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Sweep of the blade innke.., p.17

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles Book 4), page 17

 

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles Book 4)
 


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  “So I’ll ask again. What is it you’re afraid of? Are you trying to out-vampire us? It’s futile. Nothing you do will change the circumstances of your birth, and if my son had wanted a vampire, he has a veritable crowd of women with ancient bloodlines falling all over themselves to love him. Are you ashamed of being a human? Do you hate your species?”

  Maud raised her head. “I have no desire to pretend I’m a vampire.”

  “Then what is it?” Ilemina raised her voice.

  Something inside Maud snapped like a thin glass rod breaking.

  “House Ervan threw me away. They threw my daughter away like we were old rags. We had no value to them outside of my husband. All the time we lived among them, all the things I’d done in service of the House, all the friendships I forged, none of it mattered. They didn’t fight to keep us. They wanted to be rid of us.”

  The words kept pouring out of some secret place she’d hidden them and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stop them. “I lived a lie. I can’t take that chance again. I won’t. I don’t want Arland to marry an outsider who is barely tolerated. I want him to marry someone who is valued by his House. Someone who is indispensable. I want that marriage to be seen as a boon for House Krahr. I don’t trust any of you except Arland. I want to ensure that you will never turn on me. That my daughter will have a place here not because of your son, but because of me and eventually because of herself.”

  She’d said too much. Where did it even come from? She’d had no idea that’s what she wanted until the words came out of her.

  Silence lay between them. A light breeze stirred the vala tree.

  Ilemina arched her eyebrows and took a sip of her wine. “Now this? This I understand.”

  Maud marched across the bridge, fuming. She’d let Ilemina get under her skin. It was a strategic error. Understanding your opponent was the most important advantage one could have in a conflict. Numbers, strengths, and luck mattered, but if you knew how your opponent thought, you could predict her strategy and prepare.

  She’d given Arland’s mother enough ammunition to manipulate her. Stupid. So stupid.

  What the hell was she thinking, baring her soul to a damn vampire?

  The memory of kneeling before Stangiva and begging for Helen’s life stabbed her, hot and sharp. If only she could get her hands on that bitch, she would’ve snapped her former mother-in-law’s neck. And to think she spent years trying to mold herself into a perfect vampire wife for the sake of Melizard, and his mother, and their whole damn House. She twisted herself into a pretzel to become exceptional in every way, all so she could be paraded before the visitors with an unspoken context of “Look what an exemplary House we are. We have taken a human and shaped her into a vampire. Listen to her recite the ancient sagas. Watch her perform for your amusement.”

  And she, she was the idiot who had willingly put on that bridle and dragged the cart forward. For what? For love?

  She laughed at herself, and the sound came out sharp and brittle.

  Love. How could she have been so young and stupid?

  Ugh. Rage coursed through her. Maud wanted desperately to punch something.

  A sharp chittering sound made her turn. She’d come to a T-shaped junction. On her right, another bridge branched from the first at a perfect right angle. The end of the bridge led onto another garden plateau. Trees and shrubs obscured her view, but Maud was absolutely sure of what she just heard. The high-pitched, short bark of a lees backed into a corner.

  She turned and jogged down the bridge into the garden. Nuan Cee’s Clan were invited guests of the Krahr. No harm could come to them on Krahr’s watch.

  Voices carried from up ahead. She couldn’t quite make them out, but she heard the intonation well enough: male, vampire, arrogant. She rounded the bend. In front of her a straight stretch of the path led to a round plaza with a small fountain in the center. In the plaza, closest to the entrance from the path, stood a small, blue-furred lees and a tachi. The lees was on her toes, ready to bolt. The tachi had gone so gray, it looked desaturated. Across from them four male vampires stood. Two leaned forward slightly, the third one stroked the hilt of his blood hammer, and the fourth crossed his arms on his chest, clearly the leader. She’d been studying the files on the wedding guests, and she had no trouble recognizing him. Lord Suykon, the groom’s brother. Big, red-haired, and aggressive.

  They were about to get violent. The tachi would retaliate and relations between the tachi and House Krahr would drown in blood. She had no authority to stop it. She was just another guest. If she were attacked, the tachi would jump in. She was sure of it. She’d served food to their queen and was looked on with favor. The tachi would be honor-bound to assist her against a mutual threat.

  She had to avoid violence and delay. It would be near impossible. She was a human, and in the vampire’s eyes, she belonged to Arland but had no status. If anything, her presence would only provoke.

  Maud tapped her crest. The thin stalk of a communicator slid from her armor and split in two. One tendril reached into her ear, the other to her mouth. The crest pulsed with white light, letting her know the camera was activated.

  “Arland?”

  There was a slight pause, then he answered. “Here.”

  “Tap into my feed.”

  There was another tiny pause. Suykon said something. The vampire next to him laughed. Maud picked up speed.

  The lees screeched, the sharpness in her voice making her sound like a pissed off squirrel.

  Arland’s crisp voice spoke into her ear piece. “Backup is on the way.”

  Her harbinger chimed, announcing an incoming message. Maud tapped it. A contract that made her an official retainer of House Krahr. She scrolled, spot searching for the right words.

  … military service, to be performed as is deemed necessary by the Marshal…

  He’d just hired her, giving her the same authority as any knight of the House.

  “Accept,” she said.

  Dizziness punched her as her updated crest interfaced with the armor. It only took a moment. Arland must’ve preloaded the House interface onto the crest before he’d given it to her and now it was activated.

  Her crest flashed with red. A third tendril sprouted from the stalk, projecting a screen over her left eye. On it the icon of House Krahr glowed dimly in the far corner. Next to it, another icon, a tiny banner, waited.

  This man. For this man, she would put up with Ilemina. He was worth it.

  Maud marched into the clearing. Her eyepiece tagged the lees, displaying her name above her head in pale letters. Nuan Tooki. The tachi was Ke’Lek.

  “Behold, a human comes!” a dark-haired vampire declared. Her eyepiece tagged him with a name. Lord Kurr. Now that she was a retainer, the internal files were at her fingertips.

  Nuan Tooki ducked behind her, stuck her paw-hands into the pockets of her apron, and came out with a handful of darts in her left hand and a small dagger in her right. Monomolecular edge on both, likely poisoned.

  Ke’Lek’s color darkened slightly, but only a shade, a barely perceptible green.

  Suykon smiled.

  Maud moved in front of the tachi, looked at the banner icon and deliberately blinked to activate it.

  The crest tolled like a bell. A bright red spark blinked on her left shoulder, projecting a holographic image of the banner of House Krahr. She gripped her blood sword and it whined in her hand as red light dashed through it, priming the weapon.

  The banner glowed slightly brighter.

  “And what have we here?” Suykon asked. “Adorable, is she not?”

  Anything she said would give them an opportunity to claim she provoked them. Any word would be presented as an insult and used as a pretext for violence. She simply said nothing.

  “Are you mute, human?”

  Maud waited.

  Suykon’s eyes narrowed. “Lord Kurr.”

  “Yes?” the dark-haired knight asked.

  “I think our la
dy is in distress. Look at her being menaced by those two outsiders. You should go and rescue her.”

  The tachi moved forward.

  Maud activated the banner again. Her crest projected a red line onto the ground and tossed the prewritten warning onto her eyepiece. She read it. “You are guests of House Krahr in the presence of a knight of House Krahr. Any violence against other guests of House Krahr will be met with immediate retribution. Cross this line and die.”

  Ke’Lek clicked his mouth in disappointment and stepped back. The line cut both ways.

  Lord Kurr chuckled.

  Her eyepiece scanned him, highlighting a long, slightly glossy streak on the left side of his armor. A recent patch job, and not a very good one. Patching armor was as much of an art as science, and it took a light touch. He’d been heavy-handed with the tools. He should’ve let someone who knew what they were doing repair it, but armor maintenance was a point of pride. It was a small target, less than a quarter of an inch wide. She would’ve missed it without the eyepiece.

  “This is the only warning you will receive.”

  “My fair maiden,” Kurr roared, pulling out a massive blood sword. “I shall rescue you.”

  I can’t wait.

  Kurr charged.

  The moment his foot crossed the line, she dropped to one knee. His blade slid over her shoulder, screeching against her armor. She thrust her sword into the patch and twisted. The armor cracked with an audible snap. The nanothreads contracted, ripping themselves apart.

  She freed her blade, pushed to her feet, and hammered a kick into Kurr’s exposed side. The impact knocked him back over the line. He stumbled and doubled over, clutching at his side. Blood dripped between his fingers. Half of his breastplate hung down, crawling and shifting as the individual nanothreads attempted to reconnect.

  For a moment everyone forgot to posture and just stared. She had pried Kurr out of his armor. The humiliation was absolute.

  The prompt flashed on her eyepiece again.

  “You are guests of House Krahr in the presence of a knight of House Krahr. Any violence against other guests of House Krahr will be met with immediate retribution. Cross this line and die.”

  Kurr gripped his sword. “I’ll kill that bitch.”

  “Kurr!” Suykon barked.

  Kurr charged.

  A shadow fell from the sky. She barely had a chance to shy back. An enormous male vampire landed in front of her in full combat armor, his broad back blocking her view. His gray hair was cut human short.

  The new vampire swung his blood hammer. It ripped the air with a hair-raising whine and connected.

  Maud lunged to the side, trying to see.

  Kurr was twenty feet away, flat on his ass, trying to breathe. The other two vampires knelt by him, struggling to activate his crest. Only Suykon remained standing.

  The new vampire opened his mouth, displaying his fangs, and bent his head forward, exhaling menace, like a bull ready to charge. He was a giant even by vampire standards. Her eyepiece tagged him, identifying his name.

  Maud blinked.

  “Our apologies, Lord Consort,” Suykon said. “We meant no harm. We clearly misinterpreted the situation.”

  Lord Otubar unhinged his jaws and said in a deep voice. “Leave.”

  The two knights picked Kurr up like a child and the four of them took off down the path.

  Lord Otubar turned to the lees and the tachi. “What were the two of you doing here without an escort?”

  Nuan Tooki ducked her head, fluffing her tail, and clasped her little paw-hands together, looking almost terminally adorable. “Please forgive us, Lord Consort. It’s all my fault. I was lost. This brave tachi came to my rescue and then these mean vampires came and menaced us. You are not like them. You are a good vampire. I was so frightened and helpless, and you have saved us. I am so sorry.”

  “Go back to your quarters.”

  “Thank you.”

  The lees scampered off. Ke’Lek looked at them, hesitated for a moment, and followed the lees down the path.

  “Dismissed,” Lord Otubar said.

  Her legs carried Maud down the path before her brain had time to process what happened.

  “My lady,” Otubar called to her back.

  She stopped and pivoted to face him. “Lord Consort?”

  “Good strike,” he said.

  12

  Maud sat on the barren balcony. Her quarters projected a screen in front of her and she scrolled through the files of the wedding party, trying to make some sense of it. Her new status gave her access to more detailed dossiers, and she was speed-reading them while she could. The wealth of additional information made her brain buzz. She was in a rotten mood.

  Wind stirred her hair. Maud glanced up, and her gaze lingered on the distant mesas. She liked being high up, but the breathtaking view failed to pull her out of her unease. The Kozor and Serak were planning something, but what? They had only two hundred fighters, while the Krahr had thousands.

  She’d tried to find Arland after her encounter with the overly enthusiastic best man and his yipping escort, but he wasn’t anywhere she could go. She sent a message to his harbinger, but he hadn’t responded.

  She’d been spoiled. For the last few weeks, he’d been at her beck and call. She only had to say his name and there he was, ready to help. Now she wanted to talk to him, and he was out of reach.

  He is a Marshal. I’ve been taking his availability for granted.

  Maud missed him. It ate at her.

  Maybe he got bored.

  It was a definite possibility. She could just be a brief infatuation. He rescued her, got to be the hero, and it was exciting with the inn under siege, and now, regular life returned and the novelty faded. Maybe she was a travel romance.

  The recording of Arland facing his mother replayed in her head. No. He loved her.

  The only way to have constant access to Arland was to marry him. That’s what marriage was, at the core—the exclusive right to spend as much time with someone you loved as they were willing to give.

  Her screen chimed, announcing someone at the front door. Her heart beat faster. She touched the screen and there he was. She shot out of the chair as if she’d found a scorpion in it and dashed through the room to the door. She took a deep breath to steady herself.

  “Open.”

  The door slid aside. Arland looked at her. To the casual observer, he would have looked fine, but she’d spent too much time studying his face. She saw distance in his eyes and it chilled her. Something had happened. She frantically cycled through the possibilities. Had she embarrassed the House? Did she somehow hurt his feelings? Did he read her message and it pissed him off?

  “My mother requests your presence at the picnic in the groom’s honor, my lady.”

  “I’m honored, my lord. Weapons?”

  “Not permitted.”

  “Allow me a moment to check on my daughter.”

  “No need. Lady Helen and the rest of the children have been taken to the lakeshore.”

  And Lady Helen had failed to check in with her. They would have to have a talk tonight.

  He stepped aside, letting her pass. They walked side by side.

  “Lord Kurr?” she asked.

  “He lives. Barely.”

  “I apologize if I caused any offense.”

  “You didn’t. Your conduct was exemplary. You exhibited remarkable self-control, my lady. House Krahr is fortunate to have the benefit of your service.”

  Nope, he hadn’t read her message.

  They entered a long breezeway leading to a tower which, in turn, allowed passage to another small mesa rising on their left. According to her harbinger, the picnic was being held there. Even without the harbinger, the clumps of vampires spread across the green lawn would’ve been a dead giveaway. Once they reached the mesa, they would be in public and she’d have to kiss any chance at a private conversation goodbye. She had to clear this up now.

  “Is something the mat
ter, my lord?”

  “Everything is well,” he said.

  Okay, that was all she was willing to tolerate. “Then why are you impersonating an icicle?”

  He glared at her. She matched his stare. She was reasonably sure they were being watched from the mesa, but she didn’t care.

  The look in his eyes got to her and she slipped into English despite herself. “Did a cat get your tongue?”

  His face iced over. “No. Lions didn’t injure my mouth. You and I have a complex relationship, my lady. These complications notwithstanding, in public you must conduct yourself in accordance with your place in the chain of command.”

  “Are you pulling rank?”

  “Yes.”

  She laughed and walked off. They were almost to the tower.

  “My lady.” Unmistakable command suffused his voice.

  “You should read your messages, Lord Marshal.”

  She made it another three steps before he snarled, “Maud!”

  Maud pivoted on her foot. “Is something the matter?”

  He bore down on her. “You resigned. Why?”

  “What do you mean, why?” It was painfully obvious. Maybe he really did have second thoughts.

  “You should have at least given me the courtesy of telling me face to face,” his voice was quiet and icy.

  “I tried but you were busy. The message was my only option.”

  “When?” he asked, his eyes dark.

  “I don’t follow.”

  They definitely had an audience now. Their voices didn’t carry that far, but just about everyone on the lawn was looking their way.

  He forced the words out. “When are you leaving?”

  It stabbed at her. “Do you want me to leave?”

  “Do you think this is funny? Because I fail to see the humor. I’ve given you a place in House Krahr. You’re throwing it in my face. That can mean only one thing. You’re leaving.”

  He thought that she resigned because she wanted to quit him and his House. He’d honored her with trust and a position within the House and he thought she was throwing it back in his face.

  Oh, you idiot.

 
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