It’s amazing how much dirt could come off one little girl. When we finally extracted Helen out of the bath, the water had turned a muddy brown. We toweled her dry and put her into one of my T-shirts. She yawned, curled up on the soft covers, and held out her hands. “Fangs.”
Maud handed her two daggers in dark sheaths. Helen hugged the daggers and fell asleep. Maud gently covered her with a blanket.
I pulled a T-shirt and a pair of jeans from my backpack. Maud was taller than me by two inches and shaped differently. We both had mom’s butt and her hips, but Maud’s legs were always more muscular and her shoulders broader. I offered the clothes to her.
“I had to guestimate the size. Go clean up.” I told her. “I’ll watch her.”
Maud touched the place where a crest would’ve sat on her armor and grimaced. “Old habits.”
They would’ve stripped the crest from her when they threw her and her husband out of House Ervan.
She bent her left arm, slid aside a bulky looking chunk of armor at least two shades lighter than the rest of the charcoal armor plates, and typed in the code. If Arland ever saw that, he would have a heart attack from the sheer inefficiency of it. It was like trying to type commands into a computer except instead of the keyboard, you had an old, rickety typewriter with half the letters missing.
A few seconds passed. Maud bared her teeth. “Work, damn you.” She slammed her arm into the bulkhead. With a faint whisper, the syn-armor came apart, separating into individual pieces. Maud shed the breastplate, the wrist guards, the shoulder pads, the sleeves, one by one adding them to a pile against the wall, until she stood in a dark blue jumpsuit. The jumpsuit had seen better days – the elbows were threadbare. The smell of sweat, blood, and human body that hadn’t been washed for far too long spread through the room. I wrinkled my nose.
“Do I stink?” she asked.
“No. You smell like fresh lily in the middle of a crystal clear pond.”
She stuck her tongue out at me, took the clothes, and disappeared into the bathroom.
Someone knocked on the door, gently, almost apologetic.
“Open,” I said. The cabin’s door slid upward, revealing a vampire man carrying a black, round case about two feet tall and three feet wide.
“With compliments from Lord Marshal,” he said and departed.
It seemed like forever before Maud finally emerged from the bathroom. The clothes fit her well enough, and if I ignored the look in her eyes that said she’d seen too many ugly things, I could almost pretend that she was the old Maud, before my parents disappeared and Klaus vanished into the starry vastness of the Cosmos. Except for her hair. The last time we met, she’d had a long waterfall of hair all the way down to her waist, like most vampire women.
She saw the container.
“Arland sent you an armor repair kit,” I told her.
“How considerate.” Her voice had a touch of ice to it. She paused and smiled.
“I just realized I don’t have to wear the armor ever again.” She paused. “I should probably repair it anyhow. You never know.”
She sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the kit and touched its polished surface. The container split into petals curving from the center, lit from within by a soft peach glow. The kit opened like a flower, its center slid upward, turning and opening into a tower of shelves containing small intricate tools and several crystal vials filled with liquids: red, black, pearlescent, and peach.
Maud pulled her breastplate close, took a cloth from one of the shelves, sprayed some pearlescent solution on it, and began rubbing the armor. Dirt and dust dissolved almost instantly, revealing the black material of the armor underneath. There was a kind of hypnotic rhythm to it. Swipe, wait a moment as the solution evaporated, swipe again.
“What happened to your hair?”
“I chopped it the day they dropped us off on Karhari. It was too hard to keep clean. Water is precious on Karhari. There is almost none on the surface. It rains a decent amount during the rainy season, but the upper crust of the planet is porous rock. All the rain water seeps through and accumulates in underground rivers. They have to drill for it, the way we drill for oil. As the water passes through the rock, it picks up some nasty salts and has to be purified… Long story short, water was expensive.”
That explained it.
“We always made enough money to keep us hydrated,” she said. “And the meat was easy to come by. The bur are violent once riled up, but pretty stupid.”
“How did you live?”
“We hired out.”
She finished wiping the armor down, took a scanner from the shelf, and passed it over the breastplate. It made a soft musical chime. She put it back, selected a thin, needle-like instrument from the shelf, and carefully touched it to the largest dent. Thin filaments glowing with peach color peeled from the needle’s tip and danced across the dent, pulling the substance of the armor apart.
“Exile or no exile, Melezard was still a Marshal’s son. All that training and experience were worth something and they didn’t take our armor, our weapons, or our skills. So we traveled from House to House, Lodge to Lodge, and picked up whatever work was available. Usually convoy guard jobs or private security force openings. We were with a mercenary company for a while and it was almost okay.” Maud glanced at me. “It was still horrible, but they had a walled-in base, we had our own room, and we could leave for a job knowing Helen would be safe. We were well liked and the money was decent by Karhari’s standards.”
“What happened?” I had a strong suspicion I knew the answer.
“What always happened.” She sounded bitter and tired. “Melezard.”
Maud typed a code into a small terminal within the kit. The filaments turned pale green and began knitting the armor back, this time without the dent.
“He waited about six months until he thought he had built up enough support and started rocking the boat. He didn’t like the jobs we were getting, and if he were in charge, he would get us better jobs, and everyone would be swimming in water, and things would be fair. That was his favorite word. Fair. It wasn’t enough to be respected and earn a decent living. He had to run things and he didn’t want to wait for it.”
“They threw you out?” I guessed.
“They threw him out. They told me Helen and I could stay.”
“But you didn’t.”
She glanced at me for a second. “No. I didn’t.”
The Melezard I knew was the perfect younger child: blindingly handsome, witty, charismatic, with a bright smile, the kind that told you right away that you could trust him because he was a good guy even if he was up to no good once in a while. He was the son of the Marshal of House Ervan, handsome, rich, a legend on the battlefield by the time he met Maud, and the kind of catch young vampire girls dreamed of. Maud fell for him hard, but she stuck to her guns. I was sixteen when they met. He worked on her for two years. Maud was like a swan. It took a lot earn her loyalty but once she gave it, she gave it for life.
“Is that what happened with House Ervan?”
She nodded. “Something like that. After we got thrown out of the camp, I told him it was the last time. That he didn’t care about me or Helen and all he had were these idiotic ambitions that landed us in the middle of a damned wasteland again and again. If he pulled that crap one more time, he was on his own. He swore to me that he would put everything right. He did everything he could: he promised, he begged, he smiled that charming smile, except I was over it.”
“Then why did you stay with him?”
She glanced at Helen sleeping under the covers. And instantly I knew. Helen must’ve adored her father with all of her little heart. Melezard was so lovable, handsome, and funny. It would take her years to figure out that he was a terrible parent.
Maud inspected the repair. It was like the dent was never there. She chewed on her lower lip, turning the armor under the light this way and that, and moved on to the next dent.
“After that, House Kor hired him,” she said. “To be their sergeant. They were in a land dispute with another House, and it was getting ugly. They didn’t want me, they just wanted him. They needed someone skilled in tactics, with some name recognition, and they needed him fast, because the other House was going on the offensive. Melezard agreed to take the job. He trained their soldiers, he overhauled their entire force, and he did what he always did when you put him on the battlefield: he tore through his enemies. The other House realized that they had to take him out.”
“Did they kill him?”
“No.” Maud paused and looked at me. “They offered him twice as much money. They didn’t want him to fight for them. They just wanted him to not show up.”
“He told them to shove it, right?”
“No. The moron took the money.”
“Are you serious?”
“It’s like the planet was slowly driving him mad, eroding his soul piece by piece. I didn’t even recognize him anymore. He took that blood money and he had the audacity to tell me he was doing it for me and Helen. That I, horrible witch that I am, accused him of not caring for his wife and daughter and when he took the money, he was thinking of us and where would we be if he died in battle.”
I tried to reconcile Melezard I remembered with that and couldn’t.
“According to him, House Kor was too weak to win anyway and all their victories were temporary. But he’d trained them too well. They won and after they figured out what happened, they hired a gang of raiders and tracked us down in another province. They arranged for a local house to offer a lucrative job and when Melezard took the bait, they killed him. I watched it happen.”
Her voice lost all emotion, as if she were talking about something completely unimportant.
“I was supposed to come with him but at the last minute he told me to stay back, almost like he had a premonition. We were laying on a nearby hill when they cut him to pieces while he was still alive and then burned his body. They put his head on a stake and stuck it on the House wall.”
“Did Helen see?”
“No. I covered her eyes. But she saw the head. There was no way around that.”
Maud glanced at her. “She surprises me. She’s my daughter. She came out of me; I was there. But there are times she does weird things and I don’t know if it’s human weird or vampire weird. This was one of these times. You’d think a child that young wouldn’t be able to understand death, but somehow she figured out that her father wouldn’t be coming back and that a blood debt had to be paid. I thought she would be heart-broken, and she was for a few days, then she bounced back like it never happened. Maybe it’s because Melezard spent so little time with her in the past two years. We were either on the job together or he was on the job on his own. She got used to him leaving. I don’t know.”
Neither did I. I was the youngest child. No baby brothers or sisters and a five-year old was brand new territory. “What happened after he died?”
“Then a blood debt needed to be paid. So I found them, one by one, and I killed them all. Took me most of these last eight months.”
That was my sister. She watched her husband murdered and then hunted his killers against impossible odds, all the while trying to protect their daughter, and she summed it up like she was describing going to a grocery store on Tuesday.
“By the time I was done, I had a list of relatives howling for vengeance a mile long and two offers of marriage.” Maud took another cloth from the kit, sprayed some black liquid on it and began polishing the breastplate.
“Didn’t take them up on it?” I winked at her.
“I’m done with vampires. Hell will freeze over before I let another one anywhere near me or Helen. They’re all the same. Anyway, there is no future on Karhari. You were my last hope.”
“Why send a message with a Ku?” I asked.
“Well, I didn’t have a lot of choices,” she said. “And this Ku was hitching a ride on an Arbitrator’s ship.”
“Really?” Why did I have an odd feeling about this?
“An Arbitrator stopped at a Lodge where Helen and I were hiding. No idea what he was doing on Karhari. I’ve never seen one up close before. Beautiful man, golden blond hair. Walked with a cane.”
George. Just like I thought.
“Anyway, he paused by my table and said that I looked like someone from Earth and how odd it was to see someone like me and Helen in that wretched place. And I said that I was from Earth and still had family on the planet. He told me that he wouldn’t be going to Earth for a while, but that he would be stopping in the vicinity to drop off some clients and that a Ku in his party liked delivery jobs, so if I were to write a message, he would see that it reached my family. I let him scan the photograph I had of you. I didn’t even know if you were on Earth. It was a shot in the dark. I never thought it would work. I still can’t believe it. It doesn’t seem real.”
George knew exactly who she was. Of course he did. He probably wanted something in return, if not now, then later. That man never did anything without calculating all the variables. And I didn’t care. From now on he would stay free in the inn as long as he lived.
“Thank you for coming to get me.” She reached out to me and I hugged her.
“It will be okay,” I told her the way my mother used to tell me when everything was bleak and all I could do was cry about it.
“It will be okay,” my sister echoed and hugged me back.