Home > Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(8)

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(8)
Author: Ilona Andrews

“Greetings, Lord Soren.”

The footsteps stopped, then resumed, and Lord Soren halted next to her. Vampires aged like their castles—growing bigger and sturdier, as if time itself reinforced them. Lord Soren was the perfect example of a middle-aged vampire: wide in the shoulders, muscled like a grizzled tiger, with a spectacular mane of dark-brown hair and a short but thick beard, both touched with gray. His syn-armor, midnight black with red marks denoting his rank of Knight Sergeant, and the small round crest of House Krahr, bore a few scars here and there, much like Lord Soren himself. A testament to life spent in battle. He looked like a humanoid tank.

He was also Arland’s uncle. She had worked hard to get him to like her. Lord Soren wasn’t complicated. His worldview came down to three things: honor, tradition, and family. He dedicated his life to upholding all three, and they were never in conflict. He viewed her favorably, but how far exactly his good will extended remained to be seen.

He pondered Helen, who had dropped her bag and was dipping her fingers into the stream. “The child loves the water.”

“There is little water on Karhari, my lord.” There was nothing on Karhari except miles of dry, hard dirt, and it desiccated those sent there until they hardened and dried as well.

“It’s a new experience for her.”

“It is.”

They watched her in comfortable silence.

“It’s good that you joined us,” he said.

She hoped he was right.

“Perhaps, with your presence, my nephew will stay put for longer than five minutes before running off on another fool’s errand halfway across the galaxy.”

The arrival deck was slowly filling up with people waiting to go planetside.

If he does, I’ll run off with him. “I understand Lady Ilemina is in residence?”

“She is.”

Sooner or later she would have to meet Arland’s mother. It wouldn’t be a pleasant meeting.

“Has my nephew told you why I had to come to the inn to fetch him?” Lord Soren asked.

“No.”

“What do you know of House Serak?”

She raked her memory. “One of the larger Houses. They control most of their planet, which is also named Serak, if I recall correctly. They’ve never produced a Warlord, but they did come close twice in the past five centuries. After suffering defeat in the Seven Star War, their influence diminished, but they’re still formidable. They’re also hungry to regain what they’ve lost and that makes them dangerous.”

Lord Soren nodded in approval. “And their sworn enemy?”

It took her a second. “House Kozor. A slightly smaller House, but a great deal more aggressive. They control the second habitable planet in the Serak system.”

“They’ve decided to bury the bones of their fallen,” he said.

Interesting. “An alliance?”

“A wedding.”

Maud blinked. “Even so?”

“Yes. The son of the Serak’s Preceptor will marry the daughter of the Kozor’s Archchaplain. They required a neutral location in which the ceremony can be performed.”

“Naturally.” It was a sword-edge wedding. Nobody trusted anyone, and everyone was waiting for an ambush. “Did House Krahr offer them such a haven?”

“There was no way to reasonably refuse,” Lord Soren said. “We dominate the quadrant and Serak is only one hyperspace jump away from us. The wedding is in eight days. It would’ve been more appropriate for Arland to have been on the planet to assist with preparations, but since he’s been otherwise occupied, we’ll be arriving about the same time as the wedding guests.”

“Correct me, but isn’t there another vampire-controlled star system, closer than this one, to the Serak system?”

“There is.”

Something was off about this wedding. “One wonders why two Houses with such lack of trust want to be bound.”

“Supposedly to end their conflict and form a pact.”

“If they are unable to come together for even the most joyous of occasions and require a neutral location and a host to oversee them, their alliance is doomed from the start. There must be willingness from both Houses for the marriage to hold.”

Lord Soren studied her.

“How large of a wedding party are you expecting, my lord?”

“One hundred guests from each side.”

“And they will arrive armed?”

“They will.”

House Krahr could field tens of thousands of troops. Two hundred vampires, no matter how elite, shouldn’t have posed a threat. So why did this suddenly make her uneasy?

The door in the far wall slid open and Arland strode through it. She saw his handsome face, framed with a mane of blond hair.

His blue eyes found her. He grinned. Her heart skipped a beat.

Damn it.

Arland zeroed in on them and broke into a march. He moved like a massive predatory cat, deliberately, smoothly, the blood mace at his waist a reminder of his rank. He’d fought for the place at the top and won. All of Krahr’s military obeyed him without question. And his mother was the Head of the House, the Preceptor.

Arland was the perfect embodiment of everything a vampire lord should be. Smart, powerful, fearless, and loyal. A paragon of vampire knighthood. It took Maud exactly two seconds to deduce that he was his uncle’s pride and joy. He was likely his mother’s pride and joy, too. And she was a human nobody.

“Lord Soren,” Maud murmured. “Lady Ilemina must be stressed by these preparations. Perhaps it would be wiser not to mention Lord Arland’s proposal.” And her refusing of it.

“I couldn’t agree more,” the Knight Sergeant said.

She let out a small breath of relief.

“Unfortunately, my nephew took it upon himself to inform his mother already.”

What? She kept her voice calm. “He did?”

“Oh yes,” Lord Soren said, his face looking like he’d just bitten into a lemon. “He sent the message two days before we left the planet, by an emergency jump-drone, announcing that he would be bringing a bride and to make sure adequate accommodations were prepared.”

Damn it, Arland. “He didn’t ask her blessing?”

“No. I believe he commanded the household to make themselves ‘presentable.’”

Because his mother would never find that offensive. She closed her eyes for a tiny moment.

“Then he sent a second message, stating that you turned him down but will be joining him anyway.”

Arland had accelerated. He was looking at her as if she was the lone light in a dark room.

“Did his mother reply?”

“Yes.”

Maud steeled herself. “What did she say?”

“Just five words,” Lord Soren said. “Can’t wait to meet her.”

Great. Just great.

Soren reached over and awkwardly patted her arm. “It could be worse.”

She couldn’t for the life of her see how.

Arland reached them. “Lady Maud.”

His voice sent a soft rumble through her. She hated that. It was a weakness, but she had no idea how to compensate for it. She wished she could be immune.

“Lord Arland.”

Lord Soren discreetly stepped away and strolled closer to the arch of the summoning gate. Helen abandoned the fish and the water and brought her bag over. Arland held out his hands, but Helen stayed by her side.

“No hug?” he asked.

“Mommy said to be polite.”

“There are certain appearances that must be observed, my lord,” Maud said.

“I never cared much for appearances,” he said. His eyes were soft and warm. Inviting.

She needed to get her head examined.

“Unfortunately, some of us are not in the position to not care.”

The summoning gate turned crimson. Lord Soren stepped into the light and vanished.

“My lady.” Arland indicated the gate with his hand.

He reached for her bag, but she shouldered it out of the way. They walked toward the gate.

“What’s bothering you?” he asked quietly.

“You told your mother.”

“Of course I did. You’re not some shameful secret I’m going to hide.”

“No, I’m a disgraced exile who had the audacity to turn down the most beloved son of House Krahr.”

He considered it. “Not the most beloved. My cousin is much more adorable than me. He is two and his hair is curly.”

“Lord Arland…”

His eyes sparkled with humor. “You could always remedy it and say yes.”

“No.”

Helen was looking at them. Maud realized they were standing in front of the summoning gate and bickering.

“Do you remember this?” Arland asked Helen.

Helen nodded and eyed the gate. “It makes my tummy sick.”

“Do you want to hold my hand?” Maud asked.

“We have to do it quick, like charging a castle.” Arland reached out, swung Helen onto his shoulder, and ducked through the gate.

“Arland!” she snapped.

He was gone. She was on her own on the arrival deck with half of Arland’s crew gaping at her. She clenched her teeth and walked into the crimson glow.

3

The red radiance of the summoning gate died behind Maud. She blinked, fighting the vertigo, and walked away from it on autopilot to keep from blocking other arrivals.

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