Arland was an excellent pilot.
The take-off was so smooth, Maud barely felt the acceleration. Instead of flicking on the autopilot, the shuttle’s equivalent of cruise control, he guided the small craft manually. The landscape rolled under them, a thick forest growth, the massive trees stretching their ancient branches to the sun. A moment, and the dense canopy abruptly fell away.
The spaceport sat in the middle of a mesa, and now they’d cleared it. Below, a sheer drop fell to dizzying depths, the bottom of it no longer forest, but a verdant grassland. A wide river wound through it, unrestrained by any dams. White mesas bordered it all, their tops dripping green and turquoise woods.
“Oooh,” Helen offered from the back seat.
“Do you like it?” Arland asked.
“It’s beautiful,” Maud said honestly.
“It’s home,” he said.
It could be your home, his glance added.
Too early for that.
He looked straight ahead, his face calm, and she found herself staring at the hard line of his jaw. Imagining running her fingers down its length…
Stop it, she told herself.
“Does it strike you as odd, my lord, that Kozor and Serak decided to bury the hatchet?”
“Alliances are broken and created all the time,” he said. His voice held no enthusiasm. He didn’t like it either. Her instincts rarely failed her, but it was nice to have a confirmation.
“True. But most Houses view such old rivalries as healthy.”
“Is that so?” he said.
“It is. Conflict keeps their forces sharp. The strong and talented emerge, weaker people are culled, and there are ample opportunities for heroism and much growling about duty and honor.”
Arland smiled, showing a hint of a fang. “And speeches. Don’t forget the speeches.”
“Their feud is generations old. There are dead and wronged on both sides. There must be some mutual advantage for them to set it aside. Are you aware of such an advantage?”
“Then it must be a common enemy.”
She raised her eyebrows at him.
“Your reasoning is sound,” he said. “I’m not arguing with it. A month ago, I said pretty much the same thing at a strategy session where this wedding request was discussed.”
“And I was told there was no graceful way to refuse the request. We are the dominant House in the quadrant. We have no evidence we are being lied to, and we have no excuse to deny it. We aren’t at war, and our House is enjoying unprecedented prosperity at the moment. Holding a wedding in a neutral territory had been done before, so the tradition is on their side.”
He’d said the magic word. “Tradition.”
“Yes. If we refused to host this wedding, there would be questions.”
“‘Is House Krahr so weak that they are afraid of allowing a mere two hundred wedding guests into their territory?’ ‘Is House Krahr worried about Srak-Kozor alliance?’”
Hosting a wedding was expensive. Tradition dictated that something had to be offered in return. “What was their offer?”
“Safe haven for our merchant ships.”
“House Krahr can’t protect its merchant fleet?”
He grimaced. “The sector bordering the Serak system is filled with pirates. Both Kozor and Serak have been fighting them for the better part of a century. There is a four-point warp near that system.”
Four-point warps were rare. It meant that a ship could enter hyperspace and choose any of the other three destinations. That stretch of space likely served as a major shipping artery. The multi-point warp was also part of the reason Earth enjoyed its special status. The Solar system contained the only known twelve-point warp in existence.
“Our armada is more than sufficient for the protection of our merchant fleets,” Arland continued. “The pirates go after freelancers, courier ships, exploration-and-survey crews, and family miners and salvagers.”
“Anything too small to warrant an escort by a ship of war.”
“Exactly. The crews of these smaller craft are members of House Krahr and neighboring Houses. It’s been an ongoing thorny issue. We’ve gone after the pirate fleet a few times. Their ships are small and maneuverable. They simply scatter. We chase down one or two of their vessels and turn them to cosmic dust. Meanwhile the rest vanish. Kozor and Serak have the advantage of location and experience fighting them. They offered protection for our smaller craft, and we took it.”
To tell him about two Kozor women or not to tell him?
If he were Melizard, she would’ve held back until she had something more concrete.
That settled it. “I overheard a conversation in the spaceport. Two knights of House Kozor, Onda and Seveline.”
“Anything interesting?” he asked.
“Seveline appraised you like you were a side of beef. In her opinion, you’re a prime specimen and she wouldn’t mind taking a bite.”
He grinned at her. He had a terrible smile. It made him look predatory and slightly boyish at the same time. The combination was devastating.
“They called me a halfer,” Helen said from the back seat.
The smiled vanished, as if jerked away from his face. “You’re not a halfer,” Arland growled. “You’re a vampire and a human. Both and whole, not half and half.”
Maud could’ve kissed him. Instead, she plastered a cool expression on her face. “Seveline told Onda that she should be allowed to play with you, because it would be a shame to lose.”
“To lose what?”
“I don’t know, because Onda jumped down her throat and made her be quiet. According to her, too many people worked too hard for Seveline to ruin it. Whatever ‘it’ is.”
Arland’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t like it.”
Maud leaned back in her seat. “Neither do I. Later Seveline made it a point to flag me down and offer me some pleasantries. She believes we will become fast friends.”
Arland gave her a calculating look. “Perhaps you should.”
If only. She grimaced. “I can’t. For me to become her ‘friend,’ I would have to pretend to be weak and ignorant. Your mother didn’t come to greet you at the spaceport. She’s displeased.”
“My mother is likely too busy with the hassle of arranging the wedding.”
She snorted. “Or perhaps, my lord, she’s mortally insulted by your instruction to make her household presentable for some disgraced human who turned down your proposal.”
“My mother is never insulted. She is far too dignified and refined for that. She has the patience of a saint.”
“Lady Ilemina,” Maud quoted from memory, “Slaughterer of Ruhamin, Supreme Predator of the Holy Anocracy, Bleeder of Ert, Fierce Subjugator of …”
“Like I said, too dignified to take offense. If someone dares to insult her, she simply kills them, and she isn’t going to kill me. I’m her only son. At most, she’s annoyed, perhaps slightly irritated.”
Maud sighed. “But I’m not her son.”
“She won’t harm you.” He said it like he was swearing an oath. Like he would put himself between her and all danger.
He had no idea how intoxicating it was to hear that. Words are cheap, she reminded herself. Reading too much into them was a dangerous habit. One she couldn’t afford.
“Your mother will test me. She will encourage others in your House to test me. I can’t pretend to be weak and pass your mother’s gauntlet at the same time.”
“A fair point,” he admitted.
“Perhaps, you should pay attention to Seveline. Just enough to encourage her. Her type gets off on feeling superior. She’d get special pleasure out of pretending to be my friend while trying to seduce you behind my back.”
Arland turned to her, his blue eyes clear and hard. “I proposed to you, my lady. If I treat you with anything but the devotion I feel, my House will dismiss you.”
He was right.
Silence fell. The craft zipped over another mesa filled with old growth. In the distance, still a few miles off, a castle rose out of the huge trees, massive and pale grey, so solid and majestic, it looked like it had grown out of the bones of the mountain.
“I am devoted to you,” Arland said quietly.
“Please don’t.” The words came out of her before she had a chance to think them over. She felt raw, as if he’d grabbed the bandage on her wound and ripped it off, reopening it.
What the hell is wrong with me?
“I’ll wait,” he said.
“I may never be ready.”
“I’ll wait until you tell me to stop. I have no expectations, my lady. If you leave, all you have to do is call on me in the time of need, and I’ll be there.”
Something in his voice told her he would wait forever.
They reached the castle. The ancestral home of House Krahr greeted her, a forest of square towers wrapped in a maze of walkways, parapets, thick walls, and courtyards. If she had to escape it, she would never find a way out.
Arland’s hands flew over controls. The shuttle turned smoothly and sank onto a small landing pad on top of a squat tower. People emerged from the taller tower to the left, hurrying across the crosswalk. She had the worst sense of déjà vu. When Melizard came home, the retainers used to hurry to the shuttle just like that.
For a moment she felt like she was drowning.
“Welcome to House Krahr, my lady,” Arland said.
She wouldn’t lose her future to her memories. It wasn’t going to happen. Maud turned to him and smiled her vampire smile, bright and sharp. “Thank you, my lord.