My eyes may have been focused on the forced hug taking place before them, but I wasn’t really seeing anything at all because my mind could only focus on one thing at the moment.
I had the misfortune of meeting him years earlier. He’d always been a weasely fuck, both in appearance and actions. Back then – before the nuclear fallout – he’d been living in what was now the Kingdom of Narayana, under de Castro’s thumb in Las Vegas. I’d had no reason to keep track of his whereabouts since that time though and I was nearly certain Madden wasn’t a part of de Castro’s upper echelon in his retinue.
Was he a sleeper agent for de Castro?
It wasn’t unheard of to have spies in other kingdoms. I myself had several in each kingdom, on this continent and every other.
Old habits die hard and I wasn’t in the habit of dying.
But searching through a thousand years of memories, the last time I could recall having seen Madden was about a decade earlier at the summit in Dallas, hosted by the Kingdom of Zeus.
Was Stan Davis behind Pam’s kidnapping?
He was a much older and worldlier vampire than he let on. Stanislaus Davidowitz had been made vampire somewhere in Eastern Europe, roughly around the same time as me. And even now, when – like me – he’d traded in his sheriff’s badge for the crown of a king, he could usually be found dressed as an unassuming nerd. Eyeglasses taped together at the bridge of his nose and short-sleeved button up shirts were his normal uniform. It gave others who didn’t know any better an assumed upper hand.
A mistake they would quickly discover when they lost a hand – if they were lucky – when they crossed him.
I had always viewed him as an ally as we’d gotten along well. And the more I tried to shove Madden’s pointy head into that unknown hole, I couldn’t get the Zeus peg to fit.
So I combed through more memories of the summit and remembered Madden had always seemed to be in the company of vampires from the Kingdom of Moshup.
At the time the bombs had been launched, another summit had been taking place within what is now the Kingdom of Moshup, in Miami. Back then each of the states had their own monarchy, so with the fallout taking place nearly on top of them, with Cuba’s close proximity, many of the reigning kings and queens had lost their lives.
My own monarch at the time, Sophie-Anne Leclerq, was one of those lost at that very summit, with her true death being the catalyst for my current station as king.
But there were a few vampire who had made it out with their heads and their undead lives intact. The king of Kentucky was one of them. Always a paranoid fucker, Isiah had solicited the services of personal protectors not of this world that may have even rivaled my own.
Their services weren’t cheap, but I supposed it was money well spent, since they had gotten him out in time. But always the paranoid fucker, he hadn’t made his survival known until after our kind had taken control of the world’s governments and I had been appointed king over what had once been his territory. With the nuclear bombs having taken out the major cities within the Moshup Clan – and with the majority of their vampires having been taken out at their summit – he’d been given the reins of their lands.
A piss poor substitute considering he’d lost the cities of New York and Washington DC to two nuclear warheads. And his piss poor attitude over getting the smaller and more decimated territory could mean he was behind it all. It wouldn’t be as surprising if he was attempting to reclaim what he thought was rightfully his.
But, you snooze you lose.
And speaking of snoozing…
It had obviously been a long day for Adele and I was sure it was only Sookie’s stiff posture that was keeping the woman upright.
Or was that Susannah?
It was difficult to decide. Only moments earlier she had returned to me covered in the unmistakable stench of the blood of Weres, with my kidnapped child in hand. And now she was in danger of being hugged to death, by who I was nearly certain was her human grandmother.
So was she Sookannah?
Or was she Suskie?
Surely there was a way to combine the two that didn’t make it sound as though she’d been born and raised in Appalachia.
I didn’t need a blood tie to her to know that she was uncomfortable. Her ramrod straight body screamed it. And while I wanted her to feel more comfortable in her human skin a small part of me was glad she wasn’t yet ready to delve into that side of her DNA.
And a large part of me felt guilty for feeling that way.
But the truth was there seemed to be an assailant around every corner lately. I wanted to know how they’d managed to spirit away my child under my metaphorical nose. What their intentions were and who was behind it all.
And then I wanted their heads.
And I would use every advantage available to me to accomplish that task. Susannah’s abilities, with both her magic and her swords, would be invaluable to my cause.
I couldn’t afford for her to be focused on anything else at the moment.
Human kin or not.
Whatever guilt I felt for those thoughts was outweighed by my need to find answers. I knew from Quinn’s report he had told the Stackhouses very little about the previous night’s events and I gathered from my earlier run in with Adele, Hadley had only filled in some of the blanks. In order for our night to move forward, I would need to fill in a few more, so my feet moved forward with me prepared to break up their one-sided embrace, when I felt Sookie startle internally.
Followed by her confusion.
And then her disbelief.
For a moment I assumed her feelings stemmed from something she’d overheard with her gift, but then she pulled away from Adele and turned her unseeing eyes towards me. Closing them in concentration, the whispered word that fell from her lips in Old Norse made no sense.
But I had a better idea – if not a complete understanding – when she darted from the room, calling out over her shoulder in the same language, “Fairy!”
The sound of Rasul calling my name reached my ears almost simultaneously and knowing Pam was still feeling slightly weakened from her earlier ordeal, I didn’t want her involved in any potential attack. So I quickly ordered her to remain where she was and see to the Stackhouses before I took off after Sookie, finding both her and Rasul – along with three of my other vampire guards – in the basement where Madden had been secured.
Where I now saw nothing but a pile of ashes where he once stood.
“I don’t know what happened. One minute he was there and the next, he was disintegrating before my eyes.”
My eyes were still staring in disbelief at the big fat ‘fuck you’ his ashes represented, in response to every question I’d had for him.
There was no wooden stake.
Just a heaping pile of, ‘fuck you’.
It was the movement in my peripheral that finally allowed me to tear my eyes away from it and I watched her slowly stalk through the room, with her own eyes closed in concentration. No one save me and my child knew of her origins or her true powers, so Rasul’s cluelessness as to what could be the cause for Madden’s sudden true death wasn’t surprising.
But having already shoved a few square fairy pegs into the round conniving holes her bastard Fae kin represented in my mind, not long after the single word left her lips as she’d left the room, I was surprised when she looked up at me, with equal amounts of disappointment and relief flooding through her body, as she said in Old Norse, “This was not the work of any blood of my own.”
My mind and mouth both wanted to scream, ‘BULLSHIT!’, but my blood held my tongue because it told me she’d spoken the truth.
“How can you be sure?” I hissed in the same language, still unwilling to believe her bastard great-grandfather hadn’t had an ulterior motive all along – even if she had been kept in the dark as what it was. “They could have teleported into the room and back out again, using the same ability of your lineage to keep themselves cloaked. Your ability to sense your kin is a passive one. They could have already left this realm before you even thought to attempt it.”
She was already shaking her head, giving me her own silent proclamation of ‘BULLSHIT!’ and force feeding me her affront through our blood tie, when she heatedly explained, “They would have needed to enter this realm first. They would have needed to learn of his disappearance. They would have needed his blood or he would have needed theirs – or someone in his line – in order for them to locate him here. Even if the latter had already been done beforehand, the first two would have taken at least a few moments. And only a few moments ago I searched my blood for my own and counted five. The only blood of my own, who were in this realm at the time, were all standing in your living room.”
Once again, I could feel the truth of her words. But my mind was stuck like a skipping record on her tally.
Adele, Hadley, and Jason.
Me, I assumed, since I knew she could track me with our blood tie.
“Yes,” she replied to my unasked question. “I can locate Pam because we share your blood. It was how I was able to find her tonight.”
That was the answer to one of a thousand questions I’d been prepared to ask, but half of them would now remain unanswered for the time being thanks to the heaping pile of ‘fuck you’ at our feet.
And feeling a strong amount of ‘fuck off’, I put myself in her face and hissed, “Why did you feel so disappointed before you told me this wasn’t the work of your kin?”
I knew – even now – she felt loyal to me, but I still had high doubts it would leave her disappointed she had missed out on killing her kin.
Her Fae kin.
Although I suspected the fate of Jason Stackhouse’s life was still questionable, if left in her hands.
But a small amount of my earlier guilt returned when Susannah dropped her head and eyes, with Sookie barely whispering loud enough for me to hear the words, “I miss them.”
I could feel the truth of her words, just as I felt another unspoken truth.
I was an asshole.
But I was the only one feeling the truth of that and yet it was undeniable. Only moments earlier, caught up in the embrace of her human kin, my little warrior likely fought tooth and nail against that assessment and sought out the truth she’d refused to believe.
Only for me to confront her moments later, insulting – in her eyes – the only kin she had ever known.
And apparently missed.
I was saved, however, from trying to find the words for an apology that she would know was convoluted thanks to our bond, when Rasul spoke up in the next moment.
Because while I was sorry I had inadvertently hurt her, I was not sorry for suspecting her Fae kin.
Perhaps I could find the right blend of words somewhere in Appalachia.
“According to our intel, Madden’s last known residence was in a little town named Rome, just outside of Oklahoma City.”
It fell within the Kingdom of Zeus.
And I started to wonder if perhaps I’d been surrounded by some sort of telepathic mystical force all along when Pam appeared in the doorway and said, “Isabel Beaumont is on the phone for you. She said it’s urgent.”
Isabel Beaumont was Stan’s second.
While I was still hesitant to reveal Susannah’s true heritage, after the latest breach, I wasn’t sure how much longer I would be able to keep it a secret from the rest of my guards. They all knew she had remarkable abilities. They assumed she was a practicing witch of some kind. Tales of fairies in our realm had become nothing more than fairytales, so it wasn’t surprising no one had guessed.
But if there was another fairy – one who was working against me and/or loyal to another – I wasn’t sure how I could prepare the rest of my security detail for a foe they would literally never see coming.
Maybe Susannah would know of a way.
I would have to ask her, but it – like a thousand other questions I had – would have to wait. While it wasn’t unusual for Stan and I to call one another and catch up occasionally, his second would normally only deal with my own – Pam. So if she was calling to speak to me – and given the abnormally high rate of treasonous slayings me and mine had been forced to deal out as of late – my first thought was something was wrong.
And then something else occured to me.
It could be that Zeus had been behind Pam’s disappearance. And now that I’d taken her back, along with one of their own, she was grasping at straws to see if I would give anything away.
Turning to Rasul, I ordered, “Pair off the security detail – one Were to every one vampire – and have them patrol the house and grounds. Our enemies may be closer than we know.”
The species of each guard had their own strengths and weaknesses, so when paired as a set, they would naturally balance one another out and be more formidable as a whole. But I didn’t wait for any acknowledgement from Rasul, knowing he would do what I said without question, and made my way to my office with Pam and Susannah on my heels. Picking up the line flashing red on the encrypted phone on my desk, I greeted her with nothing more than, “Northman.”
Time was of the essence. I wouldn’t waste it on bullshit pleasantries. Especially when they were still suspect in my mind.
“Your Majesty,” Beaumont returned and seemed to be of the same urgent mindset when she got right to the point and said, “Zeus is under threat.”
Could she seriously be beating around the bush that I’d stolen their piece of shit vampire?
But unsure as to whether or not she was digging for information on the whereabouts of the pile of ‘fuck you’ in my basement, I cryptically replied to her cryptic words, “Amun has seen better days as well.”
Uncharacteristic for any vampire, I heard her breathe out a small sigh and then her tone filled with a kind of reverence, as she offered, “King Davis has always held you in high regard. He himself has told me on numerous occasions, out of every other monarch in the world, you are the one he would trust most with his life if he was forced to choose whose hands to leave it in. He considers you not only an ally, but a friend. I am loyal to my king. And I am hoping his trust in you wasn’t misplaced because I have nowhere else to turn.”
Lowering her voice to nearly a whisper, she admitted, “He went missing four nights ago.”
Four nights ago was when Susannah had thwarted the first of now several attempts on my life.
Was it coincidence?
They seemed to be piling up at my feet just as quickly as dead Weres and finally dead vampires.
“I don’t know what to do,” she admitted, when I had yet to admit anything. “We have managed to keep his disappearance a secret from everyone but the very few of us he trusted the most. But his missing presence will be noticed soon enough and I’m not sure how much longer we can keep up the ruse that all is well.”
To admit to anyone outside of your own kingdom that your leader was missing was suicide.
Unless you trusted the one you were admitting it to.
“You said he is missing,” I mused aloud, feeling less suspect of them, but not ready to take them into my confidence. “But do you know from where?”
I knew Stan’s Maker had met his true death during the war between the vampire and Fae. He’d never felt the call to make a child of his own, so I knew of no one who could find him with their blood.
Because not everyone had their own part-fae twice-bonded personal defender, just waiting to sink her swords into whoever even looked at you wrong.
Raising my eyes, I could see her concern shining through them, watching me on the phone and I was struck again.
With what an asshole I could be.
Isabel’s voice drew my focus back to our conversation when she replied, “No, not exactly.” And her exasperation came through in her tone when she added, “You know how he can be. He acts like his Buddy Holly costume works in the same way as Clark Kent’s. Because eyeglasses are enough to disguise his identity!”
I would bet her and Pam spoke to one another often.
Bitching to each other about their respective kings, I was sure.
The thought of it left a small smile on my lips.
She went on with, “He only told me he was going out. And – like always – he refused to take any guards with him. But when he didn’t return to the palace before daybreak I became concerned. So when he didn’t contact me at nightfall, I went out looking for him myself. By the next night, when he still hadn’t left any word on where he was, I felt I had no choice but to bring in one of our best trackers to try and locate him. She traced his scent north to an abandoned warehouse located in a small town on the outskirts of Oklahoma City where all signs of him seemed to vanish into thin air.”
“Let me guess,” I offered. “A little town named Rome?”
“How did you know?” she gasped, sounding both surprised and leery.
I couldn’t blame her.
And that could not be a coincidence.
The last known residence of Victor Madden, just so happened to be the last known whereabouts of his missing king?
“Wait by your phone,” I ordered, knowing she would obey me if only to get the answers she sought. “I’ll call you back.”
Looking up at the two blondes staring back at me, I focused on one and bellowed, “QUINN!” He appeared at the doorway seconds later and never taking my eyes from hers, I commanded, “Go with him and feed. Your wounds are still healing and you’ll need your strength for whatever it is we’re up against.”
Her lips pursed to form the ‘But’ she was dying to say, but my narrowed eyes made her swallow her argument.
And force feed it back to me in the form of her irritation.
But I barely noticed thanks the amount of irritation already flowing through me and it was all my own. I hated unknown variables.
With a passion.
So once she stormed out of the room, I jutted my head for Susannah to follow me up to my chambers. Sealing us within, I gathered my sword and strapped it to my back, while she did the same on reflex.
Pulling her into my arms – because I would be damned if I would allow her to leave me behind again – my determined eyes met her questioning ones as I ordered, “Teleport us to where you found Pam.”
And feeling the argument trying to work its way free from her mouth, I gripped her tighter and snarled, “That wasn’t a request.”
She huffed, channeling her irritation into my own, but I felt the magic take hold of our bodies in the same instant, so I said nothing more.
We each drew our weapons as soon as our feet hit solid ground, with my eyes taking in the room where my child had been held. The only evidence anything was amiss was the blood coating the walls and floor. But it was only blood.
The bodies were gone.
I listened intently for the sounds of any others, but heard nothing. That meant nothing because a vampire neither needed a breath or a heartbeat to exist. So I kept my eyes on the only way into the room and fell back to our default language, whispering only as loud as I thought she would need in order to hear me, “Do you sense the presence of any others in the building?”
My tactical future lover only shook her head in the negative, but after Madden’s unexpected end, I didn’t dare relax. Instead I kept my senses peeled for the brief flicker I’d become familiar with thanks to her. The slight displacement of air that occurred, just prior to her teleporting into a room.
It was minute.
It was easy to miss and hardly noticeable at all, if you weren’t looking for it to happen.
I was looking for it to happen now.
Together we made our way out of the room and found ourselves in what appeared to be an abandoned home. The musky odor of mold accompanied the thick layers of dust, but that only made it easier to see the tracks of those who’d come before us. Following them outside, I almost expected to find us in a rural area, not unlike Bon Temps.
But instead we were standing on what could pass for any normal suburban street, dotted with the homes of the middle class families I was sure they contained.
Normal except for the Vampire King and his part-fairy defender, each armed with their swords, and standing alert for an attack.
But still not knowing our exact location, I sheathed my sword and strolled further down the block, stepping over an upturned skateboard and a deserted bicycle lying on its side, to reach the closest vehicle parked along the curb.
I’m sure they had their benefits, but I was no suburbanite and felt zero remorse when I put my fist through the glass window on the passenger’s side. Reaching into the glove box, I pulled out the papers from within and found what I’d been looking for.
The vehicle registration.
And taking note of both the name on the street sign I could see from there and the number on the mailbox beside me, it would indicate I was standing in front of the owner’s home.
But that minivan may as well have been Caesar’s gilded bronze monument, the Miliarium Aureum.
Because it would seem that all roads really do lead to Rome.