Second to last anniversary?”
“Maude, it is ancient history. I would think you would have better things to do than rehash the past.” Isaiah shifted uncomfortably.
“Isaiah has arrived late, although he had been spinning all kinds of tales of missing and meeting and such. And when the doors open, who do you think is standing on the doorstep?”
Phoebe smiled openly and laughed. She had heard the story. “I’ll bet it was Isaiah and Angie!”
Maude turned to her with a feigned look of surprise. “Why yes! It was.” Maude sat forward, her amusement perfectly evident on her face. She knew Isaiah was squirming, but she also knew that he wasn’t really angry. “And do you remember what you said when I came down the stairs?”
Isaiah looked right at her. She could see the beginning of a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. “Why no, Maude. I don’t rightly think I do.”
“You said, ‘Why look, honey! I brought us a threesome!’” Maude turned to the other monarchs. “Well, I was not exactly the calm and collected person I am now. There may have been some harsh words..”
“I thought my hair would catch on fire from the language that poured out of your mouth,” Isaiah said.
“And I may have had a little extra exercise..”
“You almost hit me with that side table,” Isaiah interrupted. “And it was wood.”
“Point is, don’t go on like you never liked her. You were willing to bring her into our bed.”
“Well, you’re the one that got that started, so don’t blame me.” It was Isaiah’s turn to fix her with a look. “You said you wanted to mix things up some and you asked if I didn’t have a couple of ideas.”
Maude smiled, indulgent affection showing through. “Well, I may have at that. But leave it to an old dog to come up with the same lame trick.” She smiled broadly. “Goodness knows, we’re not all like you two,” she gestured toward Russell and Bartlett. “I learned my lesson. I get them young now, before they learn any bad habits. Then, when they start to think they know a thing, I trade them in.” She jerked her chin toward Isaiah. “No more letting them get too settled!”
Russell laughed. “Do you think you two would ever consider joining again?”
Isaiah snorted. “Not likely!”
Maude laughed out loud. “Oh! The mean things you say!” But Maude was laughing and laying a hand against her chest dramatically. It was a good moment, and the monarchs felt themselves relaxed and among friends.
Russell looked around the room. “You know, I miss Sophie-Ann.” The other monarchs nodded, their smiles becoming more reflective. “She was such fun; an original.”
Bartlett took Russell’s hand. “Oh, but the choices! Peter Threadgill? What was she thinking?”
Russell nodded. “She could never understand that more territory was not the same as gaining power. Without some way to leverage the areas, more is sometimes just that – more.”
Phoebe continued, “And look at the fallout. Strong vampires killed; our fighting and killing done in a way that could have exposed us to the press. That whole affair at her abbey was a blood bath. She had humans there; well-placed humans. It’s a miracle it didn’t end up on national news.”
Maude nodded. “It would have been terrible for all of us. How could we look anything but psychotic and feudal. We’d have had every hate group in America, and most of the religious groups as well lined up against us. You think the registration talk is tough now. If that were to hit television, they’d have wanted to herd us into camps.”
“Yes,” Russell agreed. “It is a way of life that we can’t continue. We must change or find ourselves being hunted again.”
“Which brings us full circle back to De Castro.” Bartlett looked around the room. “You all know he’s old school. He’ll do what’s to his advantage, but when the chips are down he takes heads.”
“So are you saying we should find a replacement?” Isaiah smiled.
“Yes,” said Russell. “Louisiana and Arkansas need to return to Amun.”
“Are you suggesting one of us take that on?” Phoebe looked concerned.
“No,” Bartlett stated. “Each of us has our own concerns. Were one of us to take it, there is no way that the others could feel comfortable. Nor should it be someone who can’t stand on their own. It needs to be someone who understands how to work in this new world effectively; someone who understands public relations and money.”
“Someone who would be difficult to challenge. An attractive figure.” Bartlett added.
“Well, Isaiah, that would leave you out anyway,” Maude smiled. Kentucky snorted. “Your majesties, it seems to me you have someone in mind.”
Phoebe smiled. “Isn’t it perfectly obvious? Who has the age, reputation and an axe to grind against De Castro?”
Isaiah smiled. “Of course. The Viking.”
“But how are you going to get him out of his marriage?” Maude asked.
“Well, that is a problem we will have to work through. I have it on good authority that he spent some time and money trying to find a loophole, but he was distracted and de Castro was not supporting him. We are looking at it with new eyes. There’s always a solution.”
Isaiah crossed his arms and leaned back. “And what makes you think that once he’s free he won’t just stay in Oklahoma or travel to Europe or go anywhere else? He never showed any interest in taking on a kingdom before. In fact, I’d say he did a pretty good job steering around it.”
Bartlett smiled before speaking. Then he ticked each reason off on his fingers. “Well, it’s not like he could have been king before. His maker was among us. He may have been interested but would have been barred by definition. Then there’s Pam. He is very fond of his child. She’s sheriff of Area 5. He would naturally be inclined to take a position that would protect her. I would imagine he’s tired of being a king’s pawn. Freyda is a nasty piece of business and this past six years does not appear to have been happy for either of them. Being a king has some privilege in terms of not having to bow.” He looked at Bartlett, who nodded. “And we may have helped his special friend get into Sanctum.”
Russell picked up. “We believe he cares for her deeply. Even though the relationship is over, we believe he would choose to protect her the rest of her days. By saving her we do him a personal favor that we believe will motivate him to view our proposal favorably.”