Home > Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(12)

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(12)
Author: Ilona Andrews

Lady Karat’s dark eyes sparked. In that moment, she looked remarkably like her father. “Did you just call me a poor host and insult my family?”

Maud gave her a narrow smile. “Well, clearly.”

“And now you call me stupid.”

“No. Only slow-witted. Are you going to do something about it, or can I start unpacking?”

Lady Karat stared at her for a long moment and grinned. “My father was right. I do like you.”

Apparently, it was a test and she’d passed. Vampires and their games. Nothing was ever simple. Maud sighed and stepped aside. “Come in.”

Karat strode into the quarters and saw Helen on the bed. “Cute kid.”

Helen bounced off the mattress, flipping in the air, and landed on the pillows. “Are you going to try to kill Mommy?”

“No,” Karat told her.

“Good.” Helen went back to jumping.

“Does she expect you to be killed by random strangers?” Karat asked.

“That’s the way things were on Karhari.”

Karat eyed Helen.

Helen gave her a cherubic smile.

“She would attack me if I tried, wouldn’t she? She’s building up enough bounce to jump across the room.”

Maud nodded.

Karat wiggled her fingers at Helen.

“Why do you have so many names?” Helen asked.

“Alvina is the formal given name,” Maud explained. “It’s used on formal occasions like special dinners or if she gets in trouble with family. Renadra is the title name. It’s means all of the people and lands she is responsible for and it’s used during government functions when people vote on laws. Karat is her knight name, the one she earned in battle and the one she prefers.”

Karat wrinkled her nose at Helen. “My friends call me Karat. You can call me Karat, too. For now.”

“You can call me Helen,” Helen told her.

“Well met, Lady Helen.”

It was customary to offer refreshments when someone visited a room. Where would they have put them? Ah. A faint outline in the wall betrayed a niche. She stepped to it, deliberately turning her back to Karat, and ran her fingers along the crack. A square section of the wall slid forward, revealing a shelf supporting a bowl filled with small pieces of jerky twisted into knots and a big bottle of blue wine. Six heavy tulip-shaped glasses cut from sparkling crystal waited next to the wine.

Maud took the wine and two glasses and offered one to Karat. Soren’s daughter landed in the nearest oversized chair. Maud twisted the round stopper out of the wine bottle, breaking the seal, poured them both a glass, and sat in another chair.

Karat sipped the wine. “My father asked me to assist you. He’s invested in this pairing. I don’t know what you said or did, but that crusty old bastard is singing your praises.”

“In the words of your cousin, Lord Soren’s ‘grizzled exterior hides a gentle heart.’”

Karat chuckled. “Sure it does. He is suffused with warmth and sunshine.”

Maud toyed with the wine in her glass.

“Wondering whether to trust me?” Karat asked.

“Yes.”

“I’ll make it simple for you: you have no choice. You could go it alone, but it will be much harder. Our House is old and complicated.”

“Why are you helping me? After all, I manipulated Arland and preyed on his heroic instincts.”

Karat swirled the glittering blue liquid in her glass, making the crystal throw a filigree of highlights onto the table. “Arland appears to lack in subtlety and seems easy to influence. In truth he’s anything but.”

“He very carefully cultivates that image.”

Karat nodded. “You noticed?”

“Yes. He told me he was no poet, but a simple soldier, and then delivered a declaration of love that could’ve come straight from Of Blood and Honor.” In fact, it could’ve been included in any vampire saga. It was elegant and beautiful, and she’d memorized every word of it.

Karat raised her eyebrows. “You read.”

“I do.”

“Oh good. To answer your question, better people than you have tried to manipulate my cousin and failed. He has never proposed to anyone before. He had dalliances, but nothing serious. If he asked you to marry him, he must love you. And you must feel something for him, because you came here without the protection that would’ve been afforded to you had you accepted his proposal. Right now, you’re not his bride. You’re not betrothed. You’re nothing. I can see you’re not naïve and you’re familiar with our customs. You knew how you would be received, but you came anyway. There is something here that the two of you have to figure out, and you can’t do that if you are expelled out of our territory or killed. I want Arland to be happy.”

“That’s it?”

Karat nodded. “Yes. And if he marries, my father will start nagging him about children instead of reminding me to get married and deliver a host of grandchildren to ‘brighten his old age.’ A break from his concerned inquiries about my progress in this matter would be most welcome.”

“That bad, huh?” Maud asked.

A shadow of defeat passed across Karat’s face. “You have no idea. Do we have a deal?”

Maud drank her wine. She could trust Soren’s daughter, or she could go it alone. She’d known a number of knights who would’ve come to her room just like that, with sincere offers of help—and would’ve proudly stabbed her in the back at the first opportunity. Afterward, they would’ve boasted about their own cleverness.

Karat didn’t seem to be one of them. Maud’s instincts told her she could be trusted. Her gut had never failed her before.

“Yes, Lady Karat. We have a deal.”

Karat sat up straighter. “Good. I’d like to know what we’re working with here. What’s your status with House Ervan?”

“I was married to Melizard Ervan.”

“Yes, Father told me. Marshal’s son?”

“Second son.” She’d sunk a lot of meaning into that first word.

Karat toyed with her glass. “House Ervan is a young House. Some younger Houses tend to overcompensate by holding fast to the ancient traditions even when they no longer make sense. The times when the heirs were always warriors, no matter their skill.”

“My husband was a superb warrior. In personal combat, he knew no equal. But he wasn’t as good of a commander as his older brother. Melizard liked to play games. His brother didn’t. The knights of Ervan trusted him over my husband.”

The troops had sensed something in Melizard that she didn’t see until the very end. He didn’t value them. They were a means to obtain victory and then serve as adornments when his success was celebrated.

“My brother-in-law was groomed for the position of Marshal, and my husband was to become Maven,” she said.

Mavens handled negotiations for the Houses. They served as ambassadors and dealmakers. The position would’ve conveniently kept Melizard busy and, considering Ervan’s trade agreements, it would’ve frequently taken him and his schemes away from the House.

“Mavens are respected and feared,” Karat said.

“He wanted to be the Marshal.”

There was so much more she could say. About Melizard’s night rages, when he stalked back and forth across their quarters like a caged tiger, ranting about his family, about his brother being handed everything while his talents went unrecognized. About schemes, and petitions, and endless plans to prove he was the better of the two. About the time he marched into his parents’ quarters and demanded to be made Marshal only to return like a beaten dog with his tail between his legs. So much more.

“My husband was the youngest son. Admired, babied, and spoiled. Denied nothing except what he wanted most of all. To become Marshal. No,” Maud corrected herself, “to be made Marshal. To have the title handed to him.”

“What did he do?” Karat asked.

Maud glanced at Helen and lowered her voice. “He tried to murder his brother.”

Karat sipped her wine. “Personal combat is a perfectly acceptable way to settle grievances between competing siblings.”

If only. Maud leaned back in her chair. “It wasn’t personal.”

“What?”

“My husband arranged an ambush for his brother.”

Karat blinked. “I don’t understand. You did say your husband was the better combatant.”

“My husband also was told in no uncertain terms that his brother would become the Marshal, and any attempt to sabotage that rise would be unacceptable to his parents and his House. He knew if he challenged his brother, it would enrage the family and House leadership. So, he convinced a group of his knights to jump his brother as he was coming back from an errand. Meanwhile, he and I attended a celebration at his cousin’s house. The cousin’s older son was granted knighthood. During the celebration, my husband made it a point to overtly flirt with a woman. He must’ve hoped I would make a scene. I left instead, but that was enough. Everyone had noticed our presence and my exit. He was establishing his alibi.”

Karat had forgotten about her wine. “That’s highly dishonorable.”

“That’s what I told him, when he explained all of that to me that night.”

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