Maud strode down the length of the bridge, measuring it with her footsteps. It was early morning, and the sky was lightly overcast, the sun playing tag with ragged clouds. Next to her, Helen yawned and rubbed her eyes.
Last night Maud had reported the conversation with the lees and the tachi to Lord Soren and Karat. She had no doubt that the Lord Consort would give a complete account of it to Ilemina. Lord Soren agreed with her assessment – the Serak and Kozor were targeting the battle station, but how exactly were they planning to pull it off was anyone’s guess.
Last night Arland was still out. It bothered Maud, and she spent the evening being vaguely annoyed and irritated, until she finally realized that she missed him. His absence gnawed at her. She kept imagining wild scenarios, each of which involved him dying in his sleep, defenseless. She even considered walking into his quarters through the private hallway and watching him sleep but decided that would be creepy. Nothing was going to happen to Arland; he would sleep off the booster while a cocktail of drugs the medic had administered repaired his injuries. There were a lot of injuries. It was perfectly reasonable for him to remain asleep for another day or more.
Maud kept moving. A refreshing wind pulled at her hair, throwing the short strands in her face. She’d always had a vivid imagination. When they were exiled to Karhari, it caught her by surprise. By then she was used to Melizard’s schemes, but she never expected exile. He was the younger son, the beloved and spoiled. His sins, however grievous, were always forgiven. He always got away with crazy shit. The exile shocked her. From that point on, she expected the worst. If Melizard was delayed, it was because he was dead. If Helen ate a piece of unfamiliar fruit, it was surely poisonous, and she would likely die. If she met strangers on the road, they were assassins sent to kill her. And Karhari had proven her right again and again, feeding her paranoia.
Now Arland had joined the short list of People Whose Death She Imagined. There were only four names on the list: Helen, Dina, Maud, and now, Arland. She kept waking up, checking on Helen, and when she drifted off, he died in her dreams, and she would jerk awake. A couple of times she got up and prowled on her balcony, like a caged cat.
If only she could have seen him this morning, if she had touched him and felt the warmth of his body, it would have reassured her that he was alive. She had rolled out of her bed planning to do exactly that. Instead, Karat had barged into her quarters as soon as the sun was up, announced that Ilemina required her presence, and took off.
They passed through the arched entrance to the Preceptor’s tower.
“What are we doing today, mama?”
“Today we’re going on a hunt,” Maud said.
She’d reviewed the agenda late last night after giving up on getting any sleep. At the core, vampires were a predatory strain of human. They were mostly carnivorous, and hunting was in their blood. Humans had retained some of those primitive memories, too. No matter how civilized they became or how evolved the art of cooking became, nothing beat a piece of meat roasted over a fire.
The Holy Anocracy was not that civilized. They didn’t bother to make any excuses or to distance themselves from their predatory past. As soon as a vampire House claimed territory, they did two things. They planted a vala tree and they designated hunting grounds.
House Krahr maintained a huge hunting preserve. Today, at noon, they would be riding through it. Missing the hunt was unthinkable. She could get away with missing games, skipping a formal dinner, even being late to the wedding ceremony, although that last one would require reparations for the offence to the newlyweds. If she missed the hunt, however, the insult to the hosts would be monumental. Even children were brought to the hunt as soon as they were old enough not to fall off the mounts.
“What kind of hunt?”
“Do you remember when daddy and I took you to House Kirtin and we rode out to hunt bazophs?”
It had been one of the rare bright moments in their exile. Melizard had landed a position with a stable House and for two months they had a brief taste of normal Anocracy life. And then he had punched the Kirtin Marshal and it all ended.
Helen’s eyes lit up. “Can I come on the hunt?”
Maud realized that if she had told an average Earth woman that she would be taking her five-year-old daughter onto a temperamental alien mount and allow her to ride in a large pack of homicidal vampires to hunt an unknown but surely dangerous beast, the woman would have tried to take Helen away from her on the spot. Some people had PTA meetings, she had hunts.
Helen would enjoy it and Maud wanted her to be happy. Plus, after the poisoning, letting her daughter out of her sight without an army of bodyguards ready to tear any attacker to pieces was out of the question.
Whatever Ilemina wanted would likely take place before the hunt.
They reached the Preceptor’s study. The door was retracted, the doorway framing Ilemina bent over her desk. The older vampire woman seemed deep in thought, her expression focused and predatory.
A feeling of dread mugged Maud. Now what?
She halted in the doorway. “My lady?”
Ilemina raised her head. “Come inside.”
Maud walked into the room, bringing Helen with her. The door slid shut behind them. Traped.
Ilemina fixed her with a heavy gaze. “Lady Onda and Lady Seveline have invited you to the bride’s wassail.”
The wassail was a long-standing vampire tradition. Despite the grand name, it was basically a brunch, light on food, but heavy on drinks, which, for vampires, meant caffeine. An average vampire could drain a bottle of whiskey and remain perfectly sober, but Maud had seen them down an expresso and dissolve into a soggy mess of slurred words and draping arms declaring their undying love and devotion to a stranger they met ten minutes ago.
The wassail involved a large punch bowl filled with a caffeinated beverage and each guest would be served from it, toasting the host. It was common before a wedding; in fact, the tradition prescribed having several wassails for both the bride and groom. Maud had attended several wassails before. It was mostly a hilarious experience. Inevitably someone challenged her to a drink off, which ended with them under the table and her, completely sober, urgently looking for a bathroom.
Ilemina’s face promised doom.
“Is the invitation cause for alarm?” Maud asked.
“No female members of House Krahr received an invitation. It is a family wassail. You are the only outsider.”
She would be isolated and surrounded by knights of House Kozor. House Krahr was honor bound to respect their guests’ privacy. If something happened, there was no guarantee back up would arrive in time or at all. To decline the invitation would be both rude and cowardly and Onda and Seveline were counting on that.
“It’s a trap.” The words came out flat.
Ilemina nodded. “They will provoke you. They will try to test you to see what you know. Failing that, they will seek to humiliate you.”
“If they can’t get me to respond, they will try to provoke Arland on my behalf. If they insult me enough, and I run to him crying, he will be honor bound to do something about it. They’re getting bolder.”
Ilemina’s gaze was direct and cold. Maud had seen this exact expression on Arland’s face, right before he threw himself at a world-destroying flower. Ilemina had made up her mind. Neither Kozor nor Serak would get off this planet unscathed. It chilled Maud to the bone.
“Do you want the post of Maven?” Ilemina asked.
She didn’t even have to think. “Yes.”
Ilemina turned to the screen glowing on the wall. A recording began playing. On screen, Seveline dashed at a group of Otrokar. Each of the five Horde warriors was bigger than Seveline. Maud had fought the Hope-Crushing Horde before; they had earned their name and then some. Seveline danced through them, slicing limbs, cutting bodies, graceful, lethal, unstoppable… A radiant smile played on the vampire knight’s lips. Blood stained her blonde hair. She looked like a berserker, lost to the slaughter, but she moved like a fighter completely in control of her body. Fluid. Precise. Aware. Underneath a caption glowed.
57 confirmed kills
On screen, Seveline beheaded a warrior with a single swing and laughed. She seemed to know where every one of her opponents was at all times, anticipating their movements before they made them.
Ilemina sank steel into her voice. “You will go to this wassail and you will endure every assault on your honor and dignity. Under no circumstances are you to draw your sword. Do you understand me, Maven?”