Summary: (suspense, tragedy) This is the third part of the Gift Horse Series (following “Gift Horse” and “Scrooged“). It is the night of the Queen of Oklahoma’s Christmas ball. Will Freyda’s white gown be red by the end of the night? And at what price comes Eric’s revenge? (Spoilers—all books)
Beta: The wonderful Kleannhouse has once again been my “eagle eye.” She has found many typos and asked many questions, and-because of her-you are getting a better piece. Thank you, Kleannhouse!
Disclaimer: Characters and storylines related to the Southern Vampire Mysteries are owned by Charlaine Harris and HBO—not the author of this work of fanfiction.
Santa Claus has the right idea. Visit people only once a year.—Victor Borge
Desmond Cataliades no longer strode into rooms. No—he was about a hundred years past his striding days. If anything, he treaded, though less heavily than he would have a decade before. And he was okay with that improvement.
However, if he could have stridden, he would have made an effort with the room he was now entering. The wooden floor of the grand ballroom positively gleamed, and his dress shoes clicked against it, creating a pleasing sound. Two large Christmas trees graced opposite corners of the room, each decorated in gold and white and surrounded by red poinsettias. The candles of the huge chandelier, which was the “showcase piece” in the grand ballroom, were being lit, and real evergreen garland swept out gracefully from above that light source.
Since it was just past sundown, the ballroom was empty of guests. However, it was still bustling with activity as humans and a few Weres prepared for Freyda’s Christmas ball. Desmond heard from the heads of several of the workers that the vampires and other guests were due to begin arriving at 8:00 p.m. and that Freyda would be escorted in by Eric Northman at 9:00 p.m. sharp.
Quite a few of the employees were trying to think of ways to be in the room when the queen and her consort made their grand entrance. Some of the women and all of the straight men were anxious to see what Freyda would be wearing.
One of the men in the room, the candle lighter, was having particularly vivid thoughts about the queen. He was trying to conceal his erection as he recalled what the vampire queen had worn the year before—a sheer green gossamer dress with a plunging neckline. Making things even more “uncomfortable” for the man was the fact that he’d caught a glimpse of Freyda slipping out of that same dress so that she could be “serviced” by several donors. Luckily, the worker was able to refocus on his task before his memory caused him to fall off of his ladder or to start the room on fire.
However, most of the members of the wait staff were more interested to see Eric—and not just what he would be wearing, though many of them had lustful thoughts about the Viking. By far, the most common thoughts were speculations about how the consort would insult the queen this year.
Desmond chuckled a little as he swept in and out of various humans’ heads.
The semi-demon glanced at his pocket watch and noted that the time was 6:45 p.m.—just after sundown, but not by too much. He enjoyed arriving at parties before others did; he liked seeing the last-minute preparations being done. Unlike guests, servants knew everything, including how to “be” in a room and travel around the edges of that room in the most efficient ways. By flittering in and out of their heads, Desmond had already learned of several “concealed” servants’ doors that led into the ballroom so that the wait staff wouldn’t have to enter through the main doorways. He’d learned of all possible exit routes. He’d also learned of how many guards would be posted at those routes.
He took note as several humans carefully rolled in a huge television; from its size, the semi-demon guessed that it was one of the new 110-inch televisions selling for $200,000 each. Dipping into the nervous brains of the workers, he confirmed his theory and discovered that the movie Black Christmas was to be played at midnight. In fact, the somewhat campy 1970s horror film was the “theme” of the ball. However, looking around, Desmond could see nothing else indicating that leitmotif.
He heard from one of the worker’s heads that the movie had just been an excuse for Freyda to order that all of her guests wear black, though, thankfully, the men were allowed to have on a white tuxedo shirt. According to another servant’s thoughts, Freyda herself would be wearing white. Desmond scoffed. It certainly fit Freyda’s personality to want to stand out, though a more confident queen wouldn’t have had to manufacture the occasion in order to do so.
He glanced at the two humongous mirrors at both ends of the ballroom before his eyes settled onto a raised dais in the back center of the space. The dais itself held what had to be two of the gaudiest thrones he’d ever seen. The mirrors were placed so that the people sitting on those thrones would be able to see most of the goings-on in the room, including what was happening behind them. Desmond smiled a little. Though vain, Freyda was obviously no fool. In fact, she was well-known for her desire to see everything that happened in her presence.
The mirrors were a sign of both the queen’s paranoia and her cleverness. Generally, those two traits could keep a ruler on a throne for a decade or so. Freyda had enjoyed fifteen years as queen, but mostly because the last seven of those had included Eric’s presence by her side.
And whatever else the Viking was, he was also honorable. He’d held to his agreement with Freyda. He’d trained her vampires and consulted with her sheriffs about how to increase their own profits, as well as the profits of the kingdom.
Most importantly, however, his mere presence had discouraged potential take-over threats—just as it had done for so long with Sophie-Anne. However, even the Viking’s presence hadn’t encouraged others to respect Freyda, and most outside of her queendom continued to hold her in derision.
Desmond ambled around the room, keeping his eyes trained on the mirrors. He noted the different ways they might be used—if one stationed himself or herself in the correct spots. Straightening his bowtie, he walked over to stand directly in front of one of the mirrors.
He smiled at himself. He looked good.
Of course, as a demon, even a semi-demon, he was aging much more slowly than a human. But he was the first to admit that he’d gotten too “settled into” and too “comfortable” with his life. Indeed, he’d let himself get quite portly for a while.
In retrospect, he realized that the best thing that had happened to him in years was when he’d been hunted by Jade Flower’s maker—the now very finally dead Zhou Zhen. Desmond scoffed. That bitch, Jade Flower, had killed his niece, Gladiola! And he’d gotten very little from her by way of revenge—only a leg!
No—a little maiming of Ms. Flower had not satisfied him.
However, being pursued by Zhou Zhen, a vampire of considerable age and skill, had invigorated Desmond. Hellfire! It had been the best weight loss program that could have been conceived for him; in fact, he’d dropped nearly a hundred pounds during their three-year cat-and-mouse game!
Sadly—it had eventually been time for Desmond to stop toying with the vampire and to get back to work. So the semi-demon had tracked the arrogant vampire to his daytime resting place and had waited for him to rise before using a fireball to drive a stake into the vampire’s heart.
Yes. That had been a good chase and a satisfying kill. And it had been good practice for his fire-raising skills. He rarely had cause to use them anymore, he thought with nostalgia, even as his fingers tingled with anticipation.
He sighed. He wished like hell that he could have eliminated Jade Flower using his powers, but part of his agreement with Sophie-Anne had been not to use his Dae magic in her presence. Sophie-Anne had had her own paranoid streak, and—though she didn’t doubt his loyalty—she’d had an almost unreasonable fear of fire and had been reticent to hire even a semi-demon because of that fear.
It wasn’t a surprise that no full-blooded demon had lowered himself or herself enough to agree to Sophie-Anne’s condition. However, because of his status as a “half-blood,” Desmond had needed an “in” to clientele at the top of the vampire food chain. And Sophie-Anne had been that “in.” Thus, he’d agreed to her terms, with the caveat that he could use his magic in self-defense. Sadly, it hadn’t come to that with Jade Flower, though the semi-demon had tried to put himself into a “vulnerable” position so that it would. Of course, ripping off her leg hadn’t really helped his cause of looking like his was in imminent danger.
With frustration, Desmond recalled that it had been Bill Compton who had killed Jade Flower, a fact that did not ingratiate the Civil War veteran to the semi-demon. But, then again, Mr. Compton had had a firm spot on Desmond’s list of undesirables ever since he’d learned of his duplicity regarding Sookie Stackhouse, whom the lawyer now thought of as his goddaughter—and not just his ward.
Of course, that whole situation had been stressful from beginning to end. Desmond had been working for Sophie-Anne for almost eighty years when he learned that she was behind a plot to basically kidnap Fintan’s granddaughter. Yes—the lawyer had been placed into a difficult position—to say the least. And there’d been nothing he could do to extract himself—or Sookie—from the situation.
It had been the very definition of conflict of interest!
Hellfire! He’d not even realized that Hadley was related to his beloved friend Fintan at first—since she’d not had the essential spark and had carried none of Desmond’s own essence. And—since she’d already been turned vampire when he met her—she’d smelled nothing like Fintan.
Desmond had begun to suspect that Hadley was related to his friend only after he’d helped her draw up her Will and she’d left all her belongings to a “Stackhouse.”
He shook his head. Stupid, naïve Hadley. Because of her big mouth and desire to curry favor with Sophie-Anne, she’d placed her cousin’s life on a slippery slope to danger.
Desmond sighed as he continued to look at himself in the mirror.
However, as much as it might make him feel better, he couldn’t really blame Hadley fully for what had happened to Sookie.
He had been the one who had unintentionally endangered Sookie, Hunter, and—he’d discovered recently—Sookie’s unborn son.
Thankfully, Hunter’s identity as a telepath was still a well-guarded secret. During the last seven years, the boy had been taught—by Sookie and himself—how to shield himself from the thoughts of others. And Desmond had made sure that the child received a steady supply of a witch’s brew made out of Were blood and garlic that would make Hunter’s scent repugnant to vampires. When he came of age, Hunter would be given a list of more-less “honorable” vampires—if he decided to pursue employment with them. However, otherwise, he would be able to stay away from them.
Desmond kicked himself mentally. He should have done something similar for Sookie, but—in his defense—he hadn’t known about her ability until she was already on the queen’s radar, and by then it was too late to stop the inevitable.
Sadly, unlike demons, vampires were not discreet in using their “assets”; thus, Sookie had become known among vampires: first in Texas, then in Mississippi, and finally—irrevocably—because of Rhodes.
He sighed. No—vampires thought that they were secretive, but most were not. In fact, they were lucky that they had their glamour to cover up their sloppy tracks. The Dae were the true secret-keepers, as was evidenced by the fact that very few outside of their race knew that telepathy was a common trait among them. Otherwise, beings such as vampires would have attempted to exploit them.
Despite the way that vampires liked to show off their “toys,” they had other traits that were “useful.” By far, the most “convenient” quality of vampires in power was their patience. By rule, they didn’t act on their desires in a quick manner—preferring elaborate machinations to accomplish their goals. Thus, they kept themselves in check, so demons had rarely found reason enough to go to war with them. Only occasionally did vampires “strike while the iron was hot”—so to speak. And they had to be completely assured of victory in order to do that—as Felipe had been when he took over Louisiana.
No. Generally speaking, whether something happened in a day or a year made very little difference to a vampire, especially an older one. Their long lives made demons similar in that respect. But Desmond now cursed that trait. It’s why he hadn’t been more proactive in monitoring Fintan’s line. He’d counted on his old friend to tell him if any of his descendants possessed the essential spark.
Truth be told, once the essential spark had skipped Fintan’s children—a boy and a girl—and his first two grandchildren—a boy and a girl—Desmond had figured that it would not take hold in any of his line.
However, even after the semi-demon lawyer had learned about Sookie, he’d taken too much of a “wait and see” approach. She was—by then—under the “ownership” of vampires, first Compton and then Northman, and Desmond had not wanted to rock the boat. In retrospect, he wished that he would have tipped the damned thing over.
And when she was released from her vampire marriage, there had been the contract signed by Felipe de Castro, which ostensibly guaranteed that Sookie would remain under the king’s protection and that she would be left alone.
Desmond sighed as he replayed his memories from seven years before.
He had celebrated the looming change to Sookie’s marital status when he first heard of the maker-imposed match between Northman and the Oklahoma queen. Ironically, despite his initial celebration at the prospect of Sookie and Northman’s pledging being dissolved, Desmond had been hired to find a way to make the union permanent and exclusive. And he’d done his due diligence.
The demon sighed again—this time more heavily—as his memories all but assaulted him. Months before his and Sookie’s divorce, Northman had come to see him, desperately looking for a way to break the marriage agreement forged for him between his maker and the Oklahoma queen.
At the time, he thought what others did: that Northman was not a good match for Sookie—that he was merely using her for her telepathy and her blood. Moreover, Desmond didn’t think that Northman’s desire to get out of the marriage agreement had anything whatsoever to do with his goddaughter. In fact, he thought that it was Northman’s way of negotiating a more advantageous deal for himself.
However, Desmond eventually realized just how wrong he’d been—how much he’d misjudged the vampire.
Looking haggard and pale, Northman had returned to his office one night, only weeks before he would be required to relocate to Oklahoma. In a haunted tone that Desmond wouldn’t soon forget, Eric had told the demon that it was time that he “gave up” and accept his fate as Appius’s “prized stallion” and Freyda’s “indentured servant.”
Eric had asked that Desmond draw up a contract between Felipe, Freyda, and himself—an ancillary agreement to what the Viking called his “marriage indenture.” Northman would agree to a hundred additional years of marriage; Freyda would pay Felipe a percentage of Oklahoma’s profits for the first fifty and the last fifty years of her and Eric’s marriage, and she would vow not to harm Sookie; and Felipe would provide his protection for Sookie and her offspring, as well as make it possible for her to reestablish a life unfettered by vampire politics.
With Eric sitting dejectedly in front of him, Desmond had been able to guess what another hundred years would “cost” the Viking. The confident vampire Desmond had thought Eric to be was gone that night. In his place was a defeated man, literally selling all he had left to barter—himself—in order to keep Sookie and any children she had safe. And—suddenly—Desmond realized that it was Eric who would pay the steepest price for the so-called “gift” that Desmond had bestowed upon Fintan and his line.
Eric’s act had been, without a doubt, the most unselfish act that Desmond had ever witnessed, and, in that moment, he’d realized that vampires—or at least one vampire—could love.
Northman’s action had surprised Desmond—to say the least. What had surprised him even more was that the Viking had made the semi-demon swear that he would never tell Sookie about what he was sacrificing—for her.
In an even, sensible tone, Eric had explained why it would be best for Sookie to hate him—to think of him as the devil incarnate. He expounded upon Sookie’s propensity to see the worst in him as it was. And he talked about how he intended to foster that impulse. He asked the lawyer to do the same if he ever had opportunity.
Eric rationalized that he was not—and could never be—what Sookie really wanted. He cited the fact that he celebrated in the killing of his enemies—while Sookie hated causing harm to anyone—in order to demonstrate how very incompatible they were. He gave further evidence of Sookie breaking their bond—a fact which Desmond hadn’t yet known about—in order to show that Sookie loathed having a connection with him. He explained that Sookie had developed “real” affection for him only because of the time he’d spent at her home when the witch, Hallow, had cursed him. Eric had made clear that he couldn’t be the person she wanted him to be because that vampire simply didn’t exist outside of a curse. Finally, he suggested that it would be beneficial for Sookie if she found her way into the arms of the man whom he thought that she really loved—her shifter boss, Sam Merlotte.
And—as Eric had said that—Desmond saw something he’d never seen before: a vampire shed a tear because of sorrow.
Later, Desmond had found out that the night Eric came to him to draw up the auxiliary agreement was the very night after Sookie had used the cluviel dor to resurrect Merlotte.
Adhering to Eric’s wishes, Desmond had kept quiet. After all, as an attorney, he’d taken an oath to conceal all of his clients’ secrets.
But he was tired of keeping secrets that benefitted only the unworthy. He was tired of keeping secrets that hurt people he loved or respected.
Indeed, it was time to let some secrets out of their cages. And it was high time to choose sides—even if it cost him his law practice.
Hellfire! He was still youngish by demon standards and spry enough! And Russell Edgington had been trying to hire him as a “consultant” for years. Or, perhaps, he could become a professor for a while. Indeed, there were many things that he could do—that he would like to try.
Two calls had proven the catalyst for Desmond’s change of heart.
He’d received the first of these three months before. The second, he’d received less than twenty-four hours before. Eric’s call had come first. At that point, Desmond had known which side he needed to be on. However, he’d committed only his legal prowess to that side. When Sookie had called him the night before, he’d decided that his time for using the law to straddle the fence was over. He was going to jump over it—come what may!
In his briefcase, Desmond was carrying copies of all of the evidence Eric had given him against Queen Freyda and King Felipe. Other copies had been sent to each member of the Vampire Council, which was composed of representatives from all four vampire clans. They would be the body that annulled the marriage contract and the auxiliary agreement. And—after a little prodding—they had agreed to put Desmond’s case first on their docket that night.
Thankfully, the case was open and shut—so to speak—especially given the cassettes that had been messengered to him that very morning.
Merry Christmas indeed!
After converting the cassettes to disc format—so that he could preserve the originals—he’d added Compton’s confession to the other evidence. Indeed, Compton had given them more than enough to prove a breach of contract on the parts of both Freyda and Felipe. Sadly, the Vampire Council would find that breach more egregious than the attempt to take Sookie’s life or kidnap her child.
However, to be more assured that the “right” judgment would be given, Desmond had sent additional copies of his evidence to the Ancient Pythoness and to the Council of Dae. Desmond had heard that Pythia had shown an interest in Sookie in Rhodes. And—even if she did nothing, which would likely be the case—it was good to name-drop at times. And, of course, the Council of Dae could do nothing—at least not directly. However, they could and would discourage any Dae attorney from representing anyone on the Vampire Council if it flouted supernatural law. And that was a substantial enough threat to “help” the members of the Vampire Council avoid falling under the spell of corruption. If needed, Nargal was ready, willing, and able to inform the members of the Vampire Council of the repercussions if they failed to do the right thing.
And—of course—the right thing was to let Eric out of his marriage contract immediately. Likely, Freyda and Felipe would also face monetary sanctions, though Desmond was pretty sure that Freyda wouldn’t live to pay hers. And—if they were very lucky—the Vampire Council would take the opportunity to further “discipline” the queen, though they would likely give Felipe only a slap on the wrist.
The semi-demon had intended to be in Seattle that night to witness the Vampire Council’s ruling.
However, after his phone call the night before, he’d changed his plans. Luckily, Nargal had been willing to go to Seattle in his stead. The plan was now for Nargal to call him with the Vampire Council’s decision, which Cataliades would then present to Freyda—along with the evidence against her, if need be. After that, the Viking would be free to do as he wanted, which—Desmond was pretty certain—included killing the Oklahoma queen.
However, as Desmond had walked around the room, he’d thought of a much better option for communicating the Vampire Council’s decision to Freyda—and everyone else who would be present. The semi-demon grinned. Yes—the party was going to get very interesting before it was over!
And Desmond was there to make sure that Eric Northman survived the night. His goddaughter had asked him to ensure that the man she loved—the vampire with whom she wanted to raise her children—did not die in his quest to become free. It had been the only direct favor she’d ever asked of him, and he could not deny her—especially not when he recalled the look of anguish that had been on Eric’s face the night that he’d sold an extra century of his life.
After Sookie’s call, Desmond had thought about calling Eric right away—chastising him for returning to Oklahoma at all! Certainly, the semi-demon understood the Viking’s desire to kill Freyda for the previous attempt on Sookie’s life, as well as for her part in the plot to take Sookie’s unborn child; however, some things were more important than revenge. And the Vampire Council would dissolve Eric’s marriage whether he returned to Oklahoma or not.
However, Desmond had paused, and then he’d realized why the Viking had really gone back. Yes. Undoubtedly, revenge was a factor, but it wasn’t the biggest one. A man willing to give up a hundred years of his life for the women he loved would certainly give up one more night in order to ensure that she was able to get to safety without their enemies realizing that anything was amiss.
“Mr. Cataliades,” came a slithery voice from the doorway. A moment later, an even more slithery image appeared in the mirror behind him.
His face the picture of polite indifference, Desmond turned at human speed to face the speaker.
“Luther, how nice to see you again.”
“We had not expected you,” Luther said testily, eyeing the demon suspiciously.
“My apologies,” Desmond answered politely. “I hate to impose upon the queen’s hospitality. However, I have some documents that need to be given to Sandy Sechrest,” he said, patting his briefcase, “and I believe that she plans to be here this evening. As you can see,” he added gesturing to his tuxedo, “I was hoping that I might be able to stay for the festivities after I make my delivery.”
Luther narrowed his eyes a bit. Freyda’s lieutenant was ten times the vampire that his queen was, so Desmond knew to be wary of him. At almost nine hundred years old, Luther was quite strong; however, his “diplomacy” left much to be desired—as did his manners. Therefore, it was highly unlikely that he’d ever rise above his current station—a second in command—in the vampire hierarchy.
It was no secret why Luther was working for Freyda: money, power, and sex. She paid him well for his allegiance, and—in turn—he was given substantial power in her regime. Sadly, Luther inspired very little loyalty from others—preferring to rule with threats and manipulation, rather than true strength. Moreover, he had no ability when it came to training vampires as guards or warriors. That had been why Freyda married Eric—well, that and the fact that Freyda liked the “idea” of marrying a Viking.
She told anyone who would listen that she was descended from the goddess Freyja. Unfortunately, the queen’s delusional tendencies were not a crime—especially not among vampires. No one knew what her name truly had been before she met her first death, but Desmond would wager everything he owned that it had not been Freyda! In his mind, she was a Bambi or a Coco—maybe even a Narcissa. Yes. She was vain enough for that name to fit her perfectly.
The semi-demon sighed. In fact, Freyda had undoubtedly also married Eric because she had wanted to feed that vanity; after all, they “photographed” well together.
The creepy-looking Luther was assuredly not one to take good photographs. And he certainly didn’t fit the image that Freyda wanted to create—that of a Nordic couple blessed by all the gods of the Norse pantheon.
No. Luther was not up to snuff in that regard. However, it was rumored that he was a “much-preferred” lover to the queen than Eric Northman. Of course, it was an ill-kept “secret” that that rumor had been started and then propagated by Freyda herself when it had become clear that Northman wanted nothing to do with her sexually—beyond their compulsory yearly appointments.
And—as the “loyal” lieutenant—Luther had played along. In truth, the queen probably did enjoy her sexual relations with Luther much more than the ones she got from Eric. It was rumored that Luther and Freyda enjoyed sharing their “meals” during sex, though that was not unusual for vampires.
However, Desmond knew something that the queen did not. Luther had been a second in command several centuries before—to the vampire king of Spain. That fact was widely known. However, the part that was not known was that Luther had sold information about his monarch’s resting place to the vampire king of Portugal, who had wanted to expand his territory to include most of the Iberian Peninsula.
Desmond had been interning with a distant cousin of his at the time. And that cousin was the king of Portugal’s legal counselor; thus, Luther’s past duplicity was just one more secret to which the semi-demon was privy. Moreover, since he handled the odd bit of business for Felipe, Desmond was also aware of another secret related to Luther: he was up to his old tricks. Though Felipe seemed willing to patiently wait for the opportune moment to do away with Freyda of Oklahoma, Luther was already on the king’s payroll. Indeed, he was an enthusiastic spy for Felipe. In the end, it seemed, Felipe simply paid more than Freyda.
“You know that Freyda dislikes last-minute changes to the guest list,” Luther said, interrupting the thoughts that had quickly been passing through Desmond’s supple mind.
The semi-demon bowed a bit. “That is why I came early—so that I could have a word with you well before the ball began. King Felipe just contacted me late last night to ask that I be here, so—of course—I dropped my other work. However, should you feel that my presence would upset the queen, I will—of course—depart posthaste, leaving my paperwork with you to give to Sandy.” He sighed somewhat dramatically. “However, I had hoped to speak with Sandy about a few of the items I have for her.” He paused. “And Felipe did ask that I relay a message to the queen as well.”
“What message?” Luther asked with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.
Desmond looked at the lieutenant with false regret. “The king ordered that I deliver his message to Queen Freyda only. However, I’m sure that if I called Felipe, he would understand why I was unable to complete the task he set for me. Or—perhaps—you would like to call the king in order to confirm.”
Luther once again narrowed his eyes, as if to study the semi-demon. “I will call Felipe before the ball begins,” he said coldly, as if his call were a threat to the semi-demon.
Desmond refrained from rolling his eyes. “I’ll just wait out of the way then—perhaps go grab a bite in the kitchen?” the lawyer requested, taking advantage of the stereotype that demons were very fond of eating.
Luther waved his hand to wave the demon away. “Fine. If the king did, indeed, request that you give a message to my queen, you may—of course—stay for the festivities. Otherwise, you and I will be having another talk soon,” he said rather ominously.
Desmond bowed a little and then followed one of the staff members, who was walking purposely with an empty tray in her hands. Given that she’d arrived in the ballroom five minutes earlier with a tray full of hors d’oeuvres, he figured she’d lead him to where he wanted—needed—to be.
The semi-demon wasn’t worried about Luther’s call to Felipe. He knew that the king would confirm what he’d said.
As a lawyer who’d had many a “questionable” client, Desmond had learned never to lie about an easily verifiable fact—especially not to a vampire. As a matter of fact, not long after Sookie and he had hung up the night before, he’d called Felipe. By the end of that call, the king had done everything Desmond had needed for him to do: he’d ordered Desmond to Oklahoma with paperwork for Sandy and—more importantly—he’d asked him to pass along a message to Freyda. And it had all been the king’s idea—at least seemingly.
Desmond was not foolish enough to congratulate his own skills of manipulation too much; Felipe’s actions had been predictable. Vampires loved to show off their assets to each other, and demon lawyers were sought-after commodities. Freyda, for example, did not have one on retainer, nor would she ever.
The message that Desmond was to deliver could have actually been shared over the phone—or even by text message. It seemed quite mundane—really. However, vampires loved their pageantry. The demon would be announced, and the proper reaction would be given by the vampires who recognized that Felipe was powerful enough to use his demon lawyer as a message boy. Indeed, using demons for such humdrum tasks was not uncommon for vampires at all. They liked to feel superior to the one race that could have truly challenged them for control of the realm—if they’d wanted to. However, what vampires didn’t know was that the demons they enjoyed “using” to showcase their “power” thought that such operations were extremely humorous. Bets and drinking games were based on such things.
Despite that, Desmond felt his anger rising as he thought about the particular message he’d been asked to deliver. He was to convey that Felipe hoped that Freyda could attend his New Year’s Eve party, for the king had it on good authority that they’d be able to begin work on the “joint venture” they’d been planning. Of course, Freyda would understand that the message related to Sookie’s child. Desmond’s position as Sookie’s supernatural sponsor was known to both monarchs. Thus, having Desmond deliver the message would be an “inside joke” between Freyda and Felipe.
Yes—it was safe to say that Desmond was boiling underneath the surface. Sookie’s son would be the third of Fintan’s line to inherit the spark and, therefore, Desmond’s gift of telepathy. Only—this time—the semi-demon was determined to be proactive in protecting the child so that the “gift” would actually be welcome, instead of the “curse” it had been for Sookie.
As the demon entered the kitchen, he smiled widely. At least Freyda didn’t skimp when it came to providing a feast for her non-vampire guests. Too many vampire monarchs did. Not wanting to have to explain himself, Desmond spotted a Were in the room and walked over to her. Immediately, the Were, whose name was Margaret, recognized what he was—if not who he was. And—even more helpfully—she smiled at him and handed him a plate.
“Help yourself, Sir,” she said. She leaned a little closer. “But would you mind taking from there?” she asked, pointing to a small counter area near the back of the large room.
Desmond dipped into her brain and discovered that the trays on that counter were full of items that Margaret, who had been the head chef at the palace for more than a decade, didn’t think were fit to serve because they didn’t “look” as nice as the others. Freyda had taken an interest in the aesthetics of the human food only once during Margaret’s tenure, but that had—apparently—been enough to make the Were quite cautious about what went out of her kitchen.
Margaret figured that the demon’s presence there was lucky. She hoped that Desmond would eat his fill of the “inferior-looking items” since demons were often “messy” when it came to food, and she’d prefer that he didn’t touch her buffet in the ballroom. She was also adamantly opposed to throwing out food. So—in her eyes—Desmond being there was a win-win situation.
The semi-demon winked at Margaret and took his plate over to the counter she’d indicated. He was not shy about taking as much as that plate could hold either. As he piled the food on, the helpful Were got him a carafe of red wine, another universal favorite among demons.
“May I sit over there out of your way?” Desmond asked, gesturing toward a smallish table at the side of the kitchen—the opposite side from where most of the staff members were congregated to work on the food preparation.
“Of course,” Margaret said, happy that he’d be out of the way. She led him over to the table where he quickly placed his plate and briefcase.
“Thank you. I have a little work I should see to,” Desmond added, even as he took the carafe and picked up the Were’s hand, placing a kiss on the back of it. “You have been quite helpful, madam.”
Margaret blushed and quickly scurried back to her work as the semi-demon settled into the seat facing the wall. He did this on purpose—of course. He could certainly “feel” the pair of vampire eyes on his back. He’d had a tail from the moment he’d left the ballroom. But he’d expected no less of Luther. However, Desmond was still certain that he’d be able to accomplish his ultimate goal for being in the kitchen, which was to “spike the punch,” so to speak. In his briefcase, he had a large vial of Fae blood, something Niall had left him “just in case” it could ever be used to help Sookie.
That “in case” was definitely at hand.
From attending Eric and Freyda’s wedding feast, Desmond had seen that the vampire queen had a truly unique “blood fountain,” which managed both to heat and to lightly carbonate the blood, making it a little bubbly like champagne. He figured that she’d pull it out for the occasion, and he wasn’t wrong. From Margaret’s thoughts, Desmond was picking up that there was to be a “welcome toast” after Freyda made her big entrance. In addition, Freyda liked to have the blood fountain wheeled out in a dramatic fashion. And as “luck”—or a little bit of knowledge gained through telepathy—would have it, the prepped fountain was right next to the table where he was sitting.
Desmond smiled as he pulled out the file for Sandy so that he could “look busy” as he ate. He knew that all the vampires present would be “obligated” to take a drink of the blood from the fountain. The slight tipsiness that the diluted Fae blood would create in them would not be especially noticeable. It would be just enough to make the vampires feel more jovial—to match the occasion, of course. However, it would also make them rather less alert and would lessen both their inhibitions and their reflexes.
All he needed to do was to get a message to Eric Northman to let him know not to take a drink. Luckily, he had the perfect messenger—already in position to do as he needed. He pulled out his phone and quickly typed a text to his confederate.
Eric looked into his mirror and chuckled as he recalled the human phrase, “dressed to kill.” He straightened his tie. Indeed—he was dressed to kill.
Freyda had sent him an “order” to wear all black—as she would be in white. He’d decided that his days of letting the queen dictate anything about his life were over; thus, he’d opted to wear his deep navy blue tuxedo.
He scoffed as he looked at the note that has been delivered to him at sundown. In her ludicrously ornate script, Freyda had written: “Do try to behave tonight. Wear the all-black tuxedo I’ve sent. And don’t you think it’s time you lifted your ridiculous ban on the servants entering your room? I fear that your room is an intolerable mess after seven years of obstinacy on your part.”
Freyda’s messenger had handed Eric a garment bag with the note and had tried to peer into the room. He’d received a door slammed in his face for his efforts.
Eric shook his head. Of course, no one could enter his suite of rooms without his permission—as there were heavy wards around his chambers. And he certainly wasn’t above cleaning up after himself—when it was called for. After all, he’d looked after his own resting places for hundreds of years. He chuckled. Pam certainly had never cleaned any of them!
The first thing that he’d done when he moved into Freyda’s mansion was to strip his rooms of all the gaudy furnishings she’d placed in them. After that, he’d removed the various surveillance devices that had been installed into the space that she’d claimed would be his “private chambers.”
He’d had to remove the drywall, the carpet, and sections of the ceiling in order to eliminate the peskiest of the “bugs.”
Though he’d considered leaving his rooms in shambles, he’d opted to hire—and then to heavily glamour—a human construction team to completely redo his suite. Instead of three rooms—a large bedroom, sitting room, and bathroom—he’d designed a layout of four rooms. The room into which one entered was something of a bedroom, though the main piece of furniture was more of a lounge chair than a bed. It was in this room that he would fuck and feed. The next room back was his study. At the rear of his suite, there was a bathroom/closet and a small basic room where he’d placed his coffin. This last room had been constructed with thicker walls—reinforced with silver, iron, and steel. And the wards had been amped up in it as well.
However, wards or no wards, Eric had always made sure that his body was locked securely into his state-of-the-art coffin during his day rest. It was fireproof and couldn’t be opened once it was locked from the inside. Hell—Eric had been told that it could withstand a stinger missile fired from close range.
Did he prefer a bed? Hell yes! But he’d vowed to himself many years before that he’d not go to his rest in one again until his prison sentence as Freyda’s “boy toy”/indentured servant had been lifted. And he’d also sworn that he would never share one again if he couldn’t share it with Sookie.
A light knock came from the hall door, and Eric cringed as he thought about what he had to do next. Generally, before a function such as the ball, he would have a quick feed and a fuck, and, though the thought disgusted him, he knew that he’d have to stay true to form—at least to a certain extent. However, he didn’t intend to fuck anyone other than Sookie—hopefully not for the rest of his days.
Having no hope of reconciling with Sookie as long as his marriage contract to Freyda was in effect, Eric had partaken in carnal relations during the previous seven years mostly to hurt Freyda—rather than to take his own pleasure. And—in the end—his fucking and feeding had been self-punishment too. After all, the women had left him unsatisfied—night after night.
However, now that Sookie had agreed to take a chance on him—to share a life with him—there would be no more need for creating jealousy or self-punishment.
He sighed as he went to his door and looked at the monitor that was in place so that he could see what was in the hall outside his suite. His requested donor had arrived. She was—Eric had to admit—quite striking. Obviously already dressed for the ball, she was clad in a thin floor-length black gown—more like a toga, really. The color contrasted pleasantly with her alabaster skin and red hair.
Sadly—for her—her dress wasn’t going to make it to the party.
Eric steeled himself and opened the door. He was met by the lovely green eyes of Freyda’s favorite donor, Belladonna.
He smiled. “You grace me with your presence, dear lady.”
Belladonna looked around nervously. “I shouldn’t be here. If the queen . . . .”
Eric interrupted her by issuing an almost inaudible invitation and pulling her into the door.
“If the queen knew you were visiting me, she would be very displeased,” he said in an indifferent tone, even as he captured her with his glamour. “She will be displeased.”
Belladonna nodded mindlessly.
Eric slammed the donor against the wall and immediately pierced her neck with his fangs. He took one long drink and then pushed himself away from her, hating the taste of her AB-negative blood in his mouth. He took an unneeded breath and then moved closer to her again.
“You and I have just enjoyed the most gratifying sexual encounter you have ever had—haven’t we?”
“You will now go straight into my bathroom and shower quickly. However, you will remember a longer shower—won’t you?”
“I was in that shower with you—wasn’t I?”
“I fucked you well in that shower—didn’t I?”
“Yes,” she said breathlessly, even as her skin flushed as if from exertion.
“After you emerge from the shower, you will put on the shirt I left on the bathroom counter because your lovely frock was torn when I fucked you against this wall—wasn’t it?”
“Oh yes,” she said, even as he could smell her arousal.
He sneered with distaste. “Go now!” he ordered.
She smiled drunkenly and then looked confused. Eric grabbed her by the arm and took her into the bathroom before exiting quickly.
As he heard her washing himself, Eric drank two TrueBloods to get the taste of Belladonna’s blood out of his mouth. He sighed. He’d been doing the same ever since he last enjoyed Sookie’s blood. He knew that he needed real human blood to keep strong, but he could no longer stand having the taste of anyone other than his once-bonded in his mouth. TrueBlood was foul, but it had become a friend to him over the past seven years—a palate cleanser, as it were.
Belladonna emerged from the shower with her blank smile still in place.
Eric was in front of her a moment later. “You will go directly to the queen’s chambers and show her your lovely bite marks,” he said, thumbing the wounds he’d left on her neck. He’d not been cruel enough to make his bite hurt, but he’d left clear marks for Freyda to see—as he often had with her favorites.
“If there is another human in the room, you will find a way to tell him or her how wonderful it was to fuck me—won’t you?”
With that, Eric sent her away; she wore only the black tuxedo shirt Freyda had sent him. She still smelled of her own arousal—as well as his own, given the fact that he’d been wearing the same shirt when he’d masturbated with a picture of Sookie in his mind an hour before.
Eric sighed. In truth, he’d not had sex with someone in a shower since Sookie, and he hated even the thought of doing that with anyone else. But “shower sex” would explain why neither the donor nor he reeked of the other. He now carried Belladonna’s scent slightly, and she would carry his because she was wearing the shirt; however, the scents were muted—indirect—which was why he’d needed the shower excuse.
Eric went back to his mirror and straightened his tie once again. He had no doubt that Freyda would be furious that he’d “taken” yet another of her favorite courtesans. And he also had no doubt that she’d recognize the black—and now soiled—shirt that Belladonna wore. He grinned as he once again appreciated his navy tuxedo. Yes. Freyda was going to be very pissed off when she saw him. But having her distracted only furthered his cause.
Eric’s wicked grin transformed into a genuine smile as he allowed himself a moment to think about Sookie, little Sammy, and Matthew.
“Soon,” he said to his reflection in the mirror.
He had so wanted to exchange blood with Sookie the night before—for several reasons. Mostly, he knew that just a little bit of his blood would have eased her discomfort; plus, he would have been able to feel it when she went into labor. He sighed. Sadly, an exchange would have been ill-advised, given what he had to do during the next few hours. Older vampires—like Luther—might have been able to sense the presence of a tie, even a weak one. And Freyda may have recognized the scent of Sookie’s blood.
He shook his head slightly, smoothed back his hair, and put thoughts of Sookie and the children out of his mind. He didn’t want them—even just thoughts of them—to be anywhere near the violence he planned to inflict that night. Instead, he ran through the time-table for his evening.
According to the last communication he’d had with Cataliades, the Vampire Council would be meeting at 8:00 p.m. Pacific Time, since they were currently presiding in Seattle. The Christmas ball was due to begin at 8:00 p.m. Central Time, which was two hours ahead of Pacific Time. Eric’s infallible internal clock told him that it was currently 7:55 p.m. local time, but he would not be entering the ballroom until 9:00 p.m. sharp, which was when Freyda wanted to be escorted into the function. That meant, he’d have to endure the ball for at least an hour before the fireworks began.
As he ran his fingers down the blade of the sword lying on his dressing table, he closed his eyes.
“Soon,” he whispered once more.
Luckily, since it was a special occasion, Eric would be expected to wear his ceremonial sword. Though not his favorite weapon, his curtana, which he’d had made for himself after he became Freyda’s consort, was still quite lethal. And it would certainly do the job—very well.
Eric had contemplated many ways of killing Freyda, but—in the end—doing it in the most public way possible was truly best. As soon as Eric got the phone call from Cataliades confirming that the Vampire Counsel had decided in his favor, he intended to hand his phone to Freyda. He knew one thing for sure: when she heard the news, she would make a scene.
Eric planned to use that scene to his full advantage. Thinking that she was above everyone else, Freyda would, no doubt, unintentionally vent all of her dirty laundry in front of everyone. Only Luther would be able to talk any sense into her, but Eric expected that she’d do enough damage—to herself—well before Luther could get her to shut the fuck up.
Once the other vampires in the ballroom understood that Eric was no longer bound to Freyda, he intended to kill her. What would have been considered treason minutes earlier would suddenly seem like justifiable retribution—a crime of passion.
Eric knew that at least a third of the stronger vampires of Oklahoma would immediately flock to his side. He’d used his time in the state well—and had garnered respect from those who were worthy of it in return. He was confident that many of the younger vampires would join him too—since Freyda fostered very little loyalty. However, he knew that Luther would try to muster the queen’s personal guards, as well as those whom he’d intimidated into compliance before.
However, despite this, Eric liked his chances.
Yes. To eliminate Freyda and her most loyal followers, a public solution was best. Eric just wished that he could figure out a way to make the news of their divorce even more “public.”
Another knock sounded on the door, and Eric was immediately on alert. He zipped to the entrance of his rooms, looked at the image on the monitor, issued an invitation, and quickly pulled his guest inside.
“Hellovampirehowyoubeen?” came the accelerated words of Diantha.
Even Eric had to raise his hands to encourage the demon to slow down a little.
“Fine,” he said, though his confusion was clear. “What are you doing here?”
She smiled wide enough to show quite a few of her pointy teeth. “Uncle Desmond is here. I’mhelpinghim.”
Eric blinked. “But he’s supposed to be . . . .”
“In Seattle?” Diantha finished for him, as if she were impatient. “Yes. Daddyisthere.”
Eric’s eyebrows furrowed. “Nargal? Why the change of plans?”
Diantha grinned. “Who knows? I’m just,” she paused dramatically, “the messenger.” She snickered. “By the way, don’tdrinkthepunch.”
Diantha rolled her eyes and spoke slowly as if to a child. “The fountain of blood—Uncle is spiking it with Fae blood. Just enough so that the vamps will be alittletipsy. He said you shouldn’t drink it if you can avoid it.” She winked at him. “I’ll be on the wait staff for the party. When the glasses from the fountain are passed ’round, just make sure you take the one I give you—’kay?”
Still a little confused, Eric nodded. “Wait! The sheriff of Area 2—Kenshin—and Betty Joe from Mississippi and Isabel from Texas,” he started.
“Right—no spiked punch for them either.”
Eric nodded. “So Nargal will be calling me now? When the council has officially dissolved my marriage with Freyda?”
Diantha grinned again—this time showing even more teeth, but thankfully slowing down her rate of speech a little bit. “Uncle gotta betteridea when he sawthe ballroom. Freyda’s gottabig T.V. on onewall. She’s apparently gonnabe showing the slashermovie Black Christmas later tonight.”
Eric scoffed. He was already aware of Freyda’s plan. It wouldn’t be the first time that she’d injected an element like that into an otherwise elegant event. She enjoyed creating what she called “unexpected juxtapositions.” He just called it pretentious idiocy. Thankfully, however, it would be her last opportunity to do such a thing.
“When it’s time, I’m gonnago hijack the videofeed to the television sothe council can pass along theword infront of everyone!” Diantha said gleefully. “That way—whenyoukillher—the vamps on the fence will be less likely to do anything ‘bout it! And—ifthere’sanyproblem—Uncle Desmond’s gonna be therewith copiesof everything! And Uncleandme will be there to fight too,” she winked.
A smirk turned Eric’s lips upward. “Tell your uncle I am looking forward to seeing him.”
“Don’t you just love it?” Freyda asked, her tone pitching upward annoyingly.
“It looks exactly like it did last year,” Eric deadpanned, even as he stuck out his elbow for his soon-to-be-ex-and-permanently-dead-wife to take.
“Why must you be so disagreeable?” Freyda hissed.
“Most people find me charming,” Eric smirked.
“I could find you charming,” Freyda said, suddenly making her voice sound seductive. “And you could find me charming too; of that, I’m positive.”
“Interesting,” Eric said.
“Yes. It could be,” she purred.
“No,” he deadpanned, not even bothering to lower his voice, “it’s interesting to experience the feeling of nausea for the first time in a thousand years.”
Desmond chuckled a little as he overheard the “happy couple.” He had to admit—at least—that they “looked the part.” Yes—they did make a striking couple. Both were tall and blonde, though Freyda’s hair color was as icy as the woman herself. Northman’s was more golden—very much like his goddaughter’s shade.
Northman looked polished—every bit the royal consort. He wore a dark tuxedo—though it wasn’t quite black. The shade made him stand out—as if he needed help.
Freyda’s appearance could have been described by only one word: dramatic. She entered the room wearing a long white mink robe, complete with a hood.
Walking slowly—elegantly—Northman escorted the queen to the raised dais. Freyda’s throne was as ornate as the room’s decorations, though many would use the adjective “gaudy.” Desmond was one of those people.
The semi-demon caught a glimpse of his niece out of the corner of his eye as Freyda turned her back to Eric so that he could help her out of her robe. Freyda’s dress was simple and elegant. Made of a thin white material, the gown flowed along her lithe frame. A long center slit mirrored a dip of the fabric between her breasts. A diamond encrusted belt shimmered at her narrow waist, and she wore an elaborate pink onyx necklace.
Eric handed Freyda’s superfluous robe to Luther to deal with, a fact that made Desmond smile. As the annoyed lieutenant handed the robe to a servant, Freyda sat down elegantly onto her truly horrific white throne—a throne complete with gold statuary. Desmond could see the roll of Eric’s eyes as he sat in the slightly less gaudy throne to her left. Desmond couldn’t help but to notice the ceremonial sword at Eric’s side. He smiled a little as he took a fresh glass of wine from a passing member of the wait staff. It didn’t escape his notice that it was one of his favorite varieties and was served by one of his favorite people.
His niece winked at him before twirling her newly empty tray and walking away.
Luther bent down to whisper a few messages to Freyda. Of course, nothing he said was private—as there were close to fifty vampires in the room. And several of those vampires were quite old. Luther may as well have been screaming his information from the ramparts. However, Freyda—and vampires in general—enjoyed their illusions of privacy.
Especially given the fact that he was in enemy territory, Eric preferred practical measures.
After he’d gutted his rooms and then had them warded, ensuring that his suite was—indeed—private, Eric had installed several white-noise generators in his walls. He’d also gotten a few signal scramblers to combat any next-gen spying equipment Freyda might have tried to use. That was what he did to ensure his own privacy.
Freyda’s strategy was to keep people whom she didn’t trust away from her, but that strategy was passive and asinine in Eric’s opinion. Plus, Freyda herself was untrustworthy, so she didn’t inspire trust in others. Even her own personal guards were there more for the money than any sense of fealty. As much as Eric had hated it, the queen had been wise to try to align herself with one such as himself. However, by forcing him into it, Freyda had undermined her own cause.
Yes—Eric would have continued to do his “job” and he would have fulfilled the obligations of the marriage contract. Oklahoma would have stayed stable for two hundred years. However, Freyda’s days were numbered from the moment she refused to deal with Eric as a sovereign being. He was simply glad that the number of days he’d have to be “obedient” was now much less; in fact, he’d come to the last of them—finally.
After a thousand years.
Finally, he would be free.
As Luther moved into sycophant-mode and began to flatter the queen, Eric turned his own attention to studying the room. Immediately, he spotted his potential allies, his certain enemies, and those who might go either way.
All of Freyda’s four sheriffs were present, and each of them had several of their retinue members along. The sheriffs of Areas 2 and 3, based in Tulsa and McAlester, would—Eric was certain—join him once the fighting started, and their people were loyal to their sheriffs. The Sheriff of Area 4, who governed the sparsely populated western half of the state, was so inept that he would likely not even notice that a fight had broken out. However, his lieutenant was bright enough to lean toward the side most likely to win. In fact, many of Oklahoma’s vampires had that same attitude, so they would keep to the sidelines until a victor was almost assured.
To Eric, that was a good thing.
By far, most of the vampires at the party were from Area 1, where Micah Giles was the official sheriff, though he was a rider of Luther’s coattails. However, the vampires of Area 1 were not necessarily loyal to Micah or Luther. And many didn’t much care for their queen. They had seen the way Freyda operated up close, and the sight wasn’t always flattering. Therefore, Eric knew that he could count on about a third of the Area 1 vampires to side with him.
In addition to the Oklahoma vampires, there were a few others in attendance—though not much in the way of other monarchs. As could be expected, many vampire kings and queens held holiday parties of their own. And, even if they had been free, not many monarchs would have come to Oklahoma—to party with Freyda.
Oh—it wasn’t that the state was “bad” or anything. In fact, Eric had found the human population of Oklahoma to be interesting—endearing even. They tended to lean way toward the right politically, and many of them still adamantly opposed things such as gay marriage or the recently enacted Health Care Act.
However, when it came to vampires, the people were welcoming, much more than in the Deep South. Oklahoma prided itself on being the place where the Five “Civilized Tribes” had made new lives for themselves following the Trail of Tears. Ironically, it also prided itself on its land runs during which property was claimed by pioneers seeking a better life. Of course, the land for those land runs had been purchased—or sometimes swindled—from the same Native American tribes to whom it had been initially given.
Given their history, it was somewhat ironic that the humans of Oklahoma were so welcoming, but—then again—they seemed a practical people above all else, and vampires brought in money and employment.
After taking over the monarchy, Freyda had “redrawn” the vampire areas so that Area 1—where she set up her capital—included the most profitable vampire-owned oil wells. However, Area 2, which included Tulsa had also become quite prosperous in the last decade. Eric had spent much time there during his seven years in Oklahoma, and it now included many more vampires. Eric was hoping, in fact, that Area Two’s sheriff, who—unbeknownst to Freyda—shared a maker with Chow, would be advanced to the King of Oklahoma once the dust settled.
Eric shared a nod with Uesugi Kenshin. The Sheriff of Area 2 had been a samurai during his human life and had been turned in 1578 at the age of 48, which was relatively old for a vampire to be turned, especially given the time. However, Kenshin—as he preferred to be called—had impressed his maker with his fighting and strategizing skill. During his travels in Asia in the 1700s, Eric had met Kenshin and Chow’s maker, Minamoto no Yoshinaka. Yoshi, as he allowed Eric to call him after they’d traveled together for thirty years, had been a Shogun, appointed by Emperor Go-Shirakawa in 1181. Eric had learned that—angry over a perceived betrayal—Yoshi had basically taken over his emperor’s city and forced him to give him the title of Shogun. That audacious act was what had attracted Yoshi’s own maker.
By the time Eric met Yoshi and his children, Kenshin was already a strong vampire in his own right, though Chow was just a fledgling. When Chow had called Eric looking for work after his maker was slain, the Viking hadn’t hesitated in offering him the newly vacant role left by Longshadow.
After the witch war, during which Chow had met his final death in an attempt to help Eric reclaim his memories, Eric had taken some time to travel to Japan for a week. He’d returned Chow’s sword to Kenshin, and Kenshin’s company had been a useful distraction from the fact that Eric couldn’t remember his time with Sookie—though he still “felt” the emotions that had been solidified during the time of his memory loss.
When Eric had told Kenshin about Sookie, the old samurai had suggested that Eric was being foolish for not following as his heart led. Of course, Eric had denied even having a heart, which had led Kenshin to call Eric an array of disparaging names, including bakayarō and noroma, roughly translated as “idiot” and “twit.” And the last thing that Kenshin had told him before Eric boarded his Anubis flight back to Louisiana was “fuzakeru na”—or “stop being stupid.”
Luckily, Kenshin agreed to transplant to the United States when Eric called him right after he’d discovered Appius’s last plans for him. Thus, months before Eric was forced to marry Freyda, Kenshin had already taken up residence in Oklahoma. Eric smirked as he thought about how he’d manipulated Freyda into thinking that it was her idea to make Kenshin the Sheriff of Area 2 when the previous one was called back to Europe by his maker. Of course, that call had been Eric’s doing too. Indeed—it was good to be owed favors.
As Eric continued to look around the room, he tallied all the vampires into several groups: those who would fight with him, those who would fight against him, those who would sway with the sway of the battle, and those who would just stay the fuck out of it and enjoy the show. Of the latter variety were most of the out-of-state vampires. Several of the kings and queens who had declined their invitations had sent “representatives.” Of those, most would stay out of the fray. However, Sandy Sechrest would certainly join Luther once Freyda was gone. On the other hand, Eric knew that he could count on Isabel, Stan’s representative at the ball, and Betty Joe, whom Russell had sent.
The only other monarch present was the King of Nebraska, who would most certainly fight against Eric’s group. King Sean McGowan, who had hoped to one day marry Freyda himself, blamed Eric personally for “stealing” the Oklahoma queen away from him. Of course, to Freyda, McGowan had no use. Though he was quite old and strong, aligning Oklahoma with McGowan’s relatively poor state wouldn’t have fed her ambitions. But that hadn’t stopped her from keeping him dangling on a string for years, yet—even after Eric and Freyda had married—the Nebraska king had inexplicably continued to be devoted to her.
In his head, Eric carefully accounted for and repositioned everyone in the room as if they were chess pieces. Adding the semi-demon and Diantha was a bonus, and the public humiliation of Freyda was an even bigger one. Witnessing the Vampire Council members grant Eric an annulment because Freyda had broken their agreement by trying to kill the “Angel of Rhodes,” which Sookie was now known as among his kind, would be very beneficial to him.
“Eric,” Freyda said to him, interrupting his reverie.
Purposely, he didn’t respond at first.
“Eric!” she said a little louder.
“Yes, your majesty?” he asked, addressing her in the same cold manner as he always did. She’d wanted him to address her as “my queen,” but after five years of having to contend with the sarcasm with which he said that title in public, she’d stopped making an issue of the matter.
“Luther was just saying that we have a few emissaries with whom we must speak.” She lowered her tone so that it was almost imperceptible and gave him a sharp look. “And you are to be on your best behavior,” she hissed.
He smirked. “Of course, your majesty.”
Freyda looked at Luther who was staring stakes at Eric. She reached out a hand to her lieutenant, which the brunette vampire immediately took.
“Dear Luther,” the queen said as she smiled up at him and steadied her nerves. “You may call up the first of our visitors.”
It turned out that the first emissary was Isabel, who approached the dais and nodded her head a little to the queen and then a little more to Eric. “My king sends his greetings and his regards,” the elegant vampiress said. “However, as you know, he does not hold to Christmas celebrations, so he also sends his apologies for not attending this lovely ball.”
Freyda scoffed, though Isabel had the grace to ignore her expression. “Oh—yes. I recall now,” the icy queen said. “Your king was Jewish in his human life—correct?”
Eric rolled his eyes. Most vampires were well aware that Stan Davis had been born Stanislaus Davidowitz. His own holiday celebration, a modest affair encompassing the eight nights of Hanukkah, was well known among vampires. In fact, Eric had attended the first evening of the celebration every year since Stan had become king—including the one a few weeks before. On each of the eight nights of the Jewish holiday, Stan enjoyed having small get-togethers for those whom he considered his friends. So far, Eric had only merited the first night, with Stan’s closer friends being invited to the later nights. However, Eric couldn’t much blame Stan. During their first meeting, Eric had pretended to be someone else so that he could better protect Sookie.
And Stan was still teasing him for it. In fact, his place card at each Hanukkah gathering still said “Leif.”
“Tell me,” Freyda said, sitting forward, “how is your king’s telepath?”
“Barry Bellboy is well,” Isabel said rather stiffly.
Eric knew that the reason Barry was called by this rather silly name was actually to protect him and his real identity. Barry Horowitz had essentially disappeared from the face of the earth, but if he ever wanted to resume his “normal” life, his name would be waiting for him. The Viking often wished that the same anonymity had been available for Sookie.
He frowned as he recalled his early interactions with Sookie. He should have insisted that she go by an alias; however, at the time, she’d not been his.
“Your king never got back to me about my offer for his telepath,” Freyda pouted.
Isabel glanced at Eric and then back as Freyda. “That is because it is well-known that my king does not ever entertain such offers,” she said with a slight scowl.
“Humph,” Freyda sounded. “Oh well.” She glared at Eric. “My consort once had his own pet telepath—you know. Yet he didn’t deliver her to me either. I should like to have my own eventually,” she added casually.
Eric held in his growl. It was not the right time to let his anger take hold.
“I met Mr. Northman’s wife once,” Isabel said evenly.
Freyda’s fangs immediately clicked downward. “She is no wife of his! Eric is mine!”
Eric sat up a little straighter in his throne, his patience thinning by the second.
Isabel smiled as if indulging a child. “But, of course, your majesty,” she said. “My mistake. It’s just that my king still speaks of Miss Stackhouse as belonging to Eric.”
Freyda growled a little as Isabel stepped off the dais. Betty Joe might as well have given her a high five as they passed each other. The two female lieutenants smiled at each other like Cheshire Cats.
“Queen Freyda,” Betty Joe greeted rather unenthusiastically before turning to Eric. “King Russell sends you his greetings, Viking.”
Eric bowed a little. “I hope that you will send my regards in return,” he said, though he kept his tone even.
“My king has bid me to remind you that he is still missing his ceremonial knife,” Betty Joe said chidingly—though there was a mischievous glint in her eye.
Eric smiled as he thought about the dagger he’d filched from Russell after he’d performed the Mississippi monarch’s wedding ceremony to the King of Indiana. That dagger was both beloved and hated by him. It had been used by Sookie and him to complete their bond. It had been used to pledge them. However, it had also been used to sever their marriage.
“What knife?” Freyda asked.
“I believe you know of it, your majesty,” Eric said, turning a proverbial knife of his own. “That particular dagger is quite sacred. Miss Stackhouse and I pledged with it.”
“Yes,” Betty Joe said, stepping forward a little. “It is a special knife, and Russell feels that he will soon need it again.”
“Why?” Freyda hissed, angry that Sookie Stackhouse seemed to be haunting her party at every turn.
“Oh,” Betty Joe said flippantly, “you know how ancient vampires are—always wanting to micromanage everything. Russell recently became ordained—you know. He may be wanting to test out his abilities to perform a marriage ceremony.”
With difficulty, Eric stifled his excitement at Betty Joe’s comment.
The Viking bowed a little. “You may tell Russell that I will have the dagger the next time I see him.”
Betty Joe nodded and left the dais.
Next to approach was Sandy Sechrest, who bowed much lower than the other vampiress visitors. “Greetings, Queen Freyda,” she said formally. “My king sends his regrets, and has sent me with a gift signifying his eternal hope of your continued partnership.” She showed Freyda a little box.
The vampire queen looked immediately gleeful as she glanced over at Luther.
“The package has been checked, my queen,” her lieutenant said with a nod.
As was protocol, Sandy opened the lid of the box—to demonstrate that the gift was safe. In the box was a golden cuff with a Nordic design etched into it. Eric rolled his eyes. The etching was all wrong; it mixed symbols from more than one ancient group of the North that would never have been mixed. It didn’t surprise him that Freyda didn’t notice the mistakes.
Of course, Eric didn’t bother to point out the ineptitude of the jewel’s scribe as Freyda gushed over the gift and immediately put it on. The Viking inhaled. At least the piece was actually gold and not just gold-plated—he thought with a smirk.
Eric saw Luther motion for Desmond Cataliades to approach next.
“Queen Freyda,” the semi-demon said respectfully, “King Felipe has sent another of his envoys to you as well—though I fear that I am not as fetching as Ms. Sechrest.” He looked at Sandy and bowed a little.
Eric barely refrained from rolling his eyes. The semi-demon was many things, but King Felipe’s envoy was not one of them.
It had been many years since Eric had actually seen the semi-demon, though he’d communicated with him a number of times. The Viking couldn’t help but to be impressed. The last time he’d seen Cataliades, he’d looked like a stack of circles—not at all like a formidable supernatural being. However, the years have done the semi-demon good. He looked younger than he had before and was much trimmer. Eric recalled that the semi-demon had been on the run for a few years, and the “exercise” had obviously invigorated him.
“Ah, Mr. Cataliades,” Freyda simpered. “How lovely of you to join us.”
“You are the lovely one,” the semi-demon complimented with practiced smoothness. “I would have to stretch my mind very far back indeed to recall a vision more beautiful than yourself,” he flattered as he assessed her from top to bottom.
Freyda beamed. “Oh—this old thing?” she giggled, gesturing toward her gown. “Donatella whipped this up for me last month.”
Eric smirked as Freyda namedropped—as if she were on a first-name basis with Donatella Versace. Pam had Donatella on speed-dial, but Eric had it on good authority that Freyda had been on hold with one of the designer’s apprentices for hours the month before.
“Well—you are a vision in white,” Cataliades said, ignoring the Viking’s smirk and the queen’s cluelessness.
Freyda nodded and smiled at the semi-demon.
“I must thank you again for your hospitality, especially considering the fact that I was a last-minute addition to your party. I must say, however, that I cannot think of anywhere else I’d rather be,” the lawyer smiled, showing just a few of his sharp teeth.
“You are welcome here,” Freyda said formally—though somewhat insincerely.
Cataliades bowed. “Imperial Queen Freyda of Oklahoma, I come with a message from his royal highness, Felipe, King of Nevada, Louisiana, and Arkansas.”
Freyda preened at the semi-demon’s ceremonial address. “I will hear the message,” she said officially.
“I echo what Ms. Sechrest said earlier. King Felipe would like to extend his regrets that he could not attend. However, he hopes that you will be able to come to his New Year’s Eve celebration. And,” the semi-demon paused,” he also wanted me to inform you that things are progressing just as planned with the joint venture you and he will be starting in the New Year.”
Freyda let out a small burst of laughter after Desmond finished speaking, and though she remained clueless, Eric saw a momentary glint of rage in the semi-demon’s eyes.
Unluckily, Luther caught that look too. However, the lieutenant sniggered a little, obviously interpreting the semi-demon’s look of disdain as being for the queen’s reaction, rather than for Freyda herself. However, Eric knew very well where that flash of anger had come from. Felipe had asked Cataliades to tell Freyda that things were on track to kidnap the child of his ward. It was a clear insult—though Felipe had counted on Cataliades being ignorant of it.
Thus, Freyda was laughing at the semi-demon’s expense. She and Felipe were making a joke out of a being who should have been respected. They were making a joke out of a past-sheriff who had been willing to be loyal, despite the underhanded way that Felipe had killed Queen Sophie-Anne. They were making a joke about a royal consort, who had adhered to a contract—not even of his making—because of honor. They were making a joke out of the telepath who’d saved Felipe’s life. They were making a joke out of a child who’d not even been born yet.
And it wasn’t goddamned funny!
But the joke would be on them soon enough.
Only that fact kept Eric from killing Freyda right then and there.
“Mr. Cataliades,” Eric asked, as the queen kept sniggering, “tell me—do you have any news of your ward—Miss Stackhouse?”
Immediately, the tension rose around the dais, and the contemptible queen’s laughter stopped.
The semi-demon looked at Eric with some warning in his eyes, but answered the question anyway.
“She does well, Viking. She will soon have a second child,” Cataliades reported.
“Oh—yes,” Eric said with a nod. His tone was casual—almost indifferent. “With the shifter, I believe.”
“How would you know that?” Freyda asked angrily. “You are to have nothing to do with her!” She smirked. “And it’s not as if your vampire children could have told you.”
Eric nodded soberly. “You are correct about that, your majesty. In our marriage agreement, you did see fit to separate me from my children and others in my circle. As it turns out, however, I found out about Miss Stackhouse’s first and second pregnancies—as well as her relationship with the shifter—from one of my old Area 5 subjects.”
“Who? When?” Freyda asked insistently.
To Eric, the queen looked insecure—desperate. And if he wasn’t currently trying to stir the hornet’s nest, he might have been concerned that she would do something rash—just at the mention of Sookie’s name.
“Did you meet Bill Compton when you were in my old area?” he asked, not showing any kind of emotion. “Or—perhaps—you met him at one of the summits? He is, I’m sure you know, the maker of Felipe’s database.” He paused. “Anyway, it was at the last summit we attended—in Santa Fe, remember?”
Freyda steamed. “Of course, I remember where our last summit was! But what are you doing seeking out information from your old followers?”
Eric chuckled. “Compton may have been my underling, but I certainly wouldn’t call him a ‘follower.’ He was, as you may remember, a rival of mine for Miss Stackhouse’s affections. He sought me out at the summit and seemed anxious to convey information about the telepath to me—unsolicited, of course.” He smirked. “Luther happened to be there during our exchange. I am surprised he did not tell you of it.”
The queen looked up at her lieutenant, her ire transferring to him. “Why did you not tell me of this?”
Luther bowed a little. “It seemed to be an inconsequential encounter, my queen,” he said with significance behind his voice.
Eric understood well what Luther’s tone meant. In fact, the meeting between Compton and himself had been Felipe’s idea and fully sanctioned by Freyda. They’d both wanted to gauge Eric’s level of dismay over the news that Sookie was pregnant again.
And Compton had very much enjoyed passing on that news. Luckily, Eric had been able to keep his emotions in check at the time, showing only indifference to the information. Once he began monitoring Luther’s computer, he saw communications between Felipe and Luther discussing the encounter.
Freyda’s arctic eyes glinted with recognition as she realized that she’d been getting upset over a meeting that she’d helped to orchestrate. She tried to brush it off. “I believe I have met Compton—briefly—but it would be best to be more proactive in fostering a closer relationship between such an important vampire and Oklahoma.” She looked at Eric with narrowed eyes. “Since he was once your underling,” she paused, “you will arrange for us to have a meeting with him during the next summit.”
“Of course, your majesty,” Eric said coolly.
Just as Freyda was about to speak again, movement from across the room got her attention. “Excellent! She exclaimed. “The blood for the toast is here!”
As soon as Freyda saw that everyone in the room had been delivered a glass, she rose and stood tall. She made sure that her dress framed her body perfectly before she spoke.
“My dear guests,” she said, as graciously as she was capable, considering the fact that most of the beings in the room were decidedly beneath her, “my beloved consort and I welcome you to our home. We are grateful for your presence at our little event and for your continued support! Now, let us raise our glasses to celebrate the Yuletide—what my people called the Jul!”
Almost as one, the group raised their glasses. With frustration, Freyda noted that Eric’s expression was sour as he lifted his.
She steeled herself, looked away from him, and took of sip of what she called “sparkling blood.” She’d had the human engineer, whom she’d hired to create her fountain, heavily glamoured to forget all about his invention—after he’d perfected the machine and given her his plans, of course. Thus, she held the “patent”—at least the vampire version of such things—on the fountain. And—to make sure that the fountains couldn’t be copied—she’d had a witch place a spell on each device. That idea—she had to admit—had been Luther’s.
Luther had also suggested that she produce the fountains only rarely, and she’d listened to him about that too. At his urging, she’d spread the manufacturing of the components around so that they were made in various facilities; in fact, the producing companies had no idea what they were making! Mechanically inclined, Luther was the only one who knew how to put the parts together to make the finished products.
Given their rarity and demand, Freyda got over a hundred requests from other monarchs and wealthy vampires for the fountains each year. However, since she wanted to maintain the exclusive nature of the fountains, she sold only three a year—at the hefty price of a quarter of a million apiece. So far—she’d had no complaints about the price tag being too high.
In addition, she also curried favor from others by giving one away every now and then. Felipe and Sean had both been the recipients of her generosity in the past.
She licked her lips. Her sparkling blood concoction tasted even better than usual, and—from the enthusiastic gushing of her vampire guests—she could tell that they agreed! Only one vampire present seemed to not be enjoying the blood: her consort. She couldn’t help but to be a little crushed by Eric’s lack of enthusiasm. She’d noticed, in the past years, that he seemed to favor B-negative blood; at least, that was the kind of TrueBlood he ordered by the case load, though why he needed it—with all the donors he bit and fucked—was beyond her.
Freyda turned toward Eric—the only vampire whom she had ever truly craved.
The very vampire who should have felt grateful for her interest!
“Is the sparkling blood not to your liking, my husband?” she asked him, trying to make her tone pleasant.
“I had something fresher earlier,” he answered with a smirk.
She scoffed. “Yes—Belladonna.”
“She used to be your favorite—was she not?” Eric asked with false innocence.
“Yes—at least until earlier this evening,” Freyda said with a scowl. She glared at him. “Until she came to my suite dressed only in the very expensive dress shirt I bought for you to wear tonight—smelling of your cum and,” she paused, “your shampoo. Tell me—did you glamour her to come straight to me? Why do you enjoy tormenting me so?” she asked dramatically, though she kept her voice low.
Eric’s smirk was back. “It was not meant as torment. I was simply sending you a message, your majesty.”
Freyda hissed. “What message?”
“That I didn’t care for your wardrobe selection.”
She growled a little.
“I must say—your Belladonna very much enjoys a,” he paused, “refreshing shower. Tell me—have you ever shared one with her?”
Freyda frowned. “Please,” she sighed, almost as if in defeat, “could you just be civil—this once?” She took another sip of her drink and looked at him pleadingly. “We have the better part of two hundred years left to be with each other.”
“The better part indeed,” he said, grinning now.
“It could be,” she entreated, unable to hide her desperate hope from him. “Eric, if you would just accept everything that I wish to give you, you and I would be gloriously happy together.”
“Accept? Hmmm. It seems to me that acceptance could be either a positive or a negative thing. However, it is positive only when it is preceded by choice. And we both know that it was not my choice to marry you.”
“Eric, please. Stop this,” Freyda begged. “What do you want—for me to publicly apologize for the way you and I came together? Will that sate your anger?”
Eric tilted his head a little and regarded her. Immediately, Freyda felt heated by his gaze, and her core began to moisten. She couldn’t help herself. So many of her thoughts had centered on Eric Northman during the previous fifteen years. She’d met him at her coronation—where he’d been Sophie-Anne’s representation.
From the moment Freyda had seen Eric, she’d been captivated by the one-time Viking. His confidence and beauty had drawn her interest. His aloofness—even then—had aroused her appetite for a challenge. She’d approached him with several offers over the years—first for just her body and then, later, for a position in her kingdom. But he’d denied her.
Unable to imagine another scenario, she’d thought that he was merely playing hard to get.
Only out of desperation had she written to Eric’s maker a decade before; however, Appius had not returned her communications for years. When he did, Appius had been so accommodating that Freyda felt certain that Eric would be equally excited about a match.
However, he hadn’t been.
On the contrary, he’d spent months looking for ways out of the—thankfully ironclad—agreement that Freyda had made with Appius.
Freyda took another sip of her blood, looking at Eric coyly over the rim of her glass.
She hated that her body yearned for his. He should have been anxious to come to her bed whenever she pleased! After all, she was queen! And she was beautiful! Yes! He should have been the one who was yearning—aching!
But Eric had demanded that a clause be written into their marriage contract, specifying that they have sex only yearly—the minimum requirement in order to reaffirm their alliance. She’d had the clause amended to indicate that if they both consented, the clause could be set aside at any time.
She’d had no doubt—especially when she’d met dowdy little Sookie Stackhouse—that she’d have Eric in her bed fulltime within a fortnight of their wedding. But that hadn’t happened.
Even their yearly encounters had been unsatisfactory to her. She’d never forget her anticipation after their marriage ceremony. She’d insisted upon a blood exchange; he’d resisted the idea, but since she’d made sure to put the requirement into their marriage contract, he couldn’t deny her.
Encouragingly, though it had not been in the contract, he’d agreed to a public consummation after the wedding ceremony. Giddily, she’d spent much time making sure that their first joining would be amazing—the perfect mixture of tastefulness and eroticism. She’d invited only the highest ranking vampires in her own state and a few fellow monarchs, including Felipe, to stay to watch them join their bodies.
Perhaps foolishly, she’d hoped that their souls would be joined as well.
She’d heard that red was Eric’s favorite color, so she’d had a beautiful, sheer crimson wedding gown made for herself by Vera—Vera Wang, of course. All of the vampires in the palace had had difficulty keeping their fangs up at the sight of her—except for Eric.
However, despite this, everything had seemed to be going so well. The wedding ceremony had been completed and the blood drank. After that, red chiffon curtains, made out of the same material as her gown, had been drawn around them. Unabashedly, Eric had quickly stripped off his clothing, and he’d been as magnificent as she’d hoped he would be.
No—he’d been exponentially more glorious than she’d imagined.
She had swiped the straps of her gown from her shoulders, and it had fluttered to the floor. He’d looked at her from top to bottom, and his assessment had made her wet with anticipation.
And then he’d said words that she would never forget. He’d closed his eyes and asked her if she believed that sex was about pleasure. He’d begun to stroke himself to an erection as he’d waited for her response. She’d watched him touch himself for a while before she’d responded that she did indeed believe that sex was about pleasure. He’d opened his eyes and cocked his head to the side, even as he’d continued pleasuring his own cock. Her fangs bared, she’d been literally dripping for him by then.
And then he’d asked her if she felt that each being was ultimately responsible for his or her own pleasure. So taken with watching his slow, sensual thrusts into his own hand, she’d not questioned his query. She’d merely nodded and licked her lips.
“I agree fully,” he’d said as he approached her. “Therefore, I will seek my own pleasure, and you will be responsible for yours.”
With those words, he’d used his superior strength to capture her body and spin her around and then onto her knees. In the next moment, he had thrust into her from behind. For approximately a minute, he’d stretched her deliciously, and she’d felt what it was like to be dominated by a thousand-year-old vampire. Though she had been hoping for something more “romantic,” she’d given herself over to the pleasure she felt as he pounded into her.
And then—suddenly—he’d shuddered and withdrawn. His expression had been cold as she’d gotten up from her knees and turned to face him.
“Pity,” he’d said loud enough for all present to hear, “I sought my own pleasure, but found none.” And—with that—he’d left the ballroom, leaving her wanting. To add insult to injury, he’d gestured for two fangbangers to follow him as he’d gone.
Needless to say, her couplings with Eric had been private since then—private, but no more intimate. She’d done everything she could think of to sway him. She’d tried seduction. She’d tried kindness. She’d tried coercion—even going so far as to threaten that she would ask Felipe to fire Pam as Sheriff of Area 5.
Eric had laughed in her face at that.
She scoffed and took another drink. Three years before, she’d tried limiting Eric’s access to her stable of donors, but he always managed to find plenty of willing women outside the palace when she banned him from the women within. After that, she’d tried leaving him alone for months to let him “get used” to his situation. And then, she’d tried demanding that they have nightly meetings.
Yet Eric seemed intent to pine over his slut of a human wife! His ex-wife!
Throughout their years together, Freyda had become certain that the way to Eric’s heart was to prove to him that Sookie Stackhouse wasn’t worthy of his devotion! She’d tried for years to help Eric to understand. And then she’d decided to eliminate her competition—once and for all.
Seven years before, when the telepath had taken up with a shifter—of all things—Freyda had been gleeful. Not only was Sookie’s paramour a mongrel, but also Merlotte was the very mongrel that Eric had blackmailed not to pursue his ex-wife! However, even the birth of Sookie’s female pup didn’t sway Eric to accept his new life.
Not long after that, Freyda had convinced Felipe to send Quinn to Louisiana with orders to seduce Sookie. The Were-tiger and the telepath had had a past together; however, Felipe had assured Freyda that Quinn and Sookie had left things on good terms. Thus—just as Freyda had hoped—Sookie had been quick to allow Quinn back into her life, but the inept Were-tiger hadn’t been able to stay there.
When the automobile accident that Freyda had arranged killed the shifter—instead of Sookie—the queen had been doubly livid. Obviously, she’d been enraged that Sookie had survived. Moreover, by killing Merlotte, the idiot drunk driver had eliminated the person who seemed to be the best able to hold the telepath’s attention.
The only ray of light in that situation had been that Compton had managed to get his blood back into Sookie, and he was well on his way to enthralling her again. Freyda smiled a little. Yes. A meeting between Bill, Eric, and herself at the next summit would prove to be diverting—indeed—if Bill could share the “good news” of a reconciliation with Sookie.
She thought of various possibilities for that meeting as she finished her drink. Perhaps Bill might even bring Sookie! They could arrange a double date—as humans might say! Or—if that weren’t possible—Bill could wear something with Sookie’s scent on it. Or—even better—he could wear a garment teeming with the scent of their sex. Yes—that would serve Eric right!
“Will you have another glass of blood, my queen?” Eric asked from next to her.
Freyda was momentarily taken aback, given Eric’s address and his suddenly “kind” tone.
“Yes,” she said. “I would enjoy another. Thank you,” she responded, smiling sincerely at her consort.
Eric motioned toward one of the wait staff, who immediately approached with another glass.
“Will you join me for a dance later?” Freyda asked with a bit of trepidation. Eric had never agreed to dance with her before, but she always tried.
“Yes,” Eric said. “Later—you and I will surely dance.”
The phone in Desmond’s pocket vibrated. He didn’t bother to check the message as he saw Diantha reentering the ballroom. It was—as they say—show time. Desmond had to hand it to the Vampire Council. They did work fast. Of course, their work ethic might have had something to do with Nargal being there.
Though Freyda’s ridiculous movie wasn’t set to begin until midnight, the large television at the side of the room came on at precisely 10:15. Appearing on the large screen was the most chilling scene from Black Christmas. Over the loud volume, Desmond could hear Freyda asking what was going on.
Luther quickly moved to turn off the large contraption; however, the power button wasn’t working. And a remote control couldn’t be found either. A few vampires asked—logically—why the television couldn’t just be unplugged; however, the device was so state-of-the-art that it had a back-up battery, so unplugging it would do no good.
Ordered by Freyda, Luther left the room, promising to sort things out in the control room, which was where the film was being managed.
Desmond just hoped that whatever rigging Diantha had done there would last long enough. He noticed that many of the vampires in the ballroom were now watching the horror film with interest, as they could sense—from the supposedly chilling music—that the climactic moment of the scene was approaching. A college girl—one of the members of a terrorized sorority house—was trying to keep the killer on the phone long enough for the police to trace the call. However, the call was pinpointed to the very building in which she was cowering!
It was just as the horror of her situation settled onto the face of the girl that the movie suddenly cut off. Moments later, the figure of Roman Zimojic was seen. Well-known by most of the vampires in the room, Roman had been the representative of the Moshup Clan for more than a century.
“Roman?” came Freyda’s surprised voice as she looked at the television screen.
Obviously unable to see or hear anything in the room that was viewing his broadcast, Zimojic began issuing what sounded like a carefully-crafted press statement.
At the same time, Eric prepared himself to stop and restrain Freyda—if the queen tried to interrupt the broadcast. However, she seemed frozen in place, as were all the other vampires in the room.
“Good evening,” Roman said. “The Vampire Council feels obligated to inform the vampires of Oklahoma about some disturbing news that has come to our attention this night.
“Freyda, Queen of Oklahoma, has been found guilty of breaking the marriage contract she made with Eric Northman, formerly the Sheriff of Area 5 of Louisiana. Indisputable evidence of the queen’s plans to kill the telepath of Louisiana—the Angel of Rhodes—Sookie Stackhouse, has come to light. And, just as disturbing, it has been found that Felipe de Castro, King of Nevada, Louisiana, and Arkansas has been complicit in the queen’s illicit actions as well. To serve justice, the Vampire Council hereby decrees the following:
“One—King Felipe de Castro has been found to be in breach of contract for his collusion with Queen Freyda. A fine of one million dollars has been levied, payable within one week’s time, to Eric Northman. In addition, the king will be required to pay ten million dollars to the Vampire Council for breaking a contract certified by this body.
“Two—the marriage of Queen Freyda and Eric Northman is hereby dissolved. In fact, this Council further resolves that Queen Freyda never intended to adhere to the contract! For that offence, the marriage contract will be nullified fully—as if it never happened. This Council orders that the queen pay Mr. Northman punitive remunerations equaling one-half of her personal assets.
“Finally—during the attempted murder of the telepath, Sookie Stackhouse, this Council declares that Queen Freyda committed a blood offense against her bonded and her kin. As there is some question over whether Mr. Northman’s bond with the telepath remains intact, Sookie Stackhouse’s supernatural sponsor, Desmond Cataliades, is hereby issued—by order of the Vampire Council—with the authority to proclaim whatever punishment he sees fit for this blood offense.
“The findings of this Council are unchallengeable and not appealable.”
With that, Roman bowed slightly, the broadcast ended, and a hush fell over the room.
“What have you done? What the fuck is going on here!” Freyda screeched after almost a minute. She looked at Eric accusingly.
“The content of the broadcast seemed clear enough to me,” Eric said casually. “Yes—it was quite clear to me.”
“You!” Freyda shrieked, pointing at Eric. “You will stay married to me! Your maker arranged. . . .”
Eric interrupted her, even as he saw Kenshin, Diantha, Betty Joe, and Isabel moving into position around Freyda’s guards. “Appius arranged for many things concerning my life—the last of which was a forced marriage to you. However, now,” he paused. “I. Am. Free.” Eric’s eyes seemed like midnight as he looked over Freyda’s shoulder. She used one of her mirrors to follow his gaze to the being that held her fate in his hands: Desmond Cataliades.
“What say you?” Eric asked loudly.
Desmond stepped forward. “For taking my goddaughter’s blood, I proclaim that Freyda should receive the final death,” he said in a low tone—though most in the room could hear him perfectly well. “I would be honored if you meted out the punishment, Viking,” Desmond paused, “for the blood offense was against you as well.”
“No!” Freyda yelled frantically. “You cannot do this! Death will not come to me because of a worthless blood-bag!” She looked back at Eric. “And—if you do this—it will be treason!”
He shook his head. “No. It is no longer treason for me to kill you. In fact, I see it as a public fucking service.”
With that, he withdrew his sword from its sheath. Even as her guards seemed frozen, Freyda tried to run; however, she was so much younger than the Viking that she had no chance of escape. Added to that fact, the trace of Fae blood in her system made her more sluggish than she normally would have been. She tripped as she moved off the dais. And when she straightened herself, it was to see a wall of Viking between her and the door.
Desperately, Freyda looked around her. The room was teeming with vampires—vampires who were supposed to be her followers!
Yet none of them were acting on her behalf. Between the broadcast from Roman and the semi-demon’s words, many of them still seemed to be stunned. She teetered a little more on her heels.
“Luther!” she shrieked, even as she recalled that he’d left before the broadcast began. She looked around again. “Seize him! Kill him!” she screeched toward her guards and the others in the room. “Fight for your queen!”
In that moment, movement began around the ballroom. Freyda saw a flash of light, which her mind told her was demon fire. But her eyes were now focused on a more terrifying glow: Eric’s eyes. He was moving closer, and those eyes meant only one thing: death.
“I will free you—uh—of the marriage contract,” she stammered desperately.
He shook his head and raised his sword.
“I am already free,” he responded coldly. “Finally free.”
Those were the last words Freyda, Queen of Oklahoma, ever heard.
Luther had moved quickly to the control room in the basement in order to deal with the video feed. When he got there, he knew immediately that something was amiss. Both of the vampire attendants seemed out of sorts, and there were a dozen empty glasses in the room.
“What goes on here?” Luther demanded.
The errant vampires immediately sat up straighter.
“Lieutenant, what do you mean?” one asked with what sounded like a little hiccup.
“You idiots have messed up the video feed to the ballroom. The queen ordered that the horror film she selected begin at precisely midnight! Can either of you imbeciles explain why it started broadcasting at 10:15—and why it began in the middle of the film?” Luther asked with frustration.
“No. We didn’t do anything,” one of the vampires slurred.
“Idiots! You’ll be in silver for your incompetence!” Luther shouted as he moved over to the control panel. It was a mess—strewn with empty champagne flutes.
Looking at the clearly inebriated vampires, Luther picked up one of the empty flutes to examine it. It seemed just like the ones being served upstairs. He inhaled deeply. Yes—it was the same as the blood upstairs.
Unconsciously, Luther licked his lips. Freyda always made a great effort when she formulated the mixture for her blood fountain. And she spared no expense. This time, she’d used the newest incarnation of Royalty Blended as her base since it—like other synthetic bloods—contained a needed preservative. To her base Freyda, had added fresh B-negative blood. She’d gathered dozens of B-negative humans and had been banking their blood donations for almost a year. The finished product had been divine.
Luther furrowed his brow as he looked again at the two vampires in the control room. Their heads were now lulling from side to side, and they were looking at each other as if ready to attack or fuck.
Yes. Unquestionably, they were smashed! Of course, gorging on “good” blood always created feelings of euphoria and lust in vampires, but the two vampires hadn’t drunk that much. Even drinking a half a dozen flutes each, they would have only taken in a pint or so of “real” blood. Could they have gorged themselves before they arrived for work?
Trying to unravel the mystery swarming in his head, Luther sniffed the flute once more. The two vampires in the room with him were generally competent, and Luther had entrusted them with important roles because of that. He sniffed more deeply.
The flute smelled almost of—could it be? Fairy? He’d caught the scent of only one in his long life, and he’d chased that scent until his maker had pulled him to safety right before dawn. Could it be?
“Leave!” he ordered the two vampires.
Immediately, they obeyed, and—not five seconds later—Luther heard ripping clothes and growls of lust in the hallway. Given the fact that neither of the two men in the hall were known for enjoying homosexual encounters, their uninhibited behavior added fuel to Luther’s theory.
He slammed the door to the soundproof room and took out his disposable phone to dial Felipe, even as he looked at the control panel. He quickly found the feed to the television in the ballroom and turned off the Blu-ray function. He glanced at the bank of monitors to his left, which showed the various camera angles of the ballroom. The room’s occupants all seemed to be turned toward the television as if riveted; however, just as he was about to recheck that he’d—indeed—turned off the Blu-ray disk, his call connected.
Luther turned toward the door of the little room, not wanting to look at his beloved Freyda as he betrayed her.
Regardless of how it may have seemed, Luther truly did adore his queen—more than almost anything. However, he was tired of her fawning over Northman—tired of being second best. He’d proven his loyalty again and again, yet she still showed him little affection, using him only to alleviate the snubbing she received from Northman.
Thus, Luther had become Felipe’s spy. He knew that Felipe planned to eventually do away with Freyda; however, the lieutenant hoped to be able to twist the situation so that he could save his queen—save his beloved—even as he got rid of Northman! Then she would have to acknowledge the lengths he would go to for her. She would have to love him!
“Luther!” Felipe said with a snarl. “I suppose you are calling about the farce of a judgment just handed down by the Vampire Council.”
“What?” Luther asked, clearly confused. “No—I was calling to request your council about a potential problem at Freyda’s ball.”
“What else has happened?” Felipe asked with frustration. “And are you where we may speak freely.”
“Yes, my king; I am in a private place. I believe that someone has tampered with the blood being served here tonight,” Luther reported, still confused, especially over Felipe’s use of the words, “what else.”
“Tampered with—how? Poisoned?” the king asked. “Elf blood?”
‘No,” Luther responded. “I think it’s Fae blood.”
Clearly unconcerned, Felipe chuckled. “Freyda probably added that herself. Stupid bitch!”
Luther recoiled, disliking that his beloved had been called by a disparaging name. However, he said nothing about that. “Your majesty, I do not think she did. I have a feeling that someone might be trying to incapacitate us. I had some of the blood, and—now that I have analyzed my own state—I can tell you that I am not at full aptitude. I suspect the semi-demon is responsible.”
“Hmm,” Felipe mused. “Sound theory—especially given the Council’s decrees.”
“Sir—you have spoken of the Council twice now. I am afraid that I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Felipe scoffed. “Bill Compton—the weaselly bastard—betrayed both Freyda and myself. And—worse yet—he is dead! Thus, I cannot take pleasure in torturing the turncoat.”
“What?” Luther asked in shock.
“A member of the Vampire Council phoned me minutes before you did. Apparently, someone—I’m guessing Northman—has provided them with audio evidence that Compton was in collusion with Freyda and myself. They knew of the plot to take Sookie’s son—though they seemed unaware that the child is a telepath, which is a slight comfort. They also knew of Freyda’s attempt on Sookie’s life—that damned ill-planned and ill-carried-out automobile accident. They’ve nullified my contract with Northman. And I have been fined eleven million dollars altogether.”
“I am unsure. I thought that you were calling to report what the Council had done to sanction her. I would imagine that—at the very least—her marriage contract to Northman is no more. I would also imagine that a similar fine to mine has been imposed.” He paused. “As I said, I feel that your instinct about the demon is correct. When I asked who had brought the case, since Northman is in Oklahoma, I was told that it was Nargal.”
“The semi-demon’s brother,” Luther said with recognition.
Luther turned back to look at the monitors, and what he saw turned his blood cold. Northman was standing in front of his beloved, his sword drawn and his pose threatening.
“I must go!” he yelled.
“No!” Felipe responded. “You must listen! You are one of the closest agents that I have to the Stackhouse woman. Northman has made a miscalculation. Now that my contract with him is void, I am not longer responsible for Miss Stackhouse’s protection, nor must I stay away from her. I want you to go get her and bring her to me—immediately.”
Torn, Luther looked at one of the monitors and saw that Northman was talking to someone; however, he couldn’t tell to whom he spoke.
“I must protect my queen!” Luther yelled into the phone.
“No—you must prove your alliance with me—tonight! Right now! Queen Freyda will no longer be a part of my plans. She was to keep Northman distracted and contained, and it is clear that she has failed! You will do as I say.”
“Yes, your majesty,” Luther said before hanging up. He sped out of the room, ignoring the two large male vampires fucking in the hallway.
Luther felt sluggish to a certain extent, but moved as fast as he could. He would follow the king’s orders, but only after he protected his beloved and eliminated Eric Northman from the face of the earth for good.
As everyone in the ballroom had watched Roman’s broadcast with rapt attention, Desmond hadn’t been able to conceal his smile. Not only had Nargal delivered the evidence to the Vampire Council, but also he’d somehow managed to persuade them that Desmond should be the one to pass Freyda’s sentence!
The semi-demon ventured that Nargal had convinced them by showing some teeth—both literally and figuratively. But—despite Desmond’s surprise—it was an appropriate outcome. After all, he was the representative of Sookie’s Fae kin in the human realm. Moreover—though the Vampire Council could not have known about it—Sookie did carry Desmond’s own blood, which was evidenced by her telepathy.
Yes. It was a just outcome.
As he anticipated the battle to come, Desmond felt more invigorated than he had in years. In fact, he’d not been so giddy since he was around forty years old—when he was called upon by Nargal to help with a little skirmish against a group of wood elves. His smile increased at the memory; that day—so long ago—it had been very clear that fire trumped wood.
After Roman’s broadcast, no one seemed willing to move for a few moments—except for the stalking Viking and his prey, a duo which held everyone’s attention.
Well—almost everyone’s. Wisely, the wily Margaret quickly shepherded her people—most of whom were humans—out of the room as the energy began to change from stunned silence to deadly electricity.
Desmond had a thought as he reached into his jacket and thumbed his favorite weapon. Perhaps, he should ask Margaret out on a date. After all, he already knew that she was an excellent cook.
That thought was put on hold, however, when Eric asked him for his “sentence” for the queen. As the semi-demon relished in giving his deadly judgment, he noticed that Diantha, Betty Joe, Isabel, and one of the Oklahoma sheriffs were moving to take up flanking positions around the dais.
He did the same.
Not long after Desmond had spoken, Freyda yelled for Luther, who was still absent from the ballroom. Then she tried her guards, who finally woke up.
Seemingly out of nowhere, many swords and knives were produced. For his own part, Desmond withdrew a retractable wooden rod from his jacket pocket. His favorite weapon, the short staff had been a gift from Fintan, and it had kept him safe for many years. He shook the object once, and it expanded to around three feet long; the wood was from Faerie and the magic instilled within it made it as strong as steel.
By far, the individual in the ballroom who seemed most concerned for Freyda was the king of Nebraska; however, when he tried to run at Eric from across the room, a well-timed and well-placed fireball from Diantha sent him flying back across it and into a wall.
Desmond felt a swell of pride in his chest as he glanced at his niece, who had one hand poised to shoot another fireball even as she waved a large bowie knife threateningly with her other hand. The semi-demon smiled. He’d given that knife to his niece as a gift about a decade before. He’d infused it with his own magic and love. He couldn’t help but to note that she looked particularly beautiful and deadly as she wielded it. He sighed. She looked like her mother.
Desmond’s attention moved back to the dais as the queen begged for her life. Moments later, with an upward swipe of his sword, Eric abruptly ended their “talk.”
The little skirmishes that had broken out in the room suddenly stopped as everyone watched the spectacle that would—most certainly—be the queen’s last. Eric’s swing couldn’t have been more perfectly angled. And because of it, Freyda’s head flew dramatically into the air and above the dais—her beautiful blond locks swirling as her head flipped and spun—before coming to a perfect landing on the seat of her horrible throne.
Desmond could not recall a more splendidly poetic—even whimsical—act of violence. And the look on Freyda’s face—before it started to disintegrate, at least—was “sublime.” Her lips were fixed into an “O” shape and her bright blue eyes were glassy—wide with fear and shock. Indeed—it was perfect!
The semi-demon couldn’t help but to wish that vampires were like demons in that they didn’t decompose at their deaths. He would have enjoyed stuffing and mounting Freyda’s head onto his wall—if Eric didn’t want that honor. Sadly, however, both parts of the queen’s body soon turned into sludge.
Desmond wanted to drop his staff and applaud. One thing was for certain: the Viking had flare!
For a moment, the room was deadly silent as all the vampires and other beings absorbed that the queen had just died. But—that moment didn’t last long, and soon the room was astir as the vampires chose which side to be on.
As Desmond eyed one of Freyda’s personal guards, who was staring at him in return, he used the mirrors to monitor the other goings-on in the ballroom. Immediately, about a third of the vampires—seventeen by Desmond’s count—made clear moves to support Eric. They rallied around the dais, using it—and Eric—as their central point. Even better, based on the size of their voids, Desmond knew that the vampires in Eric’s group were among the oldest in the room. The lawyer couldn’t help but to be impressed. In his seven years in Oklahoma, which was a very short period in “vampire-time,” Eric had managed to inspire much loyalty among the state’s strongest vampires.
Meanwhile, a group of around fifteen, composed of Freyda’s personal guards, Micah Giles, a few other Area 1 vampires, and the Nebraska king’s retinue, quickly rallied around the king, who had recovered from being shot across the room and was now brushing himself off, even as he stared at Eric with murder in his eyes.
Not willing to choose sides, a few vampires had slipped out of the ballroom; however, Desmond was most pleased by the behavior of the youngest vampires still present. The “spiked punch” had clearly affected them the most, and more than one corner of the room was quickly filling with young vampires, who seemed more concerned with sating their sexual lust—as opposed to their bloodlust. A few of the braver—or stupider—fangbangers had joined them, but most of the humans were leaving the ballroom as fast as they could.
“I am going to take your head, Viking!” the king of Nebraska fumed. Desmond knew that Sean McGowan was several centuries younger than Northman, but he was still formidable.
Eric looked at the Nebraska king with a devilish glint in his eye. “Tell me, Sean,” he asked with sarcasm, as he gestured toward the king’s kilt, “are you going to moon me before the fighting begins? I so enjoyed that part of Braveheart, and I just don’t get to fight a man in a kilt much anymore.” He grinned. “I’d hate to miss it.”
Sean growled and then let out an inhuman battle-cry as he launched himself at Eric. Diantha shot another fireball, but this one missed the king and hit one of the Christmas trees.
A few seconds before the room’s sprinkler system turned on, steel clashed against steel as Sean and Eric began to put on a swordplay clinic. However—sadly—Desmond didn’t have time to enjoy it as one of Freyda’s vampire guards zipped toward him. Using his briefcase as a shield, Desmond deflected the guard’s sword and then spun around before delivering a blow to the back of the vampire’s head that clearly crushed his skull.
Sadly, Desmond didn’t get to finish the guard off, for, in the next moment, Sandy Sechrest launched herself at him, knocking his briefcase from his hand; however, that just freed up Desmond to hit her with one of his fireballs. Though his fiery weapons weren’t as strong as his niece’s, Sandy was thrown back about ten feet because of his fire-burst. She landed on her ass with a loud thump and skidded across the quickly dampening floor.
Desmond grinned. Her squeal as she landed was a satisfying sound!
When Sandy got up, she launched herself back into the fray—this time in the opposite direction from him.
Again, Desmond grinned.
In one of the mirrors, the semi-demon saw the Sheriff of Area 1, Micah Giles, trying to sneak up on him. Desmond spun around in time to block the vampire’s sword with his staff. He fired one of his fireballs at the vampire, but the vampire was able to dodge the burst. Desmond fired another, but—again—the vampire proved his quickness and agility. For a few minutes, the two were at a virtual stand-off as Micah was forced to keep his distance but still managed to avoid Desmond’s fiery weapons.
Using his cunning, Desmond fired two weak fireballs in quick succession, knowing that Micah would perceive him as being tired and come closer. He was not wrong. Sensing victory, Micah launched himself straight at Desmond. The semi-demon lifted his cane and incanted a single Fae word: ægorë. It meant “open.”
Immediately, pointed spears pushed through both ends of his staff, and Desmond thrust his weapon upward to meet his opponent’s move—and his heart. The semi-demon’s aim was true, and the wooden point did its job well. Desmond pulled his weapon from the bursting vampire and turned to face another.
Eric was enjoying his watery fight with the Nebraska king immensely. Sean McGowan might have been an insufferable ass, but he was not incompetent. In fact, he was quite skilled with the sword, and the rumors that he had been a fierce Gaelic warrior during his human days had not been exaggerated.
Even as he battled with his opponent, Eric used the mirrors to keep an eye on the happenings in the rest of the room. Kenshin and the other vampires of Areas 2 and 3 had already dispatched most of Freyda’s guards, and the samurai looked as fierce as always. Not surprisingly, the Sheriff of Area 4 was nowhere to be seen, and his people were participating in the orgies that had broken out in the corners of the ballroom. They—and the other younglings writhing together—had little care of the battle raging in the rest of the ballroom.
Eric smiled as he enjoyed the sensation of bloodlust flowing through him. Had he been a younger vampire, he might have been drawn to the orgies himself. But he was not young. And he was no longer interested in such lurid activities. They were for beings without the boon he’d been gifted by the gods. They were for beings without a beloved mate and children to see to.
No—Eric was not tempted by the smell of sex in the air, but he did celebrate in the scent of the blood he’d drawn. Even as he’d brawled with Sean McGowan, he and the Nebraska king had been forced to deal with others who had interrupted their fray. McGowan had killed at least one of Kenshin’s vampires, while Eric had killed two of McGowan’s retinue; however, the Viking and the Gael had always impatiently returned to their own little “corner” of the battle—after they’d dispatched the “nuisances,” of course.
Eric noticed a flash of light to his side, glanced into the mirror, and celebrated inwardly as Diantha blew apart Sandy Sechrest—quite literally! Producing such a blast, however, had clearly weakened the demon; thus, Eric was glad to see Betty Joe and Isabel forming ranks around her. The two lieutenants of his allies had certainly proven their weight in gold during the battle, taking out many of the vampires who had joined McGowan to avenge Freyda’s death. Halfway across the ballroom, Eric noticed that Cataliades was wielding a double-sided spear as if he were a gladiator. Eric smirked a little. The semi-demon may have looked like an elderly human, but his skill and power were unquestionable.
As the water from the sprinklers continued to fall upon them, McGowan advanced and lunged, while Eric parried and spun. Having been taught by many masters over the years, Eric knew many botta secretas—or secret techniques that the masters would share only with their most worthy students. Eric lunged until his blade was against McGowan’s; then he used a move taught to him by Johannes Liechtenauer in the 14th century. Instead of simply clashing his sword with his opponent’s, Eric kept firm contact and glided his blade downward, creating sparks as the two pieces of metal scraped against each other. Having thrown McGowan off-balance a bit, Eric disengaged his sword and spun to the other side of his opponent.
Eric then used a ploy called a feint, where he seemed to be attacking on one line before switching to another line. The move caused just the reaction from McGowan that Eric had wanted, and the Viking sensed the exact moment when the Nebraska king was vulnerable. He had hesitated when he should not have, and he would die for it.
With precision, Eric moved slightly to his left and off of the dais in order to ensure his advantage. Then he spun and slashed upward, using the deadly combination of his vampire speed and a tactic taught to him by his own father more than a millennium before.
Eric grinned. His human father, Ulfrik, really was a grand-fucking-master when it came to “brutalizing” with a sword.
Eric felt his razor-sharp blade slice almost completely through McGowan’s right arm—from armpit to shoulder. As the Nebraska king yelled out in pain, Eric could visualize all of the muscles he’d severed as McGowan lost the ability to grip his sword. By the time Eric had spun back around, his opponent’s sword was clanging against the floor, and the monarch’s face showed his agony.
“Oh,” Eric said with false pity, as the king used his left hand to take a short dagger out of his belt. “What a shame. Your kilt’s all bloody.”
The Nebraska king snarled and looked at his wound, which was so deep that it had almost rend him in two.
“Even with one arm, I will avenge Freyda’s death!” McGowan yelled.
Eric took a short beat to nod respectfully to the brave king, who had earned his esteem. And then the Viking launched himself mercilessly at his opponent, taking his head just as he’d done Freyda’s earlier.
Luther saw the remains of his beloved Freyda as soon as he entered the ballroom through one of the concealed servants’ entrances. Even from across the room, the diamond belt that Freyda had been wearing was a spotlight upon what was left of her.
Her glorious white gown was now red with watery gore.
The necklace he’d given her for Christmas—the one she’d told him that she would wear to the ball so that he would be reminded of her affection for him—lay uselessly on the floor, surrounded by blood-soaked clumps of her hair. Luther realized that those once silken strands had been cut off along with her head.
He closed his eyes to the sight. He wanted to scream. He wanted to wail. He wanted to shut down. He wanted to kill.
But, for a moment, he did nothing. His body stayed completely still against the wall of the room as the water from the sprinklers soaked him through. He felt the energy of the battle being waged around him. He smelled sex and blood. His fangs clicked downward.
When he opened his eyes again, it seemed as if they were burning with rage, and the object of that rage was Eric Northman, who was busy fighting the Nebraska king. Using all his stealth and his knowledge of how the mirrors could be used both to reveal and to conceal, Luther began to make his way toward his enemy.
Desmond saw Luther as he entered the room, but he lost sight of the lieutenant as Angus, McGowan’s second-in-command, engaged him in battle. Angus was almost as formidable as his king, so for several minutes, Desmond wasn’t able to look for Freyda’s shifty lieutenant.
Hearing a yell from the Nebraska king, the semi-demon glanced at Eric, who had just sliced through a good portion of King McGowan’s arm. The monarch was at the Viking’s mercy. But it was then that Desmond caught sight of Luther again. The sneaky vampire had positioned himself perfectly in relationship to the mirrors and was using the thrones to conceal himself. Eric’s back was to Luther, and as Freyda’s lieutenant made his move between the thrones, Desmond saw that Luther’s path to the Viking was clear. He would be on Eric before the Viking knew he was there!
In that moment, the semi-demon heard only his goddaughter’s words in his head—only her pleas.
“Please, Mr. Cataliades,” she’d beseeched, “make sure Eric lives to come back to me. I need him; my children need him.”
Desmond didn’t pause. His decision was made even before Sookie’s words had finished echoing in his mind. The semi-demon lowered his own defenses and used all of his remaining energy to throw a fireball at Luther.
He lived only long enough to watch his weapon hit its mark, and then he was no more.
A sacrifice—of love.
As Sean McGowan’s head hit the floor with a splash, Eric heard a distinct noise: the sound of a demon’s fireball whistling through the air next to his ear.
The next few things seemed to happen in the same split second. Eric turned around faster than lightening and saw that Luther was dangerously near and poised for a kill thrust with a stake. Before Eric could even think about raising his sword to ward off Luther’s blow, the fireball he’d heard crashed into Freyda’s lieutenant, sending him reeling toward the mirrored wall behind the thrones. There was a loud crash as Luther’s body broke the glass.
Eric began to move toward Luther—to finish off his most formidable remaining enemy—but he was stopped by a shrill cry from behind him: Diantha. He turned in time to see the petite demoness hurl a powerful fireball at Angus, McGowan’s second. However, the grief in her cry was what had grabbed Eric’s attention.
Lying next to Angus’s now smoldering remains was Desmond Cataliades, his body rigid and his eyes wide open. A large circle of blood was seeping through his white tuxedo shirt.
Eric closed his eyes momentarily. Diantha couldn’t have fired the fireball that had stopped Luther from killing him. She didn’t have the angle for the shot.
And that could mean only one thing: Sookie’s supernatural sponsor had sacrificed his life—for Eric’s.
Even as Diantha was fighting her way toward her uncle’s corpse, Eric did the same. Only three of Freyda’s supporters remained, and those were dispatched quickly as Eric’s group moved toward their fallen comrade.
After Eric sliced through the last vampire standing in his way, he stopped a few feet from Desmond Cataliades and sank to his knees to pay homage. Diantha was bowed on the other side of her uncle.
“He died saving my life,” Eric said, his voice catching with emotion. He took off his soaked jacket and laid it gently over the wound that had killed the semi-demon.
“I know. I saw,” Diantha responded, much more slowly than she usually spoke. “He made his choice,” she said looking up at Eric. “He died as all Dae wish to die.”
“In glorious battle,” Eric said with respect.
Diantha nodded. “Yes that. And he died saving his kin,” she added with clear emotion in her tone.
Though surprised by her words—and the suggestion that Desmond Cataliades somehow thought of him as “kin”—Eric still managed to acknowledge them with a nod of his own.
Kenshin walked slowly over to the grieving pair.
Eric stood as he spoke to his friend. “Report.”
Kenshin bowed to Eric respectfully. “As far as I can tell, you have killed two vampire monarchs tonight, but I am guessing that you are not going to take either job,” he observed, his Japanese accent thick.
“Good guess,” Eric said. Generally, such an exchange would have drawn a smirk from the Viking, but all he could think about was the demon’s sacrifice. He would have to tell Sookie that her godfather had been killed. He’d have to tell her that Desmond Cataliades had died in order to save him.
Sensing his friend’s somber mood, Kenshin looked down at the corpse of the semi-demon. “He died bravely. That fact will be known; I will be just one who tells it.”
“Thank you,” Eric and Diantha whispered as one.
“Have we eliminated all threats?” Eric asked Kenshin.
“Yes,” the samurai said. “However, Luther has escaped. He slipped out a passage that locked behind him, and I could not follow. All others who took up their swords for the queen are dead. I sent several of my people to search for Luther, but I fear he has slipped into the night.”
Even as Kenshin ordered another one of his people to figure out how to turn off the sprinkler system, Eric sighed and pulled his phone from his tuxedo jacket pocket. He dialed a number that every high-ranking vampire knew by heart—the Vampire Council.
After quickly relaying the events of the evening to Roman, he was offered the kingships of Oklahoma and Nebraska.
He declined both.
Neither territory had enough vampires to stave off a full attack from Felipe. Moreover, being a king would put a larger target on his back—and, thereby, on Sookie’s back. No—he would take her and the children into hiding as planned. And—if Felipe found them—the Nevada king would be the one in foreign territory.
Eric suggested that Kenshin should be offered Oklahoma—if not both monarch-less states. Eric figured that the samurai would accept at least one of the kingdoms, if—for no other reason—than to avoid having to answer to anyone else.
As the Viking hung up his own phone, two others rang: Kenshin’s and Diantha’s. His hearing allowed him to identify both callers.
Kenshin’s call was from Salome, another member of the council. She offered the samurai both Oklahoma and Nebraska; however, Kenshin accepted only the former. The call was short.
Diantha’s call—which was from Nargal—took longer. Stoically, she explained how her uncle had been killed. Eric and his other allies moved away a little—to give her some space, even if they couldn’t offer her privacy.
During the calls, the sprinklers finally cut off, and Betty Joe and Isabel took amusement in breaking up the orgies—and in slapping some sense into the “inebriated” vampires.
As soon as Kenshin hung up, Eric saw that all of the remaining Oklahoma vampires were moving to kneel before their new king and offer him fealty—though some of the still drunken and half-naked younglings had to be kicked toward the worthy monarch by Betty Joe and Isabel.
Eric sighed. If the situation had been different, he would have offered Kenshin his fealty and allegiance as well, but Eric was ready to leave the state of Oklahoma—forever.
Betty Joe approached Eric. “I have it on good authority that you may need a ride tonight,” she mouthed more than spoke—so that no one else could hear her words.
Eric nodded in answer.
Betty Joe patted Eric’s arm and looked sadly at Diantha. “I’m going to change,” she said out loud. Then she mouthed, “Meet me at my SUV when you’re ready.
Eric nodded again and walked over to Diantha, who was just hanging up her phone.
“My father is coming,” she said solemnly and slowly, though her eyes stayed on her uncle. She shook her head. “It’s funny but Uncle Desmond always felt as much like my dad as my own.”
“He was a good man,” Eric said solemnly.
She nodded and quickly brushed away a tear.
“Is there anything that you need?” Eric asked quietly, even as some of Kenshin’s people moved to pick up Cataliades’s body.
Diantha shook her head. “No. The new king is going to have my uncle’s body taken to a bedroom. And I will await my father there.”
“I will wait with you—if you like,” Eric offered.
Diantha shook her head. “No. But I thank you. I would like to be alone for a while—to remember him.” She looked toward the door. “And others need you.”
Eric nodded. “I am in your debt. You or your father may contact me at any time. And I will come to your service.”
Diantha acknowledged his offer and then opened her uncle’s briefcase. She quickly found what she was looking for and held it out for Eric to take.
“What is this?” Eric asked.
“You must give this to Sookie,” Diantha said.
Eric looked at the amulet in his hand. “What is it?”
“It is my uncle’s legacy. He had no children, and he always intended for Sookie or her children or her children’s children to have what was his. All that she must do is put this amulet on, and the magic within it will instruct her on what to do.
Eric took an unneeded breath. “I will see that she gets it.”
“Give her a message too—will you?”
“Tell her that I will find her soon—for a visit. Meanwhile, make sure that she knows that my uncle’s death is not her fault.”
“Why would she think that?” Eric asked.
“She asked him to come here—to make sure that you stayed safe.”
Eric closed his eyes.
“It is not your fault my uncle is dead either, Viking,” Diantha said with more gravitas to her tone than she’d ever demonstrated having before. She’d lost her sister and now her uncle. She knew that her family needed her more than ever now, and Sookie and her people—including the Viking—were a part of that family.
“It is kind of you to say that,” Eric said.
“It is also true of me to say that,” Diantha returned.
Eric nodded respectfully to Diantha and then to Isabel and then to Kenshin before taking his leave. He was careful to be alert for potential danger—especially since Luther was still at large—as he zipped to his room.
Quickly, he stripped and changed into jeans, a T-shirt, and boots. He’d already packed the few belongings that he wanted to keep. He’d not brought much of value with him to Oklahoma; in fact, most of his possessions fit into a single suitcase. He certainly didn’t intend to take any of the clothing that Freyda had purchased for him so that he would—as she had said—”look like royalty, even if he was not.”
The only thing of value to him that he wouldn’t be taking was his coffin, but—knowing how to get another one if need be—Eric had already decided to leave it behind for Kenshin’s use.
As he looked around his study, a room that had been both a cage and an escape for him for almost a decade, he took out his phone again.
He’d instructed Pam to give Sookie a disposable phone, and he dialed that number. More than anything, he just needed to hear her voice—to know that she was safe. He needed to know that Sammy was happy and well. He needed to know that Matthew was behaving inside of her.
He just needed to feel connected to them and to tell them that he would be coming to them soon.
“Eric?” Sookie answered before the first ring had fully sounded.
“Yes,” he confirmed. “Are you well? Are the children well?” he asked.
“Yes,” she responded. “Sammy’s asleep and Matthew is,” she paused, “behaving as well as can be expected. And you? Are you safe?”
“Yes,” he repeated. “I am fine.”
“You don’t sound fine,” Sookie said astutely, her voice full of trepidation.
He sighed. “I am fine,” he repeated. “But I,” he paused, “have bad news. And I’m afraid I do not know whether to tell you now or to wait until I see you. I don’t know what is best.”
“Oh,” she said with a little grunt.
“Are you sure that you’re well?” he asked with worry.
“Yes,” she responded quickly. “Just a little—uh—cramp. So—this news—you don’t know whether or not to tell me over the phone?”
“That’s right,” he sighed. “It will make you cry. And, though I hate your tears, I would prefer to be there when you cry them—from now on.”
He heard her sniffling over the phone.
“You are crying now—aren’t you?”
She sniffled again. “Pregnancy hormones,” she explained and then sighed deeply. “Is Freyda still alive? Are you still married to her?” she asked after a moment.
“It’s not that. She is dead—as are most of her followers. There is only one that got away.”
They were silent for a moment. “It’s Mr. Cataliades—isn’t it?” she asked perceptively, as if she could read his mind over the phone.
“Yes,” Eric said quietly. “He’s dead. He died saving my life.”
He heard another sob on the line.
“This is all my fault,” he heard her cry sadly.
“No. Please do not blame yourself,” Eric returned immediately. “If anything, it is I who am responsible. I had,” he paused, “let my guard down. Cataliades fired on one of my enemies to save my life. But—in doing so—he left himself open to attack.” His voice cracked. “I am so sorry. I have let you down—again—min älskade.”
“No!” she said forcefully, even as she let out another sob. “No!” She sighed heavily. “If it is not my fault for sending him, then it can’t be your fault that he did what I asked him to do.”
Eric’s shoulders slumped a little. “I wish I could,” he paused, “go back an hour and protect your godfather for you, my love.” Feeling defeated, he sighed. “I wish I could go back a decade and do many things differently.”
Eric heard Sookie sobbing quietly. “Mr. Cataliades was a hard man to get to know,” she said after a couple of minutes. “You may not know this, but he is the reason why I’m a telepath.”
“He told me,” Eric said quietly. “When I asked him to help me set up some of the elements of your various choices, he told me.”
“And you told him about Matthew being a telepath. He knew when I spoke to him last night,” she said.
“Yes. I wanted him to . . . .” Eric stopped midsentence.
“Wanted him to?” she asked.
“I wanted him to use the same precautions to protect Matthew as he’s been using with your second cousin.”
“You know about Hunter?” Sookie asked with surprise.
“I have since the night he stayed with you—the night before Appius came to your home to find me.”
“You have?” she squeaked a little.
“I came to speak with you that night—to see you—but you were already asleep,” he said. “The child was in your guestroom, and when I went to the closet to get into the hidey hole, he woke up. He told me that I was like a giant nightlight before he fell back to sleep.”
“He saw your glow,” she said.
“Yes,” Eric conveyed. “It was then that I guessed he was like you.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you knew?” she asked.
“I sensed that you didn’t want me to know about your cousin because you didn’t fully trust me not to use him, and I didn’t want to worry you,” he answered evenly, without accusation in his voice.
She sighed. “I’m sorry. Back then—I was confused. But—I need you to know that I trust you now.”
“I know,” he said. “Your godfather also came to trust me—I think—after I asked that your son and daughter also be given the potion that covered Hunter’s scent.”
“But—how could you have known about the potion?” she asked.
He was silent for a moment. “After I was cursed by Hallow, I began to appreciate both the power of witches and the usefulness of having them on my side. And—as I’ve told you before—there is a large coven in Olaf’s area.”
“You are responsible for Hunter’s potion,” Sookie said with sudden realization.
“No,” Eric responded. “The witches are. I simply asked them to make themselves available to your godfather. I would have approached one of your own witch friends, but the father of Miss Broadway tried to take your life,” he said. “And—after some of Miss Broadway’s actions,” he paused, “I wanted someone less biased to help your godfather.”
Sookie was silent for a moment. Eric heard her shifting a little, and there was another grunt. He was looking forward even more than he was before to giving her his blood so that she’d experience less discomfort in the waning days of her pregnancy.
“Did you know that Mr. Cataliades was in love with Diantha’s mother, Brumheild?” Sookie asked.
“No,” Eric responded.
Sookie took a shaky breath. “Diantha told me about it once. Though she wasn’t a full-blooded demon herself, Brumheild was a princess, and her family insisted that she had to marry a full-blooded demon. Mr. Cataliades’s mother was only half-blooded, so he wasn’t permitted to marry her.”
She grunted and muttered a curse under her breath before continuing. “Though Mr. Cataliades’s heart was broken, he put forward his brother as a potential suitor for Brumheild once he was deemed unsuitable. You see? He loved them both so much. According to Diantha, he knew that they could be happy together, and he also knew that—as her in-law—he would be able to watch over her too.”
“And her children,” Eric added, thinking about the way that the semi-demon had kept his niece in his line-of-sight during the battle.”
“Yeah,” Sookie said. She took a breath. “Five or so years ago, Mr. Cataliades asked me if I’d ever used the cluviel dor. When I told him that I had, he asked me how.”
Eric closed his eyes as he thought of that hated object. At one time, it had been the representation of every hope and every dream that he’d ever had. And then—suddenly—it had become the evidence that he’d not done enough to prove himself to the woman he loved.
Sookie continued. “Mr. Cataliades—Desmond—asked me why I didn’t use the cluviel dor for the one I loved the most—for you.” She sighed. “I was a fool back then, and I told him as much.” She half-laughed and half-cried. “The thing is—if I would have used it for you, then . . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“Then Sammy and Matthew would not be,” Eric finished. “You made the right choice Sookie. Your daughter,” he paused, “your son—they are too valuable to have never been.”
She choked out a sob. “I know. And that’s what I told Desmond—at least about Sammy. She was only an infant when we had our talk, but I already couldn’t imagine a world without her.”
“I once hated that you didn’t use the cluviel dor to save me,” Eric admitted. “But now that I have met Sammy, I understand that the magic of the Fae relic was always meant to lead you to your child—to your children.” He paused. “Samantha will grow to be strong and sure,” he said confidently. “She will have everything that she needs to be everything that she wants.”
Sookie sighed. “You sound like her father—like their father—already, Eric.”
“Is that what you would have me to be?” the Viking asked with uncertainty edging his tone.
“Yes. It’s what I want—if it’s what you, Sammy, and Matthew want,” she said. “But I would never pressure any of you.”
There was a pause. “It is what I want too,” Eric said. “And I will do my best to live up to the honor. If your children will have me, then I will care for them and their children and their children’s children and all of their line—until I am dust.”
Another sob was heard. “Eric,” she sighed, “thank you. Thank you.”
“Sookie, my lover—my love. Please. Do not cry.”
He heard her take several deep, deliberate breaths. “When I spoke to Desmond about the cluviel dor,” she said after a moment, “he told me that, while he understood my use of it—especially in hindsight—the token was meant to be spent for true love. He told me that—because I’d used it already—he would be my cluviel dor.”
“What do you mean?” Eric asked, truly puzzled.
“He said that there might be a day when I could reclaim what I had lost. And he said that—if that day ever came—all I needed to do was to call him. He told me that he would fight off the devil himself so that I could enjoy that which he’d lost.”
“His love,” Eric said.
“Yes,” Sookie replied. “Brumheild.” She sighed shakily. “Diantha told me that her mother died giving birth to her brother, who also died.”
They were silent for a moment. Eric had seen Aude die in childbirth. He sent up prayers to all the gods that he knew of that Sookie would be safe as she delivered Matthew.
Sookie went on. “Diantha told me that Brumheild lived a full life with her father—with Nargal. She told me that her mother was faithful to her father.” She sighed. “Diantha was an adult when Brumheild died, and her mother once confided in her that she loved both Desmond and Nargal. To honor her first love—and the man who had brought her to her second love—she’d planned to name her son Desmond.”
There was another pause before Sookie continued. “Nargal was too grief-stricken to be present for his wife and son’s cremation. It was Mr. Cataliades—Desmond—who was there. He took care of them—to the end.”
A thousand thoughts worked their way through Eric’s mind. Sookie was right. The semi-demon had indeed proven to be the “true” cluviel dor. His sacrifice had saved Eric’s life and had resurrected his chance to claim—once and for all—a family.
Eric took an unneeded breath. “Matthew Desmond Stackhouse Merlotte,” he said with an air of finality.
Sookie half-chuckled and half-sobbed. “Almost. Matthew Desmond Northman Merlotte.”
“But . . . ,” Eric started.
“I am not a Stackhouse,” she said. “I never was. That is one of the things I’ve come to accept over the years. I will forever love my granddaddy for loving Gran and giving my daddy his name. But I don’t have any Stackhouse blood in me. Neither does Matthew.”
“He won’t have any Northman blood either.”
“No—but his mother and his father will both be Northmans, so he should be too,” Sookie said.
“Both?” Eric asked as a smile started to form on his lips.
“Yes. I’ve been told that Sweden allows vampire-human weddings.”
“It does,” Eric responded, trying not to break the phone in his hands because of the firmness of his grip.
“That’s a good thing, Eric—don’t you think?” she asked.
“I do think,” he said as he checked to make sure that Russell’s missing ceremonial knife was in his bag.
She chuckled. “When the time’s right, we’ll have to give Sammy the option of adding ‘Northman’ to her name too—you know.”
His smile widened. “Yes.”
“Ouch!” she cried out.
“Sookie?” he asked, his smile immediately fading. “Are you okay?”
“Yes. I’m fine,” she said, panting a little.
“Who are you talking to? Give me that!” Pam’s voice said insistently, as if she were speaking from across the room from where Sookie was.
“Pam?” Eric asked.
His child’s voice came through the line. “Have you killed that cunt of a queen?”
“Yes,” Eric responded.
“Good! Then get your pasty ass here! Sookie’s been having contractions for six fucking hours! She’s,” Pam paused, “being uncooperative.”
“Uncooperative?” Eric asked, even as he grabbed his bag.
He could almost hear Pam’s eye roll. “She says that the baby won’t come until you’re here. If you ask me, both her and the little brat are competing for some kind of stubbornness award!”
Eric heard the phone change hands again.
“Vampire!” came Dr. Ludwig’s sour tone.
“Here! I’m here!” Eric said as if he were in a class and the teacher were taking attendance.
“The troublesome girl carries a troublesome babe. And her contractions have actually been slowing down. She insists that the baby is the one who’s insisting upon waiting.”
“The child! He is trying to wait to be born—for you! So get your,” she paused, “pasty ass here ASAP!” Eric could hear Pam laughing in the background even as Sookie told both her and the doctor to shut up.
“And,” Ludwig continued, “it would be preferable if you got here before sun-up, but I’ll take you charred if that’s all I can get.”
With that, the phone went dead.
The End of “Black Christmas“
A/N: First, I’d like to thank my Beta, Kleannhouse, one more time. She has likely been putting her own wonderful stories on the back-burner so that she can help me, and I want her to know just how much I appreciate her!
Well—I hope that you liked this newest installment of the “Gift Horse” series. It broke my heart to kill off Desmond. I cried my way through many Kleenex while writing this. And I’m still sad about it. But—as I said before—I’m using this series of stories to try my hand at various genres, and I decided on tragedy for this one early on.
Anyway—I blame you all! At least those of you who voted in the poll. I asked who you wanted to see in this story, and you voted for Desmond! Of course, you didn’t know that I was going to kill him. But, then again, I didn’t either until I started writing. Speaking of kills, poor Sandy only got one vote in the poll. LOL. My fabulous Beta suggested that I bring her into the story just to kill her off—so I had Diantha blast her.
As I started writing, it became one of my goals to give Desmond more of a backstory here, just as I tried to do with Thalia in “Scrooged.” I hope you liked Desmond’s story! I always enjoyed him as a character and thought that he was horribly under-explored in the books, given his prominence behind the scenes of Sookie’s life.
Do you know who else I liked? Chow! I still scratch my head about why C.H. had to kill off the tattooed one without fanfare in DttW. So—even though I couldn’t resurrect him—I gave you some backstory for him too! And I gave him a brother—Kenshin, whom I ended up really liking as a character. By the way, Kenshin is based on a real person, the samurai, Uesugi Kenshin. So was Kenshin and Chow’s maker, Minamoto no Yoshinaka (Yoshi—for short). I am something of a history buff, and these two individuals were always interesting to me. I hope you liked that little tangent.
So—there you go! Freyda is dead. Cue “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead!”
I have to give a shout out to Sephrenia, who is always at the ready to make new wonderful banners for my stories! I love the one she made for this one! If you wanna explore more of her work and show her more love, visit her website.
(Now–picture Freyda’s head on the white one–got it? Here is Sephrenia’s sick and twisty imagination.)
Here are pictures of my inspiration for the ballroom:
And yes…Black Christmas is a real movie.
Click below to go to the next installment of the Gift Horse Series. It’s called “Boxing Day!”