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Maud knocked on the door separating Arland’s quarters from the tunnel leading to her rooms. Yesterday she would have hesitated. Today she didn’t even pause.
The door swung open. Arland stood on the other side, barefoot and out of armor, wearing a black shirt over loose black pants. His hair was damp, and he’s pulled it back into a loose horse tail. He must’ve just stepped out of the shower. The afternoon had turned into an evening, and the light of the sunset tinted the room behind him with purple, red, and deep turquoise.
His gaze snagged on her. She was wearing a white robe of fonari spider silk, its fabric so thin and light, she barely felt it. The wide sleeves fell over her arms like a cloud. She’d cinched the robe at the waist with the belt, but it was cut so wide that the voluminous skirt swept the ground behind her, the gossamer silk swirling around her at the slightest breeze and when the light caught it just right, it shimmered, translucent.
The robe was a Christmas gift from Dina. She’d handed her the gift, smiled, and walked away, giving Maud her privacy. Maud opened the gilded box, touched the silk, and sank on to the floor next to it. At the time it seemed like an unbelievable luxury. On Karhari it would have paid for a year of water for her and Helen, and Maud had cried over it quietly, alone. She’d cried like that the first night of her exile, when she butchered her waist-long black hair. The dark locks had fallen to the ground and she had mourned the life she lost, but at Christmas, when Maud held the delicate fabric in her fingers, it had touched off something in her, something gentle and fragile she had hidden deep inside to survive, the part of her that loved beautiful clothes, and flowers, and long soaks in the bath. It came aware and it hurt, and she cried from pain and relief.
She wished so much she’d had her hair now.
Arland opened his mouth.
Nothing came out. He just looked at her. An exhilarating flash of female satisfaction surged through her.
He closed his mouth and opened it again. “How is Helen?”
“Very tired. We washed all of the blood off and she fell asleep.”
“Understandable. She was fighting for her life.” His voice trailed off.
“Can I come in?”
He blinked and stepped aside. “Apparently, I have lost my manners somewhere on the hunt. My deepest apologies.”
She swept past him into the room.
He shut the door and turned to her. “Have you sustained any inju—”
She put her arms around his neck and stood on her toes. Her lips met his, and he held very still.
Does he not want me?
Arland’s arms closed around her. He spun her, and her back pressed into the door. His rough fingers slid along her cheek, his fingers caressing her skin. She looked into his blue eyes and caught her breath. His eyes were hot with lust, need, and hunger, all swirled together and sharpened with a hint of predatory anticipation.
His lips trembled in the beginning of a growl. He smiled wide, showing his fangs, and lowered his mouth on hers. Her instincts screamed in panic, not sure if she was mate or prey, but she had waited for so long for this and she met him halfway.
They came together like two clashing blades. His mouth sealed hers and she opened for him, desperate to connect, to feel him, to taste… His tongue glided over hers. He tasted of mint and warm spice. His fangs rasped against her lip.
Her head swam. She felt light, and strong, and wanted…
He kissed her deeper, his big body bracing hers. She nipped his lip. A snarl rumbled deep in his throat, the sound of predatory warning or maybe a purr, she wasn’t sure. He kissed the corner of her mouth, her lips, her chin, her neck, painting the line of heat and desire on her skin. She was shaking with need now.
“I’ve wanted this for so long,” he groaned.
“So did I.”
He was kissing her neck again, each touch of his lips a burst of pleasure. She could barely think, but she answered anyway. “We almost died today. I can’t wait any longer. I don’t want to be careful, I don’t want to think about the consequences or things going wrong. I just want you. I want you more than anything.”
“You have me.”
“Always,” he promised.
Maud stretched, sliding her foot along the heated length of Arland’s leg. He pulled her tighter to his body. Her head rested on his chest.
“What were they? The creatures?”
“The closest thing to Mukama in my generation. On the vampire homeworld, there were predatory apes, like us, but not quite us. A distant relative, less intelligent, more feral, more vicious.”
“Yes. The Mukona, the creatures that attacked us, are the Mukama’s primeval cousins. They are to the Mukama what feral apes are to us. An earlier evolutionary branch that didn’t grow. This is the birth place of the Mukama, after all. The Mukona possess rudimentary intelligence, more of a predatory cunning, really, and inhabit caves deep below the planet’s surface. When we took over the planet, we had hunted them to extinction, or so we thought.”
“There were three of them,” Maud said. “A mated pair and an offspring?”
“I don’t know. Possibly. I’d never seen one before today. I’d heard stories.” He made a low growl. “Once this damn wedding is over, we’ll have to send survey drones into the caverns. Find out how many of them there are, and if any are left, we will have to take measures to preserve them.”
She raised her head and looked at him.
He smiled at her. “Today we are legends. We killed a Mukona, the next thing to the Mukama, the ancient enemy, the devourer of children, the cosmic butchers who almost exterminated us. Once the word gets out, every House will be beating on our door for a chance to hunt one. They really are magnificent beasts. We have to protect their future and manage their numbers. I have no idea what brought them to the surface, for this hunt of all hunts. Oh well, at least something good will come out of this wedding.”
“It was Helen,” Maud said.
Now it was Arland’s turn to raise his head and look at her.
“When I was a little girl, a Mukama came to stay at our Inn.”
Arland jerked upright in bed. “A living Mukama?”
“Well yes, it wasn’t a dead one that somebody brought with them. No, he was very much alive and wanted a room. They are out there somewhere, Arland. Think about it. They were an interstellar civilization with an armada of ships. You didn’t really think you got them all, did you?”
“Yeah, I kind of did. What happened?”
Maud frowned, tugging on the string of a half-forgotten memory. “I don’t remember any of it. I was told about it later, but Klaus, my brother, was there and it gave him nightmares. The Inn had lain dormant for a long time and my parents had just recently became its Innkeepers. They were not in a position to turn down guests.”
She didn’t really want to remember, but she had started the story and now she had to finish it. “My parents offered him a room with a separate exit, completely away from all other guests, on the condition that he refrain from harming anyone. Supposedly, I had walked into the garden at this point. I was maybe five. I should remember it, but I don’t. All I remember is my father standing and something huge and dark looming over him. And then there were teeth. Really scary teeth.”
She slid deeper under the blanket. Arland lowered himself next to her and wrapped his arm around her waist.
“The Mukama saw me and chased me through the garden. My parents had restrained it. It had taken all of their combined power and everything the Inn had. When my father demanded to know why he shouldn’t just kill the Mukama now, the creature told him that it couldn’t help itself. That I was full of magic and he would do anything to devour me. He offered them a fortune. He told them that they had my brother and they could always make more children, but it was vital that he be allowed to eat me.”
“He raved about it. My father was worried that they wouldn’t be able to contain him and he appealed to the Innkeeper Council. They sent the ad-hal and the ad-hal took him away. That’s why the Mukama are barred from Inns where there are children.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me? Why didn’t anyone tell us?”
Maud sighed. “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t get a chance. All of my energy was spent either tending to your wounds or trying to not throw myself at you. I’m now telling you because you are the Marshall and I am the Maven. As to why nobody told the Holy Anocracy, the vampires are just one of the thousands of species who come through Earth’s Inns. We maintain our neutrality and we keep the secrets of our guests.”
Arland kissed her shoulder. “That’s troubling news.”
The kissing made it difficult to carry on a conversation. “Mhm. Did you know your mother made me a Maven?”
“She informed me after the fact.” He nuzzled her neck. “Do you like being a Maven?”
“I’m thinking about it. What are you doing?”
“Since my wounds don’t need tending, I am seeing if I could get you to throw yourself at me.”
“A knight always rises to the occasion, my lady.”