“What happened?” Maud asked softly.
“They asked me where I came from, and I told them about how I made my room, and Aunt Dina said she would get me fishes. This boy said that houses can’t move if you think at them. He said I was lying.”
Of course, he did. “Then what happened?”
“Then I got mad.” Helen bit her lip with her fangs. “And I said take it back. And he said I was stupid and a liar. And then he wagged his finger at me.”
“He did what?”
Helen stuck out her hand with her index finger extended and waved it around, drawing an upside-down U in the air, and sang, “Liar-liar-liar.”
“Then what happened?”
“Then I said that pointing was bad, because it lets enemy know where you are looking.”
The lessons of Karhari had stuck. No matter how long Helen would spend away from it, the wasteland had soaked into her soul. And there wasn’t anything Maud could do about it.
“And he said I wasn’t good enough to be his enemy. And I said, I’ll punch you so hard, you’ll swallow your teeth, worm.”
Maud hid a groan. “Where did you hear that?”
Oh goodie. “Then what happened?”
“Then the scary old knight came and told me that if I challenged the boy, there would be ripper cushions.”
“Yes. So I asked if the boy would get reper-cushions if he fought me, and the knight said yes, and I said I was okay with it.”
Maud rubbed the bridge of her nose.
“And then the knight asked the boy if he wanted help and the boy said he didn’t, and the knight said proceed, and then the boy punched me, and I got his arm. With my legs.” Helen rolled on the floor and locked her legs together. “I said say surrender and he didn’t say anything, he just yelled, so I broke it. If he didn’t want me to break it, he should’ve said surrender.”
Maud rubbed her face some more.
Helen looked at her from the floor, her big blue eyes huge on her face. “He started it.”
And she finished it.
“You weren’t wrong,” Maud said. “But you weren’t wise.”
Helen looked on the floor.
“You knew you weren’t a liar.”
“So why did it matter what the vampire boy said?”
“I don’t know,” Helen mumbled.
Maud crouched by her. “You don’t always meet an enemy in battle. Sometimes you meet them during peace. They might even pretend to be your friends. Some of them will try to provoke you so they can see what you can do. You have to learn to wait and watch them until you figure out their weakness. The boy thought you were weak. If you let him keep thinking that you were weak, you could’ve used it later. Remember what I told you about surprise?”
“It wins battles,” Helen said.
“Now the boy knows you’re strong,” Maud said. “It wasn’t wrong to show your strength. But in the future, you have to think carefully and decide if you want people to know your true strength or not.”
“Okay,” Helen said quietly.
“Come on.” Maud offered her daughter her hand. Helen grasped her fingers and got up. They resumed their walk down the hallway.
“Are vampires our enemies?”
That was to be determined. “That’s what we are trying to figure out.”
“When are we going to go live with Aunt Dina again?”
An excellent question. What am I doing here anyway? She’d had it up to her throat with all of the vampire backstabbing. There was a reason why she decided she was done. She’d promised herself she was done the moment they landed on Karhari and she repeated this promise over and over, when she lay on the hilltop, breathing in Karhari dust, watching the blood sword flash and seeing Melizard’s head fall on the ground; when she tracked his killers; when she bargained for shelter and water, knowing that if she failed, Helen would die. It became her mantra. Never again. Yet here she was.
Arland had abandoned her the first chance he got.
What did you expect? Did you expect he would come and take you by the hand and lead you to a seat at the host table?
Yes. The answer was yes. She didn’t expect it, but she wanted it. Stupid.
It was stupid to hope for something that wouldn’t happen. It was stupid to come here.
“Mama?” Helen asked.
They could just go home right now. Go back to Dina. Helen would never be able to join a human school or play with human children, because there was no way to hide the fangs, but all three of them, Klaus, Maud, and Dina, had been home schooled in the inn, and none of them turned out badly.
They could just go home, where nobody would belittle them or punch them in the face. Home to the familiar weird of her childhood, before Melizard. Before Karhari.
But they had come all this way. She had dragged Helen here, because Arland had offered hope for something deeper than Maud had ever hoped for. A part of her rebelled at giving up without a fight. But was this even a fight worth fighting?
I’ll do one more day. One more day. If it’s all shit at the end of tomorrow, then I’m done.
“We have some things to do here first.”
“I liked it at Aunt Dina’s,” Helen said. “I like my room.”
A short figure turned the corner and was coming toward them, walking upright on furry paws. She was only three and a half feet tall, counting the nearly six-inch lynx ears tipped with tufts of fur. Two thin gold hoops twinkled in her left ear. A coat of pale sandy fur, covered with tiny blue rosettes, sheathed her small body. Her face, with a long muzzle, was a meld of cat and fox, and her big emerald green eyes shone slightly when the light caught them just right. She wore a diaphanous apron of pale pink, decorated with black embroidery.
“A kitty,” Helen whispered.
Ha! The Universe provided a teachable moment. “No, my flower. That’s a lees. Remember how I told you about hiding your strength? The lees hide their strength. They look cute, but they are dangerous and very cunning.” They were also excellent assassins and they would poison their enemies in a heartbeat, but that was a lesson she would deliver a few years down the road. “See her little apron? She’s from a merchant clan. The markings tell you which one. This one is from Clan Nuan. Remember how I told you that Grandpa and Grandma were innkeepers? They would buy things from Clan Nuan, and sometimes they would take me with them. Your grandpa told me to never bargain with a lees, unless I absolutely had to. He was right.”
Helen craned her neck, trying to see better. “At Baha-char?”
“Yes, my flower. And every time I visited, Nuan Cee, the great Merchant, would give me candy. It was the best candy ever and it wasn’t for sale. He gave me candy because he liked me, but also because he wanted to make a good deal with my parents. It’s hard to bargain with someone who made your child happy.”
They reached the lees. The little fox glanced at them.
“Greetings,” Maud said.
“Greetings,” the fox answered.
“Please pass our respects to the honorable Nuan Cee,” Maud said.
“You know our clan?” the fox asked.
“Our family has done business with Clan Nuan. My parents were innkeepers. You may know my sister, Dina. She is an innkeeper, also.”
The little fox froze.
“Dina? We know Dina!”
The little fox grinned, showing all of her tiny teeth, and hopped in place, bouncing like a balloon filled with excitement. “We know Dina! You come. Come with me now. My uncle twice removed will be so happy. Come, come!”
The fox grabbed Helen by her hand. “Come with me now!” She ran down the hallway and Helen dashed with her.
Just what they needed. Maud sprinted after them. They turned right, then left, then right again, and the fox jumped into the doorway, pulling Helen with her. Maud lunged through and slid to a halt.
Veils in pastel colors draped the stone of vampire walls. Soft, luxurious rugs hid the cold floor. Plush furniture, carved from pale wood so ornate, Louis XIV would’ve turned green with jealousy, offered seating by little tables. Glass and metal bowls sat on the tables, offering fruit, sweets, and little pieces of spicy jerky. A dozen lees chatted, snacked, and played games. In the center of it all, on a six-foot-wide floor pillow stuffed to a three-foot thickness sat Nuan Cee. Silver blue, his fur darkened on his back, dapples with golden rosettes, and faded to white on his chest and stomach. He wore a beautiful apron of ethereal silver silk embroidered with Clan Nuan’s sigils and a necklace of sapphires, each as big as a walnut.
It was like stepping into a Merchant’s shop. Maud almost pinched herself.
The little lees ran into the room, pulling Helen with her. “Dina’s sister! And her young!”
Nuan Cee raised his paw-hands in surprise. “Matilda!”
He remembered her.
Suddenly the memories came flooding back. Walking with Mom and Dad through the sunlit streets of Baha-char within a current of shoppers from all of over the Galaxy, while the galactic bazaar hummed with a million voices. Reaching Nuan Cee’s shop, a cool oasis in the middle of the desert heat and hearing Nuan Cee’s sing-song voice bargaining and chuckling. The taste of ru candy in her mouth. Suddenly she was twelve again. Maud almost cried.
She started moving before she even realized it.
Nuan Cee pushed off his pillow and took three steps toward Maud. She barely registered the honor. She reached him and they hugged.
“There you are, Matilda,” the Merchant said.
Somehow she found her voice. “Yes.”
They broke apart.
“And who is this?” Nuan Cee widened his turquoise eyes.
“This is my daughter, Helen.”
The lees let out a collective squee.
“She is so cute!”
“Look at her hair!”
“Look at her little boots!”
Helen stood in the whirlwind of lees, looking slightly freaked out, like a cat greeted by a pack of overly enthusiastic little dogs.
“I am Nuan Ama,” the lees who found them announced. “Come with me. We have the best sweets.”
Maud almost laughed as the lees dragged Helen to the nearest table and thrust a dish of candy under her nose.
“Have you seen your sister?” Nuan Cee asked.
“Yes. She is all grown up.”
“And an innkeeper!” Nuan Cee raised his hands. “Who would have thought?”
Maud laughed. It was that or crying.
“What are you doing here?” Nuan Cee asked.
“Come, come.” He led her to a divan by his pillow. “What are you doing here?”
Someone brought her a glass of sweet wine. Someone else delivered a dish of bright red ru candy. She ate one, savoring the taste melting on her tongue, sweet with a slight touch of sour, but so refreshing, it was as if her whole mouth sang.
“Tell me all about it,” Nuan Cee said.