Chapter 8

Between Eric's legs I could see a man, very scarred and very muscular, with dark eyes and hair. I knew he was short because I could only see his head and shoulders. He was wearing jeans and a Black Sabbath T-shirt. I couldn't help it. I giggled.

"Haven't you missed me, Eric?" The Roman's voice had an accent I really couldn't have broken down, it had so many layers.

"Ocella, your presence is always an honor," Eric said. I giggled harder. Eric was lying.

"What is wrong with my wife?" he asked.

"Her senses are confused," the older vampire said. "You have my blood. She's had your blood. And another child of mine is here. The bond between us all is scrambling her thoughts and feelings."

No shit.

"This is my new son, Alexei," Appius Livius Ocella told Eric.

I peered past Eric's legs. The new "son" was a boy of no more than thirteen or fourteen. In fact, I could hardly see his face. I froze, trying not to react.

"Brother," said Eric by way of greeting his new sibling. The words came out level and cold.

I was going to stand up now. I was not going to crouch here any longer. Eric had crowded me into a very small space between the bed and the nightstand, with the bathroom door to my right. He hadn't shifted from his defensive posture.

"Excuse me," I said, with a great effort, and Eric took a step forward to give me room, keeping himself between me and his maker and the boy. I rose to my feet, pushing on the bed to get upright. I still felt fried. I looked Eric's sire right in his dark and liquid eyes. For a fraction of a second, he looked surprised.

"Eric, you need to go to the front door and let them in," I said. "I'll bet they don't really need an invitation."

"Eric, she's rare," said Ocella in his oddly accented English. "Where did you find her?"

"I'm asking you in out of courtesy, because you're Eric's dad," I said. "I could just leave you outside." If I didn't sound as strong as I wanted, at least I didn't sound frightened.

"But my child is in this house, and if he is welcome, so am I. Am I not?" Ocella's thick black brows rose. His nose ... Well, you could tell why they coined the term "Roman nose." "I waited to come in out of courtesy. We could have appeared in your bedroom."

And the next moment they were inside.

I didn't dignify that with an answer. I spared a glance for the boy, whose face was absolutely blank. He was no ancient Roman. He hadn't been a vampire a full century, I estimated, and he seemed to come from Germanic stock. His hair was light and short and cut evenly, his eyes were blue, and when he met my own, he inclined his head.

"Your name is Alexei?" I asked.

"Yes," said his maker, while the boy stood mute. "This is Alexei Romanov."

Though the boy didn't react, and neither did Eric, I had a moment of sheer horror. "You didn't," I said to Eric's maker, who was about my height. "You didn't."

"I tried to save one of his sisters, too, but she was beyond my recall," Ocella said bleakly. His teeth were white and even, though he was missing the one next to his left canine. If you had lost teeth before you became a vampire, they didn't regenerate.

"Sookie, what is it?" Eric was not following, for once.

"The Romanovs," I said, trying to keep my voice hushed as though the boy couldn't hear me from twenty yards away. "The last Russian royal family."

To Eric, the executions of the Romanovs must seem like yesterday, and perhaps not very important in the tapestry of deaths he'd experienced in his thousand years. But he understood that his maker had done something extraordinary. I looked at Ocella without anger, without fear, for just a few seconds, and I saw a man who, finding himself an outcast and lonely, looked for the most outstanding "children" he could find.

"Was Eric the first vampire you made?" I asked Ocella.

He was bemused by what he saw as my brazen attitude. Eric had a stronger reaction. As I felt his fear roll through me, I understood that Eric had to physically perform whatever Ocella ordered him to do. Before, that had been an abstract concept. Now I realized that if Ocella ordered Eric to kill me, Eric would be compelled to do it.

The Roman decided to answer me. "Yes, he was the first one I brought over successfully. The others I tried to bring over - they died."

"Could we please leave my bedroom and go into the living room?" I said. "This is not the right place to receive visitors." See? I was trying to be polite.

"Yes, I suppose," said the older vampire. "Alexei? Where do you suppose the living room is?"

Alexei half turned and pointed in the right direction.

"Then that's where we'll go, dearest," Ocella said, and Alexei led the way.

I had a moment to look up at Eric, and I knew my face was asking, "What the hell is going on here?" But he looked stunned, and helpless. Eric. Helpless. My head was whirling.

When I had a second to think about it, I was pretty nauseated, because Alexei was a child and I was fairly sure that Ocella had a sexual relationship with the boy, as he'd had with Eric. But I wasn't foolish enough to think that I could stop it, or that any protest I made would make the slightest difference. In fact, I was far from sure Alexei himself would thank me for intervening, when I remembered Eric telling me about his desperate attachment to his maker during the first years of his new life as a vampire.

Alexei had been with Ocella for a long time now, at least in human terms. I couldn't remember exactly when the Romanov family had been executed, but I thought it was sometime around 1918, and apparently it had been Ocella who'd saved the boy from final death. So whatever constituted their relationship, it had been ongoing for more than eighty years.

All these thoughts flickered through my head, one after another, as we followed the two visitors. Ocella had said he could have entered without warning. It would have been nice if Eric had told me about that. I could see how he might have hoped that Ocella would never visit, so I was willing to give Eric a pass ... but I couldn't help thinking that instead of his lecture on the ways vampires had sliced up my country according to their own convenience, it would have been more practical to let me know his maker could appear in my bedroom.

"Please, have a seat," I said, after Ocella and Alexei had settled on the couch.

"So much sarcasm," said Ocella. "Will you not offer us hospitality?" His gaze ran up and down me, and though the color of his eyes was rich and brown, they were utterly cold.

I had a second to realize how glad I was that I'd put a robe on. I would have rather eaten Alpo than been naked in front of these two. "I'm not happy with your popping up outside my bedroom window," I said. "You could have come to the door and knocked, like people with good manners do." I wasn't telling him anything he didn't already know; vampires are good at reading people, and the oldest vampires are usually better than humans at telling what humans are feeling.

"Yes, but then I wouldn't have seen such a charming sight." Ocella let his gaze brush Eric's shirtless body almost tangibly. Alexei, for the first time, showed an emotion. He looked scared. Was he afraid Ocella would reject him, throw him out onto the mercy of the world? Or was he afraid that Ocella would keep him?

I pitied Alexei from the bottom of my heart, and I feared him just as much.

He was as helpless as Eric.

Ocella had been looking at Alexei with an attention that was almost frightening. "He's already much better," Ocella murmured. "Eric, your presence is doing him so much good."

I'd kind of figured things couldn't get more awkward, but a peremptory knock at the back door followed by a "Sookie, you here?" told me that actually the night could get worse.

My brother, Jason, came in without waiting for me to answer. "Sookie, I saw your light on when I pulled up, so I figured you were awake," he said, and then he stopped abruptly when he realized how much company I had. And what they were.

"Sorry to interrupt, Sook," he said slowly. "Eric, how you doing?"

Eric said, "Jason, this is my ... This is Appius Livius Ocella, my maker, and his other son Alexei." Eric said it properly, "AP-pi-us Li-WEE-us Oh-KEL-ah."

Jason nodded at both of the newcomers, but he avoided looking directly at the older vampire. Good instinct. "Good evening, O'Kelly. Hey, Alexei. So you're Eric's little brother, huh? Are you a Viking like Eric?"

"No," said the boy faintly. "I am Russian." Alexei's accent was much lighter than the Roman's. He looked at Jason with interest. I hoped he wasn't thinking about biting my brother. The thing about Jason, and what made him so attractive to people (particularly women), was that he practically radiated life. He just seemed to have an extra helping of vigor and vitality, and it was returning with a boom now that the misery of his wife's death was fading. This was his manifestation of the fairy blood in his veins.

"Well, good to meet you-all," Jason said. Then he quit paying attention to the visitors. "Sookie, I came to get that little side table from up in the attic. I came by here once before to pick it up, but you were gone and I didn't have my key with me." Jason kept a key to my house for emergencies, just as I kept a key to his.

I'd forgotten his asking me for the table when we'd had dinner together. At this point, he could have asked me for my bedroom set, and I would have agreed just to get him out of danger. I said, "Sure, I don't need it. Go on up. I don't think it's very far inside the door."

Jason excused himself, and everyone's eyes followed him as he bounded up the stairs. Eric was probably just trying to keep his eyes busy while he thought, but Ocella watched my brother with frank appraisal, and Alexei with a kind of yearning.

"Would you like some TrueBlood?" I asked the vampires, through clenched teeth.

"I suppose, if you won't offer yourself or your brother," the ancient Roman said.

"I won't."

I turned to go to the kitchen.

"I feel your anger," Ocella said.

"I don't care," I said, without turning to face him. I heard Jason coming downstairs, a little more slowly now that he was carrying the table. "Jason, you want to come with me?" I said over my shoulder.

He was more than glad to leave the room. Though he was civil to Eric because he knew I loved him, Jason was not happy in the company of vamps. He put the table down in a corner of the kitchen.

"Sook, what's going on here?"

"Come into my room for a second," I said after I'd gotten the bottles out of my refrigerator. I'd feel a lot better if I had more clothes on. Jason trailed after me. I shut the door once we were inside my bedroom.

"Watch the door. I don't trust that old one," I said, and Jason obligingly turned his back and watched the door while I pulled off the robe, getting into my clothes as fast as I've ever dressed in my life.

"Whoa," Jason said, and I jumped. I turned to see that Alexei had opened the door and would have entered if Jason hadn't been holding it.

"I'm sorry," Alexei said. His voice was a ghost of a voice, a voice that once had been. "I apologize to you, Sookie, and you, Jason."

"Jason, you can let him in. What are you sorry for, Alexei?" I asked. "Come on, let's go to the kitchen and I'll warm up the TrueBlood." We trailed into the kitchen. We were a little farther from the living room, and there was a chance Eric and Ocella wouldn't hear us.

"My master is not always like this. His age, it turns him."

"Turns him into what? A total jerk? A sadist? A child molester?"

A faint smile crossed the boy's face. "At times, all of those," he said succinctly. "But truthfully, I haven't been well myself. That's why we're here."

Jason began to look angry. He likes kids, always has. Even though Alexei could have killed Jason in a second, Jason thought of Alexei as a child. My brother was building up a big mad, actually thinking of charging into the living room to confront Appius Livius Ocella.

"Listen, Alexei, you don't have to stay with that dude if you don't want to," Jason said. "You can stay with me or Sookie, if Eric won't put you up. Nobody's gonna make you stay with someone you don't want to be with." Bless Jason's heart, he sure didn't know what he was talking about.

Alexei smiled, a faint smile that was simply heart-piercing. "Really, he is not so bad. He is a good man, I believe, but from a time you can't imagine. I think you are used to knowing vampires who are trying to ... mainstream. Master, he is not trying to do this. He is much happier in the shadows. And I must stay with him. Please don't trouble yourselves, but I thank you for your concern. I'm feeling better already now that I'm with my brother. I don't feel as if I'll suddenly do something ... regrettable."

Jason and I looked at each other. That was enough to make us both worried.

Alexei was looking around the kitchen as if he seldom saw one. I figured that was probably true.

I took the warm bottles out of the microwave and shook them. I put some napkins on the tray with the bottles. Jason got himself a Coke from the refrigerator.

I didn't know what to think about Alexei. He apologized for Ocella like the Roman was his grumpy grandpa, but it was apparent that he was in Ocella's sway. Of course he was; he was Ocella's child in a very real sense.

It was an awfully strange situation, having a figure out of history sitting in your living room. I thought of the horrors he'd experienced, both before and after his death. I thought of his childhood as the tsarevitch, and I knew that despite his hemophilia, that childhood must have contained some glorious moments. I didn't know whether the boy often longed for the love, devotion, and luxury that had surrounded him from birth until the rebellion, or (considering he'd been executed along with his whole immediate family) whether it was possible he saw being a vampire as an improvement over being buried in a pit in the woods in Russia.

Though with the hemophilia, his life expectancy in those days would have been pretty damn short anyway.

Jason added ice to his glass and looked in the cookie jar. I didn't keep cookies anymore, because if I did, I'd eat 'em. He closed the jar sadly. Alexei was watching everything Jason did as if he were observing an animal he'd never seen before.

He noticed me looking at him. "Two men took care of me, two sailors," he said, as though he could read the questions in my mind. "They carried me around when the pain was bad. After the world turned upside down, one of them abused me when he had the chance. But the other died, simply because he was still kind to me. Your brother reminds me a little of that one."

"Sorry about your family," I said awkwardly, since I felt compelled to say something.

He shrugged. "I was glad when they found them and gave the burial," he said. But when I saw his eyes, I knew that his words were a thin layer of ice over a pit of pain.

"Who was that in your coffin?" I asked. Was I being tacky? What on earth else was there to talk about? Jason was looking from Alexei to me, mystified. Jason's idea of history was remembering Jimmy Carter's embarrassing brother.

"When the big grave was found, Master knew they would find my sister and me soon. We overestimated the searchers, perhaps. It took sixteen more years. But in the meantime, we revisited the place where I was buried."

I felt my eyes fill with tears. The place where I was buried ...

He continued, "We had to provide some of my bones for it, because we had learned about DNA by then. Otherwise, of course, we could have found a boy about the right age... ."

I really couldn't think of anything remotely normal to say. "So you cut out some of your own bones to put in the grave," I said, my voice clogged and shaky.

"In steps, over time. Everything grew back," he said reassuringly. "We had to burn my bones a little. They had burned Maria and me, and poured acid on us, too."

Finally, I managed, "Why was that necessary? To put your bones there?"

"Master wanted me to be at rest," he said. "He didn't want any sightings. He reasoned that if my bones were found, there would be no more controversy. Of course, by now no one would expect me to be alive anyway, much less looking like I did then. Perhaps we weren't thinking clearly. When you've been out of the world so long ... And in the first five years after the revolution, I was seen by a couple of people who did recognize me. Master had to take care of them."

That, too, took a minute to sink in. Jason looked nauseated. I wasn't far behind him. But this little chitchat had already taken long enough. I didn't want "Master" to think we were plotting against him.

"Alexei," Appius Livius called in a sharp voice. "Is all well with you?"

"Yes, sir," Alexei said, and hurried back to the Roman.

"Jesus Christ, Shepherd of Judea," I said, and turned to carry the tray of bottles into the living room. Jason was clearly unhappy, but he followed me.

Eric was fixed on Appius Livius Ocella like a 7-Eleven clerk watches a customer who may have a gun. But he seemed to have relaxed a smidgen, now that he'd had a little time to recover from the shock of his maker's appearance. Through the bond, I felt a wash of overwhelming relief from Eric. After I thought about that, I believed I understood. Eric was relieved beyond measure that the older vampire had brought a bedmate with him. Eric, who had given a pretty good impression of indifference about his many years as Ocella's sexual companion, had had a moment of crazed unwillingness when he actually saw his maker again. Eric was reassembling and rearming himself. He was returning to being Eric, the sheriff, from his abrupt reversion to Eric, the new vampire and love slave.

The way I perceived Eric would never be quite the same again. I knew now what he feared. What I was getting from Eric was that it wasn't so much the physical aspect as the mental; above all else, Eric did not want to be under the control of his maker.

I served each of the vampires a bottle, carefully placing it on a napkin. At least I didn't have to worry about serving an accompanying snack ... unless Ocella decided all three of them would feed from me. In which case, I had no hope I would survive, and there wouldn't be a damn thing I could do about it. This should have made me the model of discretion. I should have determined to sit there with my ankles crossed and not let butter melt in my mouth.

But it just pissed me off.

Eric's hand twitched, and I knew he was reading my mood. He wanted to tell me to tone it down, to cool off, to come in under the radar. He might not want to be under Ocella's sway again, but he loved the vampire, too. I made myself back down. I hadn't given the Roman a chance. I didn't really know him. I only knew some things I didn't like about him, and there must be some other things I would like or admire. If he'd been Eric's for-real father, I'd have given him lots of chances to prove his worth.

I wondered how clearly Ocella could sense my emotions. He was still tuned in to Eric and always would be, and Eric and I were bonded. But it seemed my feelings didn't carry over; the Roman didn't so much as glance my way. I cast my eyes down. I would have to learn how to be stealthier, and in a hurry. Normally, I was good at hiding what I felt, but the nearness of the ancient vampire and his new prot¨¦g¨¦, their blood so like Eric's, had thrown me for a loop.

"I'm not sure what to call you," I said, meeting the Roman's eyes. I was trying to mimic my grandmother's best company voice.

"You may call me Appius Livius," he said, "since you are Eric's wife. It took Eric a hundred years to earn the right to call me Appius, rather than Master. Then centuries to be able to call me Ocella."

So only Eric got to call him Ocella. Fine with me. I noticed Alexei was still at the "Master" stage. Alexei was sitting as still as if he'd taken a huge tranquilizer, his synthetic blood sitting on the coffee table in front of him with only a sip missing.

"Thanks," I said, aware that I didn't sound very thankful. I glanced over at my brother. Jason was thinking he had a pretty good idea about what he wanted to call the Roman, but I gave my head a small but definite shake.

"Eric, tell me how you are doing these days," Appius Livius said. He sounded genuinely interested. His hand went over to Alexei, and I saw he was stroking the boy's back, as if Alexei were a puppy. But I couldn't deny there was affection in the gesture.

"I'm very well. Area Five is prosperous. I was the only Louisiana sheriff to survive the takeover by Felipe de Castro." Eric managed to sound matter-of-fact.

"How did that come about?"

Eric gave the older vampire a rundown on the political situation with Victor Madden. When he thought Appius Livius was up to speed on the Felipe de Castro/Victor Madden situation, Eric asked him, "How did you come to be on hand for the rescue of this young man?" Eric smiled at Alexei.

This would be a story worth listening to, now that I'd heard Alexei's horrifying tale about "salting" his grave. While Alexei Romanov sat by his side in remote silence, Appius told Eric about tracking down the Russian royal family in 1918.

"Though I had expected something of the sort, I had to move much faster than I had anticipated," Appius said. He finished his bottled blood. "The decision to execute them was made so swiftly, conducted at such speed. No one wanted the men to have time to think twice about it. For many of the soldiers, it was a terrible thing they were doing."

"Why did you want to save the Romanovs?" Eric asked, as if Alexei weren't there.

And Appius Livius laughed. He gave great laugh. "I hated the fucking Bolsheviks," he said. "And I had a tie to the boy. Rasputin had been giving him my blood for years. I happened to be in Russia already; you remember the St. Petersburg Massacre?"

Eric nodded. "I do indeed. I had not seen you in many years, and only caught a glimpse of you then." Eric had talked about the St. Petersburg Massacre before. A vampire named Gregory had had madness visited on him by a vengeful maenad, and it had taken twenty vampires to pin him down and then disguise the results.

"After that night, when so many of us worked together to tidy up the scene after Gregory was subdued, I developed a fondness for the Russian vampires - and the Russian people, too." He tacked the Russian people on with a gracious nod toward me and Jason, as representatives of the human race. "The fucking Bolsheviks killed so many of us. I was grieved. The deaths of Fedor and Velislava were particularly hard. They were both great vampires, and hundreds of years old."

"I knew them," Eric said.

"I sent them a message to get out before I started to look for the royal family. I could track Alexei because he'd had my blood. Rasputin knew what we were. Whenever the empress would call him to heal the boy when the hemophilia was very bad, Rasputin would beg some of my blood and the boy would recover. I heard a rumor they were thinking of killing the royal family, and I began following the scent of my blood. When I set out to rescue them, you can imagine how like a crusader I felt!"

They both laughed, and I suddenly understood that the two vampires had actually seen crusaders, the original Christian knight crusaders. When I tried to comprehend how old they were, how much they'd witnessed, how many experiences they'd had that almost no one else walking the earth remembered, it made my head hurt.

"Sook, you got the most interesting company," Jason said.

"Listen, I know you want to go, but if you could stick around for a while, I'd appreciate it," I said. I wasn't happy with having Eric's maker and the poor child Alexei here, and since Alexei was clearly happy with Jason, his presence might help ease this uncomfortable situation.

"I'll just go put the table out in the truck and call Michele," he said. "Alexei, you want to come with me?"

Appius Livius didn't move, but he definitely grew tense. Alexei looked over at the ancient Roman. After a long pause, Appius Livius nodded at the boy. "Alexei, remember your company manners," Appius Livius said softly. Alexei bobbed his head.

Having been given permission, the tsarevitch of Russia went outside with the road-crew worker to stow a table in the back of a pickup.

When I was alone with Eric and his maker, I felt a stab of anxiety. Actually, it was flowing right through the bond I had with Eric. I wasn't the only one around here who was worried. And their conversation appeared to be at a standstill.

"Excuse me, Appius Livius," I said carefully. "Since you were in the right empire at the right time, I wonder if you ever saw Jesus?"

The Roman was staring at the hallway, willing Alexei to reappear. "The carpenter? No, I didn't see him," Appius said, and I could tell he was making an effort to be courteous. "The Jew died right around the time I was changed. As you will appreciate, I had many other things to think of. In fact, I didn't hear the whole myth until some time later when the world began to change as a result of his death."

That would really have been amazing, talking to a creature who'd seen the living God ... even if he called him a "myth." And I went back to fearing the Roman - not for what he'd done to me, or what he'd done to Eric, or even what he was doing to Alexei, but for what he might do to all of us, if he took a mind to. I had always tried to find the good in people, but the best I could say of Appius was that he had good taste in those he picked to become vampires.

While I brooded, Appius was explaining to Eric how conveniently it had worked out in the cellar in Ekaterinburg. Alexei had almost bled out from his wounds, so he'd given the boy a big gulp of his blood - moving at superspeed, and therefore invisible to the execution squad. Then he'd watched from the shadows while the bodies were thrown down a well. The next day, the royal family was dug up again since the murderers feared the uproar that might follow the deaths of the Romanovs.

"I followed them the minute the sun set the next day," Appius said. "They'd stopped to rebury them. Alexei and one of his sisters ..."

"Maria," Alexei said softly, and I jumped. He had reappeared silently in the living room, standing behind Appius's chair. "It was Maria."

There was a silence. Appius looked hugely relieved. "Yes, of course, dear boy," Appius said, and he did manage to sound as though he cared. "Your sister Maria was completely gone, but there was a tiny spark in you." Alexei put his hand on Appius Livius's shoulder, and Appius Livius reached up to pat him.

"They had shot him many times," he explained to Eric. "Twice in the head. I put my blood directly in the bullet holes." He turned his head to look at the boy behind him. "My blood worked well, since you had lost so much of yours." It was like he was recollecting happy times. Hoo, boy. The Roman turned back to look at Eric and me, and he smiled proudly. But I could see Alexei's face.

Appius Livius genuinely felt that he'd been a savior to Alexei. I wasn't so sure Alexei was totally convinced of that.

"Where's your brother?" Appius Livius suddenly asked, and I pushed to my feet to go find him. I had put two and two together, and I understood that Eric's maker wanted to be sure Alexei hadn't drained Jason and left him out in the yard.

Jason came into the living room just then, slipping his cell phone into his pocket. He narrowed his eyes. Jason was not a nuance kind of guy, but he could tell when I was unhappy. "Sorry," he said. "Talkin' to Michele."

"Hmmm," I said. I made a mental note that Appius Livius was worried about Alexei being alone with humans, and I knew that should scare me quite a bit. The night was growing older, and I had things to find out. "I hate to change the subject, but there are a few things I need to know."

"What, Sookie?" Eric asked, looking directly at me for the first time since Old Master had popped up. He was pouring caution down the bond between us.

"I just have a couple of questions," I said, smiling as sweetly as I could. "Have you been in this area for any length of time?"

I met the ancient dark eyes again. It was hard to take Appius all in, somehow; I found I couldn't look at him as a cohesive individual. He scared the shit out of me.

"No," he said mildly. "We have not. We've come here from the south-west, from Oklahoma, and we have only just arrived in Louisiana."

"So you wouldn't know anything about the new body buried at the back of my land?"

"No, nothing. Would you like us to go dig it up? Unpleasant, but doable. You are wanting to see who it is?"

That was an unexpected offer. Eric was looking at me very oddly. "I'm sorry, honey," I told him. "I was trying to tell you when our unexpected guests showed up."

"Not Debbie," he said.

"No, Heidi says there's a new burial. But we do need to know who it is, and we need to find out who put it there."

"The Weres," Eric said instantly. "This is the thanks you get for letting them use your land. I'll call Alcide, and we'll have a meeting." Eric looked positively delighted to get the chance to do something bosslike. He whipped out his cell phone and dialed Alcide before I could say anything.

"Eric," he said into the phone by way of identification. "Alcide, we have to talk." I could hear the buzz on the other end of the line.

A moment later Eric said, "That's not good, Alcide, and I am sorry to hear you have troubles. But I have other concerns. What did you do on Sookie's land?"

Oh, crapanola.

"You should come here and see, then. I think some of your people have been bad. Very well, then. I'll see you in ten minutes. I am at her house."

He hung up, looking triumphant. "Alcide was in Bon Temps?" I asked.

"No, but he was on the interstate and nearly at our exit," Eric explained. "He's returning from some meeting in Monroe. The Louisiana packs are trying to present a united front to the government. Since they've never organized before, this is not going to work." Eric snorted, clearly scornful. "The Weres are always - what did you say the other day about FEMA, Sookie? 'A day late and a dollar short,' right? At least he's close, and when he gets here we'll get to the bottom of this."

I sighed, trying to make it discreet and silent. I hadn't realized things would go so far so fast. I asked Eric, Appius Livius, and Alexei if they wanted more TrueBlood, but they turned it down. Jason was looking bored. I glanced at the clock.

"I'm afraid I have only one spot that's suitable for a vampire. Where are you-all planning to sleep, come the dawn? I just want to know in case I need to call around and find a place."

"Sookie," said Eric gently, "I will take Ocella and his son back to my house. They can have the guest coffins there."

Eric ordinarily slept in his bed, because his bedroom was windowless. There were a couple of other coffins in the guest bedroom, sleek fiberglass things that looked sort of like kayaks, which he kept stowed under the beds. The most wrong thing about Alexei and Appius Livius staying with Eric was that if they were there, I was definitely staying here.

"I think your darling would love to come in during the day and sink a stake into our chests," Appius Livius said, as if that were a big joke. "If you think you can do it, young woman, you are welcome to try."

"Oh, not at all," I said, absolutely insincerely. "I wouldn't dream of doing such a thing to Eric's dad." Not a bad idea, though.

Beside me, Eric twitched all over; it was a funny movement, like a dog running in its sleep. "Be polite," he told me, and there was no element of fun in his voice at all. He was giving me an order.

I took a deep breath. It was on the tip of my tongue to rescind Eric's invitation to my house. He'd have to leave, and presumably Appius Livius and Alexei would, too. It was that "presumably" that stopped me. The idea of being alone with Appius Livius even for a second trumped the pleasurable vision of the three vampires walking out backward.

It was probably lucky for all of us that the doorbell rang then. I was out of my seat as if a rocket had fired me. It would be good to have more breathers around.

Alcide was wearing a suit. He was flanked by Annabelle, who was wearing a dark green sheath and heeled pumps, and Jannalynn, Sam's new interest. Jannalynn had a sense of style, though it was a style that left me stunned. She had on a shiny silver dress that barely covered her assets and silver high-heeled sandals that laced up the front. The silver eye shadow over her heavily outlined eyes completed the look. In a scary kind of way, she looked great. Sam certainly dated women who were extraordinary in some way, and he wasn't afraid of strong characters, which was a thought I'd have to save for later. Maybe it was a two-natured thing? Alcide was the same way.

I gave the packleader a hug, and I said hello to Annabelle and to Jannalynn, who gave me a curt nod.

"What is this problem Eric called me about?" Alcide was saying as I stood aside to let them enter. When the Weres realized they were in a room with three vampires, all of them tensed. They'd expected only Eric. When I glanced back at the vampires, I saw they were all standing, too, and even Alexei was on the alert.

Jason said, "Alcide, good to see you. Ladies, looking mighty fine tonight."

I went into high gear. "Hi, you-all!" I said brightly. "It was so nice of you to come at such short notice. Eric, you know Alcide. Alcide, this is Eric's longtime friend Appius Livius Ocella, who's in town visiting with his, ah, prot¨¦g¨¦, Alexei. Eric, I don't know if you've met Alcide's friend Annabelle, a new pack member, and Jannalynn, who's been in the Long Tooth pack for ages. Jannalynn, we've never had a chance to talk much, but of course Sam talks about you all the time. And I think you all know my brother, Jason."

Whew. I felt like I'd run an introduction marathon. Since vamps don't shake hands, that concluded the opening ceremonies. Then I had to get them all to sit down while I offered them drinks, which no one accepted.

Eric fired the opening volley. "Alcide, one of my trackers went over Sookie's land after Basim al Saud warned her about the strangers he smelled in her woods. Our tracker has found a new body buried there."

Alcide looked at Eric as though he had begun speaking in tongues.

"We didn't kill anyone that night," Alcide said. "Basim said he told Sookie we smelled an old body, and a fairy or two, and a vampire. But he didn't mention a fresh body."

"Yet there's a new burial there now."

"Which we had nothing to do with." Alcide shrugged. "We were there three nights before your tracker smelled the scent of a fresh body."

"It seems quite a huge coincidence, doesn't it? A body on Sookie's land, right after your pack is there?" Eric was looking aggravatingly reasonable.

"Maybe it's more of a coincidence that there was already a body on Sookie's land."

Oh, boy, I really didn't want to go there.

Jannalynn was actually snarling at Eric. It was an interesting look, with the eye makeup and all. Annabelle was standing with her arms slightly away from her body, waiting to see which way she needed to jump.

Alexei was staring off into space, which seemed to be his fallback stance, and Appius Livius simply seemed bored.

"I say we should go see who it is," Jason said unexpectedly.

I looked at him with approval.

So out we went into the woods to dig up a corpse.

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