Home > Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(6)

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(6)
Author: Ilona Andrews

Maud dropped her sword and her buckler onto the practice weapon rack and pulled on the inn’s magic. The inn obeyed, parting the floor under the rack and letting it sink down into storage, but it responded sluggishly, almost as if it was confused by her directions. The response at her parents’ inn had been instant. Here, it was like giving commands to a sibling’s dog. It obeyed her because she was family and a human, but it knew she was not its human.

It would get better with time, if she stayed. And staying at the inn made all the sense in the world. She and Helen would be safe here. Dina could use the help, and Helen loved it. The inn responded to her much better than it did to Maud. All inns instantly took to children.

But what would happen when her daughter realized she couldn’t have friends?

What would happen when he left?

That last thought gave her the shove she needed. Maud turned to Arland.

“I love you,” she told him. “But I can’t marry you.”

His handsome face stayed perfectly neutral, but she caught the splash of happiness in his eyes. It dimmed instantly, but she caught it.

“May I ask why?”

“Because love is simple, but marriage is complicated.”

“Explain.”

She crossed her arms on her chest, using them as a shield. “When you look at Helen, what do you see?”

“Potential.”

She could’ve kissed him for that, but that wouldn’t help. “If you didn’t know her background, would you say she’s a human or a vampire?”

“A vampire,” he said without hesitation.

“Because of the fangs?”

“Because of her predatory drive. Fangs make her look like a vampire. They can be obtained by surgical means, but the instinct to identify and strike at the opponent’s weaknesses can’t be fabricated or learned. One either has it or doesn’t. She has it.”

That was her assessment as well. “If I stay here, in my sister’s inn, Helen would have to confine herself to the grounds. She can’t attend a human school. Other children wouldn’t be safe around her. They wouldn’t know what she was but they would know she was different. They would ignore her or torment her, and she would retaliate.”

Arland’s expression hardened. “I have no right to offer my opinion, but would imprisoning her in the inn be the best thing for Helen?”

Imprisoned. That’s how he saw it. That’s how she saw it too.

Within the inn, the innkeepers possessed almost god-like power. They built rooms for a hundred different species in minutes. They bent the laws of physics and opened passages to planets thousands of light years away. They saw the oddities and wonders of the galaxy pass through their doors.

But the human world of the innkeepers was small, the friends few, and even though the galaxy lay at their door, most of them rarely stepped over the threshold. Outside of the inn, they were vulnerable. The children of the innkeepers grew up at home, apart from human society, and when they grew up, they became innkeepers or the ad-hal, the enforcers of the innkeepers. Sometimes they left Earth the way she and her brother had. Almost none of them entered human society. Once they learned to use their magic, there was no putting it back into a box.

“What would happen to Helen if we took her to House Krahr?”

Arland frowned. “She would run wild around the keep with other children like her. I’d like to see the Sentinels try to wrangle her into a classroom. In fact, I would pay good money…” He caught the expression on her face. “That is, she would receive a fine education in line with the other scions of House Krahr.”

“You once told me that she should be a rassa in the grass, not a goren on the porch.”

Rassa were fierce ambush predators, while gorens, smaller and tamer, served vampires like dogs served humans.

Arland cleared his throat. “I may have been too blunt.”

“No, you were right. Helen is a rassa and at House Krahr she would be among other rassa. It would be more dangerous, but she could find her place there the way she could never find it here. Then there is me. I’ve worn the armor of a vampire for six years. I’m not the same human woman who left her parents’ inn. I’m not even the same woman who had been exiled to Karhari almost three years ago. I don’t know where my place is. I haven’t figured out where I belong.”

“With me,” he said. “You belong with me. Maud, all of these are arguments in favor of our marriage.”

She nodded, “I know. And that’s a problem. I’m a widow of a dishonored knight. My husband tried to murder his own brother to become the marshal of his House. I am a human. I know how vampires treat outsiders. I’ve lived that life. Your House will see me as a human woman who has nothing, no status, no honor, no purpose. No use to anyone. A woman who has a half-vampire child and would do anything for the sake of that child, including seducing the pride of their House and then manipulating him to get what she wants.”

Arland raised his eyebrows. “I’ve survived countless attempts at manipulation before. I appear to be too dense for it. However, I am open to being seduced.”

“Will you take this seriously?”

“I don’t care what my House thinks.”

“But I do. For years I was an exemplary wife to the son of a vampire Marshal. Nobody could find fault with my behavior or with my daughter. I worked for the benefit of House Ervan. I organized their banquets, I taught them to deal with their alien neighbors, I memorized their rituals, rites, poetry…I know more Ancestor Vampiric dialects than most vampire scholars. Yet, when my husband committed treason, his House threw us away like garbage. None of my accomplishments mattered. I didn’t exist outside of my husband.”

His face turned hard. “I’m not Melizard and House Krahr is not House Ervan.”

Maud nodded. “I know that. But the imbalance between us is much greater than between Melizard and me. I don’t want to be the pet human, Arland. I won’t let myself be treated that way again. My trust in your society has been shattered. I swore to myself that I would never return to the Holy Anocracy. I wanted to save myself and Helen from rejection. I can probably take it. It would crush me, but I would survive it. I’m an adult. Helen is a child. The first time it happened, she was too young to fully understand it, but now she is old enough. I can’t put her through it. To have found a home and a father and then to have it ripped away from her for the second time would be too unfair. I can’t let anyone throw us away again. I won’t. But I can’t keep my promise to stay away from the Anocracy either, because the thought of you leaving terrifies me and because my child is half-vampire. She deserves to know where she came from.”

“I am the reflection of my House,” Arland said. “I love you. I see you as you are, a woman who would be an asset to any House. If you come with me, those close to me will see you as you are as well, and they will come to love you. There is not a person alive who wouldn’t care about Helen.”

“Tell it to her grandmother.”

Arland bared his fangs. “I will when opportunity arises. Marry me.”

“I can’t. But I can’t let you go either. I want to come with you, and I don’t know if I am doing it for Helen, for myself, or because I am too weak to do the right thing and thinking about not being with you makes me desperate. I won’t lie to you, Arland. I used to finesse my husband, because he left me no choice, and I will never do that again. I can’t promise I will marry you. I can’t even promise I will stay with you. I can promise that I will try to prove to your House that I am worth it. This is so much less than you deserve. I have only two conditions. One, you do not pressure me into marriage. Two, if I want to leave, you will provide me with a passage back to Earth. Take us with you or don’t. The decision is yours.”

She stared straight ahead, looking in his direction but not seeing him.

“Maud.”

She met his gaze.

“How quickly can you pack?” he asked.

2

NOW…

The stars died, replaced by total darkness.

Maud hugged her shoulders. The cold, slightly rough texture of the armor felt familiar under her fingertips. Reassuring. The plan was to never wear armor again, but lately life had taken a baseball bat to her plans.

The floor-to-ceiling display only simulated a window, with the cabin itself hidden deep within the bowels of the destroyer, but the darkness yawned at her all the same, cold and timeless. The Void, the vampires called it. That which exists between the stars. It always made her uneasy.

“Are we dead, Mama?”

Maud turned. Helen stood a few feet away, hugging a soft teddy bear her aunt bought her for Christmas. Her long blond hair stuck out on the right side, crinkled from her sleep. From here she could almost pass for a human.

“No. We’re not dead. We’re traveling in hyperspace. It would take too much time to get where we need to go under normal propulsion, so we thread through a wrinkle in the fabric of space like a needle. Come, I want to show you something.”

Helen padded over. Maud swept her up—she was getting so big so fast—and held her to the display.

“This is the Void. You remember what Daddy told you about the Void?”

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