The human girl in the witness stand is very, very pretty. Eric is going to enjoy draining her.

Her name is Sookie Stackhouse, and she is on trial for the murder of a vampire by the name of Bill Compton. Eric can barely think the words with a straight face. A human. Being tried in a human court of justice. For the murder of a vampire.

Sometimes, Eric feels every day of his thousand-odd years.

The trial is a sop to the human authorities from the American Vampire League, who wish to prove that their societies, their values are compatible. Eric finds the very premise of the entire display as insulting as it is farcical. He is Sheriff of Area Five, in which territory Bill Compton had resided. Vengeance ought to be his, by rights. He resents furiously the implication that he is lawless, that this tedious, protracted human ritual is a superior mechanism for uncovering truth.

There is no question in Eric's mind of the girl's guilt. But he has not arrived at this conclusion lightly. The evidence is clear. And justice is not the less just for being swifter, more final than humans find palatable.

But the evidence of vampires is meaningless to humans. And it's not really the girl who's on trial here.

There are only four vampires involved in the trial; three jurors, and one assistant district attorney. The girl will undoubtedly be acquitted.

But that will not be the end of the matter, if Eric has anything to say about it.

The girl gazes out over the courtroom with wide eyes. If appearances are anything to judge by, she is the epitome of blamelessness. She's very young, very attractive, with wavy blonde hair and a golden tan displayed to perfection by her virginal white sundress. Had Eric spotted her elsewhere, he might have taken some pains to acquire her for an evening's entertainment. Now, though, her attractions will merely sweeten the execution of his duty.

She will be freed by this human court. And then Eric will teach her the meaning of justice.

The girl's attorney rises from the table and approaches the witness stand with a smile. The girl smiles back, and it does wonders for her appearance. She looks even younger, more innocent than before. Eric stirs uncomfortably in his seat, and Pam, at his side, raises her eyebrow. He ignores her. It would do no good to say what he is thinking, that this girl would be a danger to any vampire under any circumstances. She is far too attractive for her own good.

"Would you state your name for the benefit of the court?" says the lawyer.

The girl clears her throat, a tiny, uncertain sound that perhaps only the vampires hear. "Sookie Stackhouse."

"How old are you, Miss Stackhouse?"

"Twenty-five," says the girl.

Eric blinks in surprise. She is older than he thought.

"And how long have you known me, Miss Stackhouse?"

The girl smiles. "Just about all my life, Mr Lancaster."

The lawyer-Lancaster-turns a brief glance at the jury, then on the audience, inviting them to witness this display of hominess and candor.

"Before we get started, Miss Stackhouse, I just want to say that I'm going to have to ask you some personal questions, and I don't want you to get uncomfortable. The jury's going to have a good listen, but you just remember this is old Sid Matt talking to you, and there's no need to be nervous."

"Yes, sir."

Eric finds his opinion of the lawyer rising. He seemed, at first, to be a predictable Southern bumpkin, the sort who relies on his standing in the community and his avuncular charm to persuade where his powers of argument fail. But he has already made a skillful defense of his client before asking her a single question. The jury, and the audience, have been invited to see her as he sees her, a naive, bashful child too unsophisticated to discuss sex frankly before an audience. Even a vampire might be disarmed by such a manipulation. A vampire other than Eric, at least.

"You knew the deceased, the vampire Bill Compton, pretty well, didn't you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Did you kill him?"

The girl lifts her head and squares her shoulders. "I did not."

"Good." The lawyer smiles. "How well did you know Mr Compton?"

The girl flushes, and the faint stain of color along her cheeks and exposed breast heightens her attractiveness in a way Eric is not immune to.

"Well, he was my boyfriend," she says.

"I've known you an awful long time, Sookie, and if you'll forgive me bringing it up, I don't think I've ever known you to have a boyfriend before Mr Compton. Am I right?"

"That's right," she says, and her blush deepends.

Eric's fangs extend, but he keeps his mouth shut, hiding them. He finds himself resenting, suddenly, that Bill Compton found her first. What a treat she must have been for him. On the other hand, if he had taken up with her, perhaps she would have tried to kill him. What an adventure that would have been for all involved.

"You were real fond of him, weren't you?"

"I was," she says, in a clear, steady voice. "I loved him."

"When you say you loved him, are you using the past tense because he is deceased, or because you ceased to love him before he met his 'final death'?"

Eric's nostrils flare. He catches Pam rolling her eyes. They both heard the scare quotes around the lawyer's last words. He is communicating to the human jury that the vampire she murdered was technically dead already. Eric is sure the ploy will be effective.

"We had already broken up before he died," she says softly.

"Did y'all have a fight?"

"I found out he'd been keeping secrets from me."

"What sort of secrets, honey?" There's a faint note of suspense in the lawyer's voice, an implication of some dark, horrifying vampire intrigue that will no doubt send the imaginations of the human jurors into overdrive.

"I was at his house one day, and I found this-file." The girl lifts her chin and looks at the jury. "It was full of information about me. My family tree, newspaper clippings about me and my relatives."

"Why on earth would he have such a file in his possession?"

"I don't know," says the girl. "He wouldn't tell me. But I realized that when we first met, he must have known all about me, even though he pretended he didn't even know my name. After that, I didn't feel I could trust him, so I told him I didn't want to see him anymore."

Eric sits very still for a moment, then slowly turns his head to locate the Queen, seated between two members of her retinue in a front row of the galley. She's watching the girl with an imperturbable expression. Eric frowns. Pam glances over at him, and he shakes his head slightly. A flicker of anger stirs inside him. He knew nothing of this file, and he ought to have known. He detects the Queen's intrigues in the situation. He will have to investigate the matter at a later time.

"How did you first meet Mr Compton?"

"He came into Merlotte's one night."

"Merlotte's Bar and Grill, your place of employment?"

"Yes, sir."

"He was one of your customers?"

"Yes, he sat down at a table in my section."

"And what did you think when you saw him?"

The girl's smile is at once tense, and rather sad. Eric finds himself responding to her forlorn expression against his will. She has been very well coached, or she is an excellent actress.

"I was real excited," she says. "I'd wanted to meet a vampire ever since they first came out of the coffin. I mean-" she blushes, and again Eric can't help noticing the heightened color against her fair skin is very attractive, "ever since the Great Revelation."

"So when Mr Compton seated himself in your section-"

"Objection." Timothy Baker, vampire prosecutor, stands. "You are implying that Mr Compton sought her out, and that is not proven."

"I'll rephrase," said Lancaster, before the judge could speak. "Was Mr Compton seated in your section by a hostess, or did he seat himself?"

"He seated himself," says the girl-Sookie, Eric reminds himself. "I saw him come in and sit down."

Lancaster shoots a look at Baker over his shoulder, who simply nods. Eric glares irritably at the back of the vampire's head. It was a pointless objection, and only adds brush strokes to the picture Lancaster is panting for the jury.

Lancaster arches an eyebrow, and turns back to his witness.

"You approached Mr Compton in the normal course of your work, as he was a customer seated in your section of the restaurant. Did you engage him in conversation?"

"A little bit," says Sookie. "He asked for a True Blood, and I told him he we didn't have any because he was the first vampire to come into the bar. He asked if it was obvious that he was a vampire, and I told him I knew right away."

There's a stirring in the galley. Eric knows, if the lawyer does not, that this was a revelation the girl should never have been allowed to make. How did she know? This is now the question in the mind of every vampire present, including Eric. But the lawyer does not flinch.

"What happened then?"

"He ordered a glass of red wine, just so he'd have a reason to stay, I think. The next time I saw him, he was with the Rattrays."

"That would be Mack and Denise Rattray."

"Yes, sir."

"And what was the nature of his interaction with them?"

"I couldn't really say." The girl looks uncomfortable. "They seemed real friendly, at first."

"At first? What changed?"

"I don't know for sure." The girl's eyes widen. "There was something about the way they were looking at him. Kind of-predatory, I guess."

"Mr Compton left the bar with the Rattrays not long after meeting them, is that correct?"

"Yes, sir."

"When did you see him next?"

"A few minutes later. I went out into the parking lot after I realized they'd left together."

"Why did you do that?"

Again, the girl looks uncomfortable. Eric begins to revise his opinion of her acting skills.

"Mack and Denise had a bad reputation," she says. "I'd heard things about them-rumors and things."

"What sort of rumors, Sookie?"

"That they were drainers."

Another reaction from the audience. Eric is unable to restrain his own blink of surprise.

"Did you know that?" Pam whispers to him, in a voice too low for the surrounding humans to hear.

Eric shakes his head imperceptibly. His anger deepens. When the Queen and the AVL stole the investigation from him, he'd been assured the only reason was because the matter was so simple as to be beneath him, an open and shut case that even the human authorities could be relied on to prosecute competently. It would be inaccurate to say that he had trusted those assurances. But he had been certain that he knew all there was to know. Now he is coming to suspect that the matter is much deeper than he first suspected.

"By drainers," says the lawyer, in a dramatic, portentous voice, "you mean humans who subdue vampires and drain them of their blood in order to sell it illegally?"

This, again, is for the benefit of the human jurors. The vampires in the jury box all have their fangs out, signifying to all observing that they know very well what a drainer is.

"Yes, sir," says the girl. Her confidence is increasing, and a glint of righteous indignation lights in her eyes. "And since I knew Bill was new to Bon Temps, I figured he wouldn't have heard about that, so I felt like I ought to run outside and check up on him, maybe try to warn him if I could get him away from the Rattrays for a moment."

Why? Eric finds himself wondering. What would she care for the fate of a vampire who was unknown to her? He dismisses the question with a surge of irritation. He isn't here to see things from the girl's point of view.

"Did you have the opportunity to warn Mr Compton?" asks the lawyer.

"No, sir. By the time I caught up to them, the Rattrays were already draining him."

The stir in the courtroom is so prolonged that the judge, a silver haired human male stamped in the exact same mold as the girl's attorney, calls for order.

"How were they able to incapacitate Mr Compton long enough to drain him?" asks the lawyer, in a fascinated voice. He is manipulating the theater of the courtroom with great skill, and Eric finds himself admiring the man's technique.

"They'd wrapped a long silver chain over his wrists and neck and ankles," says the girl. "They'd already drained five or six vials of his blood by the time I found them."

"And what did you do when you saw Mr Compton in such distress?" Lancaster sounds enthralled, as though this were the first time he'd heard the story, and Eric cannot help but notice that the jury, including the three vampires, also appears to be on the edge of their seats.

"I yelled at them to leave him alone. Mack came at me with a knife, so I grabbed a chain out of the back of my brother's truck and slung it around Mack's neck. He dropped the knife, so I picked it up and told Denise to back away."

"And did she?"

"They both did. They were plenty mad, though. They got in their truck and tried to run us over, but I dragged Bill into the trees and got the silver off him."

"Well, I declare." Lancaster turns his back on the girl and walks out toward the audience. "You were alone, and you pitted yourself against two people you knew to be armed and dangerous, in order to save this vampire whom you'd only just met, and then when you were alone with him you freed him from his restraints. Weren't you scared? Didn't you think that he might turn on you?"

Against his will, Eric finds himself picturing the scene: this frail human girl, alone in the night, shouting defiance at her enemies, turning their weapons against them, driving them off, then ministering fearlessly to their vampire victim. The vision is-compelling. He jerks his head to one side, trying to clear his mind.

Something isn't right, he thinks to himself. This girl, this case-they aren't in the least what he'd expected. He'd thought the girl was Bill Compton's discarded pet, murdering him in his sleep in order to avenge her pride, bolstered perhaps by some anti-vampire rhetoric she'd picked up on a TV talk show. He cannot reconcile the girl before him now with the image he'd formed of her. She is proud, that is true-but he suspects that she is too proud for such pettiness.

"What is it?" whispers Pam. She has picked up on his agitation.

"Later," he murmurs.

"It did cross my mind that he might hurt me," says the girl. She doesn't look at all uncomfortable now. Her tone is pert, self-assured. "But I wrapped the silver chain around my neck, just in case. Besides that, I figured he was capable of realizing I'd done him a good turn."

She'd treated Bill Compton courteously, Eric thinks, but she had taken precautions. She is smarter-and more highly evolved-than he'd given her credit for.

"And did he?" says the lawyer. "Was he grateful?"

"He thanked me," says the girl. "He offered me the blood they'd drained, to sell or drink if I wanted."

The stir created by this news is unrestrainable, even after the judge bangs his gavel. Every vampire in the courtroom is hissing. The humans look dismayed; they do not realize the implications of the girl's statement. Eric looks again toward the Queen; her features are arranged in a delicate sneer.

Lancaster pitches his voice over the clamor. "And did you take the blood he offered?"

"I did not," says the girl. "I told him I didn't have any use for it."

"Even though you could sell it for a great deal of money? Forgive me mentioning it, Sookie, but I know you could use it."

"I would never do that," says the girl.

Eric stares at her. Pam is staring at her too. Eric feels a sudden surge of warmth in his chest that has nothing to do with anger or annoyance.

"Miss Stackhouse." The noise around them begins to die away, and Lancaster pitches his voice low. "Were you aware at the time that when Mr Compton invited you to drink his blood, doing so would have created what is known as a blood bond between the two of you? And that this blood bond would enable Mr Compton to sense your emotions, and track your location, as well as-excuse me-create a sexual attraction between you?"

"How did he know that?" hisses Pam.

Eric shrugs. Bill Compton had been shrewd. He must have realized the girl's potential from that first meeting. Eric might have done the same under the circumstances. Why, though, had he not simply glamored her? He files this question away to be examined later, with the rest of the inconsistencies he has discovered in the course of the girl's testimony.

The girl tilts her chin up. "I wasn't aware at that time, no."

"But you became aware of the effects of blood bonding later, did you not?"

"I did."

"How did you find out?"

"Bill told me."

"Under what circumstances?"

The girl squares her shoulders. "The night after I saved Bill from the Rattrays, they attacked me in the parking lot as I was getting off work. They beat me nearly to death. Bill found me and gave me his blood so I would heal."

Eric blinks. Again, he finds himself picturing the scene. The thought of the girl, covered in her own blood, is at once arousing and-more distasteful than it ought to be.

"He found you," says the lawyer. "How did he do that?"

"When he came into the bar that evening, I asked him to meet me after work. My grandmother wanted me to ask him if he'd give a talk at a meeting of the Descendants of the Glorious Dead."

"You had an appointment to meet him."

"Yes, sir."

"But he was late."

"He was a little late, yes."

"Didn't that strike you as strange?"

Sookie blinks. She looks surprised, uncertain, like she doesn't know where the question is leading. But Eric does, and even as he finds himself impressed with the lawyer's sagacity, he feels a sudden flare of outrage that might have taken his breath away, if he had any breath.

"Not really, no."

"Sookie, did it ever cross your mind that Mr Compton wasn't late at all? That he was nearby when the attack on you began, and that he allowed it to proceed so that he would have an excuse to feed you his blood, and so create the blood bond that you denied him when you refused to take the blood he'd offered you the night before?"

And that, Eric thinks, is that. The trial is effectively over. He doubts neither the truth of the lawyer's implications, nor the effect that the disclosure will have on the jury. He imagines that Nan Flannigan and the other functionaries at the AVL are regretting right about now that they pushed this ridiculous spectacle into taking place over Eric's objections. Lancaster has done his job very effectively. He has painted a picture of a brave, selfless, fragile girl exerting herself to heroism on the behalf of a vampire who stood by and allowed her to be tortured for the service she'd done him, all so that he could ensnare her with his dark powers. And Lancaster hadn't prepared her for the question; the entire courtroom will reel with the shock of the girl's realization. She could confess to the murder right now, and walk away a free woman.

This pretty human child and her sweet human tears are about to set the mainstream movement back a thousand years, and Eric can't even bring himself to resent her for it.

Except-the girl isn't crying. Her eyes have widened in shock, but she doesn't look upset. She looks-Eric narrows his eyes consideringly-angry.

"No, Mr Lancaster," she says, in a calm clear voice. "It never crossed my mind. And I don't believe it now. Bill deceived me and manipulated me, it's true. But he wasn't a monster. He was a decent man, at heart. He would never have let them hurt me like you said."

The courtroom around Eric explodes. The judge bangs his gavel. Lancaster looks shocked, the prosecutor lost, the jury perplexed.

Eric has risen to his feet before he knows what he is doing. Despite the furor, the movement attacts the girl's attention. She looks up, and Eric meets her eyes across the distance. She holds his gaze steadily, then glances demurely down at her hands.

"Pam," says Eric, his voice too low for anyone else to hear over the noise of the courtroom.

Pam looks at him and rises. Wordlessly, they slip out the back of the courtroom together.