Home > Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(14)

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles #4)(14)
Author: Ilona Andrews

The table was completely silent. The royal looked at her with her six glowing eyes.

Color burst on her exoskeleton, the pale neutral gray turning the deeper azure of the morning sky. She reached out her long elegant arm and took the plate.

“I accept your offering.”

Maud exhaled quietly and sat. The color around the table darkened slightly. She could tell the shades of blue, green, and purple apart now.

The two vampire servers behind her took off at a near jog.

She reached for the next fruit and began peeling it.

The royal speared a cube of honey-drenched bread with her claws and popped it into her mouth. “My name is Dil’ki. What is yours?”

“Maud, your highness.”

Dil’ki clicked her claws. “Tch-tch-tch. Not so loud. The vampires do not know. Where have you learned our customs?”

“My parents are innkeepers on Earth.”

A deeper blue blossomed on Dil’ki’s segments. The tachi around the table shifted, their poses less stiff.

“How delightful. Do you speak Akit?”

Thank the universe for dad’s insistence on a superior speech implant. “I do.”

Maud arranged another, less complex mandala and passed it to the tachi on her right.

“We will speak Akit,” Dil’ki declared, switching to the dialect. “Do you understand me, Lady Maud?”

“I do,” Maud said.

“Yes.” The royal leaned closer and popped a berry into her mouth. “Tell me, what are you doing here, among these barbarians?”

“One of them asked me to marry him.”

“No,” the green tachi from the right gasped. “You mustn’t.”

“They can’t even make proper seats,” another green tachi said. “Some of them are joined into benches.”

“You must be very brave to come here,” a purple tachi said from the left.

“Did you say yes?” Dil’ki asked.

“I said I would think about it.”

The vampire servers arrived, bearing platters of precision sliced fruit and cubed bread. The tachi fell silent. The food was placed on the table and the servers backed away.

“You may serve yourselves,” Dil’ki said. “If poor Maud has to feed us all, we will be here all night.”

The tachi clicked the mandibles inside their mouths, chuckling. An instinctual alarm dashed through Maud. Every hair on the back of her neck stood on end.

Claws reached for the platters, each arranging their own small masterpiece of fruit on their plate.

“Which one asked you?” Dil’ki asked.

Maud craned her neck. If Arland was anywhere, he’d be at the host table, but she couldn’t really see him. “The big blond one. The son of the Lady Ilemina.”

Dil’ki leaned in and the other tachi mirrored her movement, as if they had choreographed it.

“Tell me all about it,” Dil’ki said.

Maud opened her mouth and saw Seveline walking toward her, two male vampires in tow.

“Enemy?” Dil’ki guessed.

“I don’t know yet,” Maud said. She realized she had pushed her chair back from the table slightly, on pure muscle memory. When an enemy is approaching, it paid to make sure getting up didn’t cost you a precious fraction of a second. “I think she might be.”

As one, the tachi went light gray.

“There you are!” Seveline grinned at her. “I was wondering where they hid you.”

No proper address. An insult. It would’ve been fine if they were friends in private, but they were neither friends nor alone.

Maud plastered a smile on her face. “Lady Seveline.”

“I expected to have to search, but at this table? Really?”

Another insult. She really was enjoying herself.

“And I see they forgot to bring you meat. Do they honestly think you are an herbivore? Are humans herbivores, Lady Maud? I only ask because of your small teeth.”

A third insult. The dark-haired vampire at Seveline’s right flashed a quick smile. Couldn’t help himself.

A tachi on her right leaned to her and murmured in Akit. “Would you like me to kill her? I can do it quietly tonight. They’ll never figure it out.”

Oh crap. The last thing she needed was to cause an interstellar incident.

Seveline narrowed her eyebrows slightly. Ten to one, Seveline’s implant didn’t recognize Akit. It was an internal tachi language. But if Maud replied in English, it would translate her reply. Maud cleared her throat.

“Khia teki-teki, re to kha. Kerchi sia chee.” No, thank you. She’s a source of information.

Argh, she’d mangled it. There were sounds human mouths just couldn’t make.

The tachi clicked their mandibles again, in approval.

“That was very, very good,” Dil’ki said in Akit. “Good try.”

“Is something the matter?” Seveline asked.

“Not at all,” Maud smiled. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“As a matter of fact, there is.” Seveline smiled. “These lords with me were wondering if there was some unique aspect to human lovemaking that particularly appeals to vampires. I thought you would be a perfect person to ask, since you have used it to such great effect.”

Quarter of a second to get up, another quarter to jump up on the table, half a second to ram her fork into Seveline’s neck, piercing the windpipe. She would look so pretty with a bloody fork sticking out of her neck.

Maud smiled and stopped. A sentinel stood at the doorway of the feast hall. A small figure in a blue tunic with a silver sash stood next to him. The beginning of a huge black eye turned Helen’s right cheek bright red.

“Please excuse me.” She jumped up and hurried through the tables to her daughter.

Helen looked up at her, her face pinched. She was trying not to cry.

“What happened?” Maud asked.

The sentinel, an older male vampire, smiled at her. “Personal challenges are forbidden in the nursery. Lady Helen was warned about the consequences of her actions, yet she chose to continue as did her challenged.”

“He called me a liar,” Helen squeezed through her teeth.

Fear crushed Maud. Somehow, she made her lips move. “Is the other boy alive?”

“Yes.” The older vampire smiled brighter. “His broken arm will serve as a fine reminder of today’s events. Unfortunately, Lady Helen must leave us now. She is to report tomorrow to the nursery to atone for her failure in judgement. Should I take her to her quarters?”

“No,” Maud said. “I’ll do it.”

“But your dinner, Lady Maud?”

“I have had my fill.”

Maud took her daughter by the hand and walked down the hallway, away from the feast hall.

The long hallway of House Krahr’s citadel lay deserted. Behind Maud, the noise of the feast hall was dying down, receding with every step. Helen walked next to her, her face sullen.

“What happened?” Maud asked softly.

“They asked me where I came from, and I told them about how I made my room and Aunt Dina said she would get me fishes. This boy said that houses can’t move if you think at them. He said I was lying.”

Of course he did. “Then what happened?”

“Then I got mad.” Helen bit her lip with her fangs. “And I said take it back. And he said I was stupid and a liar. And then he wagged his finger at me.”

“He did what?”

Helen stuck out her hand with her index finger extended and waved it around, drawing an upside-down U in the air, and sang, “Liar-liar-liar.”

“Then what happened?”

“Then I said that pointing was bad, because it lets your enemy know where you’re looking.”

The lessons of Karhari had stuck. No matter how long Helen spent away from it, the wasteland had soaked into her soul and there wasn’t anything Maud could do about it.

“And he said I wasn’t good enough to be his enemy. And I said, ‘I’ll punch you so hard, you’ll swallow your teeth, worm.’”

Maud hid a groan. “Where did you hear that?”

“Lord Arland.”

Oh goodie. “Then what happened?”

“Then the scary old knight came and told me that if I challenged the boy, there would be ripper cushions.”

“Repercussions.”

“Yes. So I asked if the boy would get repercushions if he fought me, and the knight said yes, and I said I was okay with it.”

Maud rubbed the bridge of her nose.

“And then the knight asked the boy if he wanted help and the boy said he didn’t, and the knight said ‘proceed’, and then the boy punched me, and I got his arm. With my legs.” Helen rolled on the floor and locked her legs together. “I said, say surrender, and he didn’t say anything, he just yelled, so I broke it. If he didn’t want me to break it, he should’ve said surrender.”

Maud rubbed her face some more.

Helen looked at her from the floor, her big green eyes huge on her face. “He started it.”

And she finished it.

“You weren’t wrong,” Maud said. “But you weren’t wise.”

Helen looked at the floor.

“You knew you weren’t a liar.”

“Yes.”

“So why did it matter what the vampire boy said?”

“I don’t know,” Helen mumbled.

Maud crouched by her. “You don’t always meet enemies in battle. Sometimes you meet them during peace. They might even pretend to be your friends. Some of them will try to provoke you so they can see what you can do. You have to learn to wait and watch them until you figure out their weakness. The boy thought you were weak. If you let him keep thinking you were weak, you could’ve used it later. Remember what I told you about surprise?”

“It wins battles,” Helen said.

“Now the boy knows you’re strong,” Maud said. “It wasn’t wrong to show your strength. But in the future, you have to think carefully and decide if you want people to know your true strength or not.”

   
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