FRIDAY, MARCH 11, 2011
APPROXIMATELY THREE MONTHS LATER
I admired my room at the Pyramid of Gizeh hotel; however, I “admired” my fire-proof, bomb-proof coffin even more. The luxurious, vampire-friendly hotel—obviously—had not been razed to the ground. But—as always—Sookie’s warnings remained a cautionary tale in my mind. In fact, my travel coffin was virtually indestructible, and I’d invested heavily in the technology for such vessels.
More money for me.
Of course, I had slept in my travel coffin during all of my days in Rhodes.
Just in case.
Sophie-Anne and Andre had similar coffins. They’d been a Christmas gift from me several years before.
Just in case.
And I was glad to be leaving the next night—the night before the ball that would mark the official end of the summit.
Just in case.
The Fellowship was much weaker than they’d once been, but that didn’t mean I would fail in my vigilance.
Luckily, Sophie-Anne didn’t mind if I left Rhodes after my work was finished. And, of course, I had somewhere better to be on Sunday night. I had a friend to visit and flowers to deliver.
I closed my eyes and spent a moment thinking about Sookie and Adele, before I reviewed my schedule for the night.
First up was a short meeting to finalize the trade agreements I’d negotiated. Boring, but easy—since the previous meetings that week had gone so smoothly.
Ironically enough, one of my functions the night before had been to perform the marriage ceremony of Freyda of Oklahoma and Jade Flower of Arkansas. I had been—understandably—anxious for Freyda to be “out of commission” for a century. And, since the “three queens”—as Sophie-Anne, Freyda, and Jade had become known—were close allies now, I’d been tasked to perform the ceremony.
The wedding had taken fifteen minutes, during which time I’d fantasized about different ways to kill Quinn.
Of course, he’d never had reason to bother Sookie this time around, but his presence still irked me. Pam would have said that he deserved to die just for his ridiculous Genie pants.
And she would have been right.
That unpleasantness aside, the night had been a good one. Freyda barely looked at me as she and Jade “tied the knot.” Apparently, there was some true affection between the queens.
Good for them. Better for me.
After my meeting, my last duty at the summit would be to attend a rather inconsequential trial concerning the monarchs of Alaska and Minnesota. After that, I planned to socialize with Alastair, who was at the summit peddling “our” wares—not that many people knew they were “ours.”
I was looking forward to talking with him, however, and hoped he might have news about Appius and Alexei.
THREE HOURS LATER
After my obligations to Louisiana were fulfilled, I returned to my room to put away my copies of the trade agreements and change into jeans and a T-shirt in anticipation of my meeting with Alastair.
I felt better as soon as I was out of my “monkey suit,” and I left my room five minutes before I was to meet Alastair in his.
“Eric Northman,” a voice said from behind me as I approached the elevator bank.
I’d not heard the voice for centuries.
“Marion,” I responded even as I turned and sank to my knees before her.
Alastair’s maker was dressed all in black, except for an emerald green brooch on her bodice. Alastair hadn’t told me she would be present at the summit. In fact, I wondered if he knew that she was there.
“Your audience is requested,” she said in a low voice only I would hear.
I nodded immediately. “Anything you wish is something I will grant,” I said sincerely to the vampire who had once convinced me that I was worth a damn—the vampire who had helped me put myself together again after Rome.
Marion smiled at me and lifted my face so that my eyes were meeting hers. “Go to suite 1041, Eric Northman. And do not worry about missing your appointment with my child. I will be happy to visit with him in your stead this night.”
I nodded and immediately went to the elevator. I didn’t question Marion.
For I respected her a hundred times more than my own maker.
A woman in a sheer red gown reminiscent of a toga admitted me to suite 1041. I recognized the woman immediately, though I didn’t know her face or name. Any vampire over one hundred years old would have recognized her, however; she was one of the handmaidens of the Ancient Pythoness.
I was already bowing by the time I was in the ancient lady’s presence.
The half dozen handmaidens surrounding the seer disappeared silently and immediately from the main room of the suite.
I knelt before the Ancient Pythoness—because I wanted to.
Because I felt that she deserved it.
The elder vampiress chuckled gleefully. “You kneel, Eric of the North? That is a funny thing. You—who have cheated death. Cheated weather. Cheated time itself.”
I looked up at her, knowing that lying to her would be useless. “I had help cheating.”
She laughed. “Oh—I know. Sookie Stackhouse. It has been interesting these past years as I’ve monitored another ‘seer’ at work.”
“Sookie is not that,” I said firmly, praying that the ancient creature before me didn’t see the young woman as a threat.
“No,” the vampiress agreed. “She is not.” She shook her head. “You know—I watched this hotel fall to the ground. Years ago! I saw your queen die. I witnessed Felipe de Castro taking over Louisiana. A saw you prostituted to Oklahoma. I witnessed Sookie losing everything in her life before her great-grandfather gave away her soul too. I saw Sookie die.”
“Die?” my voice croaked.
“Yes,” she nodded gravely. “Sookie did die. But your love was enough to yank her back from the very jaws of death. It was enough to send her to the place—the time—where she could be safe and happy. That was your wish—you know.”
“I didn’t know what my wish could have been. I had no way of knowing.”
The Ancient Pythoness nodded to me in deference. It was fucking surreal!
“Has she been happy–this time?” I found myself asking.
The vampiress smiled knowingly. “In a manner of speaking. Mostly—she has been waiting.”
“Waiting?” I asked.
“Hmm,” she sounded noncommittally. “You know—a fairy cluviel dor is activated by love,” she said knowingly. “In my long time, I have seen the effects of several of them. However, neither the wishes nor the cluviel dors themselves are equal. By the way, the object you wished upon wasn’t particularly noteworthy. In fact, it was substandard as far as cluviel dors go. But the intensity of your love for Sookie Stackhouse transformed that weak fairy charm into a rebel of time and space.”
“I do not love her,” I said.
She laughed. “You’ve not allowed yourself to know her in this life—this time.”
“Hasn’t that been better for her?” I challenged.
“My involvement in her other life brought too much danger to her,” I said, shaking my head. “It would have been selfish to do that to her again.”
“When did you become unselfish?” she asked with amusement.
“I’m not. He was. But she makes me want to be a . . . .” My voice trailed off with my begun confession.
“You worry about your maker—do you not?” the elder vampiress asked me.
I tensed. “Appius was ultimately responsible for Sookie and her Eric’s end before,” I said. “I’ve contemplated every aspect of the past life Sookie told me about. Without Appius entering the picture, Sookie and the other me would have continued to progress in their relationship. Because of Appius, they stalled, and Sookie broke the blood bond.”
“Appius did not force her to do that,” the vampiress said with a slight glint in her clouded eyes.
The sight was—off-putting.
“No. Even before Appius arrived, Sookie had considered breaking the bond because she was scared that it was forcing her to feel certain things—to behave in certain ways,” I owned. “But she said that seeing me around Appius—knowing that I could, indeed, be controlled by him—scared her. Once he was dead, she recognized that I was happy that my bond with him was gone—happy to be free.”
“Yes—I can see why that would have ultimately solidified her choice to allow the witch to break your bond,” the Ancient Pythoness commented.
“Her bond with the other me,” I corrected. “Sookie told me that she might have broken it regardless. However, even if she had done so, the other me would have likely continued bothering Sookie until there was a new bond between them.”
The vampiress chuckled. “Unrelenting.”
I shook my head. “No stubborn. Clearly that me wanted Sookie with all that he was. He sacrificed for her—more than once. But, when Appius sold him, his hands became all but tied.”
“You worry that Appius would sell you even now—in this life,” the lady said knowingly.
I shrugged. “Oh course he would. Even if the notion doesn’t occur to him for another hundred years, it will eventually. I am in a trap. Eventually, Alexei will do something that will call for extreme punishment—as he did in Sookie’s other life. It seems to me that Appius was keen to suggest bartering my services in exchange for Alexei. Freyda took him up on his offer because she saw a use for me that outweighed her desire to punish the whelp.”
“And your maker did not hesitate to sell one hundred years of your existence,” she commented.
“I’m sure he didn’t. I’m sure he won’t.
“One might think that killing Alexei would solve your problems,” she observed.
I scoffed. “The last time Appius faced disappointment regarding the loss of a child, things did not go well for me,” I said gravely.
“That is why you have released your second child,” she noted.
“Yes. I will not be made to compel either of my children at my maker’s bidding. And I will not incorporate people into my life whom he could use against me.”
“People like Sookie Stackhouse. But she is in your life. What of the white daisies?”
I frowned. “They are just a little thing—to let her know that I am still there. That I still care.”
“Just as the letters to her Gran were.” She leaned forward. “You asked about Sookie in those letters? You asked about her—hoping that she would hear that you still . . . .”
“Gave a damn. Yes,” I nodded. “But I ought not to have done even that.”
“You say you saw her other life. Has she not already gone through enough torment?” I challenged. “It seems that, as long as Appius in is my life, Sookie is far better off out of it. I couldn’t protect her from him.”
“Which is why you want your maker dead,” the ancient vampiress stated knowingly.
Though it was physically painful to me, I nodded slightly in confirmation, but I couldn’t speak my wish aloud. Apparently, my long-ago command from Appius prevented me even that much freedom.
“You have already assured your own freedom, Viking,” the Ancient Pythoness said after a few moments of silence had passed between us. “A chain is in motion even now.”
“A chain?” I asked.
“A chain of events,” she clarified. “An ancient dislike—that had been held in check. Until now.”
I frowned, not understand her meaning.
“Marion,” she voiced. “She has wanted to end your maker for years, but he is strong, and the situation had not been favorable for an attempt.”
“Why does she want Appius finally dead?” I asked.
“She is fond of you, so his treatment of you in Rome would have been enough.”
I cringed at the memory.
“However, her hatred of him goes well beyond that,” the Ancient Pythoness conveyed. “You see—before Alastair—she had another child, Gregor. This was long before you came to be. Appius killed Gregor for a relatively minor thing. Marion could do nothing, for her child had been—strictly speaking—in the wrong.”
“What did the child do?” I asked.
“Gregor was supposed to be guarding the nest that both Appius and Marion were living in at the time. The child failed to recognize a threat; however, once Gregor realized his error, he fought bravely to protect the nest, and none of his nest-mates were killed. As the eldest member of the nest, Appius was given the right to punish Gregor, and—despite the child’s ultimate bravery—Appius killed him. However, it wasn’t truly for Gregor’s error that Appius killed him. You see, Appius wanted Gregor to be his lover, but Gregor refused him, though he was not adverse to male lovers. Gregor was not shy in his disdain for your maker,” she added significantly.
I found myself sinking down a little, even though I was still on my knees. “His rejection shamed Appius,” I observed grimly.
The Ancient Pythoness nodded. “Yes. And he died for it. Marion left the nest not long after that, but her hatred has not left her. Your recent actions on behalf of Alastair have only added to her motivation. Plus, you inadvertently gave her opportunity several years ago when you asked Alastair to aid you regarding Appius and Alexei. Because of that, Alastair is well-liked and well-trusted by your maker. And Appius is too distracted with Alexei to focus on what he should.”
“On who Alastair’s maker is,” I commented.
“I cannot be involved. I shouldn’t even know anything about her plans,” I whispered.
“I’ve told you nothing,” the Ancient Pythoness smirked, her glossy eyes seeming to almost twinkle. “I implied. You inferred. You know of no specific plot against your maker. And you cannot tell about that which you do not know.”
“True,” I agreed.
“Stand, Eric the North Man,” she said.
I rose as commanded.
I looked down at the floor and then into the eyes of the seer before me. There was but one thing to say.
“Thank you. I owe you. I owe her. I will serve at any time and in any way you request.” I bowed. “Please relay my thanks and obligation to Marion as well.”
The elder vampiress nodded to me. “I will pass along your message, Viking.”
Again there was silence, and I wondered if I had been dismissed.
Finally, she spoke. “You long for Sookie Stackhouse, even though you were not the one to save her.”
Again, I felt no need to lie. “I do long for her—as a desert longs for the rain.”
“Will you go to her when,” she paused, “all impediments are gone?”
“I do not know. I want to. But her other life. She was hurt to the point of destroying herself. I fear for her well-being if I go to her,” I answered honestly. “I find myself,” I paused, “unsure about what would be best—for her.”
“I will tell you a secret, Viking,” the seer whispered, her eyes glazing over as if she were being transported.
“Sookie Stackhouse longs for you too. Even now, she focuses most of her energy on ensuring that those around her live on in peace. She keeps nothing for herself,” the ancient vampiress shared, her voice almost chant-like.
“I want her,” I found myself saying—despite myself. “More than anything. Even though I am not her Eric.”
“Do you fear that? Fear that you will not live up to him?” she probed.
“You have already lived up to him,” she said firmly. “Most of your actions for the last several years have been seeded in what she told you.” She paused for a moment. “Your actions have grown from a pull that would draw you two together in any place—in any time. Sookie Stackhouse loves you. YOU,” she emphasized as if there were no question about it.
“I love her as well,” I admitted.
“Of course you do,” she said matter-of-factly. “Few love stories have thrilled me like yours.”
I bowed before her, taking to my knees again like a child. “Tell me—please,” I begged. “How does the story turn out?”
“I have seen it twice now,” she said her eyes taking on a faraway look again. “The first time, it was a tragedy.”
“And this time?” I asked.
“Have you not been doing all that you could to change the nature of the story?” she asked.
“Her too,” she remarked.
“Have we done enough?” I pushed.
She seemed to come back to herself. “Wouldn’t telling you ruin the fun of your finding out on your own?” she smirked.
“No,” I responded quickly.
“I suppose it wouldn’t,” she chuckled before becoming serious again. “All lives contain tragedy and pain, Man of the North. These things are inevitable. However, the story I see for you and Sookie Stackhouse in this life—in this time—is a beautiful one.”
I felt a tear slipping down my cheek.
I stood again.
“Will she hate me for the time it has taken to do what was needed to make sure she stays safe?”
She chuckled. “Time you gave her?” She shook her head. “It seems that even a thousand-year-old man is clueless when it comes to the inner-workings within a woman’s heart. You worry that she will hate you for leaving her alone for so long. Is it not just as possible that she will love you all the more for denying your own desires until you were certain she would be safe?”
Before I could respond, the Ancient Pythoness’s handmaidens entered the room as if out of thin air, and I was escorted out.
“Not much longer. Time is on your side now, Viking,” the seer whispered right before the door shut behind me.
A/N: Well? What do you think? I hope that you enjoyed the chapter.
Thanks so much for all the comments you all have been giving for this story!
Thanks as always to Seph and Kleannhouse. In fact, I have a new banner from Seph to show you today. It’s of Karin! And I thought I’d share some of the others she’s done again too.