Maud emerged from the tower into the sunshine. Directly in front of her, a stone path led to a wide-open lawn ringed by trees. She strode forward, to where stone benches and small tables had been placed to accommodate small groups, offering a clear view of the lawn. Many of the benches were occupied; vampires in full armor lounged, snacked on finger foods presented on large platters, and drank refreshments. The air smelled of charred meat, fresh bread, and honey. A banner marked each sitting area, announcing the allegiance of its occupants. Most of the seats directly in front of her, spread out in a crescent, were taken by House Krahr, the line of black and red pennants familiar and almost welcoming. House Kozor curved to the right, its colors red and green. House Sedlak lined the left side. Their banners, blue and yellow, waved in the breeze.
On the lawn two teams, one red and black, the other comprised of both Kozor and Sedlak, clashed with practice weapons. Krim, Maud realized, the Holy Anocracy’s favorite sport. One team had drawn a circle roughly fifty feet wide. In the middle of the circle a fifteen-foot pillar about eighteen inches across supported a white flag. The defenders positioned themselves around the pillar, guarding it, while the attackers tried to break through and grab the flag. It wasn’t a complicated game, but what it lacked in complexity, it more than made up for in sheer brutality. This time Krahr defended. Everyone wore full armor, carried practice weapons, and sported headbands equipped with sensors. The headbands analyzed input from the armor and flashed when the wearer sustained enough damage to die.
“Lady Maud!” A familiar voice called.
Well, look at that. She managed not to cringe. “My Lady Ilemina?”
The Preceptor of House Krahr sat at a table to her right. The Lord Consort loomed in the chair next to her like an immovable mountain of vampire knighthood.
“Join us,” Lady Ilemina said. It didn’t sound like a request.
Great, just what she wanted, to be on display next to her possible future mother-in-law.
Behind her the door of the tower slid open and Arland stepped onto the path.
On second thought, joining Lady Ilemina was an excellent idea. Maud walked over and took a seat on Ilemina’s left. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Arland stalking down the path towards them.
Yes, yes. Stalk all you want. There was no way he would be discussing any kind of fraternization in front of his mother and stepfather. She’d outmaneuvered him. For some odd reason, it made her feel ridiculously accomplished.
On the lawn, House Krahr, led by Karat, formed a dense ring of bodies around the pillar. Houses Kozor and Sedlak split their forces preparing to attack from opposite sides. A familiar blonde mane caught Maud’s eye on Kozor’s side. Seveline was leading their assault.
“They’re using the Pincher assault,” Ilemina said.
“Seems badly thought out,” Lord Otubar said. “There aren’t enough of them to effectively break through, and she knows they’re coming. Too crude.”
The maneuver seemed painfully blatant. Karat was shifting her forces to compensate, but she was doing it slowly.
Arland strode over. The only open seat was next to Otubar. Arland picked it up, moved it next to her, and sat down.
“Opinion?” Ilemina asked him.
He studied the field. “Nothing in either Kozor’s or Sedlak’s tactics up until now indicates a preference for direct assault.”
“It’s a feint,” Otubar said.
“The question is, where are they going with this?” Ilemina murmured. “Did you finish the comparative analysis?”
Arland grimaced. “There was not enough data for a definitive conclusion. What data we have from the known pirate assaults is consistent with known tactical patterns of our cherished guests. Similarity isn’t proof, however.”
“What about the Lees’ data?” Otubar asked.
“Nuan Cee is stalling,” Arland said.
“Perhaps something can be done to persuade him to share.” Lady Ilemina glanced at Maud.
They were speaking in front of her as if she was already part of the House, and more, they were asking for her advice. She wasn’t sure if she should be flattered or upset that everyone at the table viewed her joining House Krahr as a foregone conclusion.
“Give me something to trade,” she said. “It is a common misconception that the Lees love money above all else. That’s not exactly true. They love a bargain; they love getting a good deal. Getting more for less is the foundation of their society. Let me take something to them they will find irresistible.”
“I find haggling distasteful.” Ilemina frowned. “Mostly because I’m terrible at it. I prefer a fair price, which I can pay without any negotiations.”
“And they think you weaker for it.” Maud shrugged.
When you bargained with a Lees, the first price they quoted you was always outrageous. It was a test and you had three options: first, you could pay the price and be known as a fool by their great, great grandchildren; second, you could walk away and be judged too rigid to become a business partner or an ally; and third, you could bargain. Only the third option brought respect.
On the lawn, House Sedlak engaged Karat’s left flank. She’d shifted her formation into a rough oval ring, with two ends facing Sedlak and Kozor. Karat stood in the middle by the pillar, her practice blade ready in her hand.
The Sedlak’s assault hammered the Krahr, but the left flank held. On the right, nearly twenty-five yards away, the Kozor formed a wedge with Seveline as the tip of the spear. The two vampire knights directly behind her looked like they had jumped out of a production of an ancient saga, each of them almost as large as Otubar.
The wedge charged. The knights thundered forward, picking up speed, like a herd of enraged rhinos.
“Hold!” Karat’s voice rang out. The defenders braced themselves, doing their best impersonation of an immovable object about to meet an unstoppable force.
Seveline would be crushed, Maud thought. Now the plan made more sense. If it wasn’t for Sedlak, Karat’s forces could scatter, leaving only a few defenders in the middle to slow the charge as it penetrated the circle, while the majority of her knights cut at the mass of invaders from the sides. Maud had seen that maneuver before. Done correctly, it absorbed the kinetic energy of the charge like a sponge. But with Sedlak at her back, Karat had no opportunity to maneuver. The steady pressure at her back side left her only one choice – to hold.
The Kozor were almost on them. Maud held her breath, bracing herself as if she were in the line of defenders.
The wedge parted slightly, Seveline slipping through the ranks to the back. The final row of the wedge swept her off her feet and up. Seveline dashed across the armored shoulders and backs of Kozor knights and leaped. For a moment she flew, her lean form silhouetted against the blue sky, sunlight gleaming from her armor, then she landed in the circle. Karat shied to the right, avoiding getting knocked down by a hair.
Seveline struck at her, spinning fast like a dervish. Karat blocked, backing up, straight into the back of her own armored line. Seveline was a whirlwind. Her strikes pierced Karat’s defense in a flurry, so fast Maud could barely follow. Damn. Karat blocked and dodged but she had nowhere to go. Red streaks slashed her armor, the blows of Seveline’s practice sword leaving their mark.
Karat’s headpiece flashed white. Seveline had scored a mortal wound. Karat swore and threw her sword to the ground. Seveline laughed and fell onto the Krahr’s defensive line.
“Interesting,” Otubar said, watching Seveline massacre the knights from the rear.
“What could we offer the Lees?” Ilemina sipped blue wine from her glass, her tone relaxed.
“They want the trade station,” Maud said.
Ilemina smiled. “Only that?”
“The idea of a trade station has some merit,” Arland said, his gaze fixed on the crumbling Krahr line.
Otubar made a low rumbling noise that may have been agreement or disdain. Maud didn’t know the Lord Consort well enough to tell.
Ilemina’s eyebrows rose. “You too?”
Otubar gave a barely perceptible shrug.
“We can take the fleet to Seldak system, and I can reduce their fleets to space garbage,” Arland said. “We have military superiority in both numbers and the caliber of our ships. However, we can’t hold the system indefinitely. Lady Maud is a student of vampire history. Tell us, my Lady, what do we know about occupying the territory of other houses?”
Thank you, that bus that just rolled over me, after you threw me under it, felt lovely. “Nobody in the history of the Holy Anocracy has ever won a partisan war. Any time an occupation of another House was attempted, it either failed or the weaker House ceased to exist.”
“If you count both Sedlak and Kozor, there are almost a million beings between the two planets,” Arland said. “We cannot occupy their territory, so the only recourse would annihilation.”
Arland’s destroyer flashed before Maud’s eyes. Stationary targets, like planets and defensive installations on moons, had no chance against space fleets. They followed a fixed orbit and they couldn’t dodge. Launching a kinetic projectile or a barrage of missiles when the computers could calculate the precise position of your target was child’s play. House Krahr could simply sit back and bombard the two planets until nothing alive remained on the surface. An icy needle pierced her spine. They were sitting here discussing potential death of a million beings. It wasn’t an abstract discussion on the morality of it; it wasn’t hypothetical. They really could do it. Whatever was said here in the next few minutes would determine if the next generation of Kozor and Sedlak children would ever grow up.
“Some would see it as the only option,” Ilemina said.
“We are not a House that would stoop to genocide against our own kind,” Arland said.
Seveline was climbing the pillar.
“Lady Maud?” Ilemina asked. “Do you have any thoughts?”
Maud sipped her wine. Her throat had suddenly gone dry. “It seems to me that since Sedlak and Kozor found themselves resorting to plundering trade vessels, they are short of funds.”
“They are stuck on a remote system with no means to expand their military,” Otubar said.
Seveline waived the flag from the pillar’s top.
“So, there is very little gain to be had from wiping them out,” Maud said. “Financially, it’s a loss. It would cost a fortune in fuel and munitions. From a military stand point, it’s also a loss. House Krahr would gain no territory, resources, or strategic advantage. If one considers it a matter of honor, there is little of it in a victory over an opponent who never had a chance. It would do nothing to enhance the already stellar reputation of House Krahr.”
Ilemina chuckled into her wine. “Such flattery, Lady Maud. They have raided our ships. Satisfaction must be achieved.”
“And I’m sure Lord Arland would crush them so completely that by the time he finished, the only space-worthy vessels in the system will be escape pods.” Maud drank more wine. “It seems to me that once the pirating adventures of our esteemed guests become public knowledge, the trade would shift. The two systems will whither and rot without their main source of income. The trade will have to go somewhere.”
“It will go to Sarenbar,” Arland said. “Or it can come here. Bringing it here via a trade station would allow us to control the terms of engagement. Placing the Lees in a key role will ensure its profitability.”
“You would allow strangers into our secure space.” Ilemina’s face hardened.
Arland faced her. “Eventually we will have to interact with the rest of the galaxy by means other than invasion and war. We can’t kill everyone, mother.”
Otubar cleared his throat. “We have a visitor.”
Tellis, the groom, was walking toward the tabl.
“A bit of swagger in his step,” Ilemina observed. “Do something about it, won’t you, dear?”
“Yes,” Otubar and Arland said in unison.
Maud braced herself.