Close to Dead

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Chapter 26: Potpourri


Eric and I were sitting at a big conference table in the middle of the same large room where we had our little meet and greet last night. Eric was giving me a look, one eyebrow in the air, one side of his mouth to the side, and then he slapped my hand away from my chest lightly. It was because I continued to fidget with my blouse. It was gaping open in the front. It was fine when I stood up, but when I sat it gaped open a bit. Part of the curse of being born with plenty of nature’s bounty, I suppose. I looked over at Eric again, one leg crossed over another, one arm across the back of my chair. He seemed relaxed and perfectly at ease. How did he do it? We were sitting on plush, swiveled chairs around the conference table, and at the moment, the King of Ohio was at the end of the table, being questioned by one of the other NVA members about the night he came to Eric’s bar.


This wasn’t so much a trial as it was an informal type of question and answer session. The room was set up like a large meeting room … big table in the center, chairs all around, a credenza on the side with bottled water and bottles of blood on ice. The more important people were sitting around the table, like the NVA members, de Castro and Madden, Eric and Alcide. Other people were in chairs behind us, along the walls. A few people were up and walking around, like Quinn, and some other bodyguards. And one very pissed off part vampire/part fae cousin of mine was leaning against the wall in the corner of the room, and he was staring right at me.


Every once in a while, one of the members of the NVA, who were scattered across the room amongst the other guests like potpourri, would raise their hands and ask a question or two, or they might even ask Eric a question, and he would answer it right from his seat. Sometimes people made jokes. A few times people began talking too loudly amongst themselves and the head NVA person, the King of Maryland, would tell everyone to settle down, but, for the most part, it was a relaxed atmosphere.


I almost felt like I was at a seminar and I was waiting for the team building exercises to begin. I was also highly aware that mine was the only human brain in the room. Coincidence? I think not.


Felipe and Victor sat on the other side of the table, across from Eric and me. They would counter each question with a question or two of their own. Victor stood up a couple of times, and with that cool exterior of his, he would say things like, “Come now, Eric, do you really want us to believe that you were merely entertaining out-of-town guests, and that you weren’t talking about an uprising?”


He asked it as coolly as if he was saying, “Really Eric, do you think you look nice in black?”


Then Eric, with his equally cool demeanor, would answer his accusations with such things as, “I didn’t know it was against the king’s edict to serve out-of-town guests drinks. I’ll be sure to remember that next time.”


People would laugh when he would make remarks like that. I smiled openly at a few of the more entertaining comments. When I did, he would brush his hand lightly across my neck or back as it rested against the back of my chair. Yes, Eric seemed to be having a grand old time.


The whole time, Larkin remained in the corner of the room, not participating, not asking any questions, not answering any, and staring, mostly at me. His arms were crossed and stance rigid. He was NOT cool and collected, not in the least.


I wasn’t sure I understood this little question and answer seminar that we were participating in, but I didn’t have to understand. When the Queen of Pennsylvania began to talk about the fact that Eric was taken from his home state and found guilty without proper representation, I sat upright and began to shake my head in agreement. Eric reached over a few times and touched me, just small touches during this time. Once his thumb rubbed my shoulder. Once his hand came to the back of my neck, under my hair, and he left it there for a few seconds before he removed it. One time, when I was pulling at the front of my blouse again, he grinned and pulled my hand away, and then he brought it to his mouth and kissed it.


I leaned over and whispered, “Is it going well? I really can’t tell.”


Eric wasn’t looking at me when he answered. He whispered back, “Yes, lover, all is well,” but his gaze was on the corner of the room, at Larkin. I followed it. Larkin wasn’t looking back at Eric. He was still staring daggers at my soul. Eric looked from Larkin to me, then back to Larkin. I heard a very low growl, deep in Eric’s chest. His arm went around me possessively.


The King of Maryland asked if any of the other council members had questions before they went off to talk amongst themselves. Larkin pushed away from the wall and he said, “I have a question, if I may, Your Highness, although I am not part of the National Vampire Assembly, but I have some insight in the Eric Northman case, and I would like to share what I know with the members of the Assembly, if I may.”


I took a breath in and waited to see what he would say.


He began to walk around the room, his mere beauty overwhelming. Vampires overall are lovely creatures, well, strike that—Vampires on the whole are lovely to look at, but Larkin was truly a half-breed that was a true breed apart. He was breathtakingly beautiful, being part fae, but only on the outside, which made him seem incredibly ugly, even more so than someone with a facial deformity.


Larkin’s brother, Iain, sat behind me, next to Pam, up against the wall. I turned slightly in my seat to look at the man behind me. He looked serious and subdued. He was waiting to hear what his brother had to say, just like the rest of us. I felt Eric’s hand on my back again. He was rubbing it up and down, slowly, granting me comfort, security, and grounding me, giving me a center. Larkin walked closer, still staring right at me. Lord, it was as if he was staring into my soul.


“I have reasons to believe that the Kings of New York and Ohio, and the Queen of Pennsylvania, have glossed over their true reasons for visiting Eric Northman that night weeks ago, and their agenda for doing so is plain and simple, they are doing it for personal gain. Since they have all claimed it was nothing but a social call, how can I prove differently? Yes, I was there, but I wasn’t privy to their conversations. Yes, I was led to believe they were discussing Northman’s desire for secession and his wish to be out from under the thumb of Nevada, but then again, that was apparently what they wanted me to believe so I would bring that news back to de Castro. Even if it wasn’t true at the time, it still served a means to their end. It brought us all here tonight.” His arms reached out to motion toward the crowd.


He was now looking at everyone, not just at me, of which I was thankful. “You know, there was another person there that evening and no one’s asked her any questions yet. Would anyone mind if I asked her a few?” Damn, he was looking at me again.


I felt Eric stiffen beside me. His hand brushed the back of my neck again. Before he could protest, (and I knew he wanted to) the King of Ohio stood and spoke. “First, this isn’t a formal trial. This is a meeting to determine if the trial that the King of Nevada had against Eric Northman, on the grounds of treason, was just. It’s also a way for the few of us who are on the council to determine if de Castro had a right to take over Louisiana and Arkansas in the first place.”


He continued, “You’re right, you weren’t a party to our private conversations that night, nor was this young woman. I’m sorry, fairy, but I do mind if you ask questions, and I do mind the implication that I’m not being truthful, and that my wife, the Queen of Pennsylvania, and my dear friend, the King of New York, are being less than honest. There’s no reason to ask Eric’s human wife any questions at all, and furthermore, you have no grounds to ask anything of anyone.”


So there,’ I added in my head.


Larkin continued to smile. His teeth were so white they dazzled me. “Come now, Your Highness, you know as well as I do that Eric Northman contacted the NVA in the beginning to file a petition wanting to secede from Nevada. I’m not certain what you have to gain by lying about this, but I don’t fear any of you here. To you all, I’m nothing but a half-breed, an anomaly. Why not let me ask my simple questions. They might be useless, or they might be helpful.”


“I think we should let him ask questions, after all, he was there that night, plus, he is related to Eric’s human wife,” Victor snarled.


“We have nothing to hide, ask your questions, freak,” Eric answered for me.


Larkin walked up to the edge of the table, stood beside de Castro, looked right at me and said, “Sookie, why did you go to Fangtasia that night?”


“To see Eric.” I did not intend to lie for Eric, or to Larkin, and I really wasn’t aware of anything that night, so I wasn’t afraid of anything Larkin had to ask me. In my mind I thought, ‘bring it on’.


Larkin looked bored suddenly and he said, “And when you arrived there that evening, were you able to see Eric right away, or were you made to wait.”

I saw where he was going with this, and I didn’t like it. I answered right away. “I was told he was busy, so I waited until he was free.”

“Who told you he was busy?” was the next question from Larkin.


“Pam.”


“What did the lovely Pam say to you, exactly?” Larkin was now walking toward the head of the table. All eyes followed him. However, Eric looked at me.


“Pam said that he wasn’t expecting me, but that he was happy that I had come, and that he was busy entertaining some guests.” Frankly, I couldn’t recall Pam’s exact words, but it was something close to that.


“He was entertaining? Those were her exact words?” Larkin inquired. He was coming closer. Eric was closer to him than I was. He whipped around in his seat to look at the man, before he took my hand, possessively.


I knew the longer I kept quiet, the worse things appeared. I racked my brain for the precise words and then said, “Well, I asked Pam if he was busy, and she said yes, that he had real important people with him that night, and that they were having an important meeting, but that I should go sit down at his table, have a rum and coke and wait for him.”


That was the best I could remember.


“Then who did you see?” Larkin asked.


Eric raised one hand, in apparent disgust, and said, “How is any of this pertinent?”


“Answer the question, woman,” Maryland said, none too nicely.


“Bill Compton stopped by my table,” I recalled.


Larkin was now standing behind Eric and me. We both had to swivel our chairs to look at him. Bill was standing on the other side of the room. I looked at Bill, figuring Larkin would ask him a question now, but instead, Larkin said, “And did Bill Compton tell you what he was doing at Fangtasia?”


In my mind, I was screaming, “oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God.” Outwardly, I answered, “He said that he was there to see Eric and some of Eric’s guests, and that he had a short presentation to give them.” I said it quietly. I felt like with each question I answered, I was nailing another nail in Eric’s coffin.


Eric seemed nonplussed, even bored. He crossed his legs again and even stretched his arms above his head as Larkin rounded the other side of the table now. My gaze followed the man, mainly because he was still asking me questions.


“What happened next?” Larkin stopped walking and leaned his hip on the table, right next to my arm. I backed my chair up a bit, because his closeness was disconcerting.


“Are we going to go over a minute by minute replay of the human’s day?” New York asked. A few people laughed. I swallowed, nervously.


“Answer,” Maryland barked. I was beginning not to like that man, especially since Victor and de Castro were now smiling, and Larkin was gleaming as well. I felt Eric’s presence by my side, and that gave me strength to go on.


“Bill left, and some vampire associate of New York’s came over and tried to buy me a drink, but I refused. I told him I was waiting for Eric. He said a few crude things to me, I reminded him who Eric was and who I was to Eric, and he left me alone.”


Larkin laughed a small, fake laugh full of disdain and cynicism. He reached out and touched my hair. I moved my head to the side, but Eric’s reflexes were even faster. He moved my entire chair away from Larkin, so that several feet separated us. Larkin didn’t flash an eyelash. He didn’t look at Eric. He still only had eyes for me, even as I was now five feet from the table and him, still in my chair.


“The vamp left you alone, you say?” Larkin gleamed. “Are you certain that he didn’t try to accost you in the hallway of the bar, take you into the men’s room, and drain you of your blood?”


“I don’t know what was going on in his mind,” I waned. “I can only read human’s minds, not vampires.” I was getting a bit peeved now, and it showed in my responses.


Larkin pushed away from the table, but then he knelt in front of my chair. I looked over at Eric, who stood up beside my chair. Larkin dared not touch me, if he wanted to keep his hand, but he placed one hand on the edge of the chair, and he said, “Is it not true, cousin, that I had to save you from the vampire. He had pulled you into one of the stalls, and before he could bite you, or worse, rape you, I pulled the creature off you and took care of him. Is that not the truth? Where was Eric? He wasn’t there to save you, yet I was.”


He stood up, pleased with himself. Eric stood behind my chair, but still had yet to utter a word. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say, because the man really hadn’t asked me a question this time. I finally said, “Eric was there when I became alert again, and he held me.”


“How sweet of him,” Larkin said sarcastically. “Do you know if I killed the vampire in question, Sookie?”


“I don’t recall,” I again answered honestly.


Larkin looked out among the throng of vampires, glued to his every word apparently, and said staunchly, “I’ll answer then. I didn’t kill him. I wanted to, but Eric forbade me to do so. Forbade me from hurting the vampire that wanted to bite or perhaps rape his very own human wife. How odd does that strike everyone here?”


I looked over at Eric, who was still standing, still by my side, his hand now on my shoulder.


“I know if someone tried to hurt someone I loved as much as Eric claims to love my cousin, I would kill the creature, even if it messed up a business arrangement, but no, Eric and the other kings rushed into the bathroom and stopped me because, Eric said, and I quote, ‘It was bad for business.’ Therefore, even though Sookie is my own flesh and blood, and I wanted to kill the creature that harmed her, even if her own bonded did not, I relented to Eric’s wishes because I knew his business with the northern vampires was important to him. Odd, though, the very act of their bond means no one can hurt her or take her from Eric except under penalty of death, unless of course, that penalty is preempted by an important business deal.”


Larkin smiled and laughed again. Victor and a few others laughed, too. Were they laughing at Eric and me or with Larkin? I didn’t know. I just knew I hated Larkin, and I also felt slightly angry with Eric, but I was sure that was Larkin’s intent.


Larkin walked back behind de Castro and he said, “One more question, Sookie, and answer it the best that you can remember. When he told you that I was the one that saved you from the vampire, you asked him if I killed him. Do you recall asking him that and what he said back to you?”


I looked at Eric. He sat back down and he wouldn’t look back at me. Well, fuck him and fuck this whole crowd. I said, “He told me he was happy that you only incapacitated him, at least until he finished his business with his king, and then, with his king’s permission, he said that he would seek retribution.”


Larkin started back toward his corner, where all of this started, and said, “Do you know if he ever sought that retribution, cousin?”

“You would have to ask him,” I spat.


“Oh, I don’t have to ask him. I already know the answer. The vampire who attacked you, and whom I attacked, was set free. He is the child of the King of New York, and I assume his sire may have slapped his wrist for the slight against you, but I don’t know for certain. However, the Sheriff of Area Five, who should have protected you for the mere fact that he is the sheriff and that you are supposed to be under the protection of his king, let alone the fact that you are supposedly his loved one, his beloved, his bonded, his wife … did nothing in retribution against the vampire in question. He didn’t want to ruin the little plans he set in motion that night, which was to break free from his rightful king, with the help of these other vampires.”


And with that, he folded his arms again, returned to his corner, continued to stare at me, and smiled.


I felt anger ripple off Eric. No one seemed to want to speak next, so I decided to do some fishing myself. I had a lot I wanted to ask the big blonde vampire beside me, but that could wait. First, I wanted to ask my cousin a couple of things.


“Excuse me, Your Highness,” I addressed the King of Maryland, “but may I now I ask a couple of questions. I promise I won’t take as long as my esteemed cousin, and I’m sure I won’t be quite as dramatic or have as much flare, but I still think I might shed some insight into some things from that night, too, if I may.”

“Of course, woman, go ahead,” he permitted.


I stood up. Eric backed his chair up a bit, but I refused to look over at him. He knew I was angry, but that was the least of our worries. I had to get him off scot-free, then I had to get him home, and then I would whip his ass good.


“What’s your whole relationship with de Castro?” I asked Larkin. “In other words, you’re not merely one of his lackeys, you’re not one of his children, you have a very profitable business and he’s one of your clients. Would you like to share the nature of that business with the members of this committee?”


“It is enough to say that I have business with him,” he answered, vaguely.


I started to walk toward him, just as he had walked toward me when he questioned me. “But what sort of business?”


“Personal business.” It seemed Larkin wasn’t going to volunteer any information he didn’t want to volunteer, so I decided to be a bit more specific in my questions.


I was perhaps ten feet from him. Everyone either was turned in his or her seats to watch us, or was leaning over in the chairs. I continued, “Do you recall telling me that night that you hated Eric with a passion, but that he was a shrewd business man? Do you recall telling me that you were there that night as a bargaining tool for his new business arrangement with the Kings of Ohio and New York, and the Queen of Pennsylvania? You told me that you weren’t there of your own free will. Do you recall any of that?”


He glared at me, but didn’t answer.


I persisted. “I asked you why Eric no longer viewed you as a threat to me, and you said that you weren’t helping him voluntarily, but were forced to do his bidding. You had a special product that Eric thought these other kings and queens might be interested in, and which de Castro was currently hogging all for himself. Even though you said you weren’t there voluntarily, Eric didn’t have an iron leash around your neck. You could have left at any time, but you didn’t, and I wager that you stayed because you were secretly hoping that you could expand your business to include these northern guests of Eric’s that night.”


I looked around the room, but I avoided looking at Eric. I stared hard back at Larkin and said, “Tell the council members what that business is, Larkin. Tell them what it is that you sell to de Castro, exclusively. Tell them what he’s holding out on all of them. I mean, surely you wouldn’t have minded having other important clients besides just the King of Nevada, right. If Eric had succeeded in his quest to get away from Nevada, which is what you claim he was doing that night, then it would have been great for you, too, because it would have expanded your business. Maybe Eric told you he would protect you from de Castro, or maybe not, but please, tell them all, right now, why you’re so special, cousin.”


My long speech was winding down, and I felt cocky right now. I knew that de Castro didn’t want the other vampires in the room to know about the unique qualities in Larkin’s blood, but I also knew that Larkin was a shrewd businessman, just as he claimed Eric was, and he probably did want others to know his secret. He went to Fangtasia that night to help Eric break away from Nevada, but for his own means, and when things didn’t work out, he had to act as if he, too, was affronted by Eric’s treachery.


I felt vindicated that I had figured everything out, so imagine my surprise when Larkin laughed and said, “You know nothing cousin. You can’t implicate me when I’ve done nothing wrong. I was forced to be there that night. I wasn’t there to expand my business. I wasn’t there of my own free will. You’re right, the king didn’t know I was there, but that was because Eric and Victor forced me to come. I wasn’t there to expand my business, but to try to buy my own brother’s freedom from Eric.” There was a collective gasp in the room.


Larkin looked wild and forlorn. He had said more than he had intended. I approached him closer. Then, in one of those weird moments of clarity when I can read the minds and intentions of creatures besides humans I said, “My God, you were forced to be there, weren’t you? Under the express command of Victor Madden, who was working with Eric to buy Louisiana’s freedom, and to gain Nevada for himself! I can hear your thoughts!” I spoke softly, coming closer to him, my hand reaching out to touch his face, so I could see things with more clarity.


I concluded, “You were forced to help Eric by Victor, and not only because he wants Louisiana for Eric, and Nevada for himself, but because he’s your true sire, isn’t he?”


I heard Eric wince from the other side of the room. I swear I heard Pam snicker. I heard Iain exhale a held breath. Nevertheless, the only thing I didn’t hear was myself scream when I was knocked to the ground by Victor Madden, who suddenly pulled Larkin across the table, his fangs on the other man’s neck, and his hand tightly grasping mine.

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