Maud stood in the middle of the Officer Hall and watched the entrance ceremony unfold on a large screen. The banquet room, a large space meant to accommodate five hundred diners, spread before her, an expanse of smooth onyx-black floor punctuated by the rosettes of tables and chairs made of the same glossy black. Crimson banners of House Krahr stretched along the walls, the black cat-like predator on them snarling to remind the gathering in whose house they were about to dine.
The blast shields of the massive battle station were down, and the far side of the hall was all window, the universe glittering beyond, with the turquoise and blue orb of the planet rising slowly to the right. A spray of radiant stars winked from beyond, the Krahr Homeworld Fleet displayed for the guests in a show of power and strength.
A dais had been raised in center, with the windows as the backdrop, and in the middle of it a small vala tree spread its gnarled black branches, its red leaves glowing against the cosmos, at once fragile and indomitable, a testament to the power of life that flourished given the slightest chance.
Both Kozar and Serak were already seated, taking up the center swath of the tables. The tachi, in the newly butchered chairs, and the lees were also seated, the tachi on the left, and the lees on the right, with the heads of both delegation near the dais. House Krahr would take the back rows of the tables. If either Kozor of Serak recognized that they were being boxed in, they could do nothing about it.
She had spoken to both factions about what to expect and offered protective detail for the wedding. Both declined.
“But why won’t the Krahr simply say no?” Dil’ki had asked her as they strolled through the Maven’s gardens. “It would avoid the loss of life.”
“It’s about face,” Nuan Cee had said, drawing his paw over his muzzle. “One must never lose it.”
“It’s a challenge,” Maud had explained. “Kozor and Serak hope to accomplish an incredible feat, worthy of the old sagas. The response from the Krahr must be equally heroic. They will reject any number advantage.”
“They truly believe themselves to be that good?” Dil’ki had asked.
“Yes,” Maud had told her.
The royal sat quietly now, clad in diaphanous veils and glowing jewelry of her kind. Her warriors waited around her, all a saturated even color. Despite what was coming, the tachi were at ease.
At the other side of the hall, Clan Nuan in their best gold and jewels, all wearing the soft silky aprons chattered and giggled without a care in the world.
The Herald announced Ilemina and Otubar. The hosts entered the hall last, according to tradition, and Ilemina and Otubar walked to their table, Ilemina elegant in her ornate armor and Otubar stalking next to her like a hulking krahr in a bad mood, while the Herald barked out their titles: Supreme Predator, Killer, Destroyer, Marauder, Slayer…
Maud wished with all her heart that she could hug Helen again. She left her on the planet. The battle station was no place for a child, especially if things would proceed as expected. She had to do what she did best: survive. Eliminate the threat and go back, to her daughter, her future husband, and her new home.
Easier said than done.
Arland approached. She felt his presence rather than saw him and turned. He towered above her in full syn-armor with a crimson cloak that made him seem even more enormous. His blood mace rested on his hip. He’d pulled his long blond hair from his face and secured it at the nape of his neck, and his features looked carved from granite, his blue eyes hard and cold. A Marshal in every sense of the word, meant to inspire fear.
He held out his arm to her. “Ready, my love?”
“Yes.” She put her hand on his wrist, her fingers light as a feather.
They entered the long narrow hallway leading to the banquet hall, moving in-step.
Ahead the microphone-enhanced voice of the Herald recited their titles, booming through the room.
“Arland Rotburtar Lord Gabrian, 28th Heir of Krahr, Marshal of his House, Bloodmace, Bone Crusher, Ravager of Nexus, Destroyer of the World Killer, Kill count of two hundred and twenty-four.”
Maud caught their reflection in the polished walls. In it a strange woman glided next to Arland, wearing black armor and carrying a blood sword, a narrow crimson sash of the Maven wrapped around her left shoulder, crossing over her collar bone and draping over her right shoulder to trail behind her to the floor. She was graceful and strong, and walked next to a vampire prince like she belonged there.
A giddy, electric anticipation surged through her. They were walking to a fight. Finally, an end to all the pressure. One way or the other, it would be decided. Her lips threatened to curve into a smile, and she forced an arrogant cold mask over her face. Today she was Cinderella and her sword would be her glass slipper.
“Matilda Rose, Lady and Heir of Demille, Maven of House Krahr.”
The hallway ended, and they strode into the banquet hall. The entirety of the room was watching them.
“Maud the Red, the Sariv, the Learned One.”
They were approaching the table where Onda and Seveline sat. Both women were staring daggers at her.
“Kill count of sixty and eight.”
A muscle in Seveline’s face jerked. That’s right, precious. I’m coming for you.
Arland led her to their table, directly behind the one occupied by the parents of the bride and groom. The two couples had arrived just this morning for the happy occasion.
She took her seat, keeping her face flat. Behind them, the Herald was announcing the next guest.
“Alvina Karat Lady Renadra, Captain of Krahr…”
Maud sipped the light mint drink and watched the hall fill. Two hundred of the Kozor and Serak, all elite fighters, thirty-seven aliens, and two hundred of Krahr, not counting the staff. The hall would have held more, but Ilemina sneered at the thought of pursuing a number advantage. This wasn’t just about winning. This was about winning against the odds. Every moment of this wedding was recorded.
Twelve vampire women entered the hall, moving in a column two abreast. Each wore a long white robe with a hood and carried a vala tree branch decorated with bells and golden thread. A low chant rose from their lips, a melodious song that floated through the chamber. Beautiful and timeless, it reached deep into one’s soul and found that vulnerable place hidden within. It wrapped around Maud and suddenly she missed her parents, Dina, Klaus, and Helen. She wanted to gather them all to her and hold on, because life was short and fleeting.
The procession split just short of entering the dais, the women moving along the main floor to encircle the dais, holding their branches straight up, as if guarding the boundary of the platform.
Twelve vampire knights entered the chamber, out of armor and dressed in plain black tunics, matching black pants, and wearing tall black boots. Each carried a simple black blade. A second chant rose from the men, joining the song of the women, deepening the melody, like a twin vine growing around the first. The song was everywhere now, echoing from the walls, reverberating back on itself and Maud breathed it in.
The second column split in two and the men took position between the women, each with their blade straight down, its point resting on the floor.
The song changed, gaining strength and speed.
A Battle Chaplain entered the chamber. He was tall, his skin grey with a slight blue tint. A mane of black hair shot through with grey fell on his shoulders in dozens of long braids. His vestments the color of flesh blood were split into ribbons, each about eight inches wide, and as he strode forward, they moved and shifted like robes of some mystic mage. He carried an ornate spear, draped with a red cord and decorated with golden bells. Two glowing yellow orbs about the size of a large orange dangled from it,
The song erupted, suddenly full of joy and triumph.
Behind the Chaplain, the bride and groom strode in unison, both out of armor. The bride’s gown swept the floor, long, diaphanous, and white. The groom wore an ornate silver doublet over darker pants and soft boots. They had removed all jewelry. Their hair hung loose, brushed back from their faces.
It was one of the few rare moments the vampires permitted themselves to be vulnerable in public. Maud hadn’t fully grasped the significance of it during her own wedding but now she understood. You came to the altar as you were, hiding nothing from your future spouse.
Arland reached over and squeezed her hand. She smiled at him.
The Chaplain ascended the dais. The couple followed and the three of them took their places in front of the vala tree. The Chaplain raised the spear and touched its end to the floor.
The chant died.
The Chaplain opened his mouth.
An alarm blared through the chamber.
A screen opened in the middle of the wall, showing a male vampire knight on the bridge of the battle station.
Arland rose to his feet. “Report.”
“We are showing multiple unidentified craft entering the system,” the knight said, his voice calm. “We are under attack.”