Today was the first day this week it was quiet and people were not trying to kill themselves with scaffolding. Also I got some funky bloodwork results, and it was causing a bit of anxiety. Long story short, this whole scene was written today. We literally just finished, so it is truly the first draft. We will get it proofread shortly, but we didn’t want to leave you guys hanging.
When we last left the inn, Karat and Bestata were having a practice duel, Orata was trying to find a way to spin Vercia’s betrayal of Kosandion into some sort of positive development, and Dina was preparing for the first elimination ceremony.
The important question is, what wonderful outfit will Gaston wear to the elimination? Will it be red? Will it be blue? Did Bestata get her sneer handed to her? We are about to find out.
Kosandion decided to hold the elimination in the arena.
Outside of the inn, a bright sunny day was in full swing. Inside, a late evening painted the sky above the arena with blues and purples, and in the west, a splash of brilliant pink diluted with gold gently smoldered into night. I had recorded a spectacular Texas sunset and was now projecting it on the ceiling. The air was pleasantly warm. A simulated evening breeze fanned the delegates in their seating sections.
At the south side of the arena, an enormous stone doorway opened to a short passage leading to the portal glowing with pale green light. I stood just inside of it, out of view. Gaston waited next to me. He’d chosen another space musketeer outfit, this one a deep hunter green, and he topped it off with a brimmed hat with a ridiculously fluffy black feather.
At the north end, directly opposite the doorway, a stone crag thrust from the bottom of the arena. It had two small seating sections on each side and a stone staircase that led all the way to the top, crowned with a stone throne. Behind the throne, eleven enormous banners, each representing the remaining delegations, hung from seemingly empty air, stirring gently in the breeze. There was a spot for the twelfth banner, between the second and third banners from the right, but it was obviously missing.
Between the throne and the doorway, in the center of the arena, a raised section of the floor waited, a miniature plateau. Dark mist swirled at its base, sliding around the stone, flowing to the crag and back, like a turbulent sea, hiding the bottom of the arena from view and lapping at the walls of the delegations’ sections. Once in a while, tiny motes of golden light emerged from the mist and floated up slowly until they melted into the evening air.
It was as if the throne crag and the plateau had risen from a bottomless chasm shrouded with mist. In fact, they were only fifty feet off the ground. The mist was barely three feet deep. I bought it from Cookie, and he gave me a slight discount, which made his followers clutch their metaphorical pearls. It was still not cheap, but worth it. Orata had asked for “maximum drama.” No innkeeper would shy from that challenge. We lived for this stuff.
The arena hummed. The last delegation had been seated fifteen minutes ago and they were getting antsy.
There was some minor commotion in the Observer’s section. I pulled a screen up to take a closer look. Cookie’s two helpers dashed about, pretending to spar with two long daggers. Dagorkun looked like someone stomped on his foot, but he had to endure it, so he just let all the pain go to his face. Next to him Karat smiled and clapped her hands.
The smaller of the lees leaped into the air, bringing his dagger down in a sweeping cut. Oh! They were reenacting Karat and Bestata’s bout this morning. They must’ve seen the footage.
I knew Bestata was in trouble when Karat asked me to record their sparring session, because she wanted “an instructional video for Lady Helen.” All vampire Houses prided themselves on their melee skills, but House Krahr had taken personal combat to new heights. Maud explained to me that House Krahr treasured their children. They had known for decades that they would have to send them to battle on Nexus, where anomalies made air warfare impossible, and so they turned Arland and Karat’s generation into expert ground fighters. My sister described her future husband as “a killing machine” and meant it, which Arland would’ve taken as a huge compliment.
This expertise came with a hefty price tag. Concentrating on ground combat meant less time for education in other aspects of warfare. For example, Sean warned me that if Arland ever had to fight a space battle without an admiral to guide him, he would lose. But it did make for remarkable duels.
I split the screen and checked Lady Bestata. The red streak across her face was barely visible now. I had convinced her to spend a couple of hours in the medward, because having a spectacular bruise across one’s face highlighted on the Dominion’s screens would’ve been a bad look. The welt on Bestata’s face could be healed, but the wound to her pride was permanent. Karat had killed her three times during that duel.
“A remarkable woman,” Gaston observed over my shoulder.
“Both of them. Although Lady Karat is much more engaging.”
The inn chimed in my head. It was time. I dismissed the screens and grasped the arena with my power. This would require careful timing.
“Go,” I murmured to Gaston.
He touched the brim of his spectacular hat, flashed me a serrated-tooth smile, and marched through the doorway.
I flicked the lights on. Twelve clusters of flood lights, positioned at the end of 100-foot poles along the perimeter of the arena, came on and tilted down, illuminating Gaston in the passage. We had gone full Monday Night Football.
The solid ground ended at the doorway’s threshold, but Gaston didn’t slow down. For a moment his foot in a dark brown boot hovered over the empty air and then the first section of a stone bridge rose out of the mist to meet it. He took a firm step onto the stone. A row of small round lamps ignited in the rail of the bridge like runway lights guiding a plane to safe landing.
A hush fell onto the arena. Gaston kept walking. The light chased him, as if trying to catch up, all the way across the bridge and onto the central platform, where it dashed along the round stone rail, forming a complete circle. Gaston greeted the delegates with an elegant bow and a hand swish that likely required ballet training in childhood.
The arena erupted in stomps, hoots, and applause. Gaston welcomed it all with another bow.
The noise swelled, then began to ebb. Gaston raised his arms and the commotion died. He smiled, the huge screens by each section zooming in on his face, and called out: “Let us begin!”
A massive bell rang through the arena.
At the base of the stone crag Kosandion emerged from under the floor. He wore a brilliant white robe trimmed with deep blue. A long indigo cloak hung off his left shoulder. He looked majestic.
The light in the stone rail in front of Kosandion ignited, and the glow dashed all the way up to the throne. Kosandion started up the stairs. I added a bit of wind, and his cloak flared as he climbed.
The floor of the side sections parted. Nobody paid it any mind, because Kosandion was still ascending, and the entire Arena missed Mirallit, Resven, and Orata emerging on the left and the Holly Ecclesiarch and two of his acolytes on the right. Orata looked in my direction and crossed her palms out. Apparently, the drama was sufficient.
Kosandion sat on his throne. A hundred feet above him, a constellation of the Dominion star systems sparked into light, suspended in midair. The silver radiance spilled over him. He looked like a glowing god ready to sit in judgement of mere mortals.
A hush fell.
Sean stepped out from behind the throne like a shadow in a dark grey robe. It was his turn to babysit.
Gaston turned to Kosandion and waited. The Sovereign moved his hand. Gaston bowed and turned back to the arena, turning to let everyone get a look. His voice boomed.
“Twelve candidates journeyed here for the Final Selection. One candidate obtained glory but her delegation left in disgrace.” He pointed to the missing banner. “Eleven remain. Today we must say good-bye to two more. It is heart-wrenching to part with them, but the Dominion has voted. Their voices guide us tonight.”
Gaston paused, solemn.
“The first delegation to leave us is…”
The arena held its breath.
For a man who grew up without commercial breaks, he definitely had a thing for dramatic pauses.
“The Children of the Silver Star,” Gaston announced.
I highlighted the Donkamin section and extended a ramp from their section to the center of the raised area below. The twenty-one Donkamkins rose, and moved in an orderly line to join Gaston, the ramp folding behind them.
It was hardly a surprise. They had been notified this morning that they had garnered the least amount of votes from the Dominion. They had time to pack and prepare. There was always a chance that they would do something rash as a parting shot; however, it went against the way the Donkamins had conducted themselves so far.
The Donkamins faced the throne.
“Children of the Silver Star,” Kosandion said, his voice clear and strong. “You have honored us with your presence. We are grateful for the precious gift of your time and effort and for a chance to meet your civilization. What do you ask of the Dominion?”
Ah. The minor ask.
One of the Donkamins spoke. “The Silver Star wishes to exchange knowledge with the Dominion. We ask for the establishment of a scientific embassy on Teplaym.”
Teplaym was the Dominion’s most scientifically advanced planet.
“Granted,” the Sovereign said. “May the sharing of knowledge and exchange of ideas benefit both of our societies for centuries to come.”
He rose and bowed to the Donkamins. The Donkamins swiveled back. Their feet remained planted but their heads, necks, and other parts twisted in weird directions. It was a display of respect that no Earthborn person could watch without flinching. I fought a shudder.
“A round of applause for our departing friends,” Gaston requested, and the arena obliged.
Twenty Donkamins turned, swiveled at everyone, and finally started across the bridge toward the portal. The one remaining Donkamin turned to the right. I extended the bridge to the Observer section, and he moved to take his seat there. The Silver Star wanted to see for themselves how the selection would turn out.
The Donkamin banner dropped and vanished into the mist.
The Donkamin delegation reached the doorway. The leading Donkamin’s neck spiraled out and paused six inches in front of me.
“Thank you for your hospitality, Innkeeper. Be well.”
“Gertrude Hunt is honored by your presence. It was my privilege to host you.”
The Donkamins walked into the portal, and I felt their presence leave the inn. As the last of them exited, I held the portal open, and a new group of visitors arrived. Vercia Denoma, flanked by four Capital Guards. She shot me an ugly look.
“And now for our final elimination of the day.” Gaston turned to the throne and held his hand out.
Orata rose and stepped forward. I lit the platform perimeter, and the massive screens zoomed in on the PR chief.
“My name is Orata Tavan. I serve the Dominion as the Sovereign’s Liaison. My left hand touches the Sovereign, my right touches the Dominion’s people, and it is my sacred duty to bring them together.”
“When my office vetted the candidates for the selection, we discovered a terrible crime. One of the candidates was not who they claimed to be.”
The arena had gone completely quiet.
“Every delegation brought the best of the best, the exceptional, the honorable, the worthy. But this candidate was the worst of the worst. Dominion, what I am about to show you is horrific. But you must see it for yourself, so you can do your civic duties and render your judgement.”
On the screens, Pivor of the Murder Beaks beheaded a child with a swing of his sword. His skin was a deep lavender, and his hair was long, straight, and dark, but it was unmistakably him. The smile was a dead giveaway.
“Behold, Cumbr Adgi ar’Muterzen,” Orata announced. “The third son of Gar Por ar’Muterzen, and fourth in line to lead the Vagabond Pirate Fleet.”
In the Murder Beak section, Pivor tried to rise, but the floor swallowed his feet. I pulled the floor directly under him up, and his chair carried him fifty feet into the air, above the seats, leaving him seated on top of a stone pillar. He gripped the armrest, trying to pull his feet free, but the inn held him tight.
The screens flashed with strategically selected shots, a gallery of Pivor’s atrocities.
The Murder Beaks screeched. I had interacted enough with them over the years to recognize the specific tone of their shrieks. It wasn’t a protest, it was surprise and outrage. They didn’t know.
The morbid gallery kept rolling. Orata had removed the sound from the footage and watching it in silence made it more horrifying somehow.
“When this vile deception was discovered, we faced the question of how to proceed. It would be a simple matter to reject his candidacy and expel the delegation sponsoring him.”
Technically nothing she said was a lie so far. She just didn’t specify when exactly the deception had been discovered.
Vercia was frowning. Yes, I had no idea where Orata was going with this either, but apparently this was a cue because the guards started marching down the bridge to the central section, Vercia between them.
“However, one courageous member of our team, the one who was responsible for vetting his candidacy, made the decision to permit him to continue. She felt she had a duty to take this chance to expose his atrocities to the entire Galaxy at just the right time, when everyone’s attention would be on the event, so everyone would be aware of exactly what he has done.”
Again, not a lie.
“Dominion, that public servant is Vercia Denoma. She is our hero.”
I directed the nearest spotlight onto the platform. It caught Vercia in its radiance. I zoomed the screens on her face. She was doing a stunning impression of a deer in the headlights. The guards around her snapped to attention. I had seen them do this exact move in Kosandion’s presence. They were her “honor guard.”
“It is thanks to her tireless efforts that we can now stand here, see these crimes for ourselves, and witness justice being done. I brought this to you today to remind you to be vigilant. Evil is insidious. It can worm its way into your inner circle and stab you in the back.”
“If it wasn’t for Vercia’s efforts, we might have been unaware of the evil that is Cumbr Adgi. She is the reason he has reached this moment and the reason I can now expose him to all of you. Everything that follows is thanks to her. Today we honor you, Vercia Denoma. The Dominion owes you a great debt.”
Orata bowed. Behind her Resven and Miralitt bowed as well.
Pivor’s father indulged his children. He spoiled them, and he was in a business where a terrible reputation was an asset. He couldn’t afford to look weak or suffer disrespect. If anything happened to his offspring, he would retaliate. It was simply good business, and Orata had just told him exactly who was responsible for his son’s downfall. Orata hadn’t just thrown Vercia under the bus. She’d picked the bus up and dropped it on Vercia’s head.
The fear in Vercia’s wide-opened eyes told me that she understood exactly what happened.
Kosandion’s voice echoed through the arena. “Cumbr Adgi ar’Muterzen.”
I spun the stone pillar, so Pivor faced the throne.
“Do you have anything to say?” Kosandion asked.
Pivor grinned and this time it looked psychotic. “Fuck off, you dumb prick. You want a piece of me, be a man and get it yourself.”
Kosandion’s face looked carved out of obsidian. “Cumbr Adgi ar’Muterzen, you are hereby expelled from the selection. Your sponsor is disqualified. Their asks will not be honored.”
The Murder Beak banner fell and vanished.
“I have something to say,” the largest Murder Beak shrieked.
I moved the lights onto the Murder Beak section and slid Pivor’s pillar toward it, far enough to stay out of reach. The largest bird rose. She was huge with a rust and crimson plumage. Her enormous beak could crack a cow’s femur in half. I had seen it happen, because Orro served them bovine bones when they felt peckish and wanted a fun snack.
The leader of the Murder Beaks took a step forward and stepped onto the rail bordering their section. The wicked spurs on her legs were sheathed in razor-sharp metal and it glinted in the light of the arena. Her talons gripped the stone and squeezed, chipping it. She glazed at Pivor with the unblinking focus of a predator.
“Go back to your father, pirate. Give him my message. Your skulls are soft. Your brains are delicious. We are coming.”
She opened her beak and let out a deafening shriek. Every feather on her body stood erect. Pivor was thirty feet away from her, but he jerked back in his seat.
“The Dominion acknowledges the vow of vengeance,” Kosandion said. “We do not bear the Zinera any ill will and hold them blameless in this affair.”
“Fight me, you fucking asshole!” Pivor howled, twisting in his seat. “Fight me.”
“Sadly, someone else has a prior claim,” Kosandion said. “Innkeeper, we are finished.”
Sean raised his hand and his voice whispered through the arena, quiet but heard by every creature there.
“Your welcome is withdrawn.”
The architecture of the inn folded above the doorway, spinning, collapsing, and a door rushed at us and flung itself wide open, revealing Baha-char’s sunshine. The roots of the inn spilled from the ceiling, yanked Pivor off his chair, and hurled him through the door. It slammed shut.
The feed on the screen showed Pivor landing on the big stone tiles paving the alley. He rolled, stopped, spat into the dirt, and got up, his chin jutting in the air. He adjusted his clothes…
A familiar woman dropped from the upper balcony, wrapped in a shawl.
He squinted at her.
She pulled her shawl back, revealing the faint outline of scales on her face.
“Do you remember me, Cumbr Adgi?”
“You beheaded my father.” Long orange blades slipped into her hand from within the shawl’s folds.
“You starved my mother to death.”
She started toward him.
“You butchered my sister.”
He kept laughing.
“You violated my body.”
“And enjoyed it,” he said.
“Today is the day I cleanse my soul of this blood debt.”
“Bring it on!”
She charged him. He danced out of the way, impossibly quick for a human, and swung at her. She dodged. Pivor’s fist connected with the wall of a building, cracking the stone. That explained why he wanted to fight Kosandion.
He shook the dust off his hand and grinned. “Come on! I’m waiting! Come on, come…”
She slipped close to him with deadly grace and spun her sword over his left forearm. Pivor didn’t even register it until his fist slid off his arm and fell to the ground. He bellowed and charged at her.
It took five minutes for him to die. She painted the alley with his blood, carving pieces off him bit by bit, and when everything was done, she gouged his eyes with her bare hands, cut off his head, pulled her shawl over her face, and walked away, melting into the current of shoppers on the busy street at the mouth of the alley.
Vercia’s honor guard turned as one and exited the stage, heading down the bridge, past me, toward the portal. She looked after them, looked at Kosandion, then back at the screen where pieces of Pivor littered the alley. Desperation twisted her face. She marched to the bridge at a near run. Nobody except me paid her any mind. There was no need to arrest her or charge her with anything. She was a dead woman walking.
Vercia saw me and swallowed. “I want a room.”
“We have no vacancy.”
She spun around and waved at the arena, incredulous.
“We are full, Lady Denoma.” I pointed to the portal. “Please, return to the Dominion.”
She clenched her hands and fled to the portal. The green glow swallowed her.
I took a moment to savor the cleaner air and turned to the arena. We needed to wish the Murder Beaks good-bye, put everyone else back into their quarters, and prepare for Kosandion’s date this afternoon. He would be having a one on one with Cyanide, and I had no idea how it would go.