THURSDAY, JANUARY 20 (five days after the previous chapter)
“Of course, Peter. I am very much looking forward to your visit. And Valentine’s Day does make our rendezvous just that much more romantic,” Queen Sophie-Anne Leclerq declared with a roll of her eyes before hanging up the phone with the Arkansas king.
Wybert raised his eyebrow at his queen and maker. “Why—again—are you doing this?” he asked in impeccable English. Of course, most of the world, including King Peter Threadgill, thought that he and his brother had failed to master any language beyond their native Saxon. And even that one was in question to most people. However, the brothers were much more than they seemed at first glance, and they used their perceived brutishness to their advantage. So—if potential enemies took them for granted—then so much the better.
For them—not their enemies.
“I’m starting to wonder that myself,” Sophie-Anne sighed, “but things are already in motion, so I will need to play this out.” She shrugged. “Look at it this way—if he has concealed motives for coming here . . . .”
“Like to deal you the true death,” Wybert interrupted.
“Yes. Like that,” Sophie-Anne giggled. “If he tries anything, I’ll get a second state out of the mix.”
“We should not underestimate him,” Wybert said cautiously. “He is young, but he didn’t become the King of Arkansas by accident. And Jade Flower is also formidable.”
“We will be cautious,” Sophie-Anne assured the child who had become her chief confidant. That honor used to belong to Andre, but he was a little too secretive these days—a little too sure that his own plans were better than his queen’s.
Too arrogant for his own good.
For that reason, the queen had a trusted member of her court, Rasul, watching him. She hated doing that to her child, but he’d brought it upon himself, questioning her about Sookie Stackhouse one too many times and “blocking” her from his emotions or whereabouts more and more. As a maker—especially one with something of a telepathic connection with her children—Sophie-Anne tried to give her progeny freedom and even taught them how to use their own abilities to block her out when they needed privacy.
However, now she worried that she’d given Andre just enough rope to hang himself by. So—yes—she felt it was necessary to have him watched. And it did not hurt that Rasul was Eric’s spy in her court as well—at least one of them. Oh—Rasul had been careful, and he’d never undermined his queen. He’d simply helped Eric to keep an eye on her, something that had actually always comforted Sophie-Anne in a way. It proved that Eric was a good sheriff, and—since she trusted him—she didn’t mind that Rasul was reporting back to him on occasion. Indeed, a good spy could be used to clear up misunderstandings if he or she were put into the “right” situation to overhear something she wanted him or her to hear. As a bonus, if Andre caught Rasul following him, then he would simply believe that Eric—and not his maker—was spying upon him. Adding to the benefit, Rasul could report anything nefarious that Andre did directly to Eric, and then Sophie-Anne could confirm anything that Rasul also told her to the Viking. In other words, she could use Eric’s own spy both to keep an eye on Andre herself without his becoming suspicious and to ensure that her relationship with her ablest sheriff stayed strong—as it always should have been.
“What is it?” Wybert asked.
“I hate feeling regret,” she shared.
“Regret over listening to Andre?” the perceptive vampire asked his maker.
“Yes. At least, regarding Sookie. I should have simply contacted Sheriff Northman—just as soon as Hadley told us about her potentially telepathic cousin.”
“You got greedy,” Wybert stated matter-of-factly.
Sophie-Anne shrugged. “Yes. A little. But, given what Hadley told us about Sookie, I also really did think that a Southern gent sweeping her off her feet would make for good romance.”
“Bill Compton is no gentleman,” Wybert judged.
The queen nodded in agreement. “I did not know that he had the potential to become obsessive. Perhaps, given his maker’s nature, I should have been more wary of him.”
“He did put on a good act,” Wybert allowed, “for many years.”
“Yet you never trusted him fully,” Sophie-Anne said, smiling at her child with pride. “I should learn to take your instincts as gospel, my child.”
The modest Wybert preened a bit in jest, causing his maker to giggle.
Sophie-Anne’s demeanor became more serious again. “Like you, Andre did caution against Peter. Of course, I don’t know yet whether or not I should regret my decision to entertain a marriage contract with him. But with Oklahoma in the market to make a strong alliance, it seems prudent to solidify my strength.”
“Especially with de Castro now eyeing Freyda?” Wybert asked.
“Yes. I think he is still enamored with the idea of controlling the casino industry all over the country. I don’t trust him not to make a move on us. And—if he had a foothold in Oklahoma—he’d be,” she paused, “too close.”
“Having the telepath around will help to determine whether Peter is a friend or a foe.”
Sophie-Anne nodded. “Hopefully, if there is anything amiss, Sookie will hear news of it from one of the humans or Weres Peter brings with him. Speaking of Sookie,” she said, even as she dialed her phone.
“Sheriff Northman,” she greeted as the Sheriff of Area 5 answered. “How are you this night?”
“I am as usual, my queen,” Eric responded.
Sophie-Anne smirked. Eric always did deal with her with the perfect mixture of vagueness and humor.
“Any word on the missing Debbie Pelt?” she asked. “Or on the warlock that helped her?”
“Nothing beyond what Amelia Broadway and Octavia Fant were able to discover—the possible link to Hallow. Thank you, by the way, for lending us Octavia. She was dropped off safely at her home in New Orleans earlier today and was invaluable when it came to setting stronger protection spells around the office where Sookie spends some of her days now.”
“I am glad you sought my counsel on the matter of the potential magical threat,” the queen said sincerely.
Neither of them spoke aloud about the relief that mending the fences between them had brought—to them both.
Sophie-Anne frowned. “Hallow is a bad penny that I wish I could find—so that we could all be done with her for good; however, every time my people believe they have found her in Area 1, she is already gone.”
“I am discovering a similar problem, your majesty.”
“But Sookie is okay?” Sophie-Anne asked.
“We are all somewhat on edge because of the unknown elements, but there is still no indication that the warlock means Sookie any immediate harm. The ectoplasmic reconstruction did not show him having any outward interest in anyone beyond Debbie Pelt, and Amelia was able to recreate the warlock’s entire trip to the area.”
“Still, we will keep looking on our end. I’ve got Andre on it,” she shared.
“You trust him with the task?” Eric asked.
“I do—to a certain extent. However, I am having him followed, too. If he has not yet accepted the fact that Sookie is yours and that she is not meant to live at court with us, then he could have employed Hallow to influence the situation. Still, he is my best tracker. If he is loyal to my wishes, he has the best chance of tracking the Were-witch down. If he is disloyal, he may lead my spy right to Hallow. It is a winning hand regardless.”
“I hope so, my queen.”
Sophie-Anne nodded in agreement, though the person she was speaking to could not see her. Still—the motion made her feel better about the situation. “I am calling because Peter Threadgill has finally set the date for his visit. And I would like to formally request your and Miss Stackhouse’s presence at court during that time.”
There was a beat of silence, during which Wybert and his maker shared a glance.
“You need only tell us the dates, Your Highness,” Eric said.
Sophie-Anne gave her child a little nod.
“The Arkansas king has proposed a mini-summit beginning Saturday, February 12 and culminating on Monday, February 14—a Valentine’s Night Ball—to solidify our ‘engagement.'”
“And if there is no engagement?” Eric asked.
“There will be one—as long as we find nothing amiss. There is need for it,” Sophie-Anne responded.
“Oklahoma is looking to align. That manipulative bitch is not powerful to do anything too problematic on her own. Thankfully, the Texas king already turned her down, but Nevada might find her geographical location beneficial if his ambitions become actions. Alternatively—if she were to hook Peter—he could be convinced to join forces with her and make a move on us. If Peter has no ulterior motives against me, linking with him is a strategically sound move.”
“Freyda,” Eric practically spit out.
“You’ve met her?”
“At the last summit that I attended in your stead,” Eric responded. “She showed an interest in me.”
“And how did you greet that interest?” Sophie-Anne asked.
“Freyda is a beautiful woman; however, she teems with a kind of frenetic desperation.”
“Desperation for what?”
“Power. Protection. Acceptance among other monarchs due to her age and the shady way she went about taking the throne. She floated an idea to make me her consort so that I could act as her enforcer and personal protector.”
Sophie-Anne and Wybert both let out a laugh. “I wish I had been a fly on the wall in order to see your reaction to that proposition!” the queen exclaimed.
“You know me well, my queen. However, I refrained from laughing in Freyda’s face or doing anything that might have gotten me silvered. I simply told her that I was uninterested in becoming anybody’s consort, nor would I ever consider such an offer. She was,” he paused, “nonplussed. However, she still offered me a place in her bed that night.”
“Did you take her up on that?” the queen asked curiously.
“No. I did not. I know better than to entangle myself with a monarch—as you well know, my queen.”
Sophie-Anne giggled. “Despite my best efforts.” She winked at Wybert, who rolled his eyes.
“If I were ever to have been tempted,” Eric chuckled, “it would have been by you. But I am no one’s court lackey. Nor would I enjoy being a . . . .” He paused, and Sophie-Anne heard a mumbled voice in the background.
“Ah yes!” Eric said, clearly responding to the voice. “A boy toy is what my bonded has reminded me it is called.”
“No better than a kept woman,” Sookie intoned.
Sophie-Anne heard the telepath clearly that time and chuckled heartily. “Yes. You were more made to be a king and not a consort.”
“And yet I would not want a monarch’s role either, Majesty,” Eric replied honestly.
Wybert nodded—as if in approval of Eric’s words.
“Yes—and I am grateful for that,” the queen commented. “You will tell me if that ever changes—correct? I could help you find a monarchy for yourself, and there would be no need to take mine?”
Eric chuckled. “There is only one reason I can think of that I would not inform you first if I developed certain ambitions, Majesty.”
Sophie-Anne laughed in return, despite the veiled threat. “Well—then—I shall simply never try to take away anything that rightly belongs to you, Sheriff. That way, we can both remain satisfied with where we stand.”
“Indeed,” Eric responded.
“Will you stay at the palace during the summit?” Sophie-Anne asked.
“Is that a requirement?” Eric queried in return.
“Of course not,” the queen responded. “Indeed, I was going to suggest you stay at your residence in the French Quarter or the north guesthouse on my estate.”
“The one with the tunnel from the palace?” Eric asked.
“Indeed,” Sophie-Anne responded. “I’d even let your people change the code system so that you could control who can pass through the tunnel.”
There was a moment of silence, and the queen wondered if there was a silent conversation going on at the other end of the phone.
“If it is agreeable, I will send two vampires and one Were to New Orleans to assess the situation tomorrow night,” Eric requested. “One of the vampires will be Thalia.”
“Thalia!” the queen responded with a little chuckle. “Well—then you will forgive me if I forgo officially receiving your people at court. The situation with Thalia was not altogether pleasant, so a private audience seems,” she paused, “safer—for others.”
Wybert rolled his eyes again. He respected the ancient vampiress, Thalia, a great deal; however, the last—and only time—she’d ever been at court, she’d told two courtiers that they looked like professional ass polishers and asked their hourly rate.
It didn’t matter to her that they were wealthy, important vampires in the state.
And—for the queen—it hadn’t mattered that Thalia was being truthful. She’d still had quite a few feathers to unruffle after she’d sent Thalia on her way to Area 5. Of course, now she could laugh about the situation—and still had a hard time keeping a straight face in front of the “professional ass polishers.”
“I’ll make sure your people have access to all that they need and that their trip is off the books—so to speak,” the queen assured.
“One vampire will be there specifically to check over the computer system for the tunnel system. If there is any way to override the security codes for the tunnel entrances, I would like for her to be told of it immediately.”
“I can tell you that right now. There is not a way to override the codes—at least none that I know of,” Sophie-Anne stated honestly. “However, if your vampire finds a back door into my security, I would like to be told of it—immediately.”
“Who designed your system, Majesty? Who controls it?” Eric asked.
“Andre,” Sophie-Anne responded, looking pensively at Wybert.
“Then, I will instruct Molly to tell you—without Andre present—if there is anything amiss with your system,” Eric said evenly.
“I do not wish to find out that Andre is keeping things from me, Eric. However, he has been acting with more secrecy lately,” the queen conveyed somewhat hesitantly.
“Trust is a funny thing, Majesty,” Eric said after a moment. “Pamela once betrayed my trust because she thought she knew better than I did about a situation.”
“But she did not,” Sophie-Anne ventured.
“No. But that would not have mattered anyway, given how direct I had been in my instructions to her.”
“And your solution for her disobedience?” the queen asked.
“I placed her in silver for two nights,” Eric said with a hint of sadness in his voice. “And then I expelled her from my side for one year’s time. I was grateful when she anxiously returned to it after her exile was over.”
“The separation hurt you as well?”
“Yes. But it strengthened us both, too. We ended up with a greater appreciation for one another. And she has never gone against me like that again.”
“Repercussions with the punishment?”
“Few. She was hesitant about offering me her counsel for a few years, but—eventually—she found the right balance between disagreeing with my decisions and acting upon her disagreement.”
“And she remained loyal,” the queen observed.
“That is a heartening thought,” Sophie-Anne stated.
“Your Majesty, if anyone, including Andre, directly threatens my bonded . . . ,” Eric began.
“Then I would have no chance to exile Andre because he would be truly dead already—at your hand,” Sophie-Anne acknowledged.
“Yes,” Eric said.
“I understand,” the queen said. “And I will be expecting your group tomorrow night.”
She hung up and looked at her most-trusted child.
“What will you do about Andre? Sheriff Northman will end him if he is committing misdeeds, even if he intends for them to benefit you,” Wybert observed.
“I have a plan that will keep Andre alive,” the queen sighed. “But it will, perhaps, cost me much to enact it.”
Wybert could see that his maker was upset by the notion of whatever plan she had, so he did not ask her more.
The queen’s phone beeped, and she looked down to check the text.
“Rasul is reporting that Andre has left the palace; he is following, but fears that Andre will detect him, given the fact that they are headed toward a rather rural area.”
“If Rasul is worried, then he is correct to be,” Wybert agreed. “Andre would likely pick up Rasul’s scent—and find it suspicious—if he pursued him out of the city.”
“I’ll tell him to back off for now,” the queen said, quickly returning the text. “Contact Octavia Fant. Now that she is back in New Orleans, I want to look into getting Rasul some scent concealer if Andre is going to be going to places where a tail could be easily discovered.”
“His even going to such places is suspicious,” Wybert stated.
“Or he may be innocent—merely doing his work. He may have a lead on Hallow’s coven,” the queen said after a moment. “And I will give him the benefit of the doubt—until it is time to pull on the rope that I am giving him.”
Andre retraced his path a few times to make sure that he was not being followed before he finished the trip to Hallow’s current lair, which was in an old, rundown plantation house about twenty miles north of New Orleans. He looked around at the old property with a sense of nostalgia, for he had enjoyed the period of history when such estates were pristine-looking and grand. Of course, the humans were also employing the practice of slavery at that time, which neither he nor his maker had abided—not that they could do anything to interfere with the practice, beyond buying many slaves for their own estates and treating them the same as any other human they employed. Sophie-Anne’s preference was to buy whole families—with the express purpose of keeping them together. She had even convinced Russell Edgington to follow the same practice.
Just like those of the white and Native American races, those of African descent who were tasty were glamoured and kept as donors, but they were not treated badly. And those that had normal-tasting blood might work in the fields that Sophie-Anne owned at the time, but they were also paid a fair wage and given housing that was comfortable. Sophie-Anne also always made sure that all of her workers had the opportunity for an education—if they wished it—and the choice to leave the South once they had worked for a certain number of years to offset her initial payment for them. Indeed, Andre had arranged for about half a dozen of their workers to get to the North safely.
Sophie-Anne, likely because of her own background, detested the misuse of humans against their will. Indeed, more than once, Andre found her glamouring plantation owners who had a reputation for cruelty, including the slave owner who had once been the master of the very plantation house that he was currently entering.
She had not so radically glamoured him as to free his slaves, for such a thing—if it occurred often enough—would have brought suspicion to her region. However, the plantation owner did “reform his ways due to religion,” and he became known for treating his slaves well and hiring overseers who would do the same.
“Something has you amused,” Hallow remarked as she approached the vampire.
“A memory of this place,” Andre answered vaguely. “Have you heard from Compton?”
Hallow frowned and shook her head. “No. However, I had not expected to. When he called from the Philippines, he made it clear that he would be out of touch until early February, but that he would return with Appius around the tenth.”
Andre considered for a moment. “If that comes to pass, it will be useful for us. However, regardless, things will be coming to a head on the 14th of February.”
“Valentine’s Day?” Hallow asked, the interest clear in her tone.
“Yes,” Andre confirmed as he silently judged the witch in front of him. She was useful enough, but he found her obsession with Northman a pitiable flaw. Indeed, her fixation for Northman seemed to rival Compton’s for Sookie Stackhouse! Andre imagined that the witch was already viewing the date of action as serendipitous. Of course, he did too. But he was not thinking about the romantic aspect of the holiday. No—he was thinking more along the lines of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
“According to my spy in the Arkansas court, Peter Threadgill plans to come on the 12th to negotiate a marriage with Sophie-Anne; likely, he is on the phone with my maker right now about it. The telepath and Northman will be here so that Threadgill’s humans can be monitored to discover the king’s motives. The culminating event will be a Valentine’s Night Ball, during which security will be high, but many variables will also be impossible to predict.”
“What is your plan?” Hallow asked.
“For you to get what you want. And for me to get what the queen wants, of course,” Andre smiled sickly. “Appius’s presence—and even Bill’s—would help to ensure all of that; however, I believe that they are ultimately unneeded.” He paused and smirked. “Because of the variables.”
“You already know of some?” Hallow asked.
“I suspect that Peter may betray Sophie-Anne and try to kill her at the ball, though I will, of course, not allow that to happen. And—even if he isn’t up to no good—enough evidence could be produced to make it look like that’s the case. While everyone tries to deal with that possibility, they will be distracted from what we will be up to.”
“And distracted further when we insert the cannon fodder,” Hallow grinned.
“Ah—and how is Ms. Pelt?”
“Insane,” Hallow chuckled. “And completely my puppet now that I control her V intake. She offered some useful information about Sookie’s day guards. And she has been fun to play with; however, her greatest usefulness is her obsession with Sookie. We will introduce her into the situation to offer even another distraction to Eric.”
“I want Sookie untouched,” Andre growled.
“Oh—Debbie is too erratic to actually get close enough to Sookie to harm her, though she’ll distract at least a couple of her guards for a bit. Of course, I’ll make sure that she thinks she can succeed. And—as she performs her role and as the King of Arkansas performs his—you can snatch up Sookie, and I will capture Eric, hopefully with the help of his maker. Once I have Eric here, I will perform a spell that will make him forget all about Sookie Stackhouse.”
“I want him to be a non-issue,” Andre growled. “He is a threat to my queen’s monarchy.”
“He will become my puppet,” Hallow grinned. “And—if Bill is right—Appius may aid me in keeping him that way. We will bleed his Area dry, even as I bleed him for my own desire,” the witch added. “And don’t worry. He’ll be too busy pleasing me to care about any ambitions he may have had against your queen.”
“And you will confine yourself to Area 5—and then leave the state,” Andre directed firmly.
“Yes. Yes. That is our agreement,” Hallow waved him off. “I am sure that Eric will amuse me for a long time, perhaps perpetually.”
“Just as long as he stops being a threat to Sophie-Anne and she gets what is rightfully hers—the telepath.”
“Compton believes that he will be getting Sookie Stackhouse,” Hallow reminded with a smirk.
“And Compton can be ended as soon as his usefulness runs out,” Andre responded coldly.
Hallow shrugged. “Whatever. I hope that Appius will not be an issue. I am still somewhat reticent about his being here, though—if he is an ally—that will make everything so much easier. Gaining initial control over Eric may be difficult otherwise.”
“Appius Livius Ocella is an old school vampire. We will entertain him at court, and—without Sophie-Anne being implicated, of course—I will make sure that he has some,” he paused, “special amusements while in the state. Likely, he will be a diverting addition at court for a while and then will move on. That is his usual practice with such things.”
“Yes—but he might not like my plans for his child,” Hallow stated pensively.
“Appius is well-known for enjoying the darker amusements. I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t enjoy you and your proclivities, Hallow.”
The witch nodded, placated for the moment.
“I believe that I’m being tracked, though I have been able to shake my shadow up to this point. Thus, it is becoming too dangerous for us to meet in person,” Andre said, throwing her a phone. “That is untraceable. If you want to speak with me, call. If I answer, do not speak. Just stay on the line for five seconds. If you get my answering service, simply do the same. I will return your call from a secure location as soon as I can.”
Hallow nodded in acceptance and then smiled. “I will have my vampire in less than a month!”
“Yes,” Andre pacified. “I will be in touch when it is time to develop specifics for the plan. Meanwhile, keep Debbie Pelt on a short leash.” The queen’s eldest child turned away to leave the plantation home. Hallow knew better than to request his blood, though he had given her information about the locations of vampires she could “enjoy” without fear of them being missed by others. There were plenty such loners in the area.
As a matter of fact, Andre did not care what became of the witch. Indeed, he hoped to influence Appius to end Hallow and to take Eric with him when he left Louisiana. That outcome would be better for him and his queen all the way around.
“Cut away the loose ends,” he said to himself before assessing his surroundings.
He sighed. All that he did, he did with his maker in mind. Unfortunately, Sophie-Anne was being too soft-hearted and foolhardy when it came to the telepath and Northman. “But she will soon see things my way and will quickly come to understand that I am serving her best interests,” he said confidently to himself before doing one last check of his trail to make sure the tracker had not re-found it.
Confident that he had not been tracked to Hallow’s temporary dwelling, he began to run back toward the city. He had developed great running speed over the centuries, though he’d never gained the ability to fly. Still, he could travel very fast when he wanted to. He needed to stop by a safe-house he kept in the area—a private refuge, of sorts—so that he could remove the witch’s stench from his body. And then he could return to the side of his queen, which was where he always preferred to be.
A/N: I hope you liked this week’s chapter! I know that Sophie-Anne is almost always presented in a negative light in fanfiction, but the queen in this piece is more positive. I hope you like that characterization. I’m also having fun with the portrayal of “the Berts” as being much smarter than is usually thought. So—Valentine’s Night. The only teaser I’ll give you is that A LOT is going to be happening then. Stay tuned!
Please comment if you have the time and the inclination.
P.S. I’m taking a mini-vacation at the end of this week, so the next chapter won’t be posted until Tuesday the 23rd. Sorry.