Home > Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(14)

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(14)
Author: Ilona Andrews

The retainer gave her a quick once-over, her gaze snagging on Maud’s jet-black armor with its blank crest. “We will leave now.”

That bordered on rudeness. Clearly the news had spread through House Krahr. The human new arrival was out of favor. Vampires were a predictable lot. There was a time when she found comfort in that predictability.

“Come, Helen,” Maud called.

Helen came over. She wore a blue tunic caught with a silver sash over white leggings and an undertunic. Little brown boots hugged her feet. Maud had brushed her hair and worked it into the customary vampire mane. She looked so adorable, Maud snapped a couple of pictures for Dina.

The retainer saw Helen and fought a smile. “Come this way.”

They followed the retainer through a long hallway into a round chamber, then into another hallway and to a door. The door slid open as they approached, leading to a narrow stone walkway stretching to another tower. The weather had turned, the dark, furious sky flinging rain at the castle and the plateau beyond, and a transparent roof shielded the walkway from the weather’s rage. It was like walking into a storm suspended a hundred feet above the ground. Helen’s grip on her fingers tightened. Maud smiled at her and kept walking.

The other tower loomed ahead, a much wider and larger structure.

“How old is the fortress?” Maud asked.

The retainer paused. Maud hid a smile. As a mongrel human, she clearly wasn’t worth an answer, but rules of hospitality prescribed courtesy when interacting with guests.

Politeness won. “The core of the castle is twenty-three centuries old. We have expanded it over the generations.”

The understatement of the year.

They reached the second tower. The dark door swung open, and they entered another hallway. The stone of the walls here was smoother, newer, cut with greater precision. Lights, soft golden spheres, hung from the twenty-foot ceiling in artful bunches, bathing the hallway in a golden radiance. The blood-red banners of House Krahr spanned the height of the walls. At the far end, double doors stood wide open, offering a glimpse of the feast hall. Sounds of conversation floated over.

The retainer turned left and stopped before an open door. A pair of knights in full armor waited at the entrance, one male and the other female, both middle-aged and thick through the shoulders. A sharp slice of red marked their House crests like a rip of a single claw. Sentinels, the knights trained specifically to guard against an intrusion. Both were armed. Children’s laughter rang out behind them.

“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.

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