Let us know if the follow up comment feature is annoying. It seems to be emailing all follow-up comments. No proofreaders this time, because we are late. 🙂
Maud stepped through the doorway into the hallway. Behind her the door slid shut, cutting off the lees and their outraged cries.
Arland glanced at Helen. His eyes darkened. “Who?”
“It was a formal challenge,” Maud said.
“I’m getting ripper cushions,” Helen told him.
Arland turned to Maud.
“Lady Helen challenged someone in the nursery, was warned not to fight, and did it anyway. Now there will repercussions.”
“Did you win?” Arland asked.
“All is well then. If you go through life never doing anything deserving any repercussions, you’ll never know victory.”
“That is some fine parenting, my lord Marshal.” Maud loaded enough sarcasm into her tone to explode a space cruiser.
“I try,” Arland said.
The three of them looked at each other. Awkward.
“May I walk you to your quarters?” he asked.
“You may.” It was that or continuing standing in the hallway.
They walked through the hallways, then to the covered bridge, Helen running back and forth, sometimes in front, sometimes behind. The storm still raged, lightning flashing overhead, ripping through the dark sky.
“I’m sorry,” Arland said.
“For what, my lord?”
“For not being there during dinner. It wasn’t my intention.”
“I don’t need your protection or assistance, my lord. I’m not a prisoner. I’m here because I choose to be here. If I felt I couldn’t hack it on my own, I would’ve left already.”
They crossed the bridge into the tower and stopped at the end of the chamber, where the two hallways branched off, one leading to her quarters, the other to his.
“I know that you don’t require my protection, my lady. If I thought you did, I wouldn’t have extended the invitation. I’m not looking for a maiden to save. I’m looking for a partner.”
She narrowed her eyes at him.
He ignored and kept going. “However, it was my intention to escort you to dinner and to spend the meal with you. I regret that my duties detained me and that I was unable to make you feel welcome in the feast hall of my home. Please accept my deepest apologies, my lady.”
If they got any more painfully polite, they would draw blood simply by speaking.
“No apologies necessary, my lord. It was time well spent. I was fortunate enough to experience the hospitality of House Krahr first hand.”
“Nothing to add, Lord Marshal?”
“A wise man knows when to shut up,” he said. “I have a mother and two female cousins. I know that tone of voice. Anything I say now will be wrong. I will humbly wait to be banished or forgiven.”
“Why, my lord, I’m surprised you know the meaning of the word.”
He looked at her. She looked back. They crossed stares like swords.
“Are you going to fight?” Helen asked in a small voice.
Oh, for goodness sake… “What’s in the box?” Maud asked.
“Dinner,” he said. “I didn’t get to have one and from what I understand, neither did you. Join me?”
She considered stomping off to her room in all of her pissed off glory, but really it would be childish. Also, she was starving.
“Yes,” Maud said.
Arland grinned at her. She nearly raised her hand to shield herself.
“Just a dinner,” she said.
“Just a dinner,” he said. “Also, I downloaded the Saga of Olasard, the Ripper of Souls, onto my viewer. It’s animated.”
It hit her. Helen had never seen a cartoon before. Then his words sank in deeper. “Umm, there is that one part in the catacombs…”
“Oh, no, they took that out. It’s made for children.”
The door to Arland’s quarters was identical to hers, heavy, reinforced, old. He swung it open and stood aside. She walked in. It was a mirror image of her room, a masculine version of it, but where her chambers were devoid of personal touches, this place belonged to Arland.
A small alla tree grew in the corner, its branches heavy with white blossoms. It was in good health, so someone was watering it. A stack of actual paper books set on the table by the massive bed. She saw a copy of a popular YA novel from Earth and bit her lip to keep from laughing. A variety of knickknacks lay here and there, a long, wicked dagger, not of vampire make; a piece of misshapen metal; a small wooden figurine carved in painstaking detail. Wing, one of the creatures staying in Dina’s inn, carved them out of wood. If she squinted just right, it sort of looked like her…
Arland swung his hand before a wall. It split open, revealing a linen closet. He grabbed some large floor pillows and tossed them on the rug. A fuzzy blanket followed.
“Viewer,” he ordered.
A screen slid from above, covering the opposite wall.
“Saga of Olasard.”
An animated vampire knight appeared on the screen, wearing elaborate armor, holding a bloody sword in one hand and a severed head in another and roared.
Helen’s eyes grew huge. “It’s like a book! But it’s moving.”
“Pause,” Arland said. “Helen, I gave you access. You can tell it to pause, rewind, and fast forward.”
She looked at the pillows and then back at the screen. “I need my teddy!”
“Let’s go get him,” Maud said. “We’ll be right back.”
A couple of minutes later Helen and teddy were situated on the pillows. By the time they had come back, Arland opened the box he carried. Ribeye steak, with ribs still attached for the ease of holding. Half a dozen vampire side dishes, thinly sliced meat, roasted vegetables, little tiny pies… The smell alone made Maud’s mouth water.
Arland produced a stack of plates. Helen loaded hers up, crawled onto the pillows and started her movie.
Maud made her plate, propped a pillow against Arland’s bed, and sat on the floor. Arland sat next to her with his own dinner. Their arms almost touched.
Maud attacked the food. For the first five minutes nobody spoke. Finally, she ate enough to take the edge off hunger.
“Where were you?” she asked quietly.
“Dealing with an idiot. One of Karat’s knights challenged her in direct violation of my orders.”
So that’s why Karat wasn’t at dinner. “How did it go?”
Arland shrugged. “He’ll walk again. Some day.”
She smiled at him.
“As Marshal, I had to deal with it. And by deal, I mean I had to watch that farce of a fight and then slap him with sanctions.”
“A man who never does anything deserving repercussions will never taste victory,” she said with a straight face.
“That idiot couldn’t find his way out of a boot with flood lights and scout support. Trust me, victory is not in his future.”
On screen a massive creature charged Olasard, who heroically jumped impossibly high into the air, swinging a sword with glowing runes that was almost as big as he was. Helen clutched the teddy to her and took another bite out of her steak.
“Went a bit overboard with his sword,” Maud murmured.
“More dramatic this way,” Arland said.
She liked this, Maud realized with a shock. She liked sitting here on the floor with him, watching Helen. It felt almost like a late-night pajama party. Comfortable.
It had been so bloody long since she’d felt safe. There was the time in Dina’s inn, but Gertrude Hunt had been under assault almost the entire time.
They could’ve done this in her quarters, just her and Helen, but it wouldn’t be the same. It was him. He made her feel safe.
Alarm screeched at her senses. To let your guard down was to die. What am I doing?
“Is something the matter?” he asked quietly.
The anxiety saddled her and galloped off. This was ridiculous. The simple act of relaxing was so alien to her, that her mind went into convulsions thinking she was in danger.
Maud opened her mouth to lie.
No. She promised herself she wouldn’t.
“This is strange,” Maud said. “Being safe is strange.”
Arland reached behind him, pulled a blanket off the bed, and draped it over her. “It will pass,” he said quietly. “Eat a little more. Food will help.”
She picked up her plate. Her instinct screamed at her to get out of the room. Instead she moved closer to him. They were touching now.
He draped his big body against the bed, relaxed, calm. Maud took another bite.
“The tachi were on the verge of leaving,” she said. “You served them salad.”
“They are vegetarians.”
“They like meat. They just won’t eat it in enemy territory.”
“Are we the enemy then?” he asked, his voice calm and measured.
She took another bite and moved half an inch closer to him. “They’re trying to decide. They like patterns in their food. The more elaborate, the better. Where is your maven?”
“Dead,” he said. “She was murdered three years ago just as she prepared to be a Band Bearer for an important wedding. Her name was Olinia. She was my youngest aunt.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Her assassin is dead. The person who betrayed her is dead as well. That’s how I met Lady Dina.”
On screen Olasard loped off three heads from evil vampires in a single swing. Helen waved the bone around, imitating it.
“Can I ask you something?” Maud asked.
“Why do you have a copy of Twilight in your room?”
Arland became completely still. “Um.”
“Lord Marshal?” she prompted with a small smile.
“I wanted to know how women from Earth see vampires.”
He paused, obviously choosing his words carefully. “Your sister is a fascinating woman.”
“You don’t ever have to apologize for being attracted to my sister,” she told him. “She is amazing.”
“She is. To my shame, I must confess that it might have been more than just Lady Dina’s fine qualities. A certain rivalry may have played a role.”
“Sean Evans,” Maud guessed.
“I decided back then that I do not like werewolves,” Arland said. “I have yet to change my mind. Ghastly creatures.”
They sat together in comfortable silence, while she picked at her plate. He was right. Food helped. Of course, if she relied on food to stave off her anxiety, she would soon have to get a new set of armor.
“We do not get many outsiders here,” Arland said. “Kacey, my cousin’s wife, is the first human I had ever seen. As adolescents we were all fascinated by her. She was different. When I visited the inn, I had never before met anyone like Lady Dina. Feminine, wrapped in mystery, yet firmly in control of her domain.”
“The mystique of the innkeepers,” Maud murmured.
“Yes. Sometimes meeting someone so different obscures the real person underneath. One becomes more fascinated with what a person represents than who they are.”
“Mmmm.” Where was he going with this?
His voice was intimate and sure. “What I’m trying to say is, I see you. I would love you if you were a vampire or a human, because of who you are. You don’t need an inn or a broom to fascinate me. You only have to look my way and you’ll have all of my attention.”
Something fluttered in her chest. Something left over from before Karhari and her marriage.
Maud tilted her head and gave him a narrow smile. “What if I were a werewolf?”
He sucked in the air, pretending to think it over. “I would love you still.”
She laughed quietly and rested her head on his shoulder.