Author’s Note: Thank you to my readers and thank you to everyone who has taken time to send me commentary, questions or messages. You inspire me. A huge Thank You to my wonderful beta readers, Breathesgirl and Ms Buffy. In spite of my rather stubborn bad habits they persevere and their efforts have a tremendous impact on the work that you enjoy.
Nautical Note: A rip current, sometimes called a rip tide, is a current that runs along shore and then takes a sharp turn into the open water. People caught in a rip current can find themselves suddenly thrust from safe places to danger before they are even aware.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Sookie hadn’t had to wait long with Mr. Cataliades. There was a noise at the door and she looked up to see Eric. She couldn’t believe how her heart leaped and her misgivings evaporated just because he was smiling at her. One part of her shook its head at her silliness, but another part of her wanted to run and throw herself into his arms. She figured that had to be the stronger part because in spite of everything she’d heard, all the caution she knew she should exercise, she flung open the doors to their bond within her and let her emotions flow freely.
In that moment Eric was with her in every way. He physically stepped forward and grasped her hands as she staggered back, the impact of opening herself to his emotions still so new. He wrapped her in his arms. “Min älskade,” he whispered. She knew now what he was saying, “My Beloved.” She was his beloved and she could feel with every fiber of her being that he was her beloved too. She could have stood there forever, Eric holding her to his chest, his warm, dry scent fresh in her nostrils, a mere echo of the warmth and comfort that he was pulling around her through their bond.
From his seat, Mr. Cataliades cleared his throat and Eric’s embrace loosened. “I have just had the unpleasant task of informing Miss Stackhouse about Alabama’s marriage request,” the attorney proclaimed rather coldly.
Sookie could feel the rage seething in Eric while he simultaneously roared, “You overstep yourself!”
“On the contrary, Your Majesty,” the attorney asserted, his voice clipped and not at all intimidated, “I informed you when we met in Oklahoma that my first priority is and will continue to be representing Sookie. I view my responsibilities as more than her counsel. I have informed her, and you, that I view my role as guardian. It was negligent of you not to have informed her before now.” At his words, Eric took a step toward the demon.
Sookie grabbed Eric’s arm. “Stop it!” she exclaimed, and then looked in the lawyer’s direction. “Both of you!” she added.
“It is reprehensible that you were not told when it was made clear you would be screening guards. It is only luck that you did not hear this news from one of them.”
Sookie could feel Eric’s surprise, and then regret. Sookie squeezed Eric’s arm and sent him affection. “Mr. Cataliades, I do appreciate you telling me about this. You’re right, it would have hurt to have heard it from strangers. However, it’s something that Eric and I will discuss privately later.” Sookie could now feel surprise and a sense that Eric was pleased with her reaction. She wondered what he would say if she told him that the only reason she was so calm was because she was worried about telling him her own bad news.
Fortunately, the atmosphere between the Viking and Mr. Cataliades seemed to have reached détente and Sookie sat down, pulling Eric to sit beside her. He chose to sit on the arm of the chair and drape his arm around her shoulders. “Is everything ready for Iowa?” Sookie asked.
Mr. Cataliades nodded. “Yes. I will travel with you and your guards to Jackson to meet with the kings” Russell Edgington remained the telepath’s primary contact for assignments governed by her Amun Clan contract, and this first stop was necessary. “There will be a car to pick us up in two days. We can discuss the terms of the general agreement on the drive. Once we reach Jackson we will be able to walk through the terms with Mississippi. As the Amun Clan agreement is primary, it will be necessary to make sure that the King does not perceive the Pack Agreement as creating a conflict of interest. Frankly I don’t think there will be a problem. Still,” the attorney smiled, “it is important to give your primary employer this courtesy.”
Eric looked at Sookie with surprise. “You sound as if you are planning to perform this Sachem work for more than just the Shreveport Pack,” he huffed.
“I think that’s entirely possible,” Sookie confirmed, and then she laid her hand on his arm while she pushed caution at him. Eric’s response was a distinct frown and something that bordered on surly. Sookie sighed. Something more to discuss when they were alone, she realized.
The trio discussed the rest of the travel arrangements. From Jackson, Sookie would fly on alone with her guards to Ames, Iowa and stay as a guest in the home of Phoebe Golden. Maude would also be there and both vampires were expected to participate in talks that were scheduled to complete a deal with a pharmaceutical company. Between tours of the college, the research facilities, and the usual social activities, Sookie could expect to be gone as long as a week, maybe more.
Once Sookie returned home, there would be several weeks during which she and Eric would be together (‘Eric, me, and the entire kingdom,’ she thought), and then would come the Zeus Summit in San Antonio. Sookie could tell Eric was feeling tense about the Summit. She made a mental note to add it as just one more thing to talk over once they were alone. For herself, she was looking forward to seeing Stan and her other friends she had made in Texas. Then she had another thought. “Do you think we’ll see Sandy Seacrest there?” Sookie asked.
Eric had smiled then. “Yes, I expect we’ll see quite a bit of Sandy. I haven’t had the opportunity to speak with her since Nashville, but the rumor is that she grabbed the reins quickly and has Oklahoma moving along well.”
“She owes you a debt for the way you built up that kingdom, Your Majesty,” Mr. Cataliades offered, and with that statement, the olive branch was extended and Eric accepted it by asking whether Mr. Cataliades would be willing to go on retainer to assist with his on-going bank squabbles.
The talk had drifted to the subject of the Coronation. Mr. Cataliades, who was now beaming broadly, agreed to draft the traditional contract between the king and the kingdom. It was largely a ceremonial document, but it was expected, and having one lent a certain legitimacy to the whole affair. “It will be very busy for you,” the attorney observed, “A month until Zeus, and then only another month and a half until the coronation. Your team will have little leisure time.”
Eric had agreed and Sookie felt the sadness within him. She figured that this might be the kind of pressure he had faced after surviving Felipe’s takeover. If that time was any indication, there would be precious little Sookie time.
“Still,” the attorney continued, “If you succeed, you will stand among the first of the vampires across the country. You may even find yourself being named Clan Chief.”
Sookie had always believed that Eric was ambitious. It was something that she used to think was his primary motivator. Lately she had altered that opinion a bit, conceding that Eric did act sometimes for reasons other than his own self-interest, but as Mr. Cataliades said the words, the telepath could clearly feel her vampire’s desire. She could understand how that kind of notice among his peers was something Eric would want badly, and Sookie hoped that the smile she gave him and the purposeful pride she pushed his way hid her inner conflict.
As soon as they had agreed to meet the day after next out front at seven in the morning, Eric had taken it as the signal to pull her to her feet and escort her rather firmly to the elevator. The trip upstairs was swift, and Sookie barely had a chance to nod at the guards positioned near the door before Eric had swept her into the room, and then pushed her against the near wall.
Eric sank to his knees before her and used both hands to push the hem of her skirt higher. “Spread your legs,” he whispered into her skin, and then he buried his face in her, his nose parting her lower lips and his tongue darting out to taste and flick. “I’ve been thinking about this since we went downstairs,” he growled against her, the vibration of his voice adding to the sensation. “You walking around, waiting and open to me.” Eric brought one hand down to hold her open so he could more easily access her with his tongue. Sookie arched her back, pressing herself against Eric’s face. The vampire gripped her hip to hold her steady, and then stood up with a soft growl. Keeping his eyes on hers, he grabbed the hem of the sundress in the middle and ripped it apart as easily as if it was a piece of paper. Eric stood back, his eyes burning as he took in her breasts still contained in the red lace bra, her dress hanging open on both sides of her. “Mine,” he growled in a way that was every inch the predator he was and stepped forward again, cupping her with his long fingers.
“Mine!” Sookie growled back and brought her own hands around his head to pull him to her. Eric crashed his lips to hers, and then stooped to pick her up and wrap her legs around his hips, stepping forward and pressing her against the wall once more. Sookie pushed back enough to be able to fumble with his belt buckle, and then his pants. When she finished with the button and the zipper, the vampire’s pants fell to puddle around his ankles. Eric’s cock stood hard and erect between them, and he stooped again to rub it along her aching core.
“Put me where I belong,” Eric told her, his fangs descended. Sookie reached down and positioned him at her center. She could feel him pressing at her entrance. “Place your hands on my shoulders,” he whispered in a husky voice.
Then Eric stilled, his head turned a little, and he looked at the closed doors beside them. “Hold on,” he sighed and he turned, shuffle-walking to the small conference table that sat nearer the far wall.
Eric positioned her on the edge of the table. “Lean back,” he told her. Eric supported Sookie until she was fully reclined and looking up at the ceiling. “Hold onto the edge of the table,” he instructed, and wrapped her fingers to show her what he wanted. When she had done as he asked, he smiled and brought her legs up so that her feet were resting on his shoulders. Gripping her hips, he slammed himself home. Sookie could feel her breasts bounce with the force of him entering her and she gasped! Eric brought his thumb down over her clit, playing with her when he withdrew, and then gripping her hip, he pushed himself firmly into her again. “You are perfect,” he rasped.
Eric settled into a rhythm. Withdraw, rub her clit, push forward. Withdraw, rub, push forward. Sookie could feel the tension beginning to build. She held onto the table, her fingers starting to ache with the pressure that holding the edge caused. Then Eric began to pick up speed. He was moving in a way that deliberately had his cock hitting her at different angles, building her anticipation, yet delaying her ability to find completion. Finally he abandoned her clit, pulled her a little further forward, and used his public bone to provide friction against her clit instead. “Eric, Eric, Eric…” Sookie began to chant.
Her Viking’s back arched and she could feel the bunching of his muscles when her own orgasm took hold, her walls contracting so strongly that he could do little more than rock within and against her. She could feel every inch of him as her walls milked him. When he roared, his head thrown back and pushing deeply, she swore she could feel each pulse while he emptied himself within her. Eric groaned, shuddered, and then draped over her, his head above hers and his fangs prominent in his open mouth. Sookie didn’t hesitate. She struck his upper chest, drawing blood with her teeth. Eric took her arm, brought it to his mouth, sinking his fangs into the soft flesh between her wrist and her elbow, and they lay there drifting in the rapture that was their joining.
When his blood stopped flowing, Sookie allowed her head to fall back. Eric lifted her, trusting her to wrap her legs around him. He toed out of his shoes and shook his pants from around his ankles. Then he walked them both into the bedroom and dropped her onto the bed, letting her bounce.
“Hey!” she yelped.
“Hey yourself,” he smiled and quick as only a vampire can be, he had the remnants of her clothing off of her and then had her under the covers. Eric climbed into bed beside her and bunched the pillows against the headboard. As he leaned back he opened his arms to her and she happily positioned herself within his embrace.
“I should have told you about Alabama first,” he apologized. Sookie looked up at him. Eric was staring out into the room.
“I do understand,” Sookie replied. “I do remember that you were trying to tell me something before Pam interrupted.”
Sookie shifted so she could more comfortably look up at her vampire. He was trailing his fingers through her hair in a preoccupied way, soothing the tendrils across her shoulders. Sookie could feel the tang of something she was coming to associate with Eric. She still wasn’t sure exactly what ‘flavor’ she would attach to him, but she knew for a fact is wasn’t sugar. “It wasn’t the demon’s place to tell you,” the vampire rumbled for the second time that night. “We were to be together later. I intended to tell you myself.” Sookie nodded, and that seemed to take the edge from his anxiety because he stopped staring into space and looked at her, a soft smile playing across his lips. “What dress will you wear?” he asked.
Sookie’s eyebrows pulled together. “For what?” she asked.
“For your television debut, Princess,” he teased. Sookie knew that the time for telling was on her. Eric sensed her reluctance and regret, and he pulled back and sat up. “What is going on, Sookie?” he asked.
“I won’t be sitting next to you on television, Eric,” she told him. “Of course, I’ll be there to watch, but it would be a mistake right now to look as if we’re together.” Eric’s mouth pulled into a thin line and his eyes became hard.
“Who has said this to you?” he asked in a soft voice, however, with the bond open, Sookie could feel the thread of violence that was drifting in the warmth. She wondered if that was how Eric’s protective instincts always manifested.
“It isn’t any one person,” Sookie replied. “It’s no one’s fault except maybe my own.” Sookie swallowed while she dropped her eyes. She allowed her fingers to drift over the perfection of Eric’s chest and ran her fingers through the sprinkling of hair. “I wonder if there are mistakes you make in your life that you never really are able to make right,” Sookie felt a small, sad smile find her. “I knew I wasn’t in love with Sam, but I married him anyway. I thought he could fill the place you left empty in me. I thought it wouldn’t matter that I wasn’t in love with him. I figured I liked him well enough and somehow that would be enough.” Sookie felt a tear slide down her cheek. “I married him for all the wrong reasons, Eric, and now, it doesn’t seem to matter how hard I try; his shadow is over everything I do.” She looked up at her vampire, “I don’t want that shadow to fall on you too.”
“What are you talking about?” Eric asked. “Did the demon talk to the Were? The guard who was at your house?”
Sookie nodded. “Yup, and he’s not going to be able to help us, Eric. Hell, he can’t even help himself. All that shit I went through? All I thought I wanted was to be able to put it behind me and forget it ever happened. I wanted it to be a bad mistake and that maybe somehow everything would reset in a giant do-over.” Sookie laughed bitterly. “And now? The thing I wanted most is the thing that’s keeping me from being able to put it truly behind me.” She reached up to scrub the tears from her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m not really crying. I’m just so frustrated. t’s like everywhere I turn, there he is.”
Eric’s arms tightened around her. “I was told his mother was here and you spoke with her.”
Sookie nodded. She could feel something from Eric and she suddenly had a bad thought. “Tell me Thalia didn’t kill her!” Sookie exclaimed.
Eric didn’t seem startled by her question. He pulled her closer and said, “No. You asked her not to. She did glamour her though. She will be returning to Texas and will await her son’s call, but she won’t feel anxious about it.”
Sookie shook her head. “How terrible,” she said. “I can’t imagine. Eric? If that was me and it was my son…”
“It isn’t,” he interrupted. “You are not her.”
“But if I was…”
“It does no good to be thinking along these lines, Lover. It is foolish and serves no good purpose. You are not this person. You do not have a child. This is not your life. Placing yourself in this frame of mind is not productive. You should put it aside and concentrate on those things that are yours, and where you can have an influence.” Eric’s voice was hard, and Sookie could feel that this thing he was saying was important to him.
“That’s how you managed to get by all these years, isn’t it?” Sookie asked. When Eric didn’t answer, Sookie sighed and kissed his chest. “Well, until the divorce is final and this shadow lifted, I don’t think I should be caught on camera as being your future anything.” When Eric tensed in protest, Sookie continued, “Don’t tell me that this isn’t a chancy time for all of us. Seems like that Queen was just the first in a line of folks who are going to come nosing around trying to figure out whether they can steal this thing from you. Tell me I’m wrong.” Eric settled back then. He drew a breath, returning his stare to the area beyond their room.
“I offered once to give up everything,” he said to the void. “I offered to stay with you, a simple man who would work and make love to you every day.” Sookie smiled as she remembered that time when Eric had not known himself.
Sookie nodded, her heart bursting with love for this man. “It wasn’t right then, and it wouldn’t be right now,” she said, putting in words from what she knew he was suggesting. “If you were to resign and we were to run, what would become of all these people? You think that a new ruler would just embrace Thomas, Indira, or Jane?”
“No,” Eric said flatly. “Their lives would likely be forfeit.”
Sookie sighed. “Where would we go that we wouldn’t be looking over our shoulders every day waiting for some blade to find us in the night?” Sookie drew in a deep breath. “Nope. We’ve made our bed, now we’ll just have to see it through.”
“Together,” Eric said.
“Yes,” Sookie agreed. “Just not in public for a while.”
Eric growled. “If we do not announce your place, there will be other proposals. There will be those who will treat you badly, much as they did when we first arrived. They will not understand.”
Sookie sat up, and then shifted so she could sit cross-legged and facing her Viking. “I know that, Eric, and I get that our being bonded won’t be enough to discourage folks. Goodness knows our being bonded and pledged wasn’t enough last time.”
“It was because you didn’t live with me,” Eric supplied, confirming something Sookie had suspected. “It was hard enough to explain that I would link myself to one who was not a vampire. When we were so often apart it was assumed that I had created our bond merely to have access to your telepathy.”
“So,” Sookie supplied. “It will look kind of the same then.” Eric nodded.
They sat together in silence, each in their own unhappy thoughts until Sookie leaned forward and lay her head back on Eric’s shoulder. “How did things go for you tonight?” she asked.
Eric shrugged. “The Area vampires appear eager to register. Thomas estimates that tithes from those living here will total almost $10,000 a month starting in thirty days.” Sookie’s eyebrows flew up her head.
“Wow, that’s good, right?”
Eric shrugged. “It’s a start. There will be additional income from the tithing for operating businesses in the Area. Once my sheriffs return to their Areas and get things organized, we can anticipate that the kingdom’s portion of those tithes will start flowing as well.”
“It’s not enough, is it?” Sookie stated. Above her, Eric shook his head.
“No. If the kingdom is to be made secure, it is not enough. There are no larger investments to serve as collateral for loans or to make cash readily available,” Eric confirmed.
“Eric? Why don’t you ask Karin to come back and help? You need to send your sheriffs to their Areas. Pam needs to get Arkansas organized. You need extra vampires, and you just don’t have them right now. I’m sure if you…”
“No, Sookie,” Eric interrupted. “Karin is no longer mine.”
Sookie could feel a sharp jab of pain from the vampire that was quickly replaced by a low-simmering anger. “Eric?” she asked. “What happened?”
Eric appeared to be grinding his teeth, his jaw tense. Sookie pushed against his ribs repeatedly until he turned his gaze to her again. She raised her eyebrows and did her best to push curiosity at him. He finally relented. “She betrayed me, Sookie. She would have sacrificed you for her own ends. Knowing how I valued you, she put her own needs over the needs of her Maker.”
“You disowned her?” Sookie couldn’t believe it. Karin had always been the most devoted to Eric, almost obsessively so, and then she thought over what Eric had said, and the reality of it hit her. “So, I’ve been the cause of you losing a child,” Sookie stated, her voice flat. “Jesus, Eric. Don’t you ever doubt? Is it worth it? The pain I cause you?”
“You don’t cause me pain, Lover!” Eric exclaimed. “Others cause their own problems,” He answered. Sookie knew that what he was saying was right, but there was a larger part of her that couldn’t quite bring herself to believe it.
Sookie dreamt that night. She dreamt of walking alone on a golden shore. In the distance there were cities burning and she could see terrible battles. She knew that somewhere in that destruction her Eric was fighting a losing war. Arlene was standing behind her. She said, “You are such a freak, and now everyone has to die because of you.” Sookie looked down at the large dog that stood beside Arlene and Sookie was sure the dog was laughing at her. Then she awoke.
Eric moved the knight forward and then walked away from the board to look at the maps laid out on the table. Thierry’s eyes left his computer screen and a smile lit his face. He stood to drift over to the board. The game had been started last night and the play was progressing. Both men had opened with traditional gambits, but now the defenses were becoming less predictable as they found they were more evenly matched.
Pam smiled at Eric. She had sensed his discomfort when he returned downstairs. She assumed that Sookie had said or done something that had made him unhappy. Still, he was more content than he had been the last time they were together and there was none of the panic he had felt every time she had run from him.
Eric turned to Jane and nodded. This vampire was proving herself to be an outstanding researcher. She seemed to have a good head for business, although she was nowhere nearly as competent as Maxwell. She pulled several overlays from the desk beside her and laid them on the large map of Arkansas.
“I’ve marked the lands currently held by the kingdom either outright or through shell companies. All told we either own or control over 200,000 acres. Most of these holdings are in the northwest part of Louisiana or in the southern or eastern portions of Arkansas.” Eric could see the land tracks outlined in marker. He had been surprised at how extensive the land holdings were. It was something Queen Sophie-Anne had never mentioned, nor had he seen any indication that she had an interest in accumulating land.
Jane slid the first overlay in place. “Now I add in the results of a recent survey done to assess the potential for generating wind power.” Eric noted that while the largest potential was in the extreme northwest, the area along the Mississippi was also noted as being worthy of development. What’s more, a large part of this area was indicated as being lands controlled by the kingdom. “And now, this last piece,” a last overlay was put in place, “shows the location of both transmission lines and power plants.”
Eric again noted the alignment with kingdom lands. “And this is significant… because?” he asked.
Jane nodded, “Because, Majesty, the largest dollar investment needed in a wind farm is the cost to build transmission lines capable of sending the power to a plant that can use it.”
“So, the fact that we appear to have proximity to the lines makes this more attractive,” Eric stated.
“Yes,” confirmed the female vampire. “This is not to say that we wouldn’t need a substantial monetary investment, but there are offsets from both the state and federal government that will make this venture worthwhile.” Jane launched into a conversation about grants and tax credits. She made the argument for one type of turbine over another and advocated using the French approach to spacing the turbines over the countryside instead of concentrating them in a smaller place. As she concluded her remarks she gestured to Maxwell. The tall, dark vampire stepped forward to hand out bound portfolios with more detailed financial exhibits. Funding patterns and timing were detailed for three different scenarios. In each, with an investment of approximately $23 million, the return was doubled in only a year. The time required to build these facilities was amazingly short and Eric was impressed by the return, but there was more. In addition to the straight cash potential, the tie-in to local and federal governments through the sourcing of green energy emerged as the most attractive benefit. “As you can see, the reputational returns could be limitless. We will be meeting a need of the current administration if they are to make good on the thresholds set by the most recent Green Power Purchasing Goals. There is a critical shortfall in available green power units. With the kilowatts we can supply, we would be positioned as a most favored business partner. I would suggest we leverage that partnership to lobby for having vampires declared a protected minority. If successful, we would gain preferential standing in any and all bid situations with any government entity.”
Eric couldn’t help but be impressed. The slight woman had come highly recommended. He could feel the pride flowing from Pam. Max was likewise smiling broadly. Jane would appear to have secured a protégé status from both and that boded well. Eric nodded. “I would like you to accompany us to the Zeus Summit,” he stated. “Sandy Seacrest, Queen of Oklahoma will be in attendance. I would like you to have the opportunity to meet with her. I believe you would find you share interests.”
Thierry bowed and cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but it may make sense to pursue an introduction to Oklahoma at a different time, Majesty.”
Eric looked sharply at his Area 3 sheriff. He knew that Thierry had been working with Jane. He wondered if there was an issue between the two, but Thierry continued. “According to my sources, the Queen will be occupied with her upcoming nuptials. She will be officially married to Ralph of Kansas at the Summit. Apparently they met in Nashville and an agreement was reached.” Then Thierry bowed lower.
Thomas looked up from his seat. He had been waiting his opportunity to present the most current numbers, and Eric could see something play across his face. “You have something to add?” he asked.
“I am assuming that your source is in New York,” Thomas directed his question to Thierry.
“Bien sur,” Thierry replied smoothly. “I make it a point to never burn my bridges behind me. One leaves, but always on the best of terms,” and the vampire nodded his head and then returned his attention to Eric. “I am ready to show you how we may be able to raise some of the capital needed to make Jane’s plan functional,” he stated.
Eric filed the interplay away, determined to dig further. “Proceed,” he told Thierry. The presentation was every bit as detailed as that made by Jane, however, instead of talking Green Energy the proposal would use the lands in Northern Louisiana and Arkansas to enter into shale oil leases, allowing five to ten year commitments to drill and extract natural gas. “The survey work and the access to the Haynesville Shale was already completed. There were several offers on the table in the time of the previous Queen, but those were abandoned when Nevada took the state. Our previous King had no interest in mining or drilling, but most current figures show leases bringing as much as $20,000 per acre in Ohio. We can anticipate slightly less here, but if we were to dedicate these five hundred most preferred acres,” and Thierry scoped the area with his finger to illustrate, “we could realize almost $10 million on the closing. Because the survey work was completed, the wells could be in production in less than four months. Royalties from the wells would be in addition to the money generated from the lease, of course.”
“This brings us to a little less than half of what we would need for the full plan. What else do you have?” Eric asked.
“We can match this in Southern Arkansas and Louisiana, Majesty, however, the survey work for the additional acreage would first need to be completed. That could take up to a year.”
“Do we foresee any trouble in moving forward with the first wells?” Eric asked.
“No, Majesty,” Thierry responded. “The areas are remote and there were no problems in securing permits before. The entire area around Shreveport has become a mini-gold rush due to this. I do not anticipate any resistance with the current welcoming climate and the promise of more jobs.”
“I will consider this,” Eric told the French vampire. “Have the paperwork, along with the paperwork on the wind proposal on my desk.” Eric nodded and smiled broadly, making sure he met the eyes of both Jane and Thierry. “This was great work. I am impressed.”
Eric then turned to Thomas. “I also wish to thank you for your hard efforts,” he told the younger vampire. “You have handled the registrations and tithing with both intelligence and tact. I have been informed that payments are already being received, and your part, in particular, has garnered compliments. I am grateful.” Thomas stood and bowed his thanks. Eric turned to Max. “How are other things progressing for New Orleans?” he asked.
Max smiled. “We have been approached to consider hosting some kind of standing tour of the palace for visitors to the City. The representative from the New Orleans Welcome Board likened it to a Supernatural White House tour. The suggestion was that it would be both a tourist draw and a goodwill gesture. The proceeds could be donated to both palace upkeep and crowd control costs for the City.”
“Talk about enthralling the vermin,” Pam snarked.
“And me without my chair,” Eric retorted and smiled back.
“There are a number of charity initiatives that will benefit by having your presence and sponsorship. By extension, if Sookie was to also willing to lend her presence, it could go a long ways toward establishing a friendly and welcoming environment here. Of course, people seem to want to liken us to the Anne Rice vampires. It’s really quite disturbing.”
“It could be worse,” Eric commented. “Better a Lestat than a Cullen.” Pam snorted a laugh and the other vampires smiled. Eric thought about the conversation he had with Sookie and, when the mood quietened, he stated, “I would be happy to lend my support to a couple of causes. Choose wisely. As for Sookie, she needs to focus on her commitments to Amun Clan and the Pack at present. Until we are sure what those commitments will require of her, I am reluctant to lose any more of her time.”
Lastly, Eric turned to Pam. “Well Regent,” he said. “When do you leave for Europe?”
“Next week,” his child confirmed. “I would ask that Jane function in my place while I’m traveling. I’ve brought her up to speed. The situation with the state is disorganized enough that just detailing it will take a while. It is also my understanding that you want to use Thomas’ method to organize the other Areas in Louisiana before releasing him to back to his own.”
Eric looked at Thomas and nodded. “I do need his services,” Eric replied to Pam while looking at the other vampire. “When he returns to Arkansas I may suggest you consider making him your second. His skills as a diplomat combined with his reputation as a fighter would recommend him.” Eric could see that this statement took the sting out of the vampire’s eyes. Of course it was a discussion he and Pam had already had, so when she bowed and acknowledged his wishes it was with a smile. ‘How we dance and play,’ Eric mused. ‘Even amongst ourselves we are for show.’
‘And the first European Fangtasia will be in…”
“Paris,” Pam supplied.
“Of course,” Eric said.“I suppose the second will be somewhere in Italy?”
“You know me well,” Pam shrugged. “Of course the openings coinciding with the Fashion walks for some of my favorite houses will be merely coincidence.”
Eric laughed, opening his arms which Pam walked readily into. “You make me proud in all things,” he said as he kissed her brow.
“Of course,” Pam said. “I’ll send you something back. Perhaps some designer Fangtasia t-shirts?”
Eric shook his head. “Don’t bother,” he said. “From the looks of things, it will be a long time before I can spend any real time in jeans and t-shirts.” From the corner of his eye, Eric could see Thalia watching him, her dark eyes gleaming. “What do you say, Thalia? Have we made a good start?”
“I will be happier when the screenings of the palace staff are completed. We made a start on it tonight, but you probably already heard.” Then Thalia turned her head a bit. “Is there something I should know about your little breather? She seemed very relaxed about reading the Were guards.”
Eric considered telling Thalia about Sookie’s new skill in reading Weres, but decided to do it in a more private setting. Rather than telling her, he changed the subject and asked, “Did the bug sweep produce anything?”
Thalia shrugged. “Enough metal to fashion a sword. Someone embedded them in a concrete wall. Was a bitch to dig them out, but I’m fairly confident we have removed the infestation. Some were very old.”
Eric nodded. It was not unexpected. “My chambers were done as well?”
“Yes, first day,” Thalia confirmed. “I mentioned it to Sookie. She told me she had been reading the accounts and noticed the screenings seemed to stop. She worries for the kingdom.” Eric could hear the approval in his second’s voice.
“Donors are included in the screenings?” Eric continued.
“Yes, and Sookie knows.”Thalia looked fierce.“She was surprised I volunteered them.”
Eric looked around the group of faces. They were a good team and seemed to be working well together. For the first time he dared to feel hopeful. They were still short of ready cash and the coronation would require at least $250,000, even with the trimming of extras. ‘So close,’ he thought. ‘If we could secure a couple short term loans all would be well.’
Sookie spent the better part of her last day in New Orleans listening to the minds of what seemed an endless line-up of guards, donors, and staff. The questions were all the same, designed to get them thinking about their loyalties and the penalties associated with betraying those loyalties.
What Sookie heard was disturbing. Over half of those associated with the palace had some kind of agenda having nothing to do with the good of the king or his kingdom. She heard everything from what she would categorize as malicious gossipers to others who were blatantly lying or looking for a buyer. One of the guards was a retired assassin who was thinking about receiving confirmation from either Felipe or some other ruler to remove Eric. There were two individuals who were planted spies for other kingdoms. Sookie sighed while she wrote her notes in the hardback journal she used for her observations. She wasn’t sure where to start with the rogue’s gallery that was populating their home, but she figured she’d discuss it with Eric later.
Sookie started when she heard Meg’s voice and thoughts. She remembered when she had overheard something odd from the woman when she first arrived. Sookie decided to actually walk into the office and sit with Owen while he questioned her. When Sookie entered the room she glimpsed fear crossing Meg’s face, and then she heard what she had been trying to hide. Something had happened involving a vampire named Luis when Victor had ruled here. Meg had accepted money to look the other way, allowing Luis to smuggle women and men into the compound for his own use. The vampire had been paranoid and didn’t trust any donor to whom Victor or any other vampire had access. Meg had known she was breaking the rules, but she had been more afraid of Luis hurting her rather than for not looking the other way.
Once Owen finished his questions, Sookie leaned over and took Meg’s hand. “You knew that you were breaking rules for Luis?”
Meg tried to pull her hand away, and she looked as if she wanted to run. When she couldn’t escape Sookie’s grip and Owen stood to bar the door, it was like the air left her and she dropped her head. “Yes, Mistress,” she answered softly.
“Would you do it again?” Sookie asked, looking pointedly at the younger woman.
“Oh no, Mistress!” Meg proclaimed. “I’ve felt guilty ever since that day and every day following. I wish I could take it back.” Sookie could read the sincerity that poured from the young woman.
“I believe you,” Sookie told her. “Don’t make me a liar, okay?”
Meg had thanked Sookie profusely, tears in her eyes. It had been enough that Sookie had taken a break and sat in the little garden for an hour, listening to the silence all around her. She thought about the challenges before her and the upcoming trip to Jackson. As her head fell back in the warm air she didn’t feel the moment sleep took her or the weight of the light blanket that Shari lay across her. Sookie dreamed again of a golden shore and running as hard as she could.