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Sweep of the blade innke.., p.23

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles Book 4), page 23

 

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles Book 4)
 


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  “It’s a trap.” The words came out flat.

  Ilemina nodded. “They’ll provoke you. They’ll try to test you to see what you know. Failing that, they’ll seek to humiliate you.”

  “They’re counting on Arland. If they insult me enough, and I run to him crying, he’ll be honor bound to do something about it. They’re getting bolder.”

  Ilemina’s gaze was direct and cold. Maud had seen this exact expression on Arland’s face, right before he threw himself at a world-destroying flower. Ilemina had made up her mind. Neither Kozor nor Serak would get off this planet unscathed. It chilled Maud to the bone.

  “Do you want the post of Maven?” Ilemina asked.

  She didn’t even have to think. “Yes.”

  Ilemina turned to the screen glowing on the wall. A recording began playing. Onscreen, Seveline dashed at a group of otrokar. Each of the five Horde warriors was bigger than Seveline. Maud had fought the Hope-Crushing Horde before; they had earned their name and then some. Seveline danced through them, slicing limbs, cutting bodies, graceful, lethal, unstoppable…A radiant smile played on the vampire knight’s lips. Blood stained her blond hair. She looked like a berserker, lost to the slaughter, but she moved like a fighter completely in control of her body. Fluid. Precise. Aware. Underneath a caption glowed.

  Seveline Kozor

  57 confirmed kills

  Shit.

  Onscreen, Seveline beheaded a warrior with a single swing and laughed. She seemed to know where every one of her opponents was at all times, anticipating their movements before they made them.

  Ilemina sank steel into her voice. “You will go to this wassail and you will endure every assault on your honor and dignity. Under no circumstances are you to draw your sword. Do you understand me, Maven?”

  “Yes, Preceptor.”

  “So, is it customary for humans to be kept as pets?” Seveline asked.

  Maud sipped her coffee. It was genuine Earth coffee, given as a gift to the bride by House Krahr, and sweetened with some local syrup until it was less drink and more dessert. The bridal party about lost their minds when they watched her pour cream into it.

  She was painfully aware of both Onda and Seveline starring at her. The questions started the moment she sat down and became progressively more outrageous. The last one was an insult. If she were a vampire, by now there would be blood.

  It wasn’t a bad plan. Isolate her. Get her drunk. Insult her until she threw the first punch, then kill her. They were likely recording this to absolve themselves of blame. Maud had done a mental sweep of the room when she entered. The situation hadn’t changed. They were in a tower, in a round chamber. Eight tables, four vampires each. She could hold her own, but nobody was that good. Ilemina was right. If I draw my sword, I won’t make it out of here alive.

  Her best defense was to pretend to be dense. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

  Seveline heaved a sigh. Onda leaned forward, brushing her chestnut hair out of the way. “It’s a logical question. You are not a member of our society. You have no rights, no purpose, and offer no benefit to House Krahr.”

  “Aside from sexual amusement for the Marshal,” Seveline added.

  “In other words, you’re being kept around as a source of comfort, much like a dog.”

  “That’s not true,” Seveline said. “Dogs serve a purpose. They warn you of intruders and add to your safety.”

  “Very well, not a dog then.” Onda waved her arm. “A bird. A pretty, ornamental bird.”

  Maud raised her eyebrows. “So, what you are saying is, I’m here for the Marshal’s sexual amusement like a pretty bird? Are members of House Kozor in the habit of copulating with their pet birds? I had no idea you had such exotic tastes.”

  The two women blinked, momentarily derailed.

  Seveline switched to Ancestor Vampiric. “I’m going to wring her neck.”

  The bride chose that moment to float by, all smiles. She smoothly turned, rested one hand on Seveline’s shoulder, and still smiling, said, “Do it and I will personally jab a knife in your eye. You have a simple job—provoke this bitch. How hard could this be? The hunt is about to start. Get on with it.”

  Interesting.

  Kavaline offered Maud a bright smile. “Are you enjoying yourself? These two aren’t bothering you, are they?”

  The temptation to answer in Ancestor Vampiric was almost too much. “Not at all. They’ve been the soul of courtesy.”

  Onda looked like she was about to have an aneurism.

  The bride’s smile sharpened. “So glad to hear it.”

  She floated away.

  “So, you’re content with being a bedwarmer?” Onda asked. “How will this reflect on your daughter? Or do you expect her to learn by example?”

  “What a good question,” Seveline said. “Perhaps you have already selected a client for her?”

  Amateurs.

  “What a disturbing thought,” Maud said. “Sexual contact with a child is forbidden. It’s incredibly damaging to the child. I’m surprised this is tolerated within House Kozor. This is turning out to be a very educational conversation. Birds, children…Is anything off limits to your people?”

  Onda turned gray, shaking with rage.

  Seveline glared. “We do not have sex with children!”

  Vampires at other tables turned to look at them.

  “So, just birds, then?” Maud asked.

  Seveline picked up the pitcher of coffee, jumped to her feet, and hurled the contents at Maud. There was no time to dodge. The coffee was barely warm, but it drenched her completely.

  Onda’s eyes were as big as saucers. The room went silent.

  Seveline stared straight at her, anticipation in her eyes.

  Maud looked back. It’s still your move, bitch.

  Seveline unhinged her jaws. “Coward.”

  Under the table, Maud sank her fingernails into her palm. In her mind, she flipped the table, gripped her sword, and drove her blade into Seveline’s gut.

  A moment passed.

  Another.

  The sticky coffee slid down her neck, dripping from her hair.

  Another.

  Seveline bared her fangs in a vicious grimace, spun on her heel, and stomped off. The door hissed shut behind her.

  Maud sat very still. This could still go bad. If they came at her now, her best bet would be to jump out the window. It was a thirty-foot fall to the ledge below, but she could survive it.

  Kavaline opened her mouth. Every pair of eyes watched her.

  “My lady, we are dreadfully sorry. I do not know what came over her.”

  “Clearly,” Maud said, her tone dry, “some people just can’t handle their coffee.”

  A light ripple of laughter spread through the gathering.

  “You are most gracious,” the bride said.

  Oh, you have no idea. “I implore you, think nothing of it. Please excuse me, I must now change.”

  “We wouldn’t dream of keeping you.”

  Try and you’ll regret it.

  Maud gritted her teeth as the long elevator sped downward, through a shaft carved in the heart of the mountain. Getting the sticky coffee mess out of her hair had taken forever. Getting it off her armor had taken even longer. She’d had no time to apply any cosmetics or make herself in any way presentable.

  She was never fond of caking makeup on her face, but she’d always loved eye shadow and mascara. In exile, mascara became an unattainable luxury and often a hinderance. Having mascara bleed into your eyes while you sweated buckets trying to kill an opponent twice your size before she did you in wasn’t exactly a winning strategy. But as soon as Maud had gotten to the inn, Dina invited her to raid her makeup stash. Maud had worn eye shadow, mascara, and a light lipstick every day since landing on this planet. Now, her face was bare, her hair was wet, because she didn’t dare to waste three minutes drying it, and she still, somehow, smelled of that damn coffee.

  Maud tapped her foot. The
elevator refused to descend faster.

  This was not the way she intended to appear at the hunt. If the hunts she’d attended were anything to go by, this would be an almost ceremonial occasion. Everyone would look their best as they rode in a procession. Armor polished, weapons ready, hair styled. When they finally tracked down whatever they were hunting, the strikers would move forward and close in for the kill. The strikers were determined in advance. To be chosen was an honor, and she was sure the strikers for this hunt would be the groom, the bride, possibly Arland, Otubar, Ilemina or Karat. Whoever was chosen from House Krahr would be there solely to make sure the bride and groom got the kill. Everyone would cheer and record the event so later it could be shown to family and friends. Then, the whole party would turn around and go home.

  All she had to do was get to the stables on time, ride in the middle of the procession, exchanging pleasantries and looking well put together, then express admiration at the strategic moment, and ride back. She couldn’t even manage that. She was at least ten minutes late. More like fifteen. And that’s if they’d left on time.

  Maud tapped her foot again. The elevator kept going with a soft whisper. She’d checked the message from Helen again. Her daughter’s excited face flashed before her, projected from her harbinger. “Hurry up, Mommy. We’re going on a hunt.”

  A message from Ilemina had followed. “I have your child with me.” Which didn’t sound ominous at all. Maud heaved a sigh. Damn vampires.

  The elevator finally stopped. The doors parted, opening to a tunnel leading to wide open doors. Daylight flooded the doorway. Maud broke into a jog and emerged into the sunshine.

  A wide pathway, completely straight and paved with flat stones, rolled out before her, leading to a gate. On both sides of her, large corrals lined the path, secured by massive fences. Behind each row of corrals lay a large stable.

  The corrals were empty.

  The vihr, the big-boned massive mounts vampires preferred, were gone.

  She spun around and saw the Stablemaster off to the side. Middle-aged, huge, grizzled, with a mane of reddish hair going to gray, he scowled, checking something on his harbinger. A younger male vampire with grayish skin and jet-black hair stood next to him with a long-suffering expression. Maud strode to them.

  “Salutations,” Maud said. “Where is the hunting party?”

  The Stablemaster didn’t look up. “Gone.”

  “Gone where?”

  He stopped and gave her a flat look. “Hunting.”

  “In which direction?”

  “North.”

  “I need a mount.”

  The Chatty Cathy of the vampire world favored her with another look. “I don’t have any.”

  “You were supposed to hold a vihr for me.”

  “Someone took it. Hunting. North.”

  Maud summoned the last reserves of her willpower and kept her voice calm. “Do you have any other mounts that I could ride?”

  “No.”

  Okay. “Do you have any mounts at all here? Anything that can run fast?”

  The young stable hand glanced at her. “We have savoks. But you can’t ride the damn things.” He looked at the Stablemaster. “Why do we even have them?”

  “Gift from the Horde, after Nexus,” the Stablemaster said.

  Maud’s heart sped up. The otrokar of the Hope-Crushing Horde lived in the saddle. They prized mounts like treasure. They wouldn’t offer a gift of anything less than spectacular.

  “I’ll take a savok,” she said.

  “The hell you will,” the Stablemaster growled. “They will throw you, trample you, gut you with those claws, and bite your head off. And then I’ll never hear the end of it from the Marshal.”

  That did it. She didn’t have time to argue this. “You had orders to provide me with a mount. Bring the savoks or I’ll get them myself.”

  “Fine.”

  The Stablemaster flicked his fingers at his harbinger. The closest gate in the stable on their left opened. Metal clanged and three savoks galloped into the corral. Two were the typical rust red and one was white, an albino. Incredibly rare. The sun caught the velvety short hair of their pelts, and they almost shone as they ran. If they were horses, they would be at least eighteen hands at the withers. Muscular, with four sturdy but lean legs, they moved with agility and speed. Their hind legs ended in hoofs, their front had three fused fingers and a raptor-like dewclaw. Their thick, short necks supported long heads armed with powerful jaws that hadn’t been seen on Earth since the extinction of bear dogs and hell pigs.

  They thundered past her, the white male flashing her a vicious look from its emerald-green eyes, and kept running along the fence, testing the boundaries of the enclosure, their narrow long tails whipping behind them.

  They took her breath away. Growing up in her parents’ inn, Maud had seen hundreds of otrokar mounts, but none quite like these three.

  The savoks came around again, snapping their fangs at them as they passed. The big male drove his shoulder into the fence and bounced off. They galloped on.

  “Told you,” the Stablemaster said. “Un-rideable.”

  They had no idea of these animals’ value. By otrokar standards, these were priceless.

  The vampires, with their crushing physical power, evolved on a planet rich in woods. They were ambush predators. They hid and sprang at their prey, overpowering it. They were not great runners or great riders, and their mounts, huge, sturdy vihr, who had more in common with bulls and rhinos than racing horses, served their purpose perfectly. They could be loaded with staggering weight, carry it for hours, and they were guaranteed to deliver you from point A to B. They wouldn’t do it quickly or gracefully, but they would get you where you needed to go.

  The otrokar home world was a place of endless plains. The otrokar were lean and hard, and they could run for miles to exhaust their prey. Their mounts were like them; fast, agile, and tireless. They would eat anything: grass, leftovers, prey they could run to ground, and they were as smart as they were savage.

  The savoks kicked the fence. They seemed stir-crazy. “When was the last time they were even out?”

  “We let them out once a week,” the stable hand said.

  Maud resisted the urge to scream. She had to resist very hard.

  “Did they provide you with saddles?”

  “Yes,” the stable hand said.

  “Bring me one. The one that came with the white one.”

  “How will I know which one it is?”

  She closed her eyes for a few painful seconds. “The one that has white embroidery.”

  The stable hand looked at the Stablemaster. The older vampire shrugged. “Go get it.”

  She didn’t wait for the saddle. The savoks had halted at the far end of the corral. Maud climbed the heavy metal fence.

  “Hey!” The Stablemaster roared.

  The white savok saw her and pawed the ground, preparing for a charge.

  Maud inhaled and stuck two fingers into her mouth. A shrill whistle cut through the air.

  The savoks froze.

  The Stablemaster had lumbered over to the fence and was obviously trying to decide if he should grab Maud and pull her back.

  When Dina told Maud about brokering peace on Nexus, she’d mentioned the Khanum, the wife of the Khan, and her children. They were northerners; they would train their savoks in the northern way. Maud whistled again, changing the pitch.

  The savoks dashed to her. The Stablemaster made a lunge for her, but she jumped off the fence, down into the corral.

  The white savok reached her and reared, pawing the air with his forelegs. Behind her, the Stablemaster swore.

  “So beautiful,” Maud told the savok. “Such sharp claws. Such a pretty boy.” He wouldn’t know what she was saying but he would recognize and respond to the tone of voice.

  She whistled again, a soft ululating sound, and the savoks pranced around her, nudging her with their muzzles and showing off impressive sharp teeth. The wh
ite male hopped in place like a wolf dancing in the snow to scare the mice out of hiding.

  “So good. So imposing.”

  She whistled again. The white savok bent his knees, laid his head down, and waited. She vaulted onto his back and hugged his neck. He leaped up and took off in a dizzying gallop, circling the corral. It took all of her strength to stay on his back. Finally, she whistled him to a slow trot.

  The Stablemaster and his helper, a traditional otrokar saddle in his hands, stared at her, openmouthed. She rode the savok a bit more and dismounted. “The saddle.”

  The stable hand passed it to her through the fence.

  “Does the white one have a name?”

  “Attura.”

  Ghost.

  Perfect. Let’s hope he can fly like one.

  She was so late.

  The green plain flew by as Attura dashed through the grass. The savok hadn’t run for a while, and the moment she gave him free rein, he burst into a gallop. For a few happy breaths, after they started off from the stables, Maud let all of her anxiety go and lost herself to the exhilaration of the wind, speed, and power of the beast below her. Attura ran, fueled by the pure joy of it. She felt that joy and, swept up in his need to run free, she let him do it and shared in it.

  Eventually though, reality came back like a heavy blanket wrapping around her. She checked her harbinger. They had swung too far to the west, nearing the mesas rising on her left. The hunting party rode through the center of the plain, to the east and just about four miles ahead. Reluctantly, she shifted in the saddle, whistling softly. Attura whined, slowing.

  “I know, I know.” She promised herself that the next time she had a few hours free, she would bring Attura back out here and let him run himself out. But now they had a hunting party to catch.

  The savok settled into a fast canter, which wasn’t really the best term. The canter of Earth horses was a three-beat gait, while the savok launched himself forward with his powerful hind legs and pawed at the ground with his forelimbs. It was a stride more reminiscent of a wolf or a greyhound. But it was one rung slower than his sprint, so she called it a canter. Maud steered her mount on an interception course and soon they found a comfortable rhythm.

 
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