The crimson glow 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.
To the right, about twenty-five yards away, Arland stopped to speak to three vampires. He’d taken Helen off his shoulders – thank you, Universe – and she gaped at the spaceport.
Maud looked around and stopped to gape, too. She stood in a cavernous rectangular chamber. Daylight flooded it through long, narrow rectangular windows, cut in the grey stone walls twenty feet above. She turned slowly, trying to take it all in.
To her left, the summoning gate glowed, about to release another traveler into the spaceport. To her right, small craft, sleek fighters and a few light civilian vessels, perched on the floor, and beyond them enormous hangar doors stood wide open, filled with blue sky. Above the hanger doors, a stone relief depicted a snarling krahr. The massive predator, its wide head a cross between a bear and a tiger, roared at the visitors, its maw gaping open, its sabretooth fangs a fatal promise. A thin crack down the krahr’s left side had chipped a bit of stone fur from its jaw. Nobody had fixed it.
It hit her. House Krahr was an old House.
Melizard’s House, House Ervan, was much younger. Noceen was a prosperous planet, with a gentle climate, colonized only two hundred years ago, and House Ervan had emerged as one of the prominent vampire clans due mostly to sheer luck. They had arrived to the planet to colonize it and the land they’d claimed contained rich mineral deposits. Their wealth bought them weapons, equipment, and infrastructure. Everything on Noceen had been of the highest quality, modern and slick, especially the spaceport, where the traditional vampire stone was a veneer and the wood had been artificially distressed. She’d thought it rather grand when she first saw it. But this… this was the real thing.
All vampire spaceports were castles. Easily defended to allow for evacuation to orbit, easily contained if a threat were to arrive via the summoning gate. The spaceport of House Krahr had been built hundreds of years ago. The weathered stones under her feet, the massive wooden beams above, darkened by time, the thick stone walls, all of it emanated age. This was a stronghold, raised when strongholds had a purpose. Here and there modernization showed, but its touch was subtle and light: upgraded windows of transparent plasti-steel, sensors high in the walls, and the massive blast-proof hangar gates. But the stronghold itself breathed an overwhelming sense of ancientness. It spoke to the visitors without uttering a word.
We have built this. It endured for centuries. Countless generations of us walked across its threshold and still we have it, for no one is strong enough to take it away from us.
It wasn’t about money. It was a statement of power, harsh and brutal. It demanded respect, especially from a vampire, to whom tradition and family meant everything. It commanded awe and took it as its due.
She was so in over her head, it wasn’t even funny.
Arland strode to her, Helen at his side. “My lady.”
Clipped, formal words. The easy familiarity she’d become accustomed to was gone. She had expected as much.
“I must apologize. There is a matter requiring my urgent attention.” He leaned closer to her. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
“As you wish, my lord.”
“I mean it,” he said. “Ten minutes.”
He seemed genuinely worried she would disappear. “Helen and I will wait for you.”
He nodded and marched away. The three vampire knights fell in behind him.
To the right, two vampire women followed him with their gazes. Both wore armor with the crest of House Kozor, a horned beast on red. One was lean and tall, with a waterfall of chestnut hair framed by elaborate braids. The other, curvier, her armor more ornate, left her corn-silk blond mane free. It fell all the way to her butt in shiny waves, and by the way she tossed her head, she was quite proud of it.
Interesting. “Would you like to see the shuttles?”
“Yes,” Helen said.
“Let’s go look at them.”
They drifted closer to the shiny shuttles and to the two vampire women. Helen went to look at the elegant fighter, painted pure white, and Maud watched her, keeping the two women on the very edge of her vision.
“… not the time to satiate your appetites,” the taller woman said.
Maud’s implant remained silent, but she understood regardless. Ancestor Vampiric. It was an older language, with dozens of regional dialects and variation. A lot of vampires could barely understand it, especially if it was spoken by a vampire from a different homeworld. Speech implants failed to interpret it, and outsiders didn’t speak it, but then she wasn’t an outsider. A lot of the great epics had been written in Ancestor Vampiric, and reciting them had been a point of pride for members of House Ervan. She had tried so hard to be the best wife for Melizard. She was fluent in a dozen dialects and could understand others easily enough.
“You have to admit, he’s a prime specimen,” the blonde said.
“He’s preoccupied with his human toy. That’s her over there.”
“Toys can be broken,” the blonde said.
Anytime you want to try.
“That is a beautiful child,” the blonde said.
“A halfer,” the brunette sneered.
“Still, a cute little mongrel. Do you think she’s his?”
“No. The woman is an exile from some no-name House. One of the nouveau riche from the frontier. She was married to their marshal’s son. He betrayed his House.”
“Interesting,” the blonde stretched the word.
“Apparently Arland found her on Karhari.”
“The Marshal gets around.” The blonde smiled. “You should let me play with him. It really is a shame to lose—”
“Be silent,” the chestnut snapped.
“Fine,” the blonde sighed.
“I mean it. Mind your tongue, Seveline. Too many people have done too much work for you to ruin it with your blabbering. The future of our House is riding on this.”
“I said, fine,” Seveline’s voice turned sharper.
Short fuse, that one. She could use that later.
Helen moved on to the next shuttle and Maud strolled past the two women.
“My lady,” the blonde said in Common Vampiric. “Pleasant day to you and your beautiful daughter.”
Maud inclined her head a neutral couple of inches. “Greetings, my lady.”
“I’m Seveline of the House of Kozor. This is my friend, Lady Onda, also of House Kozor.”
They treated her like she was an idiot who couldn’t identify crests. Perfect.
“I’m honored,” Maud said.
The two women smiled, showing the very edges of their teeth.
“Is this your first time enjoying the hospitality of House Krahr?” Onda asked.
“You’re in for a treat,” Seveline said. “Their festivities are legendary. Once you are settled, do find me. I see us becoming the best of friends.”
“Indeed,” Onda said.
“I’ll do my best,” Maud said.
Arland was marching toward her with a grim look on his face.
“I must beg your forgiveness,” Maud said. “The Marshal requires my presence.”
“We wouldn’t presume to keep you,” Onda said.
“You are beyond gracious. Come, my flower.”
Maud took Helen by the hand and headed toward Arland. They met halfway.
“Sorry,” he murmured.
“Inconvenience. Are you ready to depart?”
He led her to a small silver shuttle, a six-seater.
“Am I flying with you in your personal craft?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Is that wise?”
“I thought we established that I don’t care about being wise.”
Flying in his personal shuttle meant she’d face scrutiny at the point of landing, but it also meant she could speak to Arland in privacy.
Maud settled Helen into a soft blue seat and hopped into the passenger spot next to Arland. He touched the controls and the shuttle streaked through the hangar into the sky.