The shuttle docked. Arland paused in the seat, scrutinizing Sean.
“Where did you learn to fly the Holy Anocracy’s shuttles?”
“Wilmos,” Sean said. “An old werewolf at Baha-char. I owed him for some armor he sold me, so I did some mercenary work. He gave me a crash course.”
Arland made a short noise that was the vampire equivalent of harrumph and sounded a lot like a deep-throat snarl.
The doors of the shuttle swung open. Three vampires stood, waiting, two men and a woman. One of them, an older male, carried a stack of thin towels. Arland jumped out, grabbed one of the towels, and wiped his face. The towel came away bloody.
“Get us out of here before I succumb to temptation and initiate the kinetic bombardment of this dump,” Arland growled.
The female vampire bowed and took off, issuing commands into her communicator.
The other male vampire checked his tablet. “My lord, your injuries…”
“Do you require medical attention?” Arland asked us.
“No,” Maud and I said at the same time.
Arland glanced at Sean. Sean shook his head.
“Lady Dina, if I might have a moment?” Arland asked.
Maud was on my right and I caught a flicker of panic in her eyes. It was very brief and it made my stomach turn. My childhood had few unshakeable truths, but one of them was that my older sister was afraid of nothing. Maud never backed down and never asked for help. When I was a child and someone was mean to me, I went and got Maud, because after she talked to them, they would never be mean to me again.
The vampire with the tablet tried again. “Your injuries…”
“Are minor,” Arland said. “Lady Dina?”
We walked away a few dozen feet. I glanced at Maud. Helen was standing next to her, hugging her leg. My sister looked ready to pull her sword out at any moment.
“You didn’t tell me that your sister was married to a knight of the Holy Anocracy.”
“I’m sorry. I was focused on rescuing her and my niece.”
“I’m not upset,” Arland said, glancing back at Maud and frowning. “But I do not like to be misled.”
“It wasn’t my intention to mislead you.” Yes, it was. A lie by omission was still a lie. I would’ve told him anything to get Maud and Helen out of there and I didn’t want to risk vampire politics interfering with that. “I wasn’t certain of my sister’s status. I’m sorry if this will cause issues between House Krahr and House Ervan…”
“What?” Arland drew back. “No. I don’t care what House Ervan thinks. If I field a quarter of our fleet, it will still be three times as much as the entirety of what House Ervan can scrape together. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about…” He waved his hand, trying to find the right words.
“Lord Arland, sometimes it helps to speak plainly.”
“Sword,” he said. “She has a blood sword.”
“Yes, she does.” Where was he going with this?
“She killed four vampires and maimed another two.”
I nodded. “Yes, she did.” And he had been counting, apparently.
“She’s wearing syn-armor. It’s been custom fitted and the patch seam on her left side is recent. When one seals a gash in one’s armor while it is still on their body, one moves the sealing tool from the outside in, creating the raised pattern pointing toward the center of the body, as is seen on your sister’s armor. It feels more natural this way and lets one gauge the risk of structural collapse if the nanothreads within the armor are compromised. When one seals the armor after taking it off, the pattern is reversed, because when we face the armor suit, we tend to repair it by moving the tool from center of the body out.”
“She repaired her own armor. She didn’t feel it was safe to take it off, so she did it while she was wearing it. That requires skill and experience. One wrong move, and you can critically injure yourself.”
Oh, Maud. “I fail to see the significance of this.”
Arland dragged his hand through his hair, exasperated. “From my interactions with my cousin’s wife, I understand the women of Earth to be delicate creatures, powerful in their own right, but not on par with females of the Holy Anocracy when it comes to martial prowess. My cousin’s wife does not wear syn-armor or carry blood weapons.”
I made a mental note to introduce him to a female MMA championship match the next time he stopped at the inn. “Lord Marshal, I have no idea what kind of woman your cousin’s wife is. Human women, like vampire women, come in all types. For example, I don’t like violence, but I will kill to protect my family and my guests.”
“Yes, but I believed you to be an exception due to your unique position.”
“I’m not an exception. Most Earth women would do whatever they had to do to protect their loved ones and while our culture is less martial than yours, human female warriors exist. Maud was always very good with weapons and never hesitated to use them. I’m sure being married into a Holy Anocracy House meant she had to fight for the honor of the House more than once. Being exiled to Karhari where she had to defend herself and my niece only sharpened her skills, so if you don’t mind some advice, treat her as you would treat any skilled female vampire fighter. It will be safer for everyone involved.”
Arland looked at me as if seeing me for the first time. Yes, the princess you were expecting put on her armor and left to kill the dragon. So sorry.
“Lord Arland, my niece is covered in blood. If you don’t mind, I would like to get her to my cabin where she can shower.”
“Of course,” he said.
We walked back to Maud, Sean, and Helen. My sister searched my face, waiting. Beneath our feet the floor shuddered slightly as the massive ship accelerated toward the gate that would catapult it countless miles across the Galaxy.
“Come on,” I told her. “Lord Arland has most graciously provided me with a very large cabin. Let’s get cleaned up.”
The cabin Arland assigned me wasn’t just spacious, it was luxurious and decorated in a beautiful teal-grey, blue, and pink color scheme, which I would shamelessly copy the next time a vampire came to stay at the inn. The door behind us slid shut.
I turned around and hugged Maud. She hugged me back.
Helen pulled on my robe. “Hugs.”
“Hugs.” I let go of Maud and picked her up. “How do you even remember me? The last time I saw you you were this tiny.” I held my thumb and index finger about an inch apart.
Helen giggled, showing her fangs. “Mommy showed me pictures. She said if she died you would take care of me.”
All the fun went out of me.
“I’ll take care of you,” I said. “Always. And we’ll start with a bath.”
I didn’t even want to know why she asked that.
“With all the water,” Maud said. “All the water ever.”
I carried her into the bathroom. A massive obsidian-black tub rested in the middle of the room, designed so it could be sunken low into the floor and sealed when the ship maneuvered. I turned on the water. Helen began pulling off her clothes. The dust and blood had combined into a sort of paste that saturated the fabric beyond the point of return.
“Dina,” Maud said.
“I think her clothes are a lost cause,” I said.
Helen jumped into the bath and splashed. Dark swirls spread from her through the water. Maud had the strangest look on her face, half-pain, half-happiness.
“Wash your hair, baby,” my sister said, grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the bathroom. “I don’t want to make trouble for you. You can drop us off anywhere outside of Holy Anocracy territory.”
“What are you talking about?”
Her voice was quiet and urgent. “Melezard dishonored his House. They didn’t just exile him, they removed all traces of his existence from the family tree. It’s like he never was born, I was never his wife, and Helen was never his daughter or a child of House Ervan. Two thirds of exiles sent to Karhari die in the first three years. Before they sent us, I begged—“, her voice broke, and she swallowed, “—I begged his mother on my knees to take Helen so she wouldn’t have to go into exile with us. That bitch looked me straight in the eye and told her guards to remove the strangers from her house. I can’t go back to the Holy Anocracy.”
“We’re not going back to the Holy Anocracy.”
“I don’t want to make trouble between you and your vampire. I’ve put you into a bad position and I’m so sorry. House Krahr is one of the most powerful Houses.” She raised her hands. “Look at this ship. I don’t want to ruin it for you.”
“It’s not a problem.”
In the bath Helen dived and surfaced, laughing.
“Dina, I saw his face when the two of you were talking.”
“You threw him off his stride. His cousin is married to a human and he has an odd fascination with Earth women. He just didn’t realize not all of us are shrinking violets. He was explaining to me how you sealed your armor while wearing it and how it didn’t compute in his head.”
Maud frowned. “The two of you aren’t together?”
“Then how?” she raised her arms, encompassing the ship.
“I asked him for a favor. He offered, actually.”
“The Marshal of House Krahr just offered to take his destroyer and come rescue me because you asked him?”
She stared at me. “Why?”
“He’s a frequent guest at the inn and he felt obligated to help because the inn hosted a peace summit that saved a lot of vampire lives and resulted in his House making a lot of money. Also, he’s a kind man.”
“The inn? You found mom and dad?”
Pain stabbed me straight through the heart. “No. My inn. Gertrude Hunt.”
She looked at me, her face blank.
“I’m an innkeeper,” I told her. “We’re not going to the Holy Anocracy. We’re going to Earth, to my inn. We’re going home.”
All blood drained from Maud’s face. For a moment she looked at me as if she didn’t understand, then her lip quivered and my sister cried.