NOTE: Thank you to my wonderful beta reader. You are simply awesome!
En route – Owatonna, Minnesota
Isaiah leaned back against the banquette seating in the main cabin of the jet. The flight from Louisville to Minneapolis was so short that he never really settled. Taking away time for traffic and loading, the pure air time was under two hours. Still, it gave him time to watch the woman who was chattering with his guards in the back of the plane. He watched the way her face became animated in the telling of some story and how she lit from within when the group erupted into laughter. It had been a long time since any creature had engaged his interest, but Isaiah found himself admitting that engaged he was.
The king had misgivings when he found that he was Sookie Stackhouse’s first assignment under the new contract. Isaiah had a series of negotiations he needed to finalize so that contract ratification could take place in Nashville at the upcoming Summit. Having a telepath at the table seemed a prudent move. On Bartlett and Russell’s recommendation he’d signed on and within 24 hours had risen to find her in his compound along with Thalia. Of course he knew Thalia – who didn’t? He also knew that she was playing bodyguard to the Stackhouse woman. What he hadn’t anticipated was the woman herself.
He remembered Sookie Stackhouse from Rhodes. He had found the telepath to be irritating and crass. She had been a member of the Louisiana queen’s retinue. She had also somehow ended up bonded to Eric Northman who was one of Queen Sofie-Ann’s sheriffs. Isaiah had been aware that the telepath was being used by the Queen and her child Andre to run interference when he had hinted at a marriage. That interference hadn’t sat well with him. He had the distinct impression that she was nothing more than a human pawn who was being used by Louisiana but by the end of the Summit he realized there was something wrong with his theory. For one thing his Britlingen guards had developed an odd respect for the woman. He also found out that she had had a hand in sounding the alarm that got him out of the hotel before the explosion.
He had heard stories that made her out to be some kind of vampire killer. Her name was linked to a handful of assassinations and another dozen killings involving supernaturals. There was some larger than life story claiming she killed a fairy with an improvised dagger in her own backyard. Based on what he’d seen and heard from her he wondered how rumors like that could have been believed by anyone. But then again he came from a time when news was carried up and down the frontier by word of mouth. Creating tall tales was a way of life. Isaiah never underestimated the ability of people to take a small truth and spin it into a large lie.
When Sookie had bowed before him in his throne room he had felt certain that all his initial impressions were right. She was wearing ridiculous shoes with heels that caused her to walk like a cripple. Her clothes were too tight and she was flashing the cleavage of her breasts like some hussy barmaid. She looked like every other gold-digging human whore who had come to his front door hoping to snag a vampire and the riches that came with him. He couldn’t see any way that this foolish looking creature could be the smart, cunning woman that others described.
He might have dismissed her and made sure that his time with her was limited. But it was Thalia’s devotion to watching over her that had given him pause. He could see no clear reason that a vampire of her stature would spend any amount of time with someone who looked so disposable. Yet, there the legendary fighter stood, bowing to him and deferring to her. As a man with a long history of watching for signs along the trail he found he couldn’t discount the idea that there might be something about this; something more.
When it had come time to sit down and prepare for the upcoming negotiations Isaiah had purposely delegated the task to his second, Thomas. This would allow the king to sit to the side and observe the telepath.
Sookie had listened carefully to everything that was said. Then she started asking questions. She asked about the ultimate goal for the talks (long term relationship and not a short term transaction), how well the parties knew each other (it was their first business dealings), what possible concerns might the other party have aside from the predictable nervousness about interacting with vampires. With each question Isaiah found his initial impression became harder and harder to hold.
Sookie Stackhouse was direct, disarming and had some innate ability to get to the heart of the matter. She didn’t shy from asking tough or personal questions. She was able to show deference but at the same time she was able to avoid looking like a boot licker. When his second, Thomas, would show any sign of frustration or irritation with the number of inquiries Sookie would inject humor into the conversation. Soon Thomas was giving away too much information and Isaiah found himself condoning it just to see what would come out of her mouth next.
Over the next few days Sookie demonstrated that her insight and political savvy was more than a one-time thing. At one point during a key discussion point she turned to one of the men authorized to make decisions for her opponent and said, “Mister, you better take your mind off my boobs and listen close to what you are being told. This is an important point and you shouldn’t concede it because you can’t get over my tits.” When he had blushed and stammered she had softened it by telling him that vampires tended to have the same problem. Just the way she said it had the whole table chuckling in a friendly way. It had been a turning point and the tone of the negotiations had shifted to become more conversational than adversarial.
Isaiah had asked her about the comment later that night. It started their first real conversation. They sat outside on a veranda overlooking woods and a stream. They talked about living in the country and the way that nature could speak to you. Isaiah had expressed his surprise that a human would feel the kind of deep connection to nature that formed the backbone of his own personal belief system. Sookie told him that she figured being more supernatural than human had her looking at nature differently than most.
“I didn’t know you were supernatural,” Isaiah had stammered. It had never occurred to him that she might be other. Isaiah knew his sense of smell was not especially keen. His tracking abilities were almost entirely visual. He wondered if that may have contributed to his not recognizing her true nature.
Sookie had flashed a dazzling smile then and laughed in a way that found him almost involuntarily smiling back. “Well, I can understand how folks would think that. I believed it growing up. But turns out I’m a hybrid. In most ways I look and act human but I’m a fairy.”
Before he could stop himself, Isaiah had said, “Well that explains why you’re so sweet.” As soon as it was out of his mouth he felt awkward.
But Sookie had just smiled and patted him on the arm. “Well that is just so kind of you to say! And I appreciate it,” and she had just moved the conversation along in a way that made him feel not awkward at all.
The next night after negotiations wrapped up Isaiah invited the entire party on a riverboat cruise that sailed up the Ohio River. Normally Isaiah found these kinds of social events tedious. He found he didn’t do small talk well and invariably he would retreat to some corner, leaving his retinue to perform most of the entertaining. But this time was different. Sookie had drawn him into the conversation in such a disarming way. The next thing he knew he was telling stories of when he had been a young man exploring the Ohio in a canoe and his adventures and misadventures along the way. Unlike every other time he found the humans seemed to warm to him. His own people were smiling and bowing in a different way. A band started to play and his new partners took turns asking Sookie to dance. Isaiah found he couldn’t take his eyes off her.
With an instinct born of years of experience he became aware that he himself was being watched. He turned to see Thalia’s dark eyes staring at him. The king faced her, drew himself up and then briefly bowed his head. The fierce woman bowed more deeply. He noticed that when she rose she was not smiling. She turned back to watch the telepath and Isaiah found himself wandering to the rail to watch the lights of land as they slid by.
He considered that some part; maybe the most part of the legend of Sookie Stackhouse might be true. She might be that paradox which had been the hallmark of the women of his human years; modest and kind-hearted with a backbone of steel and the temperament of an angel. Isaiah chided himself. He was being foolish. He told himself that he was making things up that he wanted to see. After all, he really didn’t know anything about her. He felt certain that once he had facts he would see this pull for what it was; a groundless infatuation driven by proximity and his own loneliness.
She had told him she was a country woman. Isaiah felt that he could prove that to be a lie. Isaiah issued an invitation to Sookie, Thalia and members of his retinue to come for a tour of the local caves. Surely the telepath would either show up in her high heels or would decline outright. It would prove that she was not what she said. But she had surprised him. He found her appropriately dressed in sturdy boots and well-worn jeans. Isaiah had arranged the standard guided tour, but then the guides turned his party loose into more unexplored portions of the caves. With the king’s night vision and perfect recall Isaiah had navigated the party through the caverns with relish. Rather than being anxious or ill at ease Sookie had been enchanted by the network of chambers and expanses. She would shine her light on the stalactites and stalagmites and exclaim over the colors and the shapes. She told him about growing up in Louisiana and pretending to be an explorer with her brother Jason. Since the water table was so high they hadn’t had real caves so Sookie and her brother would build burrows with local brush. Sookie laughed as she told him stories of how they would pretend to be pirates with caves filled with treasure.
When confronted by uneven rock or small walls the telepath would happily scramble on hands and knees, laughing at the mud. At one point she had pushed back her hair and left a dirt swipe on her cheek. Isaiah had watched his own hand rise to the woman’s face almost as if it had a mind of its own. Thalia had inserted herself between them before Sookie ever registered his movement. Thalia handed Sookie a rag and the woman had wiped the mark from her face, smiling and making jokes. Isaiah realized that any doubts he had as to her authenticity were gone. He found that with each glance and smile he was becoming more of a watcher than Thalia. He couldn’t keep his eyes from her.
On the way back to the compound he decided to ask his questions. “I’ve heard stories about you.”
She had smiled warmly at him. “Well, why don’t you tell me what you’ve heard and I’ll tell you if it’s true. Thalia back here,” and she jerked her head a little to indicate the vampire in the back seat, “she’s had my blood so she can be your lie detector.”
Isaiah had started then. He wondered if she realized just how deeply skeptical he had been. “I have heard that you have killed vampires. Surely that is an exaggeration.”
Sookie shook her head and laughed a little. “Nope, no exaggeration. More true that I like to admit. In fact there’s been a few.” Then she looked at Thalia before she continued. “There was Lorena Ball. Oh, and there was Bruno, Victor Madden’s second. And I did have a hand in Victor Madden’s demise, although I’m not really sure how common that knowledge is.” Isaiah found his eyes getting wider. He had not thought that this petite southern woman would be counting off kills like they were so many pies she made on a summer afternoon. “Course those were just the vampires. There were others of course, Weres and fairies and such. Seems like I had a tough stretch of luck there where folks would come after me on a pretty regular basis.”
Then she had smiled at Thalia. “If Thalia has her way I’ll be all trained up so I never have to worry about getting too close ever again. I’ll be so good at throwing knives that I’ll be able to stick them at twenty paces!” and she had laughed. Thalia had also smiled and Isaiah couldn’t help but find himself aroused by the paradox. This woman had proven herself to be kind and charming, yet she was also fierce and deadly.
Everyone in his court had known about the motion Felipe de Castro had filed. He had not mentioned it to Sookie directly but he had made up his mind that if she was ordered to return to De Castro’s area he would offer to bond with her. A bond with a king would supersede any court order. He told himself that it was the act of a friend; that it was only a kindness returned.
When she had received the phone call he had known immediately that it was the demon lawyer. He had hovered in the hallway anxious to be of service. When he heard her yell he ran into the room, unable to stop himself.
Sookie’s smile had looked like a burst of sunshine and before he could even register his surprise she had thrown herself into his arms. In that moment he had felt his heart lurch. He had spun her around and around and had felt that he wanted her there within his arms forever. Then the moment had passed and she had been embarrassed. He attributed it to a womanly modesty and his estimation of her character rose again.
They were to be transported to Minnesota tomorrow. He called Maude that night and asked the Queen to place Sookie near his own rooms. He remembered the Owatonna area well. The fields and streams around the property were lovely. It was too early for fireflies but he was sure that he could talk Sookie into walking with him under the moon and stars. He felt that she filled some part of him that was missing. She seemed to enjoy his company. It wouldn’t matter that she was a hybrid. He would have her by his side; not a queen since vampires couldn’t accept that status for one not their own but as his consort. As he watched her he considered that there were other benefits to consider. Her body looked bounteous. ‘Yes,’ Isaiah thought, ‘we will have many happy years together.’
Isaiah and his retinue were driving up the long driveway. Sookie had never seen a landscape so flat. The sky above them seemed to stretch forever and the stars looked so close. She wondered how anywhere could feel so vast. The house was still some distance in front of them. It was set among a grove of mature trees. There were places that the ground seemed to dip and swell around them. There was a scent in the air of rich soil and something else that sang to her of spring.
Sookie had been feeling a headache since rising and as each hour passed the pressure seemed to increase. As they approached the house she saw the lights blazing suddenly she found herself in Bon Temps pulling up to her own home. It was that terrible night when she had gone to see Jason and Michele. It was the night Sam had beaten her and abused her. It was her house ablaze in the dark. Her breath was hitching and she started trembling. She could feel a wave of warmth flow over her like a deep, heavy blanket. She looked behind her, her eyes wild. Thalia was staring at her. The dark-haired vampire didn’t say anything, but Sookie could tell that Thalia had felt her panic and was trying to intercede. Sookie found her breath slowing. She kept her eyes on Thalia and the flashback that had ensnared her seemed to recede.
The cars pulled into the yard and the doors opened. Thalia was immediately in front of her putting her arm around Sookie’s waist. Maude herself came through the doors to welcome them. Thalia bowed her head and said, “Sookie is unwell. She needs to rest.” Maude took one look at Sookie’s pale face, nodded and gestured to one of her women. Sookie felt a dizziness overcoming her and she realized her knees were buckling. Isaiah was stepping forward but Thalia blocked him. She picked the telepath up and carried her as one would a child.
Thalia locked eyes with the Kentucky king. Her look was so fierce that Isaiah found himself taking a step back. Only then did Thalia turn and follow the servant into the Queen’s house.
Maude stood next to Isaiah. “Is Miss Stackhouse well?”
Isaiah looked at Maude, his expression troubled, “I don’t know. She has been fine all week; more than fine”. Maude lifted an eyebrow before giving Isaiah a bright smile and turning to head back into the house. The byplay between the king and Thalia had allowed Maude to feel even more confident that nothing had changed between the young woman and Northman. Isaiah might be stubborn and too taciturn for his own good, but she was happy she could get him away from the danger he couldn’t see. But she knew Isaiah. He would be angry if she tried to talk about anything personal anywhere within earshot of others, even if those people knew about it. Isaiah was deeply personal and while she’d laugh at his peculiarities she would never purposely make him uncomfortable. After seeing him step forward towards the Stackhouse woman Maude knew that discussing Northman and the telepath was bordering on a topic that Kentucky would find fell into the personal category.
As they walked into the hallway Stan emerged from the back of the house. He walked directly up to Isaiah and greeted him warmly. The two monarchs spent some minutes talking about the outcome of Isaiah’s latest contract talks. Stan stood to benefit since the parts produced would be used by Stan’s pipeline operations. He was anxious to have a domestic source for the parts and let it be known he preferred to do business with other vampires. Maude nodded and contributed to the conversation, but found herself becoming anxious. She needed to find an opportunity to pull Isaiah away. It looked like the conversation was winding down when there was another commotion from the yard. Eric Northman’s group had arrived.
The activity level escalated yet again. The kings and Eric all retired to the kitchen meeting room while servants bustled with luggage and room assignments. Karin bowed to Maude and then left to follow the servants and make sure that room arrangements suited.
Karin noticed that her maker had been placed at the end of a long hallway. There only appeared to be one other door at this end of the house and it was directly opposite. Karin had assumed that the unopened door led to her own room but the servant had shaken her head and led her to another wing of the house. This wing had more doors. She recognized her counterpart, Thomas, from Isaiah’s court coming toward her. “Greetings, Karin. It’s good to see you again. You will be here on this wing?”
Karin nodded. The younger vampire smiled. “Well, perhaps we could find entertainment together. I am there at the end on the left.” He gestured in the direction. “My king is directly across but I understand he is planning on walking out this evening with the Stackhouse woman. He’s taken with her; we all are. I think he hopes to bring her back with us.” The vampire raised his hand to stroke Karin’s face. There had been occasions when they had found pleasure in each other’s beds. The encounters were never long-lived but they had been pleasurable for both parties. Thomas smiled wryly. “We would have plenty of privacy. I believe my king intends to pursue the telepath most vigorously”
Karin considered what she was hearing. Sookie and Isaiah? There was something in the image that clicked; a safe and acceptable answer. The Stackhouse woman would be well protected and Eric would be free of her. She found herself smiling and in a better mood than she had been in weeks. “Well, Thomas you are looking good too,” and she gave him a flirty smile. “I’ll consider your offer. I’m sure we’ll see each other once things settle down tonight.” Karin ran her fingers down his arm, then turned on her heel and headed back toward Eric’s room. As she was approaching the door across from her maker’s room opened and Sookie Stackhouse herself stepped out and into the hall. Karin couldn’t believe it. It was as though a line of dominoes were falling; each one perfectly in place.
“Karin!” Sookie exclaimed in surprise. Karin noticed how pale the telepath looked. “Is Eric here?”
Karin smiled at her. “Yes, Sookie, my maker has just arrived. I came ahead to get things settled and to look for you.” Karin schooled her face into one of concern. “Sookie, you look pale. Why don’t I take you to his room? He will be in meetings with the other monarchs for several hours. You can spend that time resting. You know he’ll wake you up when he is done. You know he’ll be happy to see you.”
Karin led her to the door. She watched the telepath walk to the large bed and lay herself down in the middle of it. She waited until she was sure Sookie was settled and she pulled the door shut. Then she walked back to see Thomas.
Eric followed the servant back to the Queen’s kitchen. While he had never visited the Minnesota monarch before he had heard stories from Pam. His child had told him of the informal atmosphere and warned him not to be fooled. When Eric walked through the door he was met with the sound of laughter. The kings Crowe and Edgington were lounging in chairs, cups of blood in front of them. Bartlett appeared to be engaged in telling some story involving night fishing and using torches. “…and he leaned over and the next thing we knew he’d set the man’s pants on fire…
“It wasn’t intentional, Bartlett!” Russell growled. He turned his head and saw Eric. “Northman!” The king stood up and walked forward to greet the Viking. “You are here! We have been waiting for you.” Eric made to bow but Russell tutted at him. “Never mind all the bowing. Maude will just rail at you. There’s a chair over there. Take off the suit jacket and make yourself at home!”
As Eric glanced around the room he felt distinctly overdressed. Stan was smiling from one end of the room. Bartlett had stopped his story but remained seated to accommodate a large tabby cat that was sprawled over his lap. Russell brought forward a cup of blood and set it in front of an open chair with his own hands rather than wait for a servant. Eric felt that he had stepped into some alternate version of the universe he thought he knew so well.
When he remained standing Bartlett chuckled, “Come on, don’t tell me the famous red carpet booty dancer is tongue tied? Sit down and let’s talk about this takeover you’re planning.” Eric’s eyebrows rose but he could sense no tension in the room. He walked to the chair that had been offered and sat.
He swept the room again, noticing that Maude appeared to be missing. “Is the Queen available?” he asked. “I have messages for her from Pam.”
Stan shook his head. “She’s with Isaiah. I expect they’ll be here soon. In the meantime, tell us about Narayana. Heard California made an appearance.”
Russell leaned forward, “Don’t worry Eric. You are among friends now. Mr. Cataliades has shared your goals with us and we are in favor of supporting your break from De Castro.” He smiled broadly at Bartlett. “In fact we’ve been ready for this for months.”
Bartlett added, “Now it’s just a matter of determining how to frame the request and getting it in front of the Assizes court in Nashville. I assume you won’t object to being named king.”
Eric felt as though a great weight had lifted from him. ‘At last my luck changes,’ ran through his mind. He reached out to Sookie and he felt her, faintly for the first time in weeks. He couldn’t help but smile and he lifted his goblet. “To new ventures.”
Maude stood next to Isaiah and watched him carefully as Thalia carried the telepath into the house. She had noted the way the king had started forward when the Stackhouse woman had stumbled. She had watched the preemptive move Thalia had made, purposely cutting Kentucky off. Thalia’s action had bordered on insult and her subsequent look could have earned her combat. That Isaiah backed off spoke to the degree of confusion he was experiencing.
Maude knew Isaiah well. Their marriage had been more strategic than affectionate, but their time together had given them an affinity that allowed them to assess and address their mutual needs. Minnesota knew Kentucky to be a proud and silent man. That he would reveal this much of himself spoke volumes.
Once the others had walked into the house toward the kitchen, Maude had touched Isaiah’s sleeve. She motioned with her chin toward the nearby door that opened to the outside. “A minute?” she asked.
The king had nodded and they had settled into a companionable silence as they walked. Once clear of the house Maude nudged him with her shoulder. “She is a winsome person, Old Paint. Pretty and smart. I understand the attraction.” Isaiah hadn’t replied but neither had he protested. Instead he kept his eyes forward and continued to walk. Maude allowed the silence to stretch between them before saying, “You need to know she is already tied to someone.”
Isaiah never slowed as he said, “She doesn’t look tied. If she was tied to someone Felipe wouldn’t be going after her.”
Maude stopped. After a minute Isaiah stopped too. He turned to her. “I like her Maude. She suits me.” He looked toward the trees. “She makes me laugh. I’m a better person when I’m with her.” Maude felt her heart clench just a bit.
“You’ve been alone a long time Isaiah.” He nodded and started to walk back to the house.
“I need to change my clothes,” he said.
“Of course,” Maude said, her tone lighter. “I’ll show you where I have you placed.”
“Add another wing?” he asked.
“You know me,” she smiled. “Restless. I always seem to find another excuse to bring more people in and then I need a roof to offer them.”
Once inside Maude steered him through the building until they came to the doors at the end of a hall. Maude smiled and swung the door open and then stopped. She put her arm across the door, barring Isaiah’s entrance. She could see a woman’s figure huddled in the middle of the bed. She had been sleeping soundly and her scent was heavy in the room.
“Sookie,” the king said behind her and tried to step forward.
“Stop!” Maude hissed. “Don’t you recognize a honey trap when you see one?” She looked up at him her fangs descended. “Listen to me Isaiah. She may not smell like him but she belongs to Eric Northman. I don’t know why she’s in your bed but this is not right.”
“Perhaps you are not so happy for me, old friend,” Isaiah hissed back. Maude reared back, her mouth pulled tight.
“You would say that? You forget yourself!” Then she caught her temper. “If I’m right and you step into this room your scent will be on her. There will be no explaining it.” Maude caught his eyes again. “Allow me to walk in first and wake her. If she calls for you I’ll leave. I’ll do everything I can to support you to Northman and anyone else. But if she calls out for Northman, you need to go get him. Do you agree?” Maude waited until the king nodded. “You stay here,” she said with a glance at the floor outside the door.
Maude walked forward into the dark room. She reached to the bedside table and turned on the light. Then she sat lightly on the side of the bed and gently shook the telepath. Sookie groaned and then rolled toward her. She opened her eyes, squinting a little, a sleepy smile on her face. “Eric?” she mumbled.
“No child. Not yet. It’s Maude.”
Sookie’s eyes opened wider. She got a worried look on her face. “Is Eric okay? He’s still coming, right?”
“Yes, child. Your Eric will be here. But we should get you returned to your own room. There has been a mix up and you’re in the wrong place. He won’t know where to find you.”
Sookie looked confused but accepted the Queen’s offered hand. As Maude helped her stand she glanced toward the door. Isaiah was gone.