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 away with it. The arrival deck of the ship looked like the courtyard of a castle in the finest Holy Anocracy tradition. Grey square stones paved the deck, climbing up to veneer the towering walls, punctuated by false windows. Long crimson banners of House Krahr, with the black profile of the saber-toothed predator that gave the House its name, stretched between the windows. Between them flowering vines sent a gentle perfume into the air, offering bunches of delicate pink blossoms. In the middle of the chamber, a vala tree spread its branches, its red blossoms in stark contrast to the black bark. A two-foot wide stream rushed through the artificial stream bed, breaking into two, falling down in three small waterfalls, then uniting again before winding around the tree in a perfect circle, and disappearing beneath the roots. She could’ve understood if the stream was part of the water supply that would be later recycled, but there were bright sparkly fish in it. It wasn’t used for anything except as a stress-relieving decoration. The luxury was mind-boggling.
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. 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. If she let it, her memory would change their pale grey to warm travertine beige, the banners to Carolina blue, and the distant ceiling over her head to the pale gold sky of Melezard’s planet. She stopped before the vala tree. Every vampire world had them. If the climate couldn’t support them, the vampires built hot houses just to plant them. A vala tree was the heart of the clan, the core of the family, a sacred place.
When she was married, the blossoms of the vala tree 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.
“Greetings, Lord Soren.”
The footsteps stopped, then resumed, and Lord Soren halted next to her. Vampires aged like their castles. Over time, they grew bigger and sturdier, as if the 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 grey. His syn-armor, midnight black, touched with red marks denoting his rank of Knight Sergeant and the small round crest of House Krahr, fit him to perfection and bore a few scars here and there, much like Lord Soren himself. A testament to a life spent in battle. He looked like a humanoid tank.
He was also Arland’s uncle.
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. She’d worked hard to get him to like her, and 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 withered those sent there until they hardened and dried as well.
“It’s a new experience for her.”
They watched her in comfortable silence.
“It’s good 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 across half of 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?”
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.
“What do you know of House Serak?”
She racked 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?”
Maud blinked. “Even so?”
“Yes. The son of the Serak Preceptor will marry the daughter of the Kozor Archchaplain. They require 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 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 was otherwise occupied, we’ll be arriving about the same time as the wedding guests.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there another vampire-controlled star system, closer than this one to the Serak system?”
Something was off about this wedding. “One wonders why two Houses with such a mutual lack of trust wish 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, 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 a wedding party are you expecting, my lord?”
“One hundred guests from each side.”
“And they will arrive armed?”
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. He was incredible.
His blue eyes found her. He grinned. Her heart skipped a beat.
Arland zeroed in on them and broke into a march. He was a large muscular man, and the black syn-armor and red cloak hanging from his shoulders made him seem huge. He moved like a large predatory cat, deliberately, smoothly, the massive blood mace at his waist a reminder of his rank. He was the Marshal of House Krahr, the military leader of his clan. He’d fought for that place and won. And his mother was the head of the House, the Preceptor.
Arland was a perfect embodiment of everything a vampire lord should be. He was smart, powerful, fearless, and loyal. It took her exactly two seconds to deduce that he was his uncle’s pride and joy. He was likely his mother’s pride and joy, too.
“Lord Soren,” she murmured. “Lady Ilemina must be stressed by these preparations. Perhaps it would be wiser not to mention Lord Arland’s proposal.” And her refusal 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 via an emergency jump-drone, two days before we left the planet, 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. Maud closed her eyes for a tiny moment.
“Then he sent a second message, stating that you turned him down, but you would 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?”
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 to see how.
Arland reached them. “Lady Maud.”
His voice sent a soft rumble through her. She hated that. It was weakness, but she had no idea how to compensate for it. She wished she could be immune.
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 Maud’s 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 his reach. 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 a proposal from 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.”
His eyes sparked with humor. “You could always remedy it and say yes.”
Helen was looking at them. Maud realized they were standing in front of the summoning gate and bickering.
“You remember this?” Arland asked her.
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 shoulders, and roared. Helen roared with him. They ducked through the gate and vanished.
“Arland!” Maud snapped.
They were 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.