Maud sat up on the bed, instantly awake, and for a confused moment, tried to open the door with her mind. Then reality sank in: she wasn’t back at Dina’s inn. She was in her quarters in House Krahr’s castle.
The door chimed again.
Last night she’d stayed in Arland’s room way too long. They’d ended up talking about the space station long after Helen had fallen asleep. She pulled on soft sweatpants.
“Time?” she asked.
Glowing red numbers ignited on the wall above the fireplace. 9:30. The planet had a thirty-hour cycle, each hour being fifty minutes, each minute fifty moments. It was early. In Earth time, around 6:30 am.
The door chimed.
The door slid aside, and Karat swept in, wearing black armor. Not her best military set, either.
“How was my cousin?”
Maud blinked at her.
“You spent most of the night in his rooms.”
“You’re spying on me.”
“Of course we’re spying on you. We know you went back to your room with Helen. We also know that the current usage in his room was elevated until well after midnight, which is atypical of him, so we deduced you used the private passageway. I trust, everything went well?”
Vampire cousins. “The armor stayed on.”
“We’re not to that stage of the relationship.”
Karat stared at her. “Have you ever?”
“That’s absurd. How do you know you’re compatible? How could he ask you to marry him without first verifying this?”
“You would have to ask him,” Maud growled.
“What were you doing all that time in his rooms?”
“Helen watched a movie. We talked. It was sweet.”
“So, you took the child with you? We thought you left her in your rooms… Wait.” Karat paused. “Did you just say my cousin was sweet? Arland Krahr? The Bloodmace? The Crusher? The Ravager of Nexus? That Arland?”
“Yes. He was sweet and there was no ravaging.” The way he looked at her last night gave her no doubt he wanted to. She wanted to as well, but something held her back. She was like a bridled horse. Every time she thought about it, something tugged on the reins and made her stop.
Karat leaned back and laughed. “That is so not like him. Poor, poor Arland. So far gone.”
Maud sighed. “The problem isn’t your cousin. The problem is me. He’s giving me time.”
Karat sobered up. “Yes, of course.”
“Is there a point in you coming here and waking me up?”
“Yes.” All mirth drained from Karat’s face. “Lady Ilemina requests your presence at the Ladies Communal this morning.”
Figured. Maud squared her shoulders. She knew it was coming and here it was. There was no escape.
“Do you have practice armor?” Karat asked.
“I’ll wear my usual set.”
“Probably for the best. You’ll need it. You have about twenty minutes to get ready. We’ll need to collect Helen as well. She’ll have the labor duty, because of the fight in the same area.”
“We’ll get dressed,” Maud said.
“Here we go.” Karat stopped by the doorway to a large chamber. The older sentinel who’d brought Helen to the feast hall waited in the doorway. Beyond the doorway children played on floor.
The sentinel’s blue eyes sparkled slightly with hidden humor. “Lady Helen.”
Lady Helen squared her tiny shoulders. “I’m here for repercussions.”
“Indeed.” The older vampire produced a small brush and a tube filled with blue gel. “You will squeeze some gel on the floor and scrub it with your brush until all the dirt is removed. You will clean ten stone squares of the floor. You will remain here until your task is complete.”
Helen took the little brush and the tube, held her head high, and went inside.
Behind her Maud saw another figure on the floor with an identical brush, his left arm in a plasticast. Vampire justice knew no mercy.
“She will be fine,” Karat told her. “Come.”
They strode ten yards down the hallway to the large wide-open doors. Beyond the doors lay a lawn of turquoise grass, flooded with golden sunshine and bordered by ornamental trees. A three-foot stone wall encircled the lawn, clearly part of a parapet. Beyond the wall, across the stretch of empty air, towers and castle walls rose. They were on top of a mid-level tower.
Vampire women sparred on the grass with practice weapons. Several watched the sparring. To the side a table stood with refreshments. A typical Ladies Communal. They would beat up on each other for an hour or so, then drink and gossip. She quite enjoyed Communals before she became a pariah. Once she had proved herself, they were a nice way to catch up with everyone. Today wouldn’t be pleasant. Today they would throw her to the dogs, expecting her to cringe and submit. It was a test, one she had to pass.
Traditions dictated that both genders stayed away from each other’s Communials. She was on her own.
Karat stopped by the rack of practice weapons.
“We’re going to do this nice and easy,” she said under her breath. “You and I will spar, then we will drink some fruity drinks, and go back. Don’t worry.”
They really didn’t think much of her.
Maud tried the first sword. Too heavy. Too long. Too short. Weighted wrong. The polymer weapons resembled their counterparts down to every minute detail. Their edges weren’t exactly sharp, but you could draw blood with one. She’d done it before. The blade left a red mark on the armor. It would fade with time, but it was an easy way to keep score and many Communals resulted in a long examination of red marks and whether or not the wound would be fatal if a live weapon had been used. The main danger lay in being bashed with one. A skilled thrust could also cause internal injury despite the armor.
There. She found a blade similar to her own. Karat selected a longer, heavier sword, then eyed her choice and went for the shorter blade. Really, now.
Karat strolled to a spot in the grass and hefted her blade.
Maud positioned herself. “I don’t see any vampires from the other Houses here.”
“This is a Krahr affair.”
“I feel so flattered to be invited.”
Karat swung her blade and took a deliberately slow lunge.
Maud looked at her. “I’m not going to dignify this with a parry.”
Karat straightened and hissed. “I’m trying to help you.”
A red-haired vampire marched toward them, green eyes blazing.
“There is a vampire walking toward us and she looks like she’s about to run us over.”
Karat glanced over her shoulder. “Faron’s piss.”
“Is she here for you or me?”
“You.” Karat stepped into the vampire’s path. “Lady Konstana. You’re interrupting.”
“Lady Maud!” Konstana pointed her sword at Maud. “Your mongrel child broke my son’s arm.”
“I wonder if you would be so kind to demonstrate to me how she has done it.” Konstana bared her fangs.
Around them other people stopped sparring and moved aside, clearing the space. They had an audience now.
“Konstana,” Karat growled under her breath. “She’s a human and a guest.”
“As you wish.” Maud said.
“Step aside, Karat,” Konstana ground out.
A muscle jerked in Karat’s face. “Do not presume to order me.”
“Alvina,” a female voice said.
To the right of them, behind Karat, under a copse of trees four older vampire women stood. The one who spoke was tall, with broad shoulders, and a mane of blonde hair cascading all the way past her waist. Her plain practice armor hugged her figure. Her grey eyes were cold. Maud looked into them and saw ice.
“Let our guest partake of the Communal,” Lady Ilemina said.
Karat moved out of the way.
Maud walked a few steps farther to right, giving herself room.
“After I break your arms, you will apologize to me,” Konstana said. “For taking up my valuable time.”
She was about two inches taller, probably thirty-five pounds or so heavier than Maud, and the way she held her sword indicated the South technique, which meant she would favor slash attacks. Right or left, that was the question. Strike from the left would be better. It was a more powerful attack.
Maud tipped her sword up and checked the point. “Is it a habit of House Krahr to waste time with empty threats?”
Konstana charged, slashing from left to right, aiming for a cut across the chest. It was a good slash, fast and deadly. Maud parried, letting the force of the attack slide off her blade, caught the woman’s wrist for a second, yanking the arm into the perfect position, let go, and thrust her own sword under Konstana’s forearm. Maud rolled her sword arm up and over Konstana’s, trapping the vampire’s sword in her armpit. It happened so fast, Konstana had no chance to react. The redirected momentum of her own strike twisted her, and she went down to one knee, Maud’s right hand on Konstana’s wrist, her left flat against the elbow, locking it.
“You asked me how my daughter did it,” Maud said. “She did it just like this.”
She hit the elbow. The elbow capsule popped with a loud crack as the sheath around the joint tore. Konstana cried out. The women around them winced and made sucking noises.
“Just like I taught her.” Maud let go and stepped away.
The vampire woman struggled to her feet, her arm hanging useless, and swiped the sword from the ground with her left hand.
“Well fought, Lady Konstana,” Maud said.
The vampire woman unhinged her jaws. “Well fought, Lady Maud.”
“Well,” Lady Ilemina said. “That was quite stirring. I feel myself in need of some exercise. Lady Maud, perhaps you would indulge me?”
Crap, crap, crap. Maud bowed. “I’m deeply honored.”
“Of course you are.” Lady Ilemina walked forward.
Six feet six at least. Close to two hundred pounds. Like watching a tank approach.
Thought skittered through Maud, running too fast. There was no way to back down from the fight. Throwing the fight wasn’t an option either. They had too many eyes on them, and Ilemina would definitely view it as an insult. Winning the fight wasn’t an option, even if it was possible, which it wasn’t. She couldn’t humiliate Arland’s mother. She couldn’t let herself be humiliated. It would kill any chances she had for being accepted, and after last night she wanted Arland more than ever.
What to do? How do I handle it?
Arland’s mother was the Preceptor of House Krahr and she got there because she was the best leader. Vampires led from the front. That and the two-page list of titles behind her name meant she would be a superior fighter. Her strength would be overwhelming.
Maud tested the sword one more time, warming up. She was well trained, but in a contest of pure strength, especially against a vampire knight with decades of experience, she would lose. She relied on surprise and dirty tactics, but thanks to Konstana, the cat was out of the bag and the open grassy lawn presented no opportunity for ambush, which meant she had only two things left in her corner: speed and endurance.
I have to outlast her. That’s my only chance. Outlast her and exit the fight with some grace.
Ilemina turned sideways, the blade of her sword held parallel to the grass, raised her hand, and motioned with her fingers.
Maud thrust, light on her feet. Ilemina parried and struck from above. Maud spun around, avoiding the blade by a hair, and slashed at Ilemina’s chest. The point of her blade grazed the armor, drawing a bright red line for everyone to see.
“First blood!” Karat announced.
Lady Ilemina laughed. It was the sound of pure menace.
Maud went cold.
You’ve got this. You can do this. Arland’s been the warlord for the last six years, with Nexus being his first major command, which means it’s been six years since Ilemina really had to get her sword dirty.
Arland’s mother charged. Her blade came crashing down, impossibly fast. Maud dodged. Before she had a chance to counter, Ilemina reversed. It was a beautiful move, but Maud had no time to admire it. She dodged again, dancing around Ilemina.
Strike, dodge, strike, dodge.
Thrust. Maud parried, angling her blade, directing most of the force downward. The kinetic punch reverberated through her arm all the way into her shoulder. Ow.
A direct hit would break her bones. Maud was sure of it.
Ilemina thrust again and smashed her shoulder into Maud’s.
There was no place to go. Maud barely had time to brace. The impact took her off her feet. She flew, spun her legs, and rolled to her feet in time to jump away from Ilemina’s sword.
Arland’s mother chased her.
Dodge, dodge, dodge.
Maud slid between the blows and sliced a diagonal gash across Ilemina’s chest. The tip of the sword caught Arland’s mother’s neck. A drop of blood swelled.
The flurry of blows came too fast to dodge. The blade connected with Maud’s ribs. Pain cracked in her side, dull not sharp – the armor held. Ilemina struck again and again. All semblance of restraint was gone from her face. She tore at Maud with single-minded intensity.
Ilemina’s blade came in a wide horizontal arc. Maud leaned backward, so far, she almost toppled to the ground. All of the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. If that sword hit her unprotected skull, she would be dead.
This is no longer a practice fight.
Ilemina’s slash caught her left arm. Pain hammered into Maud.
She had to survive. She couldn’t abandon Helen.
Hold on, baby. Mommy won’t die.
The same sharp heat that always drowned her when their lives were in danger swallowed Maud. She lunged forward. Ilemina’s sword whistled past her. Maud reversed her grip and thrust the heavy pommel into Ilemina’s throat.
Arland’s mother made a gargling noise and back handed her. The punch spun Maud around. The sharp tang of her own blood wet Maud’s tongue. She whirled and sliced at Ilemina.
They clashed across the field, cutting, striking, snarling, turning into a whirlwind of blades. People scrambled out of their path. One of the refreshment tables loomed at Maud’s back. She jumped onto it and kicked a glass pitcher at Arland’s mother. It took Ilemina a second to bat it away with her sword. Maud used it to jump aside and dash, opening the distance.
Arland’s mother bore down on her, attacking, tireless, like a machine. Another hit. Another.
The world went slightly fuzzy. Maud shook it off and cut another red useless wound across Ilemina’s side. Ilemina shoved her back. Maud stumbled, dodging a thrust with nothing to spare.
I can’t take much more. I have to end it or she’ll end me.
Ilemina delivered a vertical cut, followed it with another. In a split second, Maud recognized the pattern. Arland’s mother reversed her blade again. Instead of dancing away, Maud dropped to the ground, planted her hands, and kicked at Ilemina’s left knee. The knee cap cracked.
Ilemina snarled and kicked at her with her injured leg. Sweet Universe, did she even feel pain? Maud saw the boot coming, curled up, took it, and wrapped her legs around Ilemina, trying to take her to the ground.
Arland’s mother roared, bent down, and grabbed Maud’s arm, dragging her up. It was like being lifted by a bobcat. Maud dropped her sword.
Ilemina jerked her up and Maud smashed both hands against Ilemina’s ears. Ilemina screamed and flung her away, like she were a feral cat. Maud sprinted to the practice rack and grabbed a sword. It was too heavy, but there wasn’t time to be picky.
Arland’s mother stomped across the field, unstoppable, her eyes fixed on Maud. Maud bared her teeth.
Helen dashed between them, her back to Maud, holding her daggers, and snarled, right into Ilemina’s path.
“No!” Maud screamed.
Lady Ilemina stopped.
Maud almost collapsed with relief.
Rational thought returned to Ilemina’s eyes. “Oh my,” she said.
Helen raised her daggers. “Don’t hurt my mommy or I’ll kill you.”
“It’s okay, my flower,” Maud managed. “We were just practicing.”
Ilemina laughed. “That is beyond adorable. No need, little one. I surrender. Your mother and I are quite finished, and you’re very frightening.”
She glanced up and Maud read her eyes. Ilemina knew they had gone too far. The fight was over.
“This is Lady Ilemina,” Maud said. “Arland’s mother. We must give her every courtesy.”
Helen lowered her daggers, put her legs together, and bent her knees in an ancient vampire bow.
Ilemina laughed. “My goodness.”
“Are those your daggers?” Ilemina asked.
“Are they sharp?”
“Do you think they are sharp enough to cut a cookie in a half?”
Helen paused. “Yes.”
“Come show it to me.”
Helen turned to Maud.
“Yes,” Maud said. “Be polite.”
Ilemina offered Helen her hand. Helen put her daggers away, took Arland’s mother’s hand, and walked away with her. “What kind of cookies…”
Maud slumped over. Suddenly Karat was there, holding her up. Maud retched, spat out blood, and wiped her lips with the back of her hand.
People came over. Someone wiped her face with a wet napkin. Someone else grabbed her other arm.
“Everything hurts,” she murmured.
“No shit,” Karat said. “Look at yourself.”
Maud glanced down. Cuts and slashes crisscrossed her armor, so many of them, it was no longer black. It was blood red. Across the field, Ilemina’s handed Helen a cookie. Her armor was crimson as well.
Karat gently lowered Maud to the grass. “The medic is coming. Just sit here and rest a bit.”
Konstana thrust into her view with field med unit. “Here.”
“Are you going to poison me?”
“Shut up and take the pain killer.” Konstana held the unit up. Maud pressed it against her neck. A stab and then a cool rush flooded her body, lifting the pain.
“Drink this.” Karat stuck a glass pitcher under her nose. Mint cordial. Of course. Maud gulped.
“Where the hell did you learn to fight?” Konstana asked.
“At my parents’ inn.”
“Humans don’t fight like that.”
“I couldn’t let her kill me,” Maud said. “I couldn’t leave Helen.”
Karat stared at her.
“You’ll get it when you have your own,” Konstana said.
Maud leaned back against the stone. She didn’t win. But she didn’t lose either. The day was looking up.