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After he left Sookie, Eric felt giddy. It was not something he’d experienced in a long time and he quickly recovered. The miles between Carreigh and Ballytyne stretched, so he used the time to make calls. His first was to Niall.
“So, you have both agreed?” the King asked.
“Yes,” Eric paused. It was a single word and yet, it felt as though he had said more. ‘Focus!’ the vampire warned himself.
“I am pleased you both saw the wisdom of my suggestion,” Niall was saying. “I assume you will conclude your arrangements quickly?”
“We complete the pledging tomorrow night,” Eric confirmed. “There is something else, something I wish you to do.”
The King was immediately suspicious, “What?”
“I want you to call the Queen tonight and tell her that Sookie is of your family,” Eric knew Niall wouldn’t want to do it, so he gave his explanation. “Of course, you must ask her to keep secret the story of Sookie’s lineage. Sophie-Ann will be happy to agree. She’s anxious to have you owe her a favor. If she knows Sookie has your protection, it may prevent her from considering any mischief.”
“You believe your Queen will cause my Granddaughter trouble?” Niall asked.
“She may take offense I chose Sookie as my mate after I refused her offers,” Eric sighed. The last time Sophie-Ann formally asked was many years ago, although she still made a habit of hinting at it whenever she saw him.
“I am curious, Northman. A royal consort is an honorable position. Why refuse her?” Niall asked. Sophie-Ann’s interest in the Viking was widely known, as was the Viking’s steadfast refusal. It was a piece of gossip that reflected poorly on the Queen, which Niall was sure stung Sophie-Ann’s tender pride.
“I have no interest in politics,” Eric explained. “Being Sheriff of my own Area is enough. Sophie-Anne would insist on my being involved in her intrigues and entanglements.”
“Of course, taking Sookie’s side against Rogan will drag you into both intrigue and entanglement. What’s changed your opinion?” Niall pressed.
“I like your Granddaughter,” Eric said lightly. “She’s appealing, in many ways. She didn’t ask for her circumstances and I find the idea of helping someone who so selflessly helps others suits me. In time, Sookie will outgrow me and by then, her troubles will have died down. She’ll divorce me and move on to someone better suited, then I’ll continue on my way.”
“And what if that doesn’t happen?” Niall asked. “What if she chooses to remain with you?” Niall’s voice was light, but Eric wasn’t fooled.
“Your Granddaughter is human,” Eric answered. “Regardless of emotions, her time is limited. Unless there’s something I don’t know, she will suffer the fate of every human. She will age and wither, as her Mother and Grandmother did before her.” Eric paused before adding, “If she should attach herself to me, it wouldn’t be a hardship to remain with her until she passes.” It was a concession he’d never offered before but, somehow, when he thought of Sookie and her cleverness, it was easy to allow.
“That is very kind of you,” Niall sounded surprised. “With Sookie’s immunity to glamour, you wouldn’t be able to confuse her or hide her memory of you when she is too old to be seen by your side. Her Fae nature will prevent her from failing, like other humans who lose their Fae mate. If she were to become attached and you left her, she would be forced to live with her regret. It could be a hardship for her. You make a generous offer.”
“If only she were a little more supernatural,” The words were out of Eric’s mouth before he knew it. “It is of no consequence,” he covered, “What is important is what must happen now. We will pledge and you will help Sophie-Ann understand Sookie’s connection to you. It will give Sookie more standing among us. That, along with being linked to me, should assure her safety. You’ll do it?”
“Of course,” Niall agreed. “I trust your Queen to be discrete. Sookie’s connection to me probably won’t stay a secret long anyway. As soon as word of your pledging gets out, Rogan will be furious. I expect he will tell any and all of Sookie’s parentage as a way to get back at us! By the time his anger cools, there won’t be a sprite or leprechaun in all of Ireland who won’t know of her mixed heritage.”
“I will protect her,” Eric assured the King. “She will be Unseelie, which will guarantee that any move against her by a Seelie will be met with war. What’s more, as the mate of a vampire, she will no longer be able to claim any status as one of you. Her fall from grace will be complete.”
“It is foolish,” Niall sighed. “There will be those who will sneer because she is a hybrid, but there will be more who will sneer at her for lying with a ghoul. What a small-minded species we have become!”
“She will live in my home in Ballytyne,” Eric continued. “If we find we are attracting too much attention, I could resign my post as Sheriff. We could retire to the countryside. Given time, who knows? We could become just another part of the landscape. We will fade like other Unseelie, becoming small and insignificant!” Eric chuckled and Niall joined him.
“How we underestimate you!” The Fae King agreed. “We forget the magics you hold may not be as bright, but still have their effect.” After a moment, Niall said, “I am grateful to you, Northman, for agreeing to keep her here. It makes me happy to be able to see her. She is so like Adele.”
“But unlike Adele, Sookie’s magic is ‘bright,’” Eric reminded the King. “She needs training, soon if she is to be able to function in our world. Is that something you have arranged?”
“Since you are planning to keep my Granddaughter in your Queen’s territory, I must insist on being able to visit without prior approval,” Niall said. “Our first task will be to teach her to mask her scent, then I will undertake training her to control her magic myself.”
The thought of a life in the country with Sookie had taken root. Eric thought of how right she felt pressed against him. He thought of how just talking with her made him happy. “She would make a magnificent vampire!” he said out loud.
“No!” Niall barked.
It startled Eric. He hadn’t meant to speak his thoughts out loud and now, Niall knew. “Sookie is her own person,” Eric growled, angrier with himself than anyone else. He took an unnecessary breath before adding, “If she did choose to join me, I promise you, it would be her decision.”
Niall didn’t say anything, but Eric’s mind raced. He thought of why he was pledging to Sookie and the dangers she faced and he spoke again. “As much as I will try to protect her, she is in peril. I would give her a choice in becoming vampire, but what if your enemies find her before she is ready to defend herself? It isn’t my association that puts Sookie in danger! Every day she is surrounded by more intrigue and more enemies that could destroy her. She is unique, Niall. If she were dying, would you still object to my saving her? You know me. She would be safe as my child!”
“You love her!” Niall realized it was as Claudine said and more. Eric had admitted before to wanting to claim Sookie, but fighting to keep her for eternity took the nature of his interest to a different level. Eric had told Niall he turned Pam at a time he was lonely, but Niall knew Eric wasn’t lonely now.
“I no longer have the luxury of loving,” Eric sniffed. “I am very fond of her. She has a startling number of questions,” and the thought of the two of them sitting on the bed in her room earlier, her pelting him with her endless need to know, made the vampire chuckle. “It is rare to find another creature who shares my restless curiosity for all things.”
“As you said, Sookie is unique,” Niall said thoughtfully. “I am glad to hear that you appreciate it. I suspect you will be well mated.” The vampire made a sound and Niall almost laughed. “I will send Claudine to her today. She will start Sookie’s lessons in dampening her scent. If my Granddaughter is going to make her life among your kind, she will need that skill sooner rather than later. I have no doubt that someone in possession of her degree of magic can learn but, if she can’t, I will personally pay to have her scent suppressed.”
“I thank you,” Eric agreed. “It will make her life among us easier.”
“What time will you be picking Sookie up from Carreigh?” Niall asked.
“I won’t,” Eric told the Fae. He had planned on doing it, but the direction of this conversation had shaken him. “I will have Pam go. She will bring Sookie to Court. I will rise in my home in Ballytyne,” ‘Our home,’ a voice in Eric’s head whispered. “There are preparations needed to be made.”
“I wish you well, vampire.” Niall was chuckling. “Call me when you are ready to receive visitors. I will want to congratulate you and bestow my blessing, but I wouldn’t dream of intruding on your private time together,” and the line disconnected.
Niall’s teasing was easily dismissed. The King was Fae. It was the way of the Fae to be annoying.
Eric’s next call was to his Queen. It was Andre, the Queen’s Second and favored child, who answered. “Sheriff Northman!” he purred. “Decided to come and join our nest at last? I was thinking about your lovely assets. We have been playing and having you’re here and naked would be a welcome addition.”
“You are kind to think so,” Eric replied dryly, “but no. I was calling to tell you I will be appearing before the Queen’s Court tomorrow night with some business.”
“Official business?” Andre’s tone shifted. “I will alert the guards. I assume Pam will be coming as well.”
‘Official business’ meant Eric was bringing prisoners; those who had perpetrated the most serious infractions. Most violators of vampire law were taken to a local Assizes Court. Sophie-Ann had six different magistrates who presided over territories, ranging from Scotland to Ireland and all places in between. Most of the law-breakers Eric arrested were taken to these Courts. They paid fines or were sentenced to minor torture, and then were released to continue their existences, sadder but (hopefully) wiser. It was only those who were truly dangerous or who flouted the most important rules who found themselves delivered to the justice of Sophie-Ann LeClerq. These were the blood sellers or contract killers. Had the pair that tried to kill Eric at Ghoul’s Kiss survived, they would have found themselves trembling before the Queen’s throne.
These wrong-doers were guaranteed torture, which was often lengthy and inventive. The final death was a sentence reserved for Sophie-Ann and she meted it out with some regularity. Anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves delivered to the Queen’s justice would be at their most dangerous, and so having guards take possession of them until sentence was passed was standard practice.
“Not official,” Eric said lightly. “Pam is coming, but this is a personal matter.”
Eric knew that the Queen’s Second would make the assumption, and Andre proved the Sheriff right when he exclaimed, “Oh!” and then laughed. “Sophie-Ann will be delighted!”
“It’s not what your Queen anticipates,” Eric said levelly. “It’s something else. I’ll be there early. I don’t wish to interfere with my Queen’s evening plans.”
“Now I am curious,” Andre sniffed. “No hint?”
“It’s not that important,” Eric assured the Second. “Just something I’d rather she knew.”
“Oh,” and Eric could hear Andre’s interest drop off entirely, so much so that Eric wondered if Andre would even mention he was coming to see the Queen.
Once the call concluded, Eric checked his watch. There was still plenty of time before dawn.
He texted his new Dayman, Bobby Burnham, making arrangements for the house in Ballytyne to be opened. At the last minute, he remembered to add groceries to the supplies that would be laid in. ‘I will be taking up permanent residence,’ he texted Burnham. ‘Reinstate all the services. Include provisions for a human female.’
Eric deliberately chose not to call. His instructions were guaranteed to launch an inquisition from his Dayman. As it was, Eric was sure he would receive at least one improper text from Burnham, questioning things in an unnecessary way. His assistant was proficient, but too protective.
Eric knew Bobby wished to be turned and he’d stop at nothing to prove his value. As a result, Burnham was almost pathologically jealous of anyone he felt was too close to Eric. He would pander and fawn to his Master, but that pandering didn’t extend to Eric’s playmates. Eric found himself imagining the inevitable confrontation between Sookie and Bobby and he couldn’t stop laughing, knowing the hybrid had more than enough sass to put his Dayman in his place.
It was well past midnight when he called Pam.
“Well, fuck a zombie!” she exclaimed once he told her of his plans.
“You like Sookie,” Eric reminded her.
“I like lots of people,” Pam replied, “I don’t expect them to pledge to my Maker!”
“I didn’t think you’d have a problem.” Eric was surprised. He’d assumed his progeny would have no objections. He knew Pam considered Sookie a friend.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” Pam set him straight, “I’m just surprised at how quickly you moved. Not like I didn’t see this coming, but I figured there would be another couple rounds of dancing and prancing before you claimed her.” Then Pam laughed, “Oh! I can’t wait to see Rogan’s face! He’s going to pop a blood vessel!”
“It may be best if you close the Kiss for a couple nights and stay with me. I don’t think the Fae will do anything direct, but best not to present a target until we know how Rogan will react.” Eric thought about it, then added, “Close the place in Carrack, too. Post that it’s a family emergency. Keep everyone on pay though, and let’s see how this plays out.”
“Thank goodness we opened the third place south in Niall’s kingdom!” It was the pub Clancy was running.
“Yes, it is good,” Eric agreed. It wasn’t that the vampire needed the money, but, in this world, credit was convenient and human banks didn’t like to extend credit to those whose businesses weren’t succeeding.
“So, my Maker is pledging!” Eric could hear the smirk in Pam’s voice. “And won’t Sophie-Ann be thrilled? How many times has she begged you to pledge to her?”
“Niall will call the Queen and let her know that Sookie is his family,” Eric answered, ignoring Pam’s question.
“What?” and Eric could hear Pam’s concern, “Are you seriously going to let Sophie-Anne think you’re doing this to gain Niall’s favor? Eric! That’s not a smart move! She may be a Queen, but Sophie-Ann has a childish streak a mile wide! She’ll say something to Sookie or do something to make you pay! You know she will!”
Eric did his best to ignore his daughter’s concern, “The Queen won’t like it,” Eric acknowledged, “but she won’t endanger our alliance with Niall Brigant by doing something stupid about a person who’s only here temporarily. Sookie is mortal! I’ll remind the Queen of that fact if I must.” Eric found himself recalling his earlier comments to Niall, but he didn’t think mentioning his new-found interest in turning Sookie something he wanted to share with Pam. He was sure once he did, she would tease him unmercifully, but, he wasn’t ready to consider what his feelings might mean, so he covered by saying, “It won’t be the first time. I have taken human females under my protection before.”
“You didn’t pledge yourself to them,” Pam reminded him. “There is a difference!”
“She is vulnerable,” Eric said reasonably. “She is a hybrid related to one of our allies. Sophie-Ann will understand.”
“So, is that what you’re telling yourself?” Pam asked. “That this is some kind of mercy move on your part?”
“What do you mean?” Eric was sure his reasoning was sound, but he didn’t need to be reminded by his progeny. Yes, he desired Sookie. She kissed well and felt right in his arms, but, as he’d already said earlier to Niall, this wasn’t about anything more than doing the right thing.
“What you feel for her is beyond attraction…” Pam was winding up.
“The night is drawing on,” Eric interrupted. “I want you to pick up Sookie from Carreigh tomorrow and bring her to Court. I will be busy making sure all is ready in Ballytyne. It’s been decades since I’ve used it as a private residence and there is testing that needs to be done, security, cable.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t want to jinx anything by seeing the bride the night before the ceremony, right?” Pam laughed.
Eric felt a strange flutter where his heart should have been, which was why his tone might have been a little sharper than he felt, “I have always appreciated your sense of humor, Pamela, but now is not the time! Secure our holdings. You are welcome to stay in my home here until things are safe. Make sure those under our protection in Rogan’s areas are alerted. It shouldn’t take longer than a week, maybe two, for this to resolve.”
“Long enough for a proper honeymoon,” Pam laughed. “Where are you taking her? Sweden isn’t far and it’s cold enough there to justify staying in bed. Maybe you’re thinking clothing optional at your Barbados house? Or is that what you’re doing in Ballytyne? Covering everything in rose petals?”
“I’m sure Sookie doesn’t expect anything like that,” Eric snapped, but Pam’s words made him feel uneasy.
“I think every woman expects that when she marries,” Pam was more serious now. “Eric, you zeroed in on her from the moment you saw her. She’s been the same. Even when she’s avoiding you or you’re reminding yourself she belongs to someone else, you circle each other. The more you say it’s not about emotion, the more I know it is! Don’t do something or say something that damages how good you could be together. She makes you happier than I’ve seen you in a long time. She makes you laugh. That is rare and you know it!”
“Thank you, Pam,” Eric said sincerely. “I will consider what you are saying. You are my best in all things.” It was a compliment they shared. Of all the creatures he’d met over his long existence, Pam was the only one Eric Northman had wanted to turn, at least until now. He opened the bond between them, willing her to feel his pride across the space that separated them.
“I love you, too, my Maker,” Pam purred, “but we may have to change our vocabulary! I wouldn’t want your wife to get the wrong idea about us! You’re going to have to learn to speak married!”
“Pledging won’t change anything, much less how things are between us,” Eric scoffed.
“You go ahead and believe that!” Pam cautioned, but Eric was sure she was wrong.
After she disconnected, Pam looked at Maryann. “I’m sure you followed that.”
“He’s marrying Sookie,” Maryann nodded. “Well, thank goodness!”
Pam gave her lover a stern look, “I didn’t expect you to be too pleased about this.”
“Why not?” Maryann shrugged. “I told Sookie before she left that marrying Breandan would be a mistake.” Pam stared until Maryann stared back, “What?” When Pam continued to stare, Maryann shook her head, “It’s like I told Sookie, I can’t explain it. I was supporting Breandan even though I didn’t believe it. It was as though…” and she stared at the ceiling, “as though someone else was inside me, speaking those words.”
“You were glamoured,” Pam said carefully.
“Glamoured? You’re sure?” Pam had explained the concept to Maryann.
“And it’s worn off,” Pam nodded. “Had to be Breandan or Claude.”
“Why do you say that?” Maryann’s face was flushed and Pam could see the idea that her mind had been played with didn’t sit well.
Pam laid her hand on Maryann’s cheek and then kissed her. “Because, my darling girl, when a vampire glamours you, it sticks. Seelie can’t glamour for shit.” Maryann huffed, letting her anger go before rolling over to lay her head on Pam’s shoulder.
“All the more reason for Sookie to marry someone else,” Maryann concluded, ”So Eric had better do right by our girl. Him letting her believe he’s marrying her any other reason than love isn’t a good start.”
“It’s bullshit!” Pam nodded. “Total bullshit, and, if he isn’t careful, he’s going to hurt her enough that she won’t give him a second chance.”
“Our girl is in an interesting place,” Maryann agreed. “Her heart’s been knocked about pretty well over the past year. A few more knocks and that stubborn streak of hers will convince her love is over-rated.”
“Like you?” Pam teased. She stroked Maryann’s breast and kissed her. “You were pretty flinty at first.”
“You found your way through my defenses fairly easily,” Maryann laughed.
“I knew what I wanted,” Pam assured her Lover. “I wish my poor deluded Maker could see things as clearly!”
“I can hear your wheels turning,” Maryann sighed and got up. “What do you intend to do?”
“You have keys to Sookie’s apartment?” Pam asked. “We can start tomorrow night. No way are we going to let them stand there like strangers in front of City Hall. Our girl is going to look the part, so we need to know sizes!”
“Dress size is easy,” Maryann laughed. “She and I wear the same, and…” Maryann walked to her closet and pulled out a clothes bag, “I think I have the right weapon!”
It was an ice-blue, silk, sheath dress. “Falls right to the knee and hugs all the curves. Sookie’s a little bigger across the chest, but tugging there could actually work.”
“You sure you won’t mind giving it up?” Pam asked, her fingers rubbing the richness of the fabric.
Maryann chuckled. “It feels like a dream and it’s a perfect match for Sookie’s coloring. I bought it a million years ago for a wedding I ended up missing. It’s been waiting ever since for its chance to come out and play. I can’t think of a better cause!”
“So, we’re down to accessories!” They dressed and walked across the way, letting themselves into Sookie’s apartment.
Together, they pulled out shoes and checked what jewelry there was to be found. “She wears my size shoe and thank goodness!” Pam exclaimed. “I am going to have to talk to Sookie about her fashion sense!” She dropped another pair of sensible flats to the closet floor. “I hope she can walk in heels.”
“She has no jewelry at all,” Maryann noticed.
“Well,” and Pam smiled, “I know two things!” She pulled out her phone. “First, a girl deserves a ring, so I’m texting the Bashful Bridegroom right now to remind him! Second, if you want good jewels,” Pam pushed a few more buttons, then held the phone to her ear, “Call the Fae!”
“I won’t be continuing my hike,” Sookie told her landlady. “Is it okay if I stick around here today? Someone is coming to pick me up tonight.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” her hostess replied. She’d just brought Sookie her poached eggs. “Was the walking just too much?”
“No, it’s not that. I feel fine,” Sookie explained, “It’s just that something else came up.” Sookie wasn’t sure how else to describe it.
‘I’ve decided to enter an arranged marriage.’ Sookie supposed that was one way to say it. ‘I’ve broken it off with the man I thought I’d marry so I can marry one I hardly know.’ That sounded even worse. In fact, from the moment Eric left, Sookie had been grinding on it. She couldn’t understand what had happened to her good common sense.
She hadn’t been drinking that much last night. She didn’t think she’d suffered a mental lapse. There was nothing to explain the crazy impulse that made her agree to what she was doing. ‘It’s sure not like you!” she told herself.
Still, when she thought of lying on the bed, Eric’s arms around her, it felt right. Sookie was more comfortable just being with the vampire than she’d felt in a long time with Breandan. ‘Maybe I’m wrong about Eric,’ she thought. ‘Maybe I just think I’m happy with him and it’ll wear off, like it did with Breandan.’ She did feel she’d made a mistake when it came to the Fae and the thought that she might have married Breandan Brigant despite her intuition shook her confidence.
‘What is your inner voice telling you now?’ she thought, staring out the window.
“There’s no problem with you staying,” her hostess was telling her. “You can stay the rest of the week if you’d like!”
Sookie finished her breakfast and headed out the front door. The sun was out, but the light had a weak, watery feel to it. Almost feeling as if she was chasing sunbeams, Sookie headed across the street to sit on a bench in the church yard, the one that looked out over the small graveyard flowing down the hill.
“What were you thinking?” she asked herself out loud.
“You’re thinking of doing what’s right by everyone,” Claudine answered.
Sookie jumped, her heart hammering in her chest. She whipped around to see her cousin standing directly behind her. Sookie had barely slept last night, her mind a whirl as she tossed and turned. It left her feeling fragile with a thin headache forming between her eyebrows.
“I’ve come to teach you how to keep yourself from becoming vampire kibble,” Claudine smiled.
The Fae walked around so she could sit on the bench beside Sookie. She peered at her and then she asked, “So, are you ready?” When Sookie just stared blankly, Claudine clarified by saying, “For the pledging! Your vampire contacted Niall last night, demanding he privately acknowledge you to the vampire Queen. I’m told you’re headed to Sophie-Ann’s Court later to… you know… make it official.”
“I don’t know if I’d call him ‘my’ vampire,” Sookie answered. Her jaw was starting to move forward and now that it was daylight, she was finding she liked this deal less and less. “Are we going to see this Queen? Yes! Are we getting pledged, whatever that means? I guess. Am I happy about it?” and Sookie looked out across the headstones, their gray granite matching her own mood, “I don’t know. I feel like I’m stuck in some fog. I just can’t wrap my head around this!”
“What you need is a nice dress!” Claudine declared. “Once you have the dress, the marriage part will seem more real, at least that’s how it worked for me.”
“I have the dress I wore last night,” Sookie replied.
“You won’t be wearing that!” Claudine laughed, reminding Sookie of little bells. “Pam is bringing something much more appropriate!”
“Pam’s coming?” It made Sookie feel better. Pam was vampire, but Pam was also someone Sookie knew she could count on.
“Sure, didn’t your new squeeze tell you? Pam’s going to be taking you tonight.”
“Oh,” and Sookie found her trust in Eric slip just a little bit. He’d told her last night that he was coming for her. He’d told her he would fly her to the Queen’s Court. It hadn’t been a promise, but now things had changed and she was the last to know.
“Get used to it,” Claudine laughed, reading Sookie’s expression. “My husband was the same way, making his own plans and expecting me to just be happy. He never figured out how little I like surprises.”
“I didn’t know you were married.” Sookie looked at her cousin and was reminded how little she knew this woman, which left her feeling even more alone than before.
“Of course,” Claudine shrugged, “although I haven’t seen him in ages! At least you know your bridegroom! I didn’t meet Colburn until our joining.”
“That sounds awkward,” Sookie responded. What she wanted to say was, ‘That’s terrible,’ or ‘Why would you do that?’ but since she was pretty much doing the same thing, she figured she’d be polite.
“We are still friends,” Claudine continued in that same slightly bored tone, “but better friends at a distance.”
“Why don’t you divorce him?” Sookie asked. “I mean, it doesn’t sound as if you really like him.”
Claudine laughed, “And have to marry another stranger? Fae marriages are arranged, Sookie! Once it’s done, you can do what you wish. If you divorce, though, the pressure’s back on and your family will arrange a new mate. You’ll see. We’re all used to the rules. Being in an arranged marriage won’t be so bad!”
“Compared to what?” Sookie took a deep breath, “A root canal? Surgery?”
“Don’t sound so enthusiastic! Northman isn’t bad! He’s one of the few vampires with whom we Fae enjoy spending time. He doesn’t treat us like we’re one step away from being the entrée!” Claudine stood, “And he’s easy on the eyes, in an Unseelie kind of way.”
“I suppose,” Sookie agreed. Eric was easy on the eyes. She’d never seen him without his shirt on, but she could see he was more muscled than Breandan, then realization she would likely see a lot more than his chest tonight made Sookie’s face flush. In an effort to stop her racing heart, she looked for her cousin, only to see that Claudine was walking away. In fact, she was already some distance and heading toward the back of the church. Where are you going?” Sookie called.
“Somewhere we can’t be seen,” Claudine called back, “Come on!”
Together they walked past the church, and then up a footpath that took them away from town. After what felt like an hour, they came to a small stand of woods. Almost immediately, the path dove down through some shrubs and Sookie and Claudine were soon standing in a small, level place where trees arched overhead and a small spring bubbled nearby. Claudine waved her hand and Sookie could feel the stillness form around them. “Good, now we won’t be disturbed,” Claudine grinned. She dropped her masque and motioned for Sookie to do the same.
“Okay, now put your hand to your face,” Claudine instructed her and once Sookie did, she asked, “What do you smell?”
“I don’t know,” Sookie shrugged, then sniffed her palm a little more. “Sweet? A little sweet?”
“Exactly!” Claudine smiled. “When you perform magic, even small magic, you give off a scent. The bigger the magic, the more you emanate!”
“Like sweat?” Sookie asked.
Claudine’s expression showed that she thought Sookie’s word choice was appalling, “The Fae don’t sweat!”
“As always, giving yourselves all kinds of airs!” barked a harsh voice.
Sookie and Claudine whirled to see a small, gnarled man sitting on a rock next to the spring.
“Who asked you?” Claudine sniffed.
The man jumped up and walked over to Sookie. He barely reached her thigh and his skin looked more like leather than anything else. He bowed, “I’m told you’re joining our side.” He cocked his head before asking, “What are you?”
“None of your business!” Claudine replied tartly. “Do you have it?”
“I do,” he replied. He put his hand inside his jacket, but it took him a while to pull it out again. Claudine tapped her foot impatiently and he growled, “It’s just that it’s pretty and I’ve held it for you for ages!”
“As is your job. Now it’s your job to return it,” and Claudine held out her hand.
The man sighed, but he did as Claudine demanded. When his hand pulled back, he held a necklace. It was made of many chains, gold and silver, and caught on the chains were diamonds that winked and sparkled in the filtered sunlight. Sookie’s breath caught and Claudine grinned at her cousin’s reaction.
“It’s your bride’s gift!” Claudine told her. “There will be more, a dowry, but this is for tonight.”
“Marrying a vampire isn’t the disgrace this one would tell you,” the man told Sookie, winking. “And Northman has quite the reputation with the ladies. You’ll be well kept in bed, if you know what I mean!”
“I don’t think it’s going to be like that,” Sookie stammered.
The man literally howled with laughter, but Claudine scowled at him. “You’ve done your job, now off with you! My cousin and I have things to go over.”
He was there one moment and in the next, he wasn’t. There was no pop, no noise of any kind, and Sookie blinked her eyes, her mouth open. “Was he…”
She meant to say ‘even there,’ but Claudine finished, “A leprechaun? Yes. He and his clan are the keepers of our jewels. Greedy little bastards and they crave treasure, but who safer to hold onto your precious items than someone who literally loves them?” She held up the necklace, allowing the strands to drip between her fingers. “This is gold, of course, and platinum. No more silver for you! If you have any of it in your own things, you should get rid of it. Vampires see silver as a weapon, so if you’re wearing any, they’ll take offense.”
“I never would have believed any of this a year ago,” Sookie sighed.
“You knew you were different,” Claudine pointed out.
“I just didn’t think it was anything like this,” and Sookie found herself looking back at the rock where the leprechaun had been sitting.
“Aren’t you glad to know you’re not stuck with some, one-dimensional, boring life?” Claudine challenged her.
Sookie thought about it. She thought about birds that sang with her and all the wonderful things she’d seen. She thought about how it felt when she believed she was the only one like her in the world and how it felt now. Even though there were still times knowing what she did now didn’t make her happy, Sookie didn’t feel so alone anymore. “Yes, I am better knowing this exists,” she agreed.
“Good!” and Claudine laughed again. Sookie could have sworn the sparks of light danced in time, but then Claudine clapped her hands, “Day’s wasting! We need to get to work!”
Claudine had Sookie concentrate on her sense of smell. She drilled her until Sookie could discern the changes around her. “You’re doing well, but think about what that smells like to your vampire. His sense of smell is a thousand times more sensitive than yours! They are hunting creatures mostly, so they are more developed in that way. They’re fast, they see more clearly, and they can smell blood for miles.”
“Sounds like you’re describing sharks,” Sookie observed.
“They are the Fae version of sharks,” Claudine agreed. “Beautiful and just as deadly.”
Now that Sookie could identify when her scent changed, Claudine started the work of helping Sookie to mask it. “Think of it like pulling on a body stocking,” Claudine instructed. “It’s really just a different version of masking. If you think of it that way, you should be able to wrap your head around how to hide it.”
Sookie pulled the masking on, and then she pulled it off again. When she still smelled, she tried different ideas. She envisioned it as a cloak. She thought of it as rain falling down on her. Each time, Claudine found some lingering scent. The very act of masking caused Sookie to release scent, so by the time lunch rolled around Sookie was sweating, even though Claudine had told her she couldn’t.
“You’re doing really well,” Claudine assured her. “Better than I hoped.” She’d made a lunch of salad and fruits appear and they settled down, listening to the sound of the water running over rocks.
“What are these?” Sookie asked, holding up a small flower she’d found in her salad.
“Herbs,” Claudine shrugged. “Flavors. We Fae like to perfume our bodies inside as well as out. What you eat affects how you taste.”
“Yuck!” Sookie dropped the flower. “What are you telling me? You worry about being caught by cannibals?”
“You’re being caught by a vampire,” Claudine observed. “He’ll be drinking from you.” When Sookie blushed, Claudine smirked and shook her head, “Why are you so embarrassed? I can smell him in you now! His blood, I mean. You must have liked it.”
“I did,” Sookie admitted. “It just seems like too personal thing to talk about.”
“Oh!” and the laugh returned, trilling and spilling around them. “You humans are so silly with all your rules and religion! What’s better than sharing your body with someone else? There is no pleasure like it!”
“There’s more to a relationship than sex!” Sookie huffed.
“But sex is the icing,” Claudine persisted. “Without sex, good sex, the rest of the relationship can become dull. But, I don’t think you’ll have anything to worry about there!”
Sookie took a deep breath. There had been a lot of talk about Eric and sex this morning and it hadn’t helped that Sookie had lost sleep, worrying about the same thing. “And how would you know?” she challenged Claudine. “You slept with him? You know anyone who has?”
Claudine looked taken aback, “Well, no,” she admitted. “But he has a reputation…”
“Well, I have a reputation for being odd. Do you think I’m odd? Or stuck up? Or snotty?” Sookie pressed.
Claudine’s mouth fell into a straight line, “Snotty may apply,” she sniffed, then, regaining her smile, she correctly guessed, “I can see you are worried about tonight. I only wished to place you at ease, but I can see it isn’t working. I’m sorry. I’ll stop.” She looked up at toward the sky. “We should get back. You can practice some more, and then you’ll need to shower before Pam arrives.”
The walk back to Carreigh seemed to take much longer. The sun was shining brightly today and the heat seemed to radiate up from the ground, made warmer by the evaporating moisture from the rain that had fallen overnight. Sookie soon found herself falling farther and farther behind. She pretended to be interested in flowers or birds flying nearby, allowing her to wipe the sweat from her face or pull her shirt away from her body but, after a bit, she stopped pretending, just burrowing into herself and keeping up a bright internal monologue, encouraging herself to keep stepping forward.
“You’re a mess!” Claudine’s sudden appearance brought Sookie up short. “Didn’t you sleep last night? You look like you might collapse!”
“I didn’t sleep,” Sookie admitted, “and I’m really thirsty.”
“Town is just there.” Sookie lifted her head to follow Claudine’s gesture. She could see the steeple of the church, so she knew it was just around the next bend. “Let’s get you back to your room. A shower will help.”
For all it was close, it still seemed to take forever but, soon, Sookie was standing under running water. She walked out to find the bed turned down. “There’s plenty of time,” Claudine told her kindly. She helped Sookie climb into bed, and then the Fae leaned down and kissed Sookie’s forehead. Sookie’s eyes closed and she knew no more.
“It’s a good thing you brought them.” Sookie’s eyes felt very heavy. She turned over thinking that the voices might have been in her dream.
“I didn’t think they even sold this anymore,” a familiar voice answered.
It was Pam. Sookie took one last, deep breath and willed her eyes to open. She focused on Claudine. The tall Fae was standing at the foot of Sookie’s bed, her arms crossed. Sookie rolled a little so she could see Pam. Her friend was standing near Sookie’s suitcase, and she had a pair of Sookie’s panties stretched between her hands. She glanced at Sookie, “Can you explain this?” she asked and held up the panties.
“They’re my underwear,” Sookie mumbled. She pushed herself up, leaned forward, placing her elbows on her knees, and scrubbed at her still-gritty eyeballs. “What time is it?”
“Time to get started,” Pam grinned. She tossed the underwear back in the suitcase and sat down on the bed. “Claudine says you showered, but you’ve been sleeping a long time. You need to shower again.” She pulled the bedsheet away, leaving Sookie naked, except for a tee-shirt and another pair of panties that matched the ones Pam had been disparaging. “Oh, and you need to shave!”
“What are you talking about?” The headache was much better, but Sookie needed water and lots of it.
“Pits, legs, arms, and there!” and Pam’s eyes made clear where she meant.
“I take it down pretty short as it is,” Sookie protested.
“Well, this…” and Pam held up a pale blue lacy thong, “isn’t going to lay right if you’re a bush woman! I have extra razors if you need them. Oh, and use this,” and she handed Sookie a bath gel that looked expensive.
“I have never worn anything like that,” Sookie growled at the thong, “and I shave just fine, thank you very much!”
“If you’re going to be a problem, I’ll just strong-arm you into the shower and do it myself!” Pam warned her.
“I’ll hold you down,” Claudine volunteered.
“I don’t know what you think is going to happen tonight, but I’m not fucking Eric!” Sookie declared.
Claudine looked surprised, but Pam just laughed, “Said no woman ever!”
“I mean it!” Sookie knew she was digging in. “I barely know him! He barely knows me! I’m not saying it won’t happen sometime, but I’m not the kind of woman who hops from one bed to another. I mean, until a week ago, I was getting married to someone else! I can’t just turn it on and turn it off! I don’t work that way!”
“It will be expected,” Claudine said quietly.
When Sookie’s jaw started moving forward, Pam headed her off by saying, “I know Eric won’t force you.” Claudine made a sound and Pam shot her a look. “Your cousin is right, though. There will be an expectation that there is a wedding night. In the old days, they used to make you do it right in front of everyone and exchange at the same time. Things have become a lot tamer since then.”
“Too bad!” Claudine smiled. “I would have paid to see that!”
“Not helping!” Sookie groaned. “I’m starting to think this whole thing is a really bad idea! I don’t know how I let myself get talked into it. I’m sure it’s not so doom and gloom as people are making it out to be.” Sookie glanced from one woman to the other. Neither was looking too sympathetic.
“You might think about Eric,” Pam shrugged. “You think you have cold feet? He’s avoided any kind of joining as long as I’ve known him. If you leave him hanging, he’ll be looking over his shoulder for years. Every vampire with an ounce of ambition will assume he’s gone soft and he’ll find himself being challenged.” Pam shook her head, “Nope, you can divorce him in a year or two, but you have to go through with the ceremony tonight”
“And then there’s Rogan,” Claudine added. “You think he’d think twice about ending you? He’ll hesitate over the vampire, but you? No! He’ll kill you and then there will be another war. I lost my sister in the last one and my Mother, too. Hundreds will die and it would be the end of all of us. We can’t sustain that kind of population loss. Rogan never should have gone looking for you. He shouldn’t have had Breandan drag you here, but he did and now? There’s no going back.” Claudine took Sookie’s hand in hers, “Pledge to him. It’s the best way and like Pam said, it doesn’t have to be permanent unless you want it to be.”
“Oh, great!” Sookie groaned, “So, it’s all on me!”
“Suck it up, buttercup!” Pam laughed. She dragged Sookie out of bed and pushed her toward the shower. “Get going! By the time we’re done, you’re going to knock his socks off!”
Sookie did what they wanted, although she couldn’t quite bring herself to go completely bare. She emerged, wrapped in a towel. “Time to make magic!” and Claudine pulled the towel from her.
Before Sookie could even protest, she was seated in a chair and Pam was tossing her a bra. “Start with that!” It was the same shade of blue as the thong she’d seen earlier.
“Hose and garter belt?” Claudine asked.
“What else?” Pam laughed.
Over the next hour, Sookie was pulled and pummeled. Her hair was dried and done in an upswept twist. Claudine handled makeup from her own case of cosmetics while Pam helped Sookie to step into layers of clothing until she shimmied into the dress and the zipper was pulled up with satisfying ease. “Step into these,” Pam instructed, pushing the strappy, high-heeled sandals toward her, “Then we’ll let you take a peek.”
The shoes were awkward, but Sookie had experimented before. Just looking down at her toes, she felt special. Then, Pam helped her to turn and Sookie saw herself in the full-length mirror.
“Wow!” she said. The woman in the mirror was familiar, yet not. “I can’t believe it,” she breathed.
“You are beautiful!” Claudine told her. The Fae stepped up behind her and looped the necklace around her neck. The chains hung perfectly over her skin, drawing the eye. “There’s earrings, too.” Chains with small diamonds were placed in Sookie’s ears and they sparked and shone every time she moved her head.
“Time to go to the ball, Cinderella,” Pam hugged Sookie and kissed her cheek.
“I wish my Mom could see me,” Sookie whispered.
“I’m sure she can,” Claudine soothed.
Both women helped Sookie walk to the stairs, and then they decided to have her take off the shoes until she arrived at the Queen’s court. Sookie had a pair of Crocs and she slipped them on. Claudine couldn’t stop laughing, but everyone agreed it was better than having Sookie slip and break her neck before she arrived.
When they got the Pam’s car, Claudine stepped back. “You’re not coming?” Sookie asked.
“To Vampire Court? Not hardly!” She turned to Pam, “Take pictures. I want to see Northman’s face when he sees what’s coming for him!”
Once Sookie was in the car, Claudine leaned in. She kissed Sookie’s forehead again. “May the blessings of the Fae be with you!” she smiled. “May you find great happiness in your joining.”
“Thanks for helping me,” Sookie told her. “I’ll remember your lessons.”
“You’d better,” Claudine replied. “You have my number. Just remember, anything you need,” and Claudine closed the door as Pam drove away.