In the days that followed Pam would ask Eric why he hadn’t questioned the nature of the contract transgression with Angie. When he reflected he realized that his failure to ask such a fundamental question spoke to the depth of his depression more eloquently than any other thing. She asked him if he had known that the transgression involved the agreement about Sookie Stackhouse, would he have made a different decision? Would he have turned down the regency?
If Eric was honest with himself, he would admit that even had he known all the facts that night he would have still chosen Oklahoma over returning to Louisiana and the telepath. But he also admitted that knowing would have been better.
The feeling Eric most vividly remembered from his conversation with Angie was the sense of having a great yoke lifted from his neck.
The chain of his maker’s command when he was first made vampire was heavy and harsh. Appius Livius Ocella had been a stern and demanding task master. He had enforced a particular code that fit the times from which he sprang. It never occurred to him that anyone: humans, Weres or his own progeny were there for any other purpose than to serve his needs. He was oldest. It was his right to be revered. As his child it had fallen to Eric to cater to his maker’s every need. It had taken many years to not feel the revulsion that had first accompanied his new role as his master’s primary sexual partner. As he had told Sookie Stackhouse so many years ago he had come to appreciate that form of sexual pleasure but it had not been at first.
Appius had felt the need to inflict humiliation as a teaching tool. When Appius felt Eric was not sufficiently eager to please him or when he was short of funds, Appius would sell Eric’s body to others to use. Sometimes the job assigned was as a common laborer, but more often it was as a whore. While Eric was a great fighter, Appius preferred not to have Eric use that skill for money. There was too great a risk of being found out as vampire were he to be injured. Appius presented Eric as a slave and treated him accordingly.
What struck Eric and stayed with him was his sense that this second time of imprisonment; this forced contract had been more personally painful to him than his time with Appius. If Eric had to put his finger on it, it was that with Appius he had no choice. He was compelled to obey by forces outside himself. Additionally, Appius was cruel but he never pretended Eric had no value.
This contract with Oklahoma was a chain of his own forging. His sense of honor; a code that stretched back to his human life required that he uphold his promise and the promise of his maker. That was difficult. But it was Freyda’s lack of respect for him that made the situation beyond bearing. Freyda had forced him to be useless. He was relegated to being a fixture at her back. Everything that he valued about himself; all the knowledge and cunning of a life lived was counted as nothing by her. He amused himself with reading and with arms practice. His days stretched endlessly before him and within the first year he could feel the walls closing in around him. “Yes,” he thought to himself. “I would have done anything to have escaped this prison.”
King Felipe de Castro arrived in a procession of black cars and a sweep of his cape. He made an impressive figure striding down the length of the throne room. Freyda rose from her throne and walked forward to meet him. They bowed deeply to each other near the middle of the room.
“Your Majesty!” Freyda gushed.
“Your Highness!” he returned.
She turned and they both walked together to the dais where there were two thrones set side by side.
“Oh, we have so many wonderful things planned for all of us. This is going to be the best visit. Felipe, it has been just too long!” Freyda fluttered her eyelashes at her fellow monarch.
“You are so right my dear one. Angie tells me that there is a dinner planned for tomorrow night to be followed with a ball? “
“Yes and the theme is Casablanca! Angie thought of it. We’ll all wear those wonderful clothes and the ball room will look just like Rick’s Café American. They are already working on it!”
Felipe smiled. “Well, you must allow me to be Rick. Will you be my lovely Ilsa?” Freyda laughed and nodded.
They were at the dais and mounting the broad step to the thrones. Eric had remained at his station behind the Queen’s chair.
“Northman.” Felipe acknowledged.
“Your Majesty,” Eric replied and bowed, though not low as was befitting a consort.
“You must be treating him well Freyda. The Viking looks good.” Freyda smiled tightly at the king.
“Yes. We try.” She cut her eyes at her husband. She waited for him to say something embarrassing. But it didn’t come.
“Well Northman. If I am to be Rick to your lovely wife’s Ilsa at the ball tomorrow, then you must be Victor Laszlo.”
Eric smiled. “Ah, the freedom fighter. It will be my pleasure.” Freyda started. The smile on Eric’s face was the first she could remember seeing in some time.
“Yes, Eric. It will be fun.” She looked unsure, but then looked pleased. Eric checked himself. If he were to act too far from character she could become suspicious. But the right amount of thawing could distract her until it was too late.
They continued by the thrones and proceeded to the antechamber that was located behind the dais. The room was more informal. Freyda retrieved a goblet of Royalty Blended from a nearby tray for her guest. “Of course I have donors on call; all blood types if you prefer.”
Felipe waved her off. “Soon. But for now I just want to sit with you and catch up on all the news.”
The evening passed quickly. There was small talk of the casinos and the flap over using the harbors near New Orleans. Freyda shared the local gossip of Oklahoma City and the things she and Angie had done during the previous week. Felipe was surprised at how small her view of the world had become. “Yes,” he thought. “Just as well that she be replaced.”
The next evening the whole palace was ablaze. Special guests arrived dressed like 1940s movie stars. They were attending the formal dinner. Freyda had hired chefs from two of the most prestigious restaurants in the city. The table gleamed with platinum wear, china and crystal. There was background music piped low to create ambiance. Candle light and flowers decorated every surface. Freyda wore a lovely long gown with a stole that draped dramatically from her shoulders. Felipe and Eric were both in white dinner jackets. Horst had dressed like Louis Renault although someone was heard to remark he looked more like Major Strasser. Angie came as Yvonne and the entire staff wore the fez hats featured in the film.
Once dinner concluded the entire party retired to the ballroom. Those who had not rated the dinner invitation were arriving for the ball. Freyda and Felipe stood at the door to formally receive their guests. While there were a number of vampires and some two –natured but the majority of guests were the Who’s Who of Oklahoma human society. There was even a House representative and his wife. Eric stood beside Freyda. Freyda was willing to shake hands and had worn gloves especially for the occasion. Felipe and Eric nodded.
The room was set up around a large dance floor. Round tables shone with white table cloths. Table size had been kept to no more than six guests apiece to maintain the café feel. There were casino games to one end and each guest was supplied with a stack of chips. Extra chips were available with all proceeds going to support the local children’s hospital. There was a swing band playing. They were followed by a torch singer and then an ensemble. All the music was drawn from tunes that had been popular during World War II in Paris and New York.
Once the reception line was finished, Felipe and Freyda entered the ballroom. The band struck up a sentimental waltz and the monarchs led the first dance. Then the band played “As Time Goes By.” Felipe held his hand out to Angie and she glided into his arms. “Dance with your wife,” Felipe said to Eric. Eric pulled himself up and, without making eye contact, held his hand out to Freyda.
Freyda was stunned. Eric had never offered to dance with her before. She almost didn’t know what to do and then she reached for his hand and he swept her onto the floor. The smile on her face trembled. To anyone looking they appeared to be a couple deeply in love. During the song he turned his face toward hers. “You did a nice job. The room looks lovely.”
Freyda gasped and then stammered, “Thank you.” A broad smile lit her face. She almost looked lovely. Eric couldn’t wait for her to be dead.
As the evening progressed, the Nevada and Oklahoma groups started quoting lines from the movie. Horst turned to Eric and said, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” to which Eric replied, “You know how you sound? Like a man who’s convincing himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.”
Angie teased Freyda that she needed to make sure that they all caught the plane to Lisbon; “the last plane.” Freyda quipped that it didn’t take much to see that the problems of little people like themselves “didn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Eric looked directly at her and finished the line. “Someday you’ll understand that.” Freyda beamed. She didn’t see Felipe and Horst exchange glances.
Freyda danced all evening. Eric circulated and appeared more animated than she had ever seen him. Finally their guests were leaving. It was nearing dawn and Freyda excused herself to head to her rooms. She looked at Eric, half hoping but clearly too afraid to ask. Felipe spoke up, “I apologize for keeping your husband. I hope you won’t mind if we wind down together. It has been some time since I have seen Eric and I find I wish to reminisce. Will you forgive me?”
Freyda was so happy. She and Eric had danced twice. He had danced with other guests and chatted a few times. She hoped that this was a turning point for them and she didn’t want to spoil it. “Oh, of course. Well, don’t forget we are taking a sleigh ride tomorrow right after dark.”
“Of course I won’t forget. It was lovely Freyda. A triumph.” And Felipe bowed. Freyda bowed in return and left.
Felipe turned to Eric and lifted his brow. Eric indicated the direction with the sweep of his hand. “This way, Majesty.”
“Oh, Eric! Please call me Felipe!”
The men went to Felipe’s room. Horst had swept it earlier for bugs. Felipe settled back on the loveseat and gestured toward the matching armchair.
“You played your part well tonight, Eric. Angie tells me that you are prepared.”
“I have agreed Majesty, but I have terms.”
Felipe lifted his brows then waved his hand, indicating that the man opposite him should continue.
Eric leaned forward. “I don’t believe you will find these terms difficult. In fact they are probably trifles you had already considered suggesting.” Felipe stayed silent. The Viking continued. “I would like to call my child Karin back from Europe. I would like her to function as my second. I don’t trust the Oklahoma vampires and I can’t fix what is broken here if I am busy watching my back. Of course, she will report to Nevada first and swear her fealty to you in person.” Felipe nodded. This was not a surprise. “I would like to bring Sandy Seacrest to Oklahoma for a period of time. She will be able to assist me in straightening out the spider’s web of accounting. It is my opinion that most of the people Freyda has involved in her finances will need to be replaced. Sandy will bring a good head and will be able to keep you abreast of progress.”
Felipe leaned back. This was a bold request and one that engendered a confidence in the Viking’s dealings. Felipe smiled. “Agreed. I can have her here next week.”
“I want to be able to re-open communications with Pamela.”
Felipe flipped his hand. “That goes without saying. You are both my subjects. Why would I object to my key people talking?” Eric nodded.
“Anything more?” Felipe looked quizzically at the Viking. The list was short. He had expected more interesting demands.
Eric shook his head. “No. I am satisfied with the arrangement.”
Felipe picked at the slub in the couch fabric. “Do you want to know how your Queen broke the contract? What she did that placed her in such peril?”
Eric realized with some surprise that he really didn’t care. “If you choose to provide me with that information, I am happy to hear it. Your word is enough Majesty.” And Eric bowed his head.
“So subservient. You must have been truly unhappy here Viking.” Felipe smiled. “I will tell you. I captured Sam Merlotte. He was on his way here to collect his reward for damaging the telepath, Sookie Stackhouse. Your Queen had been paying him for some time; perhaps before he and the telepath were even married.”
Eric knew he shouldn’t have cared, but his fangs had descended without conscious thought. He looked at the king, his face fierce.
Felipe continued. “Yes, I was outraged as well. I myself personally guaranteed her safety on more than one occasion. She had done me several good deeds. Thankfully your Pam was able to rescue her before he burned her alive. “Felipe shifted on the couch again. “All would have been well, but your Miss Stackhouse is such trouble. She managed to get herself kidnapped. I only recently found out that she is a guest at Sanctum. You know it?”
Eric nodded. His mind was racing. Sanctum was a place for those who had been damaged; mentally damaged. The mistress of the place had to personally approve every guest. There was money involved; a lot of money. Guests needed sponsors. What had happened to put her there? What had Sam Merlotte done? “Merlotte lives?”
“Why yes. For now.” Felipe leaned back. “Of course if you wish to punish him in some way; perhaps revenge for your former wife?”
Eric forced himself to lean back and retract his fangs. “No. She is no longer mine.”
“Aah. I had hoped you might wish him. It would make asking this favor so much easier.”
Eric felt himself go on alert. He had been worried that there would be some sort of catch. “What would you ask of me Majesty?”
Felipe looked at Eric, a smile playing on his lips. “I want you to fetch my telepath back to my kingdom. I don’t know exactly who has her allegiance now but I suspect it is the Kings Edgington and Crowe. It was Thalia who took her, along with that fool Bubba. Thalia now serves the two kings. “Felipe leaned forward and placed his hand on Eric’s knee. “I want you to remind Miss Stackhouse of her home and all those who love her. I want you to convince her to return to Louisiana.”
“What makes you think that she will even see me?” Eric asked.
Felipe smiled. “I know because I have a message from Pam. Sanctum contacted her. They will want her to visit to help the telepath recover. And they asked specifically about having you come. Why do you think they would do that?”
Eric looked away. “Because we were lovers. Because…”
“Yes, because you were bonded and married. All the more reason she should listen to you.”
Eric still couldn’t meet the eyes of the king. “I would prefer to send Karin or Pam in my stead. She was friends with both. She would listen to them.”
“Northman, I am trusting you with this job. Surely, it is not too much to ask in exchange for a regency.”
Eric bowed his head. “Yes, Majesty.”
The next night the party assembled for a night sleigh ride. It was unusual to have snow in that part of Oklahoma so early in the year and the party decided to take advantage of it. The new moon was hanging in the sky and the snow had a hard crust. The bells sounded sharp in the cold air. The sleds flew. Eric remembered racing sledges behind tough little ponies across frozen fjords in another time. When they reached the far end of the long field, they turned around to view the house. The horses’ breath came out in vapor clouds. The stars were bright and hard. Eric knew that while they were away the Oklahoma vampires in the palace were being herded into the ballroom. They would await the return of their party and face a choice. They would switch their allegiance or die. Thankfully there were few who stayed with them full time. They would not be missed.
Now Felipe flicked his whip and the horses started back. Eric slapped the reins on his team and they were racing again back toward the lights. When they pulled up to the driveway, Horst was waiting for them. Eric helped Freyda from the sled and handed her to Horst. Horst immediately drew her to him and placed his arm around her neck. Eric could see that in that instant she realized her danger. She looked from face to face.
“No! No!” she cried. Horst dragged her, hissing and screaming to the ballroom. There he twisted her arm until she fell to her knees.
Felipe walked to the doorway and faced the assembled group. Angie announced, ”Felipe de Castro is your new king. Pledge fealty or meet your death.” Every Oklahoma vampire pledged fealty. Eric wasn’t surprised. No one would choose death for Freyda.
Then Felipe announced, “Eric Northman will serve here as my representative. He is my regent for Oklahoma.”
Freyda suddenly found her backbone. She swore at them. She called them every foul name she could think to scream. She twisted until Horst grabbed her hair with one hand and her neck with the other. “You will stay still or I will twist your head off,” he hissed.
“Well Eric,” Felipe turned to Northman. He had a stake in his hand. “Would you like to do the honors?”
Eric looked at the stake, then at the king. “No majesty. It would mean I would have to touch her. That is something that I don’t ever want to have to do again.”
Felipe nodded. “Yes. To touch something so dishonorable is to sully oneself. Horst?” He tossed Horst the stake. Horst loosed the Queen’s throat, grabbed the stake from the air and stabbed her through the breast in one smooth motion.
The Queen of Oklahoma was no more.
“Rusty?” Bartlett walked into the bedroom. “Can you come out here? You will want to see this.”
Russell got out of bed and grabbed his robe. Bartlett had a local news station that was streaming over the internet on the flat screen in their sitting room.
The newscaster repeated the news. “Again, we report that socialite and businesswoman Freyda Northman has been killed. She was reportedly sleigh riding with her husband and friends and was thrown from the sleigh. The police are ruling it an accident.” There was footage of Eric Northman looking downcast. Felipe De Castro and Angie were standing behind him.
Russell picked up his phone and started dialing. He reached Stan almost immediately.
“You must be calling about Oklahoma.” It wasn’t said as a question.
“Yes. I’m seeing the news. Freyda’s dead? And I’m seeing De Castro.”
“It’s a takeover. Oklahoma is his now. And he’s appointed Eric Northman as regent.”
Bartlett met Russell’s eyes.
“Thank you Stan,” Russell said and disconnected. He sat down heavily. Bartlett sat on the arm of the chair and draped his arm around the other monarch’s shoulders.
“Well Rusty, what does it mean?”
Russell looked up into Bartlett’s eyes. “It means that we start again.”