Author’s Note: Thank you Breathesgirl for your eagle eye.
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: Massing the Fleet is a maneuver where all ships that will be traveling under a single command are brought together and orders of sailing are coordinated. This can be done for parade purposes but more traditionally was done to assure mutual protection.
Sookie and Twy kept talking until they had hammered out the details. Then Sookie had Twy send for Sonder to commit their agreement to writing. “I will ask my attorney to put this in more formal fashion,” Twy said. “I can have it emailed to you.”
“You can have it emailed to my attorney. I’ll make sure I get you his information.” Twy’s eyebrow arched and Sookie arched her own eyebrow in return. As Sookie left she could hear Twy barking orders at Sonder about the coming evening.
Sookie found her energy waning. She walked into the corridor, found her first set of stairs and started climbing. When she reached the top she headed back into the corridor and kept walking until she found the open stairs that led to the roof. She could feel the signatures of the two were guards, Charles and Stuart, and knew if she’d kept on walking she would have found them outside their rooms around the next corner. But for now all she could think of was the lure of sun and shade and a soft chaise lounge.
Sookie wasn’t sure how much time had elapsed when she found herself being shaken awake. “Mistress? Mistress?” The voice was punctuated with a touching and pressure against her shoulder. Sookie found herself swimming up toward the voice and finally opening her eyes. She recognized the voice as belonging to Meg, the young woman she had met that morning in Devrah’s kitchen downstairs.
“Yes? What is it?” Sookie mumbled.
“There is a gentleman here to see you. He says he is your attorney.”
“Mr. Cataliades?” Sookie asked. Meg handed over a card and Sookie recognized the elegant design with its heavy black ink and dark red signature border. “Is he downstairs?”
“Yes, Mistress. Would you like me to bring him up here?”
Sookie shrugged. “I don’t know. How bad do I look?”
Meg smiled, “Too beautiful for someone having slept on a lounge for hours,” she said.
Sookie could see herself in the woman’s mind and the picture was not pretty, never mind beautiful. “Here is good. I’m going to duck back to my own room for a minute. Tell him I’ll be joining him if I’m not back. Oh, and can you bring up some ice tea with lots of sugar on the side. And do we have any cookies that have ginger or molasses in them?”
Meg shrugged. “If we don’t, Mistress it will be easy to secure them. This is New Orleans after all!” Sookie smiled and got herself up as she watched Meg’s back disappear down the staircase. Sookie was pleased to find that she didn’t have any protesting muscles, but then again she never did regardless of how or where she slept. She thought it was probably a side effect of the blood. With one long last stretch she walked down the stairs and headed to where she could still feel the guards. She was pulling her hair back as she rounded the corner but she could still ‘hear’ Charles’ disapproval coming through loud and clear and Stuart’s speculation that she’d been fucking in the donor area.
As Sookie walked past them and through the door that Charles had opened for her she said, “If you must know, I was catching some shut eye on the roof. Get your minds out of the gutter!” She heard their surprise and a quick flash of anger from Stuart. Then she headed straight to the combination kitchenette and half bath in the corner. She turned on the light and assessed the damage. It wasn’t bad; nothing a brush and a splash of cold water wouldn’t cure.
She eased her way into the bedroom and turned on the light. Eric was there lying perfectly still. Sookie found herself looking at him and almost expecting to see blood on him somewhere; some nasty souvenir of Melanie, the vampire he had apparently staked just last night. But, of course, there was nothing. He was perfect, like always.
Sookie walked to the closet and retrieved a sundress. She took it through to the bathroom and got herself ready. By the time she was back on the roof Mr. Cataliades was already there, sipping tea and eating cookies. As she approached he stood and straightened his jacket before making a bow. “Greetings, Miss Stackhouse. Or should I call you Mistress?” he said with a smile. “It seems you have made quite the impression here already. Congratulations.”
Sookie smiled and sat in the chair nearest Mr. Cataliades. “Thanks,” she said. She found herself feeling a little uncomfortable about what that impression might be but then she put it out of her mind. “Hope you’re doing all right. Have you heard from Diantha lately?”
The attorney’s face broke into a broad smile. “Indeed I have and she is doing wonderful work for the great lady. I receive reports on a regular basis that are most complimentary.” His smile dimmed a bit, “Of course I miss her,” he said. “I hope for a visit from her soon.”
“Well when you do, let her know I’m thinking about her,” Sookie told him.
Mr. Cataliades nodded. “Of course, Miss Stackhouse.” Then he sat back and his face became more business-like. “Are you ready for tomorrow? We will be travelling to Shreveport and presenting ourselves at the Courthouse. The counselling session will be there and is scheduled for three in the afternoon but there is usually some preliminary paperwork. It is a five hour ride so we should plan on leaving no later than seven in the morning.”
Sookie’s eyes went wide. “Oh good grief, I had forgotten about it! Of course I’ll be ready. Do you think we’ll be back tomorrow night?”
Mr. Cataliades shook his head. “It is unlikely but if you feel it is imperative to return I can have you brought back. It would be better if we were to plan for overnight so that if it looks like the judge is receptive we can take care of any extra paperwork. There is also the matter of mutual property and it would do well to lay the groundwork for sole custody of your home.” Sookie nodded.
“I can pack an overnight bag. I’ll let Eric know when he rises.”
Mr. Cataliades leaned over and patted her hand. “It won’t be long, my dear Miss Stackhouse. Soon this will all be behind you.”
“It would be good to have one less worry,” Sookie agreed. Mr. Cataliades confirmed that he had been set up in a room on the second floor. Sookie was getting the impression that vampire guests were housed on the third floor and that the top floor was for the use of the king. The second floor was where all the non-vampire guests were placed and the ground floor was used for meeting rooms and other public functions. They rose and started back down the stairs. Sookie wanted to find Devrah and check on the progress for tonight. Mr. Cataliades confirmed he would be joining them at the gathering later and agreed to having an early dinner with Sookie. Sookie had considered inviting Twy and her entourage to dine with herself and the attorney, but then decided against it. She knew it wasn’t very hostess-like but she found she just couldn’t make herself say the words.
They found their way down stairs and through corridors. Sookie heard an elevator that had been previously silent humming as they walked past. One more turn in the corridor brought them face to face with Devrah. She smiled quickly and finished sending a group of women hustling down the corridor before turning back to the pair. She bowed and said, “Mistress.”
“How are things going?” Sookie asked.
“Busy, but better. Having the lifts running makes a difference. Miss Pam’s coffin has arrived as well as her two sheriffs. Indira, Rubio Hermosa and Thierry are also here and their travel coffins have been placed in their rooms. Only Maxwell Lee is still on his way and thank goodness because we are just about bursting. As it is I placed Miss Pam on the top floor with you. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, that’s perfectly fine. In fact it’s better than fine. I like knowing that Pam is around. What about Russell Edgington and Bartlett Crowe?” Sookie asked.
“The Kings? They’ll be here too?” Devrah had a quick look of panic but it was quickly replaced by something more thoughtful. “I’m not sure there is room for both..”
Sookie smiled. “They will rest together. It is their way.” Then Sookie remembered something she had forgotten: She thought about her own trip to Rhodes as part of the Queen’s entourage. “Did they bring their people with them? Guards and secretaries and companions?” she asked.
“No one so far,” Devrah told her. “They were told it’s a business trip so it is to be just them. The sheriffs and Miss Pam will rely on the guards here. It’s possible a few of the sheriffs did bring guests but if they did they made separate arrangements for them in the city. Of course if Misters Edgington or Crowe bring guards we’ll put them up downstairs with the other guards.” Sookie wondered about this and made a mental note to ask Eric later.
Sookie could see that Devrah was mentally checking off her own list. “There are instructions in every room on how to contact the donors. The beds were all made. I just sent maids to test the refrigerators and microwaves in each room and make sure there is a stock of ready blood. I also asked that suitcases be unpacked and clothes readied.” The tall woman swung her head towards Sookie. “Anything else?”
Sookie just shook her head. She was sure there was something else but she realized she really had no idea. “Perhaps a note telling them when meetings would start and phone numbers they can call for information? Directions to meeting rooms?” Mr. Cataliades offered.
Devrah nodded. “Of course! It’s been so long since we had visitors. It’s a true pleasure having the place come back to life…. So to speak.” Sookie found herself smiling in return. The housekeeper’s pleasure was infectious. “Now we have two more hours until sunset. I can have an early dinner arranged for you before everything gets busy. Oh, and my goodness, I almost forgot. There is a were by the name of Shari Decker who showed up. She is claiming to be a guard sent for you from the Shreveport Pack? Your palace guards are holding her downstairs.”
“Oh cheese and rice,” Sookie exclaimed. “I forgot all about that. I should meet with her. Can you arrange that?” Devrah gave Sookie a stern look.
“Not meaning any disrespect, Mistress, but you sure you don’t want to wait for the king?”
Sookie almost told Devrah that she was perfectly capable of handling a simple interview when she caught a look from Mr. Cataliades. He was looking at her very directly and his eyebrows were raised. It backed her up for a minute and she considered that she had not seen any emails or other messages from Alcide or Jason or Calvin about this person. “You know, I think you’re right,” Sookie said. “When Thalia rises she can bring her to me. I trust Thalia to know what to do.” Devrah nodded and Mr. Cataliades smiled.
Mr. Cataliades asked to be shown to a room where he could spread out to get some work done. Devrah showed him to an office space on the first floor herself. As she closed the door she turned to Sookie. “Anything else I can get for you, Mistress?” she asked.
Sookie tilted her head to the side and said, “I know everyone is really busy, but do you think you could spare someone to give me the nickel tour? I mean I’m supposed to be living here and I don’t have any idea where everything is.”
Devrah smiled broadly. “Of course, Mistress. I wish I could do it myself. I’ll see if I can get Meg. And when you are done I will have dinner ready for you on the rooftop If you like.” Devrah walked with Sookie to a door that opened into a lovely larger room that was furnished with soft chairs and thick rugs. “This room was one of the Queen’s favorites. When she had business to conduct she would retreat here between meetings.”   
Sookie looked at the rich wall coverings and the sofas and curtains that had been upholstered in soft pinks and yellows and creams. In a flash she remembered being shown into this same room before. There had been two desks then and the Queen and Andre had been here. “This is lovely. I’ll wait here.” As Devrah turned to leave, Sookie said, “Devrah? Do you think we could just call each other by our first names when no one else is around?”
Devrah looked back and Sookie caught a brief look of fear running across the woman’s face. “No, Mistress,” she said. “I just don’t think that would be a good idea. I mean just for now.”
“Of course,” Sookie nodded. “I understand.” She felt bad for even asking and at the same time felt angry that the staff and this good woman in particular had to fear her.
She watched the door close and then pulled out her phone to check her email. Sookie longed to see her brother and Michele; to be back with people who laughed and poked fun at her and didn’t care if her hair was messy or she had something stuck in her teeth. Sookie took a deep breath and then typed a quick email to her brother asking what he knew about the were who was sent to be her guard. When she didn’t see an email from Alcide she brought up his email address and drafted a message to him too. She found herself remembering her time in Jackson when Alcide had let her stay in his apartment. She had liked him then and had even thought they might make a couple. Sookie smiled to herself as she thought about how much had changed since those days.
It wasn’t long before there was a quick knock at the door and Meg’s face followed. “Devrah said you wanted a tour, Mistress?”
Sookie acknowledged Meg so she would straighten from her bow and then she followed the young woman through the downstairs area. The corridor they were in had several meeting rooms as well as the ‘retiring room’ Sookie had been seated in. Once they got to the end of the corridor they went through a set of double doors that opened into a room that could have been a small ballroom or a large dining room. There was a dais at one end that held two formal, fancy chairs. There were couches set up in informal seating areas and the other end had an open space with a piano and some music stands. Meg turned to Sookie and said, “This is where the gathering will be held, Mistress. The fellas who will be playing music will set up over there.” Meg gestured at the space near the piano. “We had the piano in here already so it seemed like the right place to put them. And then there’s some room for anyone who wants to dance.”
Sookie couldn’t help noticing how every room, no matter how well decorated, made her feel like she was walking into a closet. Then she realized that the reason all the rooms felt so small was that there were no windows; it was like a recurring dream where every door you opened led into another box. The feeling of airlessness was becoming overwhelming.
Sookie cast about for something to replace the direction her mind was headed. “Were you here when the Queen lived here?” Sookie asked.
“No, Mistress,” Meg replied. “But I was on staff when Victor Madden was around. Thank goodness he became finally dead pretty soon after or I probably wouldn’t be here now. After I started I found out that staff either didn’t stay or didn’t live long. The palace wasn’t a good place to be then unless you were a donor who liked it rough or a vampire.” Meg had seemed like she was about to say something else but then she just looked away and smiled brightly. Sookie ‘heard’ something about Devrah’s daughter having been in some danger. Then the thought was gone.
Meg showed her other meeting rooms that were on the same floor. Some were wired for internet but most weren’t. Sookie wasn’t surprised. Vampires, generally speaking, were as tech savvy as she was and that wasn’t saying much. Sookie was proud of the way she could maneuver around her laptop now and how she could text but she knew that most of the folks in Bon Temps, including Jason and Michele, seemed to ‘get’ technology in a way that was light years ahead of her.
As they wound around to the back of the building where the kitchen and work areas were housed, Meg stepped into a narrow corridor. She walked up to an ornate wooden door and when she pushed, it opened to reveal an indoor garden. There were hot house plants and a little tiled fountain with a pool. There were birds that flitted in the trees and high overhead Sookie could see the glass panels she had glimpsed from the rooftop patio. Meg smiled. “The legend at the palace is that this was the Queen’s favorite place. Of course she was never here during the day, but she could have been. The glass is special and it filters out the white light. The Queen was told that white light is the light that is deadly to vampires. The other spectrum light won’t kill them.” Meg nodded as she watched Sookie look around with wonder.
“It’s amazing!” Sookie exclaimed. “I’ve only ever seen something like this in the movies.”
Meg nodded. “Yes Mistress. The story I was told is that there was a movie that the Queen loved. It was a story about a couple in New York that married so he could stay in the country. The woman had an apartment with an indoor garden. After she saw it, the Queen had this built. There used to be butterflies in here too, but Mr. Madden never liked it much and he wouldn’t spend the extra money to keep it up.” Meg shrugged.
Sookie wandered into the garden. The space was set up almost like a star with small paths that ran from the center area. Some arms had a bench or chairs. A couple had a small sculpture. Although the space was not large it had been well arranged to allow areas of privacy. Sookie was examining a plaque on a far wall; it had the face of a man peering out from branches; his hair seeming to merge with a carved tree, when the door from the building opened and two women walked forward, talking. Sookie heard Meg challenge them, “What are you doing here?”
“Who do you think you are Miss Nosey Pants?” one of the women growled in return. “You can’t tell us what to do and you know it.” Sookie stepped back making sure she remained out of sight. She could see the women through the branches of the trees and shrubs. They were attractive in a hard way. It didn’t look like they were wearing a lot of makeup but they were very well maintained. Their clothes were clingy and expensive and cut low and high in all the right places. One of them stepped towards Meg in an aggressive way. “You’ll keep your mouth shut if you know what’s good for you. There are new vamps in the house and we’re just making sure that everything is ready.”
The other one had her hands on her hips and her voice was snarly as well. “This could be my chance and I don’t need your big mouth screwing it up for me. No one needs to know we were wandering around in here. Just remember. I know about Luis passing you money. I can make sure you have trouble with Devrah.” Then the women laughed. As they turned to leave Sookie heard one say to the other, “I’m going to make sure I’m in his line of sight first tonight.” And then Sookie saw it from the woman’s head. She saw Eric. He was drinking from a donor; a man. The man was beautiful and he had a dreamy look on his face. His hand was behind him and he was obviously rubbing Eric as the vampire drank.
Sookie couldn’t move. She found she had tears coming to her eyes and her chest hurt. “Mistress?” Meg called and Sookie could hear her walking forward. Sookie quickly turned away from the other woman and wiped the moisture from her eyes. She took a deep breath and centered herself so that her voice wouldn’t shake. “Who were they?” she asked.
“Donors,” Meg answered. “The one who talked first was Desiree. The other one is Pauline. Victor brought them in along with the rest.”
“The rest?” Sookie asked.
Meg nodded. “There are a lot of donors here. Most are just like them. The men are the worst.” Meg sighed.
“Where do they live?” Sookie asked.
“Downstairs. There are two floors below this one. One is for the donors and guards. The other is for,” Meg shrugged, “other things. I’ve never been down there except for laundry and sometimes to get things from storage: And of course I go into the donor and guard quarters to clean and serve.”
Sookie was thinking through everything she had heard when Meg said, “It’s probably time to head upstairs for dinner with your guest, Mistress.”
They took the elevator this time. It was a pretty elevator and a little old fashioned. There was a guard who bowed and closed the grill across the door and then worked the buttons for them. “Mistress,” he bowed as she exited.
As soon as they emerged from the building and out onto the roof Sookie found herself walking forward so she could stand at the edge of the wall looking out over the city and breathed deep. She thought about Eric; the look on his face as others bowed to him, the easy way he stood and how every part of him looked like the king that he was. And she thought of herself. She knew that she could dress up and stand tall but it would just feel like a lie. She didn’t feel like she could be any more a queen than a pig could be a ballerina and suddenly she just wanted to be home and home didn’t feel like this place at all, even if Eric was here.
From behind her she heard Mr. Cataliades say, “It is hard, these changes. You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself. This is all new to you. He has had a thousand years and a great deal of experience.” Sookie turned around and saw the demon’s expression turn quizzical, and then become a look of understanding. Mr. Cataliades opened his arms and Sookie stepped into them.
As he wrapped his arms around her, the lawyer said, “I can hear your thoughts. How much sleep did you get today?”
“Not much,” Sookie said. “Maybe four hours. Maybe five.”
“And you have heard things you understand and things you don’t.” Mr. Cataliades sighed. “You know I view myself as your guardian,” he said. Sookie was surprised. She had heard him say something similar before but it didn’t feel as real to her as it did right now. “I will always stand beside you, even if it means standing against the Viking. I told him this when I saw him in Oklahoma after Freyda’s fall.”
Sookie pulled back a little. “I don’t think that’s necessary, but you know? It does feel good to hear someone say it.”
Mr. Cataliades smiled and nodded at her. “No, I don’t think it’s necessary either. He cares a great deal for you. I might even say he loves you after his fashion. But there are things that are taken for granted among vampires; ways that they have always behaved that are different from what others believe. If you were to talk with him about what you heard from the women you might find that he simply acted from instinct.”
“Is it good?” Sookie asked.
“Is what good, Miss Stackhouse?”
“Being able to read everyone’s mind? Vampires too?”
The lawyer’s smile broadened. “It is a helpful tool for a lawyer. And I have every faith that you will find that out for yourself some day.” When it looked like Sookie would say something the attorney shook his head and said, “Enough questions. Let’s have some dinner.”
Sookie was in the sitting area when Eric walked from their bedroom. He was looking for her; she could tell. “Sookie? You’re okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” Sookie told him and she smiled.
“I was surprised to wake up alone,” he said and his returning smile told her he was asking a question.
“It’s been a long day and I didn’t get a lot of sleep. I was just resting.,” Sookie said. Sookie wasn’t sure she was ready to talk about what she had heard earlier so she decided to change the subject. “Mr. Cataliades is here. We just had dinner up on the roof. I forgot that tomorrow I have that first counseling session for the divorce in Shreveport. Of course I have to go. I’ll be driving with Mr. Cataliades in the morning.”
Eric sat down next to her. “How long will you be gone?” he asked. The way he was looking at her told Sookie that he was not fooled.
“A couple days. Maybe more,” she answered.
Eric’s eyes never left hers. He stroked her cheek. “Sookie, are you sure you are feeling well? Your eyes are dark and you look pale.”
Sookie found herself feeling increasingly cranky. She was so tired she knew she wasn’t buffering her feelings and Eric was picking up on her unhappiness. She decided to try another tack. “I know I didn’t get enough sleep Eric. But I did take care of Twy.”
Eric’s look became mischievous. “And does she still live, lover? Did you have to beat her into submission? Or were you able to charm her?”
“Neither. We agreed to become lovers and decided you can share the bed on weekends and holidays,” Sookie sassed.
Eric’s smile dampened a little. “That is not appetizing,” he said. “The thought of having to service that bag of bones is unpleasant. I never understood Pam’s interest in models of any kind.”
“Yeah, like I’d share you with anyone,” Sookie smiled and then her smile fell a little as she realized that her unspoken anger had surfaced.
Eric looked at her in a speculative way and Sookie could tell that he was suspicious. “I should feed,” he told her. “It will be a long night for me,” and he started to stand up.
“Eric?” Sookie said, “I’m here.”
“I do not think it is a good idea. You are tired and I can see that the past few days are taking a toll on you. It would be wrong of me to weaken you. There are many donors here. It is their purpose,” and then Eric’s eyes widened as he caught her reaction. “All right,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “Now I know something has happened. What is it?”
Sookie sighed. “I saw two of them today. Donors. Women. They were talking about tonight and how they were looking forward to it; like it was their big chance.”
Eric nodded. “Donor pools, like the one here, can be a strange group. Their worlds are small and it can make them petty and cruel. Most of them vie for attention, hoping to catch the eye of a vampire who will take them from the pool and perhaps give them immortality while they are still young and beautiful.” Eric shrugged. “But it is necessary for a palace. There are so many who are expected to come and go as business is conducted. We need a ready access to a blood supply.”
“One of them was thinking about you,” Sookie continued, her voice low. Eric’s brow wrinkled.
“I have not fed from any woman but you; not since before Sanctum,” he told her.
Sookie looked up into Eric’s face then and she let him see the hurt in her eyes. “She was remembering you feeding from a man here. He was rubbing you, Eric, and you were letting him.”
Eric shook his head. “Sookie, I did not initiate anything with any donor. I didn’t touch any of them and I didn’t follow through with any invitation. You know feeding is a sensual act for me. I should have stopped him, but I was distracted.” Eric ran his thumb over her cheek, tracing the line of the bone. “I have also been stressed. There has been much to consider. I am sorry.”
“Well I don’t like it, Eric. If you have an itch I don’t want you letting some paid person scratch it.”
“You’re jealous!” Eric laughed. Sookie’s face turned almost immediately angry and Eric grabbed her to him before she could storm off. “I am sorry. I do not mean to laugh,” he said and he held her close. When she calmed and he could feel her relaxing in his embrace he said, “I am worried now.”
“Why?” Sookie asked, her voice muffled against his chest.
Eric reached between then to stroke her breast through her shirt. “Because you so quickly forgot that I did come to you for itch scratching. At the time I thought I was being selfish, pulling you from sleep to make love to me. But you did seem to be having some problems sleeping yourself so I thought it would.. how do you say it? Something about killing birds.”
“Kill two birds with one stone?” Sookie suggested. Then she hit him with her fist. “It’s not funny, Eric.”
Eric smiled above her and stroked her back. “No. It’s not funny.” She could hear him sigh. “I forget how young you are: How strange all of this must be to you. You have never really lived with vampires.” As he said it, Sookie realized it was true. She had lived around vampires. She had dated vampires. She had been married to Eric, if you recognized a knife ceremony as marriage. But in all those years she had never spent more than a night or two under the same roof with vampires.
Eric caught her chin with his finger and tilted her face up so that he could kiss her. “You know you are my heart, yes?”
Sookie looked into his eyes and she did know; all the way down to her toes. So she nodded and then laid her head against Eric’s shoulder. As Sookie breathed in his scent and felt that familiar comfort settle over her. Then she said, “I know feeding from donors is reality, Eric. I know there aren’t a lot of choices. But it doesn’t sit well with me.” Sookie shrugged. “Maybe I’ll get used to it.” But as she leaned against Eric’s chest she knew she never would.
All too soon there was a knock at the door. Rather than wait for permission, Pam walked in. “So there you are,” she exclaimed. “Have you seen the time? Thank goodness I had the foresight to order clothing. It’s in the hallway and we have work to do.”
Sookie looked at Pam and then looked at Eric, her smile plastered on her face. Eric looked like he was going to say something but Sookie patted his chest. “Show time,” she told him. “Time to pull on our party clothes and get moving.” Eric nodded then leaned down to kiss her head.
“I love you, Sookie Stackhouse,” he growled in his best sexy voice.
Pam started pulling him until he stood and then she pushed him out the door. “Twy has a wardrobe already assembled for you downstairs. The others are being outfitted and there are pictures. Get moving.” Sookie shook her head and waved.
As Eric left Pam followed him and then came right back in wheeling a small dress rack.
Pam pushed and prodded. Sookie smiled and responded with set, polite answers to all the questions. She was a little surprised to realize that she was still two dress sizes below what she had been when she married Sam.
“I see you really set Twy in her place,” Pam was prattling. “She told me that we all needed to be ready for formal photographs, but that we only had two hours to get them done and that those were your orders. I don’t know what you did, but she is nicer than I’ve ever seen her. You might have broken her,” and Pam laughed. Sookie found herself shuffled into a black dress that fell just above her knee. The neckline curved gracefully into a heart shape and emphasized her shoulders and breasts. Pam tried to shove her into stiletto heels but Sookie held out for a more modest shoe.
“We need hair and makeup help,” Pam stated. “I’m texting Twy. She’ll send someone up here that can help.”
Sookie looked up at Pam as she walked back and forth, the phone clutched between her hands. “You look beautiful,” Sookie told her. The vampire was wearing an ice pink gown with a high neckline. There were rows of chains studded with diamonds around her neck over the material of the gown and there were intricate earrings that framed her face. Her hair was pulled up in an equally intricate weave of braids and pins and the effect was a halo of gold with sparkles that caught the light and flashed. Sookie giggled as she found herself comparing Pam to a Disney Princess with an M. Night Shyamalan twist.
Within a few minutes there was a knock on the door and they were joined by a woman who pursed her lips and then steered Sookie into a chair. Sookie smiled and nodded some more as her hair was pulled and pinned. Pam and the stylist talked about her like she wasn’t even there until Sookie cleared her throat and using her two first fingers, pointed at her own eyes and said, “Talk to the person please!” Pam rolled her eyes and the stylist just smiled, but they didn’t change how they behaved one bit.
Finally Pam walked away and when she returned she had the box that held the former Queen’s jewels in her hands.
The necklace Pam selected from the box was heavy. It was set with rubies so large that Sookie wondered how they could be real. Surrounding the rubies were knots of diamonds in some white metal. Sookie was sure it wasn’t silver. There were matching earrings but Sookie exclaimed right away that they were too heavy so Pam substituted diamond drop earrings. The stylist dipped into the box and found two ruby and diamond clips which she fastened into Sookie’s hair.
And then Pam fastened a bracelet on her arm. Sookie found herself staring at the bracelet. The last time she had seen it had been when she had smuggled it onto the Queen’s arm; the night that Peter Threadgill had died. “This is the one, isn’t it?” Sookie asked. Pam looked from the bracelet to her friend’s face.
“It was meant for a Queen, Sookie. It belongs to you.” Sookie found herself starting to tear up and Pam exclaimed, “Oh no you don’t! If you ruin your face before the photographs I’ll stake you myself!”
“Good luck,” said Sookie. “The only time that worked didn’t turn out so well for the other guy. And I’m faster now.” The stylist wrapped up and left. Sookie stood and grabbed a little clutch purse to take with her.
“Sookie?” Pam said sharply. “Where’s your ring?”
“What ring?” Sookie asked.
Pam’s eyes narrowed. “The ring Eric bought you; the ruby. He told me he was going to give it to you.” And Sookie could feel a flush of anger running up her neck. Pam could see the change in color and asked, “Sookie? Is everything okay?”
Sookie pasted her smile on her face. She knew she wasn’t angry with Pam. She was angry with a certain tall vampire who seemed to tell other people their personal business.
‘Well, at least he didn’t go crying to her when I told him I wanted to wait,’ Sookie thought, and she felt some small satisfaction in that. “I’m fine,” she said, and she stood up. “Are we ready?”
“Is there a reason you and Eric aren’t bonded yet?” Pam persisted.
Sookie looked at the blond vampire and took a deep breath. “I love you like a sister, Pam,” Sookie said. “But that is personal and between Eric and me.”
“But isn’t this the kind of thing that best friends talk about?” Pam asked.
Sookie rolled her eyes and moved toward the door. “Not really,” she said in return. “There are some things that just belong between a man and a woman. And Eric and I just need to work it out.” But as Sookie walked into the corridor and then into the elevator she found herself thinking of Tara. This was the kind of thing she could talk about with Tara and had in the past. Sookie found herself missing home again and she wondered if Mr. Cataliades would consider a side trip to Bon Temps after their time in court tomorrow.
As the doors closed Pam looked at the telepath. “You know what Dr. Phil says?” Sookie looked straight ahead. She couldn’t believe she was going to get television life advice from a vampire. Pam didn’t seem to notice Sookie’s skepticism. “Dr. Phil says you have to name it before you can claim it. If you want a life with Eric you have to proclaim it to the world and make it so. Not bonding and not wearing the ring he bought you is not claiming.” When Sookie didn’t respond Pam’s face changed and her expression became a little more reflective. “Unless you have changed your mind. Have you, Sookie?”
“Stop worrying, Pam,” Sookie told her. “I haven’t changed my mind. But there really hasn’t been much time for us together. You know?”
Pam’s brow wrinkled. “But what about all that time in Jackson? Eric should have been organizing things here. Instead he was being with you. What are you waiting for?”
“Nice guilt trip, Pam. I know you don’t get it, but I have had a lot to deal with. I’m with Eric and I’m sure we’ll figure this all out and I’m sure it will be soon. I get it. My life is not like your life. I don’t have forever to figure this out. I swear to you I won’t delay any more than I have to.”
“What do you mean, Sookie? Eric told me that Dr. Ludwig says you are near fae. Including your lifespan.”
Sookie felt her mouth drop and she turned to Pam. When Pam saw the shock on her face she stammered, “I thought you knew. I am sure Eric was going to tell you as soon as you had some time together, like you said.”
Sookie shook her head. “Whatever, Pam. But I guess I’m not surprised to find out that you knew and I didn’t.”
Sookie immediately regretted her snap of temper aimed at Pam. Sookie put her hand on Pam’s arm. She generally didn’t make physical contact with Pam because she knew it sent mixed signals, but she needed Pam to just let it go.
Sookie found she was no longer surprised that Eric had moved her into being the last to know again. She wasn’t even angry about it. She was tired of finding herself repeating the same thing over and over when it came to his treating her like a child. ‘I’ll think about it later,’ she promised herself; after we get through tonight and I have some time to think this through calmly.
Sookie took a deep breath and thought maybe she was changing. She could remember a time when she would have just stormed up to Eric in front of all his friends and ripped him up one side and down the other. Now it was different.
When they reached the ground floor the lift doors opened and Pam walked them both to the cameras. As she approached, Twy stepped forward to greet her. “Oh look at you! You look marvellous,” she said.
“Thanks,” Sookie said. Then she reached into her little bag and retrieved Mr. Cataliades’ business card. “Here is the contact info for my attorney. You can send the agreement or contract or whatever to him. I’ll be with him most of tomorrow and I’ll let him know it’s coming.” Twy nodded and tucked the card into her sleeve. Then she walked Sookie forward and motioned to the photographer.
There were photos taken of Sookie alone. Then Sookie asked to have photos taken of her and Pam. At one point Eric had wandered in and Twy and the photographer posed them together, both sitting and standing. Sookie thought that this must be what it’s like to have your picture taken at the prom. The photographer moved lights. He had Eric standing behind her, his hand on her shoulder. Then he had her standing beside him, her chin tilted just so. It all seemed unreal.
When Twy released them she had Pam stay back and Sookie recognized Thomas and Jane walking in, shepherded by Sonder. Thomas smiled and Jane nodded as they passed. Eric had his hand on the small of her back and guided her into the large room she had seen earlier. It looked even better now There were flowers on the small tables and there was dramatic lighting around the ornate chairs that Sookie knew signified thrones. She looked up to see Eric watching her. He had seen her looking at the thrones; where they would be seated together and Sookie could see how much it meant to him. She allowed the pride she felt to flow to him and he brought his arm around her and squeezed just a little.
Mr. Cataliades walked up to them. “Miss Stackhouse, you look wonderful this evening.” He bowed to Eric, “Your majesty,” he said. A server walked past with a tray that had goblets filled with blood.
Eric glanced at the young man and said, “My intended would like a gin and tonic. Can you go and get that for her? And Mr. Cataliades? What would you like to drink?”
“Ice tea,” the attorney told the server. He turned back to Eric and bowed again. “You are most kind.”
Sookie watched this new Eric who nodded just once to the lawyer. This Eric seemed to expect and accept the deference that all now showed him. He seemed in some ways even further away than he ever had before. It was a solid cloak of politics and custom that covered him now and Sookie wondered what it would take to find the man underneath. Then she shook her head a little. She told herself she was being silly.
Sookie could see Indira walking towards them, a soft smile on her face. “Sookie!” she greeted the telepath and bowed, her hands together in front of her. Indira was wearing a beautiful rose colored sari with a scarf that was all the colors of a sunset. They quickly fell into conversation and Sookie soon found herself laughing as they talked of Area 5 and the vampires and weres and humans they knew in common. Indira had stories of Alcide and even Calvin Norris. She told Sookie about the sign in back of the Fangtasia bar that had a picture of the telepath with a red line through it. “The bartenders think it gives them good luck,” she chuckled.
As they laughed, Sookie looked around the room. She saw Pam standing close by chatting with Thierry and her sheriffs. There was another vampire standing there with his back to her. He turned and she realized it was Rubio Hermosa. She had not seen him since that night at Fangtasia; the night they killed Victor and all his people. Sookie had heard he had been named sheriff. As their eyes met they nodded in the way that soldiers who have fought the same battle acknowledge each other.
The musicians started playing at the end of the room and Sookie turned her head to watch. Then she saw Maxwell Lee walk forward and sit at the piano. The music took turns at bluesy and jazz and that unique bawdy sound that was the pulse of the city. When they started to play “Georgia on My Mind”, Eric asked her to dance. Sookie lost herself in the music and the magic that was always dancing with Eric. His hand on her waist was firm and he led her confidently through steps and twirls. When they finished they were met with polite applause and Sookie found herself blushing.
Eric steered them towards Russell Edgington and Bartlett Crowe. “You look very natural together,” Bartlett told them.
Sookie smiled and bowed her head. “Thank you. And you look wonderful too. It’s real nice to see you both again. I can’t thank you enough for letting us use the house in Jackson. It was just about the nicest thing anyone could have done for us.”
“Think nothing of it,” Russell smiled. “We had business in Indiana and it was good to know that the house was being looked after.”
“Of course, we had thought our famous author would be watching over things now that you’ve left, but it appears he has decided to return to Bon Temps.” Bartlett raised his eyebrow in an obvious question.
“Well, I can’t say it’s a real surprise,” Sookie smiled back. “Seeing as he has kin in Bon Temps he probably wants to spend his time and money on his family.”
Eric gave her a close look. He knew that her remark was no where near as kind as it sounded.  
When the band took a break Maxwell Lee walked over to join them as well. Sookie had always admired the quiet vampire and she was genuinely grateful for the time he had spent by her side when she was in Dr. Ludwig’s hospital in the aftermath of Sam Merlotte. “It’s real nice to see you again, Max,” Sookie said.
“Miss Stackhouse,” he said with a bow. “You look much better than the last time we were together.”
“I’d say so,” Sookie smiled. “I was pretty pathetic. Kind of embarrassed to think back on it. I promise you I’m much more lively now!”
Max smiled and ducked his head. “I am relieved,” he told her. Then he turned to Eric and bowed more deeply. From that position he said, “I have a favor to ask, your majesty.”
Eric gestured with his hand and Max straightened. He stood tall and spoke in a very direct way to Eric. “I would ask your indulgence to live here within the palace for a time. I believe that the first order of business is to identify and register all vampires currently living in this area. You will want a similar census for your other areas and I would be best able to coordinate that information with you if I were physically here.”
Eric glanced at Sookie and she smiled and shrugged. Then he said, “We would welcome you to join us here. Your assistance in the work that lies ahead will be invaluable. I am reluctant to divert too much energy from your planned expansion of Fangtasia.”
Pam had wandered over with Thomas in tow. “You don’t have to worry about that, Eric,” she said. “I will be the primary liaison for the expansion. Indira will be our point person. She knows the business well and Area 5 needs the least amount of work. The expansions will continue on schedule and Maxwell can concentrate on Area 1 and any assistance you need in centralizing the work efforts here.”
Eric turned his eyes fully on Sookie. “Perhaps you would also be willing to help with the transition of palace operations. Sookie is Mistress here but there is much to do to sort out the chaos that Victor allowed.” Eric smiled most particularly at Sookie, “That is if Sookie agrees.”
Sookie found that there was a part of her that was grateful; even enthusiastic about the idea. A vampire who understood how things work and who was a wizard with numbers was a godsend. On the other hand she couldn’t escape the feeling that she was being maneuvered and it needled her pride. Sookie nodded and made herself say, “It would sure be a big help to both of us.” But in the back of her mind Sookie realized she was starting to tally up things that Eric had done or failed to do that were starting to piss her off.
“If you would like some suggestions, Max, I would be happy to assist,” Thomas volunteered. “I have lived in several palaces over the years. As Isaiah’s second I had direct experience with some of the protocols. There were things that went well and things you may want to consider changing. I was surprised how many things were different from living in an Area.”
Maxwell smiled. “I would welcome your input. While I have visited kings and queens over the years I have not lived nor worked in a royal residence. It would be helpful.”
Sookie watched the men talking past her and she spoke up. “Of course you’re going to discuss any changes with me before you make them, right?”
Beside her she could see Eric start. He seemed to put two and two together and confirmed, “Of course they would seek the approval of their Mistress before doing anything.”
‘Good save,’ Sookie thought and she took one mistake off the list she intended to beat him with later.  
Bartlett found himself watching the interaction of the couple with narrowed eyes. It was clear to any vampire with a nose that they were not bonded. They seemed to be working well as a team. There had been points this evening when he expected the telepath to protest but she had deferred to the Viking. Eric was quickly settling into his role; everything from posture to timing seemed in place. He had been sure that Russell’s trust was deserved and everything he had seen tonight supported that. If he was totally honest with himself, the idea of a non-vampire in the role of consort was still troubling, even if she was fae royalty. Bartlett wondered which side she would take if her loyalties were seriously pushed. If it came down to a choice between fae and vampire or were and vampire – would she stay at her bondeds side and support their Clan?
Russell brought his finger to his wristwatch in a not so subtle hint. Bartlett nodded and then looked up to the Viking. “Are you ready?” he asked.
Eric brought his arm around Sookie and looked down into her face, his eyebrows raised in a silent question. Sookie smiled up at him and nodded. Eric followed Bartlett Crowe to the dais at the other end of the room. Together he and Sookie stepped up, and then Eric led the telepath to one of the formal chairs and he indicated that she should sit. Once Sookie was settled, he turned back towards the room and took a place standing just to the side of her. He carefully laid his hand across the back of her chair and stood tall, his head high. Sookie had the distinct impression that Eric’s placement was deliberate and had some meaning to the vampires who were there.
Thalia walked up then from her place along a far wall and bowed before them. “Majesty,” she said. Then she stood, bowed her head and said, “Sookie.” Eric nodded once and then Thalia continued, directly her statement specifically to Eric. “There is a were here who would present herself as a guard for your intended.”
Eric replied, “You may have her present herself to us this evening. I have received word from Alcide Herveaux, the Packmaster of the Long Tooth Pack that she comes highly recommended. I will rely on your assessment of her abilities before I give my approval. Only the best may be trusted with your Mistress’ safety.”
Sookie felt the smile on her face transforming into her Crazy Sookie smile. She was determined not to embarrass Eric in front of the court but she couldn’t help her jaw from grinding. Eric must have felt her burst of frustration because he inclined his head enough to meet her eyes. Sookie could tell the minute he figured out what he had done. He mouthed the word, “Sorry” and then pulled himself back to face Thalia and all who stood behind her. He gestured and the small vampire walked up on to the dais and took a position behind the chair to stand at Sookie’s other side.
Bartlett Crowe stepped forward now. He advanced until he stood just in front of the dais step, nodded his head and then turned to face those assembled.
Sookie looked up then and saw that the room was a lot more crowded. There were faces she recognized; Devrah and Titus; Meg and Stuart. Their faces were among the many people who Sookie assumed lived or worked in the palace. As she scanned the faces she found herself recognizing the face of the man she had seen in the minds of the donors. He was smiling openly at Eric and he licked his lips. Beside him was one of the women Sookie had seen in the garden room and she was pulling her shirt down in a way that outlined her breasts. Sookie couldn’t believe that these people would act this way in front of so many people. Her sour thoughts were interrupted by the Indiana king who said in a clear voice, “This is Eric the North Man, King of Louisiana and Arkansas and his intended, Sookie Stackhouse. Step forward and pledge your fealty.”
Pam was the first. She walked forward, her head held high. When she stood before the dais she bowed gracefully and repeated the words that vampires had used throughout time to make clear their allegiance and their bond. She was followed by each of the Sheriffs in turn.
Once the sheriffs had completed their pledges, a tall, graceful woman with dark hair and broad shoulders came forward. She looked specifically at Sookie and then bowed. “I am for you, Mistress,” she said. Sookie could tell she was a were and assumed this was the prospective guard that Alcide had sent. Sookie thought the woman looked a little like Maria Starr.
“Welcome,” Sookie said and the female were straightened. She bowed to Eric and then turned and walked back to a place along the wall near the door.
Sookie would never forget the way Eric looked that night. The light above the dais was angled so that it shone on his hair and highlighted the planes of his face. He stood straight and tall as every person there came forward and bowed, repeating their oath. Her Viking was king now and Sookie was happy for him.
From their places to the side, the kings Edgington and Crowe watched the ceremony. “Well, it’s a start,” said Russell. “I have a feeling that Madden left a mess behind him. Northman will need to invest time and attention to getting things sorted if he hopes to start moving forward any time soon.”
“When does the Princess leave for Iowa?” Bartlett asked. “It will probably be a good thing to get her out of the way for a bit and it could be to her benefit to have the Queens available for advice. Phoebe can be a little chilly, but Maude will take her under her wing. If anyone knows how to pull a palace together, it’s Maude.” Bartlett smiled, tapping his fingers lightly against his lip “Maybe I should float up to Iowa to spend some time too; just to see our Sookie in action. The reports from Kentucky were most agreeable. Both sides of the negotiation found her to be an invaluable asset in helping to find a meeting of the minds.”
Russell’s eyebrows lifted and the smile on his face disappeared. “Are you sure you need to do that?” he asked. “You just returned. I had hoped that now that we have the Jackson house to ourselves we would have some time together.”
Bartlett sighed and then smiled. He patted Russell’s arm and said, “Of course. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. It will be wonderful to be able to wander a little. We could spend some time at Josephine’s, just the two of us.”
Beside him Russell relaxed. He gestured towards Eric and Sookie with his chin. “You know,” he said, “I had hoped that by now they would be bonded, but I can smell that hasn’t happened yet.”
Bartlett laced his fingers through Russell’s. “It is a mystery,” he agreed. “I can’t imagine what they are waiting for. I have never been so happy to have that knowledge that I will always be your Bart.”
“As I will always be your Rusty,” the Mississippi king confirmed, and he kissed Bartlett’s hand before settling his arm around his partner’s waist.