The ceiling of the medward was pristine and white. Every cell in her body ached, as if her whole body had been through such a long and grueling punishment that it simply gave up and now wallowed in self-pity and pain.
Maud blinked at whiteness above her. She remembered many different medward ceilings from the last two years: the grimy mud-brown stone of the Karhari’s East Plateau, the thick metal plates of the Kurabi Fort, the multitude of chains hanging from the darkness at Broken Well… She had woken up a few times like this, in pain and unsure, surprised to be alive. This ceiling was, by far, the cleanest.
I survived again.
She didn’t remember losing consciousness. There was Arland coming toward her, covered in blood, and after that, soft darkness.
To the side quiet voices murmured. Maud focused on them and the formless noise congealed into words.
“…what if she doesn’t wake up?”
“She will wake up.” Arland. “Her injuries are serious but not life threatening.”
“But what if she doesn’t?”
Maud turned her head. Arland lay in an identical medcot. Helen sat by his feet, her blonde hair drooping over her face. A smile played on Maud’s lips. There you two are.
“Am I in the habit of lying?” A touch of steel crept into his voice.
“No. Lord Arland.”
“Your mother will wake up. Have you thought of what you will tell her?”
“Nothing she can tell me will make me less mad,” Maud said. “There will be ripper cushions. Huge ripper cushions.”
Helen flew off the medcot and jumped the five feet separating them. Maud barely had a chance to move her legs out of the way. Helen threw herself at her, small arms wrapping around her neck. “Mommy!”
Maud hugged her daughter to her. “You’re in so much trouble.”
Helen stuck her face into Maud’s shoulder, like a kitten waiting for a stroke.
Arland was looking at them. His eyes were so blue.
Maud reached over to him, but her arm fell short.
“Hold on.” He fiddled with the controls on the side of his medcot. It slid toward hers. The two beds touched. Arland moved toward her and held out his arm. She slipped under it, ignoring the muscles screaming in protest, and settled on his chest. His lips found hers and he kissed her. A hot electric thrill dashed through her, from her neck all the way down into her feet. Maud laughed softly. They stretched against each other, their bodies touching. Maud pulled Helen closer to her. Arland sighed next to her, sounding completely content.
“How did you get on the Battle Station?” Maud asked.
Helen didn’t say anything.
“Go ahead,” Arland said. “Tell her.”
Helen pulled the blanket over her head and burrowed under it.
Maud looked at Arland.
“She walked onto the transport and presented herself to the guards,” he said. “And when they asked her what she was doing there, she told them, ‘My mommy is the Maven and she is waiting for me.’”
Maud drew in a theatrically shocked breath. “Helen! You lied!”
Helen curled into a ball, trying to make herself smaller.
“And nobody thought to confirm this?” Maud asked quietly.
“No. When I asked them why they let a child onto the transport going to the Battle Station, I was told she was very convincing and had the air of confidence. She didn’t try to sneak in or ask permission, she walked up to them and looked them in the eye, like a knight reporting for duty, which apparently persuaded the battle-hardened knights that she was following orders and was exactly where she was required to be. All of our iron-clad security measures have been defeated by a five-year-old,” Arland said, his tone dry. “I’m less than pleased.”
That was pure Melizard. He could talk anyone into anything with a wink and a smile.
“What were you thinking? Maud squeezed her daughter to her.
“I was helping,” Helen said in a small voice.
“Am I punished?” Helen asked.
“Yes,” Maud told her.” As soon as I can think of a floor large enough for you to scrub with your brush.”
“I don’t care,” Helen said. “I helped. You didn’t die.”
Maud sighed and kissed her daughter’s forehead. “What are we going to do with you?”
“Command training,” Arland said. “As soon as she is old enough, in about two years, maybe sooner. She needs to learn responsibility for the people she will lead, or we will all be in a lot of trouble when she reaches adolescence.”
“I can’t think about that right now.” Maud shivered.
Arland wrapped his arm tighter around her. The heat of his body warmed her. She could’ve stayed like this forever.
I have earned this. I can’t believe he loves me.
“I love you, Arland,” she whispered. “You know that, right?”
“I know,” he told her. “I love you too, with all my heart. Will you have me?”
“I will.” She brushed his lips with hers.
“Even though I am an arrogant idiot who took on nine knights at once?”
“Even though. You’re mine. All mine.”
He grinned at her.
The medward’s doors opened and Ilemina and Otubar marched in.
“You’re awake,” Ilemina announced. “Good.”
Maud had a powerful urge to bury her head under the blanket. Arland let out a low growl.
“Have you told her?” Ilemina demanded.
“No. I was about to, mother.”
“Well, I’ll tell her.” Ilemina turned to Maud. “We won. We’ve destroyed over half of the pirate fleet. The rest of the cowards fled. We’ve captured seven vessels and picked up a few dozen escape pods, all of them crewed with members of Kozor and Serak. Of the two hundred wedding guests, sixty-eight survived. It was a resounding victory.” She turned to her husband. “Well? Say something to the boy.”
Otubar fixed Arland with a heavy stare. “You did well. I’m glad you are not dead.”
Arland looked like hiding under the blanket had occurred to him as well and he was pondering the merits of that idea.
“We are breaking the survivors up into small batches and shipping them off to Karhari,” Ilemina said. “We have several drop points around the planet, so there will be little chance of them reuniting.”
“What about the Kozor and Serak Houses?” Maud asked. “Who will be in charge now?”
Ilemina sneered. “House Krahr doesn’t concern itself with the petty political squabbles of minor houses. I can tell you who won’t be in charge: the idiots who thought to test the might of Krahr. If they want to travel to Karhari and retrieve what’s left of their former leaders, that is their burden. I have a feeling they will be in no hurry to do so. No matter, onto more important things. I understand my son has asked you to marry him?”
“Mother,” Arland snarled.
“Yes,” Maud said.
“Did you accept?”
Ilemina smiled, baring her fangs. “Excellent. We have some impressive recordings of both of you from the battle on the station, lots of blood, severed limbs. They are working on it now. We will splice it in with the wedding announcement. Shall we say a month from now? The valas will be in full bloom.You don’t want to get married on the Battle Station, do you?”
Arland put his left hand over his face.
Both Ilemina and Otubar stared at her.
“Ummm, no?” Maud said, not sure if she should brace herself. “I would prefer a traditional wedding…”
“That’s my girl,” Ilemina said. “You sure you want to marry him?”
“I love him, and I would be honored to be his wife if he will have me.”
Ilemina looked at her son.
“Why can’t you ever leave anything alone?” he asked.
“The lady professed her love. It requires a response.”
“I love her. I want to marry her.”
“Perfect,” Ilemina said. “I am glad we have all that cleared up.”
Otubar reached over and plucked Helen from the bed. “Come with me, child. It’s time we tested you with other weapons.”
“If you do well, I will give you cake,” Ilemina said.
Helen’s eyes lit up. “What kind of cake?”
“Delicious kind,” Otubar told her. He set her on his massive shoulder like she was a parrot and carried her out of the room. Ilemina watched them go with a smile, followed them, and paused in the doorway.
“By the way,” she said, “I was going to tell you once you both have properly recovered, but since you’re awake, I might as well. A human is here to see you. I was going to turn him away, but he is an Arbitrator, which presents some difficulties. His name is Klaus. He says he is your brother.”