Maud slumped in an oversized chair in Lord Soren’s study. She felt wrung out like a piece of wet laundry about to go in the dryer. The lees had treated Helen for the better part of an hour, and when Nuan Cee finally emerged from the med ward, Maud felt ready to tear her hair out. He had announced that the danger had passed, Helen would be up in a few hours, and there was no need to worry.
Maud had been allowed to see her daughter and to kiss Helen’s warm forehead, and then the enraged vampire medic kicked everyone out. She wanted to be back in the med ward, sitting by the bed, watching for minute signs of improvement, but it would accomplish nothing and Ilemina had requested her presence in her brother’s study.
The Preceptor of House Krahr sat in a chair by Lord Soren’s desk, looking grim. Otubar sat on his wife’s right, Arland sat on Maud’s left. He had put on his armor and his booster kept him awake, but she could tell by the slightly feverish look in his eyes that a crash was coming. Karat took a spot at the opposite end of the room. Soren presided over it all, sitting behind his huge desk as if it were a castle wall and he was watching a horde of invaders gather for a siege. Except this time the invaders looked back at them not from a field before the castle but from a massive screen, where the recording of the events on the mesa played out.
Maud had picked the furthest chair from the screen, maybe twenty feet away. It felt like miles. The room contained the Krahr, not the huge House, but the small nuclear family who ran it. She didn’t really belong here.
“So we have no useable footage,” Arland said.
Karat frowned. Her fingers danced across the tablet in her hand. The recording zoomed in past the game of krim, showing distant figures at the edge of the mesa. The image sped up and the figures jerked around in a slightly comical dance as knights mulled about.
“We know that members of both Kozor and Serak were at the edge of the game grounds and had opportunity to fire the shot at Helen,” Karat said. “We know that none of them had a gun on them, so they had to have assembled it on location. See how they keep crowding each other? They could have assembled a small space craft, and we would have been none the wiser.”
“We should upgrade the surveillance,” Otubar said.
Soren grimaced. “Do you want to assign each of them a personal drone?”
“If that’s what it takes,” Otubar said.
“We would be breaking every rule of hospitality,” Soren said. “They would accuse us of cowardice and paranoia and claim we made the wedding impossible. We already failed to protect a child in our care and we were almost too late to prevent a confrontation between our other guests and these…ushivim.”
Karat jerked. “Father!”
Maud blinked. Of all the words she had expected the Knight Sargent to use, the expletive meaning bloody diarrhea of diseased vermin was the last on the list.
The corners of Otubar’s mouth rose a couple of millimeters. It was the closest she had ever seen the Lord Consort come to a smile.
“They must think Karat is the Under-Marshal,” Arland said. “Maud told me they were trying to figure out who would assume the responsibility for her and Helen if I were incapacitated. But they’re not sure. They planned to take me out after the krim match, but they allowed for the possibility of failure. So, when I won the bout and walked away, they shot Helen.”
“It was planned and premeditated,” Karat said. “As I pointed out, they had to have brought the weapon in pieces, assembled it on the spot, shot her, and disassembled it after. We scoured that entire area, on top of the mesa, and down by the beach. If they had dropped any part of it, our scans would have picked it up. Each of them must have carried a small piece of it. It’s smart.”
Soren nodded. “It’s brutal and underhanded, but it is smart. Had the child died, Lady Maud would be distraught, Arland would be in mourning with her, consoling her. He would have to withdraw from the wedding. It would be unseemly to continue.”
“And they would flush out the Under-Marshal,” Ilemina finished. She rose, her arms crossed, and studied the screen. “The question is, why are they so fixated on the Marshal and Under-Marshal? Even if both fall, the House won’t be leaderless. Their numbers are still too insignificant to do any real damage. With two hundred knights against our thousands, all they can really do is to take a hostage and barricade themselves somewhere they thought they could defend. But even so, we would just pry them out. What is the end game here? What do they want?”
The room fell quiet.
Ilemina was right. It made no sense.
“They do have a plan,” Arland said. “Everything they have done up until now has been thought out and calculated.”
“Except for the incident with the lees and the Tachi,” Karat said. “What could they possibly accomplish by hassling the aliens?”
Soren leaned back and looked up at the ceiling, thinking. “It may have been a misguided attempt to embarrass us by demonstrating that we are unable to protect our guests. However, the burden of shame would fall on their Houses. They would have acted badly, and their leadership would appear weak because they couldn’t control their people and account for their boorish behavior. Reparations and apologies would have to be made, and they are in no position to offer any. They have been reduced to pirating their quadrant for resources.”
“They were trying to make them leave,” Maud said.
Everyone looked at her.
“If the lees and the Tachi felt threatened, they would evacuate,” she explained. “Neither delegation has the numbers to oppose a large attack and neither party wants to antagonize you. They want the trade station and access to your space. If their presence became an issue or caused any inconvenience, they would remove themselves from the situation rather than risk aggravating you. They would wait the wedding out and resume negotiations after the other guests left.”
Otubar leaned forward. “The ends justify the means.”
“Yes,” Soren agreed. “They are willing to weather the shame if it means running off the lees and the Tachi.”
“But we’re back to why?” Ilemina said. “What possible detriment could the lees and the Tachi be to their plan?” She turned to Maud.
Great. “I don’t know.”
“See if you can find out,” Soren said.
This would not be an easy conversation to have, but it was better to have it now before they gave her any more responsibility.
“I’ve made a deal with Nuan Cee,” Maud said. “I now owe him a favor for saving my daughter.”
“That reminds me,” Ilemina said. “Could a lees have poisoned Helen?”
“It needed to be said,” Otubar said.
“No,” Arland said. “That was the first thing I checked. All of the lees were nowhere near the game grounds or the lake. Their equipment is sophisticated and can render them practically invisible, but I have seen their disruptor in action and Nuan Cee knows about it. The disruptor relies on a maille emitter, and once you know what to screen for, it’s not hard to find. They’ve been using plain stealth to get around the castle and record candid videos of us, but they had nothing to do with poisoning the child. It would be too heavy handed for them anyway.”
“Why?” Karat asked.
“The lees pride themselves on balance,” Arland said. “A good bargain is the highest honor they could strive for. Saving a child and collecting a favor from the parent satisfies the need for balance. Hurting a child to save it and then collecting the favor is not a balanced transaction.”
Maud almost did a double take. He flashed her a grin.
“Is he right?” Ilemina asked.
“Yes. The lees pride themselves on being clever. To set us up by hurting Helen would go against Nuan Cee’s clan’s code.” Maud took a deep breath. “However, I do owe him a favor. He will collect, which means he will ask me for something and I won’t be able to refuse. I am now a security risk.”
Ilemina waved her hand. “Eeh.”
“You are a security risk if we don’t know about it,” Soren said.
Ilemina shrugged. “Go to the lees for me and get their take on the situation. Same with the Tachi.”
“I’ll need something to bargain with,” Maud said.
Arland’s mother rolled her eyes. “They’ve been asking us to review their proposals for the trade station. So far, we have declined. Tell them that if they help you, I will personally look at every chart they want to send my way.”
Otubar’s eyebrows rose a hair. Ilemina bared her teeth. “Other vampire Houses are plotting against us and they view the aliens as our allies. They are threatened by the lees’ and Tachi’s presence in our midst. If they fear it, then I will make our ties with those two species even stronger. He who is feared by my enemy is my shield.”