Author’s Note: I believe it is too easy to forget that vampires are not less domesticated humans. They are different with different codes and beliefs. It is these cultural and behavioral divides that have served to keep the races separated, so I urge you not to judge vampires too harshly. It is their way.
My thanks and gratitude to the lovely and talented women who beta these pages. You are the unsung heroes, but heroes you are! Thank you Breathesgirl and Ms Buffy.
Nautical Note: A fata morgana is a complex mirage. While it can occur over land it is most common at sea. You see in some detail large structures or land masses where none exist.
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.
The cook shut down the kitchen, and put the plates and platters in the oven. He wrote out instructions that would walk the guests through heating and serving and then headed home. Sookie Stackhouse and her guards were late and the Queen decided that it didn’t make sense to wait any longer.
In the library, the Iowa Queen, whose home this was, and Maude, Queen of Minnesota were sipping the latest blend. Phoebe’s research group was always tinkering and both women were pleased with the outcome. Although it had been bottled and shelved for almost a month, the blood didn’t have any of the metallic taste that vampires had come to associate with brands currently on the market. A guard knocked on the door and gave the signal that the house was secure for the night. When the door closed behind him and Phoebe Golden could no longer hear his footsteps, she turned to Maude and said, “I don’t know why they couldn’t have flown Annubis. This never would have happened if they had.”
Maude settled back and stretched her neck. “You know why they flew commercial. There are no vampires among them. They would have no way of knowing there would be delays.”
“They should have known the probability was higher!” Phoebe snapped, her irritation showing. “It’s not as if she hasn’t flown with them before. They have a record of accommodating her. All it would have taken was one word from the right person, and they would have been on the manifest and delivered far closer.” The flight that Sookie and her guards had been on had made it as far as O’Hare Airport in Chicago where it had been delayed due to weather. One delay had been followed by another, and then all flights had been cancelled. After many hours the party had decided to rent a vehicle and drive the additional five hours it would take to reach Ames. The message had been received some time ago, and still the group had not arrived.
When the Minnesota Queen didn’t say anything, Phoebe stood and started pacing. “Now there are food smells in the house that will linger. I hope she doesn’t expect to get up and wander around during daylight. You know I don’t like having breathers with the run of the place while I’m resting.”
Maude had heard this same conversation at least twice since she arrived. It was known that Phoebe Golden did not allow humans to stay within the walls of her palace. She had a handful of select Were guards who remained during the day to guard particular passageways and there was always a retinue outside. When the Queen’s representative had suggested that the Stackhouse party be housed at the local hotel along with the humans who would be arriving for the talks, the Louisiana vampire, Maxwell Lee, had argued, claiming both station and status. In the end, with Minnesota’s assurances, Phoebe had reluctantly conceded. Maude twirled the glass in her hand waiting for the rest of the commentary she knew was coming. ‘And what is she…’ the Minnesota Queen mentally began.
“And what is she after all?” Phoebe said, almost on cue. “She’s not a fairy. She’s not a human. She’s not a demon. She’s neither fish nor fowl. She’s not bonded…”
Maude interrupted then. She had received a text that would change at least this part of her fellow Queen’s rant. “Actually I received a text from Bartlett. She is most definitely bonded to the Viking now. He said her smell is sublime.”
Phoebe pulled up short, her eyes hard, but then she seemed to back down and soften a bit. “Well, at least that’s something,” she said peevishly. Iowa seemed to catch herself now and a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “I really am not being clear about this, am I?” Minnesota knew that she meant she was getting too emotional, and she knew that for Phoebe Golden who revered the world of science and logic, that was never a comfortable state.
“You are a little more animated than I’m used to seeing,” Maude confirmed.
Phoebe could see the humor in her friend’s face, and she shook her own head and walked back to throw herself into the chair. “It is all so inconvenient. There is no reason for it. She has two guards. Why must everything be disrupted?”
“I imagine she is precious to the Viking. She is his and he wants her protected,” Maude’s tone was matter of fact. “If you were to see them together, it would be obvious there is something there, something more. When they were in Minnesota, before the bond, it was clear as a bell. Can’t explain it and I’ve only seen it a few times before, that sense that the only ones in the room that matter are the two of them. You feel like you’re just a witness to something bigger.” Maude sighed, “It’s very sweet!”
“You are a sentimental fool,” Phoebe said indulgently, “and a hopeless romantic. In the end it won’t matter. The only smart thing he’s done since accepting the crown was refuse to pledge. At least now he has options, and from what I hear he needs them.”
“Money,” Maude said flatly. “De Castro really left him high and dry. If I had any inkling how bad things were down there, I might not have agreed to make him King. I like the North Man, and I have to tell you, I feel a little guilty. I don’t think anyone will just march in, but you never know. Unless he can pull a rabbit out of his hat he has all the earmarks of a King looking at a takeover.”
Phoebe was staring at her bookshelves. She turned back then and asked, “Did you hear about Portia?”
“No,” Maude was not surprised by her friend’s abrupt change of subject. It was Phoebe’s way. Once she considered a topic over, she simply moved on to the next item that was of importance to her.
“Finally dead,” Phoebe supplied. “She has been Queen in Oregon as long as I have been Queen in Iowa. She was one of the originals.”
“What happened?” Maude asked.
“Accident, from the looks of things, fallen tree branch during a storm. She was running in the rain when it happened.”
“How terrible!” Maude exclaimed. She had an uneasy feeling, but she dismissed it as fancy. It was an outlandish story, outlandish enough that it was likely the facts were as presented. “Any word who will be monarch now?”
“That’s the odd thing. There appears to be some dispute among her retinue. The contenders will present themselves at the Zeus Summit and ask for a ruling. I’m not sure why they decided to bypass their own Clan. Robert must be livid. However, the Lady herself will be coming to San Antonio to decide the matter.”
“Good grief, she hasn’t moved out of mothballs in years,” Maude snorted, but then her uneasy feeling returned. When she lifted her eyes to Phoebe, she could see the Iowa monarch was in agreement. There was something about this that wasn’t right. “You don’t believe it was an accident?” Maude asked.
Phoebe shook her head. “No, but I have no facts to support my hypothesis,” she concluded.
Maude observed her peer. Were someone to describe Phoebe Golden based on appearance, one would be tempted to call her a pixie. She was slight and somewhat elongated with tapered fingers and knobby knees. She couldn’t have been much older than sixteen or seventeen when she was turned, and was too thin for her frame. Short blond, curly hair framed a gamine face that would remind people who met her in later years of Audrey Hepburn. She smiled prettily and her movements were graceful, but these were not attributes that spoke to Phoebe’s character. Phoebe Golden was first and foremost a researcher. The books that lined the walls of her library crossed a variety of sciences. An inveterate tinkerer, Phoebe loved puzzles. If she wasn’t constructing something she would spend hours working through theoretical concepts. It relaxed her.
Maude didn’t know a great deal about Phoebe’s background, aside from those things everyone knew. She had come to the New World as an indentured servant. She also had the ability to read and write, something her mother had taught her. That was unusual in an age where most people never received any formal schooling. She came through Virginia and ran away. Maude had heard that Phoebe was turned in Tennessee somewhere and was abandoned by her Maker almost immediately. Maude couldn’t imagine how disorienting that would have been. It usually signified an accidental turning and most vampires made that way died shortly after, never knowing how to successfully hunt or care for themselves. Not Phoebe. She made her way and eventually found herself in Ames.
The university was already here when she arrived. It was an agricultural school then, and it was unusual in allowing both boys and girls to matriculate. Phoebe had once told Maude that she saw the forward-thinking attitude of the school as a sign. After the Civil War, the curriculum expanded to mechanics, and as the years passed, engineering and science, architecture and mathematics. Phoebe was in her element. She even lived in the basement of one of the buildings for a period of time, the proximity to her research bringing her great joy. It was probable that there were those at the school who understood her nature, even before the Revelation. There was something about the community of scientists; they always welcomed one they could recognize as being their own.
When the Ancient Pythoness first created the kingdoms in this new place, Phoebe Golden was one of the first she chose as Queen. She had wanted Phoebe to take a more established Area and mentor others, but Phoebe had made it clear she either stayed in Iowa or would decline the crown. The Pythoness’ respect for the petite monarch was such that she immediately agreed to Phoebe’s demand. It made the Iowa monarch a legend among her peers.
“From the sounds of things, Zeus will be busy,” Maude said. “Sandy Seacrest is joining Kansas. There is some kind of energy symposium planned. Stan must be driving his staff crazy.”
Phoebe smiled, “He worries too much. I can just hear his nasally voice now, bemoaning his fate.”
Maude laughed, “I’m sure he’s told everyone how inconvenient this all is, and how he just doesn’t know how he ended up having to handle all this work on his own.”
Phoebe snorted as well, “Which, of course, he volunteered to do it in the first place, and it’s not as if he would allow anyone to help him. He just loves to hear himself complain!”
“It is the least attractive thing about him,” Maude agreed.
They sat in companionable silence for a minute. Then Phoebe said, “Do you suppose Finn will come clean about the activity in his kingdom?”
“The foreigners?” Maude asked. “Why should he? It’s an open secret now. Most of us know and we also know, it’s better to just ignore it and pretend it isn’t happening.”
“Maybe our Fae guest has an opinion,” Phoebe snipped sharply.
Maude gave her friend a stern look, “My guess is that Sookie Stackhouse has no idea what’s going on in Nebraska. She only recently embraced her status as hybrid and from what I gather, has just started training.”
“With whom?” Phoebe was surprised. Fae training was a subject that fascinated her.
“The Kings tell me it’s an elf. The demon lawyer served as the go-between.” Maude wondered how much her friend really knew about the telepath. “You do know she is a direct descendant of Niall Brigant, don’t you?”
“How direct?” Phoebe asked, answering Maude’s question.
“Niall’s son, Fintan, was her grandfather,” Maude supplied.
Phoebe leaned back and closed her eyes. Maude knew that she was taking this bit of information and turning it within her own thoughts, seeing where it might fit with other facts that she knew. Then she opened her eyes abruptly, “So this makes her next after Dermot?” she asked.
Maude shrugged, “I assume so. There is a brother who is now a two-natured of some sort, made, and not born. No spark with that one, so yes, I think she is next in line after her uncle.”
“Dermot may still reproduce. That would move her further away from any succession,” Phoebe said reasonably.
“I would imagine there is some pressure for him to do just that,” Maude nodded. “Though from what I hear pure Fae have substantial fertility issues, but Dermot is not pure Fae.” Phoebe looked sharply at her friend and became still. “Ah,” Maude said, “You know! Another project for your research facility, then?”
“I won’t comment,” Phoebe said, shrugging and looking away.
Maude’s eyes drew together then, “Well, that might also explain the Viking’s heightened concerns for his bonded’s safety. Fae have been known to kidnap their own. I could see them getting desperate enough to try and force the issue of an heir.”
“I think you’re mistaken,” Phoebe rolled her eyes. “There are always options and the days of forced reproduction are over. They may be secretive, but their reputation for trickery is somewhat exaggerated. They just have a different code of honor.”
Maude did her best to read between the lines, “Reproductive research? Is that what they are looking into?” Phoebe’s lack of response was all the answer Maude required. “Well,” she drawled, “I, for one, would hope you success. There is nothing tastier than a fairy and I would be sorry to see them off the menu for good.” Phoebe narrowed her eyes and hissed in a way that Maude knew wasn’t serious at all. Maude smiled good-naturedly, but then another thought occurred to her. “You know, it could be that this is just the way it should be. Extinction is a part of life. Maybe this is natural selection at work.”
“Hardly,” Phoebe retorted. “The addition of foreign, man-made materials into the environment is not natural selection. It’s an intrusion. Would you argue that dodos or passenger pigeons met their ends as species through natural selection? It was the intrusion of men that caused their end. Do fairies deserve any less consideration?”
“Fairies deserve much more,” Maude smirked, “Including a starring role at any banquet I host.”
“Heathen!” Phoebe chuckled.
“That’s Queen Heathen to you,” Maude threw back. “But seriously, I hope you have some success. The world would be a colder, less colorful place without them,” Maude’s eyes drifted with her thoughts. “Still, there is something about all of this that doesn’t sit quite right with me. The whole reason for these talks gives me pause.”
Phoebe sighed, “Are we going to have this genetics conversation again? What is it about science that always gets your back up? Why wouldn’t you want plants that naturally repel insects? Or plants that are more drought resistant? I don’t understand your objections.”
“Because those kinds of modifications are not natural,” Maude replied. “We have no idea what the long-term consequences might be, including what will happen to the species that eat them.”
“You are quite wrong,” Phoebe sighed in her most put-upon manner. “We test these things for years and years before we move ahead. We watch generations of animals who ingest them for even the slightest change both as individuals and in how they react as a community. We don’t release anything that isn’t safe.”
“And how do you know that nothing is impacted?” the Queen challenged. “Have you had that discussion with your mice or primates? They told you?” Phoebe rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me that observation and lab work are enough.”
“I suppose your ultimate objection is that as apex predators we ultimately consume the outcomes,” Phoebe sniffed. “Of course, that removes us almost beyond the pale of any impact, but to think that somehow there is something unstable or unknown about this process is naive. You have no idea the rigor and documentation it takes to get approval through the government. If there were any risk at all, we wouldn’t get their green light.”
Maude could see by the set of the younger woman’s shoulders they were headed into another academic argument and rather than spend the next hour or so being the target of an increasingly strident lecture, Maude chose deflection. “So, what’s your latest project? Building something this week?” Phoebe’s eyes lit up and Maude thought, ‘Thank goodness!’
“You know how I love those wooden clocks in Spillville,” Phoebe was gushing, and Maude found she had to rush to keep up with the Queen. “The intricacy of the designs and how wonderfully they work, the precision of the movement…” Phoebe opened a door using a key. “Though of course there is no way I could work in wood. Simply too dangerous.” The door opened and Maude’s eyes rounded. There was a huge clock in front of her, easily six feet tall and carved with figures all around. What’s more, the material looked like wood and Maude felt distinctly uneasy until Phoebe said, “Look what my lab created. It’s a polymer resin that’s tinted and textured to resemble wood. It works the same and the dye runs all the way through the materials so that I don’t have to stop and retouch.” She walked over to a table and picked up a statue of a dog that she had apparently been carving herself. “And feel how light it is!”
Maude held out her hand. The sturdy-looking small animal weighed nothing. “You did this?” she asked the very animated Queen.
“Oh yes,” Phoebe breathed. “I am almost done with this one, and watch!” She turned the hands and as the hour struck, several characters moved around the cabinet, there was some music, and then other figures moved. Overall the effect was charming and Maude told her as much. “You know the brothers made twenty clocks over their lives.” Phoebe smiled, her look far away. “I intend to reproduce every one. I want to understand it.” She stroked the outside of the cabinet with a loving hand.
“So, too much to do to consider a match for yourself?” Maude remarked casually. Phoebe turned a jaded eye in her direction.
“Why would you even bother to ask? You did that once and I have yet to hear you give the arrangement a good word.” Phoebe shook her head, and the expression on her face made her look like she had swallowed something sour. “I have important things to do and more hobbies than I have time to indulge. The last thing I need is a keeper or another pet to keep.” The Queen turned to her work table and picked up another design to show her friend.
New Orleans, Louisiana
“So, it’s tonight, then?” James asked. Charles could see that the younger guard was nervous. They were standing outside the king’s doors. Eric was inside, showering. He would probably be a little late since he liked to text his woman as soon as he rose.
“Look, James, if this is bothering you, I would consider the vampire’s offer. Glamour is not a bad option for this stuff. You won’t even realize you’re missing something. I’ve had it done and I’ve watched it done to others. You never feel a thing and it lets you sleep better at night.”
The younger Were just looked away. Charles remembered the night that Queen Sophie-Anne’s donor pool had been cleared. Victor Madden had turned it into a spectator sport, inviting vampires from the area into the palace to join the hunt. It had been bloody.
As a non-vampire guard, Charles had not been invited to join in. Instead he was assigned to a door. His job that night was to prevent any of the donors from escaping. He had seen several humans he knew run past him but he thanked his lucky stars to this day that he had not found himself in a position to have to have made the choice, to hold them, or be killed himself. There were days he still remembered the screams.
When the Packmaster told them that this donor pool was to be cleared, Charles had been stunned. He thought himself a fairly good judge of character and he never would have thought it of the King. He seemed like a tough guy but, all in all, pretty normal. Certainly Eric Northman was less crazy train than Madden who never looked like anything but a stone cold, psycho killer.
Charles’ discomfort had diminished a bit when Emil went on to inform them that arrangements were made for the Registry. After this there would no longer be donor pools in the palace. Emil also informed them that they were not obligated to take duty in the palace tonight if this was a problem for any of them. Of course, every guard had scoffed at the notion. They were Weres! Violence was a part of their lives. They hunted and killed once a month under the full moon. They fought to the death for positions and against rivals and to secure mates. Shrink at the sight of a little human blood? Hardly!
Charles recognized posturing when he saw it and he resolved to keep a close eye on James. He had known James before now. The Greymane Pack was large; the largest in Louisiana, but that didn’t mean they didn’t all know each other somewhat. Being one large, extended family was what Pack was all about. He liked the younger Were. From what Charles could see, James had a good head on his shoulders and was cool under pressure. He knew how to hold his tongue, and he could be deferential to the bloodsuckers without sucking ass. That was a rare quality. He didn’t want to have to break in a new partner, and there was always the possibility that another Stuart would find his way here, and Stuart had been a dickhead.
Charles was about to suggest that James leave for the night when the door opened and the King strode through. He nodded to both. Unlike most other nights, he didn’t wish them a good evening or ask how their day had gone. He walked straight to the elevator. The ride down was silent. Even Saul was silent. Everyone knew that tonight would change things.
Eric exited the elevator and Thalia was waiting for him. “All is ready, Majesty,” she said from her bow.
Eric nodded. “How many were claimed?” he asked.
“Five,” Thalia told the King. She fell into step with him while they walked toward the office. “They were informed, and there is a small party being given. They will be packed and gone within the next few hours.”
“Do not trust their Masters,” Eric told her. “Glamour them before they leave. I want no stories finding their way to the outside. Either you or Max. I don’t trust anyone else.” Thalia nodded.
“How many human staff are in the palace?” Eric asked.
“A handful. The housekeeper of course, a housemaid for upstairs, and two in the kitchen. One of them will leave once the party is over.”
Eric walked into the office, and Jane, Thierry, Thomas and Maxwell all rose and bowed their heads. Eric gestured for the two Were guards to stay inside, shut the door, and then he turned to the group. “No one is to molest them. I want this done quietly and efficiently. If you are swift and the timing is right, they will never know. That is best.” He nodded at Thomas and Max. “I want you to glamour the staff that is in the palace tonight and glamour the rest as they come tomorrow. Allow them to believe that all the donors were adopted, none were culled.”
Charles’ eyebrows rose, and he found that he and James were exchanging looks. Every vampire had their own style, but this kind of mercy was unexpected. He hoped that it didn’t get around. There were those who would think that the North Man had gone soft and that would be dangerous. Then the King turned to them and any thought that Eric Northman was weak was gone. The vampire King’s eyes were hard, ice blue, and his fangs were on display. “You guards volunteered to be here. Your Packmaster demanded that glamour be at your discretion and I have agreed. However, I have told him and I tell you, if one whisper of this ever goes beyond these walls, I will hunt you down personally and kill each one of you. You understand?”
Charles and James both nodded. “No worries, Majesty,” Charles told him. “I understand the need. This is not my first time.” Eric nodded then and turned back to Thalia.
“When will you and the others go?” he asked.
“I have a monitor in the room. We will move in as soon as they settle for the night. It will doubtless be late.”
“Do not indulge,” the King warned. “I know it will be tempting, but they will have had both alcohol and some combination of drugs tonight. They are hardly discriminating. I don’t need any of you impaired.” He gave Thierry a hard look. “That works for you, Frenchman?” he asked.
Thierry smiled and laughed in a carefree way, “Bien sur!” he shrugged. “It is a dirty job, but must be done. It is unfortunate that no one thought to maintain this group. In New York we culled the pool every month. Of course, this is different.”
Eric nodded at him, “Yes this is different. After this, all feeding will be done from Registry individuals. As members of the Court there will be no cost for you. I will absorb the fees while you are here. We have already gone over the new ground rules. If you wish to make other arrangements you will need to handle that separately. I will not have donors made available any other way.”
“I’m sure the Princess will be pleased,” Thierry smirked. Thalia growled and Thierry quickly schooled all signs of humor from his face when the King rounded on him.
“I do not expect to have this brought up or discussed with my intended ever again. I would not expect her to be pleased with this, but I have talked with her about this reality and she understands.” Eric gave the French vampire another hard look, “but I have no intention of forcing her to come to terms with it repeatedly. This is a concession for her and I appreciate that,” and then Eric turned his back, signifying his frustration. “While we wait, there is no reason we shouldn’t work. What is on the agenda?” The vampires moved quickly to their tables and started to pull facts and figures together.
As Thomas passed Thierry he hissed, “You are such an asshole!”
Thierry hissed back, “Takes one to know one,” and punched his friend in the arm. From across the room, Eric watched the interplay and the quick smiles between the two. Other than an unfortunate tendency to push boundaries, Eric had no problem with either the work or work ethic of either one. They were entertaining companions and both brilliant in their own way. He remembered that Pam had called them, the testosterone twins. It seemed fitting.
It had been the trip from hell. Sookie’s eyes were burning and her shoulders drooped with exhaustion. Every step, from the moment they had set foot in the Jackson airport to this moment, seemed to have been designed to delay them. Their initial flight had been transferred to another gate. They caught that flight by the skin of their teeth only to circle endlessly above the Chicago airport. Once landed, the gate hadn’t been ready and they sat on the tarmac, first waiting for the go ahead signal, and then waiting out a thunderstorm that raged around them for almost twenty minutes. Once they were debarked into the airport, they found their connecting flight delayed due to weather. There were threats of tornadoes to the west, and Sookie and her guards sat dutifully in the hard seats near the cell phone charging station, waiting for news that the flights could start to take off again. After several hours, their flight was officially cancelled, the crew having exceeded their time and no new crew available. Passengers were being rebooked on standby. The probability that they could travel together to their final destination was highly unlikely. Shari had shrugged, pulled out her cell phone, and announced that Ames was only about as far away as Shreveport from New Orleans, and so Owen had gone in search of a rental vehicle.
Shari moved to the counter and argued for their luggage. It took a manager and more to have the bags pulled. As for Owen, of course, it seemed everyone in the airport had the same idea. The Were had to maneuver through two separate car rental companies and as many long lines before he was able to secure an SUV large enough to fit all of them.
Sookie had been grateful to be on the road and making forward progress. She had texted Eric to let him know about the change in plans. As the hours passed and the rain pelted all around them, Sookie’s enthusiasm definitely took a downward turn.
When the group finally pulled up to the Ames compound and passed through the checkpoint, Sookie had felt the weight of her exhaustion press down on her like rocks. Her guards had opened doors and shook themselves, clearly happy to be free of the confinement of the vehicle. Shari had reached back and opened Sookie’s door and the telepath unfolded herself from the back seat, the front door of the house had opened and Maude, the Queen of Minnesota had stepped forward. There was something about seeing this woman, this person that Sookie felt was her friend that lifted her spirits. She felt her own smile start in return and she readily walked forward, a spring in her step. “Welcome to Iowa,” Maude called as she walked down the stairs. Sookie felt that now, everything would be alright.
Maude walked her straight through and into the kitchen. Sookie headed to the small bathroom to take care of human needs while Owen took plates from the oven. When Sookie came back there was one dish steaming on the table. She looked at Owen who bowed. “Mistress, Shari has your bags upstairs. If it’s all the same to you, we’ll hold off on dinner until later. We need a run and there are plenty of guards here.”
“Sure,” Sookie agreed. “I have Maude here too. I’m fine. You two go do what you need. I am really grateful for everything you did today.” Sookie put on her best party smile and Owen looked relieved. Sookie sat down and stared at the chicken and potatoes in front of her, then she bit her lip and asked the Minnesota Queen, “Do you mind if I eat in front of you? I am kind of hungry.”
“People eating never bothered me,” Maude said in a way that let Sookie know she meant it. As Sookie took the first bite, the Queen stood and got a glass from the shelf which she filled with tea from a pitcher on the counter. “I was charged with delivering a personal message from Deirdre,” Maude smiled. “She told me to tell you that her cornbread is almost as good at the one you made. Now she would like your help with figuring out biscuits. She tells me that you did something with a dowel?”
Sookie nodded, chewing quickly so she could respond without showing a mouthful of food. She reached for the tea and used it to help wash down the food she had taken. When she swallowed, she said, “It’s important to beat the dough so that it rises right. Great tension reliever too,” and Sookie found herself giggling with exhaustion. “I loved being in your kitchen,” she gushed. “It was kind of like it used to be when I was cooking with my Gran. I want to thank you for that.”
Maude’s eyes were warm as she said, “You are most welcome, Sookie. My house is always open to you. Any woman who can cook the way you do is good people. No one can make good food if their heart isn’t pure.”
Sookie smiled, “I believe that, too.” She took another swallow, and then remembered something. “Oh goodness! I have a message for you too! Pam told me to let you know that she is very happy as Regent. It’s everything you promised her it would be. She’s in Europe now, but if you contact her, she would like to stop in Minnesota on her way home.”
Maude shook her head, “Oh, the stories I could tell you about my Pam!” The older vampire sat and beamed. “I never met another vampire like that gal. Except maybe Lydia before she got so serious and important. She was another one for laughing and joking. Had to look under every cushion you sat on and check behind every door. Never a dull moment with either of them.”
Sookie cut another piece of chicken and loaded a little mashed potato on top of it. Not looking up from her plate, she asked, “Did you know that Lydia’s Robert was still alive?”
“Of course,” Maude told her. “Very sad, that story. Something for another day when it’s not so late and you’re not so tired.”
Sookie nodded and ate the next forkful of food. Even warmed again it tasted amazing. “When do the meetings start tomorrow?” Sookie asked.
“Nine in the morning. That’s eight in the morning your time, and since it’s so late, I wouldn’t suggest you stay up much longer. Since we already know our side of this, we have arranged for a human attorney to represent the Queen in the preliminary talks. It will be all the preliminaries; introductions, agendas and their formal request for access to Phoebe’s research and facilities. Of course this will give you an opportunity to read them without any interference. Phoebe thinks that humans react differently when there are vampires in the room.”
Sookie nodded, “Well, Phoebe would be right, in my experience. As soon as a vampire comes in sight, particularly for these business guys, they clam up and close ranks. It’s likely that because you’re women vampires it will be even worse.”
“Well, we will plan to join you shortly after first dark for a tour of the facility and a slide show of the products,” Maude confirmed.
“Sounds like it will be a long night,” Sookie said with some concern.
“There will be a dinner. Of course, we won’t eat, but humans seem to put great store on breaking bread at these things.” Sookie nodded. “I’ll suggest you cut out early so you can come back here and get some sleep.” Maude looked at her, the Queen’s head at an angle, “Oh, I should mention. Try to limit your wandering. Phoebe is not comfortable with humans in her palace. She has some fear that someone will try to stake her in her rest. It’s not that she has anything against you personally. It’s just something that worries her.”
Sookie stared back, her fork halfway to her mouth. She set the fork back down and carefully wiped her hands. “Well, good grief, I can understand that. I live with a vampire. I get how vulnerable y’all are during the daylight. Why don’t I just move myself and my guards to the local hotel? It’s a college town; we must have passed a dozen places. I don’t want her worried about anything. I’m supposed to be here to help you!”
Maude sighed, “I wish we would have had this conversation before!” she smiled. Then she said, “Well, let’s see how tomorrow goes. Iowa may decide that she really likes you and doesn’t want you too far,” and the Minnesota Queen put her cool hand on Sookie’s cheek in a way that reminded the telepath again of her own Gran. “After all, Miss Stackhouse, what is there not to like?”
Arc de Triomphe, Paris France
Pam waved when she saw Karin striding across the street. Pam had a seat at the Café Le Cristal and was enjoying the bustle of the city. There was something about people watching here that was unlike anywhere else in the world. The pulse of life, the flash of fashion, the sophistication of the city, it was all uniquely Paris. Pam thought, not for the first time, that she could easily live here and feel at home. Her sister deliberately walked toward her, making a show of checking her purse, then dropping a pen, and bending over to retrieve it.
“Worried about being followed?” Pam asked conversationally.
“Always,” Karin sighed. “Sorry, it’s habit now.”
“With what you’re doing, sister, it’s a smart habit to maintain,” and Pam signaled the waiter. Karin settled and the waiter soon returned with bottles of TruBlood tastefully wrapped in towels and dark blue glass goblets. He poured for both, sniffed disapprovingly, turned on his heel, and left. “I love Paris!” Pam proclaimed. She sipped, looked around again, and then focused on Karin. “By the way, you look like shit. Where’s Horst?”
“He’s left me,” Karin said, and then shrugged. “I’m not surprised, and frankly, if I’m really honest, I’m a little relieved.” She sighed again and stared at the traffic inching by. “I don’t know what I was thinking. It was so unlikely!”
Pam’s face reflected her skepticism, “I don’t know what you saw in him. I never found him in the least attractive.”
Karin shook her head. “He took me by surprise. He was funny and very competent. You should have seen the way he handled the Merlotte thing. Before I could even think it through we were loading that bastard in the back of the perfect getaway vehicle. Horst’s sitting next to me asking Siri to find the nearest reservoir. We pull up, dump the dog, watch some gator grab him and the next thing I know, I’ve got my tongue down his throat, and we pretty well had monkey sex for the next two months,” Karin looked directly at Pam, “He has this penis ring that does some pretty amazing things.”
Pam found herself laughing out loud. “Fuck a zombie, Karin! At least tell me you put a bag over his head. I can’t stand the idea of having to look at him. I don’t care how talented a snake charmer he is!”
“Shut up!” Karin snarked. “At least I’m getting some. By the time you get around to servicing again you’ll have to have the cobwebs removed.” Pam gave her sister a sour look, ‘fuck you’ look. “I mean it, Pam,” Karin continued, “You let that sit too long and things start to grow closed. You’ll see.” Pam blew a raspberry at her sister, then settled back, and the two of them watched people walk past and sipped their perfectly warmed blood. Karin turned back to Pam then and asked, “Does he know you’re seeing me?”
Pam didn’t make eye contact, “He knows and he’s okay with it. He misses you, even if he can’t admit it. You hurt him.”
Karin nodded, “Is she still with him, too?”
Pam looked directly at Karin, “Why are you asking? You know the answer. Please tell me you are over this. Please, Karin!”
Karin’s face was serious, “I am. I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I wasn’t. How’s he doing?”
“It could be better,” Pam told her. “That rat bastard De Castro stripped everything, not like there was all that much to begin with. We have a team together, including someone you know pretty well. I think he joined up with half a hope you would be coming with the deal.”
“Thomas,” Karin said. “He is persistent.”
“Carrying a big torch for you,” Pam smirked. “Just saying.”
“Yeah, you’re imagining things. Thomas is fun and games until anything looks serious. Then he’s run, run, run. Besides, I’m not interested in returning to the United States any time soon. Business here is good, and I’m making money hand over fist. Something nice about financial independence.”
“Don’t I know it,” Pam sighed. “Still, it will be at least another year before any of us will be resting easy. Maybe more.”
“What are you talking about?” Karin asked. “Eric has more money than God. What’s the problem?”
“Eric has plenty of money tied up for the next hundred years or so. He can’t touch most of it. His liquid funds were being systematically embezzled. My cash and Max’s are tied up tight in Fangtasia. What can I say, sister? It’s a hot mess.”
Karin looked at Pam over the rim of her goblet. “What do you want me to do about it?” she asked.
Pam laughed, but not in a humorous way, “Nothing! I just wanted to see you. I miss you.”
Karin smiled in a happier way, “I missed you too.”
Pam shook her head, “Why don’t you explain yourself? Ask his forgiveness? You don’t have to return, just give him a chance to lift the disinheritance. I know he will if you tell him you’re sorry.”
Karin shook her head, “It’s not that easy for me, Pam. I really screwed up. I need to do something to make amends. I won’t feel good about this until I do.”
Pam turned and looked out at the traffic again. “He really loves her,” she said. “And she loves him back. It’s not like before. They fight, but neither one of the them is running. They are good for each other. Really, really good.”
“Give it time,” Karin said. “He’ll screw up. He’ll do something that is so vampire she won’t be able to stomach it. It is inevitable that there will be another Victor Madden blood bath or something like it, and she’ll go right back to the way she was.”
“You’re wrong,” Pam told her. “They talk about everything. If she does run, it will be because she loves him so much she’ll be willing to sacrifice herself for his happiness.”
Karin looked at her sister then, her face wistful. “He deserves that, a woman who loves him like that.”
Pam nodded. “You’re right.” She stood up and threw some paper on the table. “If you need anything, contact Max. He’s in New Orleans and coordinating everything. He misses you too.”
Karin watched her sister until she faded into the crowd of beautiful, fashionable people.