All Together Dead

Chapter 13


"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.

"I expect I'll get fired over it, especially after the murders," the security chief said. His voice was calm, but his thoughts were bitter. He needed the health insurance.

Andre gave the security chief one of his long, blue gazes. "And how did the can come to be on the queen's floor, in that area?" Andre couldn't have cared less about Todd Donati's job situation. Donati glared back, but it was a weary kind of glare.

"Why on earth would you be fired, just because someone was able to bring a bomb in and plant it? Maybe because you are in charge of the safety of everyone in the hotel?" Gervaise asked, definitely on the cruel side. I didn't know Gervaise very well, and I was beginning to feel that was just fine with me. Cleo slapped him on the arm hard enough to make Gervaise wince.

Donati said, "That's it in a nutshell. Obviously someone brought that bomb up and put it on the potted plant by the elevator door. It might have been meant for the queen, since it was closest to her door. Almost equally, it might have been meant for anyone else on the floor, or it might have been planted at random. So I think the bomb and the murder of the Arkansas vampires are two different cases. In our questioning, we're finding Jennifer Cater didn't have a lot of friends. Your queen isn't the only one with a grudge against her, though your queen's is the most serious. Possibly Jennifer planted the bomb, or arranged to have someone else do it, before she was murdered." I saw Henrik Feith sitting in a corner of the suite, his beard quivering with the shaking of his head. I tried to picture the one remaining member of the Arkansas contingent creeping around with a bomb, and I just couldn't feature it. The small vampire seemed convinced that he was in a nest of vipers. I was sure he was regretting his acceptance of the queen's protection, because right now that was looking like it wasn't a very reliable prospect.

"There is much to do here and now," Andre said. He sounded just a shade concerned, and he was riding his own conversational train. "It was rash of Christian Baruch to threaten to fire you now, when he needs your loyalty the most."

"The guy's got a temper on him," Todd Donati said, and I knew without a doubt that he wasn't a native of Rhodes. The more stressed he got, the more he sounded like home; not Louisiana, maybe, but northern Tennessee. "The ax hasn't fallen yet. And if we can get to the bottom of what's happening, maybe I'll get reinstated. Not too many people would cotton to this job. Lots of security people don't like - "

Working with the damn vampires, Donati completed his sentence silently to everyone but me and him. He reminded himself harshly to stick to the immediate present. "Don't like the hours it takes to run security in a big place like this," he finished out loud, for the vampires' benefit. "But I enjoy the work." My kids will need the benefits when I die. Just two more months and coverage will stay with them after I pass.

He'd come to the queen's suite to talk to me about the Dr Pepper incident (as had the police, and the ever-present Christian Baruch), but he was staying to chat. Though the vampires didn't seem to notice, Donati was so chatty because he had taken some heavy pain medication. I felt sorry for him, and at the same time I realized that someone with so many distractions wasn't likely to be doing a good job. What had gotten by Donati in the past couple of months, since his illness had begun affecting his daily life?

Maybe he'd hired the wrong people. Maybe he'd omitted some vital step in protecting the guests of the hotel. Maybe - I was distracted by a wave of warmth.

Eric was coming.

I'd never had such a clear sense of his presence, and my heart sank as I knew the blood exchange had been an important one. If my memory was clear, it was the third time I'd taken Eric's blood, and three is always a significant number. I felt a constant awareness of his presence when he was anywhere near me, and I had to believe it was the same for him. There might be even more to the tie now, more that I just hadn't experienced yet. I closed my eyes and leaned over to rest my forehead on my knees.

There was a knock at the door, and Sigebert answered it after a careful look through the peephole. He admitted Eric. I could scarcely bring myself to look at him or to give him a casual greeting. I should be grateful to Eric, and I knew it; and on one level I was. Sucking blood from Andre would have been intolerable. Scratch that: I would've had to tolerate it. It would have been disgusting. But exchanging blood at all had not been a choice I got to make, and I wasn't going to forget it.

Eric sat on the couch beside me. I jumped up as if I'd been poked by a cattle prod and went across the room to the bar to pour myself a glass of water. No matter where I went, I could feel Eric's presence; to make that even more unsettling, I found his nearness was somehow comforting, as if it made me more secure.

Oh, just great.

There wasn't anywhere else for me to sit. I settled miserably by the Viking, who now owned a piece of me. Before this night, when I'd seen Eric, I'd felt simply a casual pleasure - though I had thought of him perhaps more often than a woman ought to think about a man who would outlive her for centuries.

I reminded myself that this was not Eric's fault. Eric might be political, and he might be focused on looking out for number one (which was spelled E-R-I-C), but I didn't see how he could have surmised Andre's purpose and caught up with us to reason with Andre, with any degree of premeditation. So I owed Eric a big thank-you, no matter how you looked at it, but that wasn't going to be a conversation we had anywhere in the vicinity of the queen and the aforesaid Andre.

"Bill is still selling his little computer disk downstairs," Eric remarked to me.


"I thought perhaps you were wondering why I showed up when you were in dire straits, and he didn't."

"It never crossed my mind," I said, wondering why Eric was bringing this up.

"I made him stay downstairs," Eric said. "After all, I'm his area sheriff."

I shrugged.

"He wanted to hit me," Eric said with only the hint of a smile on his lips. "He wanted to take the bomb from you and be your hero. Quinn would have done that, too."

"I remember that Quinn offered," I said.

"I did, too," Eric said. He seemed a bit shocked at the fact.

"I don't want to talk about it," I said, and I hoped my tone made it clear I was serious. It was getting close to dawn, and I'd had a stressful night (which was the mildest way I could put it). I managed to catch Andre's eye and give him the tiny nod toward Todd Donati. I was trying to clue him in that Donati was not entirely okay. In fact, he was as gray as a snow sky.

"If you'll excuse us, Mr. Donati.... We've enjoyed your company, but we have much to discuss about our plans for tomorrow night," Andre said smoothly, and Donati tensed, since he knew quite well he'd been dismissed.

"Of course, Mr. Andre," the security chief said. "I hope all of you sleep well this day, and I'll see you tomorrow night." He rose to his feet with a lot more effort than it should have taken, and he suppressed a flinch at the pain. "Miss Stackhouse, I hope you get over your bad experience real soon."

"Thank you," I said, and Sigebert opened the door for Donati to leave.

"If you'll excuse me," I said the minute he was gone, "I'll just go to my room now."

The queen gave me a sharp look. "Are you unhappy about something, Sookie?" she said, though she sounded like she didn't really want to hear my answer.

"Oh, why would I be unhappy? I love having things done to me without my will," I said. The pressure had built up and up, and the words came out like lava erupting from a volcano, even though my more intelligent self kept telling me to put a plug in it. "And then," I said very loudly, not listening to myself one little bit, "I like hanging around the ones responsible. That's even better!" I was losing coherence and gaining momentum.

There was no telling what I would have said next if Sophie-Anne hadn't held up one little white hand. She seemed a weensy bit perturbed, as my grandmother would have put it.

"You are assuming I know what you are talking about, and that I want to hear a human yelling at me," Sophie-Anne said.

Eric's eyes were glowing as if a candle burned behind them, and he was so lovely I could have drowned in him. God help me. I made myself look at Andre, who was examining me as if he was deciding where the best cut of meat was. Gervaise and Cleo just looked interested.

"Excuse me," I said, returning to the world of reality with a thud. It was so late, and I was so tired, and the night had been filled with so many incidents that I thought for a split second that I might actually faint. But the Stackhouses don't produce fainters, and neither do the fairies, I guess. It was time I gave a nod to that little percentage of my heritage. "I'm very tired." I had no fight left in me all of a sudden. I really wanted to go to bed. Not a word was spoken as I trudged to the door, which was almost a miracle. Though, as I closed it behind me, I heard the queen say, "Explain, Andre."

Quinn was waiting by the door to my room. I didn't know if I even had the energy to be glad or sad to see him. I got out the plastic rectangle and opened the door, and after I'd scanned the interior and seen that my roommate was gone (though I wondered where, since Gervaise had been by himself ), I jerked my head to tell Quinn he could come in.

"I have an idea," he said quietly.

I raised my eyebrows, too exhausted to speak.

"Let's just climb in the bed and sleep."

I finally managed to smile at him. "That's the best offer I've had all day," I said. At that second, I saw how I could come to love Quinn. While he visited the bathroom, I pulled off my clothes, folded them, and slipped into my pajamas, short and pink and silky to the touch.

Quinn came out of the bathroom in his briefs, but I was just too worn out to appreciate the view. He got into the bed while I brushed my teeth and washed my face. I slid in beside him. He turned on his side and his arms opened, and I just kept on sliding right into them. We hadn't showered, but he smelled good to me: he smelled alive and vital.

"Good ceremony tonight," I remembered to say after I'd switched off the bedside lamp.


"Got any more coming up?"

"Yeah, if your queen goes on trial. Now that Cater was killed, who knows if that's still on. And tomorrow night is the ball, after the trial."

"Oh, I get to wear my pretty dress." A little pleasure stirred in me at the prospect. "You got to work?"

"No, the ball's being run by the hotel," he said. "You gonna dance with me or the blond vampire?"

"Oh, hell," I said, wishing Quinn hadn't reminded me.

And right on cue, he said, "Forget it now, babe. We're here, now, in bed together like we ought to be."

Like we ought to be. That sounded good.

"You heard about me tonight, right?" he asked.

The night had contained so many incidents it took me a moment to remember that I'd learned about the things he'd had to do to survive.

And that he had a half sister. A troublesome, nutty, dependent half sister who hated me on sight.

He was a little tense, waiting for my reaction. I could feel it in his head, in his body. I tried to think of a sweet, wonderful way to put how I felt. I was too tired.

"Quinn, I've got no problem with you," I said. I kissed his cheek, kissed his mouth. "No problem at all. And I'll try to like Frannie."

"Oh," he said, sounding simply relieved. "Well, then." He kissed my forehead, and we fell asleep.

I slept like a vampire. I didn't wake to make a trip to the bathroom, even, or to turn over. I swam almost up to consciousness once to hear Quinn was snoring, just a faint ruffle of sound, and I snuggled closer to him. He stopped, murmured, and fell silent.

I looked at the bedside clock when I finally, really, woke up. It was four in the afternoon; I'd slept for twelve hours. Quinn was gone, but he'd drawn a big pair of lips (with my lipstick) on a piece of hotel stationery and laid it on his pillow. I smiled. My roommate hadn't come in. Maybe she was spending the day in Gervaise's coffin. I shuddered. "He leaves me cold," I said out loud, wishing Amelia was there to respond. Speaking of Amelia...I fished my cell phone out of my purse and called her.

"Hey," she said. "What's up?"

"What are you doing?" I asked, trying not to feel homesick.

"Brushing Bob," she said. "He had a hair ball."

"Aside from that?"

"Oh, I worked at the bar a little," Amelia said, trying to sound casual.

I was dumbfounded. "Doing what?"

"Well, serving drinks. What else is there to do?"

"How come Sam needed you?"

"The Fellowship is having a big rally in Dallas, and Arlene wanted time off to go with that asshole she's dating. Then Danielle's kid got pneumonia. So Sam was really worried, and since I happened to be in the bar, he asked me if I knew how to do the job. I said, 'Hey, how hard could it be?'"

"Thanks, Amelia."

"Oh, okay, I guess that sounded pretty disrespectful." Amelia laughed. "So, it is a little tricky. Everyone wants to talk to you, but you have to hurry, and you can't spill their drinks on 'em, and you have to remember what everyone was drinking, and who's paying for the round, and who's on a tab. And you have to stand up for hours and hours."

"Welcome to my world."

"So, how's Mr. Stripes?"

I realized she was talking about Quinn. "We're okay," I said, pretty sure that was true. "He did one big ceremony last night; it was so cool. A vampire wedding. You would've loved it."

"What's on for tonight?"

"Well, maybe a trial." I didn't feel like explaining, especially over a cell phone. "And a ball."

"Wow, like Cinderella."

"Remains to be seen."

"How's the business part of it going?"

"I'll have to tell you about that when I get back," I said, suddenly not so cheerful. "I'm glad you're busy and I'm glad everything's going okay."

"Oh, Terry Bellefleur called to ask if you wanted a puppy. You remember when Annie got out?"

Annie was Terry's very expensive and much-loved Catahoula. He'd come out to my place looking for Annie when she'd roamed away, and by the time he'd found her, she had had some close encounters.

"What do the puppies look like?"

"He said you had to see them to believe them. I told him you'd come by next week, maybe. I didn't commit you to anything."

"Okay, good."

We chatted a minute more but since I'd been gone from Bon Temps less than forty-eight hours, there really wasn't that much to say.

"So," she said in closing, "I miss you, Stackhouse."

"Yeah? I miss you, too, Broadway."

"Bye. Don't get any strange fangs on you."

Too late for that. "Bye. Don't spill any beer on the sheriff."

"If I do, it'll be on purpose."

I laughed, because I'd felt like dousing Bud Dearborn, too. I hung up feeling pretty good. I ordered room service, very tentatively. That was not something I got to do every day; even every year. Or ever. I was a little nervous about letting the waiter into my room, but Carla wandered in at just the same moment. She was decorated with hickeys and wearing last night's dress.

"That smells good," she said, and I handed her a croissant. She drank my orange juice while I had the coffee. It worked out okay. Carla did the talking for both of us, telling me all about the things I'd experienced. She didn't seem to realize I'd been with the queen when the slaughter of Jennifer Cater's group was discovered, and though she'd heard I'd found the Dr Pepper bomb, she told me all about it anyway, as though I hadn't been there. Maybe Gervaise made her keep silent, and the words just built up.

"What are you wearing to the ball tonight?" I asked, feeling impossibly hokey to even be asking such a question. She showed me her dress, which was black, spangled, and almost nonexistent above the waist, like all her other evening wear. Carla definitely believed in emphasizing her assets.

She asked to see my dress, and we both made insincere noises about what good taste the other had.

We had to take turns in the bathroom, of course, which I wasn't used to doing. I was pretty exasperated by the time Carla emerged. I hoped the entire city hadn't run out of hot water. Of course, there was plenty left, and despite the scattering of her cosmetics on the bathroom counter, I managed to get clean and get made-up on time. In honor of my beautiful dress, I tried to put my hair up, but I'm no good with anything more complex than a ponytail. The hair would be down. I went a little heavier on the makeup than I do in the daytime, and I had some big earrings that Tara had told me were just right. I turned my head experimentally and watched them swing and glitter. They were silvery and white, just like the beading on the bodice of my evening dress. Which it is now time to put on, I told myself with a little jolt of anticipation.

Oh, boy. My dress was ice blue, and had silver and white beads, and was cut just the right depth in the front and back. It had a built-in bra so I didn't have to wear one, and I pulled on some blue panties that would never leave a line on me. Then thigh-high hose. Then my shoes, which were high heeled and silvery.

I'd done my nails while Water Woman was in the shower, and I put on my lipstick and had a final look in the mirror.

Carla said, "You look real pretty, Sookie."

"Thanks." I knew I was smiling a big smile. There's nothing like dressing up once in a while. I felt like my prom date was picking me up with a corsage to pin to my dress. JB had taken me to my senior prom, though other girls had asked him because he would look so good in the photographs. My aunt Linda had made my dress.

No more homemade dresses for me.

A knock at the door had me looking anxiously in the mirror. But it was Gervaise, checking to see if Carla was ready. She smiled and turned around to garner the admiration due her, and Gervaise gave her a kiss on the cheek. I wasn't too impressed with Gervaise's character, and he wasn't my cup of tea physically, either, with his broad, bland face and his light mustache, but I had to hand it to him for generosity: he fastened a diamond tennis bracelet around Carla's wrist then and there, with no further ado than if he were giving her a bauble. Carla tried to restrain her excitement, but then she cast that to the winds and threw her arms around Gervaise's neck. I was embarrassed to be in the room, because some of the pet names she used while thanking him were sort of anatomically correct.

After they left, well pleased with each other, I stood in the middle of the bedroom. I didn't want to sit down in my dress until I had to, because I knew it would wrinkle and lose that perfect feeling. That left me with very little to do, other than trying not to get miffed about the chaos Carla had left on her side and feeling a bit at a loss. Surely Quinn had said he'd come by the room to get me? We hadn't been supposed to meet downstairs, right?

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 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?"

Why, indeed.

"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.

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