Karat sipped her wine. “Personal combat is a perfectly acceptable way to settle grievances between competing siblings.”
If only. Maud leaned back in her chair. “It wasn’t personal.”
“My husband arranged an ambush for his brother.”
Karat blinked. “I don’t understand. You did say your husband was the better combatant.”
“My husband also was told in no uncertain terms that his brother would become the marshal, and any attempt to sabotage that rise would be unacceptable to his parents and his House. He knew if he challenged his brother, it would provoke rage among the House. So, he convinced a group of his knights to jump his brother as he was coming back from an errand. Meanwhile he and I attended a celebration at his cousin’s house. The cousin’s older son was granted knighthood. During the celebration, my husband made it a point to overtly flirt with a woman. He must’ve hoped I would make a scene. I left instead, but that was enough. Everyone had noticed our presence and my exit. He was establishing his alibi.”
Karat had forgotten about her wine. “That’s highly dishonorable.”
“That’s what I told him, when he explained all of that to me that night.”
“What was his justification?”
Maud sighed. “That he did it for us, for me and our child. That this way we would be more secure, and Helen’s future would be assured.”
“Did you believe him?”
Talking about it hurt, like ripping off a scab before new skin had a chance to form underneath. “No. A part of me wanted to, very much. I loved him. He was my husband and the father of my child. But even then I had realized that we were all in service to his ambition. I warned him then it would be the end of everything.”
Maud nodded. “Yes. His brother survived. One of the assailants had lived as well. He was interrogated. They came for us that night. We were exiled to Karhari. All three of us.”
Karat’s expression turned sharp. “Who would exile a child? Especially to Karhari. It’s a wasteland. An anus of the Galaxy.”
“Someone who is desperate to defend their family name.” Maud set her glass on the table. “House Ervan is young. They are desperate for respectability that comes with age and history.”
“You can’t falsify that currency. It must be bought with generations.”
“Well, they tried. They would kill you for this castle, if they could. Everything had to be just so. Every tradition followed. Propriety of every detail examined. Appearances kept. They overcompensated. Do you know who doesn’t fit into traditions? A human and her daughter.”
“She is a child of House Ervan,” Karat said. “They had a responsibility to her no matter what her father did.”
“They didn’t see it that way. We have a saying on Earth: three strikes and you’re out. I was strike one, Helen was strike two, and the attempted assassination of my brother-in-law was strike three. I realized this as I begged for my daughter’s life on my knees.”
“They wanted to be rid of us, all of us. They struck us out from the roster and dumped us on Karhari. It was if we never existed.”
“What happened at Karhari?” Karat asked.
“The planet devoured my husband’s soul. It drove him mad. Eventually he betrayed the wrong people and they killed him.”
Karat stared at her.
Maud finished her wine. “I know why you came here. You wanted to know what kind of baggage we bring to your House. We have no ties to House Ervan. We are strangers to them. We have settled the blood debt on Karhari. My husband’s killers are dead. No one alive has a claim on my life or the life of my daughter. No one is owed. We bring no debts and no allies. We are what we appear to be.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” Karat said. “You are much more than you appear to be.”
You have no idea. “Have I answered your questions, my lady?”
“Then it’s my turn. How angry is Lady Illemina?”
“How angry is a rabid krahr?” Karat slumped against the back of her chair with a sigh. “Arland is brilliant, when he is here. He’s almost never here. First, he developed a fascination with Earth and Earth women. Did he tell you we have a cousin who is married to one?”
“My sister mentioned it.”
“They live on the other side of the planet. She is some sort of scientist that studies insects.”
“Yes. The other day she was late to her own daughter’s birthday because she’d found some new beetle nobody had ever seen before. What good are beetles? They are neither food nor pets. I would’ve squashed it. You never know when one of them turns out to be poisonous.”
Vampire worldview, condensed into three sentences: if it’s not food or pet, kill it, because it might be poisonous.
“She doesn’t get involved in politics, she isn’t interested in combat, and if you talk to her for five minutes, your eyes will glaze over, but she is a pretty woman and he loves her, Hierophant bless him.”
Maud hid a smile.
“Then Arland starts disappearing. Where is Arland? He is off on some adventure at some inn on Earth. Everything is Earth. Broker a peace treaty? Earth. Go shopping for a unique present for his favorite cousin? Earth.”
“What did he get you?” I asked.
“Coffee. It’s of an excellent quality, but when would I ever need ten pounds of it? It’s enough to get the entire knighthood roaring drunk. The next thing we know, he skips out on the wedding preparations, because someone on Earth needs his help. Because the needs of his House are clearly fisur’s kidneys. He goes to Karhari and then there is this footage of him tearing out of some armored hovel with vampires in crappy armor clinging to him and him roaring like he is some hero in a period drama.”
Maud lost it and laughed.
“You don’t understand.” Karat waved her hands. “The damn thing was everywhere. He brained seven vampires singlehandedly. So Karhari Houses are screaming bloody murder, our relatives twelve generations removed are forwarding the recording to us, our allies are asking why our marshal is involved in a brawl on some backwater planet and if we sent him there as a plan for some sort of secret offensive and if so, why haven’t we told them about it, and we keep getting marriage proposals because half the Galaxy decided he is good breeding stock. I saw my father’s and aunt’s faces when they watched it. They turned a color not found in nature. It’s not funny!”
Maud tried to stop, but it was like trying to hold back a flood. It’s nerves, she told herself.
“Go ahead.” Karat rolled her eyes. “Get it all out. Not only did he make us the focal point of the entire Anocracy for two solid weeks, he then refused to return because he needed a sojourn. He threw this bomb into our house and went on vacation! Then he sent a message: I’m coming home with a human bride. Oh wait, she said no, but I’m bringing her anyway. Prepare the castle!”
Maud made a heroic effort to stop laughing.
“I thought my aunt’s head would explode. I honestly did. So no, you won’t get a warm reception.”
“That’s okay,” Maud managed. “I didn’t expect one.”
“I realize it’s through no fault of your own, but my aunt will test you at every turn. She made it bloody obvious she is displeased, and we are pack animals.”
“When the leader snarls, everyone will jump in to help.”
“In essence, yes.” Karat gave her a sour smile. “I was going to jump in too, but my father convinced me to keep an open mind. I actually like you now, so my position is complicated. It will be an uphill battle.” The vampire woman leaned forward. “Do you want to do this? I mean, do you really?”
“Yes. I’m here. I showed up.”
Karat sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of. Well, the first step is dinner. It will be held tonight, in about three hours.”
“Armor on,” Karat confirmed. “You have that time to make yourself presentable, although in your case there not really enough hair to do anything with. Why short hair?”
She’d cut her hair off the first day she got to the planet. She was done being a vampire marshal’s wife. It was her offering to Karhari. The period at the end of one stage of life and her bribe to the universe to keep Helen alive. But explaining that would be complicated so she said the same thing she’d told her sister. “Very little water on Karhari. It was too hard to keep clean.”
“Too bad,” Karat said. “Do you need anything?”
“What happens to the children?” Maud asked.
“Helen can stay with other children or she can remain here in the quarters.”
“Helen?” Maud called. “I have to go to a grown-up dinner and you can’t come, my flower. Do you want to play with other children or stay here by yourself?”
“I want to play,” Helen said.
Maud swallowed a sigh. Helen would have to integrate into vampire society sooner or later. Maud had hoped to be there. She wanted with every ounce of her to smooth the way, to make sure nothing bad happened, to help, but she couldn’t. She had to let her daughter go. Some lessons Helen had to learn on her own.
“Very well,” she said.
“I will either come myself or send someone by half an hour before the dinner,” Karat said. “I would guess Arland will want to escort you, but knowing my aunt, she will make sure he’s busy with something vital instead.”
And that was exactly what she’d expected. “I will make do,” Maud said.
Karat narrowed her eyes. “I think you will. If I don’t see you until the meal, best of luck.”