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Things settled fairly quickly. Karin was tired so she and Thomas chose to stay in their rooms on the third floor. Sookie mentioned she would need to be up early as well with all the details for travel and guests to be settled with Devrah in the morning. She headed toward the elevator, taking Eric’s hand in hers. “Will you be back?” Pam asked the Viking.
Eric had given Karin a great deal of blood, perhaps too much. He shook his head. Thalia stood behind Pam, her eyes unreadable. It was to his Second that Eric now spoke, “I agree we should arrange to transport our retinue to Amun in different groups.” There was some unrest reported in and around Indianapolis, the location for the up-coming Summit.
Because theirs was now considered a royal wedding, Sookie and Eric had to wait for a Summit to conclude the contract and officially pledge. Since Summits were held roughly twice a year, it hadn’t seemed like such a hardship. Then the troubles started.
First there was the fight over who would host the Summit. Isaiah put his hat in the ring early, requesting the Summit be held in Kentucky. While he had not officially hosted the last one, he was recognized as its host when he annexed Tennessee. Almost immediately there was grumbling that he was trying to make something more of himself and after a month of complaints, he withdrew his request. Next, Jesse, the King of Missouri, requested the honor. He proposed Jefferson City and that started a pissing match with Rafe, the King of Kansas. Eric heard through Sandy Seacrest, Rafe’s Queen, that the issue was Kansas’ opinion that Missouri was seeking to divert funds from Kansas City, which had businesses on both sides of the border and, therefore, in both kingdoms. When threats started to fly, Jesse withdrew his offer. Sibyl of Alabama casually mentioned that if someone else would do the organizing, she’d be willing to preside over the event. There were no takers. Bartlett Crowe, the Clan Chief, finally resolved the question of location by declaring that he would host the Summit in Indianapolis. It had been many years since a Summit was held in his home state, and the grumbling stopped.
The next fight started over who would organize the event. Traditionally Summits, including the more social festivities, were handled by Extreme(ly Elegant) Events, or E(E)E. They were well-connected and most vampires were familiar with them. Then Pam and Maxwell Lee announced they were going into competition with E(E )E and they launched a new arm to the Fangtasia franchise specifically tailored to event planning for vampire businesses. Since Fangtasia was headquartered within the borders of Amun Clan, and it was owned by vampires, not Weres, Pam and Max were given the concession. E( E)E was furious and protests were filed. In the end, it came to nothing and Fangtasia Ltd. won, but it caused a delay of more weeks while threats of law-suits flew.
The last delay was caused by the need for more robust security. What started as a few cranks at vampire events seemed to be growing into a full-fledged protest movement. While it didn’t appear to be centrally organized, there was a growing conversation being repeated in social media and other non-traditional venues that reported any missing person was likely a vampire victim. Sad-eyed women and angry men were showing up at events and venues that were known to be vampire-friendly holding signs emblazoned with the images of missing women and children. Sometimes there was shouting, but more often, those holding the signs were silent. It was part of the movement, the silent witness to the great evil. The majority of vampires shrugged it off. There were vampires cooperating with most police forces now, full participants in investigating and hunting for missing persons. There was an increase in the recovery rate of kidnap victims, vampire scent and hearing being what they were. It didn’t matter. There was a segment of the human population who had decided that vampires were the enemy and any success on the law enforcement side was just proof that vampires knew where the victims were all along and no amount of giving up some to keep the rest would convince them otherwise. If a vampire protested to the local authorities, they were told that unless there had been violence they would have trouble securing a restraining order. If a vampire couldn’t find an impartial judge, nothing more could be done. The timing and location of the Amun Summit was almost guaranteed to garner its share of these silent witnesses, so no chances were being taken.
The entire thing brought back memories of Rhodes and the Fellowship of The Sun. The terrible bombing of the hotel that had claimed so many took place only one state away from Indiana. It was unlikely that Illinois would ever host another Summit, so traumatic was the event to vampire psyches. Rulers lost their lives. Entire retinues were lost. The pictures of those burning, either from the explosion or in their subsequent exposure to the sun, would be a part of the memory of every vampire in existence in the United States until the day of their final death. It was a lesson to all and as a result, any hint of unrest from humans or Weres aimed toward vampires caused alarm.
Sookie found herself jetting from city to city in Indiana and in nearby Illinois. She met with Packmasters as an alliance was forged, and papers drawn to create blended security units for the Summit. With her standing as Sachem, the telepath was able to enforce any decisions to include or exclude certain Packs. She was recognized as Truth-sayer too and while there was some grumbling that she was too closely aligned to blood suckers, the Weres understood that if vampires were victims today, Weres could be victims tomorrow. Furthermore, her new status as Fae royalty helped. While Weres didn’t have formal ties to the Fae anymore, they considered themselves on the same side of most disputes, and Sookie found that her reception by the Packs was warmer as a result.
Normally this kind of traveling by the bride so close to a wedding would have been unthinkable, but the difference was that this was a pledging. The rules of the ceremony were well known and other than which robes would be worn, the largest demands on Eric’s and Sookie’s time involved finalizing the terms of the contract and securing the appropriate wedding gifts to exchange in the days before the ceremony. All the other details that normally might have claimed their attention, coordinating visits between kingdoms, exchanging retinues, establishing joint accounts, were non-issues. “This is the easiest royal wedding contract I’ve ever drafted,” Mr. Cataliades assured them by email.
While there was a part of her that acknowledged the importance of the ceremony to vampires, the lack of pomp still caused Sookie to think of the pledging as she had the first time, a simple exercise that didn’t mean much.
Meanwhile, Tara put her on notice that she and Michele planned on visiting New Orleans soon. Unlike the pledging, an up-country Louisiana wedding did take time, and Sookie was told in clear terms that it didn’t matter that this was a second wedding for both her and Eric, this was going to be the one that counted. Their quarters were already reflecting the determination of the Bon Temps ladies in the thoughtful magazine subscriptions that had been started in Sookie’s name. Pam was ready to dive in, but both Eric and Sookie put the brakes to her enthusiasm. “Pledging first,” Eric growled. “You know what a trouble magnet my Intended is. Who knows if we will survive the pledging?”
Sookie punched him for that one, but she had a sinking feeling that Pam’s willingness to back down was because somewhere in the back of her brain, she believed what Eric said was true. If Sookie was being perfectly honest, she didn’t blame Pam. Sookie’s life up to now had been a series of disasters, both large and small. Even this time with Eric, this After time when she was finally divorced and Sam Merlotte was no longer a shadow across her life, while she had every confidence that happily ever after was within her grasp, it was still a roller-coaster.
Sookie rose this morning, sticky and happy in the way only a well-loved woman can feel. She sat up so she could look at Eric in the light from their bathroom. She noticed dark marks on the pillow and turned on the bedside lamp. The pillow was liberally spotted with blood. It was odd and Sookie checked Eric carefully. There were no visible wounds. She walked into the bathroom to see he had failed to heal her neck. Her shoulders and back were streaked with dried blood. She remembered his mentioning he had given Karin blood. He must have detached abruptly to have caused this, and Sookie made a mental note to have Registry donors available for her Viking tonight. She still preferred that he feed only from her, but during times of stress it wasn’t practical. He needed more than she could safely provide. Sookie ran the shower and stepped under the water. The marks on her neck were clean. He always took care not to rip or tear, no matter how she cried out or moved with him at the moment he penetrated with his fangs. With the bond between them she shared the pure pleasure he experienced when her blood flowed across his tongue, making the act of feeding Eric sublime. ‘How I’ve changed,’ she thought as she watched the copper stained water run down the drain.
Sookie glanced at the puncture marks still visible in the mirror’s reflection and decided to cover them with a scarf. Somehow they seemed personal and Sookie didn’t need them to be on display.
Devrah was waiting downstairs. She carried her clipboard, ready to start once Sookie’d had her first cup of coffee. “How is it outside?” Sookie asked.
“Raining,” Devrah replied. Sookie glanced at the windows that faced the back patio. They were high and small, but they did allow Sookie to see a gray square of sky.
Sookie nodded, “The inside garden then,” she sighed. The telepath led the way and Devrah followed. Sookie knew Meg would be in shortly with a breakfast tray. This was their routine when Sookie was in residence. They would review the household finances. Devrah would discuss any staff issues she was having. Sookie would use her telepathy if she thought it would be helpful. They would trade gossip about what had happened. Sookie would share things she had seen in the larger world. Devrah would share things she’d seen in and around New Orleans.
When there were guests expected, like today, they would have extra things to discuss. They would review the preparations made for their guests, including which rooms were assigned. Another topic that took some time was whether their guests’ preferences had been anticipated. For their vampire guests, this meant having the preferred blood type coming from the Registry. For their non-vampire guests, it could be making sure that a favorite food was on the menu during that guest’s stay. Lastly, they would address activities. While guests were often here to meet with Eric over official business, there was always extra time, and Sookie liked to make sure there was something fun or interesting planned. It gave the telepath joy to know she was running her home like a proper Southern lady, making each visitor feel welcome.
Maude and Inger were scheduled to arrive today. They spent the past week visiting with Russell Edgington and Bartlett Crowe. The married monarchs were in the process of packing, moving together to their home in Fishers, Indiana. This was their usual schedule, so having guests during this time presented a welcome break from the long ‘to do’ lists that accompanied moving a Court. While they were here in New Orleans, the Minnesota monarch and her Second would walk Sookie through the pledging ceremony and provide pointers on what was expected of her during the Summit.
Pam was already in residence, taking up a series of rooms on the fourth floor near Max and just down the hall from the royal chambers. Pam would be standing with Eric for the ceremony as his witness, but since she already knew these ceremonies, her preparation would be minimal. Sookie figured she’d see more of Pam after Maude left. Between Karin and Thomas who were in residence on the third floor and the Minnesota monarch keeping Pam busy, Sookie figured she’d have twice the usual time available to play with Eric. With Pam’s sense of humor that was not usually the case.
The other party who would be arriving today was Mr. Cataliades, and Sookie expected the demon attorney would remain with them, traveling to Indianapolis for the Summit itself as a part of their retinue. Sookie wasn’t quite sure where the demon had been lately. She assumed he had other clients and that his interests extended to duties other than looking after her. The last time she saw him, they were together in Connecticut drafting the marriage proposal. When the proposal was presented and the official invitation to come to New Orleans received, Mr. Cataliades congratulated her and then took his leave. Sookie found she looked forward to seeing the demon who had become more to her than just a friend.
Meg arrived with breakfast. Sonder, Twy’s assistant, wandered in and positioned herself to take photographs. These would be used in a story about living vampire in New Orleans. Twy assured them it would bring the right attention to the palace and help boost the bookings for palace tours. Sookie jerked her chin at the young woman and Sonder gave a small wave in return. Devrah waited until Sonder left to say, “You heard Miss Pam and Mr. Max hired that New York woman to run their events company?” Sookie hadn’t heard, but she wasn’t surprised and said so. Devrah leaned back, her expression making clear her disapproval, “Like good Southern folks would buy anything from that woman! She has a voice that would cut glass! And her manners?”
Sookie smiled, “I suspect vampires see things differently. They tend to be less tied to a place and that may allow them to overlook some of Twy’s more interesting… peculiarities.” Devrah pushed her lower lip forward, not having any of it, but she cut her eyes back to the clipboard and moved on. When they reached the end of the list, Devrah cleared her throat.
“There is one more thing. Your guard, Shari Decker, asked if she could have a few minutes.” Sookie looked at Devrah, the question clear on her face. Shari was spending a fair amount of time shuttling between Shreveport and New Orleans. The Were guard was not exactly being derelict in her duty, but Sookie worried there was something physically wrong with the young woman.
“Sure,” Sookie said. She glanced at her watch, “What time did she have in mind?”
“Now would work,” Devrah said. Sookie was surprised at the sharp tone her housekeeper used.
“Trouble?” she asked.
“No,” Devrah shook her head, “No, and I shouldn’t be so mad. It’s just she’s gone more than she’s here and that’s getting noticed by my staff. Folks always looking to see who’s got it better than them. Goes for the other guards, too. Thalia won’t say anything because she’s your responsibility. Emil won’t say anything because she’s a member of the Shreveport Pack and he has no say as her Packmaster.”
“She has been taking a lot of vacation time,” Sookie agreed. She glanced toward the door, “Let’s get this over with.” Devrah got up and walked to the door, letting Shari Decker into the garden space. Meg skirted past both women long enough to take the breakfast tray. Shari stood awkwardly until the telepath gestured toward the empty chair. Devrah stood at the door a minute, trailing Meg with her eyes, and then jerked her chin at Sonder. Sookie realized that somehow the assistant had returned and was perched in the corner of the room. Once it looked like everyone was gone, Devrah shut the door firmly behind her.
Sookie poured a second cup of coffee and offered it to Shari, who declined. “Well, Shari, what can I do for you?”
The Were looked uncomfortable, but then she clearly made up her mind because she met Sookie’s gaze, “I need to be released,” she said without any more preamble.
“Are you alright?” Sookie asked, “Is everything okay at home?”
Shari nodded, “It is about home,” she told the telepath. “There are changes coming for the LongTooth Pack.” When Sookie looked puzzled, Shari continued, “You know Alcide had an arm broken for allowing that bug to be placed in his house?” Sookie really had no idea what Shari was talking about, and the Were could see it on her face. “The King sent Indira to demand restitution. She gave him a choice of limb or life.” Sookie did remember now. She asked Eric if he was going to kill Alcide and he told her he wouldn’t. Apparently that hadn’t meant the Viking wouldn’t demand some form of payment, and Sookie nodded for Shari to continue. “It’s never good when your Packmaster is injured, but everyone witnessed what happened. The Pack knew he’d been stupid and they knew he’d insulted you. It’s hard to follow a man that endangers so many that way.”
“Will there be a fight?” Sookie remembered attending the contest between Alcide’s own father and Patrick Furman. Furman won at the cost of his rival’s life. It was terrible and Sookie, for all she no longer respected Alcide, didn’t want to see him ended that way. The telepath was relieved when Shari shook her head, “No, not in the way you think. Alcide will step down. He will become a member of the Pack, he and his family. It won’t be easy for him, but it’s better than the alternative. There are several who feel they deserve to be leader. That’s where the fight will come.”
A thought came to Sookie, “Will you be one of those fighting?” she asked. Shari didn’t need to answer, Sookie could see it in the set of the younger woman’s shoulders. Sookie looked away for a minute, “Please take care of yourself, Shari. I’m pretty fond of you. I was kind of counting on you dancing at my wedding.”
Sookie sat by herself in the warmth of the garden after Shari left. Sookie knew she could look forward to a conversation with Eric about security. He would growl and bully, insisting she have more than Owen watching her, but she remembered the conversation with Mr. Cataliades in Connecticut, the one where he told her that Niall, her Great Grandfather, would be sending her a guard. ”I’m letting my attorney handle this,” she said out loud.
“Handle what?” asked a familiar voice.
“More guards,” Sookie said warily, looking around. She felt surprised to see Sonder step back into view.
“Oh,” the assistant shrugged. She snapped a few more pictures, waved, and headed to the door. Sookie was puzzled. She was sure she had seen the young woman being escorted out earlier by Devrah.
“No matter,” Sookie shook her head. Between travel, plans, the tension having Karin in the house caused, and all the other myriad concerns, Sookie was surprised she remembered her own name most days. ‘Too much to do, too little time,’ she thought the time-honored words of busy women everywhere. Sookie remembered looking at the soft, gray light filtering through the skylights and the next thing she knew she was being shaken awake.
“Miss Stackhouse,” the insistent voice continued. Sookie peeled open her eyes to a serious looking Mr. Cataliades.
“Oh, hello, Desmond,” Sookie sighed. She stretched, feeling somewhat better than she had earlier although she still had a sight headache. She frowned. That was not usual.
The attorney drew himself up to his full height and looked down his nose in a rather disapproving way, “You look exhausted,” he said bluntly. “You have rings under your eyes and I can tell you are less vigorous than you should be.”
“Vigorous?” Sookie was becoming annoyed with the attorney’s tone.
“Meaning while I understand you exchange blood frequently, and should do so, if Mr. Northman becomes too… enthusiastic, shall we say, it could harm you. You understand that?”
Maybe it was her exhaustion, and maybe it was the attorney hitting a little too close to the truth, but Sookie’s temper flared. “First of all, it’s none of your damn business what Eric and I do together! Secondly, I’ve been traveling like a fool to get all this shit organized so that there are enough guards for the Summit. I might as well have two suitcases packed at all times so I can just change one off for the other when I swing on through here! All I want to do is get married, and every time I turn around it’s one damn extra thing after another. And now, Shari Decker is leaving and I’m going to have to wrangle with Eric all over again…” and then Sookie was crying.
Mr. Cataliades took a long breath through his nose, let it out, and motioned for Sookie to scoot over. He pulled out his handkerchief and handed it to her. He gingerly sat on the edge of the chair next to her and put his arm around her shoulder. Sookie buried her face in the attorney’s chest, sobbing until the pressure in her head morphed into the dull hangover that crying often caused. Her movements must have moved the scarf because she felt the demon’s fingers ghost over her neck. “Is everything alright between you and Mr. Northman?” he asked.
Sookie snuffled and lifted her head, “Yes, it’s fine.” She adjusted her scarf, “Karin is here and Eric’s welcomed her back, but you know her condition. He gave her blood and he must have overdone it. I’m getting donors for him tonight when he rises.” She shook her head, “You don’t know, but he’ll be mortified when he realizes he left marks on me. He was not in the best way last night.”
Sookie could feel the attorney relax a little, “I am pleased to hear that Miss Karin is back in her Maker’s good graces. And Mr. Thomas?”
“Cheese and rice!” Sookie exclaimed, wiping the last tears from her face, “Am I the last to know about that? How long has that been going on?”
“Ahh,” the attorney smiled, “a story for another day. For now, you and I need to talk about my conversation with your Great Grandfather. There are things I have brought for you, things you won’t want your Viking to see until the right time. And I have details about the Fae ceremony you and Mr. Northman agreed to.”
Sookie reached for her phone and texted Meg, “I hope you don’t mind, but I texted for tea and cookies,” she told Mr. Cataliades.
“I am most appreciative,” he replied, and moved to sit on the chair opposite.
“Would you mind giving me a minute?” Sookie asked. She realized she had slept for a while and needed to take care of her human needs. It didn’t take long, down the hall and back. When she returned, Mr. Cataliades was sipping tea from a lovely china cup and nibbling a gingersnap. Beside him sat a large coat box and beside that, a smaller wooden box. Of course, ever the gentleman, the attorney rose as she walked back in and he only seated himself when she had settled herself in a smaller chair near him.
“Before you get too comfortable, you should open those,” he suggested. Sookie stood again and walked over to the larger box first. When she opened it, she could see the ornate neckline of what appeared to be a silvery white dress. Sookie lifted it, her fingers registering the richness of the fabric. It appeared to be a satin underdress covered with a white, gauzy material that was studded with crystals and shiny metal shards. She looked up at the demon, her mouth opened. “It is customary that a monarch wear a robe that displays the colors of his or her house, or state when they are pledged. You are not vampire, and you do not bring any single state or territory as asset to this joining. Instead you bring the promise and the might of the House Brigant, and so your dress will reflect your royal status.
“Well, I better lay off any cookies,” Sookie sniffed, “Cause it doesn’t look like this dress would be any too forgiving.” The attorney smiled as the telepath draped the gown back into the tissue cradle. Next she reached for the wooden box. She felt almost reluctant to open it. The last time she received a box like this it was a crown, and she still felt there was some element of magic wrapped into that jewel that she didn’t understand. Giving herself a mental shake, she tilted the lid back to reveal a jewel set on what could have been a silver chain.
“Platinum,” the attorney supplied. “The Prince was most conscious of the need to avoid silver due to… well, because it was the courteous thing to do.” Sookie stared at the delicate tracery that was designed to sit over her breastbone. The platinum arms were shaped in such a way as to look almost like living fingers or tree branches, wrapping and reaching toward the large central gem. It was a clear stone and Sookie didn’t need to ask to know it was a diamond. She held it up and it seemed to capture the light within it, focusing it so sharply that it flared from within, looking like a star.
“It’s beautiful,” Sookie exclaimed.
“It is an heirloom of your house,” Mr. Cataliades said quietly. “The Prince charged me to tell you that it is expected that this jewel will be passed to your eldest daughter at the time of her wedding.”
Sookie raised her eyes from the gem to look at Mr. Cataliades. She bit her lip for a moment, “Grandfather sure seems certain about some things,” she said tentatively.
“He is,” the demon replied, “And he looks forward to handing you the rest of your bridal pieces when you and Mr. Northman journey to the other portal. The date is set, April 30th and the festivities will run until May the second.”
“Well, I’ll look at the schedule. That’s about a month away, but May is such a great month, I’m sure we can move it if we have to.”
“No,” Mr. Cataliades said, “There will be no movement of that date. You will be joined according to Fae custom on those days or I’m afraid there will be trouble.”
“What do you mean?” Sookie asked. “What’s so important about then?”
“Beltane,” the demon told her. “It is a high holiday for the Fae and the only day in their year that is appropriate for the marriage of one of their royals. Mr. Northman understands, and I would recommend that you do some reading.” Mr. Cataliades stood and walked over to her. He lifted the gem from her hands and fastened it about her neck. “You look like the Princess you are,” he told her gently, and Sookie found she quite agreed.