- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
- All the Possibilities
- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
"IT WAS A BOMB," TODD DONATI SAID. "A QUICK, crude bomb. The police will be telling me more, I hope, after they've finished their examination." The security chief was sitting in the queen's suite. I had finally gotten to stow the blue suitcase by one of her couches, and, boy, was I glad to be rid of it. Sophie-Anne hadn't bothered to thank me for its return, but I hadn't really expected her to, I guess. When you had underlings, you sent them on errands and you didn't have to thank them. That's why they were underlings. For that matter, I wasn't sure the stupid thing was even hers.
My purse made a noise, and I realized I'd stuck the queen's pager in there. Oh, surely not!
"Get down here," read the message. "Trial is now."
At the same moment, the room phone rang. I picked it up, trying to catch my breath.
"Babe," said Quinn. "I'm sorry. In case you hadn't heard, the council has decided that the queen will have to go on trial, right now, and you gotta hustle down here. I'm sorry," he said again, "I'm in charge of setting up. I gotta work. Maybe this won't take long."
"Okay," I said weakly, and he hung up.
So much for my glamorous evening with my new guy.
But, dammit, I wasn't going to change into anything less festive. Everyone else would have party clothes on, and even if my role in the evening had altered, I deserved to look pretty, too. I rode down on the elevator with one of the hotel employees, who couldn't tell if I was a vampire or not. I made him very nervous. It always tickles me when people can't tell. To me, vampires sort of glow, just a bit.
Andre was waiting for me when I got off the elevator. He was as flustered as I'd ever seen him; I could tell because his fingers were clenching and unclenching, and his lip was bloody where he'd bitten it, though it healed as I watched. Before last night, Andre had just made me nervous. Now I loathed him. But it was evident I had to put personal issues aside until another time.
"How could this happen?" he asked. "Sookie, you need to learn everything you can about this. We have more enemies than we knew."
"I thought there wouldn't be a trial after Jennifer got killed. Since she was the queen's chief accuser - "
"That's what we all thought. Or, if there was a trial, it would be an empty form, staged simply so the charges could be dismissed. But we got down here tonight and they were waiting for us. They've put off the start of the ball to do this. Take my arm," he said, and I was so taken by surprise that I slid my arm through his.
"Smile," he said. "Look confident."
And we walked into the convention hall with bold faces - me and my good buddy Andre.
It was lucky I'd had plenty of practice in insincere smiling, because this was like the marathon of Saving Face. All the vampires and their human entourages parted way for us. Some of them were smiling, too, though not pleasantly, and some looked concerned, and some just looked mildly anticipatory, as if they were about to watch a movie that had gotten good buzz.
And the rush of thoughts engulfed me. I smiled and walked on automatic while I listened in. Pretty...Sophie-Anne'll get what's coming to her...maybe I can call her lawyer, see if she's open to an approach from our king...nice boobs...my man needs a telepath...hear she's fucking Quinn...hear she's fucking the queen and Baby Boy Andre...found her at a bar...Sophie-Anne's washed up, serves her right...hear she's fucking Cataliades...stupid trial, where's the band?...hope they have some food at the dance, people food...
And on and on. Some of it pertaining to me, the queen, and/or Andre, some of it the simple thoughts of people who are tired of waiting and want to get the party started.
We strolled the gauntlet until it terminated in the room where the wedding had been held. The crowd in this room was almost 100 percent vampire. A notable absence: human servers, and any other human hotel staff. The only ones circulating with drinks trays were vampires. Things were going to happen in this room that weren't for human consumption. If it was possible for me to feel more anxious, I did.
I could see Quinn had been busy. The low platform had been rearranged. The giant ankh had been put away, and two lecterns had been added. On the spot where Mississippi and his loved one had taken their vows, about midway between the two lecterns, there sat a thronelike chair. In it was an ancient woman with wild white hair. I had never seen a vampire who had been turned when she was so old, and though I'd sworn I wasn't going to speak to him, I said as much to Andre.
"That is the Ancient Pythoness," he said absently. He was scanning the crowd, trying to find Sophie-Anne, I supposed. I spotted Johan Glassport, who was going to get his moment in the limelight after all, and the rest of the Louisiana contingent was with the murderous lawyer - all except the queen and Eric and Pam, whom I'd glimpsed standing near the stage.
Andre and I took our seats at the right front. On the left front was a clump of vampires who were no fans of ours. Chief among them was Henrik Feith. Henrik had transformed himself from a panicky scaredy-cat to a ball of wrath. He glowered at us. He did everything but throw spitballs.
"What crawled up his ass and died?" muttered Cleo Babbitt, dropping into the seat to my right. "The queen offers to take him under her wing when he's alone and defenseless, and this is the thanks she gets?" Cleo was wearing a traditional tuxedo, and she looked pretty darn good in it. The severity of it suited her. Her boy toy looked much more feminine than she did. I wondered at his inclusion in the crowd, which was all supe and overwhelmingly vampire. Diantha leaned forward from the row behind us to tap me on the shoulder. She was wearing a red bustier with black ruffles and a black taffeta skirt, also ruffled. Her bustier didn't have much bust to fill it. She was clutching a handheld computer game. "Goodtoseeya," she said, and I made the effort of smiling at her. She returned her attention to the computer game.
"What will happen to us if Sophie-Anne is found guilty?" Cleo asked, and we all fell silent.
What would happen to us if Sophie-Anne were convicted? With Louisiana in a weakened position, with the scandal surrounding Peter's death, we were all at risk.
I don't know why I hadn't thought this through, but I hadn't.
In a moment, I understood that I hadn't even thought about worrying because I'd grown up a free United States human citizen; I wasn't used to worrying about my fate being in question. Bill had joined the little group surrounding the queen, and as I peered across the room at them, he knelt, along with Eric and Pam. Andre leaped up from his seat to my left, and in one of his lightning moves he crossed the room to kneel with them. The queen stood before them like a Roman goddess accepting tribute. Cleo followed my gaze, and her shoulder twitched. Cleo wasn't going to go do any kneeling.
"Who's on the council?" I asked the dark-haired vamp, and she nodded to the group of five vampires seated right before the low stage, facing the Ancient Pythoness.
"The King of Kentucky, the Queen of Iowa, the King of Wisconsin, the King of Missouri, the Queen of Alabama," she said, pointing to them in order. The only one I'd met was Kentucky, though I recognized the sultry Alabama from her conversation with Sophie-Anne.
The lawyer for the other side joined Johan Glassport on the stage. Something about the Arkansans' lawyer reminded me of Mr. Cataliades, and when he nodded in our direction, I saw Mr. Cataliades nod back.
"They related?" I asked Cleo.
"Brothers-in-law," Cleo said, leaving me to imagine what a female demon would look like. Surely they didn't all look like Diantha.
Quinn leaped up on the stage. He was wearing a gray suit, white shirt, and tie, and he carried a long staff covered with carvings. He beckoned to Isaiah, King of Kentucky, who floated onto the stage. With a flourish, Quinn handed the staff to Kentucky, who was dressed much more stylishly than he had been earlier. The vampire thudded the staff against the floor, and all conversation ceased. Quinn retreated to the back of the stage.
"I am the elected master-at-arms of this judicial session," Kentucky announced in a voice that carried easily to the corners of the room. He held the staff up so it could not be ignored. "Following the traditions of the vampire race, I call you all to witness the trial of Sophie-Anne Leclerq, Queen of Louisiana, on the charge that she murdered her signed and sealed spouse, Peter Threadgill, King of Arkansas."
It sounded very solemn, in Kentucky's deep, drawling voice.
"I call the lawyers for the two parties to be ready to present their cases."
"I am ready," said the part-demon lawyer. "I am Simon Maimonides, and I represent the bereaved state of Arkansas."
"I am ready," said our murderous lawyer, reading from a pamphlet. "I am Johan Glassport, and I represent the bereaved widow, Sophie-Anne Leclerq, falsely charged with the murder of her signed and sealed spouse."
"Ancient Pythoness, are you ready to hear the case?" Kentucky asked, and the crone turned her head toward him.
"Is she blind?" I whispered.
Cleo nodded. "From birth," she said.
"How come she's the judge?" I asked. But the glares of the vampires around us reminded me that their hearing hardly made whispering worthwhile, and it was only polite to shut up.
"Yes," said the Ancient Pythoness. "I am ready to hear the case." She had a very heavy accent that I couldn't begin to identify. There was a stirring of anticipation in the crowd.
Okay. Let the games begin.
Bill, Eric, and Pam went to stand against the wall, while Andre sat by me.
King Isaiah did a little staff-pounding again. "Let the accused be brought forth," he said with no small amount of drama.
Sophie-Anne, looking very delicate, walked up to the stage, escorted by two guards. Like the rest of us, she'd gotten ready for the ball, and she was wearing purple. I wondered if the royal color had been a coincidence. Probably not. I had a feeling Sophie-Anne arranged her own coincidences.
The dress was high-collared and long-sleeved, and it actually had a train.
"She is beautiful," said Andre, his voice full of reverence.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I had more on my mind than admiring the queen. The guards were the two Britlingens, probably pressed into service by Isaiah, and they had packed some dress armor in their interdimensional trunks. It was black, too, but it gleamed dully, like slowly moving dark water. It was just as figure-hugging as the first set of armor. Clovache and Batanya lifted Sophie-Anne onto the low platform and then retreated a bit. This way, they were close to both the prisoner and their employer, so it worked out great, I suppose, from their point of view.
"Henrik Feith, state your case," Isaiah said with no further ado.
Henrik's case was long and ardent and full of accusations. Boiled down, he testified that Sophie-Anne had married his king, signed all the usual contracts, and then immediately began maneuvering Peter into his fatal fight, despite the king's angelic temperament and his adoration of his new queen. It sounded like Henrik was talking about Kevin and Britney, rather than two ancient and crafty vampires.
Blah blah blah. Henrik's lawyer let him go on and on, and Johan did not object to any of Henrik's highly colored statements. Johan thought (I checked) that Henrik would lose sympathy by being so fervent and immoderate - and boring - and he was quite right, if the slight movements and shifts in body language in the crowd were anything to go by.
"And now," Henrik concluded, faint pink tears running down his face, "there are only a handful of us left in the whole state. She, who killed my king and his lieutenant Jennifer, she has offered me a place with her. And I was almost weak enough to accept, for fear of being rogue. But she is a liar and she will kill me, too."
"Someone told him that," I murmured.
"What?" Andre's mouth was right by my ear. Keeping a conversation private in a group of vampires is not an easy thing.
I held up a hand to request his silence. No, I wasn't listening to Henrik's brain but to Henrik's lawyer's, who didn't have as much demon blood as Cataliades. Without realizing I was doing it, I was leaning forward in my seat and craning toward the stage to hear better. Hear with my head, that is.
Someone had told Henrik Feith that the queen planned to kill him. He had been willing to let the lawsuit slide, since Jennifer Cater's murder had taken out the chief complainant. He had never rated high enough in the ranks to take up the mantle of leadership; he didn't have the wit or the desire. He would rather go into the service of the queen. But if she really meant to kill him...he would try to kill her first by the only means he might survive, and that was through the law.
"She doesn't want to kill you," I called, hardly knowing what I was doing.
I wasn't even aware I'd gotten to my feet until I felt the eyes of everyone in the audience on me. Henrik Feith was staring at me, his face stunned, his mouth still open. "Tell us who told you that, and we'll know who killed Jennifer Cater, because - "
"Woman," said a stentorian voice, and I was drowned out and shut up very effectively. "Be silent. Who are you and what right do you have to intrude on these solemn proceedings?" The Pythoness was surprisingly forceful for someone as frail as she appeared. She was leaning forward on her throne, glaring in my direction with her blind eyes.
Okay, standing in a roomful of vampires and interrupting their ritual was a pretty good way to get bloodstains all over my beautiful new dress.
"I don't have any right in the world, Your Majesty," I said, and from a few yards to my left, I heard Pam snicker. "But I know the truth."
"Oh, then I have no role in these proceedings, do I?" croaked the Ancient Pythoness in her heavily accented English. "Why should I have come forth from my cave to give judgment?"
"I may hear the truth, but I don't have the juice to get justice done," I said honestly.
Pam snickered again. I just knew it was her.
Eric had been standing to the side of the room with Pam and Bill, but now he moved forward. I could feel his presence, cold and steady, very near to me. He gave me some courage. I don't know how. I felt it, though, felt a rising strength where there had been only my shaking knees. A shocking suspicion hit me with the force of a Mack truck. Eric had given me enough blood now that I qualified, hemoglobin-wise, as being close to a vampire; and my strange gift had slopped over into fatal territory. I wasn't reading Henrik's lawyer's mind. I was reading Henrik's.
"Then come tell me what I must do," said the Ancient Pythoness with a sarcasm so sharp it could have sliced a meat loaf.
I needed a week or two to get over the shock of my terrible suspicion, and I had a renewed conviction that I really ought to kill Andre, and maybe Eric, too, even if a corner of my heart would weep for the loss.
I had all of twenty seconds to process this.
Cleo gave me a sharp pinch. "Cow," she said furiously. "You will ruin everything." I edged left out of the row, stepping over Gervaise as I did so. I ignored his glare and Cleo's pinch. The two were fleas compared to the other powers that might want a piece of me first. And Eric stepped up behind me. My back was covered.
As I moved closer to the platform, it was hard to tell what Sophie-Anne was thinking of this new turn in her unexpected trial. I concentrated on Henrik and his lawyer.
"Henrik thinks that the queen decided to have him killed. He was told that, so he would testify against her in self-defense," I said.
Now I was behind the judges' chairs on the floor, with Eric by my side.
"The queen didn't decide to have me killed?" Henrik said, looking hopeful, confused, and betrayed all at the same time. That was a tall order for a vampire, since facial expressions are not their foremost means of communication.
"No, she didn't. She was sincere in offering you a place." I kept my eyes fixed on his, trying to drill my sincerity into his frightened brain. I'd moved almost squarely in front of him now.
"You're probably lying, too. You're in her pay, after all."
"Perhaps I might have a word?" the Ancient Pythoness said, with acid sarcasm.
Oops. There was a silence that was just chilling.
"Are you a seer?" she asked, speaking very slowly so that I could understand her.
"No, ma'am, I'm a telepath." This close, the Ancient Pythoness looked even older, which I wouldn't have thought possible.
"You can read minds? Vampire minds?"
"No, ma'am, those are the only ones I can't read," I said very firmly. "I pieced all this together from the lawyer's thoughts."
Mr. Maimonides was not happy about that.
"All this was known to you?" the Ancient P. asked the lawyer.
"Yes," he said. "I did know that Mr. Feith felt he was threatened with death."
"And you knew the queen had offered to accept him into her service?"
"Yes, he told me she said so." That was said in so doubtful a tone that you didn't have to be an A.P. to read between the lines.
"And you did not believe the word of a vampire queen?"
Okay, that was a stumper for Maimonides. "I felt it my duty to protect my client, Ancient Pythoness." He struck just the right note of humble dignity.
"Hmmm," said the A.P., sounding as skeptical as I felt. "Sophie-Anne Leclerq, it is your turn to present your side of the story. Will you proceed?"
Sophie-Anne said, "What Sookie has said is true. I offered Henrik a place with me and protection. When we get to call witnesses, Ancient One, you will hear that Sookie is my witness and was there during the final fight between Peter's people and mine. Though I knew that Peter married me with a secret agenda, I didn't lift a hand against him until his people attacked on the night of our celebratory feast. Due to many circumstances, he didn't get to pick his best moment to go after me, and as a result, his people died and most of mine lived. He actually began the attack when there were others there not of our blood." Sophie-Anne managed to look shocked and saddened. "It has taken me all these months to be sure the accounts were hushed."
I thought I'd gotten most of the humans and Weres out before the slaughter started, but apparently there'd been some around.
Probably they weren't "around" anymore.
"In the time since that night, you have suffered many other losses," the Ancient Pythoness observed. This sounded quite sympathetic.
I began to sense that the deck had been stacked in Sophie-Anne's favor. Was it significant that Kentucky, who'd been courting Sophie-Anne, was the council member in charge of the proceedings?
"As you say, I've had many losses - both in terms of my people and in terms of my income," Sophie-Anne agreed. "This is why I need my inheritance from my husband, to which I'm entitled as part of our marriage covenant. He thought he would inherit the rich kingdom of Louisiana. Now I will be glad if I can get the poor one of Arkansas."
There was a long silence.
"Shall I call our witness?" Johan Glassport said. He sounded very hesitant and uncertain, for a lawyer. But in this courtroom, it wasn't hard to understand why. "She's already right here, and she was witness to Peter's death." He held out his hand to me, and I had to mount the platform. Sophie-Anne looked relaxed, but Henrik Feith, a few inches to my left, was gripping the arms of his chair.
Another silence. The wild white hair of the ancient vampire hung forward to hide her face as she stared at her own lap. Then she looked up, and her sightless eyes went unerringly to Sophie-Anne. "Arkansas is yours by law, and now yours by right. I declare you innocent of conspiring to murder your husband," the Ancient Pythoness said, almost casually.
Well...yippee. I was close enough to see that Sophie-Anne's eyes widened with relief and surprise, and Johan Glassport gave a private little grin to his lectern. Simon Maimonides looked down at the five judges to see how they'd take the A.P.'s pronouncement, and when none of them voiced a word of protest, the lawyer shrugged.
"Now, Henrik," croaked the Ancient Pythoness, "your safety is assured. Who has told you lies?"
Henrik hardly looked assured. He looked scared witless. He rose to his feet to stand by me.
Henrik was smarter than we were. There was a flash through the air.
The next time an expression crossed his face, it was utter horror. He looked down, and we all followed his eyes. There was a thin wooden shaft protruding from his chest, and as soon as his eyes identified it, Henrik's hand rose to touch it, and he swayed. A human crowd would have erupted in chaos, but the vampires threw themselves on the floor in near silence. The only person who shrieked was the blind Ancient Pythoness, who demanded to know what had happened and why everyone was so tense. The two Britlingens leaped across the stage to Kentucky and stood in front of him, their weapons in their hands and ready. Andre literally flew out of his seat in the audience to land in front of Sophie-Anne. And Quinn leaped across the stage to knock me down, and he took the second arrow, the insurance arrow, that was meant for Henrik. It was quite unnecessary. Henrik was dead when he hit the floor.
- The Loners
- The Saints
- Tome of the Undergates
- Black Halo
- The Skybound Sea
- If You Stay
- If You Leave
- Until We Burn
- Before We Fall
- Every Last Kiss
- Suspiciously Obedient
- Random Acts of Crazy
- Random Acts of Trust
- Her First Billionaire
- Her Second Billionaire
- Her Two Billionaires
- Her Two Billionaires and a Baby
- His Majesty's Dragon
- Throne of Jade
- Black Powder War
- Victory of Eagles
- Tongues of Serpents
- Empire of Ivory
- Crucible of Gold