Maud leaned against the doorway and studied her nails. “If I were a gold digger, I would’ve married him already and come here as his wife. There would be nothing you or your whole House could’ve done about it.”
Lady Karat narrowed her eyes. “You seem so sure that you have my cousin on a leash, ready to do your bidding.”
“Nobody in this Universe, man or woman, could put Arland on a leash.”
“You know what I think?”
“I have no doubt you’ll enlighten me.”
“I think he wanted to play hero. He found you, an exile living in squalor with your daughter, and he decided to rescue you. You preyed on his noble instincts, manipulated him, and now you’re toying with him. It appeals to your pride to have the Marshal of Krahr pining for you like some lovesick puppy.”
And that was exactly the welcome she’d expected. “It’s refreshing, Lady Karat.”
“Your honesty. I’d prepared myself for murmured insults behind my back and ugly glances. I thought perhaps it would take your House a couple of days to build up enough outrage to throw it in my face, but you laid it all out in my first hour on the planet. Why, I haven’t even had a chance to wash my face after the journey. Truly, you’re a credit to your bloodline.”
Lady Karat’s dark eyes sparked. In that moment, she looked remarkably like her father. “Did you just call me a poor host and insult my family?”
Maud gave her a narrow smile. “Well, clearly.”
“And now you called me stupid.”
“No. Only slow-witted. Are you going to do something about it, or can I start unpacking?”
Lady Karat grinned. “My father was right. I do like you.”
Apparently, it was a test and she’d passed. Vampires and their games. Nothing was ever simple. Maud sighed and stepped aside. “Come in.”
Karat strode into the quarters and saw Helen on the bed. “Cute kid.”
Helen bounced off the mattress, flipping in the air, and landed on the pillows. “Are you going to kill Mommy?”
“No,” Karat told her.
“Good.” Helen went back to jumping.
“Does she expect you to be killed by random strangers?” Karat asked.
“That’s the way things were on Karhari.”
Karat eyed Helen.
Helen gave her a cherubic smile.
“She would attack me if I tried, wouldn’t she? She’s building up enough bounce to jump across the room.”
Maud nodded. It was customary to offer refreshments when someone visited a room. Where would they have put them? Ah. A faint outline in the wall betrayed a niche. She stepped to it, deliberately turning her back to Karat, and ran her fingers along the crack. A square section of the wall slid forward, revealing a shelf supporting a bowl filled with small pieces of jerky twisted into knots and a big bottle of blue wine. Six heavy tulip-shaped glasses cut from sparkling crystal waited next to the wine.
Maud took the wine and two glasses and offered one to Karat. Soren’s daughter landed into the nearest oversized chair. Maud twisted the round stopper out of the wine bottle, breaking the seal, poured them both a glass, and sat into the other chair.
Karat sipped the wine. “My father asked me to assist you. He’s invested in this pairing. I don’t know what you said or did, but that crusty old bastard is singing your praises.”
“In the words of your cousin, Lord Soren’s ‘grizzled exterior hides a gentle heart.’”
Karat chuckled. “Sure, it does. He is suffused with warmth and sunshine.”
Maud toyed with the wine in her glass.
“Wondering whether to trust me?” Karat asked.
“I’ll make it simple for you: you have no choice. You could go at it alone, but it will be much harder. Our House is old and complicated.”
“Why are you helping me? After all, I manipulated Arland and preyed on his heroic instincts.”
Karat swirled the glittering blue liquid in her glass, making the crystal throw a filigree of highlights onto the table. “Arland appears to lack in subtlety and seems easy to influence, in truth he’s anything but.”
“He very carefully cultivates that image.”
Karat nodded. “You noticed?”
“Yes. He told me he was no poet, but a simple soldier, and then delivered a declaration of love that could’ve come straight from Of Blood and Honor.” In fact, it could’ve been included in any vampire saga. It was elegant and beautiful, and she’d memorized every word of it.
Karat raised her eyebrows. “You read.”
“Oh good. To answer your question, better people than you have tried to manipulate my cousin and failed. He has never proposed to anyone before. He had dalliances, but nothing serious. If he asked you to marry him, he must love you. And you must feel something for him, because you came here without the protection that would’ve been afforded to you had you accepted. You’re not his bride. You’re not betrothed. You’re nothing. I can see you’re not naïve and you’re familiar with our customs. You knew how you would be received, but you came anyway. There is something here that the two of you have to figure out, and you can’t do that if you are expelled out of our territory or killed. I want Arland to be happy.”
Karat nodded. “Yes. And if he marries, my father will start nagging him about children instead of bugging me to get married and get on with producing grandbabies. A break from his concerned inquiries would be most welcome.”
“That bad, huh?” Maud asked.
A shadow of defeat passed across Karat’s face. “You have no idea. Do we have a deal?”
Maud drank her wine. She could trust Soren’s daughter, or she could go at it alone. She’d known a number of knights who would’ve come to her room just like that, with sincere offers of help—and would’ve proudly stabbed her in the back at the first opportunity. Afterward, they would’ve boasted about their own cleverness.
Karat didn’t seem to be one of them. Maud’s instincts told her she could be trusted. Her gut had never failed her before.
“Yes, Lady Karat. We have a deal.”
Karat sat up straighter. “Good. I’d like to know what we’re working with here. What’s your status with the Ervan?”
“I was married to Melizard Ervan.”
“Yes, Father told me. Marshal’s son?”
“Second son.” She’d sunk a lot meaning into that first word.
Karat toyed with her glass. “House Ervan is a young house. Some younger Houses tend to overcompensate by holding fast to the ancient traditions even when they no longer make sense. The times when the heirs were always warriors, no matter their skill.”
“My husband was a superb warrior. In personal combat, he knew no equal. But he wasn’t as good of a commander as his older brother. Melizard liked to play games. His brother didn’t. The knights of Ervan trusted him over my husband.” The troops had sensed something in Melizard that she didn’t see until the very end. He didn’t value them. They were means to obtain a victory and then serve as adornments when his success was celebrated.
“My brother-in-law was groomed for the position of Marshal, and my husband was to be become Maven.”
Mavens handled negotiations for the Houses. They served as ambassadors and deal makers. The position would’ve conveniently kept Melizard busy and frequently taken him and his schemes away from the House.
“Mavens are respected and feared,” Karat said.
“He wanted to be a Marshal.”
There was so much more she could say. About Melizard’s night rages, when he stalked back and forth across their quarters like a caged tiger, ranting about his family, about his brother being handed everything while his talents went unrecognized. About schemes, and petitions, and endless plans to prove he was the better of the two. About the time he marched into his parents’ quarters and demanded to be made Marshal only to return like a beaten dog with his tail between his legs. So much more.
“My husband was the youngest son. Admired, babied, and spoiled. Denied nothing except what he wanted most of all. To become a Marshal, no,” she corrected herself, “to be made Marshal. To have the title handed to him.”
“What did he do?” Karat asked.
Maud glanced at Helen and lowered her voice. “He tried to murder his brother.”