Author’s Note: I wrote this in two parts. When Breathesgirl, my Kitchener beta champion, read the first part she was concerned that the story was headed in a dark direction. It led to some conversation and the concerns were addressed when the second part was released. It convinced me that the best course was to combine the parts and release as one long chapter. This allows the narrative to unfold and doesn’t send the reader in the wrong direction.
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: A low swell at sea signifies that some event has happened somewhere beyond the horizon that has carried enough force that it has created huge, underwater waves. These waves can travel hundreds of miles and end as tsunamis or record surf on distant shores. The more regular the swell and the longer the time interval between them, the more force the unseen water that moves just below the surface carries with it.
Sookie looked around her at the lovely potted trees that dotted the rooftop garden. Above her the trailing scarlet honeysuckle flowed up and over the pergola. Sookie had been led from the bedroom area to a large industrial kitchen on the ground floor. Once she had been delivered, her escort had turned and left without another word. Sookie had approached a man in the kitchen who was near the stoves and asked if she could have breakfast. In no time at all he had prepared her a plate of fresh fruit and eggs with toast. The man who had done the cooking had suggested she might wish to eat on the rooftop terrace and Sookie had followed him through corridors and up two flights of stairs to this place.
When she introduced herself, the man had told her he knew who she was but he had made it clear that he wasn’t going to share his own name. “Just an employee,” he’d said with a smile. Sookie peeked into his head and although he wasn’t a clear broadcaster she got the impression that he was purposely avoiding knowing anything about her; like he was afraid of getting too involved. He set her up at the table and asked if there was anything else she needed.
When Sookie asked for coffee the cook left and then the coffee had appeared after a short delay with a different man. This new person set down a tray that included milk, sugar and one cup in addition to a coffee pot. As he turned to leave Sookie asked whether there were hummingbirds here but the man shrugged and told her he didn’t know. As Sookie watched his back retreating down the stairs she peeked in his brain too. He was the same as the first; not negative, just not wanting to get to know too much about her.
Sookie decided she would wait until Eric rose and then ask him about it.
The sunlight filtered through the leaves and the air around her was heavy with the perfume of blossoms and the lazy buzzing of hundreds of bees and wasps. Sookie closed her eyes and found herself thinking of her Gran’s rose bushes in Bon Temps and the way the bees used to fly, fat and full from one blossom to the next. She found herself missing the scent of the pond in back of Jason’s house and the way the air moved heavy and rich in the cemetery where her Gran was resting. Sookie sent a quick wish that everything at home was good and that she would see her friends and family soon. Her eyelids were bright with the light of day and she took a deep breath as she allowed herself to truly relax. And then, without warning the light went dark.
Sookie opened her eyes and jumped. There was a tall thin woman standing in front of her, her hair outlined by the sun.
Sookie held a hand up over her eyes to try and cut back the glare. “Well, hey,” Sookie said.
The woman didn’t say anything, she just continued to stare and Sookie got the feeling she should be worried. Sookie felt her smile settle into something a little less welcoming but then she decided that she would follow her Gran’s advice and press on her best manners. “Can I ask the folks downstairs to get you something?” Sookie asked. “I have some coffee right here. I’m sure that I can get you an extra cup.”
“I don’t do breakfast,” the woman said. There was something about her nasally voice that told Sookie that this had to be Twy, Eric’s publicist from New York.
“Well that’s okay,” Sookie said, her smile thinning again. “Lots of folks don’t.”
“So, you would be the famous Sookie Stackhouse,” the woman said and she moved a little to pull out a chair and sit down. Sookie sat up and made sure her lips looked more pleased than presumed upon.
“Well, you must be Twy,” Sookie replied. “Eric and Pam have told me a little about you. And, of course I saw you on TV when you were in Los Angeles.” And then Sookie felt her smile become a little more genuine. “Eric told me what you did and I am really grateful. If Felipe had won that lawsuit I’d probably be a prisoner in Las Vegas now. So thank you.”
Twy tilted her head a little to the side. Sookie had the impression that the woman was a stork and that she was an insect. “You are pretty. We’ll have to see how you look on the other side of the lens. Your voice is pleasant. Should sound well on the playback.” Then the woman sighed, “Of course you are on the heavy side. We’ll have to adjust wardrobe. Can’t have Northman looking like he’s shopping at Walmart.” Then her look turned a little more considering. “But then again it could play well for mainstreaming. Vampire king and Miss Average America.” Then Twy’s look sharpened and Sookie felt like she was back under the lens again. “So what happened to you last night? Your vampire boyfriend was off his game and he didn’t relax until the scary one returned.”
“Thalia?” Sookie asked. Sookie saw that Twy was now waiting for some kind of answer. “It was the crowds,” Sookie started. “All those people. It was just overwhelming.”
Twy’s eyes narrowed. “What do mean? Like enochlophobia? You have a problem with crowds?”
Sookie shook her head and let out a sigh. “It’s not a fear of crowds. It’s that I wasn’t prepared and I couldn’t get my walls in place.”
Twy’s look turned distinctly skeptical. “What in the hell are you talking about?”
Sookie’s eyes widened. “Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry. I guess I assumed Eric had told you about me.” Sookie smiled and tapped into her new found resolve; the resolve that she was who she was and that was just going to have to be okay with other people. “I’m a telepath. I hear other people’s thoughts.” She glanced at Twy whose attitude was quickly souring and Sookie realized she was a pretty clear broadcaster at the moment. “Like right now you’re thinking that I must be some kind of cheap carnival act and you figure that Eric was fooled because he couldn’t see past my tits.” Twy’s expression changed and Sookie caught the other woman’s eyes start to widen.
Then Twy said, “Anyone could have intuited that I’d feel that way. I’m not sure I’m convinced.”
“Well,” Sookie continued, “I can also tell you that you’re really sorry Chloe left you to go work for your rival. You are worried she’ll tell stuff about you that will be embarrassing but you’re mostly missing her because you really liked her.”
Twy held up her hand, “Okay,” she said. “Let’s say I’m convinced. You can’t tell me that you’ve lived in some kind of hole in the ground. You have to have been out and about with people sometime. I mean, how in the world am I going to sell Northman linked to a recluse?” But as soon as the words left her mouth, Twy’s considering look returned.
Sookie held up her hand. “It’s not like that. I did make a point of staying away from big crowds and when I was little I had a hard time in school. But I’ve learned how to put up a kind of wall that lets me block out the noise so I can function. But it takes practice and truth be told, I haven’t spent a lot of time with humans lately.”
Twy continued to look like she wasn’t buying what Sookie was telling her. “But you were in Nashville walking around. The place was packed. How was that different?”
“Well, Nashville was mostly vampires. I can’t hear them.” Twy gave Sookie a sharp look and the telepath nodded. “It’s true. I can’t hear vampires at all. And I don’t hear weres all that easily either. I can, but I have to really work at it.” Sookie shrugged. “Guess that’s been one of the reasons I feel comfortable around vampires. I don’t have to work on blocking them all the time so I can just relax.”
“But, you think that if you had practice you could handle being around more humans?” Twy asked. Then she followed it with, “Is there some kind of limit to the number, do you think?”
Sookie shook her head, “No, I don’t think there’s a limit. But even with practice if I am surrounded by a bunch of people pushing and shoving at me, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to handle that well.”
Twy shrugged. “Who does? The key is not to embarrass yourself and you managed to do that. I heard Thalia telling Eric you passed out but you got out of the room before you did it. Did you mean to do that?”
“Yes,” Sookie told her. Twy smiled then and nodded. She held her hand up and Sookie noticed a woman hovering near the stairs. The woman scrambled forward and placed a tablet in Twy’s outstretched hand.
Twy brought the tablet forward and then almost immediately tossed it backwards. The woman scrambled to catch it. “I can’t read electronics outside in this glare. You should have adjusted it for the light, Sonder.”
“Yes, Twy,” the woman said abjectly.
“Tell me the agenda for this afternoon,” Twy demanded. All the while she never took her eyes off Sookie. Twy could have been talking to a computer or the voice recognition on her cell phone.
The woman identified as Sonder started reciting like she was repeating her multiplication tables. “We have photographs scheduled in three hours. They were specifically requested by Mr. Northman. We are allowed to send some to the local media. Then there is the walkthrough of the property. Assessments for all public rooms and decisions about redecorating for the Architectural Digest people. They said since they did Oklahoma they should get first crack at New Orleans. Then there is television testing and interview skills assessment for Miss Stackhouse. Then Mr. Northman will join us for photographs of the couple together.” The woman folded her hands and looked down.
Twy turned her shoulders toward the young woman all the while keeping Sookie captured in her narrow stare, “Is everything ready downstairs?”
The woman looked at Sookie. “Yes. The hairdresser and stylist are already here. I received a text that they rounded up appropriate clothing and there was a box of jewelry in the suite that they have brought down. The guard said it belonged to the former Queen. The shoot crew is setting up in one of the larger rooms. They had to send for extra lights. Your consultants are also setting up for sound and video checks.”
“Look,” said Sookie, “I think we should just wait until Eric is here. I don’t think I’m ready for all this.”
Twy’s eyes narrowed and Sookie suddenly felt like she was faced with a thin, rather angry snake. “Now you listen to me, Sookie, you are going to get yourself downstairs and into that chair right now. I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and pretend that last night was all a misunderstanding. But if you are going to be difficult I can just as easily leave. And then you and your Eric can figure out how to juggle the media that is already howling at your door.” Twy arched her eyebrow and Sookie felt like she was seeing the old Sheriff of Area 5 at his most asshole-ishness.
Sookie could hear Sonder’s thoughts from across the patio almost chanting, ‘Please say yes, please say yes, please say yes.’
Sookie plastered a smile on her face and said, “Well, bless your little heart! I’d love to go downstairs with you, Twy.”
Twy’s gaze became a little less laser-like and she had a bit of a smile playing around the edges of her mouth. “I speak fluent Southern, sweetie pie. I know a ‘fuck you’ when I hear one, and I don’t care. As long as you do what I say and get with the program we’ll get along just fine.”
Sookie had picked up her cup and followed Sonder down the steps. “I really think I should take a shower first,” Sookie said under her breath. Sonder didn’t stop. They descended two flights of stairs and walked down a corridor. They found themselves in a larger room that was made almost claustrophobic by the absence of any windows. There were folding screens at one end of the room along with what looked like a hospital gurney. Twy walked past her and flipped her long, lacquered nails towards the bed.
“Off you go,” she said. The publicist’s attention was on the couch and photograph crew setting up to the far side of the room and she stepped away in that direction. Several women in pink shirts stepped forward and smiled at Sookie. Sonder glanced at the telepath and then scampered after Twy.
Sookie felt like she had stepped into a strange world that belonged in one of the horror movies she watched from time to time. She was sure that some bizarre costumed character would step out of the wings at any moment and things would just keep whirling like some demented merry go round.
Then one of the women spoke. “Hi, I’m Katerina. I will be overseeing your treatment today.” The woman took Sookie’s arm and steered her towards the folding screens. “We will start with an overall cleansing, then hair removal and a massage. While you are resting we will handle your nails; nothing too froufrou. Twy specifically instructed we keep it to a clean, French manicure. We will address your facial cleansing and teeth cleaning while the highlights go in. And then styling and makeup.” She smiled in a way that was meant to make Sookie feel more relaxed. “I know it sounds like a lot and it will take a few hours, so is there any particular music you would like to hear or something you would like on hand to drink or eat?”
Sookie shook her head and suddenly she was being stripped and warm cloths applied all over her. They scrubbed her everywhere and Sookie couldn’t stop blushing. Katerina complimented her on her skin tone and her overall appearance and Sookie couldn’t bring herself to explain the rejuvenating powers of vampire blood. She just smiled her Crazy Sookie smile and nodded. Then they started waxing and Sookie was too busy flinching to be embarrassed. When the technicians started to part her lower lips and buzz away the hair she spoke up, “Hey, y’all, I don’t really know about trimming that.”
“We have instructions to clean away everything and trimming is the first step.”
“You mean you’re going to wax there too?” Sookie said and she found she was gasping at the thought of having that ripping, burning sensation around her lady parts.
“Well, we could just do a high bikini wax this time and not go full Brazilian. I’ll check with Miss Twy,” and Katerina scooted around the screen. Sookie had a sinking feeling and then she thought about Eric and found herself blushing all over again.
Twy came stalking around the screen. “I hear you’re afraid?”
Sookie stared and she found her temper flaring. “This ain’t about being afraid. But where I come from only certain girls do the kind of pruning you’re talking about and I have never been one of them.” Sookie remembered ‘hearing’ Dawn thinking about waxing her entire pubic area and she knew some men seemed to like how everything looked bald. But Sookie also knew that the god fearing Christian women she knew generally didn’t do those things or at least didn’t think about them.
Twy rolled her eyes. “I don’t really know how they did things in Trailerloosa or Backwoods Burb or wherever you’re from but there are clothing items that just don’t hang correctly with any shrubbery, so stop making a fuss.”
Sookie made a decision; this was where she was going to make a stand. “I am not changing anything down there until I talk with Eric,” she said. “We like things just the way they are and I’m not messing with that. I don’t care how ‘fashion-don’t’ that makes me.”
Twy glared at her and Sookie glared right back. Finally Twy waved her fingertips again. “Fine. Bikini wax then. It’s not like you could fit into couture at the moment anyway.”
Sookie leaned back and when the right moment came she yelled plenty loud. She couldn’t imagine if the women had yanked out even more.
Sookie heaved a sigh of relief when the wax cart was removed and she was flipped on her stomach and warm towels were applied to the whole backside of her body. Then while a woman worked on the nails of one of her hands another started massaging her legs. By the time her toes and fingers were finished Sookie felt like a warm loose mess. She was almost dozing when she was poked and then helped to her feet. Sookie found herself moved into a chair and then she was surrounded by a new crew. This group started playing with her hair and applying lotions to her face.
By the time everything was finished, Sookie felt like she had been stretched through a large set of rollers. She felt sore but in a new and shiny kind of way. She could tell that the activity at the other end of the room had picked up.
Sookie stood up and was walked to another area where more screens were assembled and racks of clothing either hung against the screens or hung on a clothes rack. There weren’t a lot of choices, but Sookie wasn’t surprised. She just didn’t have a lot of clothes. Most of the wardrobe she had had been gifts to her from the kings after the fire. As she looked around she saw a few new things. Then the women were pulling her robe from her and handing her new underwear. It was a matching set in coral and Sookie thought it was more than a little racy and was sure Eric would love it. Then she was handed a long white shirt that fell almost to her knees. Her hair was fluffed around her face.
Twy looked at her. “Good. Pretty and sexy without being provocative. Let’s dress it up with jewelry. What’s in that box?”
Sookie was led to the main part of the room and the photographer walked over and introduced himself. Then he seated her on the sofa and started moving around lights. He signaled and several of the servants from the palace assisted in moving things until he was satisfied that the angles and number of lights worked.
Twy had walked over and there was another servant holding a large wooden chest. Twy opened it and started looking. The servant reached over and pulled out what looked like a silver or platinum chain with a tassel of gems at one end and a round circle at the other. The servant looked shyly at Sookie. “This belonged to Miss Hadley,” the servant said.
“Really?” Sookie said. She thought about her cousin. She thought about the woman she had seen during the ectoplasmic reconstruction; the one who had been heartbroken that the Queen would marry another. Sookie felt a little catch in her throat and said, “I’d like to wear that.” Twy took the necklace from the servant’s hand and held it up for the photographer’s inspection.
“Yes,” he said. “That will do nicely. And find earrings.”
Sookie put on the jewelry and then allowed the photographer to arrange her; first sitting and then semi-reclining on the sofa. He took photos and then had them scanned up onto a screen on the wall. Sookie couldn’t believe that the golden woman she saw in the photographs was really her. There was a murmur at the door to the hallway and Sookie could feel the voids that meant vampires were joining the crowd that had gathered to watch the session. Then as if she could sense him, she knew Eric was close.
Sookie looked up, anticipating Eric’s face. She could see herself the way the camera saw her; poised and beautiful and looking like a movie star. There was a movement at the door and then there he stood, his eyes meeting hers and Sookie felt so proud.
And then in an instant it changed. Eric walked towards her, his face stormy and tight; his fangs fully distended. “Who gave you that?” he growled and he pointed at her necklace.
“Eric!” Sookie exclaimed, “What is going on? “ Sookie put her hand over the necklace and said, “This was Hadley’s. What’s your problem?”
Eric’s jaw was tense and he lisped slightly through his fangs. “I want you to take it off immediately and hand it to me.”
Sookie was angry and she could feel tears coming to her eyes and that just made her madder. “Eric, I don’t have anything from Hadley. I don’t have hardly anything from any of my family anymore. Please don’t take this from me.” But even as she spoke she could see there was something in his eyes and Sookie unhooked the chain. She looked at the sparkling jewels in the little tassel before holding it over to him.
Eric took the necklace from her hands. His eyes met hers and Sookie thought she could see a mixture of anguish and rage. Then he turned and with a swift movement, he ripped the necklace apart and threw the pieces against the wall. “You are mine!” he proclaimed. Then he turned around to face the rest of the room and said loudly, “This is my intended. She is mine!”
When Eric turned back and looked at Sookie his face was sad. After a moment he raised his head again and scanned the room, taking in the people and vampires who stood, open-mouthed and watching the drama playing out in front of them. “Get out,” Eric said quietly. Thalia stepped up from behind him and the palace personnel filed from the room.
Eric turned back to Sookie but he spoke to Twy who was standing open-mouthed nearby. “We’re done for the day,” he told her. “I want every photograph of Sookie wearing that necklace destroyed. There can not be one copy left. You understand?”
Twy drew herself up. “No, but it’s your money. They’ll be gone.” Twy tilted her head back. “You are going to have to explain all this to me. “
“Pam will be here tomorrow. She will be able to explain,” Eric said. He didn’t break eye contact with Sookie.
Twy waved her hand and her people grabbed their things and headed for the door.
Sookie found herself alone in the room with Eric and Thalia. “If you want jewels, älskare, I will give them to you,” Eric whispered. And then he turned to Thalia. “Stay with her. I need to see if I can undo the damage that’s been done.” Before Sookie could even register the movement, Eric was gone and she was alone with Thalia.
Sookie took a deep breath and stood up. “What the hell was that about?” She looked in the direction that Eric had thrown Hadley’s necklace and walked over.
As she was about to lean down to pick up the broken pieces, Thalia hissed, “Don’t touch it.”
Sookie stood back up and turned fully towards Thalia. “Okay, something happened here and I have no idea what it was. I want you to explain it to me.”
Thalia nodded and walked forward. “The necklace you were wearing? Did many see it on you?”
Sookie licked her lips and then drew in a breath. She thought about the people who had walked through the room over the past few hours. She thought about the crowd at the door. “Yes,” she said. “There were a lot of people. Why? What’s wrong with that necklace?”
Thalia grimaced. “It proclaims you the king’s pet. It makes clear you are his woman and not his consort. Of course it is a misunderstanding, but it will be harder now to make our kind understand your place here.”
Sookie had a sinking feeling. She walked over to the couch and sat down. “You know, there hasn’t been one person here today who even wanted to get to know my name. I tried to introduce myself but folks acted like they didn’t want to get too close. Even the guard in our rooms; Titus? He called me the king’s woman. That means something, doesn’t it?”
Thalia didn’t answer but she didn’t have to. Sookie knew.
Sookie shook her head. “It’s just like before; before Sam; before Oklahoma! From the minute we arrived not one thing has gone right. It’s back to vampire politics and trying to make it work in a world where I always seem to be ten steps behind everyone else.”
Thalia walked over to her. “When did you eat last?” she asked. Sookie shook her head. She really had no idea. Thalia nodded. “Eat first.”
Sookie was suddenly too tired to argue. As she followed Thalia she asked, “Do you suppose we can just send someone to bring something up the roof? It’s real pretty up there and frankly I’d like to get out into the air for a while.” Thalia nodded and led the way to the rooftop. As they emerged into the open and under the night sky the dark vampire picked up what looked like a house phone from the wall and spoke rapidly. Then she walked over and actually sat down across from Sookie.
Sookie realized it was the first time they had been alone together since the training accident in Jackson; the first time since this nightmare had begun. “Thalia? You okay?”
Thalia scowled at the telepath. “Of course. Why?”
Sookie dropped her eyes, her shame weighing heavy. “Well because I’m pretty sure I stabbed you a bunch of times.”
Thalia smiled, showing her teeth. “I underestimated you, fairy. I won’t do it again.” When Sookie continued to look at her with concern Thalia’s expression turned dark. “Stop looking at me like I’m some weakling. It was a scratch and I healed. You make too much of things, breather.”
Sookie relaxed a little. “Thanks Thalia. I appreciate you saying that.”
Sookie got a ding on her phone and looked at the message. It was from Russell Edgington. Sookie looked up to excuse herself but it appeared that Thalia had slipped into downtime.
R: Trust all is going well and you are settling in.
S: Everything is fine. Thanks.
R: Can Viking spare you for a week? Iowa needs your services.
S: Starting when?
R: Travel tomorrow and work day following?
Sookie looked at the message. She set the phone on the table. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what to do about any of this. The happy hours she and Eric had spent in Jackson seemed like another life; someone else’s life. Sookie realized she desperately wanted to return to that time before. She thought about how happy she had been in Jackson and Minnesota and the smiling faces of people who liked her and talked with her.
Sookie’s thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a woman coming up the stairs, a tray in her hands. She walked to the table where Sookie and Thalia sat and set the tray down. She bowed briefly and turned to leave. Suddenly Thalia was alert and grabbed the woman’s arm. “Is that any way to greet your mistress?”
The woman looked up, her eyes wide. She bowed to Thalia, “My pardon, Mistress,” she said. Thalia’s fangs ran down.
“Stupid woman,” Thalia hissed. “I am not Mistress here.”
Sookie shook her head. “Thalia, leave it,” she said. Sookie looked at the food in front of her and found she had no appetite. The woman turned and ran down the stairs.
Thalia huffed. “Things were not prepared. People were not readied. The housekeeper was notified but she failed to understand her duty. Now things will need to be done and examples made.” Thalia smiled again, but the sight was not pleasant.
Sookie found herself looking over the wall that surrounded the terrace at the lights of the city. Somewhere a car horn sounded and there were the noises of traffic and people on the street talking. A faint sound of music carried and the smell that was so distinctly the Big Easy surrounded her. ‘Somewhere, on the other side of this wall is a normal world,’ Sookie thought. ‘A world that makes sense.’ Sookie found she was bone tired. But it was more than physical exhaustion. She was tired in spirit.
She wasn’t sure how long she sat there in the garden on the palace roof; maybe an hour, maybe more before Eric found them. He leaned down and said something to Thalia. The small vampire rose, bowed briefly and then retreated down the stairs. Eric took Thalia’s chair and carried it around the table so he could sit side by side with the telepath.
“I am sorry, Sookie,” he said. Then he reached over and took Sookie’s hand in his own. “This has not gone well so far for either of us. We will try harder tomorrow and things will get better.” Eric rubbed the back of Sookie’s hand with his thumb.
Sookie looked at Eric. She smiled but she knew that her sadness was written on her face. “Eric, it’s like I’m on a runaway train and there’s nothing I can do to make things stop. And Eric,” Sookie lifted his hand to her lips and kissed it. “Eric, I need things to make sense right now.”
Eric stroked her cheek briefly and nodded. Then he shifted a little and pulled a box from his pocket. It was a small, square jewelry box and Sookie found her breath catching in her throat. There had been days when she had dreamed of this moment. Eric pulled his hand from hers to open the box and then turned her hand so he could rest the box on her upturned palm and she could see the ring that rested inside. It was a simple band with a ruby set between diamond baguettes. Eric watched her look at the ring and then meet his eyes.
“You should wear this, älskade,” he told her. Eric reached forward to take the ring from the box.
Sookie pulled the box further away from him. “Why Eric? Why are you giving this to me?” Sookie could see his confusion. “Is it because you are sorry for what happened? Is it because you want to replace the only reminder I’m ever likely to have of Hadley’s. Why?”
Eric shook his head. “You could not have known the meaning of that necklace. I know this. We should make your place clear to all. This ring will proclaim you to be important to me.”
“So,” Sookie said. “It would improve my status if I were to wear this ring? People would know I am yours?”
Eric could sense that he was heading into dangerous waters, but he was not sure what to say to get out of the place he now found himself. “I wish you to wear it. It is a jewel that I give you; it does show others how I value you and your place with me.”
Sookie could see his confusion. She leaned over and kissed him. Then she closed the box in her hand and gave it back to Eric. “You should put that somewhere where you won’t lose it,” she said.
“Sookie? I don’t understand,” Eric said to her.
Sookie smiled. “I know you don’t. I don’t think that a ring means the same thing to you and me. You should hold onto it though because I’m hoping someday it will. And when that day comes I’ll be proud to wear your ring. But in the meantime we should head downstairs. I’ll be leaving for Iowa tomorrow and I really need to get some rest.” Sookie stood up. “It’s been a busy day.”
“You won’t wear my ring?” he stammered.
“Not today,” she said. Then Sookie Stackhouse headed to the stairs determined to find her bedroom and her bed. As Sookie walked to the stairs, she realized she wasn’t exactly sure how to find her way back to their quarters. When she reached the bottom she saw Titus standing guard. He bowed deeply. Sookie stopped and turned around to see Eric following her and carrying her dinner tray. She turned back to the guard and waited for Eric to give him the signal to straighten, but from behind her Eric said, “He is waiting for your word, älskade.”
Sookie shook her head. “Titus,” she acknowledged.
“Mistress,” Titus replied and stood, his gaze meeting hers. Eric walked up beside her then and handed Titus the tray.
“Please bring that,” he said. Eric stepped past her and hooked out his elbow. Sookie shook her head as she smiled as she linked her arm through Eric’s. “I don’t know why I love you like I do,” she told him. Eric smiled down at her with his bright, boyish smile and Sookie felt her whole heart brighten in spite of herself.
Within a couple of turns they were at their set of double doors. Eric opened one and then stepped back allowing Sookie to walk in first. He followed and then Titus, who set the tray on a small table near the loveseat and chairs. “Out,” Eric said. Titus bowed briefly and left, shutting the doors behind him.
Eric walked over to Sookie and ran his fingertips over her cheek. “Please Sookie. Please sit and eat something. Then we should talk.”
Sookie sighed. There was something about those words that reminded her how soul-weary she felt.
“I guess, Eric. But I can’t say I’m much feeling like it.” Sookie sat down and speared some salad with her fork. The chicken on the plate was cold and she couldn’t say it looked too appetizing.
“We could start by talking about how terribly everything has gone here.” When Sookie looked up at him Eric sat down heavily in the chair across from her. “I’m not sure I could have planned this to be any worse than it has been. One disaster after another,” and then Eric threw his head back and made a sound that could have been a laugh. Sookie looked at him and found she was starting to smile. Eric shook his head, a rueful smile playing across his face. “When I was in Oklahoma I would imagine how things could go wrong for Freyda. Little things. The legs of chairs would break under her ass. Some fat human would bow and break wind and the smell would linger. Her favorite dress would rip. Silly things.” He saw Sookie’s speculative look and he shrugged. “I hated her. It passed the time.”
Eric leaned back and laced his hands behind his head. “But this? I’m not sure even I have enough imagination to have conjured this.”
Sookie looked back at her plate and pushed the meat a little. “Yeah, the whole thing needs a real do-over.”
Eric looked at her meal and scowled. “And it doesn’t stop. You can’t eat that.” He stood and walked to the house phone on a little table. “What would you like?” he asked.
“Well, I suppose I should have salad, but after today? Eric, I want a steak; a real big one. And a baked potato and peas. You think they can handle that?”
Eric smiled, “They better!” He picked up the phone and had a quick, direct conversation. Then he walked back, lifted the tray and carried it away from her. He headed to the little kitchenette in the corner and came back with a bottle of blood for himself and a diet soda over ice for her. He sat down heavily on the loveseat next to her. He tilted the rim of his bottle and she lifted her glass and touched his in return. Sookie looked at Eric’s face and she thought about the day; how one disaster had led into the next and she found herself laughing and was almost embarrassed that she was. She put her hand over her mouth to try and hold in her giggling, but the more she tried to stop it the worse it got. Eric looked at her and he started laughing too. Finally he just threw his head back and laughed out loud. He pulled Sookie to him and kissed her head.
“Only you, my lover, could be involved in such a perfectly wretched night.”
Sookie wiped the tears from her eyes, “I wouldn’t want to have it with anyone else,” she told him. Then she looked at him and said “I’m Eric Northman! And I’m King of the World!” and dissolved into another fit of giggles.
“You disrespect me?” Eric said in a not so serious tone. “You do so at your peril!” and he pulled her close to tickle her. Sookie started to laugh so hard she snorted. Eric stopped, looked at her and roared with laughter. Finally, they were both wrung out and Sookie found herself gasping for air, Sookie looked up at Eric and asked, “Who thought that last night was a good idea?”
“I don’t know, Sookie. Twy, I suppose.”
Sookie shook her head. “Eric Northman, you are not a rock star. You are not a sports hero. You are not an international playboy; at least not any more. You don’t need that kind of crazy all around you. You always hated to be stuck in that chair with people gawking at you. Why are you letting that skinny-ass Yankee put you in the middle of a feeding frenzy now?”
Eric shrugged. “I knew she was arranging something but I was too distracted. I didn’t pin her down and she went too far.”
Sookie looked at Eric with new eyes. The scope of what Eric was facing was so much larger than being Sheriff or stepping into Freyda’s shoes. She saw a man who was building something from nothing and he was standing alone. All those who had supported him in the past suddenly had their own jobs and duties. Pam was far away. Thalia was Eric’s second but she was better at providing muscle than organization.
Sookie took Eric’s hand. “What if I take care of Twy? I have her number. I can see right into her head and I know every dirty secret she has. She can’t bully me. Would you be okay with that?”
Eric actually looked hopeful. “You would do that? I can’t trust Pam. She thinks it’s amusing to allow that woman to torture me.”
It was on the tip of Sookie’s tongue to ask about bringing Karin back, but she knew that something had gone wrong between Karin and Eric; something that involved her.
Sookie took a deep breath and said, “I’ll take care of Twy. I will tell her that we are finished with the circus. I will give her the work for the coronation, and I will make it clear that all arrangements go through me from now on.” She looked up again, “You’re sure?”
Eric rewarded her with a bright smile. “Yes, älskare. This would be good.”
There was a discreet knock at the door. Eric looked up and called, “Enter.” A woman came in with a covered tray. She set it down on the table in front of the couple. She bowed and waited. Eric caught Sookie’s eye and raised his brow.
“Thank you,” Sookie said. The woman straightened then.
“Is there anything else, Mistress?” she asked.
“No, we’re fine. Thanks.” Sookie answered. She waited until the woman left. “Mistress? That’s going to take some getting used to. Can’t they just call me Sookie?”
Eric shrugged. “It will take some time. It would appear the old ways were kept here. Old traditions. I should not be surprised. Sophie-Anne believed in all the protocols of vampire royalty. She loved the discipline and pageantry of ceremony. I think it was because she was turned at so young an age and her background was very poor. The more ornate and intricate the more she wanted it. It was endearing in her.”
Eric settled himself back and gestured toward her plate. “Eat now,” he said, “Before it does not smell the same.”
Sookie removed the cover from the plate and lifted her fork and knife. The first bite was heavenly and she couldn’t help sighing. Then she became aware that Eric was watching her closely. “It is real good, Eric, but you could do better.”
Eric nodded, but she could see that he did not believe her. “I will miss cooking for you, my Sookie,” he said.
“I will too,” Sookie said and ate another bite. But as she swallowed she said, “but not the cleaning up after.”
Eric pulled her over and leaned forward to kiss her head, then sat back and waited until Sookie was finished. Sookie couldn’t keep the smile from her face and she rubbed her belly a little.
“I know I’m going to be sorry I ate all of that,” she said.
“Well, perhaps we should help you work it off,” Eric leered. But then his face turned thoughtful. “I am sorry about the necklace, lover,” Eric said. “I truly am.”
Sookie took a deep breath and leaned forward. “Eric, you are going to have to explain that to me. And you are going to have to use lots of words because I can’t tell you how many kinds of upset I am about all of that.”
“You do not understand what that necklace was; what it represents.” Eric sat forward.
Sookie waved her hand at him. “I do now. Thalia told me. This whole pet thing. It’s for real?”
Eric nodded. “It is an old tradition. Your cousin was well liked here. People at the palace understood that she started as a pet but she became something more. Sophie-Anne was feared but she was also loved. She took care of what was hers. If you were counted as one of her retinue she would defend you to anyone.” Eric looked down at his hands. “She loved Andre but when she found out about how he trapped you in the hall; in Rhodes when we bonded? She punished him. Did you know that?”
Sookie shook her head. “I never heard anything about it.”
“That is perhaps my fault. Things became so confused after the bombing. But that night in the hotel after you left, the Queen bound him in silver and extracted promises from him. Andre would have killed me for interfering on principal but he would never have threatened you again.” Sookie thought about how happy she had been when John Quinn had staked Andre; how she had believed that Andre would remain a threat to her and she suddenly didn’t feel so pleased about it. Eric continued, “It was something that was unique about her. It was one of the reasons I was loyal to her and supported her.”
Sookie saw something slide across Eric’s features. She could see the Eric that did have friendships; the side he kept locked away from most. “You miss her,” she said.
Eric looked up and smiled. “Yes, lover. I miss her. So do all those who served her. And they miss Hadley who was beloved by the Queen.” Eric looked away. “I don’t believe the necklace was offered to you in malice. I believe it was meant as a remembrance. But it was also a clear message to everyone who saw it. It said that not only were you not my equal; you were beneath all but the donors here. To be a pet is to have no status. I had to make the show that I did. Everyone had to understand that I was angry to have you treated in this way and that I did not count you as a pet. I destroyed the symbol and threw it to the floor. I did it in front of witnesses. I treated you with respect and I made it clear that there would be repercussions. And there have been. Melanie, who was chatelaine here, is gone.” Sookie felt her attention sharpen. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know exactly what that meant and decided not to ask. “So the palace is without a chatelaine at a time when one is needed.” Eric looked back at Sookie, his eyes weary.
“So, what does that mean, Eric?”
“It means,” said Eric with a sigh, “that I must cast about for a person that I can trust to run the business of this palace. Someone who is above reproach and who can handle all the duties and people whose lives are tied to this place.”
“Does it have to be a vampire?” Sookie asked.
“No. It could be another supernatural or a human. But it would need to be a person who is capable of running a household of this size. There are so many duties and details to organize.” Eric shook his head. “I have never had to be concerned with something like this. I had only to worry about the business around me. Even when I was in the retinue of some ruler I had only to be concerned with my duties. I did not have to worry about the work of running the house that provided for me. If I had known more before we came here I would have tried to spend some attention to making sure that our places and expectations were more fully known before we arrived.” Eric shook his head. “I do know it is a hard job and sometimes thankless.”
“Damn, Eric,” Sookie grinned. “Sounds to me like you need a wife.”
Eric’s smile widened and then dimmed just as quickly. “I had not thought of it that way.” Eric’s eyes suddenly seemed to look across a great distance. “I remember hearing my father say those words to me. Aude had died and the Viking season was coming. I would be needed in the boats and I was anxious for the glory of battle.”
“The night Appius found you?” Sookie asked. She brought her hand to his chest and rested it over where his heart would have beat.
Eric came back to himself then and smiled at her; his mask swiftly reinstalled. “Yes. And now I find myself in that place again.” He looked at Sookie and she could see what was coming.
“Not now, Eric,” she told him. “I do want to be your wife someday when I’m free. But I am not going to wear your ring right now. It would just feel like it was damage control and that’s not how a girl ever wants to feel about wearing an engagement ring.” Sookie pushed up a little so she could kiss his cheek. “But I think I can help you out with your housekeeper problem.”
Eric tilted his head, “You have a recommendation?”
“Well, sure,” Sookie said. “Me.” When Eric pulled back and his mouth turned down Sookie grabbed the front of his shirt. “Now just a minute buster. Just hear me out. I know I wouldn’t be able to get my hands around everything overnight but it’s not like I don’t have some experience. I do know what goes into running a house; just not a place this big. And I know all about hiring and firing and managing staff. I did all the books and I organized events when I ran Merlotte’s. I know this is bigger and I’ll have a lot to learn, but I will be able to hear who I put around me and that counts for a lot. And I’m figuring that I can get help from Pam and maybe some of the others to get me up to speed.”
Sookie could see that Eric was worried. “It would be a great deal to take on, Sookie. Perhaps too much too quickly.” Then he stopped and looked away. Sookie looked at him and she felt her lip push out just a bit.
“Eric, I have been drifting now for months. I have been wondering where my place was and what my role would be in it. You know that I need to be busy; to have a real purpose. If I were to organize and oversee what goes on here behind the scenes it would make me your partner in a way, right?”
“You are already that,” Eric told her.
“Yeah, yeah,” Sookie said, “I know you feel that way. But what about how other people see me?” Sookie tugged Eric’s shirt until she was sure she had his full attention. “Let me try this, Eric. If I can’t do it then we can come up with another plan and at least you have someone else working on it. I mean, you’re pretty amazing and all but even you can only juggle so much.”
Eric nodded. “I can see that you are serious about this älskare. Of course we will try this if it is what you desire.”
Sookie laid her head against Eric’s chest and drew her feet up beside her. She waited until she could feel him settled against her before she asked, “So, do we have to keep all the rules? I mean is there a rule that how things run in a palace can’t change?”
Eric shrugged. “I don’t think I ever thought about it. Certainly the households I have joined or visited have been different. I suppose they reflect the wishes of their rulers,” and Eric pulled Sookie closer.
“So, I guess that means we could come up with our own rules and create our own style?” When Eric didn’t respond, Sookie said “I have to tell you, Eric. I really liked Maude’s house.”
Eric made a rumbling noise that Sookie was beginning to associate with the vampire thinking something through. “Maude has a unique style. Her house is well run but it is a little informal for my taste. Conducting business in the kitchen? It would not suit me. “
“Well I don’t know. You look pretty comfortable there these days,” Sookie giggled. Then she stilled and said, “But of course, you’re right. You were comfortable in Jackson.”
Above her Eric nodded. “Yes, there are many aspects of the Kings’ way of conducting business that fit well with how I feel things should be done.”
“Well Eric,” Sookie said, “What were the things you liked best about Jackson?”
Over the next hour they talked about the different aspects of what they liked and what they didn’t like in residences they had visited. Eric liked having a study or some other room that was less formal than an office but not the free-for-all he equated with Maude’s space. Sookie liked having private space that was just for the two of them where they could retreat and not have to perform for others. At one point Sookie sent for paper and a pen and they developed lists of questions.
When Sookie yawned, Eric pulled the pen from her hand. “This is enough work for now,” he told her. Then he took her hand and rubbed her fingers as he asked, “Do you really have to leave for Iowa tomorrow? Would it be possible to delay a day or two?”
“I can check with Russell and see what flexibility is available. If folks are coming from far away it may be too late to make changes.” Sookie picked up her phone and texted Russell. She didn’t tell Eric that she hadn’t yet answered his earlier text. She wasn’t sure why she felt she didn’t need to tell him; she just knew that it was something that was in her control and she needed to keep that control.
She received a message that the king would check and let her know.
Eric stood up and walked toward the bedroom. “Pam and the sheriffs will start arriving. By tomorrow night they will all be here. I would like to call everyone in the palace together and have them pledge their fealty to us both.” Eric looked at her in an earnest way. “It will allow me to announce you as my intended; the woman I will bond with. I will demand that they promise themselves to us.”
“And what if they don’t, Eric? What then?”
Eric turned to face the telepath. “Then they will need to leave. I can’t allow disloyalty.”
The phone next to Sookie buzzed and she picked it up and accessed text messaging. Sookie spoke to Eric as she read the script. “Russell says that the meetings have been expanded to include Maude. The negotiations are for some kind of research into a genetically improved strain of soybean. Maude has expressed an interest.” Sookie fanned her fingers to scroll down the message. “He was going to email to let me know of the delay. Could I be ready the first of next week?” Sookie looked up at Eric who simply raised a brow in answer.
“This is your work, Sookie. You must make these decisions.”
“Then I am saying yes and accepting the offer for transport.” Sookie’s fingers moved to text her response, although she had to back up and correct a couple of times. “Stupid auto-correct,” she snipped. Eric grinned and Sookie shot him a look. “Don’t you snark at me, Mr. Nimble Fingers. I don’t have your super reflexes or your super speed, but I’m not half bad at this.”
When she was done Sookie laid down the phone and walked to where Eric stood. She wrapped her arms around him and laid her head against his chest. “I can start work with your day staff tomorrow and I’m going to take care of Miss Twy.”
Eric nodded and then pulled back, kissing her forehead. “Of course, lover. The staff here now knows who you are. They should treat you with respect.”
Sookie nodded. “You know? When I’m in Iowa I bet I could ask Maude for advice on running things. She struck me as someone who is pretty involved herself,” and Sookie found herself brightening at the idea of seeing the Minnesota monarch.
As he stroked her back, Eric sighed a little and then said, “Sookie? There is something else. I want you to have a bodyguard. ” Eric tightened his hold around her. “Not for the palace here, but for when you leave. There are still enemies. And you, min krigare kvinna, are still breakable.”
Sookie stilled. Her immediate reaction was to pull away from Eric and say ‘hell no.’ But she forced herself to consider the request. She could feel Eric grow still, doubtless waiting for her to flare and spit at him. Sookie sniffed a little and said, “I know it can’t be Thalia. She has to stay here. And with the people I need to see and the places I need to travel, it can’t be Bubba.” She could feel Eric start to relax just a bit. “But I don’t want to take anyone from here right now either. I don’t know them and I don’t feel like they know me well enough to be trusted.”
“What do you have in mind?” Eric asked her.
“I think I should ask Alcide Herveaux to provide me with a were guard.” She could feel Eric tensing up so she continued, “Eric, you need to think about this. I am a Friend of the Pack. Jason tells me that the Hotshot Pack and the Shreveport Pack have been co-operating so anyone that Alcide recommends I can double check with both Calvin Norris and Jason. I’ll ask for a woman and she would be able to be with me during daylight hours as well as during the night. With the kind of travel I need to do and the interaction I have with humans it makes sense.”
“I don’t trust the wolf,” Eric stated.
Sookie leaned back and patted Eric’s stomach. “He never was a member of your fan club either, that’s for sure. But he did try to do okay by me in a sideways kind of way.” Eric started to growl and Sookie shushed him. “You are king now. It will be in his best interest to do you a favor. Besides he’s happily married to Kandace and last I heard she was pumping out little Alcides. You should give him a chance.”
Eric was looking grumpy but said, “I will call him tonight.” Sookie went up on her tiptoes up and kissed his cheek. Eric turned to her, his eyes stormy. “I am not comfortable with this. I do not like you traveling with someone I do not know.”
Sookie nodded. “Well, if you call tonight we can ask to have the person sent to us. It will give us a few days to get to know them and maybe something else will come to mind.”
Eric’s stance relaxed. “I think you are maneuvering me, lover. But I will leave it for now. There are other things that we need to address.”
“What other things?” Sookie asked. Eric’s smile became broader and he took her hand and laid it on his hardening cock.
“Things that need to be straight between us,” he whispered.
Later as Eric started to climb forward and over her Sookie remembered the discussion with the spa team. “Eric?” she asked. “Do you have a preference for how much hair I have down there?” Eric paused in his efforts, his teeth playfully pulling at her belly.
“I noticed you had less. I assumed it happened at the same time you had your other hair removed.” Eric’s voice seemed carefully neutral and Sookie felt her eyes narrow.
“So, if I had no hair would you find that more attractive?” Eric started to move lazily up her body. He took a nipple in his mouth and sucked hard, then nipped until it was erect. He moved his fingers back between her legs and stroked in a way that caused her breath to catch.
“I would be pleased with whatever pleases you, lover,” he growled.
Sookie was finding it hard to keep her train of thought. Eric was scissoring his fingers in that way she found almost unbearable. She opened her legs widely and began to move with him. “But if I had no hair; would that be something you’d like?” she whispered.
Eric positioned himself above her and replaced his fingers with his own long length. As he sank into her slowly, allowing them both to savor the stretch and glide of their joining, he said, “This is what pleases me, Sookie. This is what is true between us. How you costume it is choice, but this is what is best.”
As she felt his pubic bone create friction against her naked skin she hissed a little more.
Later, when Sookie’s breath returned to its regular rhythm and her heart slowed it’s racing Eric pulled her to him and held her in a way that was filled with need.
“Eric?” she asked. “What is it?”
Eric kissed her head, “You didn’t run,” he said.
“We fought lover. We fought and everything around us was hard. You were blaming me, as you have in past so many times.” Eric pulled back a little so she could see his eyes, dark in his glowing face. “But you stayed and we talked and we are together. You did not leave me. You stayed.”
There was something in the way he said it; there was relief and gratitude. But there was also the hint of a man who had felt abandoned more than once in his life. Sookie wondered, not for the first time, whether things might have been different if she had only stayed before.