APPROXIMATELY 20 MINUTES AFTER SUNDOWN
Action was what determined the world.
But the ability to perform action was the single most important element that Appius had taken away from my life in so many ways. Even when he’d left me alone, the specter of my maker’s command was always “waiting” to take away my self-determination.
To take away my actions.
So—I’d done the only thing that I could: I’d become an actor most of the time—as “fake” actions had seemed preferable to none.
Of course, all vampires had to pretend at times; monarchs of no merit had to be bowed to. Older vampires had to be recognized, even if they were assholes! In other words, the hierarchy had to be recognized if one didn’t want his or her head to roll.
Before turning to dust.
Still—most vampires did not need to be actors in their everyday lives. But, as long as my maker lived, I did, so I had.
Indeed—I’d intentionally failed in some ways in order to avoid drawing Appius’s attention in my direction. Of course, whenever I did fail at some business venture, Appius would always learn of it. I made sure of that.
And he would—thoughtfully—send a note.
My greater successes, however, were never publicly claimed by me; on the contrary, they were hidden whenever possible. When it wasn’t possible, I downplayed my achievements.
In many ways, the most difficult element of my existence after Appius sent me on my way was knowing when to act on my own behalf and when to be an “actor” for my maker’s benefit.
I’d acted (in both senses of the word) when taking a sheriff’s position in rural America—because I knew Appius preferred life at court. However—though I enjoyed my life in Area 5—I knew better than to stand out too much. Indeed, on the contrary, I’d purposely dwelt in seclusion, which had been why I could pretend to be Leif with a neighboring sheriff and king! Indeed, Rhodes was the first summit I’d ever been to as Sheriff of Area 5, and—even then—I would have found excuses not to go if the queen had not insisted upon including Sookie in her retinue.
In an alternate universe, had Appius not been in the equation, there was no way that I would have settled for the kind of anonymity that I had. By nature, I was a social being; if opening Fangtasia indicated nothing else about me, it should have been that. Oh—a part of me had become bored with the “vermin,” as Pam called them. But another part enjoyed the notoriety that the business had allowed me. And—to be honest—though I’d never aspired to become a king or be more involved in vampire politics, a lot of that stance had been formed by “Eric, the actor,” who knew well that I could not be something greater than I was since Appius still walked the earth.
Yes—as long as Appius was still un-dead, some things that I might have done had seemed pointless to me. In that way, he’d always limited my actions, even when he’d been on the other side of the globe.
Now that he was finally gone, I was warming up to the thought of being a king—and not just for Sookie’s sake either. Indeed, I knew with everything in me that I would be an excellent monarch—that I was born to lead with action, rather than to follow as an “actor.”
I took a moment to assess my three bonds. Sookie was not yet on the move, but I knew she would be soon. Karin and Pam were together and moving—as if by car—toward the Red River, where the most luxurious vampire hotel in the city stood.
I smiled. I’d been right. Based on my daughters’ location, Cataliades had tasked them with helping with the Freyda part of tonight’s activities.
I did not blame the demon—nor my children. Indeed, I felt very glad that they were near and had let them feel that in our bonds after they’d awoken. Pam’s presence did not surprise me so much. From the less strong bond I felt from Miriam, I knew that Pam’s child was still secure in Texas, but my youngest wasn’t one for being left out of the action.
Karin’s presence did surprise me a little. But I was grateful for it, nonetheless.
I let both of my girls feel my approval of and pride in them as I recalled my decisions to make each of them. Of course, turning them had been a risk—an action that could have backfired if Appius had decided to take an interest in those whom I sired.
She had been so vulnerable at first. And so had I.
I closed my eyes and remembered—with some shame—the state that I was in when I decided to make my first child. I’d found Karin about fifty years after Appius expelled me from his sight.
I’d been floundering. Back then, I’d required a ruler because I had forgotten how to rule myself—thanks to the “careful” tutelage of my maker.
I cringed as I thought about the early years of my vampire state, as Appius had systematically forced me to act in all the ways he’d desired. I had been fucked, literally and figuratively—raped both body and soul—as the relatively powerful man I’d been as a human was obliterated. Indeed, Appius’s first lesson for me had been that I no longer had any power. He was so much stronger, and he could compel me to do anything he desired. Eventually, he almost broke my will by compelling me to “love” him and “enjoy” his attentions.
I did come to love him. And I had come to enjoy him.
And, in so doing, I became the actor, forgetting my true self.
Worse, I’d never forgotten that particular “act.” I shook head as I recalled telling others throughout the years that Appius was a great vampire in many ways. Yes—part of me had come to believe my own act, and I’d even told Sookie that it had not been so bad being with my maker—that he’d taught me much of value. I suppose he did teach me a lot about warfare; however, that was not for me as much as it was for his benefit.
He wanted me to hone my skills as a fighter so that he could hire me out.
And, of course, the warfare he’d practiced most often with me had been of the psychological variety.
I frowned. Now that Appius was dead, I wondered—just as Sookie had once wondered about the effect of our bond on her feelings—if any of the positive emotions I’d once felt for Appius had been real.
Though I’d not used the bond to affect Sookie in a way that would change her, I knew that Appius had done so with me—more times than I could count. Yes—he had forced my body to bend to his will. But he had also forced me to his way of thinking, taking all of my freedoms away. Eventually, he took away even my desire to act according to my own free will. It was then that—finished with me—Appius expelled me from his side.
Likely—at that point—he thought that my time among the undead would be limited. After all, a solitary vampire incapable of acting on his or her own behalf was doomed.
But I had not perished. Instead, I reacted to my release by finding surrogates for my maker—a fact which likely amused Appius to no end! In those dark days, I had offered my services—both fighting and fucking skills—to anyone who seemed to want them. I had asked for nothing in return. Yes—my actions continued to belong to others because I could not act on my own.
In those nights, I fought for a variety of masters—some deserving and some deplorable. Their merit was not something I considered as I grasped onto the small sense of purpose their orders gave me.
But one night—as I was out performing a thankless duty I’d been assigned by the latest in my line of masters—I’d seen Karin trying to fight off a group of men, who had already battered and raped her. I saw as she grasped a dagger from one of the men’s pushed-down trousers.
I still do not know how she had the strength to kill two of the men before the others took the knife away and began kicking her.
I thought of attacking them, but that was not my purpose for being on the road that night, so I watched from the shadows. I made a deal with myself that—if they began sexually assaulting her again—I would step in.
But they didn’t. By that point, they were content to kill her.
Her breaths became more and more shallow until her attackers left her (and their fallen “friends”) for dead; indeed, those breaths were so shallow and she was so still by then that the so-called “men” likely thought that she had already perished.
I walked over to where she lay. At the time, I could not explain why I felt the urge to do so—beyond a tiny voice inside of myself saying that a warrior like the woman on the road ought not to die alone.
I figured she would slip into death quickly. But, after twenty minutes, one of her eyes opened slightly. There was enough focus in that eye that I knew that she saw me.
She could neither speak nor move her naked body. I had already determined that almost all of her ribs were broken. Her pelvic bone was crushed. Her arms and legs had suffered multiple fractures, and her back was broken as well, which meant that she could no longer feel pain.
I found myself grateful—on the woman’s behalf—for that fact.
Blood pooled around both her front and back entrances, and her windpipe was partially crushed, indicating that she’d been raped in all the ways that men could fathom. Her face was a pulp, and one of her eyes was unusable. I could not tell if the woman had been physically beautiful or ugly in life.
But her bravery was unquestionable.
I found myself speaking to her, hoping that she could hear me. “You are a warrior. The Valkyries will come soon.”
To this day—night—I do not know what compelled me to say those words, but—with them—returned a fleeting memory of “me.”
The “me” I’d been as a human. The “me” I’d been before Appius took away all that I was.
The “me” who had believed in such things as Valkyries.
And—looking toward the North Star—I knew that I still believed in them.
Despite all odds.
Despite all atrocities.
I believed. And that meant that I was still an “I.”
“The Valkyries,” I whispered as I recalled the gods and goddesses I’d once believed in. I had—at some point—lost my faith in them after Appius had begun using me as his plaything.
Yes—as I stared into the barely-opened blue eye of the woman who lay dying, I remembered Eiríkr. I remembered my human father and mother. I remembered that I had been being groomed to lead my people. I remembered that my actions as a general and warrior had advanced my people. I remembered that my actions as a husband and father had advanced my family. I remembered the impulse that had led me to seek out a new wife when Aude tragically died.
On the night that I’d “met” my maker, I’d been acting for the betterment of all of those I was destined to lead.
And I found myself acting again—this time for my own betterment—as I scooped the dying woman into my arms and took her further into the woods. I lay her down on a soft patch of grass amidst a cluster of trees, and then I took most of the blood she had left and fed her my own.
I acted on instinct as I turned her—for Appius had never taught me of the process—and then I dug a hole where we would both rest that night.
The next night, I emerged from the ground and left my new child before performing my duty to my master. That obligation fulfilled, I returned to his court, gave him a report, and then took my leave of him.
After that, I had many masters—but it was never the same. Remembering “myself” had changed the way I saw myself. I would offer my services as a warrior, but I would require payment for them. I would give myself to a lover only when I wanted to.
And—of course—there was Karin to train.
I had returned to her before she rose, determined to be a good maker to her.
I had even succeeded in some ways, despite my state upon finding her.
I closed my eyes, remembering the night Karin had risen. I’d knelt by the earth where she’d transformed and prayed to my newly remembered gods that Appius would never again find me appealing enough to return to my life. I prayed even more fervently that he would never affect my child’s life, but—in the back of my mind—I had always dreaded him.
After Karin rose, I taught her how to feed by letting her unleash her anger and her unrelenting thirst upon the men who had all-but killed her. And then I began teaching her all I knew about combat so that she could always protect herself. She took to vampirism well, but—as much as I’d wanted to be a good maker—I’d failed her in some ways.
For fear of feeling too much contentment and drawing Appius’s interest, I held myself back for Karin in some ways. In other words, I “loved” her only as I thought would be safe for us—even though I knew, even then, that my limited affection wasn’t adequate for her. Thus, our relationship was somewhat strained from the first.
Happily, we did not attract Appius’s attentions; unhappily, I felt obligated to release Karin as soon as I knew she could survive on her own.
I could do no less for her; after all, she had saved me by reminding me of the fighter I’d once been.
Years later, when I decided to turn Pam, I vowed to avoid the kind of alienation that my “withholding” had caused with my first child, so I’d indulged my youngest’s every whim. Luckily, she was not the kind of individual who needed me to be overtly loving. Indeed, Pam had always avoided “love”—until Miriam.
But no matter what—always—I’d been careful about how much emotion I allowed myself to feel for either of my children. I let myself enjoy their company when I had it. I let myself care for them. However, I “did” for them, more than I allowed myself to “feel” for them.
If Appius had been gone—dead and gone—when I’d turned my girls, I knew that I would not have held back parts of myself from either of them.
But the “actor” in me had needed to pretend not to love them so much—so that they would be protected. And the “actor” was quite strong when he needed to be.
Until “he” met a certain blonde, who made me incapable of not feeling.
Made me incapable of both “acting” and “not acting.”
I found that—with her—I was incapable of keeping up a pretense of distance and non-caring.
And—then—I found myself “acting” on her behalf.
I tried, but I eventually could not hold back my desire for Sookie, so I’d acted to be with her, despite the fact that I knew that my heavy emotions for her might draw Appius.
And come he had.
Pam, Sookie, and I had all almost died because of his “visit.”
But that wasn’t—apparently—enough for the menace of Appius Livius Ocella.
Indeed, even from his ashy state, my maker continued to try to take away my will—to take away my ability to act as I wished.
Felipe, too, wished to take away my freedom.
Freyda—in her relative youth—sought to do the same.
“But Appius is dead now,” I whispered to myself, needing to hear that truth again. “And Felipe will soon be no more as well. And—with Sookie by my side—I will get out from under Freyda’s thumb,” I half-sighed and half-prayed.
Yes. I was determined to do what I needed to do—to take out Felipe and make sure Sookie was protected. After that, I would have faith in my bonded.
“Faith,” I whispered with a chuckle.
It was a concept I’d all but forgotten for the better part of ten centuries. But Sookie had reintroduced me to it—and then she’d injected it into me with every touch she gave me.
I closed my eyes and gathered my strength. I would need it for the upcoming events.
But, even as I attempted to envision the night as I wished it to play out—I could not help but to recall my near hopelessness of only a few days before.
My life had seemed doomed to inaction again.
I’d thought that I would be trapped in a marriage with Freyda—one which both Appius and Felipe had helped to bind me in. My bonded wife would have been lost to me, for acting to keep Sookie with me as a mistress would have surely driven her away. And keeping her in my life in any other way would have led to her vulnerability.
With effort, I pushed those dark thoughts away.
Now that Sookie and I were “together”—truly and permanently—the actions available to us were much more varied. They were all dangerous, of course, but—at least—Sookie and I would lose together if we lost. Of course, we would win together if we won.
The together part was what mattered.
And the fact that action would determine our fate—rather than forced inaction—warmed my long-dead heart.
“I no longer need to be the ‘actor,'” I said aloud. “I will act as I choose.”
I took a long, unneeded breath.
Faith—Sookie had given me that.
And freedom—she had given that to me as well.
I sent her a burst of my love and gratitude through our bond, and—almost immediately—I received a sense of love back from her.
Love and faith. Nothing had ever felt better.
In that moment, the figurative miles between us that we’d had to overcome and the physical miles that currently separated us did not matter in the slightest.
“I will not let you down, min kära,” I whispered, knowing that she would feel my determination through our bond.
She sent me her own back.
And with that determination, I—once more—focused upon the night’s events.
Even before I’d awoken, I had received an emailed confirmation from my contact at Anubis that Felipe and his entourage had arrived in Shreveport. A text sent just before dawn Mountain Time from Sandy Sechrest indicated Felipe’s final numbers—as far as his allies went. Another text, sent from Indira about ten minutes after sunset, had offered information on the Oklahoma contingency that would join Felipe at Fangtasia.
All the intelligence reported confirmed what I’d already known.
I took a moment to consider my loyal allies as I thought about the night ahead. Such consideration had always served me well when I’d been a human leader. And the practice had continued to benefit me when I’d become a sheriff. It reminded me to appreciate those who fought by my side—to never take them for granted.
I began by thinking about my allies of the two-natured variety. Whereas Herveaux had proven useless, Norris’s panthers—the ones that weren’t too inbred, at least—were a promising community. I’d already arranged for Hotshot to grow and prosper with the influx of the other groups—even if I were slain that night. It seemed the least I could do for them.
Mustapha and his mate, Warren, were also tremendous assets. Though Warren was human, he was quite skilled. And I knew that Mustapha might very well galvanize the support of the remaining Longtooth pack once Alcide’s ineptitude was known.
The Dae support Cataliades had committed had been an unexpected boon. And I was already considering things that I could do to show adequate appreciation for having such friends. Unlike Sookie’s Fae kin, I did not see them entering and exiting her life at random intervals. And I did not see them endangering her life either. Indeed, I intended to foster our relationship with Desmond and any other Cataliades family member who appeared in our lives.
The witches, like the Dae, were one of Sookie’s contributions. I could not help but to celebrate their presence in the night’s action as well.
As for vampires, I felt like a very wealthy individual indeed! I had the support of my people. And the likes of Thalia, Indira (and her sister Padma), Rasul, Maxwell Lee, and Palomino were amazing assets. And there were many others too—younger vampires like Molly for whom I had high hopes.
Sandy Sechrest promised only to add to my advantage.
And—of course—my daughters were now on the playing field as well.
Yes! I was a rich vampire!
And—as for Fae assets? Well—Niall had helped in the only way that Sookie and I had trusted him not to fuck up: an indirect way.
But I knew that my main Fae asset would always be my bonded. Her telepathy might come in handy—to be sure. But the aspects of my wife that would always be most treasured—essential—to me were her love and belief in me.
She made me need to act for myself—to act like the best version of me.
She made me want to act for her.
She made me want to embrace the man who had lived with her when I’d been cursed by Hallow.
She made me want to cling to the vampire who had—without a second thought—thrown himself in front of bullets for her.
Sookie was a woman of action—sometimes infuriating actions that made me want to curse her soft heart!
Like me, she’d spent time as an “actor,” trying to cover her true self. I’d done so to hold off Appius. She’d done so to appear “normal”
But I was determined that our “acting” days were done, even as the days of our “action” were beginning.
Of course, some of the actions Sookie and I were performing that very night were “pretend”—but they were being completed in the name of the most fundamental truth in our lives.
The truth that we deserved a happy life—together.
Sensing that Sookie was now “on the move,” I considered calling Desmond, though I discarded the idea. I was curious, of course, about my daughters’ presence and roles. However, I did not want to risk unneeded communication, even on burner phones. The night was too important for anything to go wrong now.
Instead, I had faith.
Faith that Desmond or any of my other assets in the field would call me if there were any problems.
Faith that the demon had been wise as he’d assigned tasks to my vampire children. Likely, Karin and Pam would be joining Desmond’s demon allies to take care of Freyda and her personal guards.
I grinned as I thought of the fun the two might have together.
“As it always would have been—should have been,” I whispered, “if not for my maker.”
I was not surprised when my “official” phone rang; after all, it had been ringing every few minutes since about twenty minutes before sundown—a clear hint of Felipe’s true age.
I smirked. I’d never believed de Castro to be the seven hundred years he claimed. By my estimation, he was closer to five hundred years old. Of course, I’d never faulted him for lying; vampires did what they needed to survive and thrive.
I took a moment to contemplate how to sound weak.
Then I channeled the moment when I’d accepted that Appius had dominion over me and answered the phone.
“My liege, I was just listening to your messages.”
“Why did you not answer earlier?” Felipe demanded.
“I am afraid that my phone became separated from me,” I lied—badly—even as I triumphed at the natural-sounding cracking of my voice. Hell! I sounded like an injured—or pre-pubescent—vampire even to my own ears!
“I expect you to be at Fangtasia when I arrive in twenty minutes,” the king gruffed.
“It will take me a bit longer than that,” I responded, managing to sound both weakened and contrite.
“Why is that?” Felipe demanded.
“I—uh—must collect Miss Stackhouse,” I lied.
“Ah—the telepath. You need not worry about her. Compton is bringing her to Fangtasia,” Felipe crowed.
“Oh?” I asked, even as I let a subtle growl slip through as if Compton’s involvement was both unwelcome or unexpected.
“I am anxious to get to the bottom of Victor’s murder,” de Castro answered. “I am sure you are too.”
“Of course,” I responded weakly.
“Excellent. Then I will see you in twenty minutes,” he said.
“I—uh—it will . . . .” I paused as if searching for words. “It might take me a little longer than that, for I must drive there.”
“Is your ability to fly broken?” de Castro asked. I could hear the smile in his tone.
“No!” I answered quickly. Too quickly and too fervently to be believable.
“Then I expect you as soon as humanly possible,” Felipe chuckled before hanging up.
I grinned at the phone. The game had just begun and already Felipe was feeling too cocky.
“Excellent,” I said to myself before leisurely walking outside and taking flight. I’d fly as far as one of my safe houses in Shreveport, and then I’d drive a car from there. I planned to take a bit longer than the twenty minutes my king had granted me, but I would be at Fangtasia before my bonded arrived.
A/N: I hope that you will let me know what you think about the chapter though–if you have a spare moment. 🙂