Home > Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(7)

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(7)
Author: Ilona Andrews

“It’s where the souls go.”

“That’s right. When a vampire dies, his soul must pass through the Void before it is decided if it goes to Paradise or to the empty plains of Nothing.”

“I don’t like it,” Helen whispered and stuck her head into Maud’s shoulder.

Maud almost purred. These moments, when Helen still acted like a baby, were more and more rare now. Soon she would grow up and walk away, but for now Maud could still hold her and smell her scent. Helen was hers for a little while longer.

“Don’t be afraid. You have to look, or you will miss the best part.”

Helen turned. They stood together, looking at the darkness.

A tiny spark flared in the center of the display. The brilliant point of light rushed toward the spaceship, unfurling like a glittering flower, spinning, its petals opening wide and wider, painted with all the majesty of the galaxy.

Helen stared, her eyes opened wide, the starglow of the display playing on her face.

The dazzling universe engulfed them. The ship tore through the last shreds of darkness and emerged into normal space. A beautiful planet hung in front of them, orbiting a warm yellow star, a green and blue jewel wrapped in a turquoise veil of gently glowing atmosphere. Daesyn. It wasn’t Earth, but it could’ve been her prettier sister. Two moons orbited the planet, one large and purple, closer to the surface, the other tinted with orange, smaller and distant. The sunsets had to be spectacular.

“Is this the planet where Lord Arland lives?”

“Yes, my flower.” Maud set Helen on the floor. “You should get dressed.”

Helen scampered off, like a bunny released from its hutch.

The turquoise planet looked at Maud through the screen. The home world of House Krahr.

This was crazy. Certifiable.

If she went on logic only, she should’ve never come here. She should’ve never brought Helen here.

The planet grew on her screen.

Maud hugged her shoulders. It would’ve been so much more prudent to walk away and stay in her sister’s inn. To relearn being a human after trying for so many years to become the perfect vampire.

Being in love in the inn was simple. They were fighting for their lives every day. It left little room for small things, but in ordinary life those little things often became important enough to shatter relationships. Jumping headfirst into vampire politics was unwise, especially House Krahr politics. Melizard would’ve cut off his arm to own this ship, and Arland drove it back and forth like it cost him nothing. The threshold was that much higher.

When she had married Melizard, she had hoped for acceptance, second family, and trust. She found none of it. Now…Now she just wanted to find out if House Krahr was worth it. She was no longer willing to settle. They would take them in as their own, or they wouldn’t need to bother.

A sphere slipped from behind the curve of the planet. It didn’t have the usual pitted look of a satellite. She squinted at it.

What the hell...

Maud pinched her arm. The sphere was still there. Three rings wrapped around it, twisting one over the other, each consisting of a metal core bristling with a latticework of spikes. From here the rings appeared delicate, almost ethereal. She touched the display, zooming in on the rings.

Not spikes. Cannons.

House Krahr had built a mobile battle station. Her mind refused to accept the existence of so much firepower concentrated in one place.

Dear universe, how much did that thing cost? Arland had mentioned that because of her sister’s help, their House was doing well, but this, this was off the scale.

Maud’s fingers went to the blank crest on her armor. The crest controlled the armor’s functions and granted her entry to the Holy Anocracy and permission to operate within its borders as a free agent, a mercenary. She wouldn’t be trapped on Daesyn. If things went sour, she could always grab Helen and go back to Dina’s inn, she told herself. She made Arland promise to provide a passage, but Dina had insisted on sharing the proceeds of the sale of weapons they collected during the attack at the inn. She could easily buy a passage back.

“Mama?” Helen asked. “Are we there yet?”

“Almost, my flower.”

She turned. Helen had put on the outfit they bought at Baha-char, the galactic bazaar. Black leggings, black tunic over a crimson shirt. She looked like a full-blooded vampire. But she was only half. The other vampires would not let her forget it. At least not until she beat every last one of them into submission.

“Come here.” Maud crouched and adjusted Helen’s belt, cinching her daughter’s tiny waist. She reached for the small box waiting on the shelf next to the bed and opened it. A strip of black metal lay inside, ten inches long and one inch wide. Maud took it out and placed it on Helen’s left wrist. Tiny red lights sparked inside the metal. The strip curved around Helen’s wrist, joined into a bracelet, and shrank, adhering to her skin. Thin rectangles formed on its surface.

“Do you remember how to use it?” Maud asked.

Helen nodded.

“Show me.”

Helen tapped the center rectangle with her finger. A translucent screen showing the layout of the ship flared into life one inch above her wrist.

“Call Mommy.”

Maud’s own unit came to life, tossing her own screen out with Helen’s image on it.

“Good.”

The harbinger unit served as the Holy Anocracy’s version of a smartphone. Equipped with a powerful processor, it made calls, tracked its target, provided maps, monitored vital signs, tracked schedules, and simplified dozens of small tasks to make one’s life easier. In adults it interfaced with armor, but Helen was wearing a child’s version. It couldn’t be removed or turned off by anyone other than a parent.

For the past five years, keeping Helen alive had been the core of Maud’s existence. Once they made planetfall, there would be times Helen would have to be on her own. Thinking about it set Maud’s teeth on edge. The harbinger didn’t take away the anxiety, but it blunted it, and right now she would take all of the help she could get.

“All set?” Maud asked.

“All set,” Helen said. “Can I bring my teddy?”

“We’ll bring all our things.”

They had so little, it didn’t take them long to pack. Five minutes later, Maud swung the bag over her shoulder, glanced one final time at the cabin and display, and took Helen by the hand. The door slid open at their approach. Maud squared her shoulders and raised her head and they stepped through it.

Let the games begin. She was ready.

Space crews had a saying, “Volume is cheap; mass is expensive.” In space, where air and friction weren’t a factor, it didn’t matter how large something was, only how much it weighed. It took a certain amount of fuel to accelerate one pound of matter to the right velocity, and then a roughly equal amount of fuel to decelerate it.

House Krahr had taken that saying and run with it. The arrival deck of the ship looked like the courtyard of a castle in the finest Holy Anocracy tradition. Square gray stones paved the floor and veneered the towering walls. Long crimson banners of House Krahr, marked with a black profile of the saber-toothed predator, stretched between the false windows. The gentle breeze of atmospheric circulators stirred the fabric, and the several krahr on the banners seemed to snarl in response.

In the middle of the chamber, a vala tree spread its black branches. Solid, with a sturdy trunk and a mass of limbs that divided and subdivided into a vast crown, the vala reminded Maud of basswood, but unlike the gentle green of linden trees, the vala’s leaves were a vivid scarlet. The blood-red heart of the ship, a remnant of the origin world, sacred to vampires. No major ritual took place in vampire society without the vala tree to witness it.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, a two-foot wide stream meandered through the smooth stream bed, crossing the deck, winding around the tree in a perfect circle, and disappearing beneath the roots. Maud could’ve understood if it was part of the water supply that would be later recycled, but there were bright sparkly fish in it. The stream served as a decoration, nothing more. The luxury boggled the mind.

There had to be some way to close it off, if the ship had to maneuver, Maud reflected. Otherwise they would have a mess on their hands. There was nothing more fun than unsecured water in zero-G.

“Can I?” Helen whispered.

“Yes,” Maud told her.

Helen ran to the tree, little heels flashing.

Maud followed slowly. She’d walked across stones just like these countless times before when she was married. If she let it, her memory would change their pale gray to a warm travertine beige; the crimson banners to Carolina-blue; and the dark ceiling of the ship to an orange-tinted sky.

She stopped before the vala tree. Every vampire planet had them. If the climate couldn’t support them, the vampires built hothouses just to plant them. A vala tree was the heart of the clan, the core of the family, a sacred place. The blossoms of the vala tree had decorated her bridal crown. It was a great honor, appropriate to the bride of the second son of the Marshal of House Ervan.

A hot pain pinched her chest. It’s in the past, she told herself. It is over and done with. Let it go.

Careful footsteps approached from behind, trying to sneak up on her. She hid a smile.

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