Lady Ilemina had decided to take her lunch in the Small Garden. Small, Maud decided, as she walked down the stone path, was relative.
The Small Garden occupied roughly four acres atop a tiny mesa that thrust out of the living rock of the mountain. There were several such mesas on the grounds and the castle simply grew around them, incorporating them into its structure. Some supported towers, others provided space for utility areas or other parks. Her personal unit informed her that there was a larger garden, imaginatively titled the Large Garden, almost twice the size of the small one, also the High Garden, the Low Garden, the Silver Garden, the River Garden… She stopped reading after that.
Vampires loved nature, but where on Earth a garden meant a carefully cultivated space, organized, planned, and often offering a variety of plants from all over the place, a vampire garden was basically a chunk of preserved wilderness. It was a carefully tended wilderness, pruned, managed, and well loved, but every plant in it was natural to the area. The vampire gardeners planted extra flowers and encouraged picturesque shrubs and native herbs, but it would never occur to them to transplant flowers from one continent to another. If they saw a Chinese butterfly bush in a British garden among the native daisies and marigolds, they would’ve pulled it out as a weed.
The exception was the vala trees. The Holy Anocracy brought them to every planet it colonized.
The garden around Maud showcased the best this biozone had to offer. Tall trees with narrow turquoise leaves and pale bark rose on both sides of the path. Their roots lay partially exposed and knotted together as if someone had taken cypress knees and decided to try their hand at macramé. Under the roots, delicate lavender and blue flowers bloomed in clusters, with five petals each and a spray of long stamens. The flowers glowed slightly, their leaves shimmering with a nacre sheen. A frilly shrub, emerald green, its leaves tinged with brighter green, crowded around the roots. Between the trees, where more sun penetrated through the canopy, more flowers bloomed. Tall stems supported narrow blossoms, shaped like rose-colored champagne flutes stuffed to the brim with a wealth of white petals. Translucent blossoms, as big as her head, spread their tissue thin petals, each petal a faint blue marked with a bright red vein running through it middle and meeting in the flower’s glowing golden center. Long spikes, shivering with yellow tendrils, dripped glittering pollen on to their neighbors’ leaves. The air smelled of spice and sweet perfumes.
Dina would have a field day here.
The path ended in a large circle. A stream ran in a ring, sectioning off the center of the path into a round island. A single vala tree grew in the circle, not one of the massive thousand-year old giants, but a more recent planting. Its trunk was barely four feet wide. It spread its dark branches bearing blood red leaves over the water of the stream and the small stone table with two chairs, one empty and the other occupied by Lady Ilemina.
Here we go. Maud walked across the stone bridge. The older woman looked at her.
“So you’ve made it after all. Excellent.”
Maud bowed and took her seat. A plate was already set in front of her. A large platter held an assortment of fried foods and an assortment of meats and fruit on small skewers. Finger foods. A tall glass pitcher offered green wine.
Ilemina leaned back in her chair, sitting sideways, one long leg over the other, her left arm resting in the table. Up close, the resemblance between her and Arland was unmistakable. Same hair, same determined look in the blue eyes, same stubborn angle of the jaw. A lunch with a krahr.
“Your face was thoughtful as you walked the path,” Ilemina asked.
How much to say? “I was thinking about my sister.”
“When the three of us, my brother, my sister, and I, were growing up in our parents’ inn, each of us was responsible for a specific area of the inn, in addition to our general chores. Dina’s was gardens. She would love it here.”
“What was yours?”
“I would’ve never guessed. You have no mount or pet.”
“There weren’t many opportunities for pets during Karhari.”
“And before that?” Ilemina asked.
She had to set some boundaries. “Before that is in the past.”
“My brother told me of your findings.” Ilemina picked up a pitcher and filled their glasses.
Maud lifted the glass to her lips and took a small sip of wine. The older woman was watching her carefully.
“We’ve suspected Kozor and Serak of collaborating with the pirates, but to stoop to piracy themselves is base.”
“It’s not unheard of,” Maud pointed out and wished she had bitten her tongue.
“You’re right. But the houses of the Holy Anocracy never preyed on each other without a declaration of war.” Ilemina took a swallow of her wine. “It’s a hefty accusation. I need proof.”
“I understand,” Maud said.
They sipped their wine. The pressure was mounting inside Maud with every passing second.
“You didn’t ask me here to talk about Kozor,” Maud said.
“You’re not very good with silences,” Ilemina said. “Something to work on.”
Maud reached out, took a skewer of small yellow berries, and slid one into her mouth.
“What are your intentions toward my son?” Ilemina asked.
Maud considered the question. What the hell were her intentions?
She settled on honesty. “I don’t know.”
“What’s there to know?” Ilemina fixed her with her stare. “You have feelings for him. You followed him across the void. He has feelings for you. What’s the hold up?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“But it is. You’re both adults. I saw the way you look at him when you forget to guard your face.”
“He asked you to marry him. You said no. What are you waiting for? What is it you want? Wealth? Power? Marry him and you’ll have both.”
She thought Maud was a gold digger. A familiar irritation dug at Maud, like a burr under her foot. “I don’t need Arland to earn a living. I’m the daughter of Innkeepers. I speak a dozen languages. I’m at home at any trade hub. If I wish, I can return to my sister’s inn at any time.”
She could. Given that Dina’s inn had access to Baha-char, the galactic bazaar, if she wanted to take jobs, they would be plentiful, and the pay would be great.
A small triumphant light sparked in Ilemina’s eyes. “And yet here you are. Subjecting yourself to the humiliation of being a human in a vampire house and bearing a blank crest.”
Maud almost bit her tongue.
“Clearly, a strong bond pulled you across space.”
Maud said nothing.
“Do you love my son? Ilemina asked.
“Yes.” The answer came with surprising ease.
Ilemina stared at her. “Then do something about it.”
Maud opened her mouth and clicked it shut.
“It’s a problem that has a straightforward solution. There is no need to make a hissot out of it.”
Fantastic. Her might be mother in law just compared her feelings to a mating ball of wriggling snakes.
“It’s not just me,” Maud said quietly.
Ilemina leaned forward. “Do you honestly think your child would fare better on Earth? She has killed, Maud. She has fangs. That’s a vampire child if I ever saw one. We can do something with her. Humans can do nothing. You will have to hide her for the rest of her life. Can you do that to your daughter?”
“What do you want from me?” Maud growled.
“I want to get to the bottom of this. So stop pretending to be an idiot and tell me what’s holding you back, because my son is miserable and I’m tired of watching the two of you.”
“I’ve been on the planet for three days!”
“Three days is plenty. What is it you want, Maud of the Innkeepers?”
“I want Helen to be happy.”
Ilemina sighed and drank her wine. “My parents had no use for me when I was growing up. Their House was a war house. There was always a war they were fighting or preparing to fight. They didn’t notice me until I grew enough to be useful. I exerted myself to my fullest, I excelled, I volunteered for every action, just to get a crumb of their attention. When I met my future husband, I was a marshal of their house. I talked to Arland’s father for less than an hour, and I knew I would walk away with him if he asked. For the very first time in my life someone saw me as I was.”
Ilemina smiled. “I did walk away with him and then I fought a war against my parents’ house when they tried to punish me for finding happiness. It was the ultimate act of selfishness on their part. So when my daughter was born, I swore that I wouldn’t be my mother. I paid attention to my child. I was involved in every aspect of her life. I nurtured her, supported her, encouraged her. I trained her. So did my husband. Some might say that my husband and I had neglected our own union for the sake of our daughter and they wouldn’t be wrong.”
Ilemina paused, tracing the rim of her glass with her finger. “When my daughter was twenty-two years old, she met a knight and fell in love. He was everything I could ever wish for in a son-in-law. My heart broke anyway, but I didn’t want to stand in her way. She married him. She lives halfway across the Galaxy and visits once every year or two. Arland was ten years old when she left. He barely knows her. I have grandchildren I almost never see.”
Maud had no idea what to say, so she stayed silent.
“Children leave,” Ilemina told her. “It is the greatest tragedy of motherhood that if you have done everything right, if you have raised them in confidence and independence, they will pick up and leave you. It is as it’s meant to be. One day Helen will leave.”
Anxiety pierced Maud. She swallowed, trying to keep it under wraps.
“If you try to hold and restrain her, you will be committing an irreparable sin. We shouldn’t hobble our young. We do not cut their claws. One day it will be just you, Maud.”
“I understand,” Maud murmured. Thinking about it hurt.
“Where do you see yourself when that day comes?” Ilemina asked.
She knew where she wanted to be but getting there was so complicated.
“So I’ll ask again. What is it you’re afraid of? Are you trying to out-vampire us, because nothing you do will change the circumstances of your birth. If my son had wanted a vampire, he has a veritable crowd of women with ancient bloodlines falling all over themselves to love him. Are you ashamed of being a human? Do you hate your species?”
Maud raised her head. “I have no desire to pretend I’m a vampire.”
“Then what is it?” Ilemina raised her voice.
Something inside Maud snapped like a thin glass rod breaking.
“House Ervan threw me away. They threw my daughter away like we were old rags. We had no value to them outside of my husband. They didn’t fight to keep us. They wanted to be rid of us. All this time we lived among them and they lied to my face. I can’t take that chance again. I won’t. I can’t invest into building another new life and have it be ripped away from me. I don’t want to be here. I don’t trust you. If I had my way, I would spend my whole life never stepping a foot onto a Holy Anocracy planet, but I can’t let him go. I’ve tried. So I decided to fight for him. I have to ensure that you will never turn on me. I don’t want Arland to marry an outsider, who is barely tolerated. I want him to marry someone who is valued by his House. Someone who is indispensable. I want that marriage to be seen as a win for House Krahr, so my daughter will have a place here not because of your son, but because of me.”
She’d said too much. Where did it even come from? She had no idea that’s what she wanted until the words came out of her.
Screw it. She said and she fucking meant it. Every damn word.
Silence lay between them. A light breeze stirred the vala trees.
Ilemina arched her eyebrows and took a sip of her wine. “Now that? That, I understand.”