Thank you so much to everyone who was so kind to Happy Anniversary, my first effort at fan fiction. I was so encouraged I've dared to submit a chapter for a new idea that's been mulling around in my head for a while. It's a lot darker than Happy Anniversary, but I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 1

It was just sunset as my plane came in to land at Las Vegas. The sky was streaked with purple clouds and the sun itself looked way bigger than usual as it touched the horizon, glowing blood-red. That was appropriate, as I was here to pay a visit to Eric Northman, my vampire…my vampire what? boyfriend? lover? pledged partner? bonded one? husband? I thought about that for a few minutes, to take my mind off the descent. I wasn't that big on flying. Boyfriend? To use his own phrase, he was so not a boy, being over a thousand years old. He had originally been a Viking, and that's exactly what he looked like, with long golden hair and ice-blue eyes. He was also six-foot-four, totally buff and handsome enough to be a romance cover model. In fact, he had posed as Mr January in the nude vampire calendar that had been such a money-spinner for Fangtasia, the bar he owned in Shreveport. That calendar still hung on my wall, but somehow I'd never got past January. This last month while he'd been away, it had been my only comfort. Boyfriend? Perhaps not.

Pledged one or husband? yeah, ok, even though he had tricked/manipulated me into both statuses more than a year ago. The pledging thing was definitely important in the vampire community; it protected me from interference by other parties who might like – scratch that, who would definitely like, to take advantage of my telepathic talents if Eric had not had the sense to mark his territory with the ceremonial knife, even though I hadn't known what he was doing. I had been so mad with him at the time, but events had proved him right. By vampire law, no-one, not even the king, could touch me without Eric's prior consent. According to him this made us married under vampire law, so husband might not be completely inappropriate, either, although I had so far resisted any suggestion that I was his wife, and had refused to take his name or give up my job and move in with him permanently, which is what he really wanted.

The pledging had its uses, but it was the bond that was really important to me. Since we had exchanged blood more than three times, there was an extraordinary connection between us; I could usually sense his location and emotions and he could pick up on mine. This could get complicated, as I couldn't always tell if what I was feeling was me or him, but I had grown accustomed to having him there in my head; in the background, but definitely there. At least I had some escape if I wanted it, as I couldn't feel him during the day, when he rested. I don't know how it was for him, but the impression I got was that he didn't want to escape it; he always said he loved feeling that connected to me. The bond had grown much fainter recently, partly because we hadn't renewed it with a blood exchange in quite a while and partly because he'd been in Vegas at the court of King Felipe for the last month, and distance didn't help any. He was engaged on business connected with his job; he was sheriff of Area Five, in the vampire kingdom of Louisiana, which had recently been taken over in a bloody and violent coup by the king of Nevada when Louisiana's queen had been seriously injured in an explosion at a vampire summit in Rhodes.

Eric had been the only Louisiana sheriff to survive the coup, possibly because he was a natural survivor; you didn't get to be a thousand years old without learning a trick or two. However, he had been under a lot of pressure recently from Victor Madden, the new king's agent for the whole of Louisiana. Victor wanted Eric's area for himself, as it was the most profitable in the state, and he had been working very hard to try and discredit Eric with the king. So far Eric had managed to combat his manoeuvrings successfully, but Victor had recently made an attempt on my life, which I had been lucky to survive, and that had caused Eric to decide to go and see Felipe at his headquarters in Vegas and deal with the matter once and for all. He had warned me that there would be little opportunity for him to contact me, as he expected to be in meetings pretty much all night every night and he could not afford to be distracted in what was definitely a fight for his area and possibly for his life, but he had called my mobile a couple of times, and had sent flowers twice and heart-shaped balloons once and a fabulous diamond bracelet two weeks ago, each with loving messages. I was wearing the bracelet now, as the lights of the runway drew closer and we touched down with a gentle bounce. So I was definitely both pledged and bonded, but that didn't define our relationship, somehow.

It had been a real surprise to get a text from him just this morning, asking me to come and join him in Vegas, complete with details of the flight and check-in time. Did I say asking me? Naturally, I meant telling me. Eric was the most autocratic man I had ever met. Large and in charge, that was him, and I think I was the only person who ever contradicted him. His subordinates and staff all went in fear of him (for very good reason), but I questioned his orders for the good of his soul(assuming he had one; the religious leaders were still arguing about that). It wasn't healthy for anyone to live without someone to tell them when they're being a complete and total dick, excuse my French. Still, I hadn't seen him for way too long, and I had no intention of cutting off my nose to spite my face, so I sent back an enthusiastic yes, called my boss at the bar for some time off, and had just packed a couple of bags when my doorbell rang and there was a chauffeured limousine waiting to take me to the airport in style. As usual Eric had arranged everything down to the last detail, and I was whisked through check-in with minimum delay and escorted to the most luxurious seat on the plane.

As the plane taxied to the terminal, I swiftly reviewed my list. The only one left was lover. I couldn't argue with that one. Eric was a truly great lover; well, he'd had a thousand years to practise, and from what I could tell he hadn't wasted a second. He was considerate, passionate, tender, masterful, generous and imaginative and his stamina was legendary. The things he did to me in bed (and elsewhere) were little short of miraculous, and I felt a surge of lust just thinking of the reunion we were going to have very shortly, but he was so much more than just a lover; he was my friend and my protector, my companion and my shoulder to cry on. He was the guy I laughed with and fought with and watched old movies with. So, was he my vampire lover, boyfriend, pledged one, bonded one, husband, or a mixture of all of these? Perhaps it would be simplest just to say Eric was my vampire, and leave it at that. He certainly thought of me (and referred to me!) as his human.

The seatbelt light went off and I gathered my belongings carefully, before making my way to the exit and following the signs towards the concourse. I was not in the least surprised to see a sign neatly labelled Stackhouse being held up by a smart uniformed Were. However, I'd been caught that way before, so I checked his mind out carefully. Although I find it harder to read Were minds than humans, I can often get a sense of what they're thinking. In his case there was no aggression, malice or subterfuge (a good Word of the Day) going on, so I identified myself and he smiled and took my luggage for me. He led me out of the terminal to another huge grey limousine and soon we were travelling smoothly through the early evening dusk, heading out of town and into the desert, towards King Felipe's principal residence.

It was only about half an hour, and when we got there, all you could see from the road was a high white wall, with some big metal gates. The chauffeur stopped and sounded his horn, and a smaller gate set in the large one opened and a uniformed guard came over to the car. He inspected the driver's ID carefully, and shone a torch into the back where I was sitting. I smiled politely, and he touched his cap. Like the chauffeur, he was a Were, as seemed traditional with vampires. They liked to use Weres for security as they were supernatural, tough, well-trained, disciplined, and they were awake during the day; a big plus for beings who were vulnerable in daylight hours. Of course, they had to rely on other help at full moon, when all the Weres took off and did their own thing (you don't want to know!) but that was only a small drawback .

The guard spoke into his radio and the huge gates opened slowly. As we drove in, there was a long gravel drive, with floodlit gardens stretching off to the left and right. I was amazed at that amount of green in the middle of the desert; I figured there had to be some serious money going into the irrigation systems here.

We rounded a bend and there was the house. House? Mansion, more like. It was only one story high, but it seemed to stretch in both directions as far as I could see. It was all in floodlit white stucco, and had a sort of Hispanic look, with colonnades and beautiful graceful arches all along the front. The drive widened out and the car swept round a fountain and drew up at the pillared portico in the centre of the building. The driver came round and opened my door, and I hurried up the three shallow steps to the great wooden doors, one of which was open. I could hardly contain myself, knowing I would be seeing Eric in a very few minutes. I checked the bond, hoping to at least pick up an echo of my striking Viking, but there was nothing registering. I guessed it must have been more depleted than I thought; Still, we'd have fun renewing it tonight, for sure.

Inside I found myself in a black-and-white tiled lobby, filled with more beautiful tropical plants. There was a reception desk and a man in uniform waiting to take my luggage from the chauffeur who had followed me in. This felt more like a hotel than a private residence, but I remembered that Felipe wasn't just a private individual; he was a vampire king, and he lived accordingly.

I looked around for Eric, but the only other person there was a dapper-looking vampire of medium size in a beautifully tailored suit, sitting reading a newspaper. He looked up as we entered, put the paper down and came to meet me, smiling widely. Oh great. Victor Madden. I might have known he'd be here somewhere, sliming round the king and trying to catch Eric out. We detested each other, but both hid it behind insincere smiles and scrupulous good manners. I hated him for what he was trying to do to Eric, and he hated me…why? I wasn't sure, but I suspected it was because he thought I was an asset that should be controlled by himself or the King, not Eric. We both knew he'd tried to have me killed, and we both pretended we didn't know.

My smile was as wide as his, and just as genuine, as we shook hands. This in itself was unusual in vampire culture – they usually just nodded at each other, but Victor was always trying to cop a feel one way or another. Ick. I resisted the temptation to wipe my hand on my skirt, and asked where Eric was. He switched his smile off and said, "Alas, dear lady, regrettably Mr Northman has been detained. I am told he will be some time yet, but meanwhile perhaps you would care to freshen up a little in your room, and then we will see what we can do to entertain you until your happy re-union." His smile was back in place, and although I wasn't pleased I didn't see what I could do, so I thanked him and he escorted me to one of the many doors leading out of the lobby, followed by the bellhop. It was opened with a keycard and once through, we were in a long corridor leading back into the depths of the building. Again, this felt like a hotel, with champagne-coloured carpets and watercolour prints on the walls. We stopped and he opened the door to a charming bedroom decorated in shades of blue and cream, overlooking the floodlit gardens. He assured himself that I had everything I needed, left me the keycard and then oiled his way out, saying he would return in half an hour.

I checked out the facilities. The room had an ensuite bathroom, which included fresh towels and even bathroom tissue (not using such things themselves, vampires were occasionally forgetful about stocking up). I quickly unpacked and changed into a smart black suit with black stockings and three-inch stilettos; We were in a royal residence, and I didn't want to let Eric down. I accessorised with a red brooch, earrings and necklace, and I put up my hair in a sophisticated style with a sparkling clip, to match Eric's beautiful bracelet, and then I couldn't resist sending a quick text to Eric just to let him know I had arrived. I soon had one back saying See You Soon. Go With Victor. This surprised me, but if I had learned one thing it was to trust Eric in matters of vampire politics, so I sat down to wait for Captain Slimeball.

It wasn't long before Victor knocked on my door. I opened it and he was standing there smirking, with a couple of Weres in tow. I knew he didn't like to move around without an escort of some sort, presumably to enhance his feelings of self-importance, so I didn't comment.

"Miss Stackhouse, you look especially lovely tonight."

"Why thank you Mr Madden." I could be insincerely charming too when the occasion arose. "Is Eric available yet?"

"He has asked me to help you occupy your time, perhaps with a little tour of our facilities here, until he is free. Would that be agreeable to you?"

Well, it was better than sitting in my room staring at the wall (no TV – vamps weren't that big on it), so I said that would be fine, and slipped my keycard into my pocket before accompanying him. He started by showing me the ground floor. He explained that, like many large vampire residences, the majority of the rooms were underground, to preclude all possibility of sunlight entering. Those above ground were primarily for human visitors or employees.

It seemed very busy, with a great many people coming and going carrying piles of paper and working at computer terminals. I commented on this and he said, "You've arrived at a very interesting time. This is our Assizes." I must have looked puzzled, because he elaborated. "Twice a year His Majesty holds a vampire court, where any of his subjects can bring cases for judgment. It sometimes happens that a vampire commits an offence against another which is not punishable in human law, and when this happens one of our own judges hears the case. If there is an appeal, the king himself arbitrates. He is the final authority in our community, and all vampires are bound to accept his decisions. We also handle any major crimes. Minor infractions are dealt with locally, usually by area sheriffs such as our good Mr Northman, but sometimes an offence is too serious for this, and then the king deals with it personally. This has been a particularly interesting session, as we have had a treason trial – most unusual. The court is currently sitting, and we can take a quick look in if you wish. It would be interesting to know how it compares with a human court of law."

I replied politely, "I don't think I could help you there, Mr Madden, I've never been in a human court of law, but I'd be interested to see your legal system in action." He smiled and guided me to a bank of elevators, his Weres following.

We descended four levels and emerged into a brightly lit corridor lined with blond wood and with a thick grey carpet. There were a lot of doors, and it was much quieter than upstairs, even though there were still a great many people about. Mostly vamps, of course, but they're not a chatty race, and they move very silently. Even Victor spoke with a hushed voice and the two Weres were practically on tiptoe. He silently opened a door labelled Court 6, a finger to his lips, and we slid inside. We were at the back of a viewing gallery which looked down into the well of a court room. It looked pretty much like all the TV court cases I had ever seen, except that where our courts had a big American flag, here there was a huge Ankh symbol behind the judges' chairs. Again it was all panelled in wood, and was very stuffy. Of course, that's not a problem for vamps, who don't need to breathe. We stayed for a few minutes, but I couldn't make much sense of what was going on. Two lawyers appeared to be arguing about a precedent of some sort, and the judge looked heartily bored. Soon Victor tapped my sleeve and we left as quietly as we had come. He shut the door silently and then looked at me to see what I had thought. I smiled and said, "very interesting." He seemed pleased.

We went up to level three. This seemed to be mostly conference halls and committee rooms – the complex was vast, but Victor explained that Felipe managed all three of his kingdoms from this site, so really it was like the government building for a small country. I peeked through the glass viewing panels into a few of the conference rooms to see if I could spot Eric, but no joy. The state rooms and the king's own private quarters were on level five, as deep as you could go. They were not available for inspection.

Then floor two which was all offices and admin, largely staffed by vampire lawyers and administrators and a few humans fetching and carrying and doing the photocopying. Yawn. The fittings and fixtures seemed very much what you'd see in offices everywhere, but I did notice all the plants down here were fake. Of course, no sunlight.

Finally floor one, which was just below the ground level. The elevator gave onto a short corridor and there were a number of doors labelled Security, Armoury, Weapons Training, and that sort of thing. We stopped for a few minutes in a shooting gallery and watched uniformed trainee guards learning to handle weaponry safely. Their shooting was scarily accurate. Then we reached a solid metal door with an armed Were guard outside it. It was labelled Custody Suite and Victor showed his pass to the guard before the door was unlocked and we were admitted. Inside we stepped onto a long metal catwalk above two rows of cells, running the length of a huge high-ceilinged room. They had solid floors and walls, but were roofed in just below the walkway with a strange tinted glass of some sort.

"This is our detention area," Victor said. "On the right are those awaiting trial, and on the left those who have been convicted. They are here for one of four reasons; either they're awaiting sentence, or they're appealing their sentence, or they are serving their sentence if it's a custodial one, or they've been sentenced but it hasn't been executed yet."

"Executed?" I asked, wide-eyed.

"No, no, no," he hastened to reassure me. "Not that sort of execution – we are not barbarians, Miss Stackhouse; it means the sentence, whatever it may be, has not yet been implemented, it doesn't mean executing them!"

I peered down at the two different rows of cells. Those for vampires awaiting trial looked reasonable; a basic lidless coffin on a stand, a table, a couple of chairs. I could see books and CDs in some of the cells. Not all of them were occupied. "The Assizes are drawing to a close," explained Victor when I mentioned this. "Most cases have already been heard, and the defendants either released or transferred to the condemned row. A great many sentences are non-custodial; fines, that sort of thing." He gestured at one of the occupied cells. A middle-aged female vampire was seated at the table reading. She didn't look up as we paused right above her. "One-way glass," said Victor, indicating the transparent ceiling. We can see her but she can't see us. And, of course, the cells are completely soundproof. Very necessary when dealing with vampires' sharp ears." He checked a card attached to the catwalk railing, which seemed to have the case details of the inmate below. "She is accused of not adequately controlling her human. Apparently, he spoke to a reporter about the resting-places of a number of very important vampires who belonged to her nest. For security reasons, that sort of information is usually highly confidential, and those concerned had to re-locate. It was most inconvenient and unfortunate. Her trial comes on tomorrow."

The next cell contained a vampire who had turned a woman but had then neglected to provide her with the support and guidance that was so necessary to a new vampire, which resulted in her death at the hands of an angry farmer when he caught her about to drain his baby son.

Then Victor passed to the other side of the catwalk, to the cells for those who had been convicted. They were very different from those on the right. There was no coffin or other furniture except for a table, on which was spread a variety of unpleasant-looking implements. Weirdly, the walls were reflective. There was a large white platform in the centre of each cell, raised about a foot off the floor and on the platforms were the prisoners, one to a cell. They were confined in a variety of different ways; one was chained to an upright post, one was dangling by his wrists from a sort of gallows, another was spread-eagled on his front, with his wrists and ankles chained to the four corners of the platform. The bonds appeared to be made of leather in each case, but Victor told me that the various chains and shackles were all made from silver sheathed in leather, which kept the prisoner weak and unable to break free, but prevented the silver from burning the bare skin. From what I could see they were all naked, they had all had their heads shaved (for hygiene reasons, Victor explained) and they all had a variety of bruises and contusions. As they were vamps, they all healed, but some of the injuries must have been pretty severe as several of them had quite deep scars.

There was a guard in each cell, and as I watched I saw one check his watch and then walk over to the table in the corner and choose what appeared to be a thick black stick about two feet long. He went over to his prisoner, the one hanging from the gallows, and touched the end of the stick to a place no-one should be touching without either a medical degree or a wedding ring. There was no sound, but the prisoner convulsed in his chains, his mouth wide open as if screaming. The guard then returned the stick to the table, made a mark on a clipboard and went back to his position by the door. I stared in horror, and then turned to Victor, who was watching impassively.

"Every convict is subject to an educative regime, tailored to their specific offence," he said. "Some elements are common to all regimes; sleep deprivation, low-level diet, that sort of thing, but other elements are very specific." He glanced at the card. This man, for example, is on Rehabilitation Program Level 1, the least strict. Apparently he was convicted of sexually assaulting another vampire's human, so his rehabilitation program includes a cattle-prod used in the manner you have just seen every hour, day and night for the term of his sentence. Our program goes all the way up to Level 8, which involves some very special attention indeed. The guards work their way through a carefully planned 24-hour timetable, and it is a very successful system. We have very few recidivists." He smiled.

"Recidivists?" I wasn't above asking if I didn't understand something.

"Repeat offenders," he explained. "Most people do not wish to return here."

I'll bet they don't.

"But what about those who are appealing against their convictions? You might be torturing an innocent person."

"I think you may have misunderstood me, Miss Stackhouse. The appeals are against their sentence, not their conviction. There is no appeal once convicted. However, some prisoners hope that their sentences may be cut or commuted if his majesty sees fit."

Victor continued to stroll along the catwalk, but I felt I had seen enough. What the hell sort of place were they running here? All this talk of "rehabilitation" and "educative regimes" and it was a straight-forward torture-chamber! I asked why the walls were reflective, and he said, "They are sprayed with chrome; even the one-way glass has a thin coating. This has two benefits; firstly, we discovered years ago that chrome has the strange effect of damping down blood-bonds, or even suppressing them altogether. Many of the inmates are blood-bonded to humans." He sighed theatrically. "in fact, this is often the cause of their being here in the first place. So many of these offences are the result of too-close association with humans. So, while they are here we do our best to detach them from any corrupting influences. Also, it would not be right for some to receive comfort and companionship through their bond and others who are not bonded to have nothing, therefore in the interests of fairness they are all isolated equally. The second benefit is that we find that being able to watch their own punishment increases its effectiveness enormously." He smiled proudly. I felt sick. The thought of these prisoners being forced to watch their own suffering was horrible.

"Mr Madden, I really think it's about time I went back to my room. Eric may be finished with his meeting by now."

He smiled. "I don't think so, my dear, I left strict instructions that I was to be called when Mr Northman was available. However, I'm sure you will see him before long. Meanwhile, let's just take a quick look in on our traitor. You remember I mentioned the treason trial? He's just here." He stopped above the last cell in the row and I joined him reluctantly and looked down.

This guy was a real mess. He was kneeling in the centre of his platform and was wearing a heavy-looking collar of the standard leather-covered silver. Four thick rods ran from rings on the collar to the corners of the platform, holding him in place, unable to either stand up or lie down. He also wore sturdy manacles and leg-irons; they were clearly taking no chances with this dude. His shaved head was bowed and every inch of his body that I could see was covered in blood and whip-marks, burns, scars and half-healed festering cuts, all reflected a hundred times over in the mirrored walls. I looked away hurriedly.

Victor sighed. "He has been convicted of a very serious offence, I'm afraid. Papers were found in his room indicating that he was engaged in treasonous correspondence with the King of Mississippi, in direct violation of his oath to King Felipe. He will be sentenced tomorrow night; His majesty prides himself on not making hasty decisions. Meanwhile, his regime is Level 8, a particularly strict one; he has not slept and has hardly eaten for two weeks. Look there."

There were two guards for this guy, and both of them were picking up multi-stranded whips from the table. The strands gleamed dully; they were made of thin silver chains. They stepped behind the prisoner, looked at each other and then one swung the whip and struck him full across his naked back with all his strength, followed immediately by the other guard. The effect on the kneeling vampire was appalling. It seemed that every muscle and sinew in his body stood out as his back arched and his head jerked back, while his mouth opened in a cry of agony. I could see his fangs had been torn out, leaving bloody holes. His eyes were screwed tight shut in pain, or at least one of them was. The other one had a long diagonal scar running across it from the centre of his forehead down across the lid, which was swollen shut, and onto the cheek. The guards laughed and struck him four more times each, his body twisting beneath the blows. I saw wisps of smoke rising from his back where the silver had done its work.

I started to turn away, sickened, but my brooch clasp must have been slightly loose because at that moment it came undone and fell from my jacket lapel. I tried to catch it but it slipped from my fingers and landed on the catwalk railing, bounced off and fell with a small clatter onto the glass ceiling of the cell below. Both the guards and the prisoner looked up at the unexpected sound. The prisoner's good eye was open and although I knew he couldn't see me, from where I stood he looked like he was staring straight at me. Instantly I lost all interest in the brooch and hung over the railing, gripping it with every ounce of strength I had. It was the only thing stopping me from fainting there and then, because the eye looking back at me from the bloody, bruised face below was a startling ice-blue. It was Eric.