NOTE: Thank you to The Writers Coffee Shop (TWCS) Library for selecting this story as one of their Featured Stories for the week.
And thank you to Breathesgirl, my wonderful beta reader and so much more.
The noise as Eric and his group walked into the warehouse was deafening. The volume rose and fell until it seemed like a creature unto itself. Lights had been strung along girders and focused on the cage in the middle of the room. There were bleachers set back but all along the wire people were already pressed in; a mosh pit of humans and supernaturals. Eric slowly turned his head, sweeping the area looking for familiar faces. He spotted Sandy Seacrest seated high and to the right and headed in her direction. Pam and Karin trailed him closely. Eric had been pushing comfort towards Pam since the king’s conference. He could feel her anxiety.
If de Castro meant to follow through with this threat to force Pam into a marriage there was little Eric could do. Of course the king would need Eric’s permission as her maker to bind her legally to another, but Eric was a sworn vassal of the king. He could hardly deny the king a reasonable request. Making a sheriff a royal consort would not be viewed as a hardship by anyone. Never mind that Alabama was venal and vicious, she was still a Queen. That was what counted.
Eric eyed the cameras that were packed along two sides of the bleachers. The publicity he himself had arranged was now making this latest venture a success. Eric couldn’t ignore the irony. He found himself looking for Twy. He thought he saw her rat’s nest bobbing at the far end of the building and hoped that she wouldn’t see him right away. The publicist was to stay for the Summit’s closing ball and then would return to New York on the red eye.
‘I need to think,’ he said to himself for the hundredth time. ‘I need an angle to work.’ But he seemed to be out of angles. Every idea ended up at the same dead end. He had pledged himself to Felipe de Castro. He had given his oath. If he rebelled without justification he would never be trusted in the vampire community again. He would be hauled before an Assizes court and placed before a magister as an oath breaker. He would meet his final death or worse. Karin, Pam, Sookie… all would be in danger and he would be without connections; without friends to help them.
He found himself thinking of his Sookie. He remembered her face in that moment when her eyes had opened at Sanctum; that moment she had lifted her hand and taken him in again. If he was to meet his defeat here; if De Castro was to find a way to finally kill him he knew that at least she would be saved.
Eric knew of the fae Summerlands. Niall had described them once as just another dimension. “It is a place between worlds, like here. But unlike fairy it is a one-way portal. It is not an unhappy place. Souls travel there and find their rest.” The conversation had been just before Niall had asked Eric to arrange a meeting so the old fairy could speak with his great granddaughter.
‘I will find my way there,’ he thought. ‘If Felipe ends me, I will find my way to the Summerlands. I will await her there. Surely we can’t have found each other only to be forever parted. Fate couldn’t be so cruel.’
Eric felt Karin’s rising concern. He pulled back from his thoughts, squared his shoulders and sent her a wave of warmth. As he turned to her he saw her scowl. ‘Always so angry,’ he thought. It was her fight that made him love her all the more.
Beside him Sandy seemed to rouse. “Can you believe this?” she said and gestured at the scene in front of them. “In sixty days De Castro is going to be bankrupt. I’ve told him he has no liquidity. All his money is tied up and he just keeps spending.” She hissed. “All these years I have served him and his interests, and my reward is to be ridiculed and threatened.” She shook her head, almost vibrating in anger. “I hope he and his bromance enjoy their time in bankruptcy court.”
Eric was astonished. “Is he in such extremes? How can he afford this?”
Sandy looked at him, her face set with anger. “He can’t. But he won’t listen to me.” Then she looked down at her hands. “But I can see what’s coming. When the checks start to bounce and the screaming starts he’ll hold me up to take the fall.” She whispered almost too low to hear, “I hate him. I wish he’d die.”
Eric shifted so that he could look straight at her. He touched her arm and she met his eyes. “Me too,” he said. Sandy nodded.
Eric turned his head back to the cage. He was so deep in thought that he didn’t realize Twy was approaching until she was almost in front of him. “Do you want to let me know why you didn’t think this was important enough to tell me?” she snarled at him. She was pulled up to her full height and she was so clearly enraged that Eric wondered if she intended to stake him with one of her hair pins. When it was clear that Eric had no idea what she was talking about she waved in back of her and pointed her fingers in Eric’s direction. Chloe scurried forward and handed Eric a tablet. There was a blog site open and on it was a story that had the headline, “Northman’s Ex is Compton’s Shanna!!.” There was an old picture of Sookie in her Merlotte’s waitress uniform. Pam was looking over Eric’s shoulder and started to laugh.
Eric turned to face both Karin and Pam. “Did you know about this?”
Karin looked away. Pam laughed out loud. “I meant to tell you but things have been so busy. I don’t know how anyone made the connection. It’s not like Compton used her real name.”
Karin mumbled, “Or yours.” Eric’s eyebrows rose.
Eric turned back to Twy holding out the tablet. Chloe took it from his hand. Twy towered in front of him her arms crossed and her pointy high heeled boot tapping. She looked down her nose and drawled, “All right, Northman. Who is this Stackhouse woman to you?”
Eric held her eyes. “My wife.”
“His ex-wife,” Karin corrected.
Twy’s gaze never left Eric. She looked at him hard, then he saw her make a connection. Her eyes widened and her mouth relaxed a touch. “So, the story? The book? The villainous Leif? I take it that’s supposed to be you?”
Eric felt his rage roar forward. He held himself back but only with difficulty. “He called me Leif? He used my brother’s name?”
Beside him Sandy started to laugh. “Gods Viking! It’s never dull with you!”
Twy glanced at Chloe who pulled out a notepad. “Well Eric, we need to come up with a cover story. According to the article this woman,” she waved her hand.
“Sookie Stackhouse,” Chloe supplied.
“Yes, Sookie Stackhouse. The story is that she was your common law wife but it was only recognized by some vampire arrangement? Then when you got a better offer from a vampire you dumped her, leaving her all alone to be picked up by some wife beater. Kind of defeats the whole noble knight image we’ve been building here. You think those mommas outside want their screaming little girls running after a bastard like that? I don’t think so! I won’t be able to pay enough to get people to show up. So start talking!”
Pam leaned forward. “It wasn’t like that.” She looked beside her at Eric. He met her eyes and then nodded. Pam stood up and moved down a row to sit beside Eric. She took the tablet from Chloe and started to type ‘The real villain is Felipe de Castro. Eric and Sookie were happy. Felipe saw an opportunity to expand his territory. He was jealous of Eric and he thought that Eric could be a threat. So he sold him to Freyda in marriage. That meant Sookie had to be set aside.”
“Sold him?” Twy said. Pam shook her head and handed Twy the tablet. Twy huffed and then started to type. “What are you talking about? How could he do that? Are you.. ??? Slaves?”
Pam read the question and shook her head. Her fingers flew over the virtual keyboard and then she handed the device back. “We are subjects. Subjects to kings and queens. Felipe is our king. He can order us to do anything and we’re obligated to obey.”
When Twy handed the device back, Eric took it from Pam’s hand. He typed and then handed it to Twy. Sandy was reading over his shoulder and looked at him with sympathy.. “If I hadn’t agreed De Castro would have hurt her. Selling myself to Oklahoma was the price of Sookie’s safety. And now he reaches out to hurt her again.” He looked steadily at Twy. When the publicist looked up, Eric said out loud, “Tomorrow the first order of business is our Assizes court. It’s the legal session where we settle disputes among ourselves. De Castro has filed suit to have Sookie Stackhouse declared an asset of his kingdom. She is in Mississippi outside of his territory. He wants her declared as stolen property and returned to him.”
Pam added, “And if he wins he’ll use her to punish Eric.”
Twy shook her head. “How do you have a person declared as property? What are you people?”
Sandy looked up. “We are vampires. We come from a long time ago and many of us are unable to understand how the world has changed.”
Twy narrowed her eyes. “So Mr. Northman, are you going to ride to her rescue tomorrow?”
Pam answered. “If Eric or any of us makes any move to protest, our king would be within his rights to order our final death for treason.”
Pam nodded. “We would be staked on the spot. No one would move to help us. It’s the accepted penalty.”
“So,” Twy prompted, “Who is going to argue for this woman? Bill Compton? He seems like a putz to me.”
Pam snorted and nodded in agreement. “Mr. Cataliades is her attorney. He will be representing her. Of course she won’t appear herself. It would be too dangerous. The lawyer will argue her case.” Pam shrugged. “It could go either way. There are a growing number of us who are changing our thinking, but most of our magisters are old school. Depending on who sits the bench on this one he or she may see nothing wrong with it.”
“Well,” said Twy. “You may be living in the dark ages, but this is 2015. My people fought hard and long to change this kind of stupidity. And there is no way that I’m going to have all my hard work promoting Eric destroyed for that little fucktard I met last night.” She turned but then stopped at the last minute. She turned back to Eric. “I like you Northman. I don’t know why. You’re as self centered as the rest of them. But don’t think I’m doing this out of the goodness of my heart.” Then Twy leaned over and kissed Pam’s cheek. “So sweet!,” she said. “Don’t worry. I know what to do.” Twy turned, finger waved and stalked away with Chloe in tow.
Eric took Pam’s hand. Karin laid her head on his shoulder. Sandy looked at them and nodded. “You have a good family Northman. I have to believe this will turn out well.” Eric nodded.
The roar of the crowd let them know that the exhibition was about to begin. Eric’s eyes widened. He saw Sonny McMillan stepping forward. That was expected. It was his opponent who was the surprise. Eric hadn’t seen John Quinn in years. He saw that the years had taken their toll. There was a bit of a limp in the man’s walk. He remembered reading that Quinn had almost lost a leg in a cage fight and the healing had been slow. He wondered what could have induced the were tiger to come back. He supposed it was money. He had heard that Quinn had children now.
Beside him Sandy snickered. “Gods, Northman, it’s like a sign. You are just surrounded by mementos of Sookie Stackhouse.” Eric’s eyebrows were raised in a question. “She’s in Compton’s book, she’s on trial, and two of her former lovers are cage fighting tonight. You have to appreciate how fate always seems to pull all things together.”
“What are you talking about,” Eric asked. “I know about Quinn, but I never heard about this McMillan person before this Summit. How does he know Sookie?”
Sandy snorted, “Yeah, another big money spend for no purpose. I don’t know why Merlotte changed his name and his face, but he’s the same money-grubbing snitch he’s always been.”
Karin leaned forward, her fangs descending. “Merlotte? You’re telling me that Sonny McMillan is Sam Merlotte? Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure, “ Sandy said. “I still see every payment that gets cut out of this kingdom. I’ve been cutting checks to that little cocksucker since before the takeover in Louisiana. He’s been on Felipe’s payroll forever.” She looked at Eric. “Both before and after Oklahoma. I want you to know I protested the size of the bonus Felipe sent when Merlotte and Sookie got married but de Castro told me it was worth every penny to have her all tied up where he could get her later.” Eric’s eyes widened and his fangs descended. “And I saw how much it cost for that new face. From what I can see Felipe paid too much.”
Eric breathed through his nose pulling back his anger. He centered himself until he could feel his calm return. Then he turned to Pam.
“You’re free, master” she said.
“We’re free, my child,” he agreed.
When Eric rose on this, the last night of the Summit, he found himself automatically checking for Sookie. He was not surprised to meet silence, but something told him that had she met her end he would have known. He took comfort in that.
The outcome of last night’s combat had the quality of the preordained. McMillan/Merlotte had won. As soon as the results were announced, Eric and his party had left. Twy had given them cover bullying and pushing them toward the door. “You have interviews tomorrow. Busy day. Get moving!” Eric had bowed briefly to Felipe. Horst had hissed in their direction but then schooled his face into pride for the cameras and reporters.
Now as he emerged Twy met him with a large glass of blood in her hand. “I have a donor right here. Why don’t you take him back in your room and get ready? You have one hour and we need to be across the street.” Eric was startled at the way she shoved the man at him. “Oh, and Northman? Make it quick. We have some prepping to do.”
Eric retreated into the room. He made it a point to feed as efficiently as possible. He had started leaning towards male donors. He knew it was being foolish, but somehow it made him feel less like he was betraying Sookie. He knew Sookie understood that vampire was different and that he could not be held to human standards. And yet he felt in some way obligated.
Eric showered again and made himself cum under the hot water. He redressed and walked out to Twy. She gave him a quick once over as she started talking in a staccato fashion. “When they ask you about Sookie Stackhouse you will tell them that she was your wife. You can express some concern about her but you need to cut off any personal questions or questions about today’s hearing. Tell them that it’s personal and that you can’t discuss it. When they ask about the character of Leif, tell them you haven’t read the book but that you understood it to be a work of fiction. Tell them you always thought well of Bill,” she fixed him with a steely eye, “Lie. Lie well. Tell them you are happy for Bill’s success. Use his first name, it makes you seem like you do like him. Tell them you generally don’t read fiction because you prefer reality to make believe.” She started herding him toward the door. “Got it?”
Eric nodded. Karin fell into line behind him and they headed to the elevators.
The walk across the street was different. There were still some women waving tee shirts and screaming for him, but fewer. There was also a new group. They had posters with Sookie’s face and sayings like “Free Sookie Stackhouse,” “Shanna Deserves a Happy Ending,” and “People are not Property.” There were people walking around with petitions wearing Amnesty International buttons. Eric saw at least one poster with Felipe’s face and a big ‘X’ through it. He glanced at Twy. The tall publicist turned toward him, raised one eyebrow and smiled archly. Eric thought it was a particularly scary look for her.
The questions that Eric was asked did follow the script that Twy had provided. He was asked questions about his past relationship with Sookie Stackhouse. He was asked about his current relationship with Sookie. He was asked about his relationship with Bill Compton. He was asked how it felt to be portrayed as a licentious womanizer: That reporter kept referring to him as Leif. There were questions about his role as maker to Pam and Karin. He was asked whether Pam and Karin were really his sex slaves. (Pam had provided a brief and accurate statement about a maker/child relationship and her relationship with Eric in particular).
Then a reporter asked Eric whether he had ever owned slaves. For some reason the question disarmed him. “I am over a thousand years old,” he told them. “My family came from an area now known as Sweden. We were what you call Vikings now. It was a part of our culture to have slaves. They were captives we took in raids. Sometimes they remained slaves but more often they became a part of us; members of our community.” Eric thought back to that time. “I was counted a man then and I had a wife and children. Because my father was a chief I lived in his house. Had I lived to inherit, I would have taken all he had; his home, his holdings and the slaves attached to his household. But I didn’t live. I was turned when I was not yet thirty. So I can tell you that I have never owned slaves, nor would I. Slavery is a thing of a bygone era. It has no place in this time.”
Another reporter called out, “But isn’t it true, Mr. Northman, that there are vampires who do have slaves; blood slaves? Even today?”
Twy stepped forward and headed Eric off. “I’m sorry. That’s all we have time for today. We are due across the street for the start of the Summit’s legal proceedings. Thank you.”
She gathered Eric, Karin and Pam together. They were quickly surrounded by Twy’s entourage and whisked into a waiting elevator. As the doors closed Twy turned to Eric. “That was extraordinarily risky, but you did well. It was a good parting shot and will keep you on the right side of the news, Northman.”
As they exited the building and made their way across the street Eric could see that the temper of those on the street was becoming ugly. There were signs about human trafficking and people were starting to chant. Karin hissed and turned to Eric. “This could turn into a hate mob. We could find ourselves being hunted again if the magister orders her returned.” Eric nodded.
The security at the Mistral doors checked them. Eric had to personally vouch for Twy and Chloe. The rest of her entourage was forced to stay outside the hotel. They headed to the hall and found seats. The room had been set up with many chairs. There was a raised platform with a table at one end of the hall. This is where the magister would sit to hear the arguments. There was a book, a tablet and a large metal ball on the table. The lawyers who would be presenting cases were already present and in the seats of the front row. Eric easily saw Mr. Cataliades. He looked completely relaxed and was leaning back with his hands crossed over his stomach. When the call came everyone in the hall rose as Robert, King of California, came forward. The room fell silent.
“What is it?” Twy whispered.
“It is the California king. He was not planning on attending the Summit in any way. He is chief among the Clan here. Felipe dare not defy him.” Eric looked at Pam and Karin. They were both staring at Robert in shock.
The dark-haired monarch looked out and around the audience as he took his seat. Once he settled he struck the metal ball against the table and the audience sat as well. As he shuffled his papers the noise from outside the hall filtered through the room. To the vampires in the audience the chanting from the crowd outside was clear.
Felipe de Castro was sitting to one side. He was involved in a heated conversation with his attorney and had not noticed who was sitting as magister. The attorney was telling the king something he clearly didn’t want to hear. Twy leaned forward looking like she wanted to ask more but Eric stilled her with a lifted hand. While she might not appreciate the keen nature of vampire hearing, he certainly did.
The California king looked at the arguing pair, then spoke, “King De Castro, I understand you have a matter to bring before this body?” Felipe looked up, shock clear on his face. There was a low hiss from the audience as the attorney for the king stepped forward.
The attorney pulled himself straight, shooting another look at Felipe. “Yes, majesty. We have a matter concerning a particular asset of the kingdom. The telepath, Sookie Stackhouse was stolen. Ms. Stackhouse was specifically named as an asset in an earlier contract that was placed before the Court and duties due were recognized. That contract is now a matter of record and sets the appropriate precedent for this proceeding.
Robert shuffled some papers. “Are you referring to the marriage contract between Freyda and Eric the Northman as your precedent?” The attorney bowed to signal his agreement. The king looked over the contract then looked up again. “And is Miss Stackhouse here?”
Mr. Cataliades stood. “No, magister. I am here to represent Miss Stackhouse’s interests.”
The king smiled. “It is always a pleasure to see you Desmond. You may proceed.”
The demon bowed. “I thank you, your majesty. It is our position that Miss Stackhouse is not an asset. Instead she is a person of free will. She was not a signing party to the contract mentioned. While she may have been noted as a person of interest and while there may have been assurances by all signing parties as to her welfare and the future treatment promised her by the local supernatural community, that did not constitute a formal declaration of her as an asset. Indeed,” and Desmond looked into the audience, “what right would any of us have to declare any person to be nothing more than an asset; an asset deprived of their basic rights guaranteed under the laws of this country?” Mr. Cataliades swung back to look at the king. “The argument is preposterous and against all of our principles as vampires living in a post-Revelation world. And were that not self-evident, the contract being referenced is null and void. Freyda no longer lives which ends the contract. I ask your majesty to dispose of this matter by summary declaration.” The demon bowed to the king and then bowed to the opposing counsel.
Robert made a show of examining the contract in hand. He fixed Felipe with a considered and scathing look. Then he swung his gaze to Eric and smiled. The audience waited. The chanting outside seemed to be growing. And then Robert, King of California raised the ball and knocked it twice against the table. “Case dismissed.”
Felipe rose in his chair. He hissed and his fangs ran down. Robert stood and raised an eyebrow. “Felipe, I would ask that you consider your situation. Please don’t make me call the Masters At Arms!” Twy later told Pam that she thought that Robert would have liked nothing better.
Felipe threw a furious look toward the king and then toward Mr. Cataliades. Then he narrowed his eyes and looked directly at Eric. Eric met Felipe’s gaze levelly. Once the Nevada king left, Eric rose and headed toward the door. He turned to Twy. “Get to the airport. Take all your people. Get on the next plane out and go home.” He turned to Karin. “We need to be on the floor. Make a point of being armed, but we must appear to be subdued and supportive.” He pulled Pam alongside him. “You should go to Fangtasia-LA. Stay near Maxwell. Travel back with him. Try not to be alone. I will contact you soon.”
As they found their way to the convention hall floor they made a point to wander slowly. Eric and Karin spoke in a congenial way with exhibitors. They could hear the sounds of cheering from the front of the building, signaling the announcement had reached the ears of the outside world.
“This will all change now,” Karin whispered. Eric nodded.