Eric had been to many a party in his time, but few were more elaborately appointed as the Masquerade. The Viking had to hand it to the Weretiger, who was literally dressed like a fucking Genie! Personal fashion aside, however, the decorations were stunning. The ballroom looked like a set-piece from an elaborate production of The Arabian Nights. Rich tapestries hung on the walls and sheer, colored fabrics billowed from the ceiling in a variety of patterns. White lights placed on the ceiling complemented the gossamer material and created a web of diffuse colored patterns on the ballroom floor.
Cushions in various arrangements were found along the perimeter for those who cared to sit. The middle of the large room, however had been left bare.
Of course, Eric knew that Quinn had used some of the hotel staff for the “heavy lifting,” and Brady had been in control of that staff. Thus, there were swords placed strategically behind various tapestries, including the one depicting a caravan of elephants in a jungle. Behind that one, Eric knew that he would find his own longsword, though he had two smaller weapons and several stakes concealed in his costume.
The Viking used his bonds to pinpoint Sookie’s location since he couldn’t see her through the sea of bodies. However, Eric knew her to be safe, though nervous. They’d not arrived at the party together, believing that it would be best not to be seen as a twosome. They wanted neither to stick out nor to blend in too much, so they were each working the room, carefully avoiding those who might know them. Of course, Eric was wearing Octavia’s latest potion, which covered his scent. Luckily, in a room full of people, no one would notice this lack.
He moved toward his next scheduled “mingling appointment”: Klymene. The vampiress nodded at him and spoke in a low tone that no one else could hear. “My initial target is not with them,” she said.
Eric nodded, acknowledging Klymene’s message: Bill Compton hadn’t arrived at the party with Russell’s group, who’d been “fashionably late.” The Viking wasn’t surprised. None of their group had expected that Russell would trust Bill following the slaying of Hallow.
The Viking couldn’t help but to hope that Bill was dead—finally dead and out of the hair of the world. There had been a time when he would have craved for him to be alive—so that he could take off an inch of the idiot at a time.
But now? Now he had a bigger fish to fry, and he didn’t want to have to worry about a minnow.
Sookie didn’t dare speak aloud, lest her voice be recognized. After all, she didn’t have the ability to talk at such a low volume that no vampire in the room could hear her. However, she was enjoying a lively conversation, nonetheless. Leonie had told her that fairies could communicate telepathically—by choice. Such a thing had—honestly—never occurred to Sookie, except with Barry the bellboy. (She really did have to find out if he had a proper last name.)
“Normal” fairies didn’t have shields, of course, for they didn’t need them; they didn’t get invaded by unwanted thoughts. No—those features were unique to the brand of telepathy that Sookie had.
But Sookie had come to terms with this. A lot of that had had to do with Eric, who’d convinced her—once and for all—that her telepathy was simply a tool. And it was also a part of her, and her Viking refused to let any part of her feel unloved and un-treasured.
And Sookie had embraced her gift, even learning to adapt it to communicate as fairies did. Leonie had been impressed by Sookie’s creativity in fostering the evolution of her gift.
Currently, she was “hanging out” with Leonie and Claude, both of whom had covered their scents—Leonie with her natural ability and Claude with a special version of the concealment potion created by Octavia.
As she looked at Leonie’s mask, which was dotted with sapphires, Sookie couldn’t help but to wonder how much it had cost.
Claude literally chuckled in her mind. “As if Leonie ever paid for jewels.”
“Indeed,” Leonie returned. “Jewels are not worth having when one must buy them.” Sookie heard Leonie’s giggle vibrating in her mind. It was an odd sensation to say the least.
“So—that is Russell’s consort,” Claude mused telepathically as he gave Talbot the once over.
“Mmm hmm,” Sookie returned.
“Too bad he’s going to have to go,” Claude remarked.
“Too bad he would drain you dry if he could,” Leonie returned.
Sookie had to hold in her “vocal” snicker.
“Have you noticed that there are two kinds of masks here today?” Claude asked.
“What do you mean?” Sookie returned.
“Those that conceal and those that reveal,” Claude responded.
“What do you mean?” Sookie repeated, still telepathically, as she discreetly looked around the room.
“Well—people like Talbot and me,” Claude indicated unapologetically, “use the mask only as a showcase. It is designed to augment our features. Mine, for example, sets off my perfect cheekbones.”
Sookie tilted her head to judge for herself. Her fairy cousin was right. His mask was cut right above his cheekbones, and it did make him look even more beautiful than he already was.
“Don’t give him a big head, my dear,” Leonie said, rejoining the telepathic discussion. “He already is too in love with himself.”
“I rarely find someone better than the man in the mirror,” Claude replied haughtily. “If I did, I would—I think—find humility, too.”
Sookie had to stifle an aloud laugh.
“Your vampire fits the bill,” Claude said. “Do you share?”
Leonie slapped her grandson’s arm, both in affection and with warning. And she spoke some words to him in the Fae language. Sookie didn’t know what they meant, but she could guess that Leonie was telling her fairy cousin to drop the idea of Sookie’s sharing—before Sookie dropped him with a bolt of light. She’d been known to be just a tad bit “possessive” of her Viking—especially since the Vampire bonding.
Brady, who literally flirted with everyone, including her Viking, had learned that the hard way with a blast to the chest several weeks before. Sookie was sorry for it, but the Were really should have known better. And now he did.
Sookie had been doing her very best to keep from looking at Russell Edgington all night, though the blue contacts that she’d used to complete her disguise—along with her mask and the masking of her scent—probably made that unneeded. She sighed as she thought about the brown contacts in her mate’s eyes. They had looked all wrong.
She glanced at the huge clock at the front of the room. It was almost midnight, which was when Roman planned to take the stage.
She steadied her nerves after feeling a blast of strength from Eric and glanced at Russell. He’d forgone a mask, a fact that didn’t surprise Sookie in the least. He did, however, have a headpiece with horns, and he was dressed in a costume that Leonie had said “screamed” Druid.
Eric had once told her that Russell had likely originated from a group of exiled Celtic Druids who lived in the Carpathian Mountains near what was now Romania. He certainly fit the bill that night.
Next to him was Talbot, dressed flamboyantly as if he were the Phantom of the Opera himself. Sophie-Anne was in cream-colored silk; her mask, which looked to be made up of priceless jewels, was the kind that was held, and it was away from her stunning face more often than not.
Sookie felt the energy in the room change about a second after the energy in her beloved changed, and she looked to the doors of the ballroom. There stood Roman. He was dressed in Centurion armor and wore a small black mask on his face. She could tell that his progress toward the front of the room was being followed by most of the attendees of the ball.
However, she turned her eyes back to Russell, who was looking at Roman gleefully.
Like her child, Pythia had always been able to cover her scent, not that anyone other than Roman and her two closest handmaidens knew this. Those two were currently with Eric and Sookie, the stars of the night.
So used to concealing herself, Pythia had celebrated the idea of a Masquerade. She’d been old when she’d been turned; however, she did “play up” her wilted posture. In truth, she could stand as straight as the next person, and the grace that vampirism had afforded to her counteracted the frail condition that her human body had suffered at the time of her “making.”
Tall for a woman of her time, Pythia had been the most statuesque of the priestesses of Delphi. She’d been born a nymph, tied to the Cephissus River. She’d offered her services to the worthy Spartans, and her lineage had assured her a long life. But—as her river had been used more and more for trade, her powers had diminished. So she’d aged, though slowly. It was when she looked to be in her seventies—by human standards—that she’d been turned.
Contrary to the misperceptions about priestesses, Pythia had enjoyed an active sex life, though she’d had to keep her seven children a secret from most. Only the lineage of one of those children still survived. Adele Stackhouse had been her granddaughter—though with so many “greats” attached to the conveying of the relationship that it would have grated on the nerves to relay them all.
Still, Pythia had seen Adele and Sookie—even before the coil of her own “human” life had been pulled to completion.
Pythia would have likely gravitated toward Klymene and Leonie as handmaidens regardless, but their relationships with the Norseman and Fintan—so important in the lives of her descendants—were essential.
Fintan had always been meant for Adele.
And the Viking was the perfect mate for Sookie.
Oh—the “ancient” lady liked to pretend that she was indifferent. And she was indifferent most of the time; messing with the future was messy, after all. But she was not above taking action when called for. And she felt that the current last female of her line was worth it.
Oh—her line would go on with or without Sookie. Jason Stackhouse would have anywhere between three and seven children, depending on which future took place. In fact, he already had a child he did not know about—a boy-child who was the product of his “loose” ways.
But Sookie was special to Pythia, for she was the first of her lineage upon whom the earth had chosen to bestow her nymph gifts. Her paternal grandfather, Fintan, had been part Nymph as well, and Pythia had known the originator of that blood. She’d been the Nymph of the mighty Tigress River—an even more powerful being than Pythia herself. A descendent of hers had borne children with Niall, the fairy. And one of those children had been Fintan.
Sookie had been a “perfect storm” of supernatural material, as had her mate in many ways.
Pythia had had many lovers as a human—and as a vampire—but she’d never found a mate. And Pythia had spent a moment being jealous of her descendent when she’d first “seen” S ookie’s possible fate. But that jealousy had turned to pride and happiness approximately two thousand years before.
Pythia took a moment to adjust her sleeves. The lace of her costume obscured any wrinkles her body had been left with upon its changing. And her mask, a downright youthful-looking porcelain façade, was the perfect disguise for her face. Only her eyes still told the story of who she was; however, they fit in with the mask so much that she knew that no one would think anything of them. Plus, she was avoiding the eyes of all others as if they were a room-full of Medusas, ready to turn her into stone.
She’d always lamented the fact that she didn’t have her cousin’s handy gift; of course, Medi had died alone and embittered, despite what myth proclaimed. The putz, Pericles, had managed to find her, though the stories of him decapitating her were erroneous. In truth, she’d exchanged what he wanted for a night savoring his young body. Indeed, sadly, Medi had an even worse fate than her legendary one. Pythia knew this since she was a visitor of her relative right before her death; by then, Pythia had been a vampire. Unfortunately, Medi had lived way too long and had been driven mad.
The gods did not show her any favor.
The night in which Pythia was now living would decide if they intended to show her favor. Oh—Pythia already knew of her own fate. She would survive the night—as she had survived all her other nights. But she did not know about her human or her vampire descendants.
Sookie’s fate would be determined by timing and by the will of the gods that Pythia still believed in.
And Eric would die if his beloved was truly lost.
Roman’s chances seemed to become worse with every passing moment, and the only way Jacob might make it is if his maker did—indeed—die. One of them would be lost to her.
Her most beloved handmaidens each had only an even chance.
In many versions of the future, they would all be dead by the end of the night.
Except for Pythia.
Of course, that didn’t mean she couldn’t try to stack the deck by calling in a favor—though the old fool should have been there regardless!
The ancient nymph—turned vampire—looked at her companion, who was dressed in an impeccably-cut tuxedo. He wore a simple black mask, covering just enough to cover his identify from those who knew him. Of course, he was covering his scent too.
“Your appearance here is a welcome addition,” Pythia told him with a smirk.
“I was coerced,” Niall returned gruffly. “But I am not convinced. And I still do not like the outcome of things.”
Pythia chuckled. “One future outcome is better than the other,” Pythia conveyed telepathically.
Another of her many secret gifts.
Niall sighed. “I am not to certain,” he answered in the same way.
“The Viking is worthy,” Pythia returned. “Tell me—did Leonie tell you that he is her blood? The grandson of her ancestor, Ione?”
Niall’s surprise was clear despite his mask.
“I see that she did not. Perhaps that is because your heart has been cold toward your own kin, and she knew it would be no different with hers,” Pythia said, not hiding her judgment from the fairy in any way.
“That doesn’t change what he is,” he snarled into her head.
“No—the boy is my kind now,” Pythia returned with amusement. “And all the more worthy because of it.”
“That is a matter of opinion,” the fairy prince responded.
“Fact,” Pythia said firmly. “And here’s another. In the Norseman’s pocket currently resides the second authentic cluviel dor made from Ione’s undying plant. Tell me that the Fates are not on the side of Sookie and Eric, you old fool!”
Niall glared at her. “Why would the Fates be on the side of such a mixing?”
“Obviously, they are more progressive than you,” she responded, the amusement back in her tone.
Niall took a moment. “I am set in my ways.”
“And you came here only because I called in that favor?” she asked.
“You said Leonie would be here. I will try to protect her if I can.”
“Because you love her just enough to become involved.”
“Of course I have affection for my wife,” Niall said at a volume Pythia could barely hear, even in her head.
The ancient lady chuckled. “You have affection for your great-granddaughter too,” she said in just as low of a volume. “But you would never admit it now. ‘Tis a pity for all,” she challenged.
Niall sneered, but did not say anything else.
Pythia’s attention had turned to her vampire child’s presence in the room anyway. Roman had been a marvelous child—loyal, but also independent enough to remain interesting to her for many, many years. She’d wept many times as she’d witnessed—many times—the very real possibility of his true death.
Roman had been made to be a vampire, already political and ready to take “blood”—figuratively, of course—when necessary when he’d been a human. She’d offered him the choice of being turned, and he’d said yes in an unhesitating way that had stirred her.
Yes—there was much to be proud of where Roman was concerned. He strode onto the stage, and Pythia smiled behind her full-face mask. He was unafraid of his fate—not because he knew he’d survive, but simply because he was never one to be cowed by possibility—or even probability.
“Greetings!” his voice boomed.
Everyone in the room stilled. Rumors had been circulating for several nights. Pythia had made certain of that. The vampires in attendance already knew that Roman was the Guardian of the Authority; however, a big part of that Guardianship had been in protecting the identities of his Councilors. Now it was time to unveil them, and everyone in the room was waiting with eyes wide open—which was the equivalent of bated breath among vampires.
Russell impatiently waited as Roman pontificated on and on about the merits of the Authority. Meanwhile, his allies converged to Russell’s positon, subtly making him the center of their circle.
The ancient tingled with anticipation, knowing that all of his desires and wishes were about to come true. No more would he bow to the vampire power structure. No! He would decimate it! And then he’d do the same in Europe with Appius by his side. He glanced at his brother in arms—his brother in his maker’s blood.
In addition to that allegiance, Russell had always liked the vampire. A few hundred years younger than he, Appius knew how to show deference. However, Russell had also learned to respect his younger sibling. Indeed, Russell would not begrudge Appius Europe. God knows he didn’t want to deal with that antiquated place!
No—indeed—Russell enjoyed the “free world.”
A world he was about to make “new” again.
And he’d soon be free to rule as he saw fit!
Appius looked at Russell sideways and spoke at an impossibly low volume. “I see that Roman is still an impossibly long-winded arrogant prat.”
Russell laughed—loudly—drawing the attention of some of those around him as well as Roman himself. The Guardian gave him a little glare—the insolent bastard.
He’d soon get his.
Roman, like most other vampires, had an impeccable sense of timing. He knew the timetable of the Northman’s plan backwards and forwards, and he wasn’t one to deviate. Still, he knew that it was time for him to wrap up his spiel.
“In conclusion,” he started, his voice booming in the large space. Roman did—indeed—enjoy the sound of his own voice.
He smirked as he took off his mask and threw it to the floor.
He had a flair for drama, too.
“It is time that those who have led you into this new time—into this new millennium—made themselves known! They are to be celebrated—revered for their hard work! And they are to step down.”
There was a collective gasp in the room.
“The Authority was never meant to be a dictatorship,” Roman said with an odd mixture of humility and triumph. “The vampires who took on the role of Councilors did so to be servants to us all. And I have only ever been a tie-breaker among them. They framed main-streaming. They put into place the rules that govern us all—that keep us safe from the humans and from those of our own kind who would take too much,” he added, glancing at Russell as he did. “But now it is time to move onward, and the current Councilors are ready to step down—to share the power with their brethren. I will stay on as Guardian; however, I will continue to have only one vote. It is time that we adopt more of a,” he paused, “Democracy. Thus, any vampire of a certain number of years may be nominated for a position on the Authority. The current Councilors will judge worthiness based upon standards that have been carefully set—based upon age, position, and power. Any vampire meeting these provisions is eligible for election by the entire population of kings and queens.”
Again, there was a gasp in the room.
“I would now like to introduce you to you current Councilors,” Roman continued. “Queen Agnes of California and King Edwin of Oregon and Washington!” his voice boomed.
Agnes and Edwin took the stage, took off their masks, turned to the audience, and bowed.
“Kibwe, King of Illinois,” Roman introduced—before the king took his place next to the other monarchs, taking off his elaborate mask as he did.
The Guardian continued by introducing Rosalyn Harris, successful businesswoman of Georgia; Dieter Braun, former king of Germany and brother to the Queen of New York; and Peter Threadgill, King of Arkansas. All of them took the stage and took off their masks.
Russell was chomping at the bit as he waited for the final two members to be announced.
Roman didn’t make him wait long.
“Isaiah, King of Kentucky,” he proclaimed as the king took the stage. “And, finally,” Roman said, “Queen Lena of Quebec.”
As the last Authority Council member took the stage, the rest of the room’s occupants stilled and quieted as they took in the vampires who had always remained shrouded in mystery.
Russell felt his fangs come down, though he kept his mouth shut to conceal them. Only Appius had heard them click downward. He smirked at his brother. “Patience,” he said quietly.
After a few more moments, the applause began, and the Councilors bowed deeply as most of the vampires in the room offered their respect. Of course, many were clapping only for show.
“My maker, Pythia—the Ancient Pythoness herself—will be coming soon to honor this group and to offer her support of our plans for the future! As I speak, ballot boxes for the ‘New Authority’ are being placed in the four corners of the room! In the meantime—as a treat,” Roman called out, “Bubba has agreed to sing a song in honor of the old regime being replaced peacefully by the new!”
“Patience,” Duncan whispered to Eric.
The magister had come to flank his brother—his leader—as soon as Roman had begun speaking. Klymene was on Eric’s other side, and Pam had moved behind Duncan.
Their blood thrummed with the power of their lineage; between the four, the strength of bonds of blood and trust and friendship had existed for ages.
However, none of this sated the Viking until the hand of his bonded grasped his arm. She said nothing, but their bond spoke all.
I love you.
Eric took his mate’s hand and held it as tightly as he dared. He could sense that Leonie—also of his blood—was nearby, and every part of his body was taut. Ready.
Roman’s announcement of the Ancient Pythoness’s upcoming arrival had been the first signal. The ballot boxes’ arrival afforded the presence of Maggie, Brady, Tray, and Henry in the room as they brought in the boxes as if they were dutiful hotel employees.
Eric heard Sookie take a breath and hold it. He counted.
Ten. Nine. Eight.
He saw that all of his allies were ready. Bubba took the stage, taking the attention of most of the vampires in the room. Brady was near the tapestry that concealed his sword; he was ready to get it and throw it to Eric.
Seven. Six. Five.
Eric took out the pin that would allow all others on his side to see him as an ally.
He zeroed in on Russell, who was completely focused on Roman.
The first note of “Heartbreak Hotel” sounded in the room.
He prayed to gods he barely remembered to protect one life—his bonded’s life.
He ripped off his mask right as he caught his sword.