Every step hurt. Maud walked down the hallway, trying not to wince, aware of Karat hovering by her side.
The medic had arrived and quickly confirmed three cracked ribs. He offered a stretcher. Getting onto that stretcher and being carted off would undo everything she’d just fought for. She had sparred with Ilemina. She didn’t lose. She had to be seen walking away from the fight without any help.
It took another agonizing quarter of an hour before Lady Ilemina retired, and the older sentinel had come to collect Helen, who still had some scrubbing to do. Maud made it through by sheer will, but walking hurt like hell, and her will was quickly growing thin.
Two middle-aged women strode past them, eyeing her red armor. An awful a lot of people had found an excuse to either cross or walk through the hallway. Word of her match with Ilemina had gotten around. They probably filmed it, Maud reflected. When it came to violence, they filmed everything.
The personal unit on her wrist chimed. She glanced at it. The personal unit reacted, projecting a holoscreen over her wrist. It flashed and focused into Arland’s face. A beginning of a spectacular shiner swelled around his left eye. A long, ragged cut crossed his right cheek. His eyes blazed. He bared his teeth. She’d seen that look before on his face and recognized it instantly. Battle rage.
“Are you alright?” he growled.
“Are you?” she asked.
Karat grabbed her wrist and raised Maud’s arm, so she could look at the screen.
“Don’t you dare show up here,” she hissed. “She’s walking on her own power and we have an audience. What the hell happened to you?”
“Otubar,” Arland snarled.
Maud took her arm back. “You had a fight with your mother’s consort?”
“We had a spirited practice,” Arland said. “I’ll find you as soon as I’m done speaking with my mother.”
“Don’t say anything stupid,” Karat barked, but the screen went dark. Karat rolled her eyes. “What is happening in our House?”
They made another turn and walked into a room filled with medical equipment and curved cots, surrounded by metal and plastic arms bearing an array of lasers, needles, and what surely had to be tools of torture. The door blissfully hissed shut behind them. The room tried to crawl sideways. Karat grabbed her arm and steadied her.
The medic, a lean male vampire with dark grey skin and long mane of dark hair pulled back from his face, pointed at her. “Out of the armor.”
Maud hesitated. The armor was protection. In enemy territory, it determined life and death. Taking it off would make her vulnerable and she was feeling vulnerable enough already.
“Do you want to walk out of here in two hours or do you want to be carried out?” the medic asked.
She couldn’t afford to be carried out.
Maud hit her crest. The armor split along the seams and peeled off from her, leaving her in the under-armor jump suit. The sudden absence of the reinforced outer shell took her by surprise. The floor rushed at her, yawning, dangerously close. Strong hands caught her, and the medic carried her to the cot. A scalpel flashed and then her jump suit came apart on the right side. The cot’s arms buzzed and hovered over her, as if the bed was a high-tech spider suddenly came to life. The cushion supporting her rose, curving, sliding her into a half-seated position. A green light stabbed from one of the arms, dancing across her bruised ribs in a hot rush.
“How bad is it?” Karat asked.
The medic met Maud’s eyes. “You will be fine. If you get to me in time, I can heal almost everything, except stupid. You’re on your own with that one.”
“What are you implying?” Karat demanded.
“Going toe to toe with Ilemina was stupid,” the medic said.
Karat fixed him with her stare. The medic touched the unit on his wrist. A huge holographic screen flared in front of them. On it, Ilemina kicked Maud across the lawn. The memory of the foot connecting to her ribs cracked through Maud. She winced.
“Stupid,” the medic said.
Maud sagged against the bed. The cushion cradled her, holding her battered body gently. The upper left arm pricked her forearm with a small needle. A soothing coolness flooded her.
The door chimed.
The medic glanced at the screen to his left. “The Scribe is outside the door,” the medic said. “Do you want to receive him?”
Scribes kept vampire histories. Every genealogical quirk, every victory and defeat, every scheme gone wrong or right, they recorded it all. But she wasn’t a part of House Krahr. There was no reason why he would want to see her.
Delaying wouldn’t accomplish anything and refusing the meeting would be unwise. The Scribe held enough power to force a meeting if he wanted and she had precious few allies as it was. No reason to alienate him.
“Yes,” Maud said.
The door hissed open, and the Scribe walked in. Tall, broad-shouldered, with a mane of chestnut brown hair, he was older than Arland, but not by much. He had a long intelligent face and his eyes, pale green under the sweep of thick eyebrows, were sharp.
“Lady Maud,” he said. “My name is Lord Erast.”
“To what do we owe the honor?” Karat asked.
“It seems Lady Maud and I have gotten off on the wrong foot,” The Scribe said.
“That’s impossible, my lord,” Maud said. “We haven’t met.”
“Precisely. I labored under the assumption that as a human, you would be exempt from our traditions.” Erast nodded at the recording playing on the screen. “I was in error. We know exactly nothing about you, which makes it awkward at formal functions.”
He flicked his fingers at his crest. “This session is now being recorded. What is your lifetime kill count?”
“I don’t know.”
Erast’s eyes bulged. “What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“I haven’t kept track.”
“You were the wife of a marshal’s son. Was the importance of keeping a personal record not impressed upon you?”
Maud sighed. “In the three years I was with House Ervan, they had no major conflicts. I had several personal bouts, but none of them were to the death. Afterward, on Karhari, it didn’t seem important.”
“Did you have any titles?” Karat asked.
“Maud the Eloquent.”
Karat and Erast looked at each other.
“House Ervan put great emphasis on the knowledge of ancient sagas,” Maud explained.
“Can she use that?” Karat asked.
Erast pinched the bridge of his nose. “Technically, no. They struck her from their records, so any titles or honors earned while with House Ervan are forfeit. They are subjective, as in bestowed upon an individual by others to highlight certain deeds. The kill count is different because taking a life is an irrefutable fact.”
“What about Maud the Exile?” Karat asked. “Could we do something with that?”
Erast frowned. “My lady, answer honestly. What was the most important duty in your life before your exile?”
“Taking care of Helen.”
“What about on Karhari?”
“Taking care of Helen.”
“Do you desire revenge on House Ervan?”
“I wouldn’t mind punching a couple of them, but no. I was mad at my husband, and I buried him long ago.”
Erast sighed. “The Exile won’t work. A title like that implies an element of rebirth. Lady Maud hasn’t permitted the act of being exiled to affect her worldview. There was no seismic shift in her personality as the result of being sent to Karhari.”
The two vampires stared at her. The frustration on Ervas’ face was almost comical.
“They did call me something on Karhari.”
“What was it?”
“Maud the Sariv.”
“What does that mean?” Karat asked.
“On Karhari there is a summer wind that comes from the wastes. Nobody knows how it forms, but it comes out of nowhere and it picks up thorny spores from local weeds. When you inhale sariv’s breath, the spores enter your lungs and cut you from inside. There is no escape from sariv. If you are caught in it without protective gear, it will kill you. They called me that because I paid the blood debt I owed to my husband’s killers.”
Erast perked up. “Do you have any proof of that, my lady?”
“Would you hand me my crest?”
Erast picked up her breastplate. His eyes widened at the mess of red. He offered it to her, and she pulled the crest off. She’d transferred all of her recordings to it as soon as Arland gave it to her.
“Play all files tagged Melizard’s death in chronological order,” she said.
The crest lit with red, projecting onto a wall. She knew every frame of the recording by heart. It played in her head for eighteen months. The view of a fortified town from a dusty hilltop. A crowd dragging Melizard through the street, faces contorted with fury and glee, rabid. Melizard’s bloody face as they took turns punching him, while he stumbled, caught in the ring of striking arms and legs. Him crawling on the ground while they kicked him. The stone bench they dragged out of the nearest house. The flash of a rising axe. Melizard’s head rolling. Melizard’s head on a pike rising above the gates, his empty dead eyes staring into the distance.
Silence claimed the room.
A light ring singled out a face in the crow and zoomed in. A huge dark-haired male vampire with a scar across his face. A caption appeared. Rumbolt of House Gyr. The recording zoomed in on the face, turning dark, then blossoming into bright daylight, filmed by a camera attached to her shoulder. Rumbolt’s face, skewed by rage, as he swung a blood mace at her. One, two, three blows, all whistling past her. Her own stab, fast and precise as it slid into his throat and opened a second bloody mouth across his neck. Rumbolt collapsing on his knees, then face down into the dirt, his blood spilling into the dust. Her blade again as she sliced across his neck and kicked his head across the dusty street, rolling and bouncing.
The recording blinked and a woman resembling Rumbolt stared up at her as Maud smashed her face with a rock. A caption popped up. Erline of House Gyr.
“His sister,” she explained. “The relatives came after me after me at first, but they stopped after the first few kills.”
The freeze frame of the crowd gripping Melizard flashed again. The light circle picked out a new face, a woman with grey hair, screeching, her fangs bared. The caption read Kirlin the Grey. The recording zoomed in. A vampire in heavy scarred armor was coming at her, her neck and face hidden by a full helmet.
“Is that an antique space-rated unit?” Karat asked.
“Yes. She preferred to fight in it. It made her slow, but the armor is so thick, the blood weapons can’t penetrate.”
On the recording Maud dodged the swings of Kirlin’s blade and thrust herself against the woman. Kirlin’s arm came up, then the recording reeled and rocked as Maud reeled away after taking the blow. Kirlin raised her sword, about to charge. A small dot of crimson flared on her neck. It blinked and Kirlin’s throat exploded in a gush of gore, taking the head with it.
“Mining charge.” Maud smiled.
The image of the crowd appeared again, singling out the new target. A lean vampire was backing away up the hill from the wild swings of Maud’s mace, moving closer and closer to the drop. She kept hammering at him, her voice a guttural snarl echoing every blow. He planted himself, aware he was almost out of ground and slashed at her with his sword. She dropped her mace, spun out of the way of his blade, and kicked him. It was a front kick, driven not up, but down, almost a stomp. She’d sank all of the power of her body into it. It landed on the vampire’s leading knee. His leg gave out and he dropped down to compensate. She punched him in the face and rammed her shoulder into his chest. He sailed off the cliff. She bent down, and the camera caught his body impaled on the spikes below. The recording blinked, and the second body joined the first. Then the third. And the fourth.
“He had three brothers,” she explained. “They kept coming after me, so I would tell them that if they tried to fight me, they wide die in the same spot their brother did, and they followed me to the cliff. Worked every time. I already had the spikes set up. It seemed a shame to waste them.”
Erast, Karat, and the medic were looking at her like she had sprouted a second head.
The next target loomed on the screen, an older vampire, his hair shot through with grey.
“This one isn’t mine,” she grimaced. “This is my worst failure.”
The recording zoomed in. She was on the ground, her breath coming out in sharp pained gasps. The camera was splattered with blood. The vampire stood several feet away, his armor a mess of cuts. He gripped Helen by her hair. She dangled from his hand, screaming, his high-pitched shriek so sharp. Every time Maud heard it, it fell like her heart was breaking.
“I’ve got your welp, bitch! I’ll slit her throat, so you can watch,” the vampire roared.
He jerked Helen up. She spun in his grip, pulling her two daggers out, and drove them into the vampire’s face.
He dropped her. Maud surged off the ground, drove her sword into the cut in his breastplate, and twisted. The armor cracked, contracting, and locked on the vampire, paralyzing him. The vampire collapsed, and Helen stabbed his exposed neck again and again, screaming.
“This one is hers,” Maud said.
It was so quiet, she could hear herself breathing.
“How many are there?” Erast asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I never counted.”
“Then perhaps we should do so,” he said.