NOTE: And now the countdown has started. Our heroes arrive at Amun Summit and Swimming to the Light draws towards a conclusion. Your reviews and your feedback have been much appreciated and I look forward to hearing how you like the ending of my first foray into fanfiction. I am working on the background materials that will form The Far Reach, which picks up where Swimming leaves off.
My thanks to my beta, Breathesgirl. She has been a tireless supporter as well as a sharp-eyed editor. If you do not see the amazing cover art, created by American Android, feel free to check it out on my blog at Natsgirl1 at wordpress.com.
Sookie sat back a little further in the limo as the car passed through the throngs of reporters. Cameras flashed and faces came close to the tinted windows. It appeared that the interest of the American public had turned to the world of vampires. Over the past five days leading up to the Summit a series of internet articles and television news stories had appeared that talked about the Clans and those who served as leaders to their vampires. There had been a very flattering interview with Bartlett Crowe that had been repurposed across multiple media channels. In it he described the kings and queens of the vampire community. He described their role as being elder statesmen to vampires residing in their respective areas. He outlined a hierarchy that seemed to blend a tribal structure with a corporate organization chart. He painted an appealing picture.
The article focused on Bartlett himself as being a typical state leader, or ‘king,’ in the vampire community. The monarch had discussed his roots in Elizabethan England and had volunteered a funny story about meeting John Donne. He stressed how grateful he and his fellow monarchs were to be living in the United States. He made clear that vampires viewed themselves subject to the laws of their country first and foremost. Through questions and answers Bartlett was able to make the point that vampires paid taxes and were expected to fulfill all the duties and obligations required of any other citizen. “The one exemption we do claim is from serving on juries because courts only operate during the day,” Bartlett had said.
The idea that there was royalty among them; “our own real royalty” had caught the imagination of the American public and overnight vampires were finding themselves thrust into the role of celebrity. For some the new attention was being taken in stride. For other monarchs it was making a difficult transition almost unbearable. Bartlett had done his best to contact the Clan heads and give them fair warning. His message to them summarized why this action was needed and apologized in advance for the changes it would necessitate. Within his own Clan Tennessee had made clear that he had no interest in operating under these circumstances. He would be formally resigning his position at the Summit and retiring to Europe where vampires were treated like everyone else.
Alabama, on the other hand, had been gleeful. She was actively engaged in converting this new interest in both her person and her compound into a tourist commodity from which she intended to take all the profits. When Bartlett had mentioned Alabama’s new business to Nabila, the Carolinas queen had shrugged. ‘”Class is as class does,” she’d sniffed.
Isaiah had not been among the group that whole-heartedly welcomed this new notoriety. He had bowed to the wishes of his Clan Chief, but he had also made it clear he would be limiting contact where possible. This evening’s opening reception was restricted to vampires and members of retinue. No members of the press were to be invited. Non vampire exhibitors for the Summit were also absent from the invitee list. Somehow the exclusivity of the guest list had only served to fuel the curiosity of the paparazzi. The press corps had formed outside the gates of the private estate that had been rented for the occasion before sunset and showed no sign of dispersing.
Things quieted down once the limo cleared the gate. The long driveway ended in a large circular area. When Eric, Sookie and Maude exited the car a cheer rose from the group at the gate and Eric turned towards them and waved. “Boy, you’re just eating this up, aren’t you Northman?” Sookie huffed, but she was having a hard time controlling her smile.
“Jealous, lover? I can’t help that I am so popular. Humans know quality when they see it.” Eric smirked down at her and Sookie smirked right back.
“Better get your butt in the house before your ego gets too big for the door,” she growled.
“That’s ‘Mr. World Class Butt’ to you, Miss Stackhouse,” he snarked back.
Maude couldn’t help but laugh out loud. “I swear watching the two of you is worth the price of admission!”
Maude had spent part of the trip telling them about Isaiah and his mistaken intentions. Eric had started growling but Sookie had laid a hand on his arm. “I feel terrible about this, Eric. He was kind to me. I can understand how he may have misunderstood.” Maude had assured them both that Kentucky would not interfere. Eric had looked less fierce but Sookie knew she was going to have to keep an eye on him. ‘Jealous Eric’ was generally ‘Badly Behaving Eric’ and that could lead to more trouble than they needed.
The party walked through the doors to see Isaiah, Russell and Bartlett standing in the foyer greeting guests. They all three bowed and the monarchs bowed in return. Sookie could see Isaiah’s nostrils flare and she suspected that it had something to do with the scent she now carried.
Sensing trouble, Bartlett moved quickly forward. “Miss Stackhouse, thank goodness! I hate to ask this but I need a favor and you are the only one who can help.” When Sookie raised her eyebrows, Bartlett continued. “Thalia has returned with our visitor and he seems anxious. Would you mind keeping him company for a bit?”
Sookie smiled brightly. She had to admire Bartlett’s quick thinking. Thalia had departed Minnesota for Jackson and had returned with their evening entertainment. Bubba had come to Nashville. He would not be expected to perform until later and if Sookie was sitting with him she wouldn’t be circulating.
Sookie and Eric had talked about the risk of her attending the Summit before the matter of fealty and territory was decided. Although they were not formally bonded the blood tie would be apparent to any supernatural. Quite simply she smelled like him. Eric had refused to allow Sookie to take Thalia’s blood as camouflage again. “It is done,” he said. “I will not allow any other the opportunity to question your place with me.” Thalia had snarled her disagreement but Eric had dug in his heels and refused to listen to any arguments. While Sookie had not liked Eric’s tone she found she didn’t want to hide either.
They had discussed just having Sookie miss the first opening days but Maude had cautioned against it. “We must look like a united front and that includes Sookie. There should be no question when the time comes for Eric to be recommended as king that she would naturally be at his side. “
Now they were here and Sookie wondered if waiting would have been safer. Sookie smiled and said, “It would be my pleasure, your majesty.” Bartlett stepped forward and with a parting smile to Eric, Sookie followed him through the hall and then ducked down a hallway. Eyes were lifted and their presence was noted as they walked by. There was a quick whisper that seemed to follow them but no one stopped their progress.
As they came to a closed door, Bartlett turned. “Well, mission accomplished. Your presence is noted but no one has been able to see you long enough to confirm the scent you carry.” The king reached for the doorknob, but before he turned the handle he looked directly into Sookie’s eyes. “You really do reek, you know. Nothing halfway about his marking his territory, is there?”
Sookie felt herself blushing. Bartlett smiled and shook his head as he pushed the door open.
‘Well hey, Miss Sookie!” Bubba looked good. He was well dressed; more formal evening than Vegas entertainer and Sookie found she was grateful. “It’s so good to see you! You know Mr. Thomas? He’s Mr. Isaiah’s man. He and Miss Karin have been taking care of me tonight.” Bubba leaned over and shot the telepath a tilted grin. “You wouldn’t believe how many cats they brought me. Good ones too! Never woulda thought Nashville had such tasty cats!”
Sookie found her smile transforming to her ‘Crazy Sookie’ smile and she tried not to think too hard about it. She looked over Bubba’s shoulder to meet Thalia’s eyes. “Well, you look really good Bubba. I’ve missed you. “
“I missed you too. In fact I think I missed you more than Mr. Bill. You know Mr. Bill isn’t coming to the Summit? He’s on a book tour in California and he couldn’t change it to come back. He said some of those Hollywood types? They want to make a movie out of his book. Isn’t that something?”
Sookie could feel her anger rising but she saw a kind of puzzled expression come over Bubba’s face after he talked about Hollywood. She shoved her rage back as she found herself wondering if Bubba had stumbled across some old memory. “What is it Bubba? You okay?”
Bubba looked a little lost again but then shrugged and seemed to just shake it off. “Weren’t nothing, Miss Sookie. Just felt funny for a minute. But you sure do smell like Mr. Eric. You fix up your marriage? It’s important to be married, Miss Sookie. A woman needs a good man and Mr. Eric is a good man.”
“You sure are right about that,” Sookie told him. Bubba and the telepath sat down and chatted about his travels through the kingdoms. Bubba told her stories about some of the vampires he had met. They talked about times in the past that Bubba had watched over her. Sookie felt herself relax. Bubba was nothing if not straightforward in his approach to everything. Sookie knew that unlike other vampires she had met, what Bubba said was what he meant, ‘and there is nothing wrong with that,’ she thought.
Eric found himself standing between Maude and Ralph of Kansas. Maude was her usual pleasant self but Eric had the impression she was keeping an eye on Isaiah. His impression was confirmed when Isaiah stopped his conversation, turned and lifted his goblet to the Minnesota Queen.
When Maude’s attention was distracted, Eric noticed that Ralph pulled himself up a little straighter; almost as though he was trying to grow another inch or two. When the Minnesota Queen turned back Ralph asked, “Are you thinking of renewing your affiliation with Kentucky, then?”
“Not in this lifetime,” Maude drawled. Maude turned her eyes back to the Kentucky king and raised her glass in answer. All parties knew that the conversation was perfectly heard and understood. Feeling more reassured that Isaiah would behave himself, she turned to Kansas. “And how were your travels? It isn’t often you come this way. We are honored,” and she bowed.
“My interests do not often intersect with those of Amun,” Ralph replied. “Although Iowa has been most helpful as of late. Her access to researchers has proved of benefit to some of the newer projects my industry is exploring.”
“I hear great things about your aerospace holdings. It sounds like your investments are very forward-thinking,” Eric offered. Ralph’s smile became tighter. As he looked up at the Viking he unconsciously pulled himself up again. ‘You are insecure,’ Eric thought, ‘and you don’t like me.’ The blond vampire made an effort to adopt his most charming pose. “Of course we have not really had the opportunity to spend much time together. I met you briefly when Freyda was walking among us.”
The dark vampire froze and a look of disdain flashed across his face before he settled back into a smile. “Freyda was a lovely woman. I had many opportunities to speak with her before her marriage. So tragic, the accident.”
Eric looked closely at the Kansas king. They were both aware that Freyda’s end had been no accident. There had been rumors that Kansas had sought her hand for himself. Eric now believed the rumors to have been true. “Yes, very tragic. I am afraid I did not make her happy. There would have been others that would have been better matches but my maker was determined to place me in the marriage. Freyda was poorly advised. “ Eric continued to watch Kansas as the monarch absorbed the news. Eric wanted to believe he saw some small improvement in the man’s attitude.
Then it was as though Ralph collected himself. He bowed to both Maude and Eric. “It is certainly tragic when the penalty for bad advice is a stake from your consort,” he said. His mouth twisted in a sneer and he turned on his heel and walked away.
Maude watched the shorter vampire stalk away from them. She turned to the Viking. “So tell me, Northman. Are you the one who staked her?” Eric lifted a brow and then shook his head.
“No. I refused when Felipe offered. Horst did the deed.”
Maude looked thoughtful. “Well if there were a way to prove that, Ralph might unbend. Otherwise I think you have at least one vote against your assuming a territory.”
Eric watched the king start speaking with Isaiah. “Yes, it would appear that way.”
From her position between Russell and Bartlett, the Carolinas queen, Nabila watched Northman and his party. When Kansas stalked away she turned her gaze to Bartlett. “You are not subtle. Your backing of Northman is clear.” She looked thoughtful as she sipped her blood. Her straight nose and high cheekbones made her look every inch the patrician she styled herself to be. There had been a time when she had dressed more humbly, using her darker skin and almond shaped eyes to blend among the mulatto population of Charlestown. She had found supporters there who understood her nature and chose to hide her. As the years passed she had built both wealth and reputation. She was now one of the great ladies of the city; a benefactor. That she was other may have been known but it would have been thought impolite to mention. When Maude’s laugh carried to them Carolina did nothing to hide her scorn. “Of course you should steer him to more worthy company. It will be hard to convince others to accept him if he is seen as just another unbathed yokel.”
Bartlett kept the smile plastered on his face. Russell stepped forward then, his southern accent just a little more pronounced. “Eric is that wonderful blend of new and old. He is able to do well in any company. So important these days.” When Nabila looked a little more mollified Russell added, “It’s always been one of the things I admired most about him; a sign of a true gentleman that he makes everyone feel so welcome regardless of their place in life.” Then the king smiled directly into the queen’s eyes until she smiled in return. Her lip turned up just a hair and she turned her gaze back towards the Viking.
After a minute she seemed to sweep the room. “Where did his pet go?”
“Who?” Bartlett answered.
“Northman’s pet? The little blond creature.” Nabila looked bored but Bartlett could see that her eyes were sharp.
“Blond?” Bartlett said and looked down as if trying to decode something. Then he looked up, his face showing some confusion. “Do you mean the Princess? Sookie Stackhouse? Or should I say Sookie Brigant?” Bartlett looked open-eyed at Russell. “I never know how to introduce her. So few people really appreciate or understand the place of the fae among us.” Then he turned back to Nabila, his look concerned and trusting, “But of course you are not most people, Nabila. You have always understood that there are those that are more important than others.”
Nabila looked down her long nose not bothering to hide her skepticism. “It’s odd I never heard about her before. I’m not sure why Niall wouldn’t have mentioned her unless,” she looked a little more closely at Bartlett, “unless she comes from the wrong side of some blanket.”
Bartlett found he was having trouble responding. The effort required to keep his temper in check was causing him to clench his back teeth. Russell almost purred beside him, “Actually quite the opposite. She is the favored granddaughter of his favorite son. He kept her hidden all these years to keep her safe from his enemies,” Russell smiled more broadly and shrugged, “and his friends.”
Nabila’s attitude seemed to shift and she turned back toward Eric. Beside her Russell said, “Of course Northman was the first one the Prince approached to protect her. The Prince has always known who is most trustworthy.” When he smiled up at the taller woman he could see that her stare had become somewhat less frosty.
Across the floor Eric found his gaze continued to creep back towards Isaiah. He had heard all the explanations. He had heard Sookie blaming herself. He knew intellectually that the situation was no one’s fault and it was over. But on some primal level Eric could feel himself tensing to spring. He could feel his muscles sing at the idea of ripping apart this male; any male who would presume to touch what was his.
“Eric, if you don’t shut it down right now you are going to force a challenge,” Maude said beside him. Eric shook himself then. He took an unnecessary breath and looked down at the woman beside him.
“Are you babysitting me, your majesty?” He smiled a broad smile showing his teeth. When Maude cocked an eyebrow at him he chuckled, “Perhaps you are right.” Eric tamped down his territoriality and said, “Let’s go over and properly greet our host.”
Maude shook her head and said, “Don’t make me regret this.”
As they walked across the floor towards the Kentucky king Pam and Sandy Seacrest entered the room. Pam saw Eric and her face broke into a wide smile. The two women continued their progress side by side until they stood before Isaiah. They both bowed and thanked him for inviting them to the reception. Eric and Maude came up behind them in time to hear Isaiah say, “Well it would seem that Narayana is well represented tonight.”
Eric bowed as Maude chuckled, “Yes, well represented.” Sandy straightened to meet the eyes of the Minnesota queen and introductions were made. Pam waited her turn and then fell into an embrace with her friend.
“Oh Pam, it is always the best of days when I get a chance to see you again,” Maude told her. “Being a boss agrees with you. I saw the coverage of the Los Angeles club. You are going to have to introduce Maxwell Lee to Phoebe Golden. I heard she was intrigued by the club’s architecture. Something about cantilevers and whether it was a one or two bucket house?”
Pam laughed. “That’s right! I had forgotten that Phoebe was also interested in design. Maxwell is in Shreveport, but I will pass along the message.” Then she turned to Eric. “You look well, master. Is she here?”
Eric nodded, “She is keeping Bubba company. Thalia is with her.” At Pam’s raised eyebrows Eric bowed, giving her permission to go in search of Sookie.
“Your progeny is fond of the telepath,” Isaiah said behind them. Eric felt his reaction bristle up his spine. He shoved his reaction down forcefully and turned, a smile on his face.
“Yes, both my progeny are friends with Sookie Stackhouse. They honor me with their attention to her.”
Isaiah smiled in a way that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “So you’re determined to keep her, then.”
Eric almost unconsciously drew himself up. He could feel Maude and Sandy tense beside him. It was only with difficulty that he managed to unclench his jaw and lean forward just a little. “I intend to bond myself to her. She is mine.”
Isaiah’s look turned considered. “Being a king is a different thing, Northman. Much of your life is not your own. It is a hard existence but with the right mate it can be easier. Watching Indiana and Mississippi I’ve come to appreciate that.” The monarch seemed to be turning something over in his mind. Then he appeared to have made a decision. “She is special, but I can see you know that. Sure hope you intend to make her life as pleasant as she’ll make yours.” Then the king bowed.
Eric found himself bowing in return. “I intend to do my best,” he said.
Sandy stood back and watched the interplay between the rulers. She identified Ralph from the many assembled. She would need to spend some time with him during the evening. She had a fair knowledge of the aerospace industry and thought she could probably hold her own. It would be good to establish relationships now if possible. After all, he would become a neighbor to the north. ‘Queen,’ she thought. It had never really occurred to her that she would ever find herself in this place. She knew she worked hard and that hard work was supposed to bring reward. But somehow all the opportunities had always passed her by. Frankly, she had come to peace with the idea that she would always be someone’s second.
When she had arisen at the hotel this evening it had been to a message from Horst. He had been in Nashville ahead of her. She was aware he had been trying to get in touch with her but she had found legitimate excuses. Now she had run out. Sandy would have to face him. She assumed that the meeting would be hostile and that she would have to be on her guard.
The reality had knocked her off balance. Horst was falling apart. He had sat across from her, his head in his hands, telling her how he was sure he was facing final death. Sandy almost found herself feeling sympathetic. His account of the debacle with Alabama actually made her laugh out loud, which, after Horst got over the shock, had him laughing too.
The queen had clearly decided to use the discussion as an opportunity to humiliate Nevada. The most legitimate demand had been that Felipe de Castro provide all the financing needed to open two casinos but agree to take less than 10 percent of the profits in return. The worst had been that the king should buy the Queen a herd of alpacas because she heard that their fur matched her hair and she wanted to create her own signature color. Alabama had kept him spinning for over three hours and then broken off the conversation telling Horst she had a spa appointment and to come back tomorrow. He could hear her laughter behind him all the way to the elevator.
There had been only one bright spot in the altogether gloomy trip; he had figured out what Sonny McMillan, the mixed martial arts impresario had over the king. Horst had had all the surveillance on the shifter pulled and put up on a server he could access from Nashville. He had personally watched hours of footage following McMillan all over Vegas. Once he realized that McMillan was accessing a safe deposit box in a particular bank it hadn’t taken long to order a local to glamour the attendant and get the box open. Inside there had been several zip drives. The material on the drives contained detailed accounts of payments made to McMillan by King de Castro both before and after the takeover of Louisiana. There were also payment records from the days of McMillan’s employment with Queen Sophie-Anne and Freyda.
Horst recognized that having this information become known would have implications for Eric Northman. At a minimum the Viking would break fealty. At worst he would challenge the king to a battle to the death.
There had been something else in the box as well. There was a drive that contained graphic videos of the shifter with the Stackhouse woman. Horst told Sandy that he was fairly certain that even if the shifter told the Viking of de Castro’s betrayal, Horst would be able to use the video drive to force the Viking to stay in line. After all it was all over Nashville that the Viking and the telepath were together. Eric Northman wouldn’t want those videos released. Horst had ordered the materials federal expressed to him at the hotel and he told Sandy that they had arrived.
Horst had ended by telling Sandy how grateful he was that she was willing to listen to him. He apologized for being an ass to her and told her how Felipe recognized her talent. In short, all was forgiven and Sandy was out of the tumbler and back in the king’s favor.
Horst had let Sandy know that he had no intention of attending the reception being thrown by Kentucky. “Alabama will be there and if I have to see her smug face again I may do something I’ll regret,” he told her. As the door shut behind him Sandy found herself wondering what Horst would do when he realized that she no longer cared what Felipe de Castro thought of her.
But now, as she looked at Nabila holding court, Sandy had a moment of doubt. She could never see herself standing so straight or managing to compel people just through her physical presence the way Carolina did.
But then Sandy found her eyes wandering to Maude. The Minnesota monarch was laughing openly at something that Isaiah had said. This queen was hearty and down to earth; her humor was catching and her personality was large. Sandy felt as much a stranger to Maude as she did Nabila, and yet there was something in the difference between the two that gave Sandy hope that she just might be able to pull it off.
The guests wandered into the largest room. Chairs had been set around to allow groups to sit together. There was an open area near one end that had a piano. Sandy and Eric walked into the area together. Eric found himself looking around for Karin. He could feel she was close but he hadn’t seen her yet. Pam walked from a corridor near the piano and extended her hand. Eric pulled her close and kissed her forehead. “All is well?” he asked her. Pam smiled up at him and nodded. “Have you seen Karin?” he asked.
Pam shook her head. “No, although it sounds like she and Thomas were busy catching dinner for Bubba.” Eric smirked and shook his head. “I wouldn’t worry about it. If something was wrong we would know it,” Pam told him.
“Of course,” Eric agreed. He motioned toward a grouping of chairs that were off to the side and toward the back but Pam caught his hand.
“Why don’t you go back and join Sookie. Bubba was nervous and she agreed to sit near the piano so he could see her.” Pam beamed at him. He could feel her happiness; her pleasure. He smiled and nodded, looking in her eyes.
“Thank you, my Pam,” he said and turned. As he walked toward the piano a fan was set up blowing air back toward the microphone. Bubba walked forward, Sookie’s arm linked through his. She went up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek and then Bubba took the telepath’s hand and placed it in Eric’s.
The familiar face looked up at the Viking and as Eric took her hand in his Sookie heard Bubba say, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”