Home > Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(10)

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(10)
Author: Ilona Andrews

“True. But most Houses view such old rivalries as healthy.”

“Is that so?” he said.

“It is. Conflict keeps their forces sharp. The strong and talented emerge, weaker people are culled, and there are ample opportunities for heroism and much growling about duty and honor.”

Arland smiled, showing a hint of fang. “And speeches. Don’t forget the speeches.”

“Their feud is generations old. There are dead and wronged on both sides. There must be some mutual advantage for them to set it aside. Are you aware of such an advantage?”

“No.”

“Then it must be a common enemy.”

Arland sighed.

She raised her eyebrows at him.

“Your reasoning is sound,” he said. “I’m not arguing with it. A month ago, I said pretty much the same thing at a strategy session where this wedding request was discussed.”

“And?”

“And I was told that there was no graceful way to refuse the request. We are the dominant House in the quadrant. We have no indication that we are being lied to, and we have no excuse to deny it. We aren’t at war, and our House is enjoying unprecedented prosperity at the moment. If we denied them, there would be questions.”

“’Is House Krahr so meek that they are afraid of allowing a mere two hundred wedding guests into their territory?’”

He nodded.

Hosting a wedding was expensive. Tradition dictated that something had to be offered in return. “What was their offer?”

“Safe haven for the merchant ships.”

“House Krahr can’t protect its merchant fleet?”

He grimaced. “The sector bordering the Serak system is filled with pirates. Both Kozor and Serak have been fighting them for the better part of the century. There is a four-point warp near that system, just outside of the Anocracy space.”

Four-point warps were rare. It meant that a ship could enter hyperspace and choose any of the other three destinations, which meant that stretch of space served as a major shipping artery. A multi-point warp is what made a solar system special. Earth was the only known twelve-point warp in existence.

“Our armada is more than sufficient for the protection of our merchant fleets,” Arland continued. “The pirates go after freelancers, courier ships, exploration and survey crews, and family miners and salvagers.”

“Anything too small to warrant an escort by a ship of war.”

“Exactly. The crews of these smaller crafts are members of House Krahr and neighboring Houses. It’s been an ongoing thorny issue. We’ve gone after the pirate fleet a few times. They simply scatter. We chase down one or two of their vessels, and meanwhile the rest vanish. Kozor and Serak have the advantage of location and experience fighting them. They offered protection for our smaller craft, and we took it.”

To tell him about the two Kozor women or not to tell him?

If he were Melizard, she would’ve held back until she had something more concrete.

That settled it. “I overheard a conversation in the spaceport. Two knights of House Kozor, Onda and Seveline.”

“Anything interesting?” he asked.

“Seveline appraised you like you were a side of beef. In her opinion, you’re a prime specimen she wouldn’t mind taking for a ride.”

He grinned at her. He had a terrible smile. It made him look predatory and slightly boyish at the same time. The combination was devastating.

“They called me a halfer,” Helen said from the backseat.

The smiled vanished from his face, as if jerked away. “You’re not a halfer,” Arland growled. “You’re a vampire and a human. Both and whole, not half and half.”

Maud could’ve kissed him. Instead, she plastered a cool expression on her face. “Seveline told Onda that she should be allowed to play with you, because it would be a shame to lose.”

“To lose what?”

“I don’t know, because Onda jumped down her throat and made her be quiet. According to her, too many people worked too hard for Seveline to ruin it.”

Arland’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t like it.”

Maud leaned back in her seat. “Neither do I. Later Seveline made it a point to flag me down and offer me some pleasantries. She believes we will become fast friends.”

Arland gave her a calculating look. “Perhaps you should.”

If only. She grimaced. “I can’t. For me to become her ‘friend,’ I would have to pretend to be weak and ignorant. Your mother didn’t come to greet you at the spaceport. She is displeased.”

“My mother is likely too busy with the hassle of arranging the wedding.”

She snorted. “Or perhaps, my lord, she is mortally insulted by your instruction to make her household presentable for some disgraced human who turned down your proposal.”

“My mother is never insulted. She is far too dignified and refined for that. She has the patience of a saint.”

“Lady Ilemina,” Maud quoted from memory, “Slaughterer of Ruhamin, Supreme Predator of the Holy Anocracy, Bleeder of Ert, Fierce Subjugator of…”

“Like I said, too dignified to take offense. If someone dares to insult her, she simply kills them, and she isn’t going to kill me. I’m her only son. At most, she’s annoyed, perhaps slightly irritated.”

Maud sighed. “But I’m not her son.”

“She won’t harm you.” He said it like he was swearing an oath. Like he would put himself between her and all danger.

He had no idea how intoxicating it was to hear that. Words are cheap, she reminded herself. Reading too much into them was a dangerous habit and one she couldn’t afford. “Your mother will test me. She’ll encourage others in your House to test me. I can’t pretend to be weak and pass your mother’s gauntlet at the same time.”

“A fair point,” he admitted.

“Perhaps, you should pay attention to Seveline. Just enough to encourage her. Her type gets off on feeling superior. She’d get special pleasure pretending to be my friend while knowing she has your attention.”

Arland turned to her, his blue eyes clear and hard. “I proposed to you, my lady. If I treat you with anything but the devotion I feel, my House will dismiss you.”

He was right.

Silence fell. The craft zipped over another mesa filled with old growth. In the distance, still a few miles off, a castle rose out of the huge trees, massive and pale gray, so solid and majestic, it looked like it had grown out of the bones of the mountain.

“I am devoted to you,” Arland said quietly.

“Please don’t.” The words came out of her before she had a chance to think them over. She felt raw, as if he’d grabbed a bandage on a wound and ripped it off, reopening it.

What the hell is wrong with me?

“I’ll wait,” he said.

“I may never be ready.”

“I’ll wait until you tell me to stop. I have no expectations, my lady. If you leave, all you have to do is call on me in the time of need, and I’ll be there.”

Something in his voice told her he would wait forever.

They reached the castle. The ancestral home of House Krahr defied all expectations. A forest of square towers wrapped in a maze of walkways, parapets, thick walls, and courtyards, greeted her. If she had to run from it, she would never find a way out.

Arland’s hands flew over the controls. The shuttle turned smoothly and sank onto a small landing pad on top of a squat tower. People emerged from the taller tower to the left, hurrying across the crosswalk. She had the worst sense of déjà vu. When Melizard came home, the retainers used to hurry to the shuttle just like that.

For a moment she felt like she was drowning.

“Welcome to House Krahr, my lady,” Arland said.

She wouldn’t lose her future to her memories. It wasn’t going to happen. She turned to him and smiled her vampire smile, bright and sharp. “Thank you, my lord.”

4

As soon as they exited the shuttle, a young vampire knight with dark auburn hair whose name was Knight Ruin, attached himself to Arland and began rattling things off from his tablet. Arland’s face took on the stony expression of a man who was either about to charge the enemy line for the fifth time in a single day, or do his taxes. He marched along the parapet toward the heavy door, with Ruin at his side. Maud took Helen’s hand and followed him, and the four other retainers closed in, one next to her and three behind. She could practically feel their stares stabbing her back.

Go ahead. Get an eyeful.

The afternoon sun warmed Maud’s skin. She guessed the temperature was somewhere in the mid-eighties, and the breeze was downright pleasant. She had a childish urge to climb onto one of the textured protrusions of the parapets, strip off her armor, and sunbathe for a couple of hours.

Ruin kept spitting out questions, periodically pausing for Arland to bark an answer.

“Third Regiment requests permission to enter negotiations with the architectural guilds to update their Chapel Hall.”

“Granted.”

“Second and third companies of Fourth Regiment request permission to settle an inter-unit dispute via champion combat.”

“Denied. We don’t parade our rivalries in front of wedding guests from other Houses. I want the full write-up of this dispute on my tablet within the hour.”

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