Home > Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(2)

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(2)
Author: Ilona Andrews

Renouard marched down the aisle between the tables. A taller younger vampire got in his way. Renouard looked at him for a long moment and the younger mercenary decided to take a seat. Renouard’s reputation preceded him.

He slid into her booth, taking up the entire bench, and pondered her. “I thought you left, Sariv.”

She really hated that nickname. “Why haven’t you?”

“I had a small bit of business to take care of.”

Renouard bared his teeth at her, displaying his fangs. Vampires showed their teeth for many reasons: to intimidate, to express joy, to snarl in frustration. But this one was a leer. Look at my teeth, baby. Aren’t I amazing?

She drank the last swallow of her tea and studied her empty cup.

“Since your pretty boy husband got himself killed, you’ve never stayed in the same place longer than a day or two.”

Melizard was owed a blood debt. A debt she collected over the last six months, as she went after every vampire complicit in his murder and their relatives and friends dumb enough to track her down to get revenge. She’d stabbed the last murderer a month ago and watched his heart pump his blood onto the dirt.

She gave him a cold flat stare. “My memory is quite good. I do not recall you being there. Don’t presume to comment on my habits, my lord.”

Renouard grinned. “Ahh, and there is the wife of the Marshal’s brat. I keep waiting for this place to smother you, but you do endure, Sariv. Why are you here?”

She raised her eyebrows. She wasn’t going to even dignify it with an answer.

“You’ve been threading your way through the wastes, towing your crazy child with you for months, then the week before last you parked yourself at this Lodge. You’re waiting for something. What is it?”

She yawned.

“Tell me.” His tone gained a menacing quality.

A hiss came from the stairs. Maud leaned back to bring the stairway into her peripheral vision. Helen crouched on the stairs, wrapped in a tattered brown cloak. Her hood was up, but she was looking straight at them, the long blonde hair sliding out of the hood and two green eyes, glowing slightly, fixed on Renouard.

“There is the demon spawn,” Renouard said.

Helen opened her mouth, showing two thin sickle fangs, and hissed again. Crouched like that, she looked like a vicious little animal backed into a corner, a feral cat who didn’t want to fight, but if you tried to touch it, it would slice your hand into ribbons.

She couldn’t have heard them all the way from upstairs. Or at least Maud hoped she hadn’t. With a child that was half-vampire, half-human, Maud had given up on all her preconceived notions long ago.

“Are you waiting for someone to take you off this rock?” Renouard’s upper lip trembled, betraying the beginning of a snarl. “If so, you’re waiting in vain, my lady. Karhari is under a restricted access seal. Only the handful of Houses who are charged with guarding Karhari or those designated as vital trading partners are granted a permit. There are less than ten traders, all vampires, and I know every one of them.”

“It’s truly rare to find a man who enjoys the sound of his own voice as much as you do.”

“The Houses guarding the planet are paid by the Anocracy to keep you exactly where you are, and you have no way to pay for the passage from a trader. The cost to smuggle you out is too high. You barely earn enough to keep you and your demon from dying of thirst. If you’re waiting for an outsider to come to your rescue, their craft will be shot down the moment it enters the atmosphere.”

She stroked the hilt of her sword under the table.

Renouard leaned forward, taking up his side of the table and some of hers. “I’m your only chance. Take my offer.”

“You want me to sell my own daughter to the slave market.”

“A vampire-human hybrid is a rarity. She’s worth some money. I promise you, in a month, she and the planet will be a bad dream.”

If she threw the cup at his face, he’d jump to his feet and she could drive the knife on her left hip under his chin and into his mouth. Hard to talk with your tongue impaled.

“If you don’t want to sell her, leave her here. She grew up here. This hellhole is the only place she knows. She doesn’t remember House Ervan. Void, she’s probably forgotten her own father by this point. Leave her here. It will be a kindness.”

She felt the sudden need to take a shower to wash off the few molecules belonging to him that happened to land on her skin.

“Come with me. We’ll burn our way through the galaxy. I’ll keep you too busy to brood. I’m quite good at making women forget their problems.”

He reached for her.

She thrust the sword between them under the table. The point grazed his thigh.

“It seems you’ve forgotten what happened the last time you failed to keep your hands to yourself.”

His affable expression was completely gone now. An ugly snarl twisted his features.

“Last chance, Maud. Very last chance.”

“You have a shuttle to catch.”

“Fine. Rot here.” He rose. “I’ll be back in six months. We can revisit it then, if there is anything left of you to bargain with.”

Maud watched him walk away.

Helen slid into the booth next to her. “I don’t like him.”

“Neither, do I, my flower. Neither do I. Don’t worry. He won’t bother us again.”

“Mommy?”

“Yes?”

Helen looked up at her from the depths of her hood. “Will somebody really come for us?”

The fragile hope in her daughter’s voice nearly undid Maud. She wished so badly she could say yes.

Two weeks ago, when they stopped at the Lodge for the night, she had run into an Arbitrator. The galaxy, with all of its planets, dimensions, and thousands of species, was too large for any unified government, but the Office of Arbitration, an ancient neutral body, served as its court. To meet an Arbitrator was rare. To meet a human one… Up until two weeks ago Maud would’ve said it was impossible.

Humans didn’t get out much. Through a twist of cosmic fate, Earth sat on the crossroads of the galaxy. It was the only twelve-point warp in existence, which made it a convenient hub. Instead of squabbling over the planet, the interstellar powers, in a rare moment of wisdom, formed an ancient agreement with representatives of humanity. Earth would serve as the way station for the galactic travelers passing through on their way to somewhere else. They arrived in secret and stayed at specialized inns equipped to handle a wide variety of beings. In return, the planet was designated as neutral ground. None of the galactic powers could lay claim to it, and the existence of other intelligent life remained a secret to all human population except for the select few families who minded the inns.

The few rare humans who made it off-planet were like her, children of innkeepers, all marked with a particular magic that allowed them to defy the rules of physics within their inns. The Arbitrator felt different, suffused with power, unlike any human she had met before. She had stood by the bar, trying to figure out if he was Earth-born, when he turned to her and smiled. For a second, she stumbled. He was shockingly beautiful.

He asked her if she was from Earth, she told him she was, and he casually offered to deliver a message to her family.

She’d frozen then while her mind feverishly tried to find someone to whom she could send the message. When she was pregnant with Helen, her brother Klaus and her younger sister, Dina, had come to House Ervan to tell her their parents’ inn had disappeared. One moment the charming colonial was there, hiding a microcosm inside, the next it vanished, taking everyone inside with it. When Klaus had come home from running errands, he had found an empty lot. Nobody, not even the Innkeeper Assembly, knew where or how the inn had vanished.

Her siblings were going to search the galaxy for answers. She wanted to join them, but she was pregnant and Melizard begged her to stay by his side. He was in the middle of another scheme, and he had needed her.

Two years later, just as her husband had started on the path that would land them on Karhari, Dina and Klaus had come again. They found nothing. Klaus wanted to keep looking, but Dina had enough. She was going back to earth. Of the three of them, Dina longed for normal life the most, always wanting things the innkeeper families couldn’t have, like friends outside the inn or attending high school. Maud still recalled the bad feeling that had washed over her as she watched the two of them walk toward the spaceport. Something told her to grab Helen and follow them. But she loved Melizard and she had stayed…

By now Dina probably had a normal job. Maybe she was married, with children of her own. Klaus was universe alone knew where. She told the Arbitrator as much and he smiled at her again and said, “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Messages have a way of getting where they need to go.”

Maud took off her necklace, scribbled a few words with the coordinates of the Lodge on a piece of paper, and handed them both to him. It felt right somehow, as if this was a test and she had given the correct answer. Now they waited.

She had no idea how long it would take. Her mercenary job had earned them two and a half weeks of stay, the rest of her money would buy another two weeks or so, then she would have to search for jobs.

Helen was still looking at her, waiting for an answer.

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