Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
Eric glanced down at Sookie. There’d been two messages waiting upon their rising. The first was from Mr. Cataliades, asking for an audience at their earliest opportunity. That was where they were headed, but it was the second message that was preoccupying his wife and because of their bond, preoccupying him. Rick and his woman had arrived at the New Orleans Airport this morning, and they were scheduled meet later at one of Eric’s restaurants for dinner.
When Sookie first returned from delivering their son to school, it seemed any progress she’d made in learning to control her more vampiric tendencies was lost. She’d railed and complained about Rick, her temper on hair trigger. For the first time in many years, Eric shut down the bond between them, her anxiety too great a distraction. Within a week, though, her crisis passed and his laughing, loving Queen returned and so life at the Palace resumed its more pleasant rhythm.
Final confirmation from Rick that he was coming for Spring Break along with his girlfriend, Brigid Meaney, didn’t arrive until last week. Almost immediately the thin thread of annoyance returned. Sookie denied it, but the bond didn’t lie.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. The upcoming Vampire Ball was in its final planning stages with all its demands and details and Sookie, focused and able, was a critical part of the event’s success.
When Maxwell initially suggested it, Eric envisioned an event similar to Sophie-Ann’s engagement party, but the Vampire Ball morphed beyond anything he’d imagined. The guest lists were long and Maxwell Lee included events both before and following the actual dance. ‘It will cement New Orleans as a resort destination for vampires,’ he assured Eric. Pam agreed, supporting the Area One Sheriff and pushing at each opportunity to make things bigger and better.
As the date drew closer, Maxwell and Pam’s instincts proved right. Weeks before the official invitations were sent, people from both the supernatural and human communities were jockeying to be included. Thalia kept him and Sookie appraised. There were simple requests, but there were also more inventive solicitations. Bribes were frequent and there were rumors of forged invitations circulating throughout the city. RSVPs started to come in, and it became clear the hall would be filled to capacity. Stan Davis accepted his invitation immediately, and then Russell Edgington, the King of Mississippi, did as well.
Pam and Maxwell Lee were working almost full time on the Ball, but they needed the authority only their Queen or King could provide. Eric was too busy growing their kingdom to attend to the endless details. It was agreed that Sookie would step in, and until Rick’s much-delayed confirmation, his wife had been handling those details beautifully.
The logistics were staggering. The secure quarters on the grounds of the monastery were set aside for Stan, Russell, and their immediate retinues, but vampire-friendly lodgings had to be found in the surrounding neighborhood for some of the others they were bringing, a neat trick during Mardi Gras season. Maxwell’s people pressed vassals, screening resting places and negotiating payments. Human guests presented different challenges, but with Hunter Savoy available, at least there were fewer security worries.
For her part, Sookie worked as hard If not harder than either Pam or Maxwell. She met with caterers and offered second opinions on decorations and music. She became the face of the event, allowing Pam to dress her up and trot her out for endless interviews and tours of the Palace. ‘We’re just like you,’ she’d grin into camera after camera, using her soft upcountry accent, ‘except with teeth,’ and she’d flash her fangs. Even without her telepathy, his wife knew how to charm her audience. During one interview she’d danced with the host, shaking her bonbon to prove she was as Louisiana as anyone. During another, she’d demonstrated that even though she couldn’t eat, she could still cook, using her sense of smell to balance the spices in a gumbo that was shared with the studio audience. Everyone was in love with the Vampire Queen of New Orleans, and by extension, her King, and Sookie made it appear she was having the time of her life.
Until now. Sookie was still gamely meeting her obligations, but the sparkle she’d shown before she heard from Rick seemed diminished. ‘You asked him to bring her,’ Eric reminded her when the thin thread started to grow into full-fledged worry.
‘I didn’t really think he would,’ she’d countered, and proceeded to continue fretting.
Eric’s driver met Rick and Brigid at the airport, taking them to the apartment where Hadley, Sookie’s cousin, once lived. Sookie fought that decision, insisting instead that the young people stay in the Palace, but Eric won. With the turmoil he was experiencing through their bond, Eric was sure Pam’s advice that Rick and Brigid be stored elsewhere was best. Over the past twenty-four hours, Sookie’s feelings had deteriorated into a toxic stew. One minute she’d compliment Brigid, but in the next she was as possessive as any new Maker.
Eric tried to explain what she was experiencing were her vampire instincts. He pointed out when he felt unreasonable jealousy from her, hoping that by calling it to her attention, Sookie would try harder to control herself. ‘I should have been her Maker,’ he groused as he received yet another spike of frustration. At this point in her development he would have expected Sookie to be further along in her ability to control herself. Had he been her Maker, Eric could have compelled her, forcing her to experience that good outcomes follow emotional control. Instead, she was bombarding him, distracting him from what needed to be done and fraying his temper in the process.
As they neared the office door, Sookie managed to bring her focus back to the task at hand. “Do you know why Desmond wants to speak with us?” she asked.
“I think he’s leaving,” Eric told Sookie. He wasn’t sure, but all the signs were there.
That brought Sookie up short. Her hand hesitated and instead of turning the knob, she stared up at him. Sookie’s shift of attention to the matter at hand was such a relief through their bond that Eric almost sighed. “Why would he do that, Eric? Hunter relies on him! Has something happened?”
“We’ll see when he tells us, Lover,” Eric soothed. He took her hand in his. Touching Sookie enhanced the more neutral feelings she was sending, and it felt most pleasant. He was tempted to take the sensation further by claiming her against the hall wall, but he held back. Of course, she felt his interest and rewarded him with first surprise and then a warmth that almost made him lose his resolve.
Sookie settled things by opening the door and Cataliades stood as they walked in. The attorney sketched his formal bow and said, “I’ll be leaving for Texas this evening,” confirming Eric’s suspicions.
“Texas?” Sookie asked. “But…”
They sat down, the attorney explained, “You remember my grandson, Barry, Majesty. I’ve negotiated his return. He and Stan Davis have agreed that Barry will offer the King three years of exclusive service, and in return, Barry may return to living openly and with the full protection of the King.”
“A generous offer,” Eric nodded. Before he’d left Louisiana for Oklahoma there had been a rumor that Barry was drawn into an assassination plot. It almost cost Stan his life and Barry had been in hiding ever since.
“Yes,” the demon attorney agreed, “it seems almost too generous an offer.”
“So, you’ll go to keep an eye on him,” and Sookie smiled sadly. “Hunter will miss you terribly. So will I.”
Mr. Cataliades, looked directly at Sookie, “I am hoping you will agree to step in with Hunter, mentor him.”
“As Queen, Sookie has more important duties than playing nursemaid to Hunter Savoy,” Eric protested.
“The Queen is in a unique position to counsel her cousin,” Mr. Cataliades countered. “She understands the dangers that present themselves when humans and our kind interact, the pitfalls one may encounter. I’m not suggesting she travel with Hunter, although I think assigning him a companion would be advisable. No, I’m merely suggesting the Queen review his contracts and offer advice on which jobs he should accept. Hunter is still young to this world, and… enthusiastic. He doesn’t grasp the implications of some of the demands he encounters.”
“He’s a risk taker,” Eric interpreted.
“Hunter wouldn’t deliberately put himself in danger,” Sookie protested.
“He is a young man who has led a sheltered life,” the attorney shrugged. “Hunter Savoy has found this world is full of interesting diversions.”
“I heard about the two vampires he fucked at the Summit.” Eric kept his eyes on Sookie, letting her know he was telling her something.
“They were in Bartlett Crowe’s retinue,” Mr. Cataliades nodded. “They would have turned him if I hadn’t intervened.”
If Sookie could have blushed, she would have. “I’m sure Hunter just didn’t understand. Just because he’s finding companionship that doesn’t mean he’d do something stupid.”
“No one is saying Hunter is stupid, Älskade. What we are saying is he’s a young man who’s running toward danger. Do you doubt Desmond’s word, or my own?” Eric asked his wife.
Sookie sighed, “Oh, all right. So, let’s say Hunter has developed taste for…”
“Risky behavior,” Mr. Cataliades provided. “And he has, Majesty. It’s the experience he craves. The desire creeps into his negotiations. It is more than naiveite. I point out the possible consequences of his actions. He hears me, but in the next moment is racing toward danger again. He needs a firm hand, Majesty, and I won’t be here to provide it.”
“Why do all your relatives seem to cause trouble, Lover” Eric teased. He smirked at her sharp hiss, leaning forward to take her hand. “Still, as interesting as this idea might be, you, my Lover, have other duties. It would be better to find another to do this. Maxwell has a good handle on his people, and Hunter is known to them. I could ask him to suggest someone suitable.”
“I’m not certain Hunter would listen to anyone else,” and the attorney also fixed Sookie with a direct stare.
“I wish I could tell what he’s thinking,” Sookie sighed, then glanced quickly around her. Eric knew she was making an effort not to voice her regret at her loss of telepathy. Her lapse made her angry, which meant he felt angry, too. “Look, I’ll talk with him,” she said shortly. “Hunter’s kin. He’ll listen to me.”
“Of course,” the demon said smoothly, and then rising, added, “Take care of yourself, Majesty.” Mr. Cataliades bowed first to Sookie before turning to Eric. “The reports on Rick’s grades will continue, of course. I don’t have to be in Louisiana for that.”
“What?” and Sookie’s eyes shot toward Eric followed by her flare of temper. He expected her to call him out, but then her eyes narrowed. She was staring at the demon and although he could still feel her anger, her voice was level as she said, “Thank you for everything you’ve done for us, Desmond. I will miss you.”
Eric stood, extending his hand for hers. She stood next to him and he let her feel his pride. He knew she was upset, but she’d sided with him. The demon knew it, too. His eyes flicked between them, and when he spoke next, it was a touch too formally. “I am ever at your service,” he said and then he turned and left.
Once the door closed, Sookie turned to him, “Why doesn’t he like you? And don’t tell me I’m imagining things.”
“You see clearly,” Eric assured her. “It’s because your Great-Grandfather liked me so much.” Eric allowed himself a soft smile, thinking back to his interactions with the Prince of the Sky Fae. “Niall employed Desmond, but when it came to watching over you and your family, he asked me. Niall knew how Desmond felt about Fintan and he knew Desmond felt himself guardian to your family, but it didn’t matter. Niall trusted me more and the demon can’t forgive that.”
“It’s so petty!” Sookie protested.
“Being supernatural doesn’t make someone a better person,” Eric laughed.
“It doesn’t make them a better husband, either!” and Sookie’s eyes narrowed. “All this time you knew about Rick’s grades? You know how worried I’ve been and you said nothing!”
“Your mistake was in asking Rick’s permission,” Eric replied. He was looking at her in that very direct way, the one Sookie should recognize as his teaching pose.
He knew she wanted to fly at him, but she showed restraint. “What do you mean?” she asked through gritted teeth.
Eric gestured toward the chairs and they both sat down. Eric leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. It allowed him to bring his face close to hers. “Once you asked our son’s permission and he denied it, to gain access to the grades would have meant lying to him. Your relationship with our son is already strained. What would have happened if he’d found out you went behind his back and got access anyway?” Sookie bit her lip. “Precisely,” Eric nodded.
“So, now you’re lying to him, instead,” she said. “How is that any better?”
“But, I’m not lying,” and Eric grinned. “I never asked permission and I made sure Rick didn’t include me in his demands. He was so busy denying you, he forgot about me. He placed no demand on me. I simply was free to do as I wished, knowing I could ask forgiveness later if he found out.”
“But you didn’t tell me,” Sookie pouted.
“If I had, I would have made you a liar, Lover. You were getting enough information from Rick to understand what was happening,” and Eric sat back, allowing that to sink in. He could tell Sookie wanted to be angry but she was fighting it. She knew his logic was sound.
“I guess you consider that thinking like a vampire,” and Sookie flopped back in her chair.
“I think of it as staying one step ahead of my adversary,” Eric told her.
Sookie wasn’t amused. “Adversary? This is Rick we’re talking about, our son!”
Eric’s grin became a full smile, “Rick is a young man who has proven himself resourceful and obstinate. It’s more challenging because he’s related to us through blood. Think about it. He can pluck our very thoughts from our heads. I can’t think of better game to stalk.”
“It’s not right,” Sookie sighed, but she gave into a chuckle and the bond between them smoothed. He felt the moment her thoughts shifted, “So how did you know about Hunter and those vampires at the Summit?”
Eric was pleased she brought it up. “What I’m wondering is how you didn’t. It was common gossip both there and after, my wife. You should have heard the story several times.”
“I can’t be bothered with gossip,” and Sookie eyerolled him.
“That is another mistake, Lover,” Eric informed her. When she didn’t look convinced, Eric sighed, “Vampires love to gossip, Sookie. They love to share small secrets, and sometimes that means you find out big ones. Either they are indiscreet, or you can tell what they aren’t saying by what they leave out. It’s those informal relationships that cement alliances. You will have to come to terms with that if you are to succeed as Queen.”
“I’m sure you’re wrong,” Sookie groaned. Eric laughed aloud. She could tell he wasn’t laughing with her, but he couldn’t help himself. “Fine!” she growled. “I’ll make more of an effort.”
Eric sat forward again before he asked, “Are you sure you want to take on this thing with Hunter?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Sookie countered.
“It’s just…” and Eric considered his words. “I don’t dispute Hunter would listen to your advice. You are his Aunt and he understands his duty to family. It’s just you are still learning our world, Sookie. Hunter is what the attorney said. He’s drunk on this life. He’s taking risks and pushing where he shouldn’t. If he were to be injured and you were involved… I know you, Lover. You would blame yourself.”
“Hunter’s just like I was, Eric,” and Sookie shrugged. “He sees how new everything is, and that feeling of being able to interact with people without the shouting in your head? I don’t think I can describe how freeing that is. He’s just going a little overboard.”
Eric felt his annoyance return. He could see the danger, and yet his wife refused to understand. “No, Sookie,” he told her. “Hunter’s not like you were. You were curious but you were never reckless.”
“He just needs guidance,” Sookie insisted.
That he needs a firm hand,” Eric disagreed. Sookie was starting to become combative, and that didn’t bode well for their evening ahead. Eric purposely pulled out his phone, making a show of checking the time. “Come, Sookie,” he told her, changing the subject. “The night passes. Rick and his woman are waiting for us.” Of course, that reminded Sookie of her earlier concerns, and Eric immediately felt the slight sourness return to their shared bond.
“I wish you wouldn’t call her that,” Sookie complained. “Her name is Brigid.”
“I understand you don’t like hearing me call her his,” Eric said shortly. “But, she is, Sookie. He has claimed her and you told me when you returned from Boston you could smell the difference. You must prepare yourself for tonight. They have been together a great deal, and this Brigid is defying her family to be here with him. Rick is also vampire. You know that show of loyalty will inspire passion.”
“Why are you going on about this?” Sookie groaned.
“Because you need to be in control,” Eric shrugged. “They will have exchanged blood recently. They will have had sex. She will smell like him, and he like her. It is natural for you to feel possessive of him, even jealous. It would be easier for you if you could view Brigid as your daughter. It would help make your reactions easier to master if you feel possessive of her, too.”
“But, she’s not my daughter, Eric,” Sookie said stiffly. “And I don’t want to think of her that way. Rick’s too young to be getting serious about anyone! He has school…”
“This conversation is not helpful,” Eric snapped, and for the first time, he didn’t bother masking his irritation. “I have said it many times, but you refuse to hear me, Älskade, but hear me now!” He stood in front of her and leaned over, purposely crowding her. “Our son is a man. He makes a man’s decisions, Sookie, and a man’s mistakes. You must stop treating him like some child.” Eric growled in frustration, “Don’t you see? Your possessiveness provokes mine. It’s our bond, we are one! This is a dangerous distraction at a time we can’t afford it!”
“But, he’s…” Sookie was going to say, ‘but he’s my baby,’ but before she could finish the words, Eric growled again.
“Men who remain tied to their mothers never become men,” Eric told her. “They don’t have the respect of their peers. They don’t respect themselves. Treat him as an adult, and Rick will step up and give you the respect you wish.”
“Like Hunter?” Sookie snapped. “He didn’t have anyone looking after him and to hear Desmond tell it, he’s become a wild thing.”
“Your nephew led a different life,” and Eric felt his eyes narrow. He was losing his hold on his temper, and that only made it worse. “You do neither of them any credit to compare them!”
His words must have finally registered, because his wife’s aggression fell apart. “I’m not sure I can,” she admitted to him, and he felt her regret.
“You are capable of anything you truly wish, Sookie” Eric assured her. “If you love our son as you say you do, you’ll find the strength. If all else fails, hold your breath.”
She didn’t speak again until they were in the car. “What if she’s Fae?” Sookie asked. She’d floated the possibility shortly after she’d returned from Boston. Eric had quizzed her, and then sent feelers to Tania and others, but nothing had come of it.
“That doesn’t seem likely,” he replied. “Besides, even if she did carry some of the blood, it would mean nothing.”
“Unless she’s one of our enemies,” Sookie pressed.
“The Fae are gone from this world, Lover,” Eric insisted. “If they’d returned, we’d know. Their magic is too great to be concealed. Someone would have noticed.”
“Well, maybe she’s working for someone,” Sookie suggested.
“Working?” and Eric sighed. “You are grasping at straws. Karin vouches for her. She is what she appears.”
“Someone he loves,” Sookie sighed. “And what if she leaves him?” Sookie stared out the window. “I don’t know why this bothers me so much. I just don’t want to see him hurt.”
Eric laid his hand over hers. “It will be all right,” he said quietly. “You will remember that Rick cares for her, and you will be the Queen you are. This Brigid will come to love the clever, beautiful woman I know so well, and she will want to be like you.”
They had arrived and the door to the car opened. There was a line of people waiting for the restaurant and those heads turned as Eric exited. The air around them erupted into the murmur of voices and hissing as Sookie took his hand, unfolding gracefully. Eric could feel her surprise as she saw their supporters bowing. Her reaction was charming. The applause followed, and those who shouted, “It’s them!” and “Long Live the Queen!” flustered his wife further.
“You see, Älskade,” he whispered to her. “Even these people recognize the greatness I see in you.”
Tonight’s display was more pronounced than any they’d received before. Eric suspected the television exposure had finally done its job. It had been growing for some time. Following their appearance at the Krewe of Boo parade, their appearance at a restaurant or on the streets of New Orleans had resulted in a few openly staring and occasionally a bow. The Krampus parade and its publicity had their Palace tour trade bustling, but the Vampire Ball had clearly taken things to a whole new level. Eric was pleased to see the diners rise to their feet as they entered the restaurant. There were low bows and a smattering of applause. ‘The King!’ someone whispered across the room, and closer, a vampire Eric didn’t recognize said ‘Majesties!’ as he folded neatly in half.
The Maître D’ was beaming as he ushered them through the room and toward the corner table.
“Thank you!” a female vampire said, stepping in front of them, interrupting their progress. Eric leaned forward, suspecting a trap, but relaxed when she bowed low to Sookie. “You have made this City a place where our kind can walk in peace.” She bowed even lower, “I no longer fear the day. You have shown us we can live in this world as equals, Majesty.”
“Well, thank you,” his mate stammered. He could feel her embarrassment. It was as close as she came to blushing and Eric savored it. “Enjoy your dinner,” Sookie told the woman.
“Can I introduce you to my friends?” the vampire asked, and Eric and Sookie soon found themselves meeting the woman’s companions. That gave other diners the courage to introduce themselves, and it was almost ten minutes before Eric and Sookie arrived at the table where Rick and Brigid were standing, waiting for them.
Eric couldn’t help admiring his son. His face was at once familiar and not. As they approached, Rick leaned over to whisper to the woman beside him. She was nibbling at her thumb, but she dropped it as she met Eric’s gaze. She looked like her pictures, except in one respect. Eric noted that while her face was young, her eyes were not. “You must be Brigid,” he said, using his warmest tones. He could feel Sookie’s sharp spike through their bond and he almost cut off his end. Knowing it wouldn’t help, he turned to Rick instead.
“Son,” he greeted, opening his arms, inviting his son to step within his embrace. Rick hesitated, but then he went along and Eric welcomed the feel of Rick’s arms. Eric turned halfway, leaving Rick facing Sookie before releasing him. It was neatly done and Sookie was too busy hugging Rick to observe Eric lift Brigid’s hand to his lips. “You are most welcome here,” he told the young woman, trying to make her feel at ease.
“Thank you,” Brigid answered. She had that slightly dazed look most females gave him, and then he stepped back before Sookie could see the effect he had on Brigid and feel jealousy for another reason.
“Please,” he said, and pulled out Brigid’s chair. Rick was doing the same for his Mother. So far Sookie was doing well, but Eric made certain to run his hand across Sookie’s shoulder as he passed, smiling and pushing his wife reassurance.
“How was your trip down?” Sookie asked as she dropped her napkin into her lap.
Rick glanced around them. “It was fine.” He grimaced, “Do you really like living this way? It’s like being in a fishbowl.”
Eric frowned. While most of his son’s features were his own, his expressions seemed entirely his Mother’s, and that frown was the one she wore when the voices in her head had become overwhelming. “I will ask for a private room,” he said, and looked over his shoulder.
“It’s okay!” Rick protested. “We’re here. We don’t need to make a scene.”
Rick was staring and Eric knew what his son was telling him. He’d read his Father’s thoughts. Eric knew now wasn’t the time, but he thought it anyway. ‘What a magnificent asset you would be!’ and was rewarded by another quick frown. To cut off any protest Rick might make, Eric said, “I will admit I hadn’t anticipated how quickly our popularity would grow. I suspect that many here hadn’t realized we claimed another child, but now they see you with us and you’ve sparked their interest.”
Sookie glanced his way and as if picking up his cue, added, “I’m sure when they realize this is a family gathering, they’ll return to their own conversations and give us our privacy, Rick.” The words, which were heard perfectly well by every vampire in the room, had the desired effect, and the level of noise from other conversations started to grow.
“It must be interesting, being so recognizable,” Brigid said pleasantly.
“It is a relatively new phenomena,” Eric replied. “It serves its purpose. Vampire tourism in the City is doing well. Since vampires own most of the businesses that cater to vampires, that’s good for those who live here. Just because we’re vampires, it doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned about doing well economically.”
“It’s because more money in a vampire’s pocket translates to more money in your own,” Rick chuckled. It wasn’t a particularly respectful thing to say, and Eric saw Sookie’s mouth fall open as Rick turned to Brigid and said, “It’s that tithe thing I told you about.”
“Isn’t that like asking people to be taxed twice?” Brigid asked Eric.
“We do pay human taxes, too,” Eric confirmed, ”but tithes pay for additional services.”
“Protection,” Rick huffed, using a tone that made it sound more like strong-arming than what it was.
Eric softened his smile before addressing himself to Brigid. “It must seem strange to you, Brigid, this idea that although we look like you, we are still different beings, with different… Concerns.”
“Of course, you wouldn’t understand that. Rick isn’t like other vampires,” Sookie added. Eric knew his wife was trying to be helpful, but her words seemed to prick some part of Rick’s pride.
“I’m just as vampire as anyone else!” his son snapped.
Eric didn’t need telepathy to recognize the spark that threatened to lead to an argument between his wife and child in this public place. “You are vampire, Rick,” he said, letting steel creep into his tone. “And you aren’t. You are well aware of your differences, my son, and if you are determined to educate your mate about our kind, you need to tell her all she needs to know,” and he followed it by thinking, ‘including how you can and do read her mind.’ Eric was rewarded by that quick eye shift from Rick that let him know he’d knocked Rick back a bit.
It was enough, and Eric smiled broadly, “But, this evening is about us getting to know your lovely companion, and her,” and he deliberately lifted Sookie’s hand, brushing his lips across the back of it, “getting to know us.”
Rick settled and Sookie smiled warmly. Brigid seemed oblivious to the storm they had so narrowly missed. She swallowed before mentioning, “Rick says you are a thousand years old.”
It was such a common question, and never failed to amuse him. “Older,” he grinned at her. “I think it’s what attracted my Sookie to me.” He gave Rick a teasing look, “I believe your Mother has a thing for older men.”
“It wasn’t that at all,” and Sookie laughed. “When I first saw you, I didn’t like you at all! You were acting so superior and looking at everyone around you like they were dirt,” and then his Sookie’s eyes warmed. “But then I sassed you and it didn’t make you mad. You laughed!”
“My angel in her white dress,” and Eric poured his love through their bond. Sookie’s lips curved and she was as he would always see her, her chin lifted, her eyes sparking, his warrior wife. Rick cleared his throat, bringing Eric back. “You must forgive us,” Eric told Brigid.
“Nothing to forgive,” the young woman said and Eric saw her approval. It meant nothing, but it meant enough.
The waiter came and orders were taken. Rick and his woman ordered seafood. The blood brought for he and Sookie was the best Royalty and their conversation went well enough. Brigid shared a story about her family that made Eric decide to do more digging. For her part, Sookie was able to hold her own. When she’d returned from Boston, his wife complained about the amount of petting the couple had shown at Fran’s, but they didn’t touch each other much tonight. Perhaps it was being in a restaurant, or perhaps it was his presence. As dessert was served, Sookie asked Brigid, “Do you have your dress for the Ball?”
“I do,” Brigid nodded. “It’s a black lace number, tea length. I got it for graduation last year. I figured it would do.”
“Well, I’m sure we can get you something more appropriate,” Sookie replied.
Eric was sure it wasn’t meant the way Rick took it, but his son leaped to his woman’s defense. “I’ve seen the dress, Mom. It’s perfectly fine.”
“It’s just everyone else will have new clothes,” Sookie said a little more sharply than was necessary.
“It’s okay,” Brigid stammered.
“It’s not,” Rick snapped.
“Would you have any objection to our buying you a new dress?” Eric asked Brigid. When Rick opened his mouth to protest, Eric held up his hand, and his son knew enough to hesitate. “My daughter, Karin, arrives this evening. She also needs to find a new dress. You know Karin. You met her in Chester, I believe.”
“I did,” Brigid nodded. She was looking at Rick, hovering between being polite and looking as if she was siding against her lover.
Eric sighed. He fixed Rick with a hard stare. “It is clear my son thinks enough of you to educate you to our ways, but as any new vampire can tell you, learning all our customs can take years. It’s possible he has not told you about our acute sense of smell. Because we detect our environments as we do, any time we gather in numbers we make an effort to wear new clothes. It’s considered a matter of courtesy.”
Rick was still looking rebellious, but Sookie leaned toward Rick, touching his hand to emphasize her words. “It’s true, Rick. I didn’t realize it either. When I was still human, I’d fight every time your Father insisted I buy new clothes, but now I understand it. It wasn’t about buying me. It was about neutralizing the odors clothes pick up.”
“It would be our pleasure to buy you a new dress,” Eric pressed Brigid. He glanced toward Sookie, “My wife and my other daughter, Pam, have already made their selections. I could offer their company for your shopping trip, but I suspect Karin’s sense of fashion might suit you better.”
The explanation had done the trick and Rick’s sense of humor had returned. “My Father’s right about that. Pam’s all about pink and fluffy, and you can see how Mom leans toward girly. Karin’s more New York. She likes the basics with an edge.”
“That would be most kind,” Brigid smiled, “but I have money.”
“Not at all,” Sookie announced. “We’re asking it, so consider it a gift. So, that’s settled!” and Sookie turned back to Rick. “As for you, the tailor will be at the Palace tomorrow evening. Hunter will be having adjustments made, too. Your suit is already basted, but you look as if you’re shoulders have gotten broader.”
“Vampires notice details,” Eric told Brigid, giving her his best grin. “We are terrible gossips, and combined with our age, it makes us focus on the most trivial things.”
“Whose hair was a touch out of place, who missed a hanging thread,” Sookie laughed.
“Whatever for?” Brigid asked.
“Weaknesses,” Eric shrugged. “A vampire who doesn’t pay attention to details, particularly at important functions, is vulnerable.”
“Hunting instincts,” Sookie shrugged.
“It sounds… difficult,” Brigid said quietly.
“We all learn,” Sookie said a touch defensively.
“There will be a number of rulers attending,” Eric said, diverting the conversation back to safe ground.
“Rulers?” Brigid asked, glancing at Rick.
“Stan Davis, of course,” Sookie said, directing her remarks to Rick. “You haven’t met him, but you’ve heard me mention him.”
“Russell Edgington,” Eric added. “He rules Mississippi. He’s among the oldest of our kind and has been a King longer than any of us.”
“Isaiah declined,” Sookie informed Rick, then turning to Brigid, said, “He’s the King of Kentucky.”
“We will go through protocol tomorrow night,” Eric told Rick. When Brigid’s eyes opened a little wider, he smiled for her benefit again. “You will be included, of course. It’s nothing too complicated, bowing, titles.”
“Thalia’s looking forward to it,” Sookie smirked.
“You’ll like Thalia,” Rick told Brigid.
“Of course, there will be humans at the Ball as well. The Mayor, the Governor,” Eric grinned.
“Our Senator,” Sookie grinned back. “I never would have thought it. Everyone wanted an invitation.”
“There were even forgeries floating around the City, but there is a list of names at the door,” and Eric laughed. “A hundred years ago we were reviled, hunted, and now attending our Ball is the most desired event of the season!” It was hard not to feel his triumph. For some reason, Eric thought of Appius and how he would have viewed this turn of events, and in the next instant, Eric could almost feel the crack of his Maker’s fist, knocking him down. He was pulled from his thoughts by Rick’s quick gasp. His eyes flicked to his son’s, but then Rick just as quickly turned his attention back to his Mother and Brigid. It was enough to make Eric resolve to talk with Rick about eavesdropping.
“How are you liking the apartment?” Sookie was asking Brigid.
“Was it really Aunt Haley’s?” Rick asked.
“A long time ago,” Sookie nodded. “I’d imagine Hunter’s been by to see it.”
“Today,” Rick nodded. “We went down the street to the Square and hung out. We figured we’d go back tomorrow once Peter gets here.”
“I’ve never seen so many performers,” Brigid grinned. “And the music!”
“I don’t like the idea of the two of you wandering around the City without a guard,” Sookie told them. “I know it looks like one big party but it pays to be safe.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Eric assured her.
“Hey, I didn’t agree to that! We don’t need guard.” Rick protested.
“You’ve seen all the people in town,” Sookie answered. “It’s not just the usual crowds, Rick. There’s a number of vampires who’ve come this year. We just told you about Mississippi and Texas, and they’ve brought their retinues.”
“Besides, having a guard here in New Orleans is more about show than protection,” Eric added. “As my progeny, it’s expected.”
“I didn’t see any guards following Hunter!” Rick pressed.
Sookie glanced at Eric before sighing, “Well, he had one and if he’s given him the slip, there’ll be trouble.”
Eric stared at Rick until he had his son’s attention. “I’ll be notifying the local Packmaster. It seems Hunter has the Stackhouse habit of causing trouble for others.” Eric waited until he was sure his son understood him. When Rick first arrived at the Palace, he made a habit of slipping away from guards. It led to one of the Weres being punished. Eric took Rick, forcing him to watch, and Eric was pleased to see from Rick’s slow flush the lesson was remembered. “For Brigid,” Eric pressed.
“You don’t have to go to any trouble for me,” Brigid protested.
“That would be fine,” Rick answered and the matter was settled.
“So, dress shopping tomorrow night, and the ball is the night after,” Sookie smiled. “That leaves four whole nights! We’ll be having a jazz night and then…”
“We’re going to head up to Bon Temps,” Rick interrupted. “Hunter’s coming with us. We’re going to stay at the old homestead for a couple days.”
“But, you only just got here,” Sookie said, and Eric felt her quick hurt.
Eric took his wife’s hand, pressing her to look at him. “We have our duties to our guests, Lover. There is the small reception tomorrow night, but there will be meetings with both Texas and Mississippi after the Ball.” Eric glanced toward Rick, “You have often said Rick should concentrate on his studies. His attending these meetings would suggest to our guests he’s more in our world than you might wish.”
“We’ll stop here before we head back,” Rick added. “You know you’re busy, Mom! Besides, I want to show Brigid where you grew up.”
“I suppose you’ll be joining your friend, George, up there? “Sookie was trying but Eric could feel her disappointment.
“George?” and Rick shook his head. “George’s break isn’t until next week.”
Eric started to do some quick planning. “Do you intend to stay at your Mother’s house or in Shreveport?” he asked.
“I figured we could all stay at the house,” Rick shrugged. “The utilities were on and there’s two bedrooms. We figured we’d pick up some groceries and hang out. That front porch is really great and Hunter wants to go over to Fangtasia at least one night.”
“Why does he want to go there?” Sookie asked.
“I told Hunter about that picture of you behind the bar, the one with the hex sign over it,” Rick shrugged.
Eric laughed, “Vampires don’t forget, Sookie!” He turned to Brigid, explaining, “The bartenders there believe my Queen brings death.”
Sookie eyerolled, “It’s really unfair. I didn’t cause any of those deaths on purpose!”
“No, Lover, but somehow it seemed to happen all the same.” Eric turned his mind to the problem at hand. Having Rick and Hunter out of the way for a few days solved a number of problems, but it caused some others, not the least of which was making sure they were protected. “I can’t send Pam or Thalia with you,” he said aloud. “They will be busy over the next week between negotiations and keeping the peace.”
“Just as well,” Sookie growled. “Having Pam and Hunter together is trouble.”
“They play pranks on each other,” Rick explained to Brigid.
“The last one had us cleaning up water for hours,” and Sookie frowned. “It’s so damp here anyway. His rooms still smell moldy.”
“Karin will be returning with Peter to Chester immediately after the Ball,” Eric continued.
“What does she do for Tania?” Rick asked his Father.
“Why don’t you ask her?” Eric replied. Eric wasn’t pleased about the arrangement between New England’s Queen and his daughter. There were only so many lives an assassin could burn through, and Tania’s desire for money seemed endless. She had Karin on assignment as many weeks as she was home.
“I’ll contact Mustapha Khan,” Eric decided. “You remember him, Rick,” and grinning at Brigid, he winked. “I assure you, the Packmaster certainly remembers Rick.”
Rick broke out in a great grin. “He’s a great guy,” Rick told Brigid. “You’ll like his partner, Warren, too. He does breakfast better than Peter.”
“There’s the nights out there, Eric,” Sookie said softly. “All those trees, and now Compton’s ground.”
“I’ll ask Rubio for a recommendation. He will have someone who can monitor the tree line,” and Eric pulled out his phone.
“I wish I could come with you,” Sookie told Rick.
It has been many years since we visited that house.” Eric spoke directly to Sookie. He had been wondering when he would get this opening. Many years ago, before Rick and Oklahoma, Niall, the Prince of the Sky Fae told Eric that he blessed the house and the land at Hummingbird Lane. There were times Eric believed that the reason Sookie survived rising without a Maker was because she was made there. Now, as he watched his wife’s struggles, he wondered if being exposed to her kin’s blessing would help. “Perhaps once our guests leave we could spend a week there,” he told her. “There are so many places in that house that hold pleasant memories. You could bring your books. We could have a fire.”
“I’d like to say hi to my Gran.” Sookie was smiling, but Eric felt the sadness lying below the surface.
Eric took her hand, stroking her palm. “It’s time to replace some memories with others Älskade,” he said softly.
“I don’t think you’ll like that little hidey hole any better than before,” Sookie teased.
“We’ll have to make some arrangements, Lover, since I’m sure you won’t like it at all,” Eric teased.
“That’s right,” and Sookie looked away. “I won’t be sleeping in Gran’s bed again. I forgot.”
“I’ll send you back pictures,” Rick promised.
Eric kept his eyes on Sookie another moment longer before turning back to their son. “You can do better than that. Talk to Mustapha while you’re up there. I want work done. The house needs to be made light tight. Tell him I don’t wish the character changed, but it needs to be able to accommodate us. Can you do that?”
“Sure,” and Rick grinned at his Mother.
“Eric,” Sookie cautioned, “I don’t think it’s fair to ask these young people to spend their vacation doing errands.”
“It would be our pleasure,” Brigid glanced at Rick before adding, “Our way of saying thank you for hosting us.”
“Mustapha will know who can be trusted. Tell him I want the work started at once. It will take a couple days to arrange contractors, but you may have to put up with a visitor or two. You’re all right with that?” Eric didn’t really care. He was already anticipating lying in front of the little fireplace, reliving memories with his wife.
Eric rose, “Come, Sookie,” and he held his hand out for her.
“Don’t we have to wait for the check?” Rick asked.
“Not here,” and Sookie winked. “This is one of your Father’s restaurants.”
“You’re kidding!” and Rick looked around. “I didn’t know you were into restaurants.”
“I have holdings in a number of ventures,” Eric replied.
“I…” and Rick looked embarrassed. “I guess I don’t know a lot about you.”
“Then, we should make time to change that,” Eric found himself saying, and in that moment, he knew he meant it.