Thanks for all the reviews! This one is hot off the press so give me a shout if I missed any typos.
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And now ... I think you'll like this one.
War Council and a Reversal of Fortunes
Bartlett was in the corridor outside his suite, in his shirt sleeves, fists on his hips as he spoke to one of his retinue. He looked up as we came towards him and smiled.
"Ah, Eric. Russell loves you in blue."
"This old thing?" I joked, waving at my expensive suit. "It does match my eyes." I could almost hear Marie rolling hers behind me. She hadn't quite grasped the benefits of appearing relaxed.
"Takahashi." Bartlett nodded to my second. "In light of the circumstances, you and your colleague may stand guard at the door."
"Thank you, your majesty," Goro said, bowing politely.
Once we were alone Bartlett dropped the act, tension tightening every line of his body. I thought better of asking if Russell ever rested in his own rooms – the suite smelt strongly of him, but resting places would be a touchy subject after Felipe's attack on me.
"Where's Neb?" Bartlett asked as we sat on opposite couches.
"Ah. Busy elsewhere."
He relaxed slightly, revealing some of his concern was for his old friend, but his words remained clipped. "Oskar is at the council meeting?"
"Yes. Presenting my claim against de Castro."
"You have enough evidence already?" He grinned then, a wicked smirk that made his hazel eyes glint dangerously. "Impressive, Eric."
I inclined my head at the compliment. His eyes followed my arm, thrown along the back of the couch, and he saw the heavy signet ring on my hand.
"You have spoken to Miss Kingfisher, I see."
"Yes. Does Russell know?" I asked.
"No. That is your secret to tell." He turned towards the door. "Speak of the devil."
Russell came in, carrying a laptop, and cursing under his breath. Until he saw me. Then he strode around the couch with concern in his eyes that matched his words. "Eric, you are well? Your people?"
"Yes," I said simply, raising an eyebrow. Sometimes I thought Russell's openness in private was as much of a mask to his true feelings as the usual vampire stoicism, but this was probably genuine.
He tilted his head. "Hm. You don't look furious."
"Ah." I permitted myself a smirk. "Revenge is a dish best served cold."
Russell raised an eyebrow, and looked askance at his husband, who nodded slightly.
"Checking my feelings match my face?" I asked, amused.
Bartlett shrugged unapologetically. Russell winked at me as he moved to set up the laptop on the coffee table and said breezily, "Bart does like to show off."
Bartlett snorted. "Russell likes bragging about my ability. Ignore him."
Russell finished and stepped back, taking a seat besides his husband. Stan's face appeared on the screen moments later. I recognised the room he was in from my stay at his Dallas 'ranch'.
"I'm alone," Stan confirmed tersely. "What happened Eric?"
I explained, briefly, about the assassin (dead at her own hand), Yuri (soon to be dead at Felipe's), and both about to be returned-to-sender. I was awarded a round of fangy grins, and Russell chuckled out loud.
He stopped abruptly when I outlined Tennessee's involvement and his interest in Mississippi. By the time I'd detailed Kentucky and Wisconsin's probable assistance, the smiles were gone. They all looked grim. Stan was the first to break the silence.
"So there's more between Wisconsin and Felipe than a bribe over Nadia's trial."
"Yes. But that cosy friendship will be severed shortly." My voice was curt. It galled me that I hadn't acted on the information from Bill's database sooner.
Russell sat forward, impatient. "How?"
"Certain incriminating facts will come to light. Facts Wisconsin believes are in Felipe's sole possession." No-one asked what those facts were, but Stan grunted his approval. I added, "And I am petitioning Narayana for compensation."
"Good," Stan said. "Felipe is on shaky ground with his clan as it is, this may eliminate him. Tennessee, however, concerns me."
Scowling at the coffee table Russell muttered, "Fucking Hugh."
"Wasn't that what started this?" Bartlett said drily, but the tension deflated any humour in his words. Stan scrutinised the less-than-happy couple, lips pursed as he waited for an explanation.
Russell cursed softly and admitted, "Hugh proposed a marriage. Twenty years ago. Clearly the refusal stung more than I thought."
"You said he only became a threat recently," Stan said tightly.
"So we believed," Bartlett murmured, deep in thought, his fingers drumming softly on the couch beside him.
"With good reason," Russell added tersely. "Remember how impoverished Kentucky was at Rhodes? I had evidence Hugh was draining his resources in preparation for a takeover."
Stan leaned closer to the camera. "If Mississippi was his goal all along, that was a diversion."
"One that served two purposes," I said, mind racing. "Moving against Russell would leave Bardulf exposed to an attack from the north. Weakening Kentucky might prevent that."
Russell disagreed. "Or antagonise Kentucky into it. Isaiah was beginning to suspect Bardulf was behind his run of bad luck."
Something else occurred to me. "And then you married, giving Bardulf another obstacle. Perhaps that pushed him to act for Nadia at Rhodes."
"Yes," Russell spat the word like a bullet and Bartlett patted him absently on the thigh. "That bitch probably dangled Mississippi in front of him like a bag of blood."
There was a short silence. I suspected we were all imagining the hellish prospect of that pair carving up the South between them. Stan broke it. "How deep was the animosity between Isaiah and Bardulf? Would they trust each other now?"
"There was distrust, a few skirmishes," Russell said. "Either that was an act, or something has changed."
"They reacted differently at Nadia's trial," I said slowly. "Kentucky didn't show an interest in saving her."
"No," Russell agreed. "They were cordial on the surface, but not enough to make me suspect they were acting together. As they seem to be now."
"I knew Isaiah," Stan said, frowning. "Six centuries ago. In Austria." He looked at me, and his eyes held a question. "Your eldest child was there. We shared a nest briefly."
Ah. I was in Northern France then, but when Ocella popped up for one of his lovely visits I sent Karin to Oskar. And Oskar and I weren't on the best terms at the time, hence Stan's questioning look. I dredged up the explanation we'd used. "Yes. Oskar needed a bodyguard."
He accepted it with a nod. "Karin was fierce even then."
"Yes, yes," Russell said briskly. "Can we skip the reminiscing and focus on Isaiah?"
"The Isaiah I knew then was cautious," Stan said. "Cautious, but greedy. Naked aggression was not his style."
"That has been my experience of him," Russell agreed, narrowing his eyes.
Bartlett shook himself and came out of his trance, his eyes tightening. "I agree. Kentucky would not risk an open attack on Eric, here at the summit, with Bardulf who he has no reason to trust. Not unless he thought someone else had his back."
"Ohio," I said grimly. Literally had his back, Ohio was his neighbour to the north.
"Exactly," Bartlett said. "That is where the danger lies."
Russell swore vehemently. That particular danger was Bartlett's neighbour.
Stan blinked. "An unholy trinity, indeed. Ohio is a fresh face, I know little about him. What do you think he is after?"
"It's perfectly fucking simple," Russell said acidly. "Bardulf gets Mississippi, Ohio gets Indiana. And I don't give a fuck whether they let Kentucky alone or crush him between them."
"This is a reaction to us, our strength," I said, admitting to myself that Oskar and Neb had been right.
"Perhaps," said Bartlett, as serious as I had ever seen him.
"You knew provoking civil war in Amun was a risk," Stan said, with an undercurrent of disdain. Lucky bastard didn't have to worry about his own clan: Zeus was functioning much better.
After a minute of silence I said, "I have other news that might provide a solution." Or be a catalyst for more trouble. All three of them looked at me impatiently. "Iowa wants in."
"How serious is she?" Stan asked sharply.
"Enough to propose," I said laconically, and the atmosphere relaxed considerably.
"Congratulations," Bartlett said lightly. "Two proposals in your first year on the throne. He has you beat, Russ."
Russell dropped his fangs and pouted. It looked ridiculous, but Bartlett smiled anyway. Russell dropped the fake expression and his eyes glittered dangerously. He said slyly, "If Iowa joined us, Ohio would think twice before attacking you, my love."
"Hm." Bartlett reached out a finger and ran it down Russell's arm, shoulder to wrist, his eyes darkened when it reached bare skin. "I still prefer Alabama. Zola would give Bardulf another reason to leave you be."
A flash of irritation crossed Stan's face as he watched their love-in. "Now who's not focused," he murmured. "Did you accept Eric?"
"Good, Iowa may not be the best choice," he said, throwing a cutting glance at Russell. "And marriage clearly addles the brain."
Russell rolled his eyes. "Afraid of being left on the self? You could always marry Isabel."
Stan grimaced. "I merely meant Alabama makes more sense for Eric. Another Southern state is fine by me."
"Marry Zola yourself then," Russell said, but there was no sting in it and Stan just grinned back.
"No-one objects to Iowa joining us." I made it a statement.
"Not at all," Stan said, almost warmly. "Keira is a formidable queen, and she shares our goals. Isabel would agree."
Bartlett and Russell exchanged a look, as if deciding whose turn it was to dispose of a body. Bartlett drew the short straw for once, and turned to me. "It is early to commit to a queen, Eric."
Ignoring any other possible reason for his statement I cocked my head under his steady gaze and asked, "You'd rather I married Zola?"
Russell chuckled. "Then Stan marries Iowa, and we gain two birds."
"Stop playing matchmaker," Stan grumbled. "We have enough queens with you around, Russell."
"Why stick to the old ways?" Bartlett said, stretching his arms along the back of the couch. "Marriage alliances are too restrictive. This" – he gestured between us all lazily – "works better. It is more flexible, and it will be easier to explain to the masses when the time comes." Stan made a disapproving noise, but didn't argue. He had almost accepted the inevitability of further exposure. Bartlett continued thoughtfully, "Perhaps it would be better if Keira and Zola join us freely. Maude might be tempted on board once her marriage ends. Then I imagine Michigan might follow."
There was a deep and stunned silence.
"That would give us half of Amun," I said slowly. Had that been Bartlett's ambition all along?
"That could provoke Ohio into something rash," Stan warned. "Not to mention Illinois. It might tear Amun apart."
"Or unite it," Bartlett said calmly. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
He certainly dreamed big, didn't he? Before we could begin picking holes in the idea, his phone chimed.
"Indiana … Let him through. Stan, New Mexico wishes to speak to you."
The woman who came in behind New Mexico was tall and plain-featured, with high cheekbones and long black hair tied back in a braid. Her eyes lingered on me, but I didn't recognise her. She had power though, I could sense that much.
Stan growled, soft and menacing, and said: "Daisy Riverstone."
Ah. The witch. I looked her up and down with more interest.
Her eyes flashed. "Disappointed? I'm told my grandmother was prettier."
I smirked. "Not at all. You sound just like her when you're pissed."
The challenge in her eyes faded but she remained wary, eyes flicking between us and settling on Stan, who looked distinctly pissed himself.
Tezcatlipoca stood beside her, legs wide and arms folded. He raised his chin at Stan. "Tell them yet, Texas?"
"We had pressing matters to discuss." Stan said curtly. Speaking to the room he continued, "There's been another murder by the wolves."
"Same M.O.?" I asked sharply.
"Yes. Four fucking weeks ago. Those fools in Amarillo didn't tell me until now, and they did a piss-poor job of covering it up." He'd been having difficulties with the sheriff there. He took off those ridiculous glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. Bad news then, like we needed more. I shared a glance with Russell and Bartlett and waited. Stan looked his age when he lowered his hand. "The FBI got wind of it somehow. I barely salvaged the situation."
Russell hissed. "How many risks did you take?"
"Too many. We had to break into the police department, remove evidence. They know it, but they can't prove it was us."
"And what does Tez have to do with this?" Bartlett said, looking at New Mexico with curiosity.
Tez? Russell shot his husband a look, obviously just as puzzled by the casual familiarity as I was.
"He was the one who told me about it," Stan admitted, his jaw tightening.
"I hear things from la familia," Tezcatlipoca said, not bothering to hide his amusement at Stan's embarrassment. "It was my pleasure to pass that on to my neighbour."
"Of course," Bartlett said in a tone that indicated he knew full well how much Tez was enjoying rubbing his spies in Texas in Stan's face, and making sure we all knew Stan owed him a favour. "Sit down Tez, and tell us what you want."
Tez just shrugged and sat his ass down next to me. The scent of spoiled meat reached me, rank and pungent, and I resisted the urge to move away.
"I have a lead on your rabid wolf."
He gestured at Daisy. We all looked at the witch, who squared her shoulders and met Stan's glare with one of her own that was just as fierce.
Tez cleared his throat to regain our attention. "We discovered another murder. The first, perhaps."
"When and where?" I asked, turning to face him. This close it was obvious he was not vampire. I could feel a slight warmth radiating from him.
"A year ago. In my territory. The victim was human. One of the Chosen, snatched from Texas."
"Si, I take responsibility. One of my jaguars was involved. He has been punished, and I will make reparations for the poaching." Stan nodded in acceptance, but his eyes were hard. "Unfortunately the desert ate most of the body, so I cannot tell you more."
"But you know who killed him," I stated, looking at Daisy.
"Yes. A wolf called Hector," she said. Stan growled softly at the name, but she ignored him. "He was in New Mexico with me, but he disappeared in the summer. To hunt down the rest of the scum involved in the house fire, even though I disapproved."
"You expect me to believe you weren't part of this?" Stan said harshly. "You had no such scruples about killing Chosen in Houston."
"Things change." She raised her chin defiantly. "I need to return to Texas. Without fear of interference from your people."
"Why the fuck should I agree to that, witch? You and your band of righteous crusaders caused me enough trouble."
"I can stop Hector," she said, implacable. "And there are people in Houston who may be in contact with him."
I caught Bartlett's eye, and then Russell's. Damn. I drew the short straw. "Stan. It is in our interests to resolve these murders," I reminded him.
He opened his mouth, but a phone rang shrilly. Russell cursed and tugged it out of his suit as he got up, saying, "Betty Joe, an emergency." He blurred into one of the adjacent bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
We looked at each other. Well, fuck. Didn't this night keep getting better? Bartlett's eyes widened and flicked after Russell, and I almost groaned. Russell must be agitated; Bartlett could sense him, through their blood tie and his empathy. That was sometimes a disadvantage.
Tezcatlipoca ploughed ahead, ignoring the interruption. "Texas. You must let this woman into your territory. She wishes to stop this. The killings will harm her people."
Stan's face smoothed blank in a flash and he eyed Tezcatlipoca coldly. "How long has she been in your territory?"
The Aztec vampire shrugged his shoulders. "She asked for sanctuary. I gave it."
"You knew I was looking for her."
"You were harassing her people." Tez yawned disrespectfully, and that foul smell got worse. Perhaps those rumours that he ate flesh were true.
"You value them over us," Stan stated, his words calm but fire in his eyes.
Tez laughed throatily, and it was full of challenge. "Us? I am not one of you, as you remind me often enough. But I am a king. Don't overstep your bounds."
I cast an appealing glance at Bartlett but he was distracted, still looking towards the bedroom. It fell to me to end this pissing contest. Before Stan could speak I butted in. "Stan. You were looking for Daisy for this very purpose, and here she is, willing to end these murders."
"I don't trust her," he said, stubbornness in his voice. "Would you let her into Louisiana?"
I looked at Daisy, and then back at him. "Yes. If she wished to investigate the murder in Shreveport."
"Texas, what do you need to allow her entrance? A blood oath?" Tez asked, sneering. "An escort? I will provide one."
I resisted the temptation to clip the back of his head. Antagonising Stan was not the way to get his co-operation. Predictably, Stan took offence. "And exactly how many of your jaguars do you propose I let in? Do you take me for an idiot?"
"Name your own escort then," Tez said, leaning back against the couch.
"Someone from my retinue," Stan said without hesitation. He flicked his eyes lazily to Daisy and drawled, "A vampire."
Daisy hissed. "Like that bastard Joseph? No way. I don't trust dead men."
For fuck's sake. A vampire wouldn't be able to watch her in the day, and Stan knew the witch would object. I could cheerfully knock their thick skulls together. I growled in frustration.
Russell blurred back into the room, eyes blazing as they swept over us. "Eric looks ready to kill," he said bluntly. "I take it things are going as well in here as they are in Mississippi." He glared at the witch. "Your Hector has been busy. Another body was dumped in Jackson and the press have wind of it already."
Daisy swore softly.
"While the witch is there with you. What a coincidence." Stan's words dripped with sarcasm.
Daisy ignored him, and look steadfastly at Russell. "I should go to Jackson then. While the trail is fresh."
"What can you find that my investigators can't?" Russell asked, his lip curling.
Her eyes flashed and she stood taller. "Twoeys won't talk dead men, but they'll talk to me. And I have a mind-reader. You don't."
Sookie? How did she –
"You may be some use then," Bartlett said, eyes narrowed at her. "But Stan is right, something is off about this. I do not like the thought of her loose in your state unsupervised, Russ."
Russell eyed the witch. "Hm. What do you suggest, my love?"
"A liaison. A vampire to oversee her, as Stan suggested." Bartlett looked at Daisy. "One acceptable to you, witch. This will go better if we can co-operate."
Amusement played around her eyes. "Okay then. Northman."
"Eric is a king, not your lackey," Stan said icily, in a tone that said she was a complete idiot.
Daisy shrugged. "He is the only vampire acceptable to me. Take it or leave it."
"You are being deliberately difficult," Russell said to the witch, sneering.
"He's your ally, isn't he? He'll look after your interest in this. Besides, he owes me a debt."
"I owed your grandmother," I corrected. Death was usually considered the end of such things. Final death, anyway.
"But you'll honour it," she said confidently.
It was tempting, and not just for the possibility of Sookie's company. A few days away from the throne…
Bartlett gave me a long speculative look which made me squelched the flicker of enthusiasm I was feeling. He said thoughtfully, "We need someone we can trust to keep tabs on the situation, someone competent. And it might be better if Eric doesn't return to Louisiana as expected."
"How so?" I asked.
"If I was de Castro, I would have a contingency plan. A trap ready to snap closed once you relax, back on familiar ground..."
"You may have a point," I conceded. The annoyingly knowing gleam in his eyes said he was well aware of how much the prospect of this trip tempted me, and how much Sookie was a factor in that, but I ignored it.
Russell looked between me and Daisy, and grinned suddenly. "There is a certain … rapport between you."
"And Eric is good at sneaking around other people's territory," Stan said, eyes narrowed.
I eyed Daisy for a moment. "Very well. If it can be resolved in a few days."
The witch and I moved to the mini-bar in the corner. We sat with our backs to the others, but I kept half an ear on their conversation. Tezcatlipoca was very interested in the fines Felipe was about to be hit with, possibly interested enough to attack Felipe again while he was distracted.
Maybe Felipe would lose a leg this time. Or his head.
"So Jackson first. Then Houston," I said. "What about involving the Caucus?"
"Those guys?" Daisy snorted. "They have their noses so far up Washington's ass they can't smell the stink."
"Hm. I take it their response to the Chosen has been … less robust than you'd like."
"Yep." She took a drink of her whisky, and side-eyed me. "The places we're going, they won't be welcome. You won't either."
"I've been in worse places than the furry underbelly of shapeshifter culture," I said dryly. "I have a contact on the Caucus. Elaine Randall. She is hard-headed enough to be useful, should we need things … cleaning up afterwards."
"After we've done the dirty work," she muttered. "Okay. As long as the bitch doesn't interfere." She took a mouthful of whisky and grimaced as she swallowed it. "Your mind-reader will be more use to us."
"She's not mine," I corrected automatically. "She wasn't when you met her in Tyler either."
"Wasn't she?" Daisy side-eyed me curiously for a moment and frowned. "Your child didn't tell you."
"Tell me what?"
She leaned towards me and dropped her voice. "It was your name she called out as she came round on my brother's pool table."
"What?" The word exploded from me and a cold, sick thrill pulsed in my blood. It was only by sheer force of will I didn't crush the bottle of blood in my hand.
No, Pam had not mentioned that at all.
I turned away and took a gulp of blood, swallowing the deep sense of betrayal with it. I caught Bartlett watching me out of the corner of my eye. Fucking nosy empaths. I switched to Daisy's native tongue to spite him.
"How did you get Sookie to agree to this?" I was burning to know that.
"Called in a debt." She was still watching me intently, so when I raised an eyebrow she explained. "Took some pressure from Niall though. She's stubborn."
"And not well-versed in our ways." Interesting – there was a note of affection in her voice for the ex-prince that made me wonder how close they were. Her grandmother didn't have time for the fae, so something had changed in two generations. "Stan went to Niall to find you. Niall refused to give you up. You must be close."
She raised her whisky to her lips and smiled enigmatically. If she was anything like her grandmother, that meant she had no intention of revealing anything on the subject.
"If you forced Sookie into this," I warned, "she will not be useful as you think."
"Maybe she''ll co-operate for you."
I gave her an assessing look. "Is that why you chose me?"
She chuckled. "Maybe. Or maybe I spoke the truth. I don't trust dead men. But I know something of you."
Hm. She mentioned Sookie so I would agree to this. Manipulative, but resourceful – those were useful qualities for our mission. "Sookie won't be pleased to see me. The tiger even less so."
"He's not coming," she said, amusement in her voice.
Oh really. I hid my smile, and slipped back into English. "We'll need some muscle then. Sookie has an irritating habit of finding trouble."
We discussed the arrangements until I was happy we'd covered most eventualities, then I asked, "Why are you doing this?"
"It is my mess to clear up," she said, staring into her whisky glass. "I filled Hector with righteous anger, twisted him into a weapon because of my own fears and rage." She grimaced. "You were right. I fed the wrong wolf."
Her face was heavy with grief. I said, "You love him."
"Sometimes a rabid wolf has to be put down."
She glared at me. "Don't worry. I will do what is needed. My people come first. Always."
Ah. There was the common ground she had with Niall.
I looked over Thalia's head to see Neb, still as a corpse, on the bed. It was … eerie to see that much power completely vulnerable. Well, not completely. Thalia kept herself between the bed and me, watching my movements with a fierce expression. Maybe she did have a soft spot for the Reckoner.
"What is it?" she hissed in Greek.
"I have need of you in Mississippi. After the summit."
She scowled. "Does the telepath no longer need a guard?"
"She's not going back to Memphis."
Her scowl deepened. "You are taking what's yours."
"No. I meant she's not going back straight away." I explained the little jaunt across the South Daisy had planned.
She muttered under her breath, and then glowered at me. "Fine. It will be less boring than this."
I glanced at Neb and grinned. "The conversation not sparkling enough for you?"
She curled her lip in contempt, and waved me out of the room.
Oskar was in the lounge, talking to Mithradates. The Amun council meeting had gone well, and I listened to them relate the details with growing impatience until at last, an hour before dawn, I could excuse myself to my room.
Where I could fume and pace as much as I liked.
Sookie had cried out my name in Tyler. Mine. Not Sam's, her husband at the time. Not the fucking tiger's. Mine. Under the influence of that fucking fairy magic too.
That was a year ago.
And Pamela, who knew how I felt about Sookie, had said nothing. If I'd known… I wanted to reach through my blood tie to my child and strangle her.
Fuck. I sat on the bed, and raked my hands through my hair. Why hadn't she told me? Was this the only thing she kept from me? Could I still trust her? I had half a mind to call her, but this was a conversation we needed to have face-to-face. Blood-to-blood in fact, so I could feel her.
If she hadn't learnt to hide her feelings from me as well as the truth.
I pulled off my suit, balled it up, threw it in the corner, and stalked into the bathroom for a shower. The hot water did nothing to wash away the ache gnawing at me. Karin was gone. Ocella was gone. Pam was the only vampire of my blood left, and if I couldn't rely on her… I glared at the tiles, fists clenching and unclenching, wishing I had something to kill.
I was not going to become Salvatore, so lonely in his blood he was clinging to the link he shared with Goro like a drowning man.
If I couldn't trust Pam, so be it. I would deal with it.
Nope. That didn't work.
This was Pam. I didn't want to accept that. And I wasn't just angry with her. I was furious with myself, with my decision to stay away from Sookie, to pretend I didn't want her with a thirst as inescapable as the thirst for blood. If she was calling out my name, under that fairy spell too… Maybe I could have put things right between us a year ago.
But no. I'd stayed away. Let her get away. Let her run to Memphis and the tiger's arms.
Fuck. I was going to dwell on this until dawn. I needed a distraction. Wrapped in a towel, I fetched my phone and sat on the floor in the bathroom.
"Mm. Eric." Rory's voice was thick with sleep.
"Did I wake you?"
"Yes." A laugh bubbled under the word, and she came more awake. "I have to be up soon anyway. Early shift. What's wrong?"
I hesitated. This was between Pam and me. "Nothing."
"Well, that's a lie," she said cheerfully. "Must be something, you never call to chat."
She paused, but I didn't say anything.
"Hm. Shall we play twenty questions? Is it some vampire problem? No, you would've called Pam."
I winced at my child's name, glad Rory couldn't see me. "No. It's not … political."
"Personal then," she said. "Your feelings?"
"No. I am –"
"No, it is not –"
"Oh, the new gift. Is it acting up?"
"Woman, let me finish one damn sentence," I growled, exasperated. "My gift has been strangely quiet for the last few hours."
"Hmm. It does tend to come and go at first."
"Yes. So you said. Last night. I haven't forgotten."
"Well, you are getting old," she teased. "So what do you want?"
"I …" When I had to grope for an answer, I almost pulled the phone away and ended the call. I cleared my throat. The woman had seen me at my worst. Grow a fucking backbone, Northman. "I, ah, just needed to hear a friendly voice."
"Oh." She sounded as surprised to hear it as I was to admit it. "Tough summit, huh?"
"There was that attempt to kill me earlier today…" Fuck, it had been a long night. "Talk to me. Did you work yesterday?"
"Okay, brother. Where the hell are you anyway? There's a terrible echo."
"The bathroom." I leaned back against bathtub as she laughed at that, and made myself comfortable. We chatted idly until dawn.
Only after I blurred to the bed did I acknowledge how much it made me miss Sookie. It was one of the things we used to do, talk about trivial things.
She had the tiger to do that with now.
But he wasn't going to Jackson with her. It was a small thing, but it was enough to put a smile on my face as I died.
Kentucky had laid a red carpet in the lobby outside the ballroom, and the cameras he'd allowed in lined it like glistening, hungry mouths. The greedy prick probably made them pay through the nose for the privilege too, one bloodsucker feeding off a different kind of leech.
At least he hadn't been stupid enough allow a live broadcast.
Illinois was ahead of us, talking to one of the interviewers, and I could hear the disdain in his voice. It didn't dissuade the hard-faced woman with the annoying nasal voice from asking another inane question. As Illinois's second deftly deflected her, Oskar, beside me, said in a vampire-whisper, "A hundred says I can make her giggle."
I answered without disturbing my smile for the cameras. "No glamour."
"Done," he said quickly.
Too quickly. I was going to lose, but at least it would wring some amusement out of the situation.
Illinois made good his escape and it was our turn to face the leech. The woman touched her ear lightly as we stepped forward and nodded absently to the voice from her earpiece even as her eyes slid over my tux, lingering on my shoulders for a second.
Hm. Maybe she preferred blonds. Oskar might have to put in some effort.
"Mr Northman," she said, smiling wide to show perfect, over-whitened teeth. "After the GR, you ran a successful tourist bar called..." She looked down at her clipboard for show. "Fangtasia, I believe?"
"Yes, in Shreveport." Someone had done their research. Thinking to give Pam some publicity, I smiled winsomely for the camera. "It has been – forgive the pun – re-vamped since then."
The woman smiled politely, but there was no laughter in her eyes as she pressed on. "Do you think the public's love affair with all things fanged has run its course?"
"Not at all. Fangtasia is still thriving."
Her eyes narrowed. "But without you. I hear you spent a few years in Oklahoma."
"Yes," I said evenly. "It presented fresh challenges. I have investments there."
"It wasn't all work and no play, though. You were photographed attending several balls like this one with another vampire, a" – she checked her clipboard again – "Freyda Johansson. Mr Northman, did a bad break-up precipitate your return to Louisiana?"
"Not at all. My partnership with Ms Johansson was purely business." Not entirely a lie.
"Did Ms Johansson want more? She hasn't been seen out and about in a year. Did you break her heart?"
No. My child staked her. I lied smoothly, "I believe she has returned to Europe."
That was the story Stan and Bartlett concocted. Complete with a couple of faked sightings in Sweden, Italy, and France. If anyone cared to look.
To my left, Neb stepped forward and said, "Freyda's home was bombed quite recently, if you recall. I imagine Europe felt safer. People are more tolerant of the fanged there."
The woman's lip curled as she looked my sheriff up and down. Was the sneer patriotic – he had cast aspersions on America's reputation for tolerance – or was Neb not photogenic enough for her? Who knew. Who cared.
"And you are?" she asked.
Her eyes narrowed again. "That's a German name, and you're what? Indian?"
"Egyptian." Shaking his head ruefully, he turned to Goro behind us. "But we all look the same, eh Takahashi?"
The woman blushed, but she persisted. "And how old are you, Mr Schreiber?"
Neb waved a finger at her, smiling. "Ah-ah. Asking a vampire their age is the height of bad manners."
Oskar stepped forward then, and put on his best cut-glass English accent. "Neb, old chap, leave the lady alone." He turned the full force of his smile on her. "Lord Ashwyn of Kent, at your service."
"Lord Ashwyn?" Her eyes lit up.
As Oskar blasted her with his charms Neb leaned towards me. "I tried, but I think you can kiss that hundred goodbye."
I shrugged. "It keeps him entertained."
Thirty seconds later the hard-faced woman was indeed giggling like the proverbial school girl, and we moved on. Maude stepped up to the plate after us and the woman asked her if there was any truth to the rivalry between vampires and werewolves, as shown in numerous Hollywood movies. As we entered the ballroom, I heard Maude steam roll her with the details of her designer gown – some concoction of purple silk that was quite fetching, and apparently capable of dazzling the press – and I chuckled. Maude loved to use her femininity as a weapon.
The ballroom was full of vampires dressed to impress.
Sookie was there, of course. She was wearing black, a short, fitted velvet dress that was more serious than fairytale, as if to emphasise she wasn't here to enjoy herself. Her hair was up, exposing her neck in a way that made my fangs itch, a bold move in this crowd. Part of that new confidence of hers, perhaps.
Or the necklace she was wearing was as silver as Quinn's ring.
I didn't intend to get close enough to find out. No manufactured excuses this time – better to make my moves away from the summit, once we were somewhere more … intimate. Anyway, the tiger was hovering in the background, in a matching black tux, and that was a complication I didn't need.
I consoled myself with the knowledge I would have time with her soon enough and turned my attention to my fellow monarchs. The ball was like many I had attended over the centuries: full of posturing, flirting and intrigue. Add the restraints of the cameras outside and it was the perfect recipe for boredom. The most notable thing in the first hour was the lengthy conversation Iowa and Maude had. All smiles and affection on the surface, but I knew Maude well enough to pick up the stiffness in her bearing.
It seemed the information Oskar passed to Iowa at last night's council meeting had done the trick. It proved Wisconsin was to blame for an old dispute between the two queens, and Iowa had clearly made short work of revealing that to Maude, hence the French vampire's discomfort. Like most of us, she hated to apologise.
I'd decided against giving the data straight to Maude. She might unwittingly let it slip to Wisconsin that I was the source, and I didn't want that getting back to Nevada – the longer it took him to realise Compton's black database had been compromised the better. And frankly Maude had pissed me off, dragging me into her matrimonial games.
This way I scored points with Iowa, and embarrassed Maude. Win-win.
Russell arrived at my table, and I gestured for him to take the seat beside me. Without preamble, he said, "Surviving Nevada's pathetic attack has done your reputation the world of good. I just overheard Missouri calling you this year's golden boy. He was positively green. You know you've made it to the top when those at the bottom look up in envy."
I chuckled. "Or when a line forms to tear you down."
"Touché." He noticed who I was watching, and a faint smile played around his mouth. Tipping his head slightly towards the two queens he said, "Maude has been cutting her husband dead all night."
"Is that so?" I kept my face and voice smooth.
"Oh yes. Pity it's not literal. Wisconsin is a dead weight. She could do so much better."
His eyes twinkled, and I wondered how much of Bartlett's grand vision for the future he'd swallowed. Although Russell loved gossip, so his enthusiasm could be for that alone. Iowa laughed, and he looked over at them again. "I assume that entente cordiale was your doing?"
I shrugged modestly.
He leaned back, hooking his arm over the back of his chair as he looked towards the section of the room I was avoiding. "Speaking of things that are your doing, I expected the tiger's hackles to be raised tonight."
"He doesn't know," I said evenly.
His eyes widened slightly. "Does she?"
"Not yet." I was half-hoping she wouldn't find out until we were in Jackson. I was having difficulty predicting her reaction – another reason not to seek her out tonight.
Russell let his amusement show for a second, then his eyes followed Bartlett who was dancing with Zola. A fond unguarded look slipped across his face.
"Indiana still favours Alabama," I said quietly.
"Yes, but that tree will take a few years to fruit."
"We have nothing if not time" I said, reaching for my blood. The hotel had picked dark smoked glasses to sanitise our blood-drinkingfor the squeamish.
Russell's eyes fell on my hand, and the signet ring. A faint frowned disturbed his forehead. "Is that a royal gift?" he asked quietly.
I shook my head slightly.
"Good." I raised an eyebrow and he gave me a half-smirk. "Don't rush into any commitments on our account. As Bartlett said, there are other ways."
"Careful, Russell. No more interference." I hadn't forgotten his toying with Sookie.
He cocked his head at me. "Still mad?"
I pinched the air and said sarcastically, "Little bit."
"Hm. You're not the only one." He winked at me as he got to his feet. "Miss Stackhouse was positively rude to me earlier."
I chuckled. Now that, I would have liked to see.
Iowa smiled graciously as she swept to a halt in front of the table and held out a gloved hand. "Eric, shall we?"
I was already rising to my feet, hiding my surprise behind a smooth mask. I hadn't expected Iowa to make a move this early in the game.
"Keira. It would be a pleasure," I said smoothly, taking her hand and kissed her knuckles lightly.
I led her to the dance floor, my unease growing with every step. I hadn't anticipated our … arrangement coming to light tonight. Sookie was here. It would be another obstacle to anything that might blossom between us in the next few days, and there were enough obstacles to that already.
But I could hardly refuse.
Or look unwilling. So I smiled. Keira smiled. We danced.
Of course, dancing was also a way to hold a reasonably private conversation in a room full of vampires. Halfway around the room Keira leaned in close, still smiling. "Thank you for the gift you sent with Oskar."
"It proved useful?"
"Oh yes. I've had a very entertaining evening."
I grinned down at her. "Watching Maude eat crow, I presume."
She laughed quietly. "Ah, the proud French. It does them good to be humbled."
"Wisconsin's bed is going to be cold."
I shrugged slightly under the hand she was resting on my chest. "He made that bed."
She nodded. "For sure. She could cut him loose for it, if she had a mind to."
After a few turns her eyes, warm with amusement, settled on mine. "Your ex-wife is staring daggers."
"Ah. That explains the itch between my shoulder blades." Fuck. Pissing Sookie off was not on my to-do list.
She laughed quietly. "No, that would be Illinois. She's staring at me."
"She is?" That was … confusing.
"She is." Keira looked even more amused. "Should I be worried?"
"Not unless you plan to harm her," I said, careful to keep my tone light.
She squeezed my hand, the one that clasped hers, and said solemnly, "I would never."
I blinked. Was I that obvious? Apparently, I was, because she leaned in again as the dance began to end. "You were pledged Eric. You are not one to take that lightly."
"Ah." I let go of her waist as the music faded, but she kept our hands joined.
"I'll be in touch," she said and dipped into a graceful curtsey, her eyes that warm amber again, as they had been on the roof.
I bowed in return, and let go of her hand. I watched her cross the room back to her table, hands in my pockets and deep in thought. Oskar appeared beside me and said in a low voice, "Not content with the enemies you have, Eric? You just painted another target on your back."
He looked pointedly across the floor to Illinois, who was watching us intently. He raised his glass to me, and I dipped my head in acknowledgement. "It was only a dance, Oskar. Illinois doesn't look that pissed."
Oskar huffed and as I turned to follow him back to our table, I caught a glimpse of Sookie. She was frowning after me almost as intently as Illinois had been.
She could paint a target on my back any time.
Oskar flopped onto the couch, and pulled his bow tie undone. "Thank fuck that's over."
"I enjoyed it," Neb said.
"Rather you than me," Oskar muttered, shaking his head.
Neb had danced with Thalia. Twice. She had scowled the whole time, mind you, but it was noteworthy. She rarely danced. I had certainly never witnessed it.
I sprawled on the couch opposite Oskar, and he raised his head. "You and Keira set a date?"
"Date?" I said innocently. I still hadn't told them about our phony marriage plans, and it was bugging the hell out of him.
He stretched lazily. "She would be perfect for a wife. Iowa is far enough away."
"That's a bonus?" Neb asked curiously.
"Less time with him," Oskar said, waving at me, "less likelihood she'll come to her senses."
I made a rude gesture in his direction.
He snorted. "She only danced with you. Not Ohio, not Illinois. And Illinois was far from pleased. This is not a game, Eric. What are you up to?"
"You will know soon enough. Don't forget who is king here," I said sharply, sitting up. "Everything arranged, Neb?"
"Yes," he said. "Bubba will take your coffin back to Louisiana."
"You better be back in a week," Oskar said sourly. "I'm not dealing with Pam longer than that." He was not happy he had to break the news I was going AWOL.
I went to pack. Most of my things would travel back with the rest of the group, but I filled a small bag to take to Mississippi, humming softly as I tossed in some emergency cash and a few days worth of clothes. Someone knocked on the door. It was Neb.
"All set?" he asked.
He held out a flash-drive. "The footage of the attack, from our camera." He hesitated slightly. "A personal copy."
I took it. "Was there anything else?"
He shook his head and left. I frowned after him. What the hell was that about? I hadn't asked for a copy. I turned the tiny plastic case over in my palm, looking between it and my laptop, packed and ready to send home.
Two minutes later the door was locked, and I was pushing the flash-drive into my laptop. There were two files. One was labelled 'Supporting Evidence' – Neb had extracted the relevant parts for the Amun council, and I'd already seen that. I clicked the one labelled 'Raw: sole copy'.
It started the same, with our wolves chasing after Yuri, scattering clothes as they shifted. I skipped forwards to the assassin. My lip curled as I watched her walk up the empty corridor towards the suite, bold as brass, pushing a cart. Then she was under the camera, out of shot. Neb had cut there for the evidence, because the camera hadn't caught what she did to open the door.
I was about to close the file when a flash of movement stopped me.
There it was again. A flash of honey blonde way down the corridor, by the lifts. What was that? I stabbed at the keyboard, paused, rewound, played it again. The angle was poor, but it looked like...
I sat bolt upright. It couldn't be.
Sookie. She burst around the corner and flew down the corridor towards the suite, hair streaming, barefoot, panic on her face. It was glorious. So glorious I watched it twice more, until my fangs snicked down and a slow, wide smile grew around them.