We are not dead, there was no major emergency. Sometimes the writing just takes a little longer and this turned out to be a two-scene chunk. It is coming to you umproofread, because you have flooded our mailbox with comments and emails. Suffer, dudes.
The door chimed at fifteen minutes till seven.
Maud opened it. A retainer stood in the doorway. She was young, about twenty or so, with long brown hair tamed into a sleek waterfall and secured with an elaborate hair net of thin knotted chains. A ceremonial garment the color of blood hugged her figure, close cut in the bodice, with relaxed sleeves caught at the wrist and a long skirt, split on the sides up each thigh. The slits betrayed a glimpse of black, skin tight pants. Vampires rarely showed skin.
The front and back of the skirt fell in graceful folds almost to the floor, like an artist’s rendition of a medieval tabard. The outfit was purely ceremonial, Maud reflected. No sane knight, human or vampire, would run into battle with a long piece of cloth tangling between their legs, but it was in line with vampire fashion, or at least what Maud remembered of it.
The retainer gave her a quick once over, her gaze snagging on Maud’s jet-black armor with its blank crest. “We will leave now.”
That bordered on rudeness. Clearly the news had spread through House Krahr. The human was out of favor. Vampires were a predictable lot. There was a time when she found comfort in that predictability.
“Come, Helen,” Maud called.
Helen came over. She wore a blue tunic, caught with a silver sash over white leggings and undertunic. Little brown boots caught her feet. Maud had brushed her hair and worked it into the customary vampire mane. She looked so adorable, Maud snapped a couple of pictures for Dina.
The retainer saw Helen and fought a smile. “Come this way.”
They followed the retainer through a long hallway into a round chamber, then into another hallway, and to a door. The door slid open as they approached, revealing a narrow stone walkway stretching to another tower. The weather had turned, the dark, furious sky flinging rain at the castle and the plateau beyond, and a transparent roof shielded the walkway from the weather’s rage. It was like walking into a storm, suspended hundred of feet above the ground. Helen’s grip on her fingers tightened. Maud smiled at her and kept walking.
The other tower loomed ahead, a much wider and larger structure.
“How old is the fortress?” Maud asked.
The retainer paused. Maud hid a smile. As a mongrel human, she clearly wasn’t worth an answer, but rules of hospitality prescribed courtesy when interacting with guests.
Politeness won. “The core of the castle is twenty-three centuries. We have expanded it over the generations.”
An understatement of the year.
They reached the second tower. The dark door swung open, and they entered another hallway. The stone of the walls here was smoother, newer, cut with greater precision. Lights, soft golden spheres, hung from the twenty-foot ceiling in artful bunches, bathing the hallway in a golden radiance. The blood-red banners of House Krahr spanned the height of the walls. At the far end of it, double doors stood wide open, offering a glimpse of the feast hall. Sounds of conversation floated over.
The retainer turned left and stopped before an open door. A pair of knights in full armor waited at the entrance, one male and the other female, both middle-aged and thick through the shoulders. A single slice of red marked their House Crests like a rip of a single claw. Sentinels, the knights trained specifically to guard against an intrusion. Both were armed. Child’s laughter rang behind them.
“The child stays here,” the retainer said.
Maud crouched by Helen. “I’ll be back soon, okay?”
“Okay,” Helen said quietly.
“You will get to play with other kids. Practice rules only.”
“Okay,” Helen said.
“Repeat it back to me please.”
“Practice rules only, mama.”
“Good girl,” Maud kissed her daughter’s forehead and straightened.
The male knight stepped aside, and Helen walked into the room. Maud watched her go.
“Your daughter will be safe,” the female knight told her. “The keepers of the children watch them closely. They won’t permit other children to harm her.”
It’s not her I’m worried about. She had no choice. At some point Helen would have to interact with outer kids to see if she could fit in. Maud nodded and followed the retainer to the feast hall.
The feast hall occupied a huge square chamber. Large rectangular tables, carved from sturdy wood ages ago, filled the room, each sitting ten guests. In the center of the hall, the Host table stood, marked by a metal pole supporting the standard of House Krahr. The guests were seated in order of receding importance, the higher the rank, the closer to the host table. Servers glided back and forth.
“You sit there,” retainer pointed to the table closest to the wall. A group of tachi had arranged themselves there. “With the insects.”
It was customary to walk a guest to her table, no matter how far from the host table she was seated. That was just about enough.
“They are not insects,” Maud said. “They are tachionals. They are warm-blooded, with a centralized brain. They give live birth, nurse their young, and the sharp edges of their arms can slice a vampire’s head off her shoulders with a single swipe. You would do well to remember that.”
The retainer stared at her, open-mouthed. Maud strode to the table. The tachi appeared to ignore her approach, but their exoskeletons remained a nebulous, bluish grey. Tachi at rest turned darker, revealing their speckled patterns. It was a sign of trust and often a promise of intimacy.
If they stood, they would be slightly taller than her, right around six feet. They had two main legs with shins that curved too far backward for human comfort, and two short vestigial appendages, pointing backward from their pelvises, false legs, a reminder of evolution. The vestigial legs had two joints and a very limited range of movement, but when a tachi sat, they gripped the seat, anchoring them in place, which greatly helped them in spaceflight and aerial combat. A tachi was just as comfortable upright as upside down.
Their bodies narrowed at the waist, developing into an elegant thorax that could almost pass for a very thin human clad in segmented armor. Their backs curved backward, the thick exoskeletal plates hiding their wings. Two arms, joined to the body not at the sides, like in humans and vampires, but slightly forward, a neck, and a round head shielded by three chitin segments, each with slits for a pair of glowing eyes. Nine tachi in all. The female in the center wore a crystal bracelet filled with gently glowing fluid. Pale green flecks floated within it, shifting every time the tachi moved. A royal. The rest were bodyguards, likely elite.
They should’ve never been seated that far from the host table. She couldn’t even see it from here. It was an insult and the tachi were sensitive to such slights. Vampires were somewhat xenophobic, especially toward aliens who didn’t look like mammals, so the fact that the tachi were permitted here at all meant something significant was on the line. An alliance, a trade agreement. Something of value. This was a tactical blunder. She would have to mention it to Arland.
Where was Arland? She didn’t expect him to sit with her – that would be pushing against all Holy Anocracy customs – but he could’ve at the very least strolled by. Just to see that she was actually present.
The tachi had left only one seat open, that directly across from the royal. She would be sitting between two sets of bodyguards, with the other four watching her. Maud bowed her head and sat.
“Greetings,” the royal replied, the bottom segment of her face rising to reveal a slash of a mouth.
The ten plates were clean. The vampire cooking utensils, small four-pronged forks, lay untouched. Nobody had eaten. The moment she sat down, she saw why. The two large bowls on the table contained a salad.
They served them salad. Maud almost slapped herself.
The tachi were on a mission among other species, which meant they would not consume meat, so at least House Krahr had gotten that right. But they were notoriously fastidious in their preparation of food. It was an art as well as sustenance. Every ingredient had its place. Nothing could touch. The vampires served them a salad. Drenched in dressing. Ugh.
Mom would turn purple if she saw this. Orro would probably commit homicide.
The tachi would never say anything. They would just sit there and quietly fume. If that royal got up from the table without consuming any food, House Krahr could kiss any hope for cooperation good-bye.
Maud turned to the nearest server. “Bring me bread, honey, a variety of fruit, a large platter, and a sharp knife.”
The server hesitated.
She sank ice into her voice. “Am I not a guest of House Krahr?”
The server flashed his fangs at her. “It will be done, lady.”
The tachi watched her with calm interest. Nobody spoke.
The server arrived with a massive wooden cutting board, bearing a loaf of freshly baked bread. A second server set a large bowl of fruit in front of her and glass gravy-boat-like vessel of honey. The two servers parked themselves behind her. They didn’t bring the platter. No matter. She would have to make due.
Maud sliced the crust off the bread, trimming the round loaf into a square shape. At least the knife was sharp. That was one thing one never had to worry about with vampires.
The tachi watched her with calm interest.
She cut the bread into precise half-inch cubes, placed five of them together onto the plate, one in the center, and four in the corners, so they formed a square. She picked up honey and slowly dripped a few drops onto each cube, until the bread soaked up the amber liquid.
The tachi at the edges of the table leaned in slightly.
Maud plucked the blue kora fruit from the bowl, peeled the thin skin and carefully cut the fruit into even round slices. She managed eight slices, seven even and one slightly thicker. She placed the seven slices around the cubes. The eighth was a hair too thick. She pondered it.
The tachis pondered it with her.
Better safe than sorry. She reached for another kora.
The tachi to her left emitted an audible sigh of relief and then crunched his mouth shut, embarrassed.
After the kora, she cut the red pear, then the think yellow stalks of sweet grass, slowly building a mandala pattern on her plate. The kih berries followed, prefect little globes of deep orange. She carefully arranged the berries and took one last look at the plate. It was nowhere as perfect as it should’ve been, but that was the best she could do with what she had.
Maud got up, lifted the plate, and offered it with a bow to the royal.
“Lady of sun and air, it is my great honor to share my food with you. It is humble, but it is given freely from the heart.”
The table was completely silent. The royal looked at her with her six glowing eyes.
Color burst on her exoskeleton, the pale neutral grey turning a deeper azure of the morning sky. She reached out her long elegant arm and took the plate.
“I accept your offering.”
Maud exhaled quietly and sat. The color around the table darkened slightly. She could tell the shades of blue, green, and purple apart now.
The two vampire servers behind her took off at a near jog.
She reached for the next fruit and began peeling it.
The royal speared a cube of honey-drenched bread with her claws and popped it into her mouth. “My name is Dil’ki. What is yours?”
“Maud, your highness.”
Dil’ki clicked her claws. “Tch-tch-tch. Not so loud. The vampires do not know. Where have you learned our customs?”
“My parents are innkeepers on Earth.”
A deeper blue blossomed on Dil’ki’s segments. The tachi around the tables shifted, their poses less stiff.
“How delightful. Do you speak akit?”
Thank Universe for dad’s insistence on a superior speech implant. “I do.”
Maud arranged another, less complex mandala and passed it to the tachi on her right.
“We will speak akit,” Dil’ki declared, switching to the dialect. “Do you understand me, lady Maud?”
“I do,” Maud said.
“Yes.” The royal leaned closer and popped a berry into her mouth. “Tell me, what are you doing here, among these barbarians?”
“One of them asked me to marry him.”
“No,” the green tachi from the right gasped. “You mustn’t.”
“They can’t even make proper seats,” another green tachi said. “Some of them are joined into benches.”
“You must be very brave to come here,” a purple tachi said from the left.
“Did you say yes?” Dil’ki asked.
“I said I would think about it.”
The vampire servers arrived, bearing platters of precision sliced fruit and cubed bread. The tachi fell silent. The food was placed on the table and the server backed away.
“You may serve yourselves,” Dil’ki said. “If poor Maud has to feed us all, we will be here all night.”
The tachi clicked the mandibles inside their mouths, chuckling. An instinctual alarm dashed through Maud. Every hair on the back of her neck stood on end.
Claws reached for the platters, each arranging their own small masterpiece of fruit on their plate.
“Which one asked you?” Dil’ki asked.
Maud craned her neck. If Arland was anywhere, he’d be at the host table, but she couldn’t really see him. “The big blond one. The son of the Lady Illemina.”
Dil’ki leaned in and the other tachi mirrored her movement, as if they had choreographed it.
“Tell me all about it,” Dil’ki said.
Maud opened her mouth and saw Seveline walking toward her, two male vampires in tow.
“Enemy?” Dil’ki guessed.
“I don’t know yet,” Maud said. She realized she had pushed her chair back from the table slightly, on pure muscle memory. When an enemy is approaching, it paid to make sure getting up didn’t cost you a precious fraction of a second. “I think she might be.”
The tachi went light grey, as one.
“There you are!” Seveline grinned at her. “I was wondering where they hid you.”
No proper address. An insult. It would’ve been fine if they were friends in private, but they were neither friends nor alone.
Maud plastered a smile on her face. “Lady Seveline.”
“I expected to have to search, but at this table, really?”
Another insult. She really was enjoying herself.
“And I see they forgot to bring you meat. Do they think you are a herbivore, honestly? Are humans herbivores, Lady Maud? I only ask because of your small teeth.”
A third insult. The dark-haired vampire at Seveline’s right flashed a quick smile. Couldn’t help himself.
A tachi on her right leaned to her and murmured in akit. “Would you like me to kill her? I can do it quietly tonight. They’ll never figure it out.”
Oh crap. The last thing she needs was to cause an interstellar incident.
Seveline narrowed her eyebrows slightly. Ten to one, Seveline’s implant didn’t recognize akit. It was an internal tachi language. But if Maud replied in English, it would translate her reply. Maud cleared her throat.
“Khia teki-teki, re to kha. Kerchi sia chee.” No, thank you. She’s a source of information.
Argh, she’d mangled it. There were sounds human mouth just couldn’t make.
The tachi clicked their mandibles again, in approval.
“That was very, very good,” Dil’ki said in akit. “Good try.”
“Is something the matter?” Seveline asked.
“Not at all,” Maud smiled. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“As a matter of fact, there is.” Seveline smiled. “These lords with me were wondering if there was some unique aspect to human lovemaking that particularly appeals to vampires. I thought you would be a perfect person to ask, since you have used it to such great effect.”
Quarter of a second to get up, another quarter to jump up the table, half a second to ram her fork into Seveline’s neck, piercing the windpipe. She would look so pretty with a bloody fork sticking out of her neck.
Maud smiled and stopped. A sentinel stood at the doorway of the fest hall. A small figure in a blue tunic with a silver sash stood next to him. The beginning of a huge black eye turned Helen’s right cheek bright red.
“Excuse me.” She jumped up and hurried through the tables to her daughter.
Helen looked up at her, her face pinched. She was trying not to cry.
“What happened?” Maud asked.
The sentinel, an older male vampire, smiled at her. “Personal challenges are forbidden in the nursery. Lady Helen was warned about the consequences of her actions, yet she chose to continue as did her challenged.”
“He called me a liar,” Helen squeezed through her teeth.
Fear crushed Maud. Somehow, she made her lips move. “Is the other boy alive?”
“Yes.” The older vampire smiled brighter. “His broken arm will serve as a fine reminder of today’s events. Unfortunately, Lady Helen must leave us now. She is to report tomorrow to the nursery to atone for her failure in judgement. Should I take her to her quarters?”
“No,” Maud said. “I’ll do it.”
“But your dinner, Lady Maud?”
“I have had my fill.”
Maud took her daughter by the hand and walked down the hallway, away from the feast hall.