The door chimed. Arland. Finally. They had things to discuss. She planned to open with “The Lees are spying on your mother, and here is the recording of that conversation you had with her.” If her prior experiences with vampires in general and Arland in particular were anything to go by, it would take her at least twenty minutes to talk sense into him and convince him against doing something drastic like kicking Nuan Cee and his furry clan out of the castle.
Maud checked the time. After her bath, she’d tracked Helen down through her daughter’s personal unit. Helen and Ymanie charmed some dessert out of the kitchen staff and were eating it on the balcony of one of the towers. Helen begged for more time, and Maud had given her another hour. That was twenty minutes ago. Plenty of time left for a private conversation with Arland.
Maud paused before the door, trying to compose her thoughts. Things refused to line up in her head. Words like “love” and “leave” buzzed around in there, muddying things up. Get a grip. You’re not a lovesick teenager. You’re a grown adult.
The door chimed again, then again. Not Arland.
“Show the guest,” she said.
A screen opened above the door, showing Karat. The vampire knight tapped her foot on the floor, her arms crossed.
The door slid open and Karat stormed inside.
“What is it?” Maud asked.
“I have urgent news.”
“I’m beginning to wonder if you bring any other kind.”
A careful knock echoed through the chamber. It came from the side door, from the passage connecting her rooms to Arland’s. Maud crossed the chamber and opened. Arland stepped inside. He must’ve stopped by the medic as well, because the bruises on his face had faded to almost nothing.
“My Lord Marshal.”
He saw Karat. Something snapped in Arland’s eyes. Maud had a sneaking suspicion it might have been his patience.
“Why are you here?” he growled. “Why are you always here? Do you not have any other duties, cousin?”
Yes, definitely his patience.
Karat’s eyes narrowed. “I’m sorry, did I frustrate your intentions? Were you about to make an awkward love pronouncement? Perhaps follow it with a sonnet you’d composed?”
Arland’s expression turned ice cold. “The nature of my conversations with my fiancé are none of your business.”
“One would think that a man in your position would be grateful that a female relative is trying to safeguard his not-fiancé.”
“A man in my position would be grateful for a bit of privacy!”
“You can have privacy when you’re dead!”
They glared at each other.
Right. She’d been in enough sibling battles to know exactly where this would end. “My lady.”
“What?” Karat snarled.
“Urgent news?” Maud prompted.
“Go ahead,” Arland said. “The sooner we hear this, the faster you can leave.”
“I came here to tell your not-fiance,” Karat said, looking at Arland, “that the bride just invited her to the Lantern Vigil.”
Well, that was unexpected.
“When?” Maud asked.
“We leave in thirty minutes.”
Arland swore again. Clearly, this whole situation was getting to him.
“What in the icy plains do they want with her?” Arland asked.
“I don’t know,” Karat said. “You have to go, Maud. If you refuse…”
“It will be an insult. I know. I had the Lantern Vigil for my wedding.”
It was an ancient wedding ritual, born from myth and love. A thousand years ago a vampire knight had gone to war against the interstellar invaders. His fiancé, who had been crippled in battle, had to stay behind. Every week, despite her injury, she made a long journey to the sacred vala tree high on the mountain and hung a new lantern on its branches, praying that her fiancé would come home. When he returned, years later, triumphant, he saw the vala tree out of the window of his shuttle. It glowed with lanterns, a symbol of his beloved’s devotion.
Nobody remembered the couple’s names, but countless vampire brides made the journey to a vala tree carefully planted somewhere in the wilderness, preferably on a mountain trail. They were accompanied by the young women from the bridal party. The journey had to be made on foot. No armor. No weapons. No men.
“Can you get her out of it?” Arland asked.
“They specifically asked for her by name. It came directly from the bride.”
“What do they want with her?” He frowned.
“I don’t know.” Karat grimaced. “The bridal tree is five miles up the trail. The terrain is steep, and the path is narrow, bordering a cliff. We will end up walking single file half of the way. The order in which we walk is predetermined by the bride. Maud will be walking between Onda and Seveline.”
“I will be three women ahead of them. If something happens, I won’t even know.”
“You think they could push her off the path?” Arland’s eyes blazed.
“I wouldn’t put it past them.”
“To what end?”
Karat waved her arms. “To piss you off. To upset the wedding. For their amusement, because they are evil bitches.”
Maud cleared her throat. The two vampires looked at her.
“I will be fine,” she said. “I’m hard to kill. Better people tried and failed. Besides, it’s unlikely they would bump me off. I’m an honored guest. If I die, Arland would withdraw from the wedding to mourn me and they have a particular interest in him.”
“That sounds thin to me,” Karat said.
“I’m better out of armor than they are. But I’ll need a booster,” Maud said. Walking five miles to the tree and five miles back would definitely count as “strenuous activity.” Under normal circumstances, she could hike it, but considering everything her body had been through in the last few hours, she would need help.
“No problem,” Karat said.
Arland locked his teeth. The muscles on the corners of his jaw stood out. If Maud were one hundred percent honest with herself, she had to admit she liked it.
“A coin for your thoughts, Lord Marshal?”
He unhinged his jaws. “There is nothing I can do to remedy this situation,” he said, his voice so calm, it was almost eerie. “To refuse the invitation is a grave insult. The only acceptable excuse would be physical incapacitation. If we were to tell them that you were injured, there would be questions. First, how did you get injured? Why would House Krahr let a human guest come to harm? And if I were to disclose the true reason for your injuries, I would be throwing away the element of surprise, which may be the only advantage you might have should your life be in danger.”
He looked so put out, she had to needle him. “Not the only advantage,” Maud told him. “There is also my sexy human allure.”
Karat choked on a laugh.
Arland shut his eyes for a long moment and fixed her with a glacial stare. “I implore you to take this seriously.”
“Never underestimate the impact of a strategic hip roll.” Where was she even going with this? It’s like she couldn’t stop. “I’m sure some ladies within the bridal party would be intrigued if properly motivated. If I get in trouble, I’ll just bite my lip seductively and twirl my hair…”
“Maud!” he snapped.
“You know I have to go,” she told him. “They are planning something, and they think I’m both too stupid and too weak to be a threat. They count on me being a source of information.”
“I’m going to keep a shuttle on standby,” Arland said. “If something happens…”
“I will call you for assistance. Meanwhile, it would put my mind at ease if you would keep an eye on Helen.”
“I will,” he said.
“Thank you,” she told him.
“A human goes off to walk the Lantern Vigil, while my cousin the Marshal stays home to babysit,” Karat said. “I realize now why I have never fallen in love. I’m entirely too sane for this nonsense.”