Eric twirled Karin around the floor of the ballroom. Her gown flared slightly around her legs. She smiled brightly and Eric threw his head back and laughed. The outward picture was one of carefree pleasure. Inwardly Eric was acutely aware of Horst and Felipe’s positions as they moved around the room.
Felipe had not recovered quickly from the defeat at the Assizes court. The rumor was that he had taken his anger out on his room and that there had been substantial damage to his suite. Eric thought it would do nothing to repair what now appeared to be a schism with the California king. ‘Felipe’s support is eroding,’ Eric thought with some satisfaction. The nightly king’s conference had been cancelled. With the ball signaling the official end of the Summit there would not be another gathering of Nevada’s assets. Many were leaving on flights tonight. Eric and his party were scheduled to return to Oklahoma during daytime hours tomorrow.
Karin had been discretely inquiring into the reason Angie was absent from the king’s side. She had been told that Felipe had released Angie shortly before the Summit. It confirmed what many had been thinking; that Felipe was Angie’s maker. According to gossip, Angie had immediately departed from Las Vegas. It was not clear why Felipe had chosen this timing. From Eric’s point of view it provided another explanation as to why the king seemed off his game. Angie had been someone who had been a buffering element in the king’s life. It occurred to Eric that Felipe de Castro was now surrounded solely by men and most specifically, Horst. It did not seem to be improving de Castro’s strategic outlook one bit.
There had been other hearings following Felipe’s and the Assizes court had ground on for several more hours. The media outside had gone into a frenzy following the announcement that the suit involving Sookie Stackhouse had been dismissed. The result had been national news attention. Sookie’s face had been flashed repeatedly on television sets across America. There had been several reports that linked her to Eric and more that linked her to Bill Compton as the inspiration for Shanna the fictional waitress in his bestselling novel.
The underlying theme of the coverage had been the on-going questions as to the motivation of vampires and how they really viewed humans. Some reports used the speedy dismissal of the suit as proof that fears about vampire prejudice against humans was unfounded. But other media outlets were using the fact that the motion had been brought at all as evidence that there was some sort of conspiracy or secret agenda and that vampires were basically evil. Felipe had managed to become the poster child for vampire bad behavior with his refusal to talk with reporters. At one point, pushed and prodded by lights and cameras he had bared his fangs. Eric was certain that photograph would find its way into becoming the most remembered image of the day. Felipe may have thought he was winning, but from where Eric sat he could see the beginning of the end for the Nevada king. ‘The trick,’ Eric thought, ‘will be staying clear of the vortex when he sinks.’
The evening had started as all Summit balls did. Eric and Karin had made their way to the dais set up at one end of the room. The attending monarchs were seated on thrones surrounded by their closest advisors. Their subjects came forward and bowed before moving away to take part in the dancing. Felipe had made an effort to look less than cordial. When Eric and Karin had bowed he had hissed, “Where is your other child? Where is my sheriff, Pam Ravenscroft?”
Eric had kept his head down as he replied, “She is attending to the general opening of Fangtasia-LA. She wanted to be certain that your faith in her was justified by the success of the venture. She is most grateful for the support you have shown both herself and her partner.” Eric could almost hear the king grinding his teeth but there had been no additional questions. Horst had followed them with his cold eyes. Eric worried that the king or Horst might decide to take some action against him tonight. Now, over an hour into the evening, it appeared those fears were unfounded.
As the dance ended, Eric and Karin found themselves near a round table. They sat back as servers came their way with goblets of blood. There were several varieties and Eric selected one that was more heavily spiked with a new synthetic blend. As he sipped he noticed Sandy approaching their table. With a smile, Eric stood and bowed to the older vampire. “Dance?” he asked.
Eric led Sandy onto the dance floor. It was easier to speak there; less opportunity to be overheard. Eric leaned over to her ear, his face carefully schooled in a relaxed smile. “Any repercussions from tonight?”
Sandy smiled up at him and subtly shook her head. She was looking over his shoulder, judging the distance between themselves and the nearest couple. “No. I believe that Felipe was honestly surprised by the outcome. On top of that he received notification from one of his banks that his main operating account is seriously overdrawn. He has twenty four hours to transfer money or the information is going to be made public.”
Eric laughed while he said through his teeth, “His majesty is not having a good day.” Sandy smiled and nodded. To anyone looking they could have been talking about the weather or the dancers. Eric looked at her and said quickly, “Come with me to Minnesota next week. I would welcome your expertise.”
Sandy shook her head. “Know that I’m in agreement with your strategy. I wish all of us success in this upcoming business.”
Eric nodded and smiled. ‘The plan comes together,’ he thought. The dance ended and he escorted Sandy to the edge of the floor near Karin. As he turned he found himself face to face with Mr. Cataliades.
Eric bowed and the demon lawyer bowed back. “Mr. Northman. Karin,” the lawyer bowed again. “Miss Seacrest, it is always a pleasure!” with another bow. The attorney stood up then and smiled broadly. “Quite the day for justice, wouldn’t you say?”
Sandy became guarded. “It was quite a day. I’m not sure that it would be wise for any of us to use the word ‘justice’ in relation to the judgment. I believe that our king has very definite opinions as to the outcome.”
Mr. Cataliades smiled. “Ahh, I would think so. But that is one of the odd things about justice; what was considered just and good yesterday is considered criminal today. Things change along with how we as a society view those changes. Ten years ago I would never have taken the case. Today that same case was a case I couldn’t lose. One might wonder why it was brought at all.”
Sandy leaned toward the attorney. “I would imagine your client was relieved at the verdict.”
“Oh yes, indeed!” Mr. Cataliades beamed. “Most relieved and heartened. She is in Louisville consulting for King Isaiah at the moment. The contract negotiations for the king’s new plant appear to be somewhat fractious. It sounds like she is placing his mind at ease by assuring the good faith of all parties. A valuable commodity, telepathy, at a time like that. Knowing that this lawsuit was resolved and behind her did much to help her focus on the job at hand.” Eric felt a stab of jealousy. He knew Isaiah to be honorable but the thought of Sookie alone with any male had him feeling anxious and angry. As if he could sense the sudden tension, the demon lawyer looked straight at Eric. “I had the opportunity to spend time with Miss Stackhouse in Jackson before coming here. She looked almost recovered. Thin, of course; but her spirit was strong. She particularly asked after both yourself and Karin, Mr. Northman. She was most specific in her regard and well wishes,” and the lawyer winked.
“Of course now my next order of business on her behalf will be securing her divorce. I will be filing the appropriate paperwork in Louisiana as soon as I leave here. Abandonment is an acceptable grounds under the circumstances. Since it appears that her former husband has quit the state I should be able to file for an expedited disposition. Generally these things take a year as long as neither party disputes it but I should think this will all be wrapped up in a month or two.”
Again the lawyer smiled and winked. “I can assure you that Miss Stackhouse is not disputing the divorce in any way.”
Karin found herself irritated by the lawyer’s words. He clearly knew or thought he knew something about Eric and Sookie’s attachment. She found herself wondering how many others either knew or were guessing about the state of the relationship. The whole thing was extraordinarily dangerous. Eric had a full plate. ‘Sookie Stackhouse is safe. He needs to be happy with that and focus on the next steps to get himself out from under Felipe’s thumb,’ she thought. Finding herself unable to rein in her feelings she excused herself to go get more blood. As she wandered around the nearby column she found herself facing Sonny McMillan. He was texting on his phone. He looked up and smiled at her in a leering way.
“Well, well. If it isn’t Northman’s blonde bimbette. Bet you’re just loving all this.”
Karin’s fangs ran down. She couldn’t help hissing, “Well, well right back at you, Sonny. Or should I say Sam?” When he looked startled she pressed on, “What? Did you think that your little masquerade really fooled anyone? So stupid to think that hiding in plain sight makes a difference. A rat is always a rat. You carry a distinctive smell.”
“That may be, but I can tell you haven’t shared this little secret with your vampire daddy. I wonder why.” Sonny/Sam took a step closer, purposely crowding her. “But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. There’s a saying where I come from, Karin the Slaughterer; all hat, no cattle. I’ve sure heard the reputation but that’s really it, isn’t it? Just talk.” Then he got a calculating look on his face. “Or maybe you’re happy with the way things are. Sookie’s stuck out of reach and you have the big blond stud all to yourself.” Karin found herself jerking a little. Sonny/Sam immediately saw it and pressed, “That’s it, isn’t it? Well don’t you worry. I have no intention of letting little Sookie go gently. She’s going to have to fight every step of the way and crawl through slime to scrape me off.” Then he smiled, turned and walked away.
Karin found she couldn’t move. Her emotions were a swirl. She felt that she was on overload. When she returned to the group she made her apologies. Eric looked at her with some concern but she pleaded the stress of the day.
“Of course Karin. Return to your room. Make sure all is ready and I will see you again in Oklahoma.” Eric had leaned down and kissed her forehead. Karin couldn’t escape the feeling that she had somehow crossed a line.
Sookie woke to another beautiful sunny day. In less than 48 hours she would be arriving at the home of Queen Maude. She took a deep breath and found she couldn’t keep the smile from her face. Only two days and she would be with Eric again.
The phone call from Mr. Cataliades yesterday had made her realize just how tightly she’d been holding herself. The relief and sheer joy she felt had made her whoop out loud. The king himself had come running into the study to investigate and in her happiness Sookie had jumped into his arms. He had caught her mood and swung her around and around. When she looked up she realized she had never seen him smile before. It came to her that he was a handsome man. And then she had realized that she was touching someone that was not Eric and she had become embarrassed. She had begged him to release her and to forgive her foolishness.
It was hard not to see that the king’s interactions with her had changed. Sookie reminded herself that it was only normal to be easier with another person when you worked together as closely as they had over the past four days. Negotiations had gone well. All parties were satisfied and final documents should be ready for signature by tomorrow. Sookie couldn’t remember a time she felt so good about work. She had been a big part of the talks and the resolution. She was feeling very proud about it.
Sookie spent some part of every day here napping outside in the sunshine. She had also taken the opportunity to get into Louisville proper and see the sights. Sookie’s highlight had been a tour of the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum. She had walked slowly through each of the rooms marveling at the beautiful woodwork and parquet floors. It was fussier than the plantation architecture of the Deep South but as she stood on the staircase she could see herself making a sweeping entrance. There must have been something in the look on her face. A guide stopped at her elbow and said, “You know we do rent it for weddings.” Sookie found herself smiling broadly and then biting her lip. Marriage? Would she ever marry again? And then she thought about the fact that she was still married to Sam Merlotte.
Sookie returned to the King’s compound just as the afternoon was turning a little cool. A servant bowed to her and gestured toward a table. “Those arrived for you, Madame,” he said. On the pedestal table there was an arrangement of flowers. Sookie thought it odd that she would receive flowers while she was away from her home base. She had a moment when her heart had soared, thinking they must be from Eric. The arrangement was nothing special; just spring flowers but looking at them and anticipating what they might mean brought a smile to her face. Then she opened the card. ‘Think about me much? You should. Sam’
Bartlett refolded the sleeve of his oxford shirt. The informal quality of life in Maude’s court was always a welcome change to the couple. Visits to other monarchs always seemed to be laced with bowing and scraping. At Maude’s you were likely to find yourself walking out on the prairie under the stars in waterproof boots or having a potato peeler shoved at you as you sat around her large trestle table. The Minnesota queen hadn’t exactly banned suits but it was only a stranger who didn’t know the unspoken rules. The kings had packed their most comfortable blue jeans and soft durable shirts. He noticed how well Russell was looking. This kind of country living was good for his lover; it brought out the highlights in his eyes and made his mouth relax. Russell must have sensed the shift in Bartlett’s emotions because he turned to him, a smile playing on his lips. “What is it?”
Bartlett walked over and ran his hand over Russell’s head smoothing a few hairs back into place. “I was thinking we should have a country retreat. Somewhere we can just kick back and fish. Maybe ride horses. A play place.” Russell folded Bartlett’s hand into his own.
“That is a wonderful idea. A vacation home.” He turned to Maude. “You are a good influence on us both. We are always so happy here. Thank you again.”
The Minnesota queen smoothed the Irish wrap around her shoulders. “Don’t be silly! You are just wonderful guests. It’s like having family in the house.” Stan chose that moment to walk in. He was also in blue jeans and a cotton button-down shirt. Russell smiled as he considered the contrast between his Bart and the Texas king. ‘How can Stan make jeans look awkward?’ the king wondered. Maude rose, suggesting they all retreat to her kitchen. Anyone who spent time at Maude’s knew that the kitchen was where all the business in this house was conducted.
The room was large and there were herbs hanging from hooks in the ceiling at one end over a dry sink. There was a large open fireplace set in the far wall and there was a small fire glowing. Although it was spring there was something about the look and feel of a fire that spoke to each of them. During their long lives fire had been both friend and foe but at their most instinctive level they reacted to fire as a conduit for talk and sharing. They settled in high back wooden chairs softened by pillows and pulled up around the large table. A cat stalked in and jumped into Stan’s lap. He jumped right back and the cat startled and found Bartlett’s lap instead. Within minutes the sleek animal was purring contentedly as the blond vampire’s long fingers stroked its fur.
Maude rocked her chair back a little. “The news from the west is not good. I’m hearing that our caped friend has landed himself in some real trouble with the banks.”
Stan snorted. “You should see the stories on the internet. He is being labeled as everything from pimp to human trafficker. Whoever told him that the Stackhouse suit was a good idea should be staked.”
Maude smiled. “Well, I know it wasn’t Angie. I saw her on her way through to Europe. Couldn’t get out of the country fast enough. She wouldn’t tell me exactly what happened but she asked for a maker’s release and she got it. Whatever it was, she was upset.”
Russell frowned. “She must have been. She has never shown any interest in wishing to leave him. Most unusual for a child and their maker.” He shook his head and sighed. “Well, sometimes that is how it happens. One day you are devoted and seemingly the next you are like strangers in the same space; one person too many.” The others nodded. He turned to Stan. “How do you think that the bankruptcy will play? I have to admit I’m a little nervous having this much attention focused on us.”
Stan nodded. “If the story continues to build with new revelations it seems inevitable that the attention will spill to others. And if it looks like we are endangering humans in some way we will find ourselves in a spotlight that none of us will enjoy.”
“Like Northman?” Bartlett started to laugh. “Can you believe him? Talk about making yourself the poster child! If I turn on the TV one more time to his smarmy smile I am going to be ill.”
Maude laughed freely. “Come on Bartie! You have to admit he’s pretty easy on the eyes. And he’s made all of us look approachable and charming; just folks. I think that if the De Castro shit blows up it will be to all of our benefits to have Northman there to keep showing the good side of vampires.” Then she started laughing harder. “Oh, oh! Did you see the red carpet thing outside Fangtasia when the human asked him to show her his fangs? And then she made him do the dance?”
Bartlett burst out, “She kept grabbing his hands and putting them on her butt. What was her name? She’s famous with humans. Some kind of singer/dancer. Northman’s face was priceless.”
Russell smiled, “Yes, he did well. Better than I would have. I still have trouble having them touch me. There’s something about the feel of their skin. My instincts always want to kick in.”
Stan leaned forward. “My contacts tell me Northman’s in trouble with his king. The killing kind of trouble.”
Russell’s eyebrow raised. “I’m assuming the Viking is aware.”
Stan nodded. “He’d have to be pretty stupid to miss this one. Horst was named regent of Louisiana and Arkansas. “
Maude started. “What about Rita?”
“Dead,” Stan told her. Bartlett hissed. “Sounds like it happened during the Summit. De Castro has kept it quiet so far. My contact didn’t see it happen, but she was in the suite for the king’s conference and everyone could smell it. Felipe pretty much told them she had been sent to her final death. Sandy Seacrest is in trouble too.”
“What is wrong with him? Does Felipe have some sort of death wish?” Bartlett leaned forward dislodging the cat from his lap. “Something is seriously wrong with him. This level of miscalculation is completely out of character. I don’t like him; never have, but I know him as a smart adversary. What has changed?”
“Horst,” Maude said. “This is about Horst.” The other vampires looked at her. “Felipe may surround himself with women but he is a man’s man. I watched it with Victor Madden. He trusts men. Once he decides that some man is his friend and confidante he allows himself to be influenced.”
“What? Like some bromance gone bad?” Russell smiled.
“Say what you will. Felipe will set aside everyone around him in favor of that person. I’m not saying he’s having sex with them, although it would be helpful if he did. It’s more like they become best buds and they spend all their time together. Worse than little girls. They share secrets and spin schemes. Victor was smart enough to make places in the circle for people that could keep them solvent like Sandy and Angie. Looks like Horst is practicing scorched earth around the two of them so that it’s just Felipe all to himself.” Maude looked toward the fire. “I’m worried about my Pamela. Horst in Louisiana will not be good news for anyone here. But if they are grinding an axe for the Northman my Pammie could find herself in the bull’s eye.”
Stan frowned. “Well all the earmarks are there. Felipe’s fall is coming and unlike past failures this one will likely be played out in the public eye. We better hope it doesn’t get bloody.”
Russell looked directly at Stan. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We need Northman on this side of the Clan line. He’s smart and he gives everyone the right impression of who and what we are. If he’s in trouble would we be willing to throw him a lifeline.”
“You bet I would. I’d rather have him king than the caped crusader. What we don’t have is a reason for him to break his word to de Castro,” Maude added. “His sense of honor and plain pig-headedness could keep him feeling like he’s tied in place.” She looked around the table. “Face it, it’s one of the reasons we like him as much as we do. If he was an oath breaker how long would any of us trust him?”
The vampires nodded.
Then Russell leaned forward. “Well, if we are in agreement then I would like to share some information that came to me through Mr. Cataliades.” He paused allowing all eyes to turn to him. Bartlett’s eyebrows raised and Russell’s smile turned up to resemble the Cheshire Cat. “Eric Northman will be asking for our help. He and Sandy Seacrest wish to appeal to the Assizes court and petition to have Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas separated from Felipe de Castro. They will claim that the king has proven himself financially negligent in such a way as to endanger us all.”
Bartlett shot Russell a look that said, ‘we’re going to talk about your secrets later,’ then said out loud, “I don’t understand. Why doesn’t Northman just challenge him and be done with it? He could easily defeat De Castro in combat. It’s how it’s always been done.”
Stan leaned against the back of the chair and crossed his arms. “Think about it. How can he? If they fight and word gets out what does that say? If he fights and De Castro meets his final death, how do we explain that to all the reporters who are following this story?” Stan stroked his chin “So how will he structure this? Corporate takeover?”
“Too messy. It will be easier to approach the banks and have them turn up the heat. Let it all roll downhill and we can step in with a solution that swaps out poor management and inserts a known commodity. It’s a compelling argument. He is positioning Oklahoma for a long-term partnership with all of us. Louisiana and its resources fits right into the plan. We all stand to benefit and the outcome would be long-term stability.”
Maude smiled, “Northman would need to have our combined support for being named monarch. His maker has passed so there is no impediment. He has the requisite age and has demonstrated his abilities and trustworthiness.”
Bartlett shook his head. “Narayana might object. This has been a real coup for them; all this new territory.”
Maude lifted her eyebrows as she said, “I somehow don’t think they’ll object too much. What has this brought them really? Bad publicity. A bankruptcy looming. And it was Robert of California himself who sat as magister on the Sookie Stackhouse issue. I think Felipe is up shit creek and there’s no paddle in sight.”
Stan gave them a considering look as he spoke. “Zeus will want Oklahoma back. If that is not a part of the plan I could see them raising objections.”
Russell frowned then nodded his head. “Of course. Why not? Sandy would be an asset to any kingdom. It is only right that Oklahoma would return to the Zeus fold. I don’t expect that Northman would raise many objections. He can’t have fond memories of Oklahoma and he’s never shown a burning ambition to acquire territory. Like Northman she fits the criteria. I for one would welcome Sandy as Queen. She would fit right in with our little family and gatherings would increase by two from Zeus.” The other vampires nodded.
Bartlett turned to Maude. “How do you think Isaiah will react?”
Maude rolled her eyes. “I don’t think he’ll care one way or the other. Seems like our Kentucky friend has other concerns at the moment.”
Bartlett caught onto Maude’s mood. “Oh dear, this sounds good. What is he doing now that’s going to keep us laughing?”
Maude smiled and tilted her head a little. “Seems old Mr. Dour has caught a bit of the love bug. Our Miss Stackhouse made quite the impression. He called me himself and asked for adjacent sleeping chambers so he can use the country atmosphere for some serious courting.”
Russell suddenly became serious. Bartlett caught his lover’s mood shift immediately. “Russell, what is it?”
“Trouble,” Russell said. “Maude, do you have any impression that Miss Stackhouse has encouraged Isaiah’s interest in any way?”
Maude stopped smiling and leaned in. “No. Why?”
Russell made sure he had her full attention. “You need to discourage him immediately. She is Northman’s. Mr. Cataliades has it directly from her. Northman has reclaimed her and he intends to bond with her as soon as he is free to do so.”
“Oh shit,” Maude said. “This could get messy fast. Isaiah and his party are scheduled to be here tomorrow evening. Sookie and Thalia are traveling with him. Northman will be arriving about the same time. If I know Isaiah he is out communing with nature before he gets locked into his travel coffin. He won’t check his phone until sometime tomorrow. And how would I explain this in a text? I’ll try to get Isaiah alone as soon as he arrives and warn him off.”
“Well, now that we all know we should be able to help the situation,” Bartlett added and shot a quick look at Russell. “If we had all known earlier we might have been able to get ahead of it.” Russell grimaced. He could see that pillow talk tonight was going to be pointed; most likely pointed directly at him.
Maude nodded. “Sure hope so. I really like my stuff. Would hate to see it get broken up with some kind of territory fight.”
“Stuff broken may be the least of our worries,” Russell said.