Maud opened her eyes and turned to check on Helen.
Her daughter’s bed was empty.
Panic stabbed her. She bolted upright and saw the open door to the balcony. Sunlight sifted through the pale gauzy curtains, painting bright rectangles on the floor. As they parted, coaxed by the breeze, Maud glimpsed a small figure sitting on the stone rail.
Maud picked up a robe off the chair, pulled it on, and walked onto the balcony. It stretched along the entirety of her quarters, thirty feet at the widest part. A man-made stream curved along the perimeter of the balcony, crossing it twice, only a foot wide. On the right, a fountain protruded from the wall, shaped like a flower stalk with five delicate blossoms that reminded her of bell flowers. Both the stream and the fountain had run dry. A couple of benches had been set up, inviting a quiet conversation. The balcony begged for plants. It seemed almost barren without them.
Maud crossed the parched stream and leaned on the stone wall of the balcony next to Helen. The ground yawned at her, far below, hidden by the breezeways, towers, and finally, far below, trees. A normal mother would’ve pulled her daughter off the rail, but then there was nothing normal about either of them.
Helen had found a stick somewhere and was poking the stone wall with it. Something was bothering her. Maud waited. When she was little, she used to sit just like that. Eventually Mom would find her. Mom never pried. She just waited nearby, until Maud’s problems finally poured out of her.
For a while, Maud just stood there, taking a mental catalogue of the aches and pains tugging at her. Her ribcage hurt. It was to be expected. She should’ve spent yesterday in bed, not hiking up a mountain and dodging vampire knights who tried to throw her off the path. The booster had taxed her body further and exacted its price. She slept like a rock for well over twelve hours. The sun was well on the way to the zenith. Soon it would be lunch time.
She had to have missed breakfast. There were probably message on her personal unit. She would check them, but not yet.
The breeze stirred her robe. Maud straightened her shoulders, feeling the luxurious softness of the spider-web thin fabric draped over her skin.
Seeing Renouard last night dredged up the familiar paranoia. It had hummed through her like a low-level ache, a wound that bled just enough to make sure you couldn’t ignore it. After the conversation with Soren, Maud had picked up Helen off the couch and carried her to their room. Feeling Helen’s weight draped across her chest and shoulder and the familiar scent of her hair soothed her. Helen was safe. They were both safe. Arland seemed to sense that she needed it and he hadn’t offered to take Helen from her. Instead they walked in comfortable silence to her room.
Once at her door, Maud had stepped inside and carefully put Helen on her bed. She’s put Helen’s daggers next to her, tucked her in, and straightened. She’d left the door open and Arland waited in the doorway.
Maud looked at the distant mesas.
Last night, when she had turned and saw him standing there, in the doorway, half hidden in shadows, tall, broad-shouldered, his armor swallowing the light. His hair had fallen over his face, with the line of chiseled jaw hard against that back drop, and when the light of the two moons caught his eyes, they shone with blue green. He took her breath away. He looked like a warrior from some Anocracy pseudo-historical drama, some wandering knight who somehow found his way out of a legend and into her room, except he was real, flesh and blood, and when she looked into his eyes, she saw heat simmering just under the surface.
She had forgotten what it felt like when a man looked at her like that. She wasn’t sure even Melizard had, although he must have. Every nerve in her body came to attention. Her breath caught. All she wanted to do, all she could think of in that moment, was closing the distance, reaching up, and kissing him. She wanted to taste him. She wanted to drop her armor, to see him abandon his, and to touch him, body to body, skin to skin. Even now, as she remembered it, her heartbeat sped up.
Helen had fallen asleep. Arland’s quarters were only a short hallway away.
One step. One word. That was all it would’ve taken. A tiny, minute sign, a faintest expression of desire.
She wanted to. Oh, how she wanted to. Instead she stood there like a statue, as if she had been frozen. He told her good night and she just nodded.
The door slid shut.
She let him go. She let him slip away and then she had stripped off her armor, pissed off, and climbed into bed. The booster kept her up for another half hour and she lay on the covers, mad at herself, trying to figure out what happened and failing.
She’d never had problems with intimacy. Melizard wasn’t her first, and whatever problems they had in their marriage, sex wasn’t one of them. Bodies spoke their own language, in love and in war, a language she innately understood. A blind woman could’ve read Arland last night, and if Maud told herself she didn’t know what she wanted, she would be lying.
What’s wrong with me?
“Am I a mongrel?”
Helen’s question caught her off guard, Maud blinked, trying to switch mental gears.
“It’s fine if I am,” Helen said. “I just want to know.”
“Did someone call you that?”
Helen didn’t answer. She didn’t have to.
“Did they use that word?”
“They called me erhissa.”
Maud’s hands curled on the stone wall. Helen must’ve plugged the word into her personal unit, and the translation software spat out the closest equivalent: mongrel. They called her that, those assholes. In that moment, she could’ve hurt whoever said it and she didn’t particularly care if it was adult or a child.
Maud gripped her anger with her will and bent it, until she was sure her voice would sound calm and measured. She had to explain. Hiding the truth wouldn’t serve either of them well.
“Touch this.” She held the sleeve of her robe. Helen brushed her fingers over the smooth material.
“The vampires breed special creatures, a type of strange-looking snake. The snakes secrete long threads and spin their nests from them. The vampires collect these nests and make them into fabric. There are two main types, kahissa, which makes very thin fabric like this one, and ohissa, which makes stronger fabric. Both are useful. Sometimes kahissa and ohissa breed and they make a third kind of snake, erhissa. Erhissa doesn’t make nests. It’s poisonous and it bites.”
“To vampires erhissa has no purpose,” Maud said. “But erhissa knows the world doesn’t revolve around vampires. It doesn’t care what vampires think. It just keeps doing its own thing.”
“So, I am a mongrel.”
“On Earth, that’s a word people use when they don’t know what breed a dog is. You know who you are. You are Helen.”
Helen looked down and dragged her stick across the stone, her jaw set.
“Each of us is more than just a human or a just vampire. There is only one you. Some people realize that, and others refuse to see it. Doesn’t matter if they are human or vampire.”
Maud sighed. “Because some people have rigid minds. They like everything to be clearly labeled. They have a box for everyone they meet. A box for vampires, a box for lees, a box for humans. When someone doesn’t fit into their boxes, they panic.”
“I don’t exactly know, my flower. I think it’s because they lack confidence. They think they figured out the rules of their world and when something falls outside those rules, it scares them.”
“So, I’m scary?”
“To those people? Yes. If the rules they made up don’t apply anymore, they don’t know how to act, and it makes them feel like their survival is in doubt. Instead of adapting to new situation and coming up with a new set of rules, some of them will fight to the death trying to keep the world the way it was. Do you remember when we lived in Fort Kur? What was written above the door?”
“Adapt or die,” Helen said.
“It’s impossible to stop change,” Maud said. “It’s the nature of life. Those who refuse to adjust to change will eventually die out. But before they do, they will get nasty. They might even hate you.”
Helen looked up. Her eyes flashed. “I’ll hate them back!”
“Hate is a very powerful tool. Don’t waste it. Some of the people you’ll meet will be mean to you not because of what you are but because of who you are. If they were honest with themselves, they would admit that they don’t like you because something about you makes them feel inferior. They might think you’re a better fighter, or you’re smarter or prettier, or you’re taking up attention they think should be going to them. Those people are truly dangerous. If they get a chance, they will hurt you and those you love. Save your hate for those people. Never hurt them first, but if they hurt you or your friends, you must hurt them back harder. Do you understand?”
“Do you want to go back to Aunt Dina’s inn?”
Helen’s shoulders sagged. “Sometimes.”
Maud stepped close to her daughter and hugged her. “We can go any time. We don’t have to stay here.”
“But sometimes I like it here,” Helen said into her shoulder. “I like Ymanie. Aunt Dina’s inn doesn’t have Ymanie.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
If they went back to Dina’s Inn, Helen would have to be homeschooled. Even if she could alter her daughter’s outlook on life, there was no way to disguise the fangs, or her strength, or the way her eyes caught the light at night. Growing up at the inn was interesting and fun, but it had its lonely moments. All three of them, Klaus, Maud, and Dina, had dealt with it in their own ways. Klaus left the inn every chance he got. He and Michael, his best friend and another innkeeper’s son, went on excursions, to Bahachar, to Kio-kio, and every place they could possibly reach from either of the inns. Maud had burrowed into books. And Dina went through phases when she tried to pretend to be just a human and attempt to go to public school to find friends. Friendships built on lies never lasted.
Maud hugged Helen tighter. There were no perfect options.
She wanted to fix it. If she could wave a magic wand and streamline the galaxy for the sake of her daughter, she would do it in a heartbeat.
“It doesn’t have to be here or the inn,” she said. “We can try living somewhere else.”
Helen’s personal unit chirped. She poked at it with her finger. “Ymanie says there are baby birds on the Tower 12.”
Maud sighed. At the end, Helen was just five years old. “Would you like to go and see baby birds?”
“Yes!” Helen jumped off the wall onto the balcony.
“Go ahead. No heroics, Helen. No touching the birds, no climbing up dangerous high places, and no—”
Maud closed her mouth and watched her daughter sprint inside and to the door.
Right now, baby birds fixed all of Helen’s problems. But she wouldn’t be five forever.
What do I do? What’s the right thing here?
In this moment, Maud would’ve given ten years of her life to be able to call mom.
She went inside. Her personal unit glowed. Great. A high priority message, ten minutes ago. At least it didn’t sit there for too long.
Maud touched the screen. Lady Ilemina’s face appeared.
“Lady Maud,” Arland’s mother said. “Do join me for lunch.”