Sent this to proofreaders late, so will merge their edits in tomorrow.
PS. Updated post because ten minutes after we walked away form the office, we stumbled onto perfect ending. Sorry guys.
As soon as they exited the shuttle, a young vampire knight with dark auburn hair attached himself to Arland and began rattling things off from his tablet. Arland’s face took on the stony expression of a man who was either about to charge the enemy line for the fifth time in a single day or do his taxes. He marched along the parapet toward the heavy door, with the auburn-haired knight at his side. Maud took Helen’s hand and followed him, and the four other retainers closed in, one next to her and three behind. She could practically feel their stares stabbing her back.
Go ahead. Get an eyeful.
The afternoon sun warmed Maud’s skin. She guessed the temperature somewhere in mid-eighties, and the breeze was downright pleasant. She had a childish urge to climb onto one of the textured protrusions of the parapets, strip off her armor, and sunbathe for a couple of hours.
The knight kept spitting out questions, periodically pausing for Arland to bark an answer.
“Third Regiment requests permission to enter negotiations with the architectural guilds to update their Chapel Hall.”
“Second and third companies of Fourth regiment request permission to settle inter-unit dispute via champion combat.”
“Denied. We don’t parade our rivalries in front of wedding guests from other Houses. I want the full write-up of this dispute on my tablet within the hour.”
“Knight Derit requests transfer out of Second Regiment.”
“On what grounds?”
“Irreconcilable differences with his commanding knight.”
“Inform Knight Derit that I declined his request and that he has misconstrued the nature of his relationship with Commander Karat. They are not married. It’s not a partnership of equals. Commander Karat says, ‘Do this,’ and Knight Derit does it, because that’s what knights do. It’s not a complicated arrangement, and if he has further difficulty understanding it, he needs to hang up his blood mace and look for a different profession, more in line with his delicate nature. Perhaps flower arrangement would suit.”
Maud hid a smile.
The carved doors swung open at their approach. They walked through them and into the shadowy hall. The air here was cooler. Tall windows spilled narrow blades of light into the hall, drawing golden rectangles on the stone floor. Shadow, light, shadow, light… It reminded her of the north wing of Castle Erwan. The last few weeks before their exile, she’d walked that hall expecting a dagger in her back at any moment.
The male retainer next to her gave her a startled look.
She realized she’d switched her gait. She was gliding now, silent like a wraith, each step light and smooth. Next to her Helen desperately tried to imitate her, but her legs were too short, and she ended up gliding two steps and skipping forward on the third.
The room ended, splitting into a Y-intersection of two hallways.
Arland raised his hand. “Enough, Knight Ruin.”
The auburn-haired knight clamped his mouth shut, biting a word in a half.
Arland stepped to his right and invited her to proceed down the right hallway. “My lady.”
She turned right, and they walked side by side. Knight Ruin and the four retainers stopped at the mouth of the hallway. They reached a door at the end of the hallway. He pushed it open. “Your quarters.”
She glanced inside and froze. A spacious bedroom suite stretched before her. A big arched window in the opposite wall betrayed the true thickness of the walls, full three feet of solid stone. Delicate glass ornaments, so fragile they looked like they would shatter at the first sign of a breeze, hung from the walls, glowing with gentle light.
On the far left, an enormous bed waited, big enough to lay four vampire adults comfortably and equipped with an artfully arranged pile of pillows and a soft red comforter. Its legs were carved into the tree roots, its headboard was a tree trunk, and the tree’s craved branches provided the canopy. A rug spawned the length of the floor, painstakingly depicting an image of a female vampire knight fighting a murr, a massive crocodile-like reptile, in a dozen shades of red, burgundy, and white. Beyond the bed, a door stood wide open, showing her a glimpse of the bathroom with a colossal stone tub. A second door cut the pale grey stone next to the entrance to the bathroom.
On her right, a fire was laid out but not lit in a fireplace that was tall enough for her to walk into it. A collection of chairs was arranged before it, around a low table. A large banner of House Krahr stirred in the breeze, dripping from the wall next to the window, so if someone sat in the largest chair, the banner would serve as the backdrop. Maud squinted at the chair. A small crest was carved in its back, two stylized fangs.
It was a beautiful room, elegant in its simplicity and timeless, every line and every angle a perfect blend of function and aesthetics. She couldn’t have made a better room for herself back at Dina’s inn, if she tried for a week.
“Are the quarters not to your liking?” Arland asked.
“What are you doing?” she asked through clenched teeth.
“I’m showing you your rooms.”
“This is the room of a Marshal’s spouse.”
Arland looked into the room, his expression puzzled. “You think so?”
She resisted the urge to punch him. “Yes, I think so. It has the House Krahr banner positioned behind a chair with Marshal’s insignia on it.”
Arland blinked and rubbed his chin. “So it is. How peculiar.”
“My Lord Marshal.”
“My Lady Maud?”
“I’m not your wife. I’m not even your betrothed.”
“Where would you like me to put you?”
“I don’t know a room suitable to a woman I asked to marry me and who replied with ‘Maybe.’”
“That wasn’t what I said.”
“You said, ‘Arland, I’m sorry, I can’t marry you right now. I need time to decide.’”
It was an exact quote.
“I assure you my recollection is accurate. Your words are branded in my memory. Did I misinterpret?”
She opened her mouth. He had her there. “No.” It was a maybe.
“Aside from my mother’s quarters, this is the most secure place in the castle. By assigning these quarters to you, I send a clear signal to everyone within my House. I think of you as my betrothed and I expect you to be treated accordingly.”
“It’s not an honor I deserve. I don’t bear the title of your fiance and I don’t wield any of her power.”
“Last time I checked I was the Marshal of House Krahr,” he said, his voice gentle. “Assigning honors to my guests is my prerogative.”
And he just reminded her that she was stomping on the most basic rule of vampire hospitality: one abided by the laws of the host’s House. It would be a mortal offense to refuse the rooms given to her by the Marshal. From his point of view, no other quarters could be assigned to her either. If he sent her down to the guest rooms, it would look like a dismissal. Here is the woman who rejected me, I brought her here, and now I don’t want anything to do with her… It made him look bad. It made her look bad. There were no winners in that scenario.
“Would you prefer some other woman takes these quarters?”
There was no point in lying. “No.”
“Very well, then.”
“This will make things harder,” she said.
“Are you unfit for the challenge?”
She glared at him.
Arland grinned and handed her a key. It was a real key, heavy, metal, and cold. “That door next to the bathroom opens into a passageway leading to my quarters. There is a second door there. I left it unlocked. There is only one key, my lady and you have it. If you have any need to see me in private, all you have to do is unlock your door and walk down the passage way.” He bowed his head. “My lady.”
She pictured herself smacking him on the head with that damn key, but there were five people watching.
“Thank you, my lord,” she said. She’d loaded enough steel into the words, that even the densest vampire wouldn’t miss it.
“Make yourself comfortable,” he said and went back down the hallway.
Helen slipped into the room, dropped her bag, took a running start, and leaped onto the bed. She bounced straight up, waving her tiny arms.
Wheee. That was about right. She’d remembered Dina saying Arland had the subtlety of an enraged rhino. Her sister didn’t know him at all. Neither did she. Which was why she told him maybe.
Maud stepped into the room, listened to the barely audible click of the electronic lock, and slid the heavy metal bar in place, barricading herself in the Marshal quarters.
She was not unfit for the challenge. This was going to be one hell of a visit. Either way, it was time to unpack and settle in.
Maud made it four feet from the door before a knock stopped her. Maybe Arland forgot something…
She unbarred the the door and swung it open. A female vampire knight stood in the hallway. Broad-shouldered, sturdy, with a lustrous mane of chocolate-brown hair, she wore the full syn-armor. Her dark eyes stared at Maud, and she felt herself weighed, measured, and judged in a split second.
“My name is Lady Alvina, daughter of Soren,” she said. “You may call me Karat. That’s my battle name. I’m Arland’s cousin. His favorite cousin. And you are the human gold-digger who rejected his proposal. I think we should talk.”