Home > Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(5)

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(5)
Author: Ilona Andrews

She was done with all things vampire.

Three weeks later

Arland lay naked on the metal examination table. Bloody blisters sheathed his body. Some had ruptured, leaking polluted, foul blood that smelled of acid and decomposition.

Panic flailed and clawed at Maud’s insides. She took his hands. His fingers were like ice. He looked at her, his blue eyes brimming with pain. It cut Maud like a knife.

You fool. You stupid fool.

They were besieged in Dina’s inn. An alien had asked her sister for shelter and she took him in, knowing that his entire species was a target of a planet of religious zealots. A clan of assassins had targeted the alien. She and Arland had been helping to hold them off, fighting side by side, sparring, eating in the same kitchen, repairing their armor at night at the dining room table in a comfortable silence. He provoked her, she responded, then she provoked him, and he parried. She watched him play with Helen, treating her like a treasured vampire child. She noticed when he smiled. She trained with him and she told herself that none of it mattered. They were just friends fighting for the same cause.

Today the assassins managed to introduce a seed of the World Killer into the inn. A flower with the power to wipe out the entire planets, the World Killer was impervious to fire and acid. Made of energy, it passed through every barrier they could throw in its way and only became flesh when it was about to attack. It would kill and grow and kill again until nothing alive remained on the planet and the five of them, Dina, Sean, Helen, Arland, and she would become its first victims.

They stood frozen in the kitchen, afraid to make the slightest movement. Then Arland declared that his blood was toxic to the flower. She saw him look at Helen, look at her, and she knew deep in the very core of her soul that he would sacrifice himself for them. The enormity of that realization smashed into her, throwing her so off balance, she couldn’t even think.

She remembered his voice, so calm it chilled her. “Lady Maud, if I die, say the Liturgy of the Fallen for me.”

Saying the Liturgy of the Fallen fell to the one you treasured most. Your spouse. Your lover. Your one who was everything. She couldn’t dishonor that confession and she answered him in the language of vampires. “Go with the Goddess, my Lord. You won’t be forgotten.”

He had thrown himself at the flower. It stung and seared him, wrapping around him like a constrictor snake. It pierced him again and again, poisoning him until it brought him to his knees. He’d screamed, his voice raw with pain, tears streaming down his face, and still he fought it until he finally grasped its root, tore it open and spat his own blood into it. It died.

And now Arland would die too.

They made him release his armor while Helen cried and begged him not to die, then they brought him here into the medward. He had grown so weak. There was barely any strength in his fingers. Her sister kept washing him, rinsing the polluted blood off his body, but his wounds bled and bled. There was no antidote.

She couldn’t lose him. She couldn’t. Thinking of getting up in the morning, knowing she would never see him, shredded her soul. She wanted to scream and rage, but he was looking at her face, their stares forging a fragile connection. She held his hand and looked back at him, terrified this tether would snap and he would be gone forever.

She saw death in his eyes, coming closer and closer. Vampires died surrounded by family or on the battlefield. She had to help him. She had to…

Maud made her voice neutral and calm. “Dina, do you have a vigil room?”

“No.”

“Then I’m going to make one. Off the kitchen.”

She closed her eyes, reaching for the magic of Gertrude Hunt. Dina’s inn responded, moving first slowly then faster, pulling apart floors and walls, forming a new space, shaping a massive tub, growing the proper plants… It would give him the peace of mind. If he was reassured that proper rites would be said and prayer offered on his behalf, he might hold on.

Hold on, she willed. Please, hold on. Please don’t leave us.

She opened her eyes, took the showerhead from Dina, and kept washing him.

His chest barely rose.

“Don’t go,” she begged. “Hold on to me.”

He smiled at her, so weak it almost broke what little resolve she had left.

“Fight it,” she said. She grasped his hand, trying to pour some of her vitality into him.

“Everything is slowing down.” His voice was quiet. He raised his hand, his fingers trembling. She leaned into his palm, and he stroked her cheek. “No time.”

“Fight it. Live.”

His eyes dimmed.

A knock sounded. A door opened and Caldenia ka ret Magren strode into the room. Once a galactic tyrant, now Gertrude Hunt’s only permanent guest, with a bounty on her head that would let you buy a paradise planet. She carried a small box.

A cure. Maud had no idea how she knew it, but she believed it with every heartbeat.

Her fear had paralyzed her, and Maud turned numb.

Even as the needle pierced Arland’s skin and his wounds stopped bleeding, she still couldn’t bring herself to hope. She directed the inn to transport him, she watched him slide into the mint bath in the vigil room, and then she sat by him and whispered prayers, one after another.

Around them the inn was quiet. Dina had left somewhere. Sean and others were in the kitchen, but they might as well have gone to the moon.

Live, Arland. Live. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave Helen.

A warm wet hand touched her. Maud opened her eyes. He was looking at her, his blond hair wet, his skin still too pale, but his blue eyes were brighter and deep within his irises, she glimpsed the same iron will that drove him into battle.

“My lady,” he said quietly.

“Never do that again,” she whispered.

“Stay with me,” he asked.

“Where would I go?”

He smiled then. She rolled her eyes and went back to the rites.

The practice mace whistled over Maud’s head. She dropped into a crouch and kicked out, aiming to sweep Arland’s legs. The Marshal of House Krahr leaped up and back, avoiding the kick. Maud lunged to the left, rolled to her feet, and came up in time to dodge another blow.

He forced her across the white marble floor. Sweat drenched her face.

Around them the grand ballroom of Gertrude Hunt glowed in all of its glory. The enormous light fixtures on the ceiling were off, and glittering nebulae shone on the dark walls and the tall ceiling far above, clusters of stars sparkling like constellations of precious gems. The only illumination came from the delicate glass flowers blooming on golden vines that twisted around the towering turquoise columns.

She used to spar with Melizard like this, but their practice matches always had spectators. Like everything, her late husband put on a show meant to impress and further his ambitions. Maud once told him she was uncomfortable with the attention, and he told her that he wanted everyone to witness his human wife’s skills. He spun it as a way to improve her position with House Ervan. Now, years later, she understood that it was always about him, never about her.

Arland never paraded her or himself in front of an audience. If someone had come to practice beside them, he wouldn’t object. He was a knight of an old House and politeness was ingrained in his bones. But he never invited attention. However, their practice sessions were theirs alone, private, quiet, just for the two of them. And she never held back.

He told her he loved her. She remembered every word. It was etched in her memory. He stood before the tub where her catatonic sister sat, watching them with unseeing eyes, knowing that they were about to go into battle that might end them both and told her the truth.

When I first saw you, it was like being thrown from a shuttle before it touched the ground. I fell and when I landed, I felt it in every cell of my body. You disturbed me. You took away my inner peace…

Arland charged her. She danced away, spun around him, tapped his back, and was away before he could chase after her again.

…You taught me the meaning of loneliness, because when I don’t see you, I feel alone…

Arland lunged, thrusting. An unexpected move, one particular to a sword, not a mace. It caught her by surprise. She took the blow in the chest and staggered back. He advanced and got a slice of the practice sword across his neck for his trouble.

…You may reject me, you may deny yourself and if you choose to not accept me, I will abide by your decision…

Arland dropped the mace and rushed her. She should have avoided him, but the last battle for the survival of Dina’s inn had taken a lot out of her. Her emotions were a mess, her brain felt like it was overheating trying to wrestle her thoughts under control, and Maud was still too damn tired. His fingers caught her right wrist, and he pulled her to him, turning her so her back pressed against his chest. His hands clamped her upper arms in a steel vise. He’d caught her like that before, and she knew from experience that getting out of this hold was impossible. Even if she pulled up her legs, hitting him with her dead weight, he would simply hold her above the floor.

They stood in a kind of embrace.

…But know that there will never be another one like you for me and one like me for you. We both waited years so we could meet.

He let her go. She picked up her sword and walked back to the practice weapon rack.

Arland loved her. And she loved him too. She had known it the moment he asked her for the Liturgy of the Fallen, because it felt like the fear that he would die would wrench her heart out of her chest. But then he ruined it all and asked her to marry him.

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