We planned on giving you a bigger section, because we thought you might perish from suspense, but we still have construction going on. We will try to give you either a bigger section or two posts next week, so try to hold on until then.
When we last left our fearsome innkeeper duo (I’m having so much fun with these recaps), Sean had taken down the pirate vessel that attacked the inn’s branch reaching out to the planet of Kolinda. He had crushed the pirates, but mysteries remain: how did they know that Gertrude Hunt had a door leading to the planet and where it was? What was their motive? Who is the pirate prince masquerading as one of the candidates? Stay tuned to find out. Maybe.
I opened my eyes. The slanted ceiling above me was shrouded in gloom except for a narrow rectangle of moonlight coming through the top of the window. The clock on the wall told me it was just past one. We’d gone to bed thirty minutes ago, after locking everyone in.
“What is it?” Sean asked.
There was a tiny pause as he checked. “How the hell…?”
“Gaston or Tony.”
My money was on Gaston. I had given both of them temporary privileges to open doors to guest quarters, because we needed all of the manpower we could get, and they ended up escorting various groups of guests back and forth. As the first, the longest, and the most special guest of the inn, Caldenia had access to all common areas and could roam freely, but it would have taken either Gaston or Tony to unlock the doors to the otrokar delegation and let her in there.
I got up. “She’s been in there for twenty minutes. I’m going to get her.”
“I’ve got it.” I leaned over and kissed him. “Rest. You’ve done plenty. I need to talk to her anyway.”
“We should lock her in,” he grumbled.
“She would be mortally offended.”
I got up, took my robe off the hook, and slipped it on. Nobody needed to know that I was wearing underwear and a tank top underneath. Finding my sandals seemed too hard, so I stuck my feet into a pair of flowery crocs Sean kept making fun of, took my broom, and headed to the otrokar section.
I had made the otrokar quarters for the peace summit that freed Sean from being the Turan Adin. At the time, it housed the Khanum, Dagorkun’s mother, and her delegation. All otrokars tribes had similar requirements: private bedrooms for the leaders and the shaman, communal bedrooms for the warriors, a large common area with a sunken in fire pit, and a secondary meeting area with another fire pit, where the leaders could hold private meetings. Tailoring the rooms to the current otrokar delegation took ten minutes. I had adjusted the colors to reflect the Southern sensibilities, added another bedroom, and called it a day.
At this time of night most of the otrokars would be in the common area, probably playing dice or telling stories before going to sleep. The Hope Crushing Horde had robust oral traditions, born at the time when their nomadic tribes traversed their homeworld following the seasonal rains. They would ride their vicious savok mounts all day and then set up camp, cook their food by the fire, and recount stories of heroes from long-gone ages.
The modern Horde warriors rarely had a chance to grill their meals over an open flame, and the skies above them usually shone with unfamiliar stars, but some traditions remained sacred. The same stories that had once echoed over the plains of the ancestral planet were now told in the hulls of massive spaceships on the way to the next interstellar conquest.
I swept the quarters with my senses. As expected, the majority of the group was in the common area, but two beings chose to be apart, on the balcony overlooking the orchard. One of them was Caldenia. The other was… Surkar, the otrokar’s spousal candidate.
I approached from the orchard side. I had put a barrier in place, so the otrokars could view the orchard, but they couldn’t jump down into it. I had no such limitations. The barrier slid over me like it wasn’t even there, and I paused in the shadows, directly under the stone terrace. I had gotten poisoned on this balcony and almost died, and then Sean had sold himself into eternal servitude to the Merchants to save me. Fun times.
A fire burned in the pit above me. The inn had a strained relationship with fire, and it was acutely aware of the small knot of heat and flames. The night breeze brought a faint scent of red tea. The Khanum preferred wanla, a stronger, coarser version she’d called ‘poor people’s tea,” but this smelled like a more refined, expensive variety.
Caldenia was talking in a low voice. The last time she used that tone, a Draziri warrior betrayed his commander and tried to murder him in the middle of the battle.
Gertrude Hunt offered me a branch. I stepped on it and the inn lifted me up, dissolving the seemingly solid stone above my head. I rose out of the terrace like a wraith.
The balcony had no lamps. The illumination came from the fire pit and the soft light of the common room behind it. Her Grace sat half in shadow, flame highlights dancing over her face, and sipped her tea from an ornate clay cup. She had abandoned the elaborate evening gowns in favor of her Earth clothes: a pair of grey jeans, white T-shirt, and a black leather jacket, which was entirely too warm considering the lingering heat. The outfit said, “These are comfortable clothes. I’m not dressing up. I’m among friends.”
To her left, Surkar wore a kilt, soft boots, and nothing else, letting the light of the fire dance over what he believed to be the galaxy’s best chest.
Caldenia tone was sardonic and slightly bitter. “…his father was the same. Let’s just say that their deductive powers leave much to be desired. Some people simply must be confronted with the obvious.”
Surkar nodded, his face thoughtful. The two of them were completely at ease, two conspirators murmuring over the fire.
Lingering here any longer would be eavesdropping.
“Your Grace,” I said.
Surkar jerked. That’s right, fear my stealthy ways.
“Alas, my babysitter has arrived.” Caldenia set her cup down. “I suppose you’ve come to fetch me to my rooms?”
“You’re free to access all common areas of the inn at any time, Your Grace. However, that privilege doesn’t extend to the private rooms of other guests.”
“She was invited,” Surkar said, his voice hard.
“Be that as it may, visiting hours are over for everyone’s safety.”
“She is welcome to stay as long as she wishes,” the otrokar said.
“Don’t fuss, dear. I will go.” Caldenia rose. “Rules are rules, after all. I’ll leave you with this parting thought: strength begets strength. If you desire something, make it known. Reach out and seize it.”
Surkar nodded as if he heard something profound. Caldenia, the Tony Robbins of the Galaxy.
Her Grace fixed me with a look and sighed. “Lead the way.”
I pushed with my magic. A staircase sprouted from the balcony leading into the orchard. Caldenia took it. I followed her, dissolving the stairs behind us.
We walked down the flagstone path through the orchard gardens. The moon had hidden behind a cloud, and the darkness leeched colors from the plants, painting the flower beds that were verdant in daylight in a dozen shades of black, charcoal, and hunter green. I sent a pulse down the path. Cream-colored globes ignited next to it, illuminating the stone just enough to see.
“Is my nephew awake?” Caldenia asked.
I checked. “Yes.”
She sighed. “I may have to speak to our lovely chef. Kosandion will sleep very little for the next few weeks. He will need enhanced nutrition.”
“Because of Odikas, of course.”
“I thought it was settled.” Kosandion already won.
She gave me a short laugh. “Oh no, my dear. Removing Odikas was only the opening salvo. Now the real fight begins.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Power abhors a vacuum. With Odikas gone, the members of his Conservative Alliance will scramble to climb onto his now empty throne, shoving and kicking each other out of the way. This is a gambit years in the making. The boy planned it beautifully and executed it well, but now he must maneuver pieces on the game board to push the right candidate to the top without anyone realizing they have been manipulated.”
“My money is on Dulvia of Tar. She is aggressive and power hungry. Of all of them, she wants it the most, yet she’s shrewd enough to realize that she is the least qualified for it. That sense of hidden inferiority is priceless. If she ascends, she’ll spend years stomping out any opposing factions in the conservative block. She will go after anyone brighter than her to destroy competition before it has a chance to blossom into a threat. By the time she consolidates her power base, Kosandion will have everything in place to steer her in the direction of his choosing, and the Conservative Alliance overall will be weaker, less creative, and easier to handle. Dina, you have a strange expression on your face.”
“I’m relieved that I am who I am.”
“And not my niece?” Caldenia smiled.
“You are a child of innkeepers. You were born into this life, and your every experience contributed to your education. By the time you reached adulthood, you were an expert. Kosandion and I were born to be fit to rule well. I do not mean this in a pompous way of entitlement. I mean it as a statement of fact. We were genetically enhanced with a careful selection of traits that made us capable administrators and nuanced leaders. Then we were educated in the way of governance from the moment we opened our eyes. We are highly specialized skilled workers, bred for the purpose of leading interstellar nations, and we have an added incentive of painful death in case of failure that drives us to excel.”
“The responsibility must be crushing.”
Caldenia sighed. “It is, at times. But then this is what we do. And let’s face it, tearing down your enemies is a great deal of fun. You are a picture of restraint, but a part of you enjoys flexing your power when the occasion requires. Kosandion is much the same. An embodiment of self-discipline and decorum until it’s time to stab and rip the still beating heart out of the chest of his enemy. It’s just that his stabs take a great deal of work and much preparation.”
The boy planned it beautifully… There wasn’t just admiration in her voice. There was familial pride.
“I have some bad news for Kosandion,” I said.
Caldenia stopped. “How bad?”
I paused. We’d come to an intersection of several paths, where they joined into a round patio.
Midway through Caldenia started pacing. It was a violent movement, fueled by rage. She’d picked up a small branch somewhere, about the width of my finger, and she flicked her thumbnail across it as she walked back and forth, slicing perfect little sections off it with each slide of her thumb. She was like the proverbial caged tiger, flicking her tail, looking for an opening.
I finally finished.
“You must tell him now.”
“I was planning to tell him in the morning.”
She stopped and glared at me. “No. Now. The sooner he knows, the better. I realize you have no obligation to share this information, and your innkeeper’s duty is to let him rest, but it is a matter of his political survival. Do this for me, please.”
“Okay,” I told her.
“Right now,” I promised. “Do you want to come?”
“No. It is best that I interact with him as little as possible. But tell him this: Olivio teseres tares. He will know what it means.”