Unproofed today. For reasons.
When the procession descended the trail, Maud saw two figures waiting for her on the edge of the bridge leading to upper levels of a castle. Both were blonde. The first, huge and made even larger by his armor, leaned against the stone rail that shielded the patio from the drop below. The second, tiny, sat on the said stone rail with her legs crossed.
Maud fought the urge to speed up. Like it or not, she wasn’t going anywhere until the women in front of her exited the trail.
“How adorable,” Seveline murmured behind her, her voice sickeningly saccharine.
It took all of Maud’s control to not spin around and punch the other woman in the mouth. Seveline was a threat and the wasteland taught her to eliminate threats before they had a chance to blossom into full blown danger. Spin around, kick Seveline off the trail, spin back, lock the arm around Onda’s throat, and choke her until she passed out and she could crush her windpipe… Maud shook herself. She had bigger fish to fry.
The women in front of her veered left, toward the bridge, while Maud turned right and headed for the two people waiting for her.
A long brown smudge crossed Helen’s face. On closer examination, the smudge appeared to be sticky, decorated with tiny bits of bark, and smelled faintly of pine resin. Maud slowly shifted her gaze to Arland. A series of similar smudges stained his armor.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?”
“No,” Arland and Helen said in the same voice. Maud compared the expression on their faces. Identical. Dear Universe, she could almost be his child.
Something green peaked from between the strands of Arland’s blond mane. Maud reached over, plucked it with her fingers, and pulled out a twig with three leaves still attached. She held the twig between them. Arland stoically refused to notice it.
Right. She let the small branch fall. “Are they others watching us?”
“Mhm.” Arland’s face remained relaxed.
“I need some information,” she murmured. “About the Kozor and Serak.”
“What sort of information?” Arland asked, keeping his voice low.
“Rank and power structure.”
“Is it urgent?”
“It might be.”
Arland offered her his arm. She rested her fingers on his elbow and together they strolled to the bridge, letting the last of the bridal party go before them.
They crossed the bridge leisurely, Helen walking in front of them.
“Where are we going?” Maud asked.
“To see my dear uncle. I so miss him.”
Maud hid a smile.
The last robed woman disappeared into the nearest tower. They followed, but where the women went left, they went right. As soon as bend of the hallway hid them from view of the departing bridal party, both she and Arland sped up as if they had planned it. Helen ran to catch up. Arland bent down, picked Helen up, and carried her, and Helen let him, as if it was a thing he did every day.
They took a lift up three floors, crossed another breezeway, then another, until they came to a solid, almost square tower secured with a blast door, solid enough to take a hit from an aerial missile. The door slid open at Arland’s approach, and Maud followed him inside, through yet another, blissfully short, hallway to a large room.
If they had show her twenty different rooms and asked her which was Soren’s, she would immediately pick this one. A thick rug, looking as old as the castle, cushioned the floor. Skulls of strange beasts and arcane weapons decorated the grey stone walls between the banners of House Krahr and antique bookcases. The bookcases were made with real wood and filled with an assortment of objects and trophies, chronicling decades of war and dangerous pursuits: odd weapons, maps, rocks, data cores of every shape and size, uncut gems, an Otrokar charm belt – Soren either made friends with an Otrokat shaman or killed one, and knowing the history of the Holy Anocracy and The Hope-Crushing Horde, the later was far more likely. Money from a dozen galactic nations, daggers, dried plants, shackles, several Earth books, one of the them probably Sun Tzu’s Art of War, unless she read the golden Hanzi logograms incorrectly, and a Christmas ornament in a shape of a big blue ball with a sparkling snowflake inside rounded up the bizarre collection. Here and there padded chairs and a couple of sofas offered seating. In the middle of the room a large desk held court, so massive and heavy, Maud doubted Arland could lift it alone. Behind the desk, in an equally solid chair, sat Lord Soren, carefully studying some document on his reader.
The room screamed Veteran Vampire Knight. It was so classic, it hurt.
The door slid shut. Lord Soren raised his head and regarded the three of them with his dark eyes. He scowled at Arland, nodded to Maud, smiled at Helen, and resumed scowling at his nephew.
“What?” Arland asked.
“Did you have to break his arm?”
Arland made a noise deep in his throat that sounded suspiciously like a growl.
Lord Soren sighed. “To what do I owe the pleasure of the visit?”
“I need to understand the structure of House Serak,” Maud said.
Lord Soren nodded and flicked his fingers across his desk. A giant screen slid out of the ceiling on Maud’s right and presented two pyramids of names connected by lines. The one on the left read Serak, the other Kozor.
“Who are you interested in?” Lord Soren asked.
“Tellis Serak,” she said.
Helen crawled onto one of the sofas, curled up on the big blue pillow, and yawned.
“Ah. The dashing groom.” Soren grimaced, flicked his fingers, and Tellis’ name near the top of the pyramid ignited with silver. “His father is the Preceptor, his mother is the Strateg.”
“Who is the marshal?” she asked.
Another name ignited in the column to the left. “Hudra of Serak. She is the Marshal in the name only.”
“Why?” Arland asked.
“She has five decades on me,” Soren said. “She was fierce in her day, but time is a bitter enemy, and it always wins.”
Interesting. “Are they are grooming Tellis to become the marshal?” Maud asked.
“He is the most obvious choice,” Soren said. “His ascension to marshal would cement the family’s hold on the House. They had been preparing him since childhood. Not that he is ready, by any means. Too young, too reckless.”
Of course. If Arland had buzzed his bride in the fighter, he would be dashing. But since this was scion of Serak, he was reckless. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but marshal candidates must be well rounded in their military education?”
“Indeed,” Soren said. “They are trained to lead. They spend a certain amount of time with every branch of the House military to familiarize themselves with people under their command, but the bulk of their education centers on effective deployment of these forces and military strategy.”
“A marshal usually has a specialty,” Arland added.
“Yes,” Soren confirmed. “Typically they concentrate in whatever aspect of warfare presents the greatest threat to the House in the foreseeable future.”
Maud turned to Arland. “What’s yours?”
“Ground combat,” he said.
“Arland was trained to lead us into battle on Nexus,” Soren said. “We had anticipated to be embroiled in that conflict several times over the next decades, but thanks to your sister, it’s no longer a concern.”
It was just as she thought. “How likely is it for the marshal to have other pursuits?”
Arland’s thick blond eyebrows rose. “What do you mean?”
“If you wanted to devote a lot of your time to something not vital to the House, could you do it? For example, if you enjoyed target shooting, could you spend a significant chunk of your time practicing it?”
“Would I have time to devote to hobbies and leisurely pursuits?” Arland frowned, pretending to think. “Let me ponder. Two weeks! I took two weeks in the last six years, and my uncle came to fetch me, as if I were a wayward lamb. Because the great House of Krahr cannot endure without my constant oversight. My job, my hobby, my off time, my ‘me’ time, all my time consists of taking care of the never-ending sequence of mundane and yet life threatening tasks generated by the well-honed machine that is the knighthood of House Krahr. I haven’t had a moment to myself since I was ten years old.”
Lord Soren stood up, took a small blanket off the back of the nearest chair, walked up to Arland, and draped it over his nephew’s head, like a hood.
Okay. She hadn’t encountered that before.
“He is giving me the mourning shroud,” Arland said and pulled the blanket off his head. “Like the mourners wear at funerals.”
“So you may lament the tragic loss of your youth,” Soren said.
Arland draped the blanket over Helen, who’d fallen asleep on the pillow. “To answer your question, my lady, no. A marshal has no time for any significant pursuits outside of his duties.”
“Tellis of Serak has logged over three thousand hours in a small attack craft,” Maud said.
Both men fell silent.
Years ago she remembered watching a science fiction epic with its fleets of small attack craft spinning over the enormous destroyers. The reality of space combat vaporized that romantic notion about as fast as an average warship would vaporize the fleet of individual fighters. Even if the fighters somehow managed to make it through the shields, the damage they would inflict would be insignificant. It would be like trying to attack an aircraft carrier with a fleet of row boats. They would spend their arsenal, resupply, spend it again, and still the capital vessel wouldn’t be disabled.
“It’s my understanding that small attack craft is used only for one thing,” Maud said.
“Boarding,” Arland said, his voice a quiet snarl. “Once a ship surrenders, the fighters deliver the boarding crew to take charge of the vessel and secure its cargo.”
“Explains the flying acrobatics,” Soren said, his face grim.
Maud glanced to Arland.
“After the battle, there is usually a debris field,” Arland said. “Chunks that used to be escorts flying in all directions. The pilot needs a maneuverable ship and quick hands.”
“Is there any reason House Serak would ever board pirates?” Maud asked. The question sounded ridiculous even as she said, but it needed to be voiced.
“No,” Lord Soren said.
“Their ships are glass cannons,” Arland said. “They’re modified to inflict maximum damage and rapidly scatter, when necessary. Most of them are held together by hopes and prayers. The vessels have no value, and the crews have even less. I wouldn’t waste time or resources on boarding. I’d simply blow them out of existence.”
“This is a hefty accusation,” Soren said. “We have no proof. We might even be mistaken.”
“I heard it quite clearly,” Maud said.
Soren raised his hand. “I don’t dispute that. But we don’t have all the facts. Perhaps Tellis is indulged.”
“Three thousand hours?” Arland asked.
“Stranger things have happened.”
“There maybe a way to obtain a confirmation,” Maud said. “I would need an untraceable uplink that could reach beyond this system.”
Arland walked over to Soren’s desk and placed his palm on its surface. A red light rolled over the desk. The screen blinked, and the blood red symbol of House Krahr appeared on it. Maud blinked. Arland had just taken over the entire communication node. The power of marshal on display.
Arland recited a long string of numbers. The screen went black and winked back into existence, a neutral grey.
“What did you do?” she asked.
“Bounced the signal off the Lees cruiser,” he said. “They encrypt their communication origins, so they can’t be traced. I’m hitching a ride on their encryption system. If the call’s recipient tries to trace it, the signal will look like it’s bouncing around from random spots in the Galaxy.”
Arland shrugged. “The Nuan Cee spies on us every chance he gets. I’m simply balancing the scales.”
She was suddenly acutely aware of the data sphere hidden in the inner pocket of her robe.
“Whom would you like to call, my lady?” Arland asked.
“Someone from my other life.” Maud walked over and sat on the other of two couches, away from Helen. “It might be best if you stay silent and remain off screen.”
Soren grimaced, but stayed by his desk. Arland swiped the desk, turning the screen toward her. A second screen appeared in the wall, showing a duplicate image, a one-way feed. They would be able to see what she saw but they would be invisible to the other person. Which was just as well. The last thing she wanted was to introduce everyone to each other.
“I need two names of cargo ships,” she said. “One from your House and one from Serak.”
The names popped into her personal unit.
Maud pulled up a long sequence. Not a call she thought she would ever make.
From where she sat, she had an excellent view of both vampires and the screen. This would suck.
The screen remained blank.
A long minute passed.
The screen flared into life. A bridge of a spaceship came into view. A large vampire sprawled in the captain seat, older than Arland by about a decade and a half, long dark hair spilling over his back and shoulders onto jet black armor without a crest. A ragged scar chewed up the left side of his face, taking the eye with it. The empty orbit made a perfect home for the bionic targeting module. From this distance, it looked like an eye of silver, filled with glowing dust. From up close, it looked even worse.
The vampire leered at her. A familiar shiver of alarm gripped her.
Renouard hadn’t changed one bit.
“The Sariv,” he said. If wolves could talk in the dark forests, they would sound like him. “Karhari’s gentle flower. So you managed to get out after all.”
Arland narrowed his eyes.
“No thanks to you.”
“I made you an offer.”
Yeah, there wasn’t a mother alive who would have taken him up on it. “You told me my daughter would fetch a good price on the slave market.”
“I was joking. Mostly. I heard you bagged yourself a pretty boy marshal.”
The pretty boy marshal went from annoyed to furious in an instant.
“The word is, you haven’t managed to seal the deal yet.” Renouard leaned forward. “Does he not do it for you? I could give him some lessons.”
Arland’s face went stone-hard.
“I see the scar on your groin wants a twin,” she told him.
He bared his teeth and laughed.
“I have a job,” she said.
“I’m all ears.”
“I need cargo retrieved from two ships. They’ll be passing through the quadrant at following coordinates.” She tagged the section of the quadrant near Serak system and sent it to him. “Not a large volume, two crates off the first vessel, one off the second, less than three cubic meters in volume and roughly one hundred and twenty kilos of mass.”
“Who is hauling this precious cargo?”
Renouard checked his screen. “House Krahr. So rumors are right. You’re playing the marshal. I always knew you had it in you.” He winked to make sure she got it.
Ugh.“Can this be done or not?”
“It can be done,” he said. “For the right price. I won’t do it, but I’ll act as an intermediary. What’s in the crates?”
“That’s not important.”
He smiled. “Second vessel?”
He hadn’t even bothered to check the screen this time.
“It’s a barge,” she said. “You can do it with your eyes closed.”
“I told you, that’s not my territory and my contact won’t go after that ship.”
“Get someone else.”
“There is nobody else. That playing field is a monopoly.”
“The deal’s off,” she said. “I’ll find someone else.”
She flicked the screen blank, severing the connection and looked at Arland and Soren.
“House Serak is pirating that quadrant,” Arland said.
“And Kozor is in on it,” his uncle added.