Maud opened her eyes. Two pairs of eyes stared at her, one Helen’s green the other golden brown.
She must’ve fallen asleep. In enemy territory. Alarm shot through her in a chemical jolt. Instantly she was awake.
The pale walls rushed at her, the only room she’d seen in the castle so far that was made with a sterile polymer instead of ancient stone. She was still in the med ward. The medic must’ve added a mild sedative to her medications. Combined with the additional strain of her body, exhausted from the fight and healing at an accelerated rate, the medication had put her under. She wasn’t sure how long she slept, but the sharp pain in her ribs was gone. Fatigue wrapped around her like a soft straitjacket. Her head was fuzzy.
“Yes, my flower.”
“This is Ymanie.”
Ymanie blinked her big round eyes and gave a little wave. She was about Helen’s age, although a little taller and more solid, with dark brown hair and dark-grey skin.
Maud’s mouth was dry, but she made it move. “Good to meet you, Lady Ymanie.”
“She also had repercussions,” Helen said.
“I did,” Lady Ymanie confirmed.
“They have a place,” Helen said. “There’s a big tree and it’s on a tower and you have to climb to get to the top and then there is a thing and you grab the handle and go woosh.”
“You go woosh,” Helen repeated. “Down the rope.”
“Are you talking about a zipline?”
“Yes!” Ymanie and Helen said at the same time.
“They won’t let me go unless I have permission,” Helen added. “Can I please go?”
“Is lady Ymanie going too?”
Both girls nodded.
Helen had made a friend and wanted to go play. “Um… sure. You have permission.”
The two girls scurried away.
Maud pushed from the cushion and sat up slowly. The medic looked up from his post near the console.
“How do you feel?”
“Tired, but the ribs stopped hurting.”
“Good. The ribs should be completely healed by tomorrow morning. The damage to your internal organs was slight, but it required some repair as well, so treat yourself well for the next twelve hours. No strenuous activity today. No fighting, no training, no sex. A nice satisfying meal, early to bed, and a full night’s sleep. You may soak to lessen the body aches, but do not take any stimulants, medications, or supplements. If you do something stupid, and come back to me again before tomorrow, I won’t be as kind. Do we understand each other?”
“Good. I’ll help you with your armor.”
Five minutes later Maud walked down the breezeway back to the tower. The transparent shield was down. Sunshine flooded down from the sky. It was late afternoon. She’d slept most of the day. Who knew what happened in the last few hours? Logic said she should be worried about it and taking some steps to find out, but she felt too groggy.
A piercing squeal whipped her around. Hundreds of feet above, a tiny body shot down a nearly invisible rope across the open gap between two towers at a breakneck speed. Maud’s heart tried to jump out of her chest. She clamped her chest and sagged against the parapet.
The child disappeared from view behind a forest of towers.
It was too late to do anything about it. She would just have to hope Helen survived.
It took her a full thirty seconds to haul herself off the stone wall and start walking. If they were in the inn, she would’ve sworn her sister stretched the distance between Maud and her quarters, artificially elongating it into a never-ending trek. But they were in House Krahr, so she just had to keep moving. She would get there eventually.
Finally, the door of her quarters loomed before Maud. She waved at it and it slid open. She went straight into the bathroom. A square tub big enough to comfortably soak six vampires sat in the middle of the room, a dozen different bottles and canisters waiting on the shelf for her selection.
“Water at 105 degrees Fahrenheit, fill to six inches from the rim”
Jets opened along the tub’s rim, gushing water. She sorted through the bottles. Mint, mint, more mint. There. Soothing blend. The scent reminded her of lavender.
She tossed a couple handfuls of the powder and dried herbs into the tub, stripped off her armor, bodysuit, and underwear, and slid into the water, positioning herself on a shelf, submerged all the way up to her neck. The hot water swirled around her.
Water. Wonderful hot water. All the water she ever wanted.
She could grow her hair out again. A small sound escaped her mouth, before she could catch it, and she wasn’t sure if it was a giggle or a sob.
She was about to close her eyes, when she saw it, a small transparent sphere sitting on the edge of the sink. It wasn’t there when she and Helen left bathroom this morning.
Maud slipped out of the tub and padded to the sink. The little transparent sphere was barely a quarter of an inch across. On Earth it would’ve passed for a tiny glass marble or a stray bead.
A high-storage datacore, likely encrypted to her. Someone left her a present.
She picked it up, leaned forward, and blew on the mirror. Faint words appeared, written in glyphs of the Merchant Clans.
With compliments from the Great Nuan Cee.
The lees. Of course. And so sleek too. A little message to her – we can slip into your quarters any time we want.
Father always said dealing with lees was like juggling fire. You never knew when you would get burned.
Maud returned to the tub and sat back on the shelf, rolling the datacore between her fingers. To look or not to look? She wasn’t sure she could take bad news right this second. But then if it was bad news, the sooner she found out, the better. Maud set the bead on the tub’s rim.
“Access,” she whispered.
A light flared within the bead, the silver glow sweeping her. The light shot out in a new direction. An open window, framed by long gauzy curtains. Whoever was filming this had to be hanging just outside of it. Knowing lees, they were probably upside down.
The recording zoomed in through the window. Lady Ilemina reclined on a sofa.
Arland’s mother was out of her armor and wearing a long blue tunic. Her arms were bare and covered with swollen patches of red. Maud smiled. She had worked Ilemina over more than she realized. A portable med unit that looked like some nightmarish robotic spider shone green light at the largest bruise. Ilemina grimaced.
Her quarters were beautiful. The furniture was soft, carved from some cream-colored wood, and upholstered in deep blue that verged on turquoise. Two crystal vases dripped flowers. It was an elegant, uncluttered space, simple, peaceful, and surprisingly feminine.
The door in the far wall slid open and Arland marched through, his face battered, his eyes blazing, looking like he couldn’t wait to rip something with his bare hands.
“Hello, Mother,” he growled.
Ilemina sighed. “Took you long enough.”