Sweep of the Blade – Ilona Andrews

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 liquidproof, 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.” Melizard was owed a blood debt. A debt she collected over the last six months, as she went after every vampire complicit in his murder and their relatives and friends dumb enough to track her down to get revenge. She’d stabbed the last murderer a month ago and watched his heart pump his blood onto the dirt. She gave him a cold flat stare. “My memory is quite good.

I do not recall you being there. Don’t presume to comment on my habits, my lord.” Renouard grinned. “Ahh, and there is the wife of the Marshal’s brat. I keep waiting for this place to smother you, but you do endure, Sariv. Why are you here?” She raised her eyebrows. She wasn’t going to even dignify it with an answer. “You’ve been threading your way through the wastes, towing your crazy child with you for months, then the week before last you parked yourself at this Lodge. You’re waiting for something. What is it?” She yawned.

“Tell me.” His tone gained a menacing quality. A hiss came from the stairs. Maud leaned back to bring the stairway into her peripheral vision. Helen crouched on the stairs, wrapped in a tattered brown cloak. Her hood was up, but she was looking straight at them, the long blonde hair sliding out of the hood and two green eyes, glowing slightly, fixed on Renouard. “There is the demon spawn,” Renouard said. Helen opened her mouth, showing two thin sickle fangs, and hissed again. Crouched like that, she looked like a vicious little animal backed into a corner, a feral cat who didn’t want to fight, but if you tried to touch it, it would slice your hand into ribbons. She couldn’t have heard them all the way from upstairs.

Or at least Maud hoped she hadn’t. With a child that was half-vampire, half-human, Maud had given up on all her preconceived notions long ago. “Are you waiting for someone to take you off this rock?” Renouard’s upper lip trembled, betraying the beginning of a snarl. “If so, you’re waiting in vain, my lady. Karhari is under a restricted access seal. Only the handful of Houses who are charged with guarding Karhari or those designated as vital trading partners are granted a permit. There are less than ten traders, all vampires, and I know every one of them.” “It’s truly rare to find a man who enjoys the sound of his own voice as much as you do.” “The Houses guarding the planet are paid by the Anocracy to keep you exactly where you are, and you have no way to pay for the passage from a trader. The cost to smuggle you out is too high.

You barely earn enough to keep you and your demon from dying of thirst. If you’re waiting for an outsider to come to your rescue, their craft will be shot down the moment it enters the atmosphere.” She stroked the hilt of her sword under the table. Renouard leaned forward, taking up his side of the table and some of hers. “I’m your only chance. Take my offer.” “You want me to sell my own daughter to the slave market.” “A vampire-human hybrid is a rarity. She’s worth some money. I promise you, in a month, she and the planet will be a bad dream.

” If she threw the cup at his face, he’d jump to his feet and she could drive the knife on her left hip under his chin and into his mouth. Hard to talk with your tongue impaled. “If you don’t want to sell her, leave her here. She grew up here. This hellhole is the only place she knows. She doesn’t remember House Ervan. Void, she’s probably forgotten her own father by this point. Leave her here. It will be a kindness.” She felt the sudden need to take a shower to wash off the few molecules belonging to him that happened to land on her skin.

“Come with me. We’ll burn our way through the galaxy. I’ll keep you too busy to brood. I’m quite good at making women forget their problems.” He reached for her. She thrust the sword between them under the table. The point grazed his thigh. “It seems you’ve forgotten what happened the last time you failed to keep your hands to yourself.” His affable expression was completely gone now. An ugly snarl twisted his features.

“Last chance, Maud. Very last chance.” “You have a shuttle to catch.” “Fine. Rot here.” He rose. “I’ll be back in six months. We can revisit it then, if there is anything left of you to bargain with.” Maud watched him walk away. Helen slid into the booth next to her.

“I don’t like him.” “Neither, do I, my flower. Neither do I. Don’t worry. He won’t bother us again.” “Mommy?” “Yes?” Helen looked up at her from the depths of her hood. “Will somebody really come for us?” The fragile hope in her daughter’s voice nearly undid Maud. She wished so badly she could say yes. Two weeks ago, when they stopped at the Lodge for the night, she had run into an Arbitrator. The galaxy, with all of its planets, dimensions, and thousands of species, was too large for any unified government, but the Office of Arbitration, an ancient neutral body, served as its court.

To meet an Arbitrator was rare. To meet a human one… Up until two weeks ago Maud would’ve said it was impossible. Humans didn’t get out much. Through a twist of cosmic fate, Earth sat on the crossroads of the galaxy. It was the only twelve-point warp in existence, which made it a convenient hub. Instead of squabbling over the planet, the interstellar powers, in a rare moment of wisdom, formed an ancient agreement with representatives of humanity. Earth would serve as the way station for the galactic travelers passing through on their way to somewhere else. They arrived in secret and stayed at specialized inns equipped to handle a wide variety of beings. In return, the planet was designated as neutral ground. None of the galactic powers could lay claim to it, and the existence of other intelligent life remained a secret to all human population except for the select few families who minded the inns.

The few rare humans who made it off-planet were like her, children of innkeepers, all marked with a particular magic that allowed them to defy the rules of physics within their inns. The Arbitrator felt different, suffused with power, unlike any human she had met before. She had stood by the bar, trying to figure out if he was Earth-born, when he turned to her and smiled. For a second, she stumbled. He was shockingly beautiful. He asked her if she was from Earth, she told him she was, and he casually offered to deliver a message to her family. She’d frozen then while her mind feverishly tried to find someone to whom she could send the message. When she was pregnant with Helen, her brother Klaus and her younger sister, Dina, had come to House Ervan to tell her their parents’ inn had disappeared. One moment the charming colonial was there, hiding a microcosm inside, the next it vanished, taking everyone inside with it. When Klaus had come home from running errands, he had found an empty lot.

Nobody, not even the Innkeeper Assembly, knew where or how the inn had vanished. Her siblings were going to search the galaxy for answers. She wanted to join them, but she was pregnant and Melizard begged her to stay by his side. He was in the middle of another scheme, and he had needed her. Two years later, just as her husband had started on the path that would land them on Karhari, Dina and Klaus had come again. They found nothing. Klaus wanted to keep looking, but Dina had enough. She was going back to earth. Of the three of them, Dina longed for normal life the most, always wanting things the innkeeper families couldn’t have, like friends outside the inn or attending high school. Maud still recalled the bad feeling that had washed over her as she watched the two of them walk toward the spaceport.

Something told her to grab Helen and follow them. But she loved Melizard and she had stayed… By now Dina probably had a normal job. Maybe she was married, with children of her own. Klaus was universe alone knew where. She told the Arbitrator as much and he smiled at her again and said, “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Messages have a way of getting where they need to go.” Maud took off her necklace, scribbled a few words with the coordinates of the Lodge on a piece of paper, and handed them both to him. It felt right somehow, as if this was a test and she had given the correct answer. Now they waited. She had no idea how long it would take.

Her mercenary job had earned them two and a half weeks of stay, the rest of her money would buy another two weeks or so, then she would have to search for jobs. Helen was still looking at her, waiting for an answer. Will somebody really come for us? “Yes,” she said. “If your aunt or uncle get our message, they will come for us and they will take us away from here.” “To a different place?” Helen asked. “Yes.” “With flowers and water?”

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