Home > Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)
Author: Ilona Andrews

1

THEN…

The hot wind flung brown dust into Maud’s face. It scoured her skin, clogged her nose, and piled in her hair. She tasted grit on her tongue, dirt tinged with bitter metal, and pulled the hood of the tattered cloak tighter around her face.

Around her the endless plain rolled to the horizon, interrupted in the distance by low hills. Here and there stunted thorny plants jutted out of the dirt, desiccated and twisted by the winds. Far to the north, bur, the shaggy herbivores that made Earth elephants look small, stomped their way across the plain, grazing on the scrawny vegetation. There was no beauty on Karhari; no golden fields of grain, no forests, no oasis. Just dry dirt, rock, and poisonous salt deposits.

Ahead, by the crossroads barely marked by solar lights, the blocky metal box of the Road Lodge jutted against the wastes, tall walls and narrow recessed windows pitted from the frequent onslaught of wind and dust. A reinforced double door punctured the wall in front of her. Maud shouldered her needle rifle and headed to it, carrying the canvas sack in her left hand high enough it didn’t bump her legs. The canvas was liquid-proof, but she didn’t want it touching her all the same.

The door clanged, split in half, and slid into the wall. Maud walked inside, and the doors shut behind her back. The stench of unwashed bodies and klava caffeine washed over her. The delicate perfume of drunk vampires.

She grimaced, pulled the needle rifle off her shoulder, and dropped it through the slot in the electrified wire cage by the entrance. She kept her blood sword. The owner only cared about projectile weapons. If the patrons decided to bash each other’s skulls in, she didn’t give a damn as long as their tab was paid.

The inside of the Lodge consisted of a long rectangle, with a bar counter on the right and a collection of grimy booths and tables on the left. Toward the end of the room, a spiral staircase led upstairs, to seven shabby rooms, each little more than a box with a bed and a bathroom hidden behind a partition.

The Lodge catered to travelers, doubling as an inn and a bar. It sat on the crossroads like a trap, catching the dregs that washed up from the wastes of Karhari—mercenaries, convoy guards, raiders—lost souls who had no place to go and wandered the planet of exiles until they found their place, or someone relieved them of the heavy burdens of their life and possessions.

It was barely past noon and most of the Lodge’s patrons had either left, trying to make it to the next rest stop before dark, or hadn’t arrived. Only a few vampires milled at the tables, nursing the dark klava swill. They paid Maud no mind as she walked over to the bar.

The bartender, a large vampire woman with greasy greying hair and pitted armor, eyed her from behind the counter. Maud held the sack out to her. The woman pulled it open and fished out a blood-smeared counter defilade launcher with a hand still attached to it. Barely the size of an Earth submachine gun, the launcher fired high-energy pellets at 1,200 rounds per minute. Two pellets would make a hole in the armored side of the Lodge. The launcher’s magazine carried 2,000. Firearms of that caliber were outlawed on Karhari. The owner of the weapon had paid a fortune to smuggle it, destroyed a lodge, then spent his time riding around holding random lodges and inns for ransom.

The vampire woman sniffed the bloody gun. “Did he put up a fight?”

Maud shook her head. “Left my bike in plain view on the eastern road. He stopped to check it. Never saw me.”

The bartender scowled at her. “How did you know where he’d be coming from?”

“The west is House Jerdan’s territory; they patrol with infrared and they would’ve stripped the launcher off him. The closest place to rest to the south is four days; to the north, five, and that road gets frequent convoy traffic. Too risky. Someone might have noticed him and if he took too long driving back and forth it would give you enough time to get a defense together. No, he went east and camped for a day. No sane vampire will camp longer than one night during the storm season.”

The bartender nodded. “You do good work, human, I’ll give you that.” She reached behind the counter, put the gun away, and pulled a heavy bag out. “Water or cash?”

“Neither. I need the room till the end of the month.”

“It’s yours.” The barkeep put a large cup of mint tea on the counter. “The drink is on the house.”

“Thanks.”

Maud pulled the hood deeper over her face, took her tea, and made her way to the familiar ratty booth at the far wall, near the staircase. She slid into the metal seat and tapped the ancient remote terminal unit on her wrist. The piece of junk blinked and buzzed softly. Maud slapped it. The terminal blinked again and came to life. Maud pulled up the keyboard and sent a single glyph to the only other terminal connected to hers.

Safe.

Two glyphs appeared in response. Safe, Mommy.

Maud exhaled and sipped her tea. It was lukewarm, but free. She tapped the terminal again, running an integrity check on the armor. She could still remember the time when controlling her armor was intuitive and easy, almost as mindless as breathing. But to do that, she would have to have a crest of a vampire House. She had lost hers when her husband’s political machinations had gotten the three of them exiled to this anus of the Galaxy. No, not lost, Maud corrected herself. It was taken away from her when father-in-law had personally ripped it off her armor.

The memory of that day stabbed her, and Maud closed her eyes for a moment. She’d begged her mother-in-law for her daughter’s life. It was too late for Melizard and her, but Helen had been only two at the time and Karhari was an ugly, vicious place, the junkyard of vampire souls, where the Houses of the Holy Anocracy sent the garbage they didn’t bother killing. She’d pleaded on her knees and none of it mattered. House Ervan expelled them. Their names had been struck from the House scrolls. Their possessions were confiscated. Nobody had argued in their defense.

Helen was five now. The memories of their life before Karhari were so distant, sometimes Maud wondered if she had dreamed them.

She surveyed the dozen vampires getting drunk on caffeine. A predatory strain of the same genetic seed that had sprouted into humans, vampires were bigger, stronger, and more powerful than an average Homo sapiens. They occupied seven main planets and had colonies on a dozen other worlds, all of which together made up the Holy Cosmic Anocracy, governed by three powers: the military might of the Warlord, the religious guidance of the Hierophant, and the judicial wisdom of the Judge. Within the Anocracy, power lay with the Houses—clans, some with only a few dozen members, others numbering in hundreds of thousands.

The vampires had obtained the secret of interstellar flight when they were still in a feudal period, and their society had changed little since they launched their first ship into space. They still built castles, they wore armor, and they held on to the ideals of knighthood: honor, duty, and loyalty to the family and House. To the ragtag lot in the Lodge now, all those things were distant memories, vague and abandoned. One only had to look at their armor.

To a vampire knight, the syn-armor was almost holy. Deep black and glossy in mint condition, the high-tech nanothread mesh was custom made for each knight and paired with a sophisticated AI unit within their House crest. A vampire knight spent the majority of their time in armor, taking it off only in the privacy of their quarters. Repairing it was an art and keeping the armor in battle condition was a point of pride.

The vampires in Lodge still wore armor—they had been knights once, after all—but instead of sleek lines and glossy black, their suits were a dented mess of charcoal and grey, with sections from other suits tacked on to patch the holes where the nanothreads had been damaged beyond repair. They looked like they’d painted themselves with glue and rolled in a metal junkyard.

Her own armor was no longer black either, but at least she had managed to keep her nanothreads alive.

The door of the Lodge slid open, and a large vampire strode inside, swaddled in a black cloak. At 5’9” Maud was tall for a human woman, but he had almost a foot on her. The vampire pulled back his hood, releasing a black mane of hair that fell to his shoulders. The kind of hair that said that he was wealthy or could leave the planet to a place where water was plentiful enough to wash it. The only water on Karhari came from deep within the planet. During the short rainy season, the water filtered through the porous rock, forming underground lakes, and the vampires pumped it like oil. It tasted foul and cost an arm and a leg.

Maud had pampered her hair with conditioners and masks since she was a teenager. Their first night on Karhari, she had slashed it all off, almost two feet of black locks. It was her sacrifice to the planet. She sat on the floor of a grimy bathroom in an arrival hostel, with her husband and child sleeping just a thin wall away, her hair all around her, and cried silently, mourning Helen’s future and the life they lost.

The newcomer turned, saw her, and made a beeline for her booth. If he were human, she would have put him somewhere between thirty and forty. He had a masculine face, heavy jaw, bold features, but with just enough aristocratic refinement to keep it from being brutish. A jagged scar chewed up the left side of his face, cutting through his cheek to the bionic targeting module glowing weakly in the orbit where his left eye used to be.

Renouard. Ugh.

Maud put her hand on the hilt of her blood sword under the table.

Renouard marched down the aisle between the tables. A taller younger vampire got in his way. Renouard looked at him for a long moment and the younger mercenary decided to take a seat. Renouard’s reputation preceded him.

He slid into her booth, taking up the entire bench, and pondered her. “I thought you left, Sariv.”

She really hated that nickname. “Why haven’t you?”

“I had a small bit of business to take care of.”

Renouard bared his teeth at her, displaying his fangs. Vampires showed their teeth for many reasons: to intimidate, to express joy, to snarl in frustration. But this one was a leer. Look at my teeth, baby. Aren’t I amazing?

She drank the last swallow of her tea and studied her empty cup.

“Since your pretty boy husband got himself killed, you’ve never stayed in the same place longer than a day or two.”

   
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