The steep path climbed along the side of the mountain, barely a foot wide. Maud shifted her grip on the slender staff in her hand. The lantern hanging from the staff’s forked end swayed, the orange flames dancing behind the translucent glass. To the right of her, the mountain rose, the grey rock scarred by rain and stained by patches of green and turquoise vegetation that somehow found purchase in the near sheer cliff face. To the left, a dizzying drop to the rocks and trees far below promised a few seconds of terror before a gruesome death. Back on Earth there would have been guard rails and signs at the bottom of the path warning visitors to be careful and that they ascended at their own peril.
In front of Maud a procession of women walked, each carrying a lantern on her staff. More women followed. They stretched along the path, twenty in all, anonymous in their identical white robes, their heads hidden by wide hoods. A gentle tinkling of the bells from the bride’s staff floated on the breeze. Invisible insects buzzed in the crevices, reminding Maud of the cicadas from Dina’s garden back home, at their parents’ inn that no longer existed. The air smelled of strange flowers and potent herbs.
Maud kept walking, her body unusually light and slightly jittery, as if she had too much coffee. She had to fight the urge to skip. The booster Karat brought her had worked wonders. She would have at least four, maybe five hours of this excited state, and then she would crash. They had been walking for the better part an hour. Since the tree was about five miles up the trail, they had to be getting close. Plenty of time to finish the hike and get off the mountain.
Maud stared at Onda’s back in front of her. She had expected them to make some sort of move by now. A conversation in low voices was permitted during the Vigil, but so far, they made no move to engage her.
As if on cue, Seveline cleared her throat behind her, the words in Ancestor Vampiric soft, barely a whisper. “We could just push her off this path.”
Maud kept walking. If Seveline did push her, she didn’t have many options.
Ahead Onda sighed. “And how would we explain that?”
“Clumsy human fell.”
“I can make it look like an accident.”
“Seveline, find another way to amuse yourself. We can’t risk him withdrawing from the wedding to mourn her.”
Figured. Maud hid a smile. They needed Arland for something. The question was, what?
“How far is this damn tree?” Seveline murmured in Common Vampiric.
“Seveline,” Onda hissed. “Be respectful. Kavaline is your cousin.”
“Twice removed,” Seveline murmured.
This called for a snicker. Maud made a light coughing noise.
“Did you have a Lantern Vigil for your wedding, Lady Maud?” Seveline asked.
Dangerous territory. She didn’t just have the Lantern Vigil, she had the Flower Lament, and the Cathedral Fasting, and every other archaic ritual House Erwan could dig up. Admitting all that would make her appear less clueless, which Maud couldn’t afford.
“To be honest, I barely remember any of it,” Maud said, trying to make her voice sincere and slightly sad. “It was very different from human weddings. I lost track of it all at some point and it became a blur.”
“Sounds like a typical wedding,” Onda said.
“I’m not planning on getting married for a while,” Seveline announced.
“Who would be fool enough to marry you?” Onda muttered.
“She’s so mean to me,” Seveline whined.
Maud obliged with another snicker. They were putting on a show for her benefit. She hated to disappoint.
“Are you going to marry the Lord Marshal?” Seveline asked.
“It’s complicated,” Maud said.
“I say don’t do it,” Seveline said. “Live free.”
“She has a child to think about,” Onda said. “Has the Lord Marshal made any assurances as to the child’s future?”
They were definitely fishing, but for what? “We haven’t entered into any formalized agreement.”
Onda’s voice floated to her. “But Lord Arland knows he is the marshal and Krahr is an aggressive house. They love war. He must’ve acknowledged his life is frequently in danger.
“Onda is right,” Seveline added. “To not have a contingency plan would be irresponsible. Men often are, but not when a spouse and children are concerned.”
What were they after? “I’m aware of the dangers,” Maud said, letting just enough sadness through.
“But of course you are,” Onda said. “You’ve been widowed.”
“Husbands don’t always last,” Seveline said.
“I cannot believe that, with your history, the Marshal hasn’t made at least some arrangements to reassure you,” Onda said, slight outrage vibrating in her voice.
“He has to have done something,” Seveline added.
“Has he mentioned anyone?” Onda asked. “Someone who might take care of you and your daughter in case of an emergency? Someone who would accept that noble responsibility?”
It hit her like a lightning bolt. They were after the under-marshal. Of course.
As a marshal, Arland was in charge of the totality of Krahr’s armed forces. He commanded every fighter, every war animal, every military vehicle, no matter if it was a two-seater land runner or a space destroyer. If it could fight and belonged to Krahr, it answered to Arland. He was in possession of codes, passwords, and command sequences. If Arland was incapacitated, Krahr’s military would find itself adrift. To avoid that, every vampire house large enough to have a marshal also had an under-marshal, a secret second-in-command who possessed a duplicate of everything that gave Arland power and access. If anything happened, the under-marshal would step in, the transfer of power would be seamless, and Krahr would continue to fight until the threat passed and a new marshal could be appointed. Until then, the under-marshal would assume all of Arland’s responsibilities, including his obligation for the safety of his spouse and children.
The identity of the under-marshal was a closely guarded secret. It was never revealed to outsiders. It could be anyone, Karat, Soren, Ilemina, her consort. Had Maud been trusted with that knowledge, letting another House in on it would be treason.
They really thought she was a complete idiot.
“Lord Arland didn’t mentioned anyone,” she said. “But you’re right, this is worrying. I’ll ask him.”
“You should,” Onda said. “Just for your peace of mind.”
“She’s totally useless,” Seveline murmured in Ancestor Vampiric. “Let me trip her.”
“She would scream all the way down. It would be funny.”
“We might still get something out of her.”
The path widened and turned, following the mountain. A massive gorge opened before them, the trees at its bottom so far below, the expanse of empty air had taken on a slight blue tint. Another mountain cliff formed the other side of the gorge, a sister to the one they’d climbed. A mess of narrow stone arches and breezeways bridged the gaps between the two cliffs, as if some chaotic giant had carelessly tossed a bundle of stone sticks into the gap. The stone formations crossed over each other, some spanning the distance, some ending abruptly, crumbling into nothing, turning the gorge into a maze. They looked completely natural, as if time and weather had whittled the living rock, but their placement was too deliberate. No geological phenomenon would produce slender crisscrossing bridges like these. Someone must’ve made them, how she had no idea.
On the right, atop one narrow stone protrusion, a vala tree spread its branches. It was ancient and massive, its thick roots wrapping around the stone and burrowing deep into the mountain, as if challenging the gorge. Between the two cliffs the setting sun painted color onto the evening sky, turning it yellow, rose, lavender and finally, high above, a beautiful purple. Against this backdrop, the red leaves of the vala all but glowed.
The view took Maud’s breath away. She stopped. The other women halted, too.
“Behold,” a woman’s voice rang out from ahead. “The Mukama Roost.”
Nothing more needed to be said. Once the ancient enemy made their home here. Now the sacred vala tree ruled the cliff.
The procession resumed. Maud stared at Onda’s back. They wanted the identity of the under-marshal. That could mean only one thing. She would have to warn Arland as soon as she could.
She was painfully aware of Seveline behind her. In Seveline’s place, Maud would push herself off the cliff. There was always that chance that she would say something to Arland to alert him.
The world turned sharp. Maud moved forward on her toes, straining to catch every noise, alert for any hint of movement.
The bride was almost to the tree.
Maud hadn’t seen Seveline lunge, she couldn’t have, but she felt it. Her ears caught the faint scrape of a foot on stone, her eyes caught the glimpse of something on the very edge of her vision, and her instincts, honed by the wasteland, jerked her out of the way. She pressed her back against the cliff. Seveline stumbled past her and Maud caught the vampire woman’s arm.
Shock slapped Seveline’s face. One push, and Seveline would tumble to her death.
Maud opened her eyes as wide as she could. “My goodness! You have to be careful here, my lady. See how the edge has crumbled? That’s why I walk by the wall.”
“Seveline!” Onda hissed. “You’re embarrassing us.”
Maud released Seveline’s arm. The vampire woman frowned.
Maud resumed her walking. She might have given away too much, but there was no way around it. She was safe now. Stumbling once and knocking her off the path might be an accident. Stumbling twice would be seen as a deliberate attempt on Maud’s life. Even Seveline with her poor impulse control understood that.
Still, her best defense, at least for now, was to be seen as a non-threat.
Maud deliberately stumbled, catching herself on the cliffside, and kept walking. There. Clumsy human almost fell. No need for alarm. Everything is as it appears to be.
Ahead the bride reached the bridge of the vala tree and solemnly walked along its curved length to the enormous trunk.
The women lined up on the ledge before the bridge, where the path widened to a luxurious ten feet, and began to chant the words to an old poem in low voices. Maud knew them by heart. Her memory superimposed an image of another time and place on the present. Another vala tree, a lantern in her own hand, and her voice soft and earnest, as she recited, and back then, believed every word.
Night has fallen, sky has opened,
Ancient stars have no mercy,
In the Void and cold darkness,
Find my light and feel my hope.
You will never stand alone,
You will never be forgotten,
Time will never make me falter,
Find my light and feel my hope.
I will wait for you forever,
You won’t lose your way, beloved,
Find my light and feel my hope,
And my love will guide you home.
Sometimes even the strongest love wasn’t enough.
The bride raised her lantern and hung it on a tree branch. The lantern swayed gently. The bride stood to the side, her hand on the tree’s dark bark. One by one the women moved forward to add their own lanterns to the branches, then walked back off the bridge to the ledge.
The sound of a flyer tore through the serenity of the gorge. A slick fighter, all gleaming metal, narrow like a dagger, plummeted from the sky at a dead fall. At the last moment the pilot pulled up. The fighter shot through the gorge at a breakneck speed, threading through the maze of arches like a needle, buzzing so close by, the branches of the vala tree shivered. The bride’s robe fluttered from the wind. Maud gasped.
Kavaline shook her stick. “Tellis, you idiot!”
The fighter streaked toward the setting sun.
Seveline leaned back and laughed.
“I changed my mind!” Kavaline growled. “I’m not marrying him!”
“Was that the groom?” Maud asked.
“Yes,” Onda said, cracking a smile.
“That was beyond reckless,” Maud muttered.
“There was no danger,” Seveline waved her hand. “Tellis is an exceptional pilot.”
“He is,” Onda confirmed. “He has over three thousand hours in a small attack craft.”
Seveline chuckled. “They need to get a move on. If he comes back for a second pass, Kavaline might explode. Your turn, Lady Maud.”
Maud stepped onto the bridge and took her lantern to the tree.