Dark clouds, heavy with tomorrow's rain, hung low in the gray hour before dawn. The echoes of their muted rumblings rolling through the air as if the very sky its self was complaining the sun approached too quickly.
Inside the sixth floor of the Shreve General Orthopedic Hospital, lives were being decided.
"Where are my guards?" Leonas demanded as he struggled against the hold of the three holding him.
"In your car, downstairs," Vincentas replied.
Leonas looked to Anna and screamed her name. She instinctively grasped her stomach, expecting to be struck with another pain and was surprised it didn't come.
"You are too close for him to hurt you," Vincentas said softly, giving her a reassuring squeeze. "He cannot summon who stands before him."
Anna gazed forlornly up at Vincentas. "Will we always have to keep him so close to us? To me?"
"Only for a little while longer, my love. Then you will be free."
Turning back to Leonas, she said, "I do not understand you."
"You do not need to understand me," he spat back. "You need only understand you are mine and you owe me."
The confusion was plain on her face as she considered his words. "No," she answered, stepping out of Vincentas' hold and toward Leonas. Her soft voice was clear and unafraid as she continued. "I owe you nothing, though my debts to others are many."
Anna walked across the hall to Mina's doorway, where Sookie stood, still firmly in Eric's arms.
"Anna," Sookie whispered.
"My debt to you can never be repaid. What gift could possibly compensate you for releasing me from six centuries in a prison of turmoil and confusion?"
"No, really," Sookie began, but she wasn't allowed to finish her thought.
Without warning, Anna gracefully lowered herself to one knee on the floor in front on Sookie.
Anna's sudden move brought Vincentas instantly to her side, offering her his hand as if she had fallen. She did not take it. Rather, she bowed her head low. "I pledge to Your Majesty, my obligation. From this day forward, for so long as we both exist on this Earth, I shall deny you nothing. Any request you make of me, be it great or small, I shall commit myself to fulfilling it."
Sookie was stunned. As her thoughts stumbled over themselves, she said, "Anna, I-I don't know what to say."
"If I may?" Vincentas interrupted. When he joined Anna by taking a knee beside her, the collective gasp in the hallway was deafening. Even Leonas' struggling was stilled by the sight of a reigning European King kneeling at the feet of a baby vampire, albeit she was an acknowledged Queen herself by way of being the chosen bride of the Norseman.
"The obligations of its Queen are likewise the obligations of the Crown of Lithuania. We are at Your Majesty's disposal, to be called upon as you will." Having made his pledge, Vincentas too lowered his head.
"Oh, please," Sookie pleaded. "You don't owe me a thing. I was happy to help. Please, get up. Eric, help me."
Eric stepped from behind Sookie and took his place at her side. "Rise, honored friends. Let us not mar this occasion with talk of debts. Vincentas, shall we take the ladies safely back to Valhalla before sunrise?"
Vincentas stood, lifting Anna along side him. "Yes, my friend. There is much to be done before the dawn."
"Very well. Ferdinand, arrange transport for Leonas' guards, who I believe occupy my car below." Turning to Vincentas, Eric said, "Take my car. Sookie and I will follow, as I believe you will be taking your brother with you to maintain proximity?"
"Indeed," Vincentas stated, already turning to leave. "On the roof?"
"Yes. We will meet you there. Oliver, inform my lady's driver we are coming down." Eric placed a hand on Sookie's elbow and attempted to move her forward.
"Wait," she sputtered, twisting from his loose grasp. She looked back at Mina, but she spoke to Oliver. "Oliver, before you come home, feed her. I want her home tomorrow. I've been without her long enough."
"Consider it done, Mistress," Oliver responded with a nod and a smile almost as radiant as Mina's.
Sookie went in to Mina's bedside, taking Mina's hand and holding it to her cheek. "Drink as much as you can, Mina. Come home to me tomorrow. Please. Your doctors can come to Valhalla to finish your treatment if you still need it."
"I will greet you when you rise, Mistress," Mina replied with happy tears flowing down her face.
Once in their limo Sookie relaxed for the first time all night. She snuggled into Eric's side as if she would fall asleep, but sleep was the furthest thing from her mind. "Leonas is going to be put to death, isn't he?"
"Yes," Eric answered, draping an arm around her and drawing her closer.
"It would be impossible to arrange any other location with such little notice, my love."
"And it has to be done now?"
"It is the only way to prevent him torturing Anna. Otherwise she would have to be kept within 15 feet or so of him and I feel certain she has no desire to spend any longer than necessary in such close proximity."
"Do you suppose he ever really loved her? Or was she was always just a prized trophy to him?"
"I cannot say, Dearest. It is impossible to truly know the heart of another vampire."
Sookie pushed away from Eric enough to be able to look up into his eyes. "What a silly thing to say. I know your heart and surely you know mine?"
"Your heart is a secret to no one, my love. You wear it quite transparently." The warmth of his smile was exceeded by his kiss, so soft, yet it spoke of untold passions even she had yet to discover. They remained thusly occupied until the car came to a stop at the front entrance of Valhalla. Brought back to reality, they hurried to the elevator, up to the top floor and out onto the roof.
At least a dozen Britlingens were busily preparing the spot for Leonas to be chained. Others were wandering about the roof to be certain no unauthorized humans or vampires were present.
Sookie and Eric walked to the edge of the building and stared out. "I feel like this place will be contaminated after tonight; like I won't ever be able to stand up here again without thinking of him. He'll still be taking from us, even after he's gone." Sookie's voice was steady, but with an edge of sadness as she clung to Eric and looked out into the brink of morning.
"He can only take what we choose to give him, my love," Eric said softly, leaning in to kiss her forehead. "Nothing more."
"It's like everything around us is spinning and spinning and we're stuck in some sort of weird calm in the middle and we can't do anything. All we can do is watch everything spin."
Eric chuckled and squeezed her tight against him. "Our situation is not nearly so dire as you describe. A bit surreal, perhaps, but hardly threatening. We are safe. We are together and our kingdom is left completely intact. I should think we have more than ample cause for celebration; once this tawdry bit of business is finished."
"Well, I certainly don't feel like celebrating right now," she said with a shiver.
"It may surprise you, how quickly your good humor returns."
"I hope you're right. I don't like this feeling of gloom and doom hanging over everything."
"I promise you this, my love. If tomorrow arrives and the amiability of your surroundings has failed to return, I shall issue a proclamation demanding it do so at once," he vowed with all the seriousness and ceremony in his tone of issuing trial verdicts.
It had the desired effect. She laughed and looked up at him as if he had just announced he was giving up their kingdom and opening a circus. "I suppose you actually believe you have that kind of power?" she asked with a skeptical arched brow.
With a hand to his chest as if he'd been seriously wounded and mock outrage quavering through his body and voice, he said, "Do you think to imply such powers are beyond abilities? What evidence do you offer to support this nefarious claim?" His entire demeanor shifted. Suddenly he was the gracefully seductive cat who prowled their bed. His hands slid down her back as he leaned, nudging her hair back with his head so he could kiss her neck. His fangs grazed her shoulder before his lips found their way back to her ear. "Do you deny I have altered your disposition in the past?" he whispered almost inaudibly. "Confess I hold such powers in my hand or I shall ravage you here and now to prove my point."
"Eric." Her voice was a breathless sighing moan which only served to encourage him. "Eric, stop. They'll be here any second."
"Your words belie the actions of your body, my sweet. Confess." He bit lightly, scarcely breaking her skin. A single drop of blood escaped along side her gasp. "Confess." His lips encircled the droplet and kissed it away.
"I confess," she said at last. "I love you and you can do anything."
He released her at once, resuming his serious stance and leaving her reeling to catch her balance. "Much better," he said with a wink, and before she had a chance to become angry with him, "And not a moment too soon. Listen, our guests have arrived."
No sooner than he spoke, Anna's voice rang out as the door was opened.
"We are leaving the vampires of California without a king," Anna was saying as she and Vincentas stepped onto the roof. They followed the chained Leonas, who was escorted by Ferdinand and the three vampire guards who had been disguised, along with Vincentas, as Leonas' guards at the hospital. "Who will maintain order?" she continued.
Vincentas gave her a reassuring pat on the arm. "Fear not, Anna. In anticipation of this problem, I sent Andrius to California earlier tonight. He will meet with Leonas' second in command, Raoul Soldato, first thing tomorrow evening. They will await instructions for the succession."
"Await instructions," Leonas spat. "You assume you will not have a battle on your hands, brother."
Vincentas glanced in Leonas' direction. "I will only have a battle if this Raoul of yours is an idiot, which I feel safe in assuming is not the case. He will not risk death while there remains the possibility of his own succession."
Leonas' mad laughter echoed through the pre-dawn sky. "You have sent Andrius to tell him he waits to be crowned? And you expect him to believe this lie?"
"Convincing someone of the truth is rarely a difficult matter, particularly for one as skilled in the art of speech as my Ambassador. If Andrius finds Raoul to be qualified for leadership, he will lead, if the position is passed over by two others."
More laughter from Leonas as Vincentas, with Anna clinging to his side, walked to Sookie. "California has long been in want of a Queen. It is yours, if you desire it."
Sookie took a step backward and almost violently shook her head. "No! I don't want California. I mean, not for mine. I might want to visit some time, but I don't want it all the time."
Vincentas turned to Eric. "Would your lady feel differently if California were hers by way of being wife to its King?"
"Thank you, my friend, but I suspect not. We are quite content with what is already ours. However, if I could make one small request, it would be the return of the small piece of Nevada which was passed to Leonas in exchange for his assistance to me in the acquisition."
"Of course. Your kingdom is thus restored. Have you called for witnesses to the execution?"
"Yes," Eric replied. "Two of my Queen's pets and a pet of my Sheriff have volunteered for the duty." Eric motioned to the spot near the door where Pandora, Heller and Genevieve stood. "There is also a contingent of Britlingens on hand to replace your guards when they retire to the indoors."
"My valet is on his way to join them. He will serve as my Lady's witness. We will stay until the sun forces us to come inside. I fear my brother will summon her until the last and attempt to take her with him."
Sookie reached out and took Anna's hand. "I'm so sorry you have to go through this."
"Papa used to say, complete freedom is a luxury very few can afford." Anna looked over at Leonas, then her gaze returned to Sookie. "You freed me from the six hundred year betrayal of my mind. Soon the sun will free me from the betrayal of my body. My suffering will be short. A few moments being held back from his call: a small price to pay for eternity."
The door leading to the service entry to the top residential floor of Valhalla opened and a tall slender human man came out onto the roof. He bowed to Vincentas, then to Eric, before silently walking over to join Pandora, Heller and Genevieve where they stood near Leonas.
"You should go inside," Anna said. "Vincentas has people just inside to carry us to his room, so we can wait out here until the last possible moment."
Sookie slipped an arm around Eric's waist. "We'll see you tomorrow evening, first thing."
Eric nodded to Vincentas and Anna before easing Sookie to the door. "Come, my love. We will see them again when the sun has gone."
Sookie allowed herself to be ushered through the door, but once inside, she said, "Oh Eric, can't we stay? Couldn't we have the Britingens bring us back to our room if we didn't make it all the way back before sunrise? I don't want to leave her alone."
"We could, but she is not alone, Dearest. She is in the company of her chosen, which if I am not mistaken, is precisely where she wants to be. If the situation were reversed and it were you on the roof counting down the moments before you were dragged away from a maker gone mad who was summoning you with all his strength until he was claimed by the sun, do you believe you would be comforted by more than my presence? Would it be Anna's or my arms you would wish to embrace you as the pain of being unable to respond to the summoning, as you were carried further away, made its demands upon your body?"
Sookie tightened her arm around Eric's waist and leaned her head against him as they walked down the corridor. "Only your arms could make it bearable."
"Do not fear for her. Vincentas is more than capable of seeing to her. He will not allow her to suffer more than is necessary. Trust me. When you see her after sundown, she will bear no signs of tonight's events and she will be happy to see you."
"I do trust you," she replied, her fears having been mostly alleviated.
Meanwhile, on the roof of Valhalla, Vincentas and Anna sat on a cushioned wicker sofa, just behind where Leonas was chained to a vent shaft. They faced his back, so as to keep him constantly within their line of sight, yet to keep themselves out of his. Vincentas had vowed to him, he had seen Anna for the last time. He would not be permitted to go to his death with a vision of her as his last sight.
"Vincentas, my brother," Leonas called in a raspy voice, trying to keep the searing pain of the silver chains from his tone. "Tell me, what will you do when she decides you are not enough for her? When she dreams of our friend, the Norseman, and leaves you to throw herself at his feet? Who will you have wrapped in silver chains then?"
"The Norseman's affections are happily engaged elsewhere, brother, and if they were not, though she is all I love, she would be free to pursue him, if such was her wish."
Anna opened her mouth to protest, but Vincentas smiled and prevented her words with a tender kiss. "Do not reward his venom with the sound of your voice, my dear," he said softly.
"Do you believe him Anna? Do you believe he would free you? He who has kept you in a gilt prison for six hundred years? Would he simply open the palace gates and watch his long held prized possession walk away from him? You, who he has so carefully guarded for so long? If the Norseman's woman has left you with any reasoning capability at all, you cannot believe such a notion is possible."
Anna was staring intently into Vincentas' eyes. She saw the truth in them. What Leonas didn't realize was how completely she remembered everything. For six centuries, Vincentas had denied her nothing. Every luxury imaginable has been laid at her feet and she had been offered every freedom possible. Yes, she had been heavily guarded, but her guards had never interfered with her except on the very rare occasions when she had tried to stay outside until sunrise. They had really been more her protectors than guards.
Vincentas had always demanded everyone treat her with absolute respect, regardless of her behavior, which she was embarrassed to recall had been quite erratic and unbalanced at times. She remembered a time she had burst into a conference room. Vincentas had been meeting with many people. She demanded to know why the palace courtyards contained so much yarrow? While she found yarrow to be a perfectly agreeable flower, she felt the gardens should have a greater abundance of rue, particularly since rue was the national flower.
Vincentas had excused himself from his meeting, offered her his arm and escorted her to a nearby anteroom. There they had sat for at least two hours discussing the flowers in the palace gardens. After only a short time, he had called for the head gardener to join them. The gardener had explained the many medicinal uses of yarrow, thus they kept a plentiful supply on hand.
Vincentas had suggested a field of yarrow be planted somewhere close, yet outside the palace walls, allowing for more space to be allotted for rue. "What colors would My Lady prefer?" he had asked.
"Violet and white," she had responded, "And meadow rue as well, not the petaled type alone."
Anna looked into Vincentas' eyes now and saw the same patience and kindness which had always been there. No, she had never been in a prison. She had been in a garden which she had been allowed to create and change as she desired. She had never been chained there. If she wandered out, no one had ever stopped her unless it was near sunrise.
She knew with certainty Vincentas would never prevent her leaving him. Just as certainly as she knew she would never leave. In a few minutes she would be completely free, and all she wanted was to go home.
Vincentas looked up toward the horizon. "It is time," he said to her. He took her hand and she stood. "Close ranks!" he shouted.
The response was immediate. One contingent of Britlingens came together in a shoulder-to-shoulder circle around Leonas, close enough to touch him from behind, giving the sun a wider berth to meet him from the front.
As the second, smaller contingent of Britlingens, along with Ferdinand and one of Vincentas' vampire guards, arranged themselves around Vincentas and Anna, Leonas cracked. "Vincentas! I am your brother! You cannot do this for the sake of a woman!"
With the weight of his sadness clear in his voice, Vincentas answered his brother for the last time. "I do not act for the sake of a woman, Leonas. I act for the sake of the reigning Queen of the sovereign kingdom of Lithuania and my resolve is steeled for the sake of Anna, Queen of my heart for near six centuries."
The door was opened and Vincentas hurried Anna inside. They left Leonas behind them screaming her name. They were not ten yards down the hall when Anna doubled over. Vincentas snatched her up and ran for the elevators, joined by Ferdinand and the guard. By the time the elevator doors closed she had wrenched herself away and was writhing and shrieking in the floor.
"Let me carry you," Vincentas whispered to her when they had come down one floor. "By the time we get to our rooms it will be over."
"Make him stop!" she cried out before screaming in agony.
On the roof, the first golden ray of sunrise was creeping to the waiting gathering. Before it reached them, Genevieve shoved her way between two of the Britlingens.
Leonas smiled grimly at her. "So the pet in denial has a taste for the macabre, I see. Were my executioners blocking your view?"
"Yes. And because I am not in denial, I need to watch you die. I need to know you will never threaten my mistress again." With that, she stepped close and spit in his face. As her saliva slid down his cheek and his expression boiled with outrage, she felt the growing warmth on her back. "Let the spot defiled by your enemy's pet be the last bit of you to burn."
With a wicked smile, Genevieve stepped aside and watched Leonas' eyes grow wide as the sun touched him for the first time in over seven hundred years. Within seconds he was gone, his ashes scattered by the morning breeze.
Inside, a floor below, Anna went limp just as Vincentas was again lifting her off the floor. "It's over," she murmured. She gave herself over to sleep as soon as the words escaped her lips.
Vincentas was barely able to get her to her bed before he too collapsed. Within moments his human valet arrived and instructed the guards to carry him to the adjoining bedroom.
"I thought she remembered him now?" one of the guards asked as he lifted Vincentas' legs.
"Yes," the valet replied. "However, His Majesty does not wish for the Queen to be startled upon waking. His instructions were quite explicit. Regardless of the evening's events, if it was left to me to retire them for the day, they were to be placed in separate but adjoining rooms."
Sookie smiled and stretched, as she broke free of death's repose for the evening. This feeling was so much more than simply waking. For a few seconds every evening, as her body came to life, it was as if she was feeling everything for the first time. Even the air against her skin was a thrilling sensation. This had quickly become her favorite part of the night and she tried to make a point of savoring it.
Eric was no longer in bed, but he was still in the room. She could feel his closeness, his eyes upon her. She could almost hear his voice.
"I see you shall have to be schooled in the arts of extravagance, my love."
Not exactly what she'd thought to hear. She opened her eyes to find him, just as she'd imagined, standing beside their bed, naked. Though his eyes, rather than being filled with admiration and lust as they stared at her, were filled with amusement and triumph as they stared at his cell phone.
Her smile vanished. She furrowed her brows and looked up at him. "All the elegant ladies around here lately remind you of something you miss?"
It was clear from the change in his expression as his gaze moved form the phone to her, he at a total loss. "I beg your pardon?"
"I need to be schooled in the arts of extravagance. Is that some fancy way of calling me white trash? My family was never royalty or rich, but we were all good, honest people."
Eric cocked his head and met her stare. She wasn't sure of her argument or she would have continued, he decided. His meaning was not clear to her and she suspected he had insulted her, and though she was not certain, she was letting him know she would not shrink from defending herself. She was not afraid. She was magnificent. A slow smile crept across his lips.
"Sookie, I believe the inner workings of your mind are perhaps the greatest mystery I have ever encountered. I have no doubts regarding the quality of your family; you are royalty and in case you were unaware, you are quite rich now, with or without me. Louisiana is a community property state." He reached down and nudged her legs aside, taking a seat on the bed in the place they vacated. He took her hand and said, "Allow me to explain. I received a report this evening from Bobby, on your spending. If left to your own devices, I fear even my hair will go gray before you are able to manage it."
"Oh," she said. She could feel a sudden rush of nerves course through her. "I know I've spent an awful lot lately. It just seems like everything's so expensive."
"Sookie," he tried, but the attempted interruption was ignored completely.
"We've taken so much space at the hospital and Mina's treatment is outrageous and then all those musical instruments and the lessons for them all. I probably shouldn't have done that. It really wasn't reasonable. She reached over with her free hand and grasped his, squeezing his hands tight. "But it made them so happy, Eric. You should have seen their faces. I couldn't possibly take any of it back, but I promise I'll do better from now on."
"Are you quite finished? Or is more of this aimless rambling aching to be released?"
"That's all," she whispered.
"Good. In future, Dearest, I suggest you establish the nature of the attack before launching your defense. In addition, it might also be useful to be certain there is indeed an attack at all.
Now, if you will recall, some time ago we made a wager."
"Yes, I thought it probable you had forgotten." He shifted in his seat and Sookie leaned forward, curiosity having overtaken her confusion. Eric continued. "Mr. Burnham tells me your spending habits are positively disgraceful and after thoroughly going over his report, I must agree. If any of the elegant ladies as you call them were see this report, they would be convinced I had you on a restrictive budget and I would be a laughing stock."
After several seconds of blank staring between them, Sookie finally replied. "What?"
Eric chuckled and went on, "You were concerned about spending too much and I said you should spend as you please my challenge would be to see if I could make money faster than you spend it."
"Oh, that. Did I win?" She asked her question partly out of guilt that she may have done it and partly from anticipation since she now remembered the prize if she won the bet.
"No, you failed miserably. I'm afraid Mr. Burnham has not gained a single gray hair since you were given your accounts. So I see I shall have to arrange for you to be taught how to spend. And there are no superior consultants in the finer points of lavish superfluousness than the ladies of the courts of Europe and the Mediterranean. Several of them have bankrupting the treasuries of entire countries to their credit."
"But I didn't win, so we can't go there. Are we inviting a lot of people here?"
"You did not win, so we cannot go on a trip around the world. We can however vacation in Europe."
Sookie's face lit up. "We're going to Europe? When?"
"As soon as you please, my love. I assume you will want to wait until you've seen to Mina's recovery so she may be part of your entourage."
Sookie threw her arms around Eric and held him tight. He responded at once, enfolding her in his embrace. "Everything really is alright now, isn't it?" she asked.
"My dearest love, everything is perfect."