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Sweep of the blade innke.., p.8

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles Book 4), page 8

 

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles Book 4)
 



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  “The child stays here,” the retainer said.

  Maud crouched by Helen. “I’ll be back soon, okay?”

  “Okay,” Helen said quietly.

  “You will get to play with other kids. Practice rules only.”

  “Okay,” Helen said.

  “Repeat it back to me please.”

  “Practice rules only, Mommy.”

  “Good girl.” Maud kissed her daughter’s forehead and straightened.

  The male knight stepped aside, and Helen walked into the room. Maud watched her go.

  “Your daughter will be safe,” the female knight told her. “The keepers of the children watch them closely. They won’t permit other children to harm her.”

  It’s not her I’m worried about. Maud nodded and followed the retainer to the feast hall.

  The feast hall occupied a huge square chamber. Large rectangular tables, carved from sturdy wood ages ago, filled the room, each seating ten guests. In the center of the hall, the host table stood, marked by a metal pole supporting the standard of House Krahr. The guests were seated in order of receding importance, the higher the rank, the closer to the host table. Servers glided back and forth.

  “You sit there,” the retainer pointed to the table closest to the wall. A group of tachi had arranged themselves there. “With the insects.”

  It was customary to walk a guest to her table, no matter how far from the Host table she was seated. That was just about enough.

  “They are not insects,” Maud said. “They are tachionals. They are warm-blooded, with a centralized brain. They give live birth, nurse their young, and the sharp edges of their arms can slice a vampire’s head off her shoulders with a single swipe. You would do well to remember that.”

  The retainer stared at her, open-mouthed. Maud strode to the table. The tachi appeared to ignore her approach, but their exoskeletons remained a nebulous, bluish gray. Tachi at rest turned darker, revealing their speckled patterns. It was a sign of trust and often a promise of intimacy.

  If the tachi stood, they would be slightly taller than her, right around six feet. Their silhouette was vaguely humanlike: two legs, two arms, an elegant thorax that could almost pass for a human chest clad in segmented armor, a very narrow waist, and a head. That’s where the similarities ended. Their backs curved backward, the thick exoskeletal plates hiding their wings. Their arms joined to the body not at the sides, like in humans and vampires, but slightly forward. Their necks were long, and their round heads were shielded by three chitin segments, each with slits for a pair of glowing eyes.

  They had two main legs with shins that curved too far backward for human comfort, and two short vestigial appendages—false legs—pointing backward from their pelvises. The vestigial legs had two joints and a very limited range of movement, but when a tachi sat, they gripped the seat, anchoring them in place, which greatly helped them in spaceflight and aerial combat. A tachi was just as comfortable upright as upside down.

  Maud swept the table with her gaze. Nine tachi in all. The female in the center wore a crystal bracelet filled with gently glowing fluid. Pale green flecks floated within it, shifting every time the tachi moved. A royal. The rest were bodyguards, likely elite warriors.

  They should’ve never been seated this far from the host table. She couldn’t even see it from here. It was an insult and the tachi were sensitive to such slights. Vampires were somewhat xenophobic, especially toward aliens who didn’t look like mammals, so the fact that the tachi were permitted here at all meant something significant was on the line. An alliance, a trade agreement. Something of value, which was now jeopardized. This was a tactical blunder. She would have to mention it to Arland.

  Where was Arland? She didn’t expect him to sit with her—that would be pushing against all the Holy Anocracy’s customs—but he could’ve at the very least strolled by. Just to see that she was actually present.

  The tachi had left only one seat open, directly across from the royal. She would be sitting between two sets of bodyguards, with the other four watching her. Maud bowed her head and sat.

  “Greetings.”

  “Greetings,” the royal replied, the bottom segment of her face rising to reveal a slash of a mouth.

  The ten plates were clean. The vampire cooking utensils, small four-pronged forks, lay untouched. Nobody had eaten. The moment she sat down, she saw why. The two large bowls on the table contained a salad.

  They served them salad. Maud almost slapped herself.

  When on a mission among other species, tachi abstained from consuming meat, so at least House Krahr had gotten that right. But tachi were notoriously fastidious in their presentation of food. It was an art as well as sustenance. Every ingredient had its place. Nothing could touch. The vampires served them a salad. Drenched in dressing. Ugh.

  Mom would turn purple if she saw this. Orro, Dina’s inn chef, would probably commit homicide.

  The tachi would never say anything. They would just sit there and quietly fume. If the royal got up from the table without consuming any food, House Krahr could kiss any hope for cooperation goodbye.

  Maud turned to the nearest server. “Bring me bread, honey, a variety of fruit, a large platter, and a sharp knife.”

  The server hesitated.

  She sank ice into her voice. “Am I not a guest of House Krahr?”

  The server flashed his fangs at her. “It will be done, lady.”

  The tachi watched her with calm interest. Nobody spoke.

  The server arrived with a massive wooden cutting board bearing a loaf of freshly baked bread. A second server set a large bowl of fruit in front of her and a glass gravy-boat-like vessel of honey. The two servers parked themselves behind her. They didn’t bring the platter. No matter.

  Maud sliced the crust off the bread, trimming the round loaf into a square shape. At least the knife was sharp. That was one thing one never had to worry about with vampires.

  The tachi kept watching.

  She cut the bread into precise half-inch cubes, placed five of them together onto the plate, one in the center and four in the corners so they formed a square. She picked up the honey and slowly dripped a few drops onto each cube, until the bread soaked up the amber liquid.

  The tachi at the edges of the table leaned in slightly.

  Maud plucked the blue kora fruit from the bowl, peeled the thin skin and carefully cut the fruit into even round slices. She managed eight slices, seven perfectly even and one slightly thicker. She placed the seven slices around the cubes. The eighth was a hair too thick. She pondered it.

  The tachi pondered it with her.

  Better safe than sorry. She reached for another kora.

  The tachi to her left emitted an audible sigh of relief and then crunched his mouth shut, embarrassed.

  After the kora, she cut the red pear, then the thick yellow stalks of sweet grass, slowly building a mandala pattern on her plate. The kih berries followed, perfect little globes of deep orange. She carefully arranged the berries and took one last look at the plate. It was nowhere as perfect as it should’ve been, but that was the best she could do with what she had.

  Maud got up, lifted the plate, and offered it with a bow to the royal.

  “Lady of sun and air, it is my great honor to share my food with you. It is humble, but it is given freely from the heart.”

  The table was completely silent. The royal looked at her with her six glowing eyes.

  Color burst on her exoskeleton, the pale neutral gray turning the deeper azure of the morning sky. She reached out her long elegant arm and took the plate.

  “I accept your offering.”

  Maud exhaled quietly and sat. The color around the table darkened slightly. She could tell the shades of blue, green, and purple apart now.

  The two vampire servers behind her took off at a near jog.

  She reached for the next fruit and began peeling it.

  The royal speared a cube of honey-drenched bread with her claws and popp
ed it into her mouth. “My name is Dil’ki. What is yours?”

  “Maud, your highness.”

  Dil’ki clicked her claws. “Tch-tch-tch. Not so loud. The vampires do not know. Where have you learned our customs?”

  “My parents are innkeepers on Earth.”

  A deeper blue blossomed on Dil’ki’s segments. The tachi around the table shifted, their poses less stiff.

  “How delightful. Do you speak Akit?”

  Thank the universe for dad’s insistence on a superior speech implant. “I do.”

  Maud arranged another, less complex mandala and passed it to the tachi on her right.

  “We will speak Akit,” Dil’ki declared, switching to the dialect. “Do you understand me, Lady Maud?”

  “I do,” Maud said.

  “Yes.” The royal leaned closer and popped a berry into her mouth. “Tell me, what are you doing here, among these barbarians?”

  “One of them asked me to marry him.”

  “No,” the green tachi from the right gasped. “You mustn’t.”

  “They can’t even make proper seats,” another green tachi said. “Some of them are joined into benches.”

  “You must be very brave to come here,” a purple tachi said from the left.

  “Did you say yes?” Dil’ki asked.

  “I said I would think about it.”

  The vampire servers arrived, bearing platters of precision sliced fruit and cubed bread. The tachi fell silent. The food was placed on the table and the servers backed away.

  “You may serve yourselves,” Dil’ki said. “If poor Maud has to feed us all, we will be here all night.”

  The tachi clicked the mandibles inside their mouths, chuckling. An instinctual alarm dashed through Maud. Every hair on the back of her neck stood on end.

  Claws reached for the platters, each arranging their own small masterpiece of fruit on their plate.

  “Which one asked you?” Dil’ki asked.

  Maud craned her neck. If Arland was anywhere, he’d be at the host table, but she couldn’t really see him. “The big blond one. The son of the Lady Ilemina.”

  Dil’ki leaned in and the other tachi mirrored her movement, as if they had choreographed it.

  “Tell me all about it,” Dil’ki said.

  Maud opened her mouth and saw Seveline walking toward her, two male vampires in tow.

  “Enemy?” Dil’ki guessed.

  “I don’t know yet,” Maud said. She realized she had pushed her chair back from the table slightly, on pure muscle memory. When an enemy is approaching, it paid to make sure getting up didn’t cost you a precious fraction of a second. “I think she might be.”

  As one, the tachi went light gray.

  “There you are!” Seveline grinned at her. “I was wondering where they hid you.”

  No proper address. An insult. It would’ve been fine if they were friends in private, but they were neither friends nor alone.

  Maud plastered a smile on her face. “Lady Seveline.”

  “I expected to have to search, but at this table? Really?”

  Another insult. She really was enjoying herself.

  “And I see they forgot to bring you meat. Do they honestly think you are an herbivore? Are humans herbivores, Lady Maud? I only ask because of your small teeth.”

  A third insult. The dark-haired vampire at Seveline’s right flashed a quick smile. Couldn’t help himself.

  A tachi on her right leaned to her and murmured in Akit. “Would you like me to kill her? I can do it quietly tonight. They’ll never figure it out.”

  Oh crap. The last thing she needed was to cause an interstellar incident.

  Seveline narrowed her eyebrows slightly. Ten to one, Seveline’s implant didn’t recognize Akit. It was an internal tachi language. But if Maud replied in English, it would translate her reply. Maud cleared her throat.

  “Khia teki-teki, re to kha. Kerchi sia chee.” No, thank you. She’s a source of information.

  Argh, she’d mangled it. There were sounds human mouths just couldn’t make.

  The tachi clicked their mandibles again, in approval.

  “That was very, very good,” Dil’ki said in Akit. “Good try.”

  “Is something the matter?” Seveline asked.

  “Not at all,” Maud smiled. “Is there something I can help you with?”

  “As a matter of fact, there is.” Seveline smiled. “These lords with me were wondering if there was some unique aspect to human lovemaking that particularly appeals to vampires. I thought you would be a perfect person to ask, since you have used it to such great effect.”

  Quarter of a second to get up, another quarter to jump up on the table, half a second to ram her fork into Seveline’s neck, piercing the windpipe. She would look so pretty with a bloody fork sticking out of her neck.

  Maud smiled and stopped. A sentinel stood at the doorway of the feast hall. A small figure in a blue tunic with a silver sash stood next to him. The beginning of a huge black eye turned Helen’s right cheek bright red.

  “Please excuse me.” She jumped up and hurried through the tables to her daughter.

  Helen looked up at her, her face pinched. She was trying not to cry.

  “What happened?” Maud asked.

  The sentinel, an older male vampire, smiled at her. “Personal challenges are forbidden in the nursery. Lady Helen was warned about the consequences of her actions, yet she chose to continue as did her challenged.”

  “He called me a liar,” Helen squeezed through her teeth.

  Fear crushed Maud. Somehow, she made her lips move. “Is the other boy alive?”

  “Yes.” The older vampire smiled brighter. “His broken arm will serve as a fine reminder of today’s events. Unfortunately, Lady Helen must leave us now. She is to report tomorrow to the nursery to atone for her failure in judgement. Should I take her to her quarters?”

  “No,” Maud said. “I’ll do it.”

  “But your dinner, Lady Maud?”

  “I have had my fill.”

  Maud took her daughter by the hand and walked down the hallway, away from the feast hall.

  The long hallway of House Krahr’s citadel lay deserted. Behind Maud, the noise of the feast hall was dying down, receding with every step. Helen walked next to her, her face sullen.

  “What happened?” Maud asked softly.

  “They asked me where I came from, and I told them about how I made my room and Aunt Dina said she would get me fishes. This boy said that houses can’t move if you think at them. He said I was lying.”

  Of course he did. “Then what happened?”

  “Then I got mad.” Helen bit her lip with her fangs. “And I said take it back. And he said I was stupid and a liar. And then he wagged his finger at me.”

  “He did what?”

  Helen stuck out her hand with her index finger extended and waved it around, drawing an upside-down U in the air, and sang, “Liar-liar-liar.”

  “Then what happened?”

  “Then I said that pointing was bad, because it lets your enemy know where you’re looking.”

  The lessons of Karhari had stuck. No matter how long Helen spent away from it, the wasteland had soaked into her soul and there wasn’t anything Maud could do about it.

  “And he said I wasn’t good enough to be his enemy. And I said, ‘I’ll punch you so hard, you’ll swallow your teeth, worm.’”

  Maud hid a groan. “Where did you hear that?”

  “Lord Arland.”

  Oh goodie. “Then what happened?”

  “Then the scary old knight came and told me that if I challenged the boy, there would be ripper cushions.”

  “Repercussions.”

  “Yes. So I asked if the boy would get repercushions if he fought me, and the knight said yes, and I said I was okay with it.”

  Maud rubbed the bridge of her nose.

  “And then the knight asked the boy if he wanted help and the boy said he didn’t, and the knight said
‘proceed’, and then the boy punched me, and I got his arm. With my legs.” Helen rolled on the floor and locked her legs together. “I said, say surrender, and he didn’t say anything, he just yelled, so I broke it. If he didn’t want me to break it, he should’ve said surrender.”

  Maud rubbed her face some more.

  Helen looked at her from the floor, her big green eyes huge on her face. “He started it.”

  And she finished it.

  “You weren’t wrong,” Maud said. “But you weren’t wise.”

  Helen looked at the floor.

  “You knew you weren’t a liar.”

  “Yes.”

  “So why did it matter what the vampire boy said?”

  “I don’t know,” Helen mumbled.

  Maud crouched by her. “You don’t always meet enemies in battle. Sometimes you meet them during peace. They might even pretend to be your friends. Some of them will try to provoke you so they can see what you can do. You have to learn to wait and watch them until you figure out their weakness. The boy thought you were weak. If you let him keep thinking you were weak, you could’ve used it later. Remember what I told you about surprise?”

  “It wins battles,” Helen said.

  “Now the boy knows you’re strong,” Maud said. “It wasn’t wrong to show your strength. But in the future, you have to think carefully and decide if you want people to know your true strength or not.”

  “Okay,” Helen said quietly.

  “Come on.” Maud offered her daughter her hand. Helen grasped her fingers and got up. They resumed their walk down the hallway.

  “Mama?”

  “Yes?”

  “Are vampires our enemies?”

  That was to be determined. “That’s what we are trying to figure out.”

  “When are we going to go live with Aunt Dina again?”

  An excellent question. What am I doing here anyway?

  She’d had it up to her throat with all of the vampire backstabbing the first time. She’d promised herself she was done the moment they landed on Karhari and she’d repeated this promise over and over when she lay on the hilltop, breathing in Karhari dust, watching the blood sword flash and seeing Melizard’s head fall to the ground; when she tracked his killers; when she bargained for shelter and water, knowing that if she failed, Helen would die. It became her mantra. Never again. Yet here she was.

 
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