Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
“I am not accustomed to waiting—for anyone,” I said to the pale-blond vampiress who had met me at Fangtasia.
Palomino—I thought her name was. At least she was beautiful to look at.
“The sheriff will be here soon,” she soothed. “May I offer you and your people TrueBlood?” she asked.
I sneered and looked around the club. Fangtasia was closed for the night—not surprising, given the massacre the night before. And since that massacre had included tainted blood, I thought about staking Eric’s minion on principle—just for offering me blood from the bar’s coffers.
“The security footage from last night!” I demanded. “I want to see it! Now!”
“Uh—I apologize, your majesty—uh—but only Sheriff Northman, his child, and Thalia have the password,” Palomino stuttered as she lowered her head.
Likely, she was afraid she was about to lose it.
And she might have—despite her beauty—if Northman had not chosen that moment to enter the club. He was accompanied by an Indian vampiress of intense beauty and a brown-haired male who looked as ordinary as vampires came. Rasul also entered with him, and I offered that vampire the tiniest of nods to acknowledge my ally.
“I was beginning to wonder if you had decided to stand me up,” I said acerbically as Northman slowly made his way toward me. He looked much as he always had, but I could see a weariness in his countenance—a sure sign that the bond-severing had affected him more than he wanted to let on.
“Your majesty,” Northman bowed low after he’d stopped about five feet from me. “I am grateful for your presence. As I said last night, I am anxious to determine the foe behind Victor’s death. Debbie Pelt has been slain, but I feel that she was but a puppet in some larger scheme against your interests.”
“And what enemy do you think that is?” I asked the Viking, who seemed to be losing energy by the moment. The tall blond was now slumping a little, though it was clear that he was fighting to stand tall. Most would have missed his weakness, but I was not “most.”
“Fairies,” Eric said simply. “Sookie Stackhouse’s great-grandfather is currently warring with many of his own kind. They have come for the telepath before.”
Felipe smirked as he noted that the Viking had spoken of Sookie with a “neutral” term. Oh—the Viking had tried to pretend to be neutral before—to make it seem as if he did not care on a personal level about Sookie. I’d seen through that easily. However, even then, Northman had referred to Sookie as “Miss Stackhouse” or—on occasion—”my bonded.” He’d never referred to her with merely the label of her gift.
And that meant that my current course—to seize Sookie Stackhouse as my own—might be even easier than I had thought it would be.
“Are you ready to declare your independence from the troublesome Miss Stackhouse?” I asked, not hiding my amusement.
Northman did not respond. Instead he offered to retrieve a laptop from his office so that I could watch the previous night’s surveillance footage.
“Eric!” I said before he could leave the bar area. Now that he had arrived, I was in no hurry to deal with the Victor issue. I will admit that I was enjoying my time with Eric in his debilitated state. In my view, he’d never offered me adequate deference, standing a little too tall or bowing a little too shallowly in my presence.
“Stay and talk with me for a while,” I said cheerily. “Just because we have business to attend to does not mean that our friendship should be ignored.”
Perhaps I was having a bit too much fun poking the so-called bear—or Viking in this case.
Northman looked defeated, but nodded. He gestured toward the bartender to get him a TrueBlood and all but guzzled the beverage down.
“Hungry?” I asked with a smirk as Eric took another bottle.
“The battle was fierce last night,” he responded stiffly. “And—as I said—the Fae blood affected us all.”
I did not comment—instead affecting my most paternalistic expression with my clearly weakened minion. “Eric, please allow me to help you. Freyda is quite anxious for you to join her, and the title of consort is a step up from sheriff. Believe me,” I said with false sincerity, “I would rather have you stay here in my retinue, but I am not selfish enough to hold you back. Indeed, the only impediment to your leaving this area seems to have been the telepath. Why not let me claim her? I will give her protection—and, thereby, free any constraints of conscience that you may have regarding her.”
Northman, seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin in that moment, did not answer immediately. Instead, he took more time than would have been expected to understand my words and contemplate my offer.
“Sookie is my bonded and my pledged,” he finally alleged.
I was just about to challenge that claim when I scented demons nearby.
Immediately, I signaled Sandy Sechrest to have our people on alert and looked toward the door. In walked Desmond Cataliades and a female Dae. If I recalled correctly, she was called Diantha and was a relative of the demon lawyer. A cousin or niece—I believed.
“Mr. Cataliades,” I greeted, nodding with appropriate respect to the lawyer as he approached. “It is always nice to see you and your kin, but you must understand that tonight is a time for my kind to decipher the tragic events of Victor Madden’s death. Whatever business you have would be best conducted on another night,” I added with authority.
“We do not care about your Regent’s demise. We have come to claim Sookie Stackhouse from the Viking,” Desmond Cataliades declared.
“What? But she is the Northman’s pledged and bonded,” I returned with a slight smirk. “At least, that is what Eric told me mere moments before you arrived,” he added somewhat teasingly as I glanced over my shoulder at the Viking.
“Is she? Is she still your bonded?” the lawyer asked Northman accusingly.
For his part, the soon-to-be-former Sheriff of Area Five looked down and away from the part-Dae’s glare. Indeed, he looked about ready to topple over!
“Northman!” I demanded. “To what is this demon referring?”
The diminished Viking looked at me reluctantly. “Sookie’s witch friends conducted their magic spell after we spoke last night,” he admitted in almost a whisper. “Our bond is no more.”
I felt a smile claiming my lips. “Then I claim the telepath.”
“You have no right!” the part-Dae said forcefully. “Sookie broke the blood bond of her own accord, and I am here to make sure that Northman understands he is not to threaten her for doing it! If he does, I will see him staked! You,” Cataliades turned toward me, “have no claim on Sookie.”
“Of course, I do! Sookie Stackhouse is a registered asset of my kingdom,” I returned confidently. “I have every right to claim her—now that Northman no longer shares a bond of blood with her.
“Sookie is my goddaughter and a fairy princess,” Cataliades declared. “As such, she is not subject to vampire tradition.”
I waved off the part-Dae’s words. “Miss Stackhouse’s fairy connections aside, I’ve seen no official paperwork from either the Fae—or from you for that matter—that would exclude Miss Stackhouse from my rule. Nor has her status as a Supernatural ever been recognized by the Vampire Council.”
“The paperwork has been filed,” the demon tried.
“And has it been approved?” I asked.
“Not yet, but it will be when the Vampire Council next meets. The paperwork identifies me as Sookie’s guardian. Now that her bond with Northman is no more, I intend to ensure that she has a life away from vampires—the normal life that she has been denied ever since Bill Compton appeared in Bon Temps.
“She is still pledged to me by the knife,” Northman claimed weakly.
“Without a blood bond, that pledge is forfeit—as you well know. And—sorry to be crass—but, clearly, Miss Stackhouse no longer wants to be yours, Eric,” I said to the meek-looking vampire.
“And—as for your claim,” I said to the part-demon, “it would seem that it is not yet in effect. That means that there is nothing to stop me from declaring Miss Stackhouse as my own,” I smiled.
At that moment, I heard a vehicle arrive at the back of the bar.
“Perhaps that is the woman in question now,” I said with an easy smile. “Let us see what she has to say. Of course, I have heard tell that she has denied her Supernatural connections again and again. And—of course—there was the whole bond-breaking thing,” I reminded, just to see the mighty Viking squirm. “So I doubt the telepath will wish to have future dealings with you,” I added with fake compassion. “I sincerely believe you ought to cut your losses and go to Freyda, Eric. I would even allow you to go tonight—right away! Just think; you could save a little face.” I forced my expression to become sincerer and somewhat paternalistic. “If you did leave tonight—I would have no need to follow up on poor Victor’s death, now would I? Your retinue would be guaranteed their standing and safety. I would even promote your new Second to be the Sheriff of Area Five if she offered me her fealty.”
I heard the door in the back opening.
“What say you, Eric?” I asked, even as the vampiress warrior Thalia entered the bar carrying Sookie Stackhouse. “What is this?” I asked. “The poor woman looks catatonic?”
“An effect of the bond-breaking—no doubt,” Cataliades commented sadly. “And all the more reason why Sookie should be in my care,” he added. “Her associations with vampires have harmed her enough.”
“Paperwork, Mr. Cataliades,” I practically sang. “You have none that I need yet recognize.”
“I will,” he growled.
I chuckled. “Then you can file an appeal through the proper channels. Perhaps, we can eventually share custody,” I added with amusement.
The part-Dae frowned and then looked at Northman with hatred in his eyes. “Perhaps, an arrangement could be made that would benefit both you and Sookie, your majesty,” he said with a little more respect. Cataliades had always been famed for his pragmatism, and obviously, he realized that he was powerless to stop me from doing as I willed with Sookie.
“I am listening,” I returned.
“As long as this monster is kept away from her,” the part-demon gestured toward the Viking, “I believe that Sookie would be willing to work for you—at a fair salary, of course.”
“If I claim her as my personal asset, then a contract would not be needed,” I returned.
“But a happy telepath is an effective one. And a trusted one,” he observed.
“A contract and a salary would not be hardships for me,” I commented. “But I would require that she be bonded to someone in my court.”
“Sookie need not be bound to any of your kind to read minds for you,” the attorney reasoned. “I simple blood tie would be enough to ensure her honesty, and she could retain a level of freedom.”
“But a bond would guarantee an arrangement between us for her life. I would be foolish to settle for less,” I said.
The demon frowned. “A bond from a vampire of her choice then,” he countered.
I shrugged. “As long as her choice is someone I trust, I would be willing to agree to that.”
“And she could not be turned,” he glared.
“I would need something very valuable in return for that promise,” I said, even as I heard Eric practically whimper from behind me.
“What if I were to offer you my service?” he asked.
I contemplated for a moment. “I have an adequate personal attorney now—a demon too.”
The half-demon scoffed. “I know Mr. Antonopoulos. He is a middling attorney at best.”
“And you are the best?” I chuckled at the part-demon’s audacity.
Cataliades nodded. “I am. And I would agree to work for you for my usual retainer.”
“Half of that,” I countered. “The favor I would be doing in guaranteeing your alleged goddaughter’s humanity would surely be worth the rest.”
“Sookie will not be turned, or my kind will take your life. And my service to you will end when she dies,” he countered.
“Fifty years’ minimum for your service to me,” I said. “And—I will guarantee that Sookie is not turned, unless she asks.”
He nodded. “I will agree to that.”
“I would insist upon keeping Miss Stackhouse at court—to ensure her safety,” I said, inhaling in the direction of the still immobile telepath. Thalia had moved her into a booth and was silently watching the attorney and me as we negotiated. I was disappointed to find that Sookie seemed to smell like a mere human without her bond. But—no matter. Indeed, as long as she had her gift, a less enticing scent might actually be preferable.
I did not want her to be too enticing to potential rivals, after all. And—of course—if I missed her sweeter scent, I would just bond her to Compton or someone more worthy in my court. Hell—even Sandy might do, given her absolute devotion to me. Given Sookie’s apparent prudishness, I figured she’d be pleased to be bonded to Sandy, who had no interest whatsoever in bedding women.
“Sookie will be allowed to live in Bon Temps for half the year,” the part-Dae countered. “I will provide Dae guards for her when she is in residence there, and I will provide a tutor to help her hone her telepathic ability.”
I could hardly contain my glee! A little “vacation” time to placate the telepath—plus the promise that she’d always return to my employ stronger! And at no expense to me? I felt as if I’d just been dealt a royal flush!
“She may live in Bon Temps for four months out of the year,” I said, feeling generous.
“With a fifth being negotiable if she is not needed,” he came back.
“Agreed,” I smiled.
“Sookie is mine,” Eric said uselessly.
I rolled my eyes and looked back at the Viking. “Face it, Eric. You have no place in the current negotiations.” I returned my gaze to the attorney. “Let us see if Miss Stackhouse can be roused so that she can have input into her new contract,” I smiled. “And you,” I pierced Northman with a quick glance, “decide whether you are to go to Freyda tonight or face the consequences for what befell Victor.”
“But I did nothing wrong. I tried to save Victor,” Northman argued, though his voice was not forceful.
For the first time that evening, I contemplated the benefits of killing the Viking. The Oklahoma Queen would be pissed off, surely, but I knew she could be placated with money. Plus, she was afraid to cross me.
Yes—the Norseman could be killed easily from the looks of him, and such an opportunity ought not to be wasted.
Only the inconvenience that would come with having to deal with the spoiled queen and my memories with Appius stayed my hand.
Indeed, I’d come to be very fond of Eric’s maker during his time in my court. And Appius had been looking forward to his child suffering years of servitude to a much lesser vampire—which Freyda most certainly was.
However, I resolved that if Eric did not agree to leave my state that very evening, I would take his fucking head off!
I was positive that Appius would have understood.
“You have five minutes to decide what you will do,” I said to the Viking, before refocusing upon the attorney, who had moved to try to rouse the telepath.
“Sookie?” Mr. Cataliades asked gently. “How long has she been like this?” he asked the elder vampiress.
“She was hysterical earlier,” Thalia informed. “Ludwig had to be called and gave the telepath a medicine to calm her. Since then, she has not attempted to move around or communicate.”
“Then, we must continue negotiations without her,” I said to Cataliades. “For I will be taking Miss Stackhouse with me when I go tonight.”
For a moment, it looked as if the part-demon might argue, but he did not. “Perhaps, you would allow my niece to accompany Sookie? She will need a guard who can be awake during the day—after all. And I would rest easier if my kin were with my goddaughter.”
I considered his request for a moment before I nodded my agreement. “As long as she is there to guard—and nothing else—your kin may accompany Sookie. She will appreciate having a,” I paused, “friend with her—I think. You must know that I wish to foster a good working relationship with Sookie,” I added.
Mr. Cataliades gestured toward a table. “Then let us continue negotiations so that Sookie can be settled and the doctor can be called to her again.”
I smiled. “Absolutely.”
The king was clearly confident that he was in total control of the situation.
But there were many things he did not know.
Things that I was counting on.
That I was confident in.
Felipe did not know that his daytime security team, a small group of Weres, were surrounded at the motel where he’d left him.
He did not know that ten of my most trusted vampire allies were positioned around Fangtasia—ready to converge.
He did not know that many of the vampires he had brought with him, including Sandy Sechrest, would fight with me.
He did not know that Freyda and the few guards that had remained with her would be of no use to him.
He did not know that several witches were ready to use the surveillance system in Fangtasia to know where to send protective “shields” that would help me and my allies avoid injury.
He did not know that the Dae in the room were not the only ones at work that night.
He did not know that a sniper’s rifle would be trained on the exit of Fangtasia—as the failsafe—if he did make it out of the club alive.
I studied the room and saw Sandy doing the same. Her people would quite literally be ripping their own right sleeves from their garments when the battle began so that they could be distinguished from enemies.
Yes—even as Felipe patronizingly suggested that I cut my losses and just go to Oklahoma that very night, he’d been being surrounded. Indeed, the only thing that would have stopped my attack would have been if Sookie had walked through the door.
But she was being carried, and that meant that she had telepathically verified that there were no surprises outside and no extra threats we needed to worry ourselves with.
“I’ll get Sookie some water; it might help,” Indira offered before grabbing a bottle of the beverage and moving to sit next to my mate in my booth.
“Where is Compton?” Felipe asked, finally noticing his sycophant was not present as Desmond drew a legal pad out of his briefcase and began writing down some notes.
Thalia rolled her eyes. “He traveled by separate car. He said that you wanted Sookie here as soon as possible, so I drove accordingly. Compton drives like an old woman.”
Felipe chuckled as he studied what Desmond was writing—clearly to make sure that it met with his approval. With Felipe focused elsewhere, I took a step back, knowing that my sword was right under the lip of the bar.
“Are you sure you do not wish to join us, Miss Stackhouse?” de Castro said with a slight chuckle.
Desmond momentarily glared at the king for his callousness, but Felipe was too amused by himself to notice.
Of course, my bonded continued her act. Likely, she was counting down in her head. If Thalia carried Sookie inside, our people knew to attack exactly ten minutes later.
It had been nine and a half minutes.
I took another step back toward the bar.
I could see approximately half of the vampires who had entered with Felipe reposition themselves slightly and then subtly place their hands on their right-hand sleeves, but the king was too focused on the attorney to notice.
My eyes focused on his neck.
As was my custom right before an attack, I visualized what would happen within the first few moments of the battle.
I could see myself quickly grabbing my sword and slicing Felipe’s head from his shoulders before he even knew he was under attack.
I could see Indira quickly moving Sookie to the floor. My booth looked like the others, but it was virtually indestructible. The loyal Indira, I knew, would ensure that Sookie was shielded by the booth and her own body.
I could see myself, Thalia, Rasul, Palomino, and Maxwell Lee—along with Sandy’s forces, Desmond, and Diantha—killing or holding at bay Felipe’s loyal ones until my reinforcements arrived.
I could visualize the witches doing their part to protect those who needed it—especially Sookie—should something happen to Indira.
I was too pragmatic to be cocky, but—in that moment—I could clearly see that I had a clear advantage. And I knew—with every bit of experience that I’d earned over a thousand years as a warrior—that I would be killing a king in less than twenty seconds.
I took another step backward and moved one hand to rest on the barstool, knowing that the hilt of my sword was mere inches from my fingers.
With ten seconds left, I sent my daughters my support and affection through the bonds I had with them. I wanted them to feel my pride.
With five seconds left, I sent my bonded all of the love that I felt for her. I wanted her to feel just how much she meant to me.
And then it was time for action.
A/N: I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Next up . . . battle!
As always, many thanks to Sephrenia and Kleannhouse!