Sorry, the scene turned out to be longer than planned and took more time.
Maud marched across the bridge, fuming. She’d let Ilemina get under her skin. It was a strategic error. Understanding your opponent was the most important advantage one could have in a conflict. Numbers, strengths, and luck mattered, but if you knew how your opponent thought, you could predict her strategy and prepare.
She’d given Arland’s mother enough ammunition to manipulate her. Stupid. So stupid.
What the hell was she thinking? Baring her soul to a damn vampire.
The memory of kneeling before Stangiva and begging for Helen’s life, stabbed her, hot and sharp. If only she could get her hands on that bitch, she would’ve snapped her former mother-in-law’s neck. And to think she spent years trying to mold herself into a perfect vampire wife for the sake of Melizard, and his mother, and their whole damn House. She’s twisted herself into a pretzel to become exceptional in every way, all so she could be paraded before the visitors with an unspoken context of “Look what an exemplary House we are. We have taken a human and shaped her into a vampire. Listen to her recite the ancient sagas. Watch her perform for your amusement.”
And she, she was the idiot who had willingly put on that bridle and dragged the cart forward. For what? For love?
She laughed at herself, and the sound came out sharp and brittle.
Love. How could she have been so young and stupid?
Ugh. Rage coursed through her. Maud wanted desperately to punch something.
A sharp chittering sound made her turn. She’d come to a T-shaped junction. On her right another bridge branched from the first at a perfect right angle. The end of the bridge led onto another garden plateau. Trees and shrubs obscured her view, but Maud was absolutely sure what she just heard. A high pitched, short bark of a lees in backed into a corner.
She turned and jogged down the bridge into the garden. Nuan Cee’s Clan were invited guests of the Krahr. No harm could come to them on Krahr’s watch.
Voices carried from up ahead. She couldn’t quite make them out, but she heard the intonation well enough: male, vampire, arrogant. She rounded the bend. In front of her a straight stretch of the path led to a round plaza with a small fountain in the center. In the plaza, closest to the entrance from the path, stood a small, blue-furred lees and a tachi. The lees was on her toes, ready to bolt. The tachi had gone so grey, it looked desaturated. Across from them four male vampires stood. Two leaned forward slightly, the third one stroked the hilt of his bloodhammer, and the fourth crossed his arms on his chest. She’d been studying the files on the wedding guests, and she had no trouble recognizing him. Lord Suykon, the groom’s brother. Big, red-haired, and aggressive.
They were about to get violent. The tachi would retaliate and relations between the tachi and House Krahr would drown in blood. She had no authority to stop it. She was just another guest. If she were attacked, the tachi would jump in. She was sure of it. She’d served food to their queen and was looked on with favor. The tachi would be honor-bound to assist her against a mutual threat.
She had to avoid violence and delay. It would be near impossible. She was a human, and in the vampire eyes, she belonged to Arland but had no status. If anything, her presence would only provoke.
Maud tapped her crest. The thin stalk of a communicator slid from her armor and split in two. One tendril reached into her ear, the other to her mouth. The crest pulsed with white light, letting her know the camera was activated.
There was a slight pause, then he answered. “Here.”
“Tap into my feed.”
There was another tiny pause. Syukon said something. The vampire next to him laughed. Maud picked up speed.
The lees screeched, the sharpness in her voice making her sound like a pissed off squirrel.
Arland’s crisp voice spoke into her ear piece. “Backup on the way.”
Her personal unit chimed, announcing incoming message. Maud tapped it. A contract that made her an official retainer of House Krahr. She scrolled, spot searching for the right words.
… military service, to be performed as is deemed necessary by the marshal…
He just hired her as a mercenary, giving her the same authority as any knight of the House.
“Accept,” she said.
Dizziness punched her as her updated crest interfaced with the armor. It only took a moment. Arland must’ve preloaded the House interface onto the crest before he’d given it to her and now it was activated.
Her crest flashed with red. A third tendril sprouted from the stalk, projecting a screen over her left eye. On it an icon of House Krahr glowed dimly in the far corner. Next to it, another icon, a tiny banner, waited.
This man. For this man, she would put up with Ilemina. He was worth it.
Maud marched into the clearing. Her eyepiece tagged the lees, displaying her name above her head in pale letters. Nuan Tooki. The tachi was Ke’Lek.
“Behold, a human comes!” a dark-haired vampire declared. Her eyepiece tagged him with a name. Lord Kurr. Now that she was retainer, the internal files were at her fingertips.
Nuan Tooki ducked behind her, stuck her hand-paws into the pockets of her apron, and came out with a handful of darts in her left hand and a small dagger in her right. Monomolecular edge on both, likely poisoned.
Ke’Lek’s color darkened slightly, but only a shade, a barely perceptible green.
Maud moved in front of the tachi, looked at the banner and deliberately blinked to activate the banner.
The crest tolled, like a bell. A bright red spark blinked on her left shoulder, projecting a holographic image of the banner of House Krahr. She gripped her bloodsword, and it whined in her hand as bright red light dashed through it, priming the weapon.
The banner glowed slightly brighter.
“And what have we here?” Suykon asked. “Adorable, is she not?”
Anything she said would give them am opportunity to claim she provoked them. Any word would be presented as an insult and used as a pretext for violence. She simply said nothing.
“Are you mute, human?”
Suykon’s eyes narrowed.
“Yes?” the dark-haired knight asked.
“I think our lady is in distress. Look at her being menaced by those two outsiders. You should go and rescue her.”
The tachi moved forward.
Maud activated the banner again. Her crest projected a red line onto the ground and tossed the prewritten warning onto her eyepiece. She read it. “You are guests of House Krahr in the presence of a knight of House Krahr. Any violence against other guests of House Krahr will be met with immediate retribution. Cross this line and die.”
Ke’Lek clicked his mouth in disappointment and stepped back. The line cut both ways.
Lord Kurr chuckled.
Her eyepiece scanned him, highlighting a long, slightly glossy streak on the left side of his armor. A recent patch job, and not very good one. Patching armor was as much of an art as science, and it took a light touch. He’d been heavy-handed with the tools. He should’ve let someone who knew what they were doing repair it, but armor maintenance was a point of pride. It was a small target, less than a quarter of an inch wide. She would’ve missed it without the eyepiece.
“This is the only warning you will receive.”
“My fair maiden,” Kurr roared, pulling out a massive blood sword. “I shall rescue you.”
The moment his foot crossed the line, she dropped to one knee. His blade slid over her shoulder, screeching against her armor. She thrust her sword into the patch and twisted. The armor cracked with an audible snap. The nanothreads contracted, ripping themselves apart.
She freed her blade, pushed to her feet, and hammered a kick into Kurr’s exposed side. The impact knocked him back over the line. He stumbled, doubled over, clutching at his side. Blood dripped between his fingers. Half of the breast plate hung down, crawling and shifting as the individual nanothreads attempted to reconnect.
For a moment everyone forgot to posture and just stared. She had pried Kurr out of his armor. The humiliation was absolute.
The prompt flashed on her eyepiece again.
“You are guests of House Krahr in the presence of a knight of House Krahr. Any violence against other guests of House Krahr will be met with immediate retribution. Cross this line and die.”
Kurr gripped his sword. “I’ll kill that bitch.”
“Kurr!” Suykon barked.
A shadow fell from the sky. She barely had a chance to shy back. An enormous male vampire landed in front of her in full combat armor, his broad back blocking her view. His grey hair was cut human short.
The new vampire swung his blood hammer. It ripped the air with a hair-raising whine and connected.
Maud lunged to the side, trying to see.
Kurr was flat on his ass, trying to breathe. The other two vampires knelt by him, trying to activate his crest. Only Suykon remained standing.
The new vampire opened his mouth, displaying his fangs, and bent his head forward, exhaling menace, like a bull ready to charge. He was a giant even by vampire standards. Her eyepiece tagged him, identifying his name.
“Our apologies, Lord Consort,” Suykon said. “We meant no harm. We clearly misinterpreted the situation.
Lord Otubar unhinged his jaws and said in a deep voice. “Leave.”
The two knights picked Kurr up like a child and the four of them took off down the path.
Lord Otubar turned to the lees and the tachi. “What were the two of you doing here without an escort.”
Nuan Tooki ducked her head, fluffing her tail, and clasped her little paw-hands together, looking almost terminally adorable. “Please forgive us, Lord Consort. It’s all my fault. I was lost. This brave tachi came to my rescue and then these mean vampires came and menaced us. You are not like them. You are a good vampire. I was so frightened and helpless, and you have saved us. I am so sorry.”
“Go back to your quarters.”
The lees scampered off. Ke’Lek looked at them, hesitated for a moment, and followed the lees down the path.
“Dismissed,” Lord Outbar said.
Her legs carried Maud down the path before her brain had time to process what happened.
“My lady,” Otubar called to her back.
She stopped and pivoted to face him. “Lord Consort?”
“Good strike,” he said.