The Grand Ballroom was full. I stood to the left of the throne, at the edge of the raised platform. Sean stood at the opposite side of the room to the right of the entrance. Between us, positioned in rough clumps, waited the twelve delegations, each clustered around their spousal candidates. We arranged them in two columns of six by the walls, sandwiching the troublemakers between the calmer species.
The logistics of packing 12 species into a single, although huge, room proved painfully complicated, and to add to our misery, Sean and I had to make two additional areas, one for the interstellar observers and one for the Sovereign’s retinue and the Holy Ecclesiarch and his attendants. If it was up to me, I would have stuck them all onto separate balconies and called it a day, but the Dominion’s etiquette prohibited anyone sitting higher than the Sovereign. It didn’t matter if my head was higher than his while I was standing next to him, but if I was seated, the height of my chair had to be lower than the throne.
We solved that problem by raising the Sovereign’s platform to six feet and creating two additional galleries on the sides of it, segregated from the main space by a short decorative wall. I filled the galleries with cushy ornate seats, packed the observers into the one on my right, and stationed Gaston there to keep things calm. I spared it a glance. Karat and Dagorkun sat in the front row, with Cookie between them. They left a seat open for Caldenia on Karat’s left. Her Grace was taking her time. I wished she would hurry up.
The gallery on my left remained empty. When the Sovereign arrived, his attendants would fill it. Except for Resven, who had informed me he would be standing at the Sovereign’s right and Miralitt who would park herself by the stairs leading to the throne for security reasons.
The guests filling the big room murmured to each other in a dozen languages and gave each other dirty looks. Gertrude Hunt was on high alert, ready to snatch anyone who stepped out of line.
Predictably, the two most volatile groups in the front row were spoiling for a fight.
The otrokar delegation was on my right, decked out in traditional otrokar green and southern red. Both northerners and southerners wore the two colors, but while the green was the same shade, the southern red was slightly darker and a bit more purple. My mother called the North maraschino cherry and the South the red cherry. An otrokar under-khan once grandly explained to me that the northern red was arterial blood and the southern came from a vein, which told you everything you needed to know about them as a species.
The roster of the otrokar delegation made me nervous. Otrokars biologically adjusted their bodies for their chosen role starting at puberty. For example, Dagorkun was a strategist. He had aimed for a balance between speed, strength, size, and durability. He was versatile. Most of the diplomats were strategists as well and would look like him. Two members of the delegation did, but the rest couldn’t be further from it.
Six of the otrokars were over seven feet with huge shoulders and massive chests, the bruisers who would charge into the fight first, smashing through the enemy’s vanguard. The next six were smaller, lean, and fast, likely swordsmen or other close quarters combatants. In a fight, they would become a coordinated whirlwind of steel, capable of precise and rapid carnage. Among the remaining six, two were clearly medics marked by long green sashes, three were likely marksman, and the last otrokar was a shaman in a ceremonial kilt, with an exposed torso, a mane of ruby hair, so dark it was almost black, and a dozen thin leather cords and chains dangling with charms and pouches wrapped around his waist.
This wasn’t a diplomatic party; this was a southern otrokar war band. Even the two strategists looked battle ready. Their candidate, a tall, powerfully built warrior, might have lacked the bruisers’ bulk, but he would snap any adult human male in half like a twig. He moved like a leopard, every rippling muscle perfect, and the way he glared at Dagorkun didn’t bode well.
The otrokars needed a target to occupy their attention, which was why we put the vampire delegation directly across from them in the front row. Right next to me. First, the close proximity would guarantee that the two groups focused on each other instead of picking random fights, and second, the vampire delegation came from House Meer, which meant I had to watch it like a hawk.
House Meer and House Krahr, into which my sister was going to marry, were on the verge of becoming sworn enemies. Over the last few years House Krahr had grown in power, and House Meer was trying to keep them in check. During the Nexus peace summit, House Meer sent three knights to torpedo the peace talks, and Sean, in his role as Turan Adin, killed them in about two seconds, scaring the hell out of everyone. Very few people knew about Sean’s alter ego, so I didn’t worry about him being recognized, but the possibility did occur to me.
House Meer was not a fan of humans, inns, or me. The twenty of them loomed in their syn armor like a solid block of darkness. Their candidate, a statuesque female knight with nearly white hair and equally pale skin, was sneering so much, her face was in danger of becoming stuck like that.
The fewer opportunities we gave House Meer and the otrokars, the better, which was why we put Kai and Oomboles in the second row.
The third row featured the two delegations from opposite ends of the Seven Star Dominion. They had a long-standing rivalry as well and tried to attack each other before according to Miralitt. We needed to dilute their attention a bit, and Sean suggested putting the veiled attendants of the Temple of Desire and the Donkamins in the fourth row. Gaston referred to this strategy as eye candy and eye scary, and it seemed to be working.
The Temple of Desire was missing its candidate. According to their representative, Lady Wexyn Dion-Dian was indisposed after the transit and would join us shortly. I had glimpsed her only briefly. She rode in on an antigravity palanquin, hidden behind translucent curtains, full fifteen minutes ahead of her scheduled time, and I passed her procession in the hallway as Sean led them to their quarters. Her attendants, both male and female, were also shrouded in shimmering diaphanous fabric that moved in the slightest breeze, delicately hinting that under all of those gossamer-thin layers lay sexy bodies and amazing beauty. The Temple had elevated the skill of suggestion to a fine art.
The fifth row, behind the Temple and Donkamins, contained the vaguely feline Higgra and the elegant Gaheas, humanoid, with skin the color of amber and very long dark violet hair that reached to their knees. Of all the delegations, the Gaheas were the most striking. They looked breathtakingly beautiful, moved like flowing water, and spoke in melodious voices. They also perfected psionic warfare and could melt a sapient mind with a focused thought. The bejeweled tiaras on their heads weren’t there for decoration.
We used their presence to contain the Zinera, otherwise known as Murder-beaks. Avian, flightless, and armed with huge beaks and powerful clawed feet, the Zinera would’ve given Earth’s prehistoric Terror Birds a run for their money. They had a strong prey drive and killed for sport. Fortunately, they had tried to invade the Gaheas, who were their immediate neighbors in space. The Murder-beaks knew exactly what a focused mind wave could do to their brains. They minded their beaks and talons.
Finally, across from the Zinera, the Dushegubs were a dark tangle of roots and limbs, shrouded in foliage, as if some nightmarish forest had magically sprouted in the corner of the room. They had large begonia like leaves, purple at the edges and brilliant blue in the middle, splattered with random patterns of the brightest Pepto-Bismol pink. Sean was standing across from them, and Tony had parked himself on the side, just in case they wanted to try anything. The gorgeous woman who was their candidate perched on a large Dushegub root like some dryad.
It was a lot. The variety was dazzling and confusing, but mostly very dangerous and anxiety inducing.
The wall behind Sean parted, forming a tunnel. What was he doing?
A huge lupine shape emerged from the tunnel and sat on his haunches by Sean. Sean lowered his hand. Gorvar sniffed his fingers and rubbed his shaggy cheek against Sean’s hand.
At my feet, Beast let out a quiet growl, just in case the oversized wolf decided to run across the ballroom and attack me.
A low trumpet sounded. Gaston cleared his throat, his voice amplified by a microphone and spilling from the hidden speakers. We needed a Master of Ceremonies, and he enthusiastically volunteered.
“Her Grace, Caldenia ka ret Magren,” Gaston announced in a deep resonant voice. His High Galactic was excellent even without the translator. “Letere Olivione, Dystim Adrolo, She Who Controls Fate, the Light of the Midnight Sun.”
Caldenia walked into the room. She wore a magnificent formal gown, deep green accented with silver and pale gold. An emerald tiara crowned her spectacular updo. Her makeup was flawless.
The ballroom went silent as a tomb.
Her Grace had taken three steps forward when her eyes finally registered the glowing symbols of the Dominion on the arched ceiling above the throne. For a fraction of a second, Caldenia froze. It lasted a mere heartbeat, and I committed it to memory, because it would likely be the first and last time I saw Her Grace lose it.
Our stares connected. I tried to warn you.
The miniscule moment of shock ended. She glided forward, a calm smile on her face.
Gaston moved away from the bullpen on an intercepting course, approached Caldenia, and offered her a graceful bow. She gave him a smile and rested her fingers on his forearm. Gaston murmured something to her. Her eyes sparkled and she quipped something back.
What are you doing? Take her to her seat, quickly. We’ve talked about this.
The conversations resumed but at a markedly lower volume. Nobody had any idea what would happen next, us included. Sean and I had been given assurances, but no guarantees. I would protect Caldenia at all costs.
The trumpets blew a triumphant note. A man appeared at the entrance. His elegant white robe hugged his tall, muscular frame, its intricate embroidery luminescing weakly with pale gold. His skin was the darkest shade of black, with a shocking blue undertone as if someone had carved him out of onyx and dusted his cheekbones with sapphire powder. His hair, cut down to almost stubble, was shaped with almost microscopic precision, and it shone with white, like swirls of the first frost on a window. His face was intelligent and long, his dark eyes bottomless, and when he strode into the room, there was no doubt that it and everything within it was his to command.
Caldenia froze again, her eyes wide.
“His Supremacy, Kosandion ka ret Maggran,” Gaston announced next to her. “Letero Kolivion, Dystim Arbiento, Sovereign of the Seven Star Dominion, He Who Is Immune to Fate, the Light of the Morning Sun.”
Caldenia’s fingers on Gaston’s forearm trembled. I had so wanted to spare her this, but she’d made it impossible.
Kosandion reached Caldenia. You could hear a pin drop.
“My dear aunt,” the Sovereign intoned, his voice a clear baritone that carried though the entire room unaided. “I haven’t seen you since you murdered my father. It’s been too long.”
Caldenia’s face snapped into a mask. “Greetings, dear nephew. You look well. The throne agrees with you.”
Kosandion nodded and ascended the twelve steps to his throne. Resven assumed his position by the throne and Miralitt parked herself on the right fo the staircase.
Gaston gently steered Caldenia to her seat.
The Sovereign sat upon his throne. The glowing symbols of the Dominion above him pulsed with golden light and settled back into their light blue.
“I trust everyone has rested,” Kosandion said, his tone announcing that he didn’t require an answer. “Good. Let us begin.”