The end came simply and without fanfare.
The three of them were eating breakfast on her barren balcony. She and Arland sat at the table, enjoying mint tea and a platter of meats, cheeses and fruit, while Helen had taken her plate and sat cross-legged on the stone wall, contemplating the dizzying drop below. Every time she shifted her weight, Maud had to fight the urge to leap into action and pull her back from the edge.
“The child is completely fearless,” Arland said quietly.
“Karhari was flat,” Maud said. “I’m not sure if she understands the danger or is just ignoring it.”
Arland raised his voice. “Helen, do not fall.”
Arland glanced back at Maud.
Well, of course, that fixes everything. She hid a smile and drank her mint tea.
“I have a gift for you.” Arland pushed a small tablet across the table.
On the tablet, a slightly worse for wear but still impressive vessel appeared on the screen. It was patched, repaired and obviously scarred but the battle-damaged nature of the ship seemed to make it even more imposing. It was like an aging fighter, battered but unbowed.
“The Star Arrow? Renouard’s ship?”
Arland nodded. “The pirate.”
“What about it?”
“Would you like him killed?”
“He insulted you. You seem to dislike him, so I sent a frigate to track him down. We’ve been watching him for the past half-cycle and we have more than enough firepower to reduce him and his ship to cosmic dust.”
“Let me see if I understand correctly. You didn’t like the way a pirate and slave trader spoke to me, so you sent a frigate to track him down and murder him and his crew at my convenience?”
“You seemed to really dislike him.”
She stared at him for a long moment and began counting on her fingers. “Fuel cost, hazard pay, an entire crew sent into deep space…”
“The man is a menace, and the galaxy would be better off without him.”
She squinted at him. “Are you jealous of Renouard?”
“Not anymore. You are here with me and he is somewhere in the Malpin Quadrant about to impersonate a super nova.” Arland sipped his tea.
She laughed. “Would you like me to tell you about him?”
“If you wish.”
“We met at a Road Inn, a year and a half ago. He is a smuggler, occasional slave trader, and pirate of opportunity. I don’t know which House he was in, but I do know that he was born out of wedlock and it caused an issue. Depending on who you asked, he was either cast out or he left of his own free will, but he has been a pirate for the last two decades. I ran into him again after Melizard died. I was desperate to get off planet, and he offered me passage.”
“At what price?”
Maud shook her head. “Human, vampire, doesn’t matter. You want to know if I slept with him.” It was rather adorable that it was bugging him that much.
“I would never presume to ask.” Arland’s face was very carefully neutral. If he appeared any more disinterested, he would fade into the stone wall.
“I never had sex with Renouard. He had hinted at first, then he offered me passage for it, but even if I had found him attractive, which I didn’t, I never trusted him. He is the type to screw you until he’s bored, and then sell you to the highest bidder to make a quick credit. Even if I had been by myself, I wouldn’t have taken him up on it. I was responsible for Helen. I wasn’t about to take any chances. Shooting him now serves no purpose. Are you really that threatened by his existence?”
“I am not the least bit threatened by him. We are here, having a pleasant conversation, while he is very far away and at my command, he will cease to exist entirely.” Arland smiled wide, showing her his splendid fangs.
Maud rolled her eyes. “Keep him. He’s not stupid. He’s been a pirate for twenty years, he’s a survivor. He knows a lot of creatures. He’s also vain and he hates the Holy Anocracy, which makes him predictable. He may prove a valuable resource. Alternatively, you can storm his ship, put him in chains, have him dragged here and hidden in some dark hole, and when you’re suffering from an attack of melancholy, you could go and poke him with a stick. It would cheer you right up.”
“I don’t do melancholy.” Arland sat up straighter. “I am the Lord Marshall of House Krahr. I have no time to mope.”
Maud shrugged. “There is your answer then.”
Arland took the tablet back and typed something in a very deliberate fashion.
“I recalled the frigate. The man is a scumbag but blowing him to pieces after this conversation would be unseemly. I have to avoid the appearance of pettiness.”
“What happens the next time somebody is mean to me? Will you scramble the fleet again?”
“I’ll handle it. I just won’t tell you about it until it’s done.”
She laughed. “Do you feel I need assistance defending my honor?”
Arland leaned back and glanced into her quarters.
“What are you doing?” Maud asked.
“Checking to see where your sword is before I answer.”
She leaned back in her chair and laughed again. She couldn’t remember the last time she had so much fun at breakfast. You could have this every day, a small voice told her. Just like this, the three of them, together, making jokes about pirate hunting and watching to see if they need to rescue Helen.
“Do you think I could get some plants for this balcony?”
Arland stopped chewing halfway through his smoked meat. “Do you want plants? Make a list. I’ll have them delivered before sunset.”
“Thank you. It needs some flowers,” she said.
“You don’t need to even ask. Anything you want is yours, if it is within my power to grant. Besides, as a Maven, you have a discretionary spending account and the authority to use it as you wish.”
Maud toyed with her spoon. “I don’t even know what to get…”
“Can I have a kitty?” Helen asked.
The two of them turned to her.
“If mommy gets flowers, can I have a kitty?”
Arland looked abashed. “We don’t really have kitties. Would you settle for a rassa puppy or a goren puppy?”
Helen checked her personal unit. “Yes!”
“Then we’ll go to the kennels when we finish breakfast. If your mother approves.”
Smart man. “I approve,” Maud said.
Their personal units chimed at the same time. Maud read the short, one-sentence message, and her stomach tried to crawl sideways.
The happy couple want to wed on the battle station.