Author’s Note: The countdown is on. Only one more chapter after this and The Far Reach is concluded. You can look for three short stories to show up rather shortly. These will be out-takes since the last part of this trilogy, The Distant Horizon, picks up a year from the time Far Reach concludes.
Thank you to all my readers for coming along on this story. It ended up being a lot more words than I thought but all in all, I’m pretty pleased with the way it’s turned out.
My thanks to Breathesgirl who makes suggestions and points out physical improbabilities and my gratitude to Ms Buffy who deserves a medal for kicking my tenses and reminding me that I am a better technical writer than the sloppy work I sometimes send her way. They are a grace in my life and I am grateful.
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.
Sookie and Eric, by arrangement, stood on the stately steps of the House of Broel, waving and smiling. The cameras poking through and over the iron fence looked like great, alien eyes and from where she stood; Sookie didn’t need to be a vampire to hear the whirrs and whines the cameras made. There were pools of halogen lights where television reporters were standing, their expressions pleasant as they murmured into microphones. It was a circus and the two of them were in the center ring.
Sookie was happy that the firefly glow of her crown that formed around her had faded. As they had left their chambers earlier, Sookie had kept the crown on, not really paying attention to how it looked or the way it made her look. That changed once they stepped into the elevator and she saw the look on Saul’s face. His thoughts were equally unsettled. “Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” she said to Eric and quickly removed the jewel.
“Wait here,” he told her, and he was in their chambers and back with the box in his hand before she’d drawn two breaths. It seemed clear wearing the jewel would cause a commotion. Sookie lifted the crown from her head, placed it in the box, and Eric handed the box to Pam for safe-keeping.
“You don’t mind if I play with it in the car, do you?” Pam asked archly.
“Sure,” Sookie shrugged, “Have fun, but don’t be surprised if it burns off your fingers with its dark Fae powers.” Sookie said the last part with a sinister voice and finger quotes. Pam rolled her eyes and their evening began.
Once they had stood on the steps long enough to satisfy their public obligation, the door to the venue opened, and Sookie and Eric walked inside. As she thought about the crowds that had awaited them, first at the palace and now here, Sookie was relieved that they had decided to hold the actual ceremony inside away from prying eyes. Sookie glanced at the beautiful entry hall, half turning to find Pam standing right beside her, and thrusting the crown her way. Sookie hesitated. ‘Maybe I should wait for another time,” she thought, ‘I don’t even know how I’d explain this.’ She was just about to push the box away when she felt Eric’s presence beside her.
“We were told you were to wear it, Beloved,” Eric said seriously, his face so straight Sookie had a moment where she thought he might be joking with her, but she couldn’t detect any trace of humor through their bond. Giving a harrumph, she opened the box, Eric lifted the crown, and placed it upon her head. No sooner were Eric’s fingers clear than the little crown pulsed a burst of soft light and then it gently shone. As the night progressed, its light seemed to increase, taking in her person, and then, with each passing hour, spilling over onto those who surrounded her.
Rasul and Thomas started it, bowing to her in the way a vampire would bow to a monarch. As she walked through the rooms, the bowing continued by more and more of those in attendance. Sookie found herself at first self-conscious but as it became more prevalent, her discomfort grew to downright embarrassment. When Maude inclined her head Sookie finally protested, but the Minnesota monarch took her aside and said, “Do not be embarrassed by the respect that is due you. Your actions at Rhodes alone should have been enough to have earned you this gesture, but your appearance now with the living crown makes clear to all of us your place among us. Accept it, Sookie and allow us to accept you.”
There were plenty of familiar faces so Sookie had no lack for conversation. Within half an hour of their arrival Eric had left her in Pam’s capable hands, telling her he had things to prepare. He had kissed her before grinning broadly, pinching her butt hard enough to make her jump, and then scooting away before she had a chance to reciprocate. Now another hour had passed and Sookie had managed to maneuver through the first floor rooms at least once. She was starting to feel the strain and was just about to ask Pam when things would be getting started when there was the sound of a wood staff being banged. Three sharp raps and Rasul called all to attend the Coronation of Eric the Northman.
Sookie was dragged by the elbow into one of the larger rooms. It was clear of furniture to allow a small stage set up with a table. Pam made sure that Sookie was standing near the front. Sookie had seen monitors set up in other rooms and figured this was how some of the other guests watching. The lights were turned off and Sookie turned her head to see that the room was ablaze with candles. It gave the whole proceeding a kind of mystical feel.
As for the ceremony itself, it was pretty much what Sookie expected. Three hours standing was nothing to vampires, but by the time it was winding up she was swaying. Sookie was grateful that the House of Broel had a strong air conditioning system, but then again, it wasn’t as if the crowd packed into the rooms were giving off any body heat.
Bartlett Crowe was the officiant. He was wearing the same long robe she had seen him wear when he and Russell were married, but now the robe was open and he wore a well cut black suit under it. Sookie knew that this ‘modernization’ was for the benefit of the photographer who had been allowed inside to be the official recorder. Rasul’s role seemed to be over and he stepped down into the crowd, and took up a position standing behind Pam. That was when Eric stepped onto the small stage. He was wearing a robe too; mostly white but it had accents in cardinal, blue, and gold. Max had explained to Sookie that the colors of the robes were purposeful and meant to represent the states of the monarch. ‘Must be Louisiana and Arkansas state colors,’ Sookie thought. At that moment, Eric looked at her, and he smiled. He wore dark pants, but no shirt under the open robe and his hair gleamed around his face. A female vampire walked onto the stage and said some slow, grave words, Bartlett clapped his hands, and the house went totally quiet in that creepy way that only vampires could accomplish.
About an hour into it, when the smell of the incense was nearly overpowering, Sookie slipped out of her heels and stood barefoot on the cool, wooden floor. Since it was a vampire ceremony, there was blood and oaths, most in languages that were long dead. Sookie watched as the chalices were brought forward. Eric said some words she didn’t understand and then cut a long slash across his chest, the blood flowing into the first chalice which was held by the female vampire. Once the slash had healed and the blood was wiped away, Eric repeated the entire thing twice more.
When the Viking held the last chalice in his hands, he called for Sookie and Pam to join him. Sookie scrambled into her shoes, trying to appear solemn and dignified while barely suppressing a sigh of relief when she made it up the step without falling on her face. Once she and Pam were standing on either side of him, Eric drank from the chalice, said his words, and then slashed his chest with the sharp knife again. This time there were two smaller chalices used to collect the running blood. Sookie knew what was going to happen and she plastered her Crazy Sookie smile on her face since saying “Eww!” didn’t seem appropriate. She accepted the cup in her hand and looked expectantly at Bartlett who intoned, “Drink, those of his blood, and share in his glory!” Sookie tried to time the raising of her chalice with Pam’s, closing her eyes and drinking fast. She almost missed it. When she lowered her goblet she raised her eyes to see Eric. He was staring down at her, his eyes glowing. As she watched, he raised the sharp knife to his lips, and kissed the blade. Sookie could almost hear him, his message seemed so clear, “Soon,” he was telling her.
Sending Eric her joy and her pride came automatically, but their moment was interrupted by a loud hiss that came from the crowd. It startled her and she broke eye contact. Sookie handed the chalice back to the vampire who was helping with the ceremony and got ready to step down. She realized she had half expected Eric to hand her the knife. Instead he wiped the blade with a cloth and placed it on the table next to him. Sookie looked for Pam, and together they walked back to their places beside Maude. The Queen looped her arms through theirs, pulled them close, and the three of them stood together to watch the rest of the ceremony.
Sookie was told Eric would receive an actual crown, but she hadn’t seen it until Bartlett took it out of its box. It was gold, which didn’t surprise her, but it was strangely modern looking, which did. The circlet was comprised of overlapping squares roughly modeled in shaped gold. The edges of each square extended, reminding Sookie of a disconnected tic tac toe grid repeated over and over. It was not a tall crown. The irregular points which resembled flames barely rose above the top of Eric’s head. All in all, it was masculine and seemed to suit him. (It suited her as well when later in their chambers he placed it on her, and proceeded to demonstrate all the ways a monarch had to sacrifice oneself for their kingdom.)
Thalia took her place on the stage next and another round of incense, swords, and blood started. At one point, Thalia sliced her wrist, Eric sliced his own, and they grasped forearms, mingling their blood. Sookie had been told of blood oaths and she knew she was witnessing one. Maude leaned over to whisper, “Thalia has never made a child, but I believe she sees your Viking as her own.” Sookie was surprised, but then, when she thought of it, it made sense. When some more words were intoned and more smoke released into the air, Thalia bowed and took her place behind Eric, his second in battle and pledged to him personally.
Pam stepped forward again, and it was her turn to take a blood oath as Regent. A smaller crown, more of a tiara, was placed on her head and the incense started all over again. Sookie wondered if they would have to pay extra to have the smoke steam-cleaned out of everything.
Finally it was over and Sookie practically ran for the exit to find clear air. The outside area was surrounded by a tall fence providing the privacy they needed. A quartet was set up in the corner of the yard and as others drifted out of the house, the music started. Sookie was soon surrounded by well-wishers. She turned to find herself face-to-face with Jane, who bowed low. “Princess,” the Sheriff greeted the telepath, “I am honored to have witnessed tonight. Know that I serve both your Houses and I pledge myself to you both as part of this new House.”
Sookie wasn’t really sure what to make of it, so she said what she felt sounded polite, “Jane, I guess we don’t know each other real well. I heard you know my Grandfather though.”
“I do,” Jane smiled, “It has been my pleasure and honor to have worked closely with both Niall and Dermot.” A cloud seemed to pass over her face, “I will always regret that I was not able to find a solution for them, but when you are ready, I know it will work for you.” Sookie was trying to puzzle out what the Sheriff was telling her when Eric appeared at her elbow.
Sookie smiled at her Viking and, when she turned back, Jane was gone, replaced by a press of those who wished to congratulate Eric and either bow or shake hands. Emil Touissant introduced his wife, and she and Sookie exchanged compliments about each other’s dresses. She watched as the woman’s eyes kept returning to the crown that sat on her head and her feeling of embarrassment returned. When they were joined by the Mayor of New Orleans and his wife, Sookie was tempted to grab the jewel from her hair and have Eric return it to its box.
“What a lovely headpiece,” the Mayor’s wife commented, “Is it a family heirloom?”
“Why, yes,” Eric answered for her, “Sookie was presented it only recently. I take it as a good sign that we have the support of her family,” and he made a show of looking deeply in her eyes and kissing her hand. Sookie could ‘hear’ the woman sighing, thinking that the two of them were a real life fairy tale. ‘You don’t know the half of it sister!’ Sookie thought to herself. Eric shook his head at her just a little, and then encircled her with his arm, keeping her close to him in a way that was not vampire-like.
“I thought it must be old,” the woman continued, “You just don’t see work like that anymore!” Sookie was so curious she dipped into the human’s head and realized with a start that the Mayor’s wife couldn’t see the glow that pulsed and had grown in strength with Eric’s direct contact.
Sookie wondered whether the Weres could see her light and dipped into Emil’s head. It wasn’t really necessary because when the light pulsed both he and his wife, who was also a Were, looked in her direction. Somehow knowing the fairy light was something only supernaturals could see put Sookie more at ease and she stopped worrying quite so much about wearing the jewel.
A slow song started, and Eric interrupted the Mayor who was now trying to convince Maxwell Lee that as first citizens of the City they should ‘adopt’ the area where the palace was located and fund civic beautification projects. “If you will excuse us,” he bowed, and then led Sookie to the open area under the softly blinking lights. As they glided together, Sookie looked up at Eric’s face. She felt like they were moving in a bubble of happiness. Everything around them seemed soft and blurred, and only his face and his hand holding hers to his chest seemed fully in focus.
When the dance ended, he leaned down, kissed her, and as he pulled his head back Sookie said, “See? That was mine! My perfect moment,” and the band struck up a livelier number with the raw, bawdy sound of New Orleans and they danced some more.
From across the yard Nabila watched the couple bumping and grinding on the dance floor. “It would be wonderful if he would be open to sharing,” she sighed to Thierry. “Fairies are so beautiful, and that light? I wonder if it enhances their pleasure when she reaches completion?”
Russell was also watching the couple, “When do you expect an answer?” he asked politely.
“I gave Miss Stackhouse five days, but I imagine with her leaving for Sanctum tomorrow I will grant them an extension.”
“Kind of you,” Russell nodded.
“It is kind,” Bartlett agreed, slipping his arm around his partner. “I have to say, Nabila, you are behaving exceptionally understanding over the whole thing.”
Nabila glanced at Thierry before answering, “It’s not personal, Bartlett. I have the means to help them out of their problems and they have the means to help me out of mine. There are formalities that need to be observed, of course. I don’t expect others to understand us, they have such odd beliefs. The advantage they would have with me,” and Nabila nodded toward Eric and Sookie, “is that I have no illusions about it being anything other than a business transaction, but I would be a fool to ignore the wisdom of enforcing it as vampires have always done.” Beside her, Russell winced and the blood in his goblet slopped over his fingers. “Are you alright?” Nabila asked.
“He’s fine,” Bartlett answered, and kissed Russell’s cheek before saying, “Let me go get you a napkin to clean that up, Dear Heart.”
Russell’s smile never dropped, but his eyes followed Bartlett. “I wonder about what is happening in the North,” Russell changed the subject.
“I can’t imagine it’s anything other than a dust up that will make some noise and blow itself out,” Stan shrugged. “Misha’s been around a long time and you don’t survive if you aren’t smart about how you manage your affairs around them,” and Stan nodded at some of the human dignitaries who had been invited.
“I sure don’t believe that poking a stick at that hornet’s nest will gain us anything,” Isaiah agreed, “except trouble for our efforts. New York is a long ways away and Moshup is not like Narayana,” Kentucky said rather pointedly toward Nabila. “Moshup is too much country for one ruler. I know Misha took Boston, but I think you might be panicking for nothing. The bad blood between Tranh and Misha goes back a long time. What happened there wasn’t about territory, it was personal. Misha’s happy with what he’s got. I’ll grant you, having his foot soldiers running around can make a person nervous, but what my interrogators are telling me doesn’t sound like the beginnings of a takeover. It sounds like scouting paths through kingdoms though.”
“What would he be looking to move?” Rasul asked.
Russell snorted, “What wouldn’t he be looking to move? Drugs. Humans. If he comes through normal channels he owes us tithes.”
“Smuggling,” Rasul put a word to it.
“That makes sense,” Bartlett took Russell’s arm and dabbed at the blood stain on the King’s sleeve with a detergent pen he had found somewhere. “Inconvenient, of course, but much more in character with what I know of New York.”
“You aren’t worried that he will bring problems to your doorstep, then?” Thierry asked. He kept his tone carefully respectful as was proper for a Sheriff addressing monarchs. Maude threw him a look, and Isaiah couldn’t stop chuckling when he saw it.
Stan answered, “There is always trouble at our doorstep when humans are involved. You have certainly been around long enough to recognize the wisdom of stepping away when you have the option. Trouble comes, no need to borrow more.”
Thierry bowed and held his hand out for Nabila’s goblet, “May I bring you more, Majesty?” he smiled, and then glanced around, extending his offer to the others. Nabila handed him her glass and allowed her eyes to linger as he made his way through the crowd.
“You trust him?” Maude asked sharply.
“Yes,” Nabila answered, and then turned around, “I do. He has no love for New York,” and the Queen made a motion as if she was picking something from her sleeve. “He has ambitions, I think, but he’s also rather inconveniently loyal to Northman,” and she shrugged.
There was some glancing around and Isaiah filled the lull in the conversation by asking Maude, “You leaving tomorrow, then?”
Maude nodded, “My second has made the arrangements with Anubis. We won’t leave here until late afternoon so we can be active when we arrive. Barbara barely seems to be functioning. I asked Deirdre to fly out there to meet us. She’ll be on the redeye tonight. Lydia managed to clear out the guests before she did it. She told Barbara that she wanted to renovate a couple rooms before taking in anyone else. Barbara never thought to question her.” The Queen looked back at the dance floor. The group was playing a faster song, a kind of bouncy Cajun tune, and there were many dancing, including Eric and Sookie. The new King had his arm around the telepath and they were twirling in a kind of one-armed, backward circle. Sookie was laughing out loud and the Viking’s face was openly happy. It was charming and very un-vampire-like, but Maude couldn’t help smiling at their happiness. “Guess Barbara didn’t find the letter until mid-morning. By then there was nothing to do but call the police.”
Bartlett laid his hand on her arm, “I’ll be there in a couple days. Do you intend to bury her there?”
“No, no burial,” Maude told him. “She was too human to disappear so I will make arrangements to cremate her. It’s right that her essence should become a part of that land.”
“What will happen to Sanctum?” Rasul asked the question that was on all their minds. There had been something comforting about knowing there was a refuge, a place that offered a possibility of healing.
“I don’t know,” Maude told him. “Barbara said Lydia left instructions, papers. I’ll see what I find when I get there.”
Knowing they would be separated when Eric next rose, they remained awake and active until dawn claimed him. Sookie asked Eric why the crowd had hissed when he had kissed the knife on the stage after she drank from the chalice. Eric shrugged, “I couldn’t tell you,” he replied. “It must have been something that they could see from their angle. Ask Maude.” Now, as she sat in the van replaying the evening in her head, she found she needed to shift often. Eric had offered to heal her, but she had declined. She told him she wanted to feel him, the reminders of him, until she returned. It seemed a romantic gesture at the time, but now she was wondering when she had gotten so brain dead and resolved not to do something that stupid again. It wasn’t that she was in pain, but Eric was a large man and she might have encouraged him to be overly aggressive. There was something about being claimed by him that really lit her burners lately. She wasn’t able to explain it, but she was aware that her ovaries had a way of tingling when he went to town that she found irresistible. At one point during the night, he had been bringing her to completion with his mouth and she had just about manhandled him into stopping and replacing his tongue with his cock. “Feisty,” he had teased, but she knew he was wondering, too.
Sookie slept until the last possible minute and then busied herself with finishing the packing Meg had started for her. The telepath found that thoughts of what she was doing, of whom she was going to see were becoming more and more difficult to hold at bay. All in all, she was feeling ragged and edgy, and Sookie knew there was a prolonged period of crying in store for her. As she exited the chamber, Shari greeted her. The Were would be her guard for this trip.
Shari took one look at Sookie’s bleary eyes and seemed to know what was needed. She walked the telepath to the car, made sure that there was coffee ready, and handed it to her as soon as she settled back. Sookie sighed in thanks. She knew she just needed to keep it together until she was where she needed to be and had the space to finally release her feelings. Shari managed to sit beside her without making her feel the need to engage in small talk. Sookie glanced toward the back of the modified van as the two coffins carrying Maude and her second were loaded, and within almost no time they were driving slowly through traffic on their way to the airport.
The van pulled up to the Anubis private hangar on the airport grounds. Workers moved forward, gurneys wheeled to the back of the van. A uniformed man opened Sookie’s door and offered his hand to help her step down. Shari jumped out to grab suitcases while another woman waved both the telepath and the Were toward the stairs that led into the plane. Within no time, Sookie was seated, belted in, and the plane was taxiing to the runways. Shari glanced at the telepath and then settled into a seat directly behind her. Sookie held onto the armrest and shut her eyes when she felt the pressure and heard the roar of the engines as the plane started its run. This was always her least favorite part of flying, but with all the travelling she had been doing, it bothered her less than ever.
As they climbed up and over the clouds, Sookie found her thoughts drifting. She thought about the ceremony and the happy, supportive faces. She thought about the change in the way the vampires treated her when she wore the crown. She thought about how irresistible she was finding Eric, and how during the course of the evening, her interest turned to longing, and by the time they arrived at the palace was almost a physical hunger for him. She was starting to worry over the shift in her desires when she realized she could feel Eric rising. The ding on her phone coincided with the sound of the door at the back of the cabin opening, as Maude and her second emerged from the separate area used to house coffins and walked forward. Sookie keyed in her password and opened the text. It was a video of Eric’s hand stroking his cock with the message, “Thinking of you.” Sookie felt a wave of heat travel through her and she had a crazy desire to reach down and touch herself, but instead she jumped and fumbled the phone as the Queen spoke behind her.
“How are you feeling?” Maude asked and Sookie blushed bright red. She realized the monarch was asking if she was rested, but she couldn’t help thinking about the ache between her legs and felt like it was pasted across her forehead.
“I’m fine!” Sookie smiled back. “It sure was a wonderful night.”
“It was an interesting night,” Maude’s second answered. Sookie realized she had never been formally introduced to this vampire, so she pasted on her best smile, and fell back on the manners her Grandmother had drilled into her.
“My name is Sookie Stackhouse,” she said brightly, “and this is my guard, Shari Decker,” and Shari nodded. “Of course, I’ve seen you over the past few nights, and I do apologize for not making more of an effort,” and Sookie bobbed her head.
Maude’s second chuckled, “I heard you were a sweetheart, Princess. I am Inger.”
“Well, I think we can dispense with all that Princess stuff for now,” Sookie said a little too gaily. “Sookie will be just fine.”
Inger looked at Maude then said, “Thank you, Sookie,” with a quick bow of her head.
With that settled Maude stepped right across Sookie’s knees and took the seat next to the window. Anubis flights had plenty of legroom and the seats were generous, but Sookie still needed to lean back to allow the Minnesota Queen the space needed to make the maneuver. Inger retrieved two bags of blood out of a warmer near the front of the cabin, and she handed one to Maude on her way toward a seat in the back of the cabin. Shari rose and walked back to join her, and soon Sookie could hear them falling into conversation, making the telepath feel mildly guilty about how quiet and moody she was.
Maude gestured to the bag she held, “Do you mind?” she asked. Sookie shrugged and shook her head. She was all too comfortable with this kind of thing now and it didn’t cause her one minute’s concern. Maude looked out the window as she drank. An attendant emerged from the cockpit, apparently alerted that his vampire customers had risen. He stopped near Sookie and asked if she was interested in something to eat.
“I’d love some ice tea if you have it,” she told him.
“I was informed of your preferences, Miss Stackhouse,” he said smoothly, and then walked back to the small galley in the front of the plane.
Maude elbowed her, “Pays to fly with the best, doesn’t it?” she said archly.
The man walked up and down the aisle, distributing from a basket to his non-vampire guests that held an assortment of sandwiches and the kettle chips Sookie liked best. There were pralines and almond cookies for dessert. Maude sipped and mostly kept to herself until the attendant cleared away the food, papers, and then retreated into the cockpit. “So, how are you doing?” Maude asked her.
Sookie wasn’t sure how to answer. “You mean about Lydia?” and the tightness in her chest suddenly reappeared with a vengeance and she swallowed it back in spite of the stinging in her eyes. “I’m trying not to think about it until we’re there.”
Maude nodded and took Sookie’s hand. “There will be plenty of time for that sorrow,” she nodded, “No, I was asking about all the rest. You hardly seem like the same young woman I met in Jackson. When I saw that light pour out of you when you accepted the Viking’s gesture last night? Well, it was like every wish that Lydia ever had for you was realized.”
“What are you talking about? What light?” Sookie asked.
“You really didn’t know, did you?” and Maude patted Sookie’s hand. “When he raised the knife to his lips and you turned to him, that fairy light of yours took on a different quality. I can’t describe it, but I took it as a sign.”
“What kind of sign?” Sookie couldn’t help keeping a note of concern from her voice. She was pretty sure she wouldn’t be wearing that crown again until she had had a long talk with Niall on what was happening and what kind of magic was woven into the jewel.
“I interpreted it as a sign that you were destined, meant to be together, especially when taken with the fuss the Ancient Pythoness made in San Antonio. You know, I think it was knowing your story, you and your Viking, that tipped the scale for Lydia. I can’t think of why else she would have taken you into Sanctum. You looked terrible! You showed no promise whatsoever and didn’t seem to have any clear worth to anyone. I know Bart and Russell were vouching for you, but Lydia was not generous when it came to whom she accepted as guests. A monarch’s sponsorship could get you an interview, but there had to be more to get you in the door. I believe there was something about your relationship that captured her interest.”
“Why did she do it?” It was the question that was foremost in Sookie’s mind. It kept coming to her at odd times, the reality so hard to reconcile with the knowing, intelligent woman that had been Lydia.
Maude looked surprised, but only for a moment, “Oh, you weren’t told,” she said, almost to herself. “Robert, the California King was killed a couple weeks ago. I talked with her once it was confirmed and I thought that she was coming to terms with it, but I guess not.”
Sookie thought of the tall, regal vampire she had met in Nashville. She had even bowed to him. “That was her Robert? The King?”
“Boy, you really have been kept in the dark, haven’t you? I am going to talk with Pam. You need to be included in gossip for your own sake,” and then Maude’s eyes drifted. “He was the love of her life,” the Minnesota Queen said softly.
“I asked her once if he was dead. When I was at Sanctum, the way she talked about him…” Sookie’s voice trailed off, not sure what to say that wouldn’t sound hurtful or disrespectful.
Maude looked out the window and into the dark night beyond, “I asked her a hundred times why she didn’t contact him, try to talk. She’d tell me to mind my own business, that that chapter of her life was closed.” Maude sighed, “She never spoke of him, except in that nostalgic, story-telling way of hers.”
Sookie thought the Queen was done speaking and she started to turn back to her own thoughts when Maude said, “They were the most beautiful couple. He was so serious, a dark Knight to her bright foolishness. Watching them together, you just couldn’t help smiling, which was good because he never did! But her? I don’t think there was any single thing about being alive that didn’t amuse her. She would laugh at the rain. One time I saw her dance in a park all by herself because the wind made a whirlwind of leaves and she just had to play with it. The Lydia I knew then was like water in your hand, quick and silver and constant movement.” Maude smiled, and there was red rimming her eyes. “I still don’t know exactly how they met. She never told me that story and, goodness knows, he wouldn’t! He was the most taciturn man I ever knew when it came to his personal life. She came to visit me soon after though and I could tell something had changed with her. I knew her as one of the most present persons I had ever met, but once he was in her life, she started living each moment. He changed, too. You could see it in his eyes, the way they followed her when they were anywhere near each other.”
Maude reached for a napkin and dabbed her face, pulling the white away bloody. “It’s a testament to how intensely private they were about their feelings that it took years for most people to notice they were together. Robert would move to another territory and she would follow. It was different then, pre-Revelation,” and Maude gave Sookie a significant look, “so working your way up in terms of reputation was different, but Robert? He was a climber, kind of like your Eric,” and Maude poked Sookie’s arm. “We vampires would hear stories of him. Robert was fearless and terrible in battle. He was old, at least as old as your Viking, but more… well, insular, I suppose. You never would have seen Robert with Were guards! That was what made his association with Lydia so unexpected!”
Maude snorted and shook her head, “You know I asked him flat out one time what his intentions were toward my friend, and, at first, he gave me a death stare that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I was going to give him a piece of my mind, but then? I’ll never forget the way his eyes got soft and his whole face changed. It almost didn’t look like him anymore. He never said one word, but his smile was so sweet I had my answer,” and Maude looked away suddenly, the napkin back to her face and she seemed to draw a long breath. After a moment, Maude continued, “And Lydia? For all her talking she could speak more and say less than anyone I ever knew. She was easy to be around, but hard to know. Getting particulars from her was like pulling dragon’s teeth, but I know it was intense between them,” and Maude winked.
“She showed up in Minnesota one time. She knew where my primary safe house was located and I rose one night to find her hunched over my coffin, waiting for me. Startled me good, I don’t mind saying. I hadn’t seen her or heard from her in over a month. There was a time we talked or wrote every week. She asked if I would loan her my safe house on Superior, gave me a total bullshit excuse that she needed time to recharge. Well, she looked plenty energetic to me. She was talking a mile a minute about nothing and everything. I had a wood bannister in the house, which we tend not to do. Never a good thing to have a safe house full of material that could kill you! Lydia touched it and the damn thing sent out branches! I told her I wouldn’t agree unless she told me the real reason, and she told me she was meeting someone, and I knew who it was. So, I gave her the key and asked her to return it when she was done,” Maude’s smile became reflective, “When two months passed and there was no key, I decided to take a trip and make sure she was okay. It was early, almost dawn when I arrived. I came out of the woods on the water’s edge. I could feel the sun and the water was covered with rising mist. The sky was that soft, dove gray and I was glad I was close to shelter. That’s when I saw them. They were doing what comes natural, of course, but there was something in the way he held her. There are times when you see two people together and you say to yourself, ‘There! That is love.’ Seeing them together, thigh deep in the water, that was one of those moments.” Maude reached over and took Sookie’s hand, “I had another one of those moments in my own kitchen when I saw you and the North Man. You were walking back to your chamber, hand in hand, and for a minute you looked at each other, and there it was.”
Sookie blushed, remembering making love with Eric under the Minnesota sky, and the Queen laughed, “You must think I’m a silly old woman to be so sentimental but truly, Sookie, I have found that the things that matter are the moments and not the grand gestures. Lydia taught me that.”
“Why did they separate?” Sookie asked. She was afraid she already knew and she was not disappointed.
“Politics is the easy answer,” the Queen told her, “but there was more. They were both headstrong in their own ways, stubborn. He lived by a code that said if you don’t have something stunning to say, don’t say anything at all. Of course, Lydia was his opposite. She talked like wind through the trees! When the Ancient Pythoness decided to take a hand in dividing the territories and naming monarchs, Robert was the first to put his name forward. I don’t think it was all ambition. I think he honestly did believe he was the best for the job, and no question he was one of the best among us.” The Queen paused in her narrative, giving Sookie a long look before she continued, “Of course, the idea of having a fairy hybrid, a pet, as a consort? That never would have flown. You know what a proud race we are, so they fought. I think he asked her to remain in his kingdom, but with no official standing.”
“She would have been his mistress,” Sookie said,” No one would have respected her.” Sookie remembered a time long ago when Eric was caught in the contract to marry Freyda and Sookie couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t just refuse and choose her. Eric had told her in that moment that he wanted her to come with him, that in spite of his being married they could still have time together. Sookie remembered how outraged and hurt she had felt. “She probably laid into him,” she said softly.
“I don’t have to know the words that were said to know it was terrible,” Maude agreed. “Lydia was different after that. She would still laugh and she would still dance a time or two, but it was as if some part of her was gone. I think I told myself that she had grown up, but now? Now I think that she gave him something she could never reclaim and when they separated, it left a hole that never healed.” Sookie took Maude’s hand. It seemed the right gesture and Maude did look happier for the contact. “Lydia became a great healer. She made something of her life, something important. But for everything she did and everyone she helped, I can’t stop thinking about how they looked, standing in that lake together and I wonder if she made the right choice for her.”
“My Gran used to say that God meant us for better things than crying ourselves to sleep. Maybe Lydia thought that if she couldn’t be happy and whole at least she could at least help others heal,” Sookie bit her lip, “‘cause goodness knows, she helped me.”
The ride to Sanctum was shorter than Sookie remembered it. The Queen spent much of it on the phone either talking or texting. Inger and Shari were sharing gossip about those who had attended the Coronation and Sookie caught Thomas’ name several times. When she wasn’t eavesdropping, Sookie was opening messages on her phone. Eric had started texting her dirty poetry. Sookie reminded him she wasn’t alone, so the next text was a photo of him shirtless, holding himself and smiling, fangs extended. Behind her Inger chuckled, and Sookie blushed again. When the phone next dinged, Sookie ignored it. Maude looked at her when the phone dinged another couple times, “Aren’t you going to get that?” she asked.
“No, nope,” Sookie mumbled, but her fingers were itching to see what naughtiness he sent her. Fortunately they were pulling up to the circular drive. Barbara must have been waiting for them because the car never even came to a stop before she was opening the door, Maude was out of the car in a blur. She opened her arms and Barbara stepped into them. The human’s face was drawn and her eyes swollen. When Maude released her, Barbara nodded to Inger and Shari, and then stepped toward Sookie, catching her up in a hug that surprised the telepath with its strength.
“She loved you,” Barbara whispered in her ear. “She was so happy to hear news of you. I am so glad you came.” Barbara circled her arm around Sookie and led the way into the house. Sookie could smell something heavenly as they got closer to the kitchen and she wasn’t surprised to see Deirdre’s red hair tied up into a bandanna and the woman herself leaning over the stove. Once they entered, Deirdre stood long enough to nod and wipe her hands. She hurried to the refrigerator, brought out bags of blood, and busied herself at the microwave. Once she had settled Maude, she spooned out a fragrant stew, and placed two bowls on the table. Barbara tried to beg off, but Sookie insisted she at least sit down. Once they were seated, Deirdre walked back into the small room that Sookie remembered as Lydia’s office. She was only gone a minute when she returned with several large envelopes and other papers. Most she set in front of Maude, but she pulled one envelope from the pile and set it in front of Sookie. The telepath ran her finger across the surface, tracing her own name written in the dead healer’s bold hand.
“Has the coven taken care of reinforcing the wards?” Maude asked.
“They left about an hour ago,” Deirdre confirmed. “I turned off the phones. The email account is probably full again. I cleaned it out while the witches were here.”
Maude nodded and she smiled as she spoke directly to Barbara, “She was loved by so many.”
Deirdre jerked her chin at Sookie, “You ready?” she asked.
Sookie was confused, “Ready for what?” she asked.
“I’ll take her,” Barbara said quickly and stood. “Come on, I’ll take you to see her.” Sookie was going to ask ‘Who,’ but Barbara was already walking swiftly down the corridor. Maude had turned to speak with Deirdre, her face intent, and Sookie figured since no one else seemed too worried about her seeing this mystery person she shouldn’t either. She found she had to skip a couple times to keep up with Barbara and realized with a jolt she was heading toward the light tight quarters she had shared with Eric when he came to get her and ended up being taken by her instead. Barbara paused outside the same door, and then paused with her hand on the knob. “She’s out of danger, but she is still very weak. Lydia was sure she would recover in time but she does like to have the light kept low. If you give it a minute your eyes will adjust,” and she slightly opened the door and left without another word, leaving Sookie standing in the hallway.
Taking a deep breath, Sookie pushed into the room. It was dark as Barbara had said, but that didn’t keep the woman in the room from seeing her. “Hello, Sookie,” Karin said.
Sookie stepped forward then, “Karin? Is that you?”
Karin’s voice sounded breathy, “It’s all right if you leave the door open. There’s a chair next to the bed. Can you see it?” Sookie could see the outline of a straight backed chair and she walked toward it. “You look good,” the vampire whispered and Sookie could hear her taking a wheezy breath, “and you smell like my Maker, inside and out.” Sookie felt the blush rush over her, frankly embarrassed by the vampire’s blunt assessment.
Sookie sat down and realized she could make out Karin’s face. Perhaps it was the shadows, but her face looked sunken. “You don’t look good, Karin. What happened to you? Did Lydia bring you here?”
Karin made a sound that could have been laughing, “Oh yes, she did bring me here,” Karin wheezed, “but not for the reason you think. Your Lydia’s purpose in calling me had nothing to do with healing.”
“But you’re hurt!” Sookie could see that Karin looked odd on the bed, like there was something missing or off about her.
“Go ahead!” Karin told her, “I can see you’re curious. There’s a lamp beside you. Turn it on.”
Sookie reached her hand to the lamp. “Okay, I found it. You can close your eyes for a minute if you like.” Sookie didn’t know why she was telling the vampire the same thing her Gran used to tell her before she would bring a dark room to light. She didn’t wait for Karin to acknowledge her before she turned the knob. Karin was lying more or less on her back, but her chest looked oddly sunken on one side and her shoulder on the other was too far forward to be natural. What was more, there was no arm below the shoulder and the sleeve of Karin’s shirt hung loose. Sookie knew her mouth was hanging open. It took Karin’s cynical, sad grin to make her get ahold of herself and put a more neutral expression on her face. “What happened to you, Karin?” she asked, using the same soothing tone Lydia used to use for her.
“You should see your face,” Karin smirked at her, then her eyes blinked and she said, “Enough! Turn it off; you’ve seen what I am.” Once the light was off, Karin harrumphed. “I’m not going to wait for you to find your polite way to ask. I’ll be exhausted by the time you weasel around to it. Your buddy, Saint Lydia, hired me about two weeks ago. She has a good network because I didn’t want to be found, but she found me anyway.”
“What did she hire you for?” Sookie couldn’t keep the question from tumbling out.
“Why do you think?” Karin’s words were bitter, “She wanted me to kill someone. That’s what I do. I kill people for money. You know that, Sookie.”
“Is that how you were hurt?” Sookie was sure she sounded as foolish as she felt. There could be only one reason Lydia would have hired an assassin, to avenge Robert’s death.
“He was good,” Karin told her, “but I was better. Still…” and Sookie could see her struggling to shift, “He almost was the end of me.”
“How long have you been here?” the telepath figured she knew the answer and she was right.
“I arrived two nights ago. The Lady here told me I had to provide her proof, so I found my way back. “
“Who was it, Karin? Who killed Robert?” Sookie leaned forward, “Was it Felipe?”
Karin shook her head, “No, although there won’t be many who will believe it. Stupid bastard couldn’t wait before he was claiming the kingdom,” she laughed dryly again, “Idiot!”
“Then who else?” Sookie couldn’t imagine anyone else with a motive. Only Felipe seemed to have gotten something out of this.
“Horst,” Karin told her. “Horst…” and the vampire fell back on the bed. “You see, I wasn’t enough. He wanted Felipe back. He figured if he gave De Castro California, then maybe all would be forgiven. He missed it, the friendship, and having someone who believed in him.” Sookie stood up and shifted herself carefully onto the bed so she could place her hand on Karin’s shoulder, the one that wasn’t damaged. Karin flinched, then calmed. “Shit, is that what you do to Eric, too? You push your little fairy Prozac on him?” Karen shuddered and Sookie removed her hand. “Just don’t touch me,” Karin looked at Sookie, “And stop pitying me. I survived! It looks bad and it will take awhile for me to heal, but I will.”
Sookie remembered when Bill had been poisoned with silver after the Fairy War, “Karin, would you heal faster if you had Eric’s blood?”
There was a flash of hope on Karin’s face, but then she shut it down, “It makes no difference. I don’t have anywhere I need to go, but I do have something for you.”
Sookie shook her head, “Like what? A warning?”
Karin laughed then, “You are a pip! You think I might want to hurt you, but you’ll still sit here right next to me and trying to make me feel better. You really don’t have any sense at all! No! I have something you need and I don’t want it.” She gestured toward the dresser, “Turn the light on and take a look at what’s in that envelope over there.”
Sookie hummed her disapproval, but she switched the lamp back on and then walked to the dresser. There was a buff envelope closed with a metal clasp. When she opened it, a bank book of sorts fell out. It had the stamp of a European country and there was a note. It said,
‘Karin, I’ve named you my heir. It’s all yours. H-‘
Sookie glanced at Karin who nodded that she should open the book. Sookie’s eyes were drawn to the last figure and it had more zeroes than she’d ever seen.
“Karin, I can’t take this! I’m sure you have something you could do with this.”
“I do, Sookie. I can give you your independence, pretty much for the rest of your existence. There’s over fifty million dollars there. That’s a lot of money, and I’ve already contacted your demon spawn of an attorney. He’ll be here for the funeral so I can sign the paperwork.” Karin laughed again, “You should see your face. It reminds me of every mark I’ve taken who never saw it coming.” She glanced away, “At least Horst gave as good as he got.”
“Why not invest in this place?” Sookie asked her. “Why me?”
“Why? Because that,” and she jerked her chin toward the book in Sookie’s hand, “That’s blood money. I won’t take one penny of it. No, you take it, you and my Maker.” When Sookie looked as if she would protest again, Karin continued, “Believe me, I have just as much, and as of my pay-off for this job? I actually have more. I just need a place to lay low for a while until I heal.”
Sookie nodded, “You have it. You’re coming home with me. You can have a whole floor at the palace if that would work for you.”
“Sookie!” Karin sighed, “You can’t do that! Eric has disowned me. He won’t be bringing me back.”
If Karin knew Sookie well, she would have recognized the set of the telepath’s lip and the way she fisted her hand on her hip, “Well, don’t you worry one little minute about that!” she told Karin, “I’ll take care of it!”
“I believe you will,” Karin sighed. “Turn off the light on your way out.”
Once she was in the hall Sookie opened the book again and looked at the figure, and then she reached for the phone. There were ten texts awaiting her from Eric, but she skipped them to send one to Mr. Cataliades, asking him when he was arriving at Sanctum.
Shari met her in the corridor on her way back to the kitchen. She confirmed that Sookie had been placed in the same room she had used when she had been here as a guest. Sookie slipped Horst’s papers in her pocket, but as she did, her fingers touched the envelope that Deirdre had handed her, the one from Lydia herself. Walking into the kitchen and hearing the conversations going on, Sookie realized how truly tired she was. She excused herself and let Deirdre and Barbara know she would down in the kitchen in the morning. She said goodnight to Shari, “I’m sure I’ll be safe here. You don’t have to stand guard tonight,” and shuffled off to her room. On her way she passed the aviary, the same place where Eric had found her what seemed like a million years ago. In truth it was barely a year. She found herself smiling and humming as she thought of how that started her new life, her real life. She found her room, changed into her nightgown, and opened each of Eric’s messages, one by one.
There once was a plumber named Lee
Who was plumbing his girl by the sea….
Each was worse than the other and she fell asleep giggling helplessly at the thought of her strong, fearsome King finding time to send her dirty jokes. “I love you once, I love you twice, I love you more than cheese and rice,” she sent him, and then turned off her phone and fell asleep.
“So, what will happen here?” Sookie asked Barbara. The housekeeper was looking better this morning. Deirdre had mentioned earlier to Sookie that she had insisted that Barbara take a sleeping pill the night before.
“I don’t know,” Barbara told her, “It will really be up to Maude. Lydia left her everything.”
Deidre filled Sookie’s coffee cup, “So you had a good conversation with Herself, then?”
“Karin? Yes…” Mr. Cataliades had texted her this morning, letting her know he was aware of her ‘bequest’ and asking that she not discuss it with anyone, including Eric, until he arrived and talked with her about it. Sookie thought it odd but, on the other hand, if there was something wrong she didn’t want to get Eric’s hopes up. The attorney was due to arrive this afternoon and she figured if everything checked out, it would still be good news later tonight.
Barbara looked at her, “Did she tell you what happened?”
Sookie sipped her coffee and then set it down, “She told me Lydia hired her to kill Horst. She told me Horst was the one who killed Robert and that it was about revenge.” Barbara nodded in agreement. Sookie shook her head, “I still can’t believe it. But that’s how Karin got hurt. Horst almost had the best of her, too.”
A single tear slipped down Barbara’s face and she swiped it away, “I knew that’s what she’d done. I tried to tell myself I was wrong, but it was a part of her, that fierce spirit. Most people never saw it. They saw what you saw, this kind, all-giving healer, but the fairy part of her, the fighter? It was always there just under the surface. When she got word that Robert was gone it was like she peeled off everything she had made herself into. She got practical and hard. She knew exactly what she was doing. She stopped talking to me, to anyone.” Another tear slipped down the woman’s face. “She got rid of the guests and she pulled out a book of numbers I’d never seen before. She called in favors and before I knew it, Karin the Slaughterer was here.”
“It must have been terrifying,” Deirdre murmured, moving to place her arm around Barbara’s shoulders.
“I didn’t know her anymore, or maybe I never did,” Barbara’s look was close to shock. “She sat in her office, a knife in her hand for days, watching the phone. When she got the text, she told me to prepare the light tight quarters and she moved into the hallway. She sat there in a chair and waited until Karin arrived. She dropped all her veneers. In all the years I knew her, she never appeared without some kind of mask or enhancement. When Karin arrived, she had the ambulance people take her in and settle her. She and Karin talked most of the night and when I got up the next morning, she was gone.” Sookie caught an image of what Barbara had found on the far hilltop, the healer on the ground, her eyes open, and the knife near her hand. Lydia had slashed her own carotid artery and bled out, facing the sun. Two more tears fell as she looked at Sookie, “You’re part Fae. Do you think they’re together now?”
Sookie wiped her face on a napkin and took a deep breath, “The Fae believe that when they pass from the corporeal world their spirits travel to the Summerlands. If she was headed there she would have appeared to her oldest living relative. Do you know who that would be?” Barbara shook her head and Sookie reached across the table to squeeze Barbara’s hand. “I will tell you that one time Eric and I talked about it, what would happen if we were to fall. He believes that we would meet there and that we would be together forever.”
Barbara grabbed a napkin to wipe her face as well. Glancing at the pocket in Sookie’s robe, the telepath’s eyes followed hers to see the edge of the envelope that Sookie still had not opened. “Are you going to read that?” Barbara asked.
Sookie pulled the envelope from her pocket and nodded, “I thought I’d go outside and sit in the sun a bit.” She stood, her knees feeling surprisingly shaky.
“I’ll have lunch together in an hour or so,” Deirdre smiled. Sookie nodded and walked rather stiffly through the French doors and out onto the stone patio. It was a brisk day, but the sun was bright and warm where the wall blocked the breeze. She pulled up a chair in a sunny spot, pulled her sweater around her, and then turned the envelope over so she could slip it open.
Of all my guests, you were the one in which I most saw myself. As I heard your story, how could I not hear my own? By the time you read this I will have gone to meet my Robert, together finally in the only way that could work for us. I only hope he is not too far ahead but it would be like him to make me hurry.
If there is one word of advice I would give you it is this. Never be afraid to demand what you wish. I was afraid to demand what I wanted and I lived my life without what might have made us both happy. Be bold, because life rewards those who take chances.
You and Eric Northman are meant for great things. Believe in that and you will always find happiness.
Sookie looked out across the rolling land. “Oh, Lydia,” she said to the wind.
They were gathered around the table for lunch when Mr. Cataliades arrived. He walked right in through the same French doors Sookie had used earlier. In no time he had a plate, a place, and he amused them all with the noises of appreciation he made as he ate.
“Thank goodness I won’t have to worry about leftovers,” Deirdre said with a wry smile as she filled his plate a third time.
“Always pesky, that sort of thing at times like these,” the attorney agreed solemnly and proceeded to eat again as if he had just started.
Once the dishes were cleared and cleaning up well underway, he turned to Sookie. “Is there someplace we can talk?”
Deirdre glanced up and suggested, “What about the office?”
Sookie glanced at the door and she experienced a stab of pain. The last time she had set foot in that room Lydia had been questioning her wisdom on leaving for Jackson and Eric. “No, I think we can talk near the aviary.” Barbara nodded and Sookie could see that the woman understood. Sookie wiped her hands one last time and she led Mr. Cataliades to the lovely room with the long windows that overlooked the Connecticut hills.
The demon pulled a table close to their chairs and then he opened the case he had been carrying. Inside were papers, pens, and a manila folder with ‘Stackhouse’ written in bold, black letters on the tab. “You are now a very wealthy woman, Miss Stackhouse,” the attorney smiled at her. “What’s more, you have established a royal pedigree and have been seen publically wearing the symbols of your rank.” He paused and seemed to be waiting for her to say something, but Sookie was not sure where this was going. When he had waited a few minutes, he pursed his lips a bit and then said, “Of course I understand your interest in exploring the freedom your divorce would provide. It was not a happy union and wanting to remain single for a period of time would be perfectly understandable.”
“What are you talking about?” Sookie asked, “You know I want to marry Eric!”
“Aah,” he said, his tone remaining business-like as if they had no particular association beyond their work relationship, “So, you would be open to the idea of a marriage to a vampire King?”
Sookie was about to ask him whether he had lost his mind when she suddenly realized what was happening, “Yes, Desmond. I would be open to the idea if the terms could be worked out to suit all parties.”
The attorney smiled broadly, “Well, Princess, then we have some work to do in drafting our first proposal.”