Author’s Note: So pleased folks are enjoying the story! As I had mentioned a couple chapters back while I enjoy building relationships, letting my characters loose to ‘live’ their lives is satisfying. I do apologize in advance for closing the book on one of my characters. She will be missed.
Thank you, as ever to both Breathesgirl and Ms Buffy, my Beta Queens. I thank you from the bottom of my heart!
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.
Nautical Note: There are places you sail where the currents run against each other. These cross currents create hazards, making the process of moving forward more difficult at one moment and too easy the next.
“We should go,” Angie was waving the invitation to Eric Northman’s coronation and walking back and forth, her long, thin legs making the space of Felipe’s office seem smaller than it was.
“What-ever for?” Felipe de Castro was beyond irritated. “The next time I see that traitor, it will be with a stake in my hand!” The King sat back in his chair, tented his fingers, and tried to recover his calm. It was a fact that receiving the invitation had unsettled him. He had spent hours weighing possible motives only to conclude that the time he wasted worrying had been motive enough. He was angry and he knew his progeny could feel it.
“Think, my Maker!” Angie hissed, “Who is truly your rival? Who is countering you at every turn?” Angie grabbed the thin chain around her neck, the one on which she would string a fang from each vampire she personally ended, “Who is making us screen every vampire who comes to any of our territories not once, but twice? Who is the real enemy now?” She shook the chain, causing the fangs to click and dance.
“What does New York have to do with Northman?” Felipe growled.
“The enemy of my enemy…? Who taught me that saying? Northman isn’t going anywhere! He is being crowned and he keeps your telepath close, both tied up in a nice package that will wait! He has made no move against you,” and Angie waved the invitation again, “and he shows you respect. The Viking is old, my Maker, and a blooded warrior. Freyda had to have him. Nabila is trying for him. Even Stan thought about offering for him.”
“He killed Victor!” Felipe snarled.
“Yes!” Angie shouted, “And Akiro! And Peter Threadgill, and Corrina, Bruno, and don’t forget Lochlan and Neave. What Northman is….”
“He is a killer I need on my side,” De Castro ended her sentence. “With his problems, Nabila will probably succeed in her suit. We can attend their pledging.” With a sigh and a shrug, De Castro said, “Phrase our regrets nicely. Find a suitable gift.”
“Putting this off won’t make it any easier,” Angie said, but at the same time exited his office quickly enough that he wouldn’t have an opportunity to change his mind.
Felipe looked at the closed door, “Good things come…” he growled, trumping the ‘Old Sayings’ game as far as he was concerned.
It had been a busy few weeks. One nice thing that happened was that Sookie and Pam reconnected through the days of planning and handling last minute details. The telepath found herself grateful for Pam’s blunt touch with Dechlan and Twy. Most evenings Eric was tied up on the phone or Skyping with his Sheriffs or potential investors. He was punishing Jane by using her as his combination personal messenger-surrogate day person. As Sookie found herself on the sidelines, watching the hours and energy Eric was putting into making their business plans, Sookie gained a different perspective on what he must have been doing those days and weeks she didn’t see him in the Before time, the time following the Vegas takeover. She remembered harboring a sneaking suspicion that the reason he was staying away had more to do with screwing and playing, too wrapped up in enjoyment to spend much thought on her. Now, watching how he applied himself, the intense focus he brought to bear on their challenges, Sookie realized how she had short-changed him. Watching his focus and drive strengthened her own resolve to commit herself just as fully to the business of the kingdom and to their lives.
By way of doing her part, there were many evenings Sookie found herself delaying meals or working even though she was short on sleep and bone tired. Sookie could handle some of the tasks that could only be done during daylight hours, and so she resolved to see them all done. When evening arrived on these days, Sookie was grateful for the low-key, humorous company of Max and Pam.
It became clear that Pam and Max had formed a kind of shorthand that they used in their conversations. They knew each other so well after their years of building Fangtasia together that they could finish each other’s sentences, and it was an understanding that provided them endless hours of entertainment. Being a spectator to the Pam and Max show was the balm Sookie needed to get through her own nervousness. The telepath had never hosted something this large or ornate, and she certainly had never hosted something that was so uniquely vampire. A Coronation was different than a Summit. There were rituals to be observed and as far as Sookie knew, no rule book to explain them.
Fortunately, Pam and Max had experienced one or two and with their perfect recall they helped navigate which rituals would be optional and which couldn’t be set aside. Sookie learned about the ceremonial chalices that would be used to ‘create the covenant’ with the kingdom. Pam described a long-standing tradition that required the in-coming ruler to sleep in the ground the night before the ceremony, preferably with his mate. Sookie had come to terms with sleeping in the windowless rooms that were their chambers here in the palace, but the idea of being shut in a coffin with Eric was more than she could bear. Max let her know that there was a modernized version that was acceptable. A box of dirt would be placed under their bed and that could signify that the ‘monarch knew his roots.’ There were clothing rituals and washing rituals. At one point Pam turned to Sookie and said, “You don’t mind that your dress will be destroyed, do you? I mean you are expected to have sex on the table in front of everyone to seal the deal.”
“Eww!” Sookie expostulated, “That is not happening! Tell me that’s not a thing!”
“Not required,” Max interjected and winked even as Pam threw a pillow at him for spoiling her fun.
When Sookie sighed, Pam winked, “Doesn’t matter. Nothing I haven’t seen anyway!” and it was Sookie’s turn to throw things.
In between the talking about the upcoming ceremony and the myriad arrangements for their guests, Sookie started to get the impression that Pam was busy with other plans, plans involving Thalia. At first the telepath thought nothing of it. There would be a strange phone call or Pam would excuse herself and not return for hours. By the third night Sookie was pretty sure that Max was in on whatever was going on and was purposefully running some form of interference for his partner. Sookie almost asked Pam as they sat together in Max’s room one night, watching American Horror Story. They were waiting for Eric to come upstairs. Sookie watched her friends teasing and joking and she realized she wasn’t really sure she wanted to know what was going on behind her back. If there was one thing Sookie had come to grips with, it was that she had only a limited number of hours in any one evening and she could spend those hours with Eric getting ready for the biggest night in their lives, or she could be poking into what had all the earmarks of trouble. ‘If I need to know, Eric will tell me,’ she decided, and kept her eye on what needed doing.
It was just days before everyone was due to arrive when she received the call from Mr. Cataliades giving her the news she had been awaiting, the date her divorce would become final. She hung up the phone from that call and sat, numb, not sure what to do or say next. Eric had come upstairs shortly afterwards, concerned about the emotions he was feeling through their bond. When she told him, he had grinned and neither of them made it back to their business. Pam had scolded and Max had tutted, but, in truth, there were few things that were undone.
And then it was here, the night before the Coronation. Eric zipped up the back of her gown and rested his hands on her hips. It was a quiet gesture that he followed with a kiss on her shoulder. Sookie placed her hands over his and turned her head to kiss his cheek. “I love you, Eric,” she whispered into his ear. He lingered behind her, not moving. “What? What is it?” she asked. The feelings he was sending her were odd.
She could feel him smile, “Nothing, Lover. It is just that this is a perfect moment. I will remember this, how you look, how I feel, for the rest of my existence.” Sookie sank back into him and the Viking’s hands slid around her until his arms wrapped nearly double. Sookie closed her eyes and luxuriated in the feeling of contentment and bliss that she only found in Eric Northman’s arms.
“There is one thing that could improve your dress, though,” he growled low and sexy from behind her. When she made a questioning sound, Eric freed his arms and carefully stepped away. He walked to the other side of the room and returned with the box that held Sophie-Anne’s jewels. “I wish to see these on you,” Eric told her. He fastened the heavy ruby necklace around her neck and handed her the earrings. When they were in place, he took one wrist and then the other, fastening the bracelets that had been Peter Threadgill’s bridal gift to Louisiana. Eric stepped back and turned her so Sookie could see her own reflection in the tall mirror. Eric’s dark suit seemed to frame her on all sides. The crème of her dress had just a hint of pink and there was something about the reflection from the rubies on the fabric that made her bodice look like a blush. “It is like the flow of your blood, Beloved, a shimmer just below the surface,” and Eric kissed the top of her head.
Guests were downstairs now. Sookie knew Devrah had been busy marshalling the staff, both permanent and temporary in catering to the needs of those staying with them both here in the palace and those staying at other places throughout the City. There would be a special after hours event at one of the bars in town tonight and another taking place tomorrow night. Sookie knew of Russell Edgington and Bartlett Crowe’s love of jazz and she hoped this would give their friends, as well as the other visiting royalty and retinues, a gift in return for their support. The ballroom downstairs was decorated in golds, silvers, and crystal. The theme was light. They wanted to suggest the bright light of sun and the soft light of moon combined. There would be music but there was no further entertainment planned. The real party would be tomorrow at the official coronation.
Sookie and Eric had received word that Bubba would not be coming. Sookie never expected her friend to sing for them and she would never have asked, but his not sharing this moment was a loss they both felt. The tall, damaged vampire had become a friend to them and Sookie always felt better for talking with him.
Sookie thought about the hours after Eric had first risen this evening. They had fulfilled their media obligations by sitting in the crème office with a nationally-recognized female interviewer and her camera crew. They had talked about the changes in their lives that Eric’s being crowned King would mean, (‘Not as many as you might think, it really is an honorary title’) and the accommodations necessary to make a day/night relationship work, (‘It makes the hours we have together so much more precious’). The cameras had zeroed in on Sookie’s ring and asked if a wedding was in their future. Eric had kissed Sookie’s hand and hinted that his beautiful girl wasn’t ready to make a commitment just yet, but that he was eagerly waiting for the moment she was. Hand in hand they had walked with the interviewer through the first level of the palace. Devrah had been introduced and she told an abbreviated version of her story that included her pride in serving three monarchs during her time on staff, including Eric Northman. They ended the interview by sitting in the enclosed garden. Sookie told the story of Sophie-Ann building the garden to remind her of light and sunshine and how tragically she’d died, sticking to the version of her death that had been given the papers, the story blaming her death on Sino-AIDS. Sookie pitched the palace tour venture that would be starting the following month and that reservations were already being taken through the palace website.
As the camera crew was breaking down, Twy had let them know she was happy with what she had seen of the film so far, and then had left Sonder with both Sookie and Eric while she wrapped up with the interviewer. Sookie noticed that Sonder was looking more confident and the telepath was happy that the assistant seemed to be settling into what must have been an uncomfortable and demanding position.
As soon as they got the green light from Twy releasing them, Eric and Sookie had headed back upstairs to change for the evening. Eric had half-heartedly suggested another shower, but Sookie let him off the hook, “Don’t think I’m going to get set up for another Pam intervention,” she said. “Once was more than enough.” Sookie could tell Eric was nervous and was teasing her to cover it up. Together they dressed, each careful with the other and Sookie made an effort to touch him often, pushing calm through their bond. When he started to struggle with the cufflinks he usually managed with so little effort, she captured his hands and adjusted them herself. She found his tie, he suggested her shoes, each small action helping the other, until now, as they stood together looking in the mirror. ‘We are perfect together,’ Sookie thought, a smile playing across her lips, ‘and as blessed as we ever need to be, just us two.’
Eric broke Sookie out of her thoughts by offering her his arm, “Are you ready, my Fairy Princess?” he asked, his eyebrow raised. Sookie smiled jauntily and linked her arm through his and together, they headed for the door and their guests downstairs.
When they got into the elevator, Saul smiled broadly, eyes crinkling, “Why, Miss Sookie, you look just beautiful.”
“Careful, Were,” Eric growled playfully, “She’s Mine!”
Sookie leaned over and kissed Saul’s cheek, “Thank you, Saul,” she breathed, and then Sookie retreated back into her vampire’s embrace. She knew Eric could feel how joyous she was.
“Congratulations, Your Majesty,” Saul bowed as he opened the door to the car and the couple stepped forward. Charles and James were awaiting them in the hallway.
Thalia was waiting as well, and inclined her head, “North Man.”
“Greetings, Thalia, I hope your rest was peaceful,” Eric acknowledged.
“You say the oddest things,” she growled in return and turned to precede them to the meeting room. The music was already playing and Sookie squeezed Eric’s arm again.
Sookie had been looking away when she almost bumped into the dark vampire. Thalia abruptly stopped and Sookie could see Nabila was standing in the corridor. “Your Majesty,” the Carolinas Queen inclined her head. “Ms. Stackhouse,” she added with no head bow at all. Nabila gave Thalia a glacial stare, which the shorter vampire held for a tense moment, then stepped aside. This allowed Nabila to advance so she could face the couple without Thalia acting as a barrier. “If I might have a moment of your time,” and the Queen looked meaningfully at the open door of the crème office.
Eric looked at the Queen and then said, without looking down at Sookie, “Perhaps it would be best.” Now he did glance at Sookie who found herself watching him carefully, “Beloved, Thalia will walk you in…”
“I would prefer to speak with both of you,” Nabila interrupted, “If you wouldn’t mind.”
Eric’s eyes narrowed. Sookie squeezed his hand and when his head turned to her, she nodded. Eric pulled her in the direction of the office. He stepped back allowing both women to precede him, then shook his head quickly at Thalia’s questioning look. Once in the office, Eric closed the door. Nabila seated herself in one chair and Sookie perched on the sofa. Eric positioned himself to stand behind Sookie, “How can we help you?” he asked.
The Queen smiled thinly, “Yes, you do make a striking couple. I would hate to see anything unfortunate happen to either one of you.” Eric hissed and Nabila gave him a withering stare, “Don’t sugar coat it for her! You are not doing her any favors.” The Queen turned to Sookie and addressed her remarks directly to the telepath, “If he hasn’t told you already, you should know that the financial problems facing this kingdom are serious. Vampires can be many things, some noble, some hard. We reward strength, and we destroy what is weak. A kingdom without money is weak.” The Queen sighed, “You will have your glittering Coronation and many will congratulate you, but know that if promises are not kept, the next time you see these smiling faces it could be for your takeover.” Sookie’s eyes widened. She could sense nothing from Eric but resignation and that frightened her more than the words the Queen said. The telepath couldn’t imagine Russell, Bartlett, or Maude showing up with stakes in hand and a posse of assassin vampires at their back, but she was not so sure about Isaiah, and even Stan gave her pause.
The Queen continued, “I have offered your consort an honorable arrangement. He would have to marry me by vampire tradition. It is a pledging, it would mean nothing to you.” Sookie swallowed hard and Eric placed a hand on her shoulder and pressed down. “If you wish to marry according to some other custom, I won’t protest. There will be a contract, but I would be willing to reduce the traditional hundred years to fifty. It will signal to vampires that this is more of a business deal than an emotional attachment, but I think that would suit us best, don’t you, Sookie?” Sookie could hear a buzzing in her ears and she was starting to feel light-headed. She dug deep, crossed her ankles and sat up a little straighter. The Queen looked at her quizzically, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Sookie said and felt absurdly proud of how strong and sure her voice sounded.
“I have considerable funds at my disposal. The night of the pledging, the funds will be made available to the kingdom and the energy proposal Eric has promised will be able to move forward.” She turned to the Viking, “You will also be able to reduce the tariffs at the New Orleans port, fulfilling the promises you made Amun Clan.” Nabila picked at a piece of imaginary lint on her lap and then smoothed the fabric of her dress before looking at Sookie again, “In short, your position will be strong and you will be out of danger.”
“And what do you get?” Sookie asked.
“His guarantee,” and Nabila jerked her chin towards Eric, “that if I’m attacked he will come with all his resources and defend me and mine. He has a fearsome reputation and he has two renowned fighters in his retinue. Many would join such a battle just to be able to say they fought alongside The Viking, Thalia, and Pam Ravenscroft. It could be that just having the contract in place will be enough to divert anyone with ill intent from moving in my direction.”
“What else?” Sookie wasn’t sure she really wanted to know, but she realized she had changed. She knew that even if it was hard to hear, it was best to have all the information before making decisions.
The Queen was watching Sookie closely, “I will expect an annual conjugal visit starting with the night of the pledging. I assume he’s explained the purpose of such a joining is more détente than any real affection. You are, of course, welcome to join us,” and Nabila smiled pleasantly.
Sookie swallowed again and wasn’t sure she was keeping the growing misery from her face as well as she would have hoped, “And what else?”
“Trifles, really,” Nabila replied, her voice as cool and calm as if she was talking about the price of tea or the weather, “I am the Moshup Clan Chief. I would expect you both to attend Moshup Summits. He’ll need to stand beside me for official ceremonies. I would be invited to any official functions here. I do have my pride and I will require that respect be shown for my title. We are not so different, you and I, Miss Stackhouse. We might even come to like each other,” and Nabila sat back and smiled.
“While I believe I speak for both of us in saying we appreciate your generous offer, it is possible we will be able to secure the funding you mention elsewhere,” Eric’s tone coming from behind Sookie sounded reasonable and he even managed a hint of bored condescension, like he was speaking with a balky child.
Nabila’s face turned hard as she looked at Eric, “This is really your fault. You could have spared her this humiliation by accepting my offer earlier. We could have been discussing terms instead of my having to spell out the consequences for her.” Nabila turned back to Sookie, “Stan has already offered terms that would allow the financial enterprise to move forward, but they are almost criminal. If Eric accepts the Texas offer it will make him appear even weaker than he looks now. It would be almost a guarantee that he would be killed or at the very least attacked in the near future. It is probable that there would be casualties among his retinue. Stan might consider doing the honors himself. That would leave you unprotected, Sookie, and you are, in and of yourself, a commodity now. The Ancient Pythoness put a target on your back with her little speech in San Antonio, and your consort knows that there are those among us who are speculating what would be possible if they had Niall Brigant’s backing by attaching themselves to his… what is it? Granddaughter?”
Nabila continued in a way that sounded sympathetic, but was so very hard, “I can promise you that no bank will consider making you a loan, Northman. You see, I have my worries as well, and while you can be angry with me, I have closed that door to you. You should see that I also view myself as having few choices.”
“But a marriage…” The words escaped Sookie’s lips before she even knew. Behind her Eric pressed harder on her shoulder.
“It is how things are done, Sookie,” Nabila told her. “Contracts are important between us, but marriage contracts are sacred. There is only one penalty for breaking the terms, and that is death. All vampires, all supernaturals for that matter, honor a marriage contract. We are talking about my life. Why would you think I would settle for anything less?”
“You have said your piece,” Eric said, “But now is not the time to make this decision. We have guests waiting,” and Sookie felt his sympathy and regret as he said, “Sookie? We should go.”
“I will allow you one week, Sookie,” Nabila said, “And then I will make your financial circumstances public.” Sookie knew what it meant and Nabila confirmed it, “It wouldn’t give me any pleasure, Eric, but I’m in enough trouble myself that I am willing to call open season on you to get the protection I need.” The Carolinas Queen turned back to Sookie, “Think about it, Sookie. Do you love him enough to make sure he’ll be safe? That’s what I’m offering you, a way you can continue together.”
Eric took Sookie’s hand and held it tightly as he steered her out of the office. When they were in the hall he ignored Thalia’s interested look, pulled the telepath into the enclosed garde, and closed the door behind them. They walked to the bench near the fountain and Sookie found herself more collapsing than sitting. Eric kneeled on the brick pavers, ignoring what it would do to his pants. He looked directly into Sookie’s eyes and said, “Ask me anything you wish.”
“Is she right?” It tumbled from Sookie’s lips.
Eric stared at her, “It is one of many possibilities,” he said evenly.
Sookie could see he was dodging. Her lip curled and she could feel her frustration rising, “Okay, Eric, if we’re going to play that game! If all the possibilities are one hundred percent, would you say that Nabila’s version is over fifty percent?”
Eric’s eyes never left hers, “Yes.”
Sookie bit her lip, “Over sixty percent?”
“Without money? Yes.”
Sookie swallowed, “Guess it’s a good thing we decided not to have children then. It would have been a silly waste of effort.”
Eric’s eyes widened, “You do want them, don’t you, Lover? You are telling me you are content as we are, but you are not!”
“Don’t even start arguing about this, Eric!” Sookie snapped, “What difference does it make? You could be killed…”
“It won’t happen,” he said with complete certainty, and his mouth tilted in a lopsided smile. “Let me tell you what will happen,” and he took her hand in his and stroked the back with his thumb. “It will look hopeless. We will wonder how it could ever turn our way, and then it will. It will be as if we were handed a miracle.”
“I hope you’re right,” Sookie tried to smile but she knew she looked pathetic as she met his eyes, “but if that’s not what happens, and a takeover comes, you have to promise me something.”
“No,” Eric said, “I will not promise you that,” and he stood and offered her his hand. “Now let us go to our guests, and Sookie? I want you to believe that all will be well. You are part Fae, my Lover. Call that luck to us, and I will do the same.” She didn’t know why, but for some reason, Sookie was comforted.
“It is impressive,” Bartlett was saying. The snifter of blood in his hand was perfectly warmed. Tonight was supposed to be media-free but at the last moment Twy had inserted a photographer. He was circulating among them and to make sure nothing was recorded that might prove embarrassing, the donors from the Registry had been taken downstairs and their blood was being collected and kept warm, sorted by blood type. Servers kept an eye on assigned guests and fetched refreshments as needed.
Bartlett waved his hand, gesturing at the lighting that shone artfully through the combination of solid and loosely woven hanging cloth. The room was awash in light and shadows. “Almost like walking through a forest under a full moon,” he mused.
“Perhaps a little heavy on the fairy allusion?” Stan sniffed. “Not like we aren’t all aware by now.”
Maude poked the Texas monarch, “I think it’s just delightful. What’s wrong, Stan? Not enough high tech to satisfy? Maybe you thought they should have the light synchronized to your whining.” The Queen stopped laughing when Nabila walked into the room. “She doesn’t look too happy,” Minnesota observed.
“I’d say not,” Russell confirmed. Bartlett shot Russell a sharp look and started to open his mouth, but Russell shook his head and then turned his eyes in a deliberate way to the others around them.
“He should take the offer,” Isaiah smirked. “Sure it can’t sit easy, having to be the one selling himself to the highest bidder this time, but not like he has many choices.”
Nabila glanced their way and then changed directions to talk with one of Eric’s Sheriffs. “Is that the Frenchman?” Rasul asked. “I’ve heard of him.”
“I’ve heard he came through New York,” Maude said flatly. At her words, the heads of the assembled Kings all swiveled to stare in Nabila’s direction. Sensing their interest, Nabila turned. She said something to her companion who smiled and made a graceful, flamboyant bow.
“Northman seems to trust him,” Russell shrugged.
“I think we’ve established that Northman is in trouble,” Isaiah replied. There was something in the way he was standing, a smile playing on his lips that had Maude’s eyes narrowing.
“Well, I don’t think I’d count the Viking out just yet,” Maude said a little too broadly. “There’s a reason his reputation for luck exists. Now with his Fae connections, anything’s possible.”
“Perish the thought,” Stan snarked, “I’d like to think I have a chance of tempting him with my offer.”
Bartlett turned to Stan, his expression angry, “That wasn’t an offer and you know it. You might consider that something like this could permanently damage the relationship between you. What will you do when Northman pulls this off?”
Stan sipped from his blood, “Congratulate him!” he shrugged. “Northman would play the same kind of hard ball if the positions were reversed.”
“I think you are mistaken,” Rasul said steadily. “I have known Eric Northman for many years. We met when I was nothing but a lowly guard in this very Court. He could have treated me like I was nothing, and he would have been justified, but he didn’t. He spent time with us, joked with us. He has a way of building loyalty with those around him. I willingly placed myself in danger just because he asked it of me,” He looked directly at Stan, not exactly challenging, but close, “and I would again.”
The tension suddenly seemed heavy in the air and with a deliberate gesture; Bartlett turned to Isaiah and said, “I heard that Sandy and Rafe sent their regrets.”
Isaiah nodded, “It would appear they decided to spend some time with Gus in Wyoming. Not sure how that friendship formed, but it seems to be good for both of them.”
Stan nodded, “It does look like an arrangement that will strengthen our Clan.”
Bartlett smiled in a way that looked a little too pleased when he said, “Of course it will!” When Stan turned as if to ask what the Clan Chief was hinting, Bartlett said, “I wonder what the Ancient Pythoness is playing at? I had expected her to make some kind of proclamation about what’s happening in Moshup.”
Isaiah nodded, “I’ve found another couple of the misbegotten coming across my borders. Can’t quite figure out what they’re up to, but they aren’t interested in putting down roots.”
Maude nodded, “It’s unsettling. I had thought it was just happening across the northern part of the territory, but Pam Ravenscroft informed me they have picked up at least two here as well. I think we all know that this incursion is what’s behind Nabila’s wrangling. She’s running scared.” Maude could tell from Nabila’s sharp look that the Carolinas Queen had overheard her remark. Maude raised her snifter and saluted Nabila in a motion that said ‘bitch’ as eloquently as saying the words. Behind her, Isaiah chuckled.
“You never did need to say words to cut deep, woman!” he laughed, “But why don’t you pull in your tomahawk? It’s supposed to be a party!”
There was a movement by the door and Eric Northman walked in, his head held high, the light picking up the gold in his hair. Beside him walked Sookie Stackhouse. She didn’t look short tonight. “Looks like she found her steel,” Isaiah said out loud. When Maude looked his way he added, “Reminds me of you, Maudie.”
Rasul stepped away from the monarchs to meet the couple halfway. Sookie’s face beamed in smiles, “Rasul!” she greeted him and he surprised her by extending his hand. When she placed her hand in his, he pulled her toward him so he could kiss the back of her hand in a courtly gesture.
Once he had straightened, he turned to Eric, “Your Majesty!” he greeted the Viking.
“Your Grace!” Eric smirked back. Maude and the rest of the monarchs were drifting in their direction. Pam walked through the door followed by several Sheriffs. Thomas, Jane, Indira, and Rubio all moved toward the far side of the room where the retinues of the other monarchs were conversing. Pam continued forward and right into Maude’s embrace.
Pam smiled at Kentucky, “Good to see you, Isaiah. It has been many years.” The tall, rangy man inclined his head but his eyes were elsewhere. Pam lifted her head to follow his gaze and found herself looking at Sookie. She started to say something but Maude pressed her arm and Minnesota’s expression urged caution. Instead Pam turned to Bartlett, “I hope you are planning to step out with us later. There is a particularly wonderful quartet playing in the Quarter and I know how you both appreciate these things.” Bartlett assured the Regent that he and Russell were looking forward to it and thanked her for her thoughtfulness. “Wasn’t me, really,” Pam glanced toward where Eric and the telepath stood, “It was all Sookie. She wanted to do something special for you.”
Bartlett took Russell’s hand in his, “That was so nice of her. We regard them as special to us, too.” Pam had the impression that the grip that was being shared between the two Kings was not exactly loving and caring. Maude rolled her eyes and excused herself for a few minutes with her ‘favorite girl.” The Minnesota Queen drifted them toward the hallway, filling the minutes with news of her Court and their mutual acquaintances, kitchen experiments, new formulas, and marketing strategies. As they got closer to the door, Maude turned to her and said, “Would you mind showing me Sophie-Ann’s garden? I never did see it.”
When the two women were sure they were alone and relatively safe from being overheard, Maude turned to Pam, “I want you to know that if anything were to happen here, if there were to be hostilities, you have a place in Minnesota.”
“What have you heard?” Pam hissed.
“Nothing imminent, but I wanted to say it. I find the best time to know about your lifelines is well before you need them. I believe the Northman will pull this off, but things could get dicey. If he were smart he’d take Nabila’s money, but looks like he’s going to try to hold out until there’s no other choice. Did you see the look on her face? Could have made a barrel of cheese with the sour sitting there! Bet she wears your Sheriff out tonight.”
Pam rolled her eyes, “I’m not sure what is happening there, but I did follow your advice. There are extra eyes on him at all times now.”
Maude nodded, “I knew I didn’t raise no dummy!”
“So, what’s the deal with Bartlett and Russell?” Pam asked. “Are they fighting?”
“You think?” Maude laughed. “I thought Bart was going to take his hand off!” When Pam continued to look at her expectantly, Maude sat on the bench and then threw up her hands. “Of course it has to do with your Maker. Bart wants to give him money, loan him money… well, give him money to get the Viking out of his bind. Russell points out, and correctly, that it will become known. Those kinds of benefactors don’t fall off trees. If Stan hadn’t decided to be an asshole it might have worked, but since Stan has a personal stake in this now, he’ll dig to find out who screwed his nasty deal, and then everyone knows that Eric is nothing more than a puppet to Mississippi.” Pam hissed and Maude held up her hand, “I know that’s not true! So do you, but on the surface? That’s how things will look and you know what they say about perception!”
Pam looked away, “But if that were to happen, at least he wouldn’t look like he has a target is on his back.”
Maude shook her head, “How would he live like that? You know how we are! He would lose all credibility, and when he tried to assert himself as King? Who would take him seriously?”
Pam pursed her lips, “And it would be open season on poaching his assets.” The blond vampire swung knowing eyes to her friend, “Like Isaiah. He would be after Sookie in a real way and that would get one or both of them killed.” It would have taken a blind woman not to see the way Kentucky’s eyes followed Sookie. Pam had heard the rumors and now she could see they were true.
“He’s not subtle, but he is pragmatic,” Minnesota proclaimed. “If Eric can get something together, Isaiah will back off and let it go. If Eric doesn’t…” and Maude shrugged. As she looked around her, Pam could see that a thought had occurred to her, one that was causing her to smile, “You know what he whispered to me when she walked in tonight? He asked if I didn’t think that sapphires would be a better choice for her coloring. You know what he was talking about?” It was clear Pam did not. “He was talking about my marriage jewels. He bought them for me as a bridal gift. When the marriage was over I handed them back to him all gift wrapped in an old shoe box. He was all kinds of pissed off at me, thought I was spitting on him.” Maude chuckled, “Well, at the time I was pretty pleased to be done with him, so maybe he’s right. Although… pissing on him might have been a better way to put it…” Pam laughed and Maude joined her. When they finished, Maude’s look was less humorous, “He has decided he cares for her, maybe more than he wants to admit. Now, I’m not saying it’s love because it takes two to tango that dance, but if he’s talking bridal jewels he is serious about taking care of her. If things go down and you need someplace to tuck Sookie for her own safety, he may not be a bad option.”
“Eric would kill me!” Pam said softly.
“Eric would be dead, sweetie,” Maude took her hand. The women looked at each other for a long moment. It was Maude whose face broke first into a bright smile, “How did we get on this topic? It’s supposed to be a great night and I’ll say to you what I say to anyone, Eric Northman is the luckiest vampire I’ve ever known. Somehow this will all turn out okay, I just know it!” She stood up and shook folds from her skirt.
Pam looked up at her friend and her brow wrinkled, “That really is a hideous dress, Maude,” she muttered.
“What, this old thing?” and Maude laughed, “I wore it just for you, Pammie!”
From across the room, Thomas watched the monarchs. He saw his former King’s actions, what he did, and what he failed at doing. “It’s like being forced to stand aside and watch your life be written before you, knowing you are nothing but an actor in someone else’s play.” Thomas turned to see Jacob, one of Isaiah’s Sheriffs. When Thomas turned to him, Jacob bowed, “It is good to see you, my friend. Are you tired of having taken that step down in the world?”
“I’m not sure how you see it as a demotion,” Thomas bowed in return. “I am Sheriff now of my territory, and working on the King’s behalf throughout the Kingdom.”
“But not the King’s second,” and Jacob looked meaningfully at Thalia, who had moved to stand beside Eric Northman.
“No, not second, and not missing it,” and Thomas found himself watching Isaiah again. The blood bond Kentucky had forced on him was faint now, but it didn’t stop him from feeling the King’s interest in Sookie Stackhouse.
Jacob followed his gaze. He sipped his blood before saying, “It does seem an unhealthy obsession. But you know Isaiah! If fate places her before him, he will seize the opportunity.”
Thomas smiled in return, “I hope you have the right of it. I have seen them together, my King and his lady. They will not part easily, if at all. Kentucky would be well advised to reconcile himself.”
“Are you involved in the spy hunt?” Jacob asked, changing the subject. When Thomas looked quizzical, the Kentucky sheriff provided details. “Your king’s second, Thalia, has put out a request under the Regent’s name for information on any spies we intercept with New York roots. Seems she is ‘monitoring’ the situation?” Thomas felt a wave of relief that this was not leading to Thierry. Jacob saw his face and interpreted it in another way. “What is going on with you? Are you really so far removed from the center of things that you didn’t know? You were the King’s right hand in Kentucky. If you feel slighted here…”
“You misunderstand,” Thomas interrupted him.” I am well suited for what I am doing. I have no intent to leave any time soon, if ever.” Thomas held Jacob’s eyes until he saw acceptance from his friend. As they started talking of the comings and goings of others of their mutual acquaintance in Kentucky, Thomas filed away this tidbit to share with Thierry later. If Thalia was this interested it was possible she might prove an asset in what Thierry had planned.
Sookie was finding it harder to focus. She had thought to slip out early, but it was approaching one in the morning and the vampires just seemed to be getting started. Maybe it was the way Nabila kept watching her, or the way Isaiah seemed to make a point of keeping her glass filled, but she was just done. She knew Eric could feel her by the way he kept glancing her way. She knew she was getting quieter and quieter. She didn’t realize that Mr. Cataliades was standing next to her until he grabbed her elbow, “Miss Stackhouse! You look quite wonderful!” he exclaimed and Sookie jumped almost out of her shoes.
Eric was beside her in an instant and Sookie realized that the room was suddenly very quiet. ‘Of course they all want to listen in!’ Sookie thought sourly, but she pasted a broad smile on her face and greeted the attorney. ”Desmond, I didn’t expect to see you, but I’m awfully glad you’re here!”
“I wouldn’t miss this moment,” the attorney said agreeably, “You have both looked forward to this for so long,” and he inclined his head to Eric. He looked over his shoulder and Sookie got the distinct idea he was looking for someone.
Sookie and Eric both looked toward the same door and within a few moments, Jane and Diantha came walking through. Jane was wearing a small smile. She glanced toward them and then continued on to stand near Thomas, but Diantha came run-walking toward them, a box in her hands. “Howareyasogladtoseeya,” she said in her funny, rushed way of speaking.
“I’m fine,” Sookie took in the slight woman’s geometric dress, all angles and jewel tones. “You look wonderful!” the telepath told her.
“Officialbusiness,” the demon confirmed. “Shetoldmetocomehereandreportbacktomorrow.”
“To the Ancient Pythoness?” Sookie asked.
“Youbetcha!” Diantha smiled. “Uncle?”
Mr. Cataliades took the box from his niece’s hands, “This was delivered to me and I received express instructions that you were to be given this tonight and that you were to wear it tomorrow night.” The attorney was beaming. If Sookie had been less tired she probably would have taken the box back to her room and opened it with Eric. Somewhere in the back of her head she could hear a manic voice chanting, “Beware of demons bearing gifts,” and she had an irrational desire to laugh. So, instead of doing the smart thing, she tipped open the lid to uncover a small, silvery crown. It was clearly meant for a woman. The main arms were bent in curlicues and flowing arches and at key intersections there were teardrop gems that sparkled and winked. It looked like starlight caught in a circle, and beside her the attorney was saying, “A fit gift for the Princess Brigant.”
Eric was pushing caution her way and Sookie was sure she was making a spectacle of herself, looking open-mouthed from the crown to the faces around her and back again.
From behind her she heard Pam say, “Well, that’s going to be a problem. We’ll have to change your dress. What you have will never match!”
“Pam,” Sookie heard Eric growl, “I trust you will look after our guests,” and the next thing she knew she was cradled in her vampire’s arms and flying toward their rooms. Sookie found herself wondering what color really matched a crown, and then she laughed and laughed and laughed until she cried.