When Her Grace first arrived at the inn, she devoured popular culture, absorbing everything about Earth like a sponge. She watched countless documentaries, learned four languages, read thousands of books with ridiculous speed, and within six months, she could pass for a local provided she hid her teeth. Toward the end of that half a year, she showed me a tablet with an advertisement for a computer game on it. It was the latest iteration of Civilization being offered at a steep discount, and within a day she was playing it.
Civilization started the player off with a small group of settlers, which it plopped at a random spot on the map. The settlers founded their first village, scrounged for resources, reproduced, began to grow crops, developed new technologies, created their first religion, and from that tiny seed, a mighty civilization grew, guided by the player all the way to the space age. That is, if the other civilizations didn’t destroy it first. Warfare was an integral part of the game. One could play against AI or human players, and Caldenia had done both. She had beaten that game on Deity difficulty more times than I could count and moved on to Stellaris and other similar games, but Civilization remained her first love.
The Dominion had their own Civilization, a staggeringly complex and elaborate simulation called Progress. But to the Dominion it wasn’t just a game, it was a national sport, complete with tournaments, professional teams, and very lucrative contracts. Playing it required an advanced understanding of economics, civics, military strategy, and resource management. The game was constantly evolving, changing as the Dominion expanded its knowledge base.
For their third trial, the six spousal candidates had to play the Sovereign edition of the game, the most intricate version, and they had to do it on the highest level of difficulty. The game would last 9 hours, at the end of which their civilizations would be scored on a variety of criteria, everything from military might and population numbers to happiness and cultural richness.
The candidates with the three highest scores would move on to the final selection. Those with the lowest scores would be eliminated. Up to this point Kasandion and his team subtly manipulated the public opinion, but this trial hinged on pure skill.
The candidates took their spots around the table, all except Oond. The Dominion provided him with a humanoid assistant, who followed the Oombole’s instructions through an earpiece. The game began and six groups of settlers landed in different regions of the planet.
The first hour went about the same for everyone. All six candidates feverishly tried to build up their population, so they could expand and grab bigger chunks of territory. Everyone had some clashes with computer generated rival tribes and roaming bands of barbarians.
By the second hour, the civilizations began to diverge. Bestata, Nycati, and Prysen Ol heavily invested in their military. Amphie concentrated on technological progress, while Oond and Lady Wexyn sank their resources into culture and religion. Lady Wexyn generated scores of scouts and sent them all over the map.
In the third hour, Amphie and Bestata had a minor clash over a valuable source of copper. Prysen Ol shifted his priority to developing a unique cavalry unit, Oond’s nation became a theocracy, and Nycati, who had landed on a vast fertile steppe between two mountain ranges, set about conquering all of the budding computer civilizations around him. Lady Wexyn unleashed a swarm of caravans and began trading with everyone.
We were in the eighth hour now. They had about 45 minutes before the game ended and the scores were tallied. I had eaten two sandwiches and drank two cups of tea and a cream soda. I couldn’t remember the last time I had spoiled myself that much.
Karat returned to her seat after another trip to the bathroom. “I don’t understand how they can hold it for this long.”
“If they leave, the game will continue without them,” Caldenia said. “Five minutes away from the game could put everything at risk. Victory demands sacrifices.”
“I suppose being a fish does offer some advantages in this situation,” Karat said.
“But that advantage is offset by not having hands,” I told her. “Oond has to explain what he wants done instead of simply doing it.”
“He doesn’t seem to be suffering,” Karat said.
The holographic representation of the planet above the table was tinted with six different shades, representing the six territories controlled by the players. Oond’s orange territory spread over his continent, infringing on Bestata’s right side.
“The game is unfair,” Dagorkun pointed out. He had returned to his seat after half an hour. Some sort of internal struggle must have taken place and Dagorkun must’ve resolved it and settled on a course of action, because he seemed relaxed and well at ease, as if the incident with Karat had never taken place.
Caldenia gave him an outraged look. “In what way?” she demanded.
“The Dominion candidate has years of practice,” Dagorkun said.
“Well, those years were clearly wasted,” Caldenia said. “She’s made the one mistake she couldn’t afford. It is a basic rule of any Galactic warfare. Never get into a land war with a vampire. Especially during the Feudal period.”
The war between Bestata and Amphie had raged for almost two hours. The vampire knight had built several fortified castle cities, leaving a small gap by one of her major rivers. It offered a straight shot to her mountain range and the limestone caves within. The caves were a source of saltpeter, potassium nitrate, the primary component of early gunpowder. Amphie failed to find any in her part of the map, so she had amassed a horde of horse archers and invaded.
Bestata beat a retreat, drawing Amphie’s army deep into her territory, and then her fortified cities vomited armored knights who plowed into Amphie’s horse archers, ripping through them like they were paper. Bestata destroyed her supply chain and a third of Amphie’s army died of starvation.
Now the war had shifted into Amphie’s territory, and Bestata had taken three of her cities and was laying siege to another two.
“Honestly,” Caldenia sneered. “I had expected a better showing.”
“Do you play, Your Grace?” Dagorkun asked.
“I was the Grand Champion of both the Dominion and the Supremacy for thirty years.”
“Was that because of your skill or your reputation?” Karat asked.
The two of them were playing with fire.
Her Grace gave them her best predatory smile. “Any time the two of you would like to find out, you know where to find me.”
She hadn’t played Progress since she had arrived at the inn. The reminder of everything she had left behind must’ve been too painful.
A pulse of gold light rolled through Grand Prelate Oond’s territory. His Magnanimousness had completed yet another ziggurat to the delight of his worshipers.
“The Gaheas is throwing the game,” Caldenia noted.
At some point during the match and probably without knowing, Nycati had decided to follow ancient China’s approach to fortifications. He had built two massive walls connecting his mountain ranges, and then he sat on his steppe, breeding horses, building palaces, and developing poetry, music, arts, and medicine. He traded with Lady Wexyn, whose caravans by now reached every corner of the planet and fought off two attempted invasions by Prysen Ol, but he showed no sign of expanding.
“His civilization seems to be doing well,” I murmured. “His approval rating is high.”
“The isolationist policy never works long term. One must interact with other cultures to progress, otherwise, they will surpass you. As a man of his lineage, he knows this. He had two chances to invade on favorable terms, and he deliberately ignored both.”
A man of his lineage, huh? I leaned closer to her. “When did you know?”
Caldenia shrugged. “Immediately. It’s blindingly obvious. Their attempt at secrecy was earnest and would’ve worked, except that I have eyes and a brain.”
A warning chime sounded through the arena. Fifteen minutes left.
My earpiece came to life with Sean’s voice. “Kosandion says that no matter what happens next, we should let it play out.”
What did that mean? Nothing good, that’s what that meant. “Remind him that we are responsible for the safety of our guests.”
“I did. He says he takes full responsibility. He has cleared it with the Innkeeper Assembly.”
And when, exactly, had he had a chance to do that? “It doesn’t matter what he cleared. This is our inn.”
“It’s a matter of Dominion security and his safety.”
“And you’re going along with this?”
“If something happens to him, we lose the inn. I will secure him. Whatever happens between the candidates is fair game.”
I would have liked to argue, but I had let Kosandion fight Surkar with a knife despite all of my better judgement.
Caldenia leaned toward me, her voice discreet. “What’s happening?”
“Your nephew is anticipating something, and he doesn’t want us to interfere.”
“About time,” Caldenia said. “I was beginning to worry we’d miss the show.”
A loud bell tolled through the Arena. The game was over. The five candidates stepped away from the table and retreated to use the various facilities. Oond’s humanoid helper stood up, bowed to him, and exited the stage. Oond rolled his high-tech fishbowl to the section of his delegation, where he was greeted by an enthusiastic fin display.
“You’re looking a bit pale for a human,” Karat said. “Here, eat some cookies. It’s about to get exciting.”
“No, thank you.”
I didn’t want cookies. I wanted peace and quiet and the orderly elimination of three additional candidates without any show or excitement.
“The scores have been tallied,” Gaston announced, his microphone-amplified voice carrying through the stands. “Candidates, please take your places.”
It took them five minutes to get there, and I could barely sit still from all the anxiety. The six candidates lined up. Nycati in a plain white outfit, Bestata in her black armor, Oond in the gorgeous veils of his orange fins, Prysen Ol in his trademark blue robe, Lady Wexyn in a translucent sage green kaftan style dress with a forest of golden accessories sprouting from her hair, and Amphie in a silver gown. They faced Kosandion, who sat upon his throne with all the dignity of a man who ruled an interstellar nation.
Three would go, three would stay. Almost there.
“In sixth place, finishing with the lowest score,” Gaston said, “is … Nycati of Gaheas.”
Nycati’s rankings appeared on the screens. His people were happy and well fed, and his population numbers were robust, but his tech score lagged behind other contestants. His military, although numerous, was armed with outdated weapons and his culture was too homogenous. His nation had stagnated.
When Nycati played chess with Kosandion, he had built up his resources and then he attacked, unleashing a chain of assaults and planting traps all over the chess board. But the time Kosandion repelled one attack, the next one already would be in progress. Caldenia was right. The secret prince deliberately lost the game.
“Another hundred years, and he would be conquered,” Dagorkun murmured.
“Or not,” Karat said. “As long as one has a strong foundation, the nation won’t fall.”
“Evolve or die, Lady Karat,” Dagorkun said, his face impassive. “But you should persist in your xenophobia. The longer the Anocracy remains a closed nation, the better it is for the Horde.”
“Is that so?” Karat flashed her fangs.
Dagorkun leaned back, a wistful look on his face. “One day the Anocracy will wake up, look outside of its own navel, and see the Horde’s banners on every side. Mmm, I live for that day.”
“No worries, Under-Khan. On that day, you will see me with my sword on your doorstep.”
“Children, will you two be silent?” Caldenia snapped.
“You have conducted yourself with dignity and confidence,” Kosandion said. “We are truly privileged to have been graced with your presence. It is with great regret that the Dominion must bid you farewell.”
“The privilege was mine,” Nycati said. “I have been warmed by the light of the Dominion, and I will treasure its memory in the depth of my heart.”
Caldenia turned and gave me a look. “I rest my case.”
Kosandion nodded. “What do you ask of the Dominion?”
Nycati raised his head. “Twenty-seven years ago, King Krolli held the throne of East Gaheas. He was betrayed. His uncle, Toliti, rebelled against him, led his troops into the Crystal Palace, and slaughtered the royal family. He claimed the throne and began a bloody reign of terror and repression.”
Typical. In the Gaheas kingdoms, the royal bloodlines played musical chairs with thrones, and whoever was left standing when the music stopped usually died.
“Two people escaped that massacre,” Nycati continued. “The first was the king’s nephew, the youngest son of his second brother. He was only two years old. The boy was smuggled out by one of the rebels secretly loyal to the king.”
And I knew just who that boy was.
“The second was Artonnda, the king’s third consort. He had been entrusted with a priceless treasure of the royal line. The Wrath of Fire, a weapon and a crown, genetically linked to Krolli’s line. When His Majesty realized that the palace was lost, he tore Wrath from his head, thrust it at his consort, and pushed Artonnda into an escape shuttle, instructing him to keep the crown safe at any cost. His Majesty remained behind with his family while Artonnda escaped to the Dominion. There he offered the crown to the Sovereign in exchange for safe haven.”
The arena was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop.
Nycati’s voice rang out. “Today I ask the Dominion to return the Wrath of Fire to me.”
Silence stretched for a long, torturous breath.
“Your request is granted,” the Sovereign announced.
Resven rose, holding a carved wooden box in his hands.
Sean formed a stairway between the stage and the throne crag. Nycati marched up the stairs, each step a resolute statement. Resven met him halfway.
The screens zoomed in, capturing every minute movement in great detail.
Nycati opened the box and took out a circlet. It was a delicate halfmoon of pale metal, two arms of twisted metal branches with fine leaves linked by a thin chain in the back. In the middle, where the branches met over the wearer’s forehead, a large jewel glinted with white fire. Something one of Tolkien’s High Elves might have seen in a dream.
Gingerly, Nycati raised the circlet in front of him and looked at it.
“Why is he hesitating?” Karat murmured.
“It will kill an imposter,” Caldenia said. “The Wrath of Fire will accept him only if he belongs to the bloodline.”
Nycati’s entire life culminated in this moment. If it were me up there, standing with the crown of the family I never knew in my hands, I would be wondering if the people who had raised me have been lying to me all along. There would be no do-overs.
Nycati took a deep breath and placed the circlet on his head.
The jewel flashed with red, as if a miniature volcano erupted in its depths. Nycati’s body jerked back, rigid. His arms flexed, his hands clamped into fists. He raised his head to the sky and screamed, his eyes swirling with gem fire.
A surge of magic shot from him, straight up, like a banner being raised, so intense my teeth rattled in my jaw.
Gertrude Hunt quaked, shuddering. I planted my staff into the floor and pulsed my magic through the inn, comforting, soothing, reassuring.
A pillar of glowing fire engulfed Nycati, humming like a high voltage wire. He was screaming, his face a twisted mask of pain, but no sound came.
I strained, spinning my power around him, trying to minimize the impact.
The magic blinked and vanished. Nycati stumbled, suddenly released, caught himself, and raised his head.
The gem had turned a rich amber, swirling with deeper shades of golden brown. The exact color of Nycati’s eyes.
The white robe slid off the prince’s body, revealing pale battle armor underneath.
“The Dominion greets the Isarott,” the Sovereign said.
And Kosandion had just officially recognized him as the ruler of East Gaheas. There would be war.
Nycati opened his mouth. Magic rolled from him, a whisper of tightly contained power. “The Isarott greets the Dominion.”
He turned and descended the stairs. The Gaheas delegation rose as one and followed him down the ramp from their section, across the bridge, and to the portal. A few more breaths and they were gone.
“We will take a short recess!” Gaston announced.
“In fifth place, finishing with the second lowest score,” Gaston said, “is … Lady Bestata of Meer.”
Bestata’s scores appeared on the screens. The strength of her military was off the charts compared to Nycati’s. Her knights were well-trained and disciplined, her bowmen had technologically advanced weapons, and her fortresses were a marvel of military engineering. But all of that came at a cost. Her population was literate and had a good grasp of mathematics, but her arts and humanities were practically non-existent. She’d invested the bare minimum into religion, which somehow made her medicine and life expectancy lag behind. Her economy was stumbling. Her population was disciplined and patriotic, but they were not happy.
I really thought she would’ve scored higher, given that she was clearly winning the war with Amphie, but the Dominion must’ve placed a lot of value on quality of life.
Bestata wasn’t happy either. Her trademark sneer was back, and she looked like she wanted to cut someone’s head off. House Meer formed up behind her, as if they were about to storm Kosandion on his throne.
“Wars are expensive,” Dagorkun said.
“Especially the way she fights them,” Karat said. “This has been most illuminating.”
“Would you like a recording of her game?” I asked.
Karat’s eyes sparked. “I wouldn’t like it. I would love it. You know who else will love it?”
She grinned and nodded. “My father will be most pleased. Why, he might even crack a smile.”
“You should make preparations in case his face breaks.”
Dagorkun leaned around Karat to look at me.
“Of course, Under-Khan, I will send you home with a copy as well.”
“Thank you. My mother will find it very useful.”
“Honoring one’s parents is paramount,” Karat said.
“Yes. It is our sacred duty.”
They shared a look.
House Meer had managed to achieve the impossible. The Horde and the Holy Anocracy would unite for a chance to kick their asses.
“What would you ask of the Dominion?” Kosandion said.
Bestata unclenched her teeth. “House Meer desires only one thing, one that only the Sovereign can grant us.”
“Here it comes,” Dagorkun murmured.
“3, 2, 1,” Karat whispered.
“A pact of mutual protection between House Meer and the Dominion!” Bestata declared.
“It is within my power to grant. That is not in question.” Kosandion paused. “However, House Meer lacks the authority to enter into such a pact.”
Bestata opened her mouth, but Kosandion was still talking.
“House Meer is part of a nation. An agreement between that nation and the Dominion already exists. You are pledged to the Holy Anocracy. Make a different request.”
“So the word of the Dominion means nothing?” Bestata snarled.
Dagorkun sucked air in through his teeth.
“Too far,” Karat said in a sing song voice.
An incoming communication tugged on me. I opened a screen and listened to it. Uh oh.
An older male vampire stepped forward. “We were promised a boon. You must grant it. Those were the conditions.”
Resven stood. “Incorrect. You were promised an ask. The conditions of the contract which you have signed clearly state that the Dominion will consider all reasonable requests. You request is not reasonable. Such a pact would be immediately void. Furthermore, it would bring the Holy Anocracy and the Dominion into conflict.”
“That is irrelevant!” Bestata crossed her arms.
“Petulant child,” Caldenia hissed.
“Grant our request!”
Karat rose and bellowed, her voice carrying through the stands. “Enough! You dishonor us all!”
Bestata spun toward her. “If House Krahr has a grievance, let them come down here and seek redress!”
Karat’s hand went to her sword.
Sean chuckled in my ear. “Let them fight.”
Sometimes I wondered if he actually understood this whole innkeeper thing.
The portal activated. Here they are.
“Lady Karat,” I said in what she called my scary innkeeper voice. “Take your seat.”
She glared at me.
“Another party has a prior claim.”
Nine vampires marched across the bridge to the stage, the leader in front and the rest in pairs behind her. Vampire knights grew larger and more grizzled with age, but these knights were on another level, huge, broad shouldered in their black armor, their swirling red cloaks making them seem even larger.
Karat’s expression went slack, and she dropped into her seat. Shock slapped Bestata’s face.
The newcomers stopped as one. Their leader, an imposing middle-aged knight with dark grey skin and piercing blue eyes, stared at House Meer and raised her arm, holding a scroll in her fist.
“An order from the Warlord,” she thundered.
House Meer took a knee.
The Warlord’s Herald pressed the side of the scroll with her thumb. It snapped open, unfurling, the parchment dotted with the black glyphs of the Holy Anocracy’s script. I tossed the video message I had received five minutes ago onto the screens.
A massive older vampire in ornate armor stared at House Meer. Menace and authority radiated from him in equal parts. This was just a recording, but there was so much power and dominance in his eyes, I felt an urge to bow my head just so I wouldn’t have to hold that gaze.
“House Meer,” the Warlord intoned. It sounded like an accusation.
House Meer collectively flinched.
“Hasten to the High Castle, so you may witness the executions of your Preceptor and your Marshal while I ponder the fate of your House.”
The screens went dark.
The vampires didn’t blush and typically didn’t pale. But Bestata’s face turned an odd ashen shade, as if she instantly became deathly ill.
“She’s doomed her uncle and her aunt,” Karat whispered in awe.
“Surely she bears no responsibility?” Dagorkun said. “Her House sent her here. She was ordered to do this.”
“You don’t understand.” Karat’s face turned sad and mournful. “House Meer refused to fight on Nexus. Cowardice is a sin, therefore they were judged by the Hierophant for that transgression. She is merciful, so she excommunicated them and hoped they would heed her warning. Instead, Meer sent Bestata here with that ridiculous demand. That is treason, and traitors are judged by the Warlord. One does not look to the Warlord for mercy. He is not a forgiving man. He watched them and as soon as Bestata and her knights entered the inn and had their communications stopped, the Warlord must’ve seized the Marshal and the Preceptor of their House. Nobody could warn her. If only she knew what happened, she could have asked for something else, and her aunt and uncle might have lived. When she uttered those inane words demanding a pact, she swung the sword that will behead them.”
The Herald retracted the scroll. “Join us in our journey to High Castle.”
It didn’t sound like a request.
“Can she request sanctuary?” Dagorkun asked.
Karat shook her head. “She won’t. The fate of their Marshal and Preceptor is sealed, but there is still a slim chance that her House might endure. She will go to High Castle to beg for the lives of her people on her knees.”
The Herald’s knights parted, forming two lines.
Bestata turned toward Sean and Kosandion. Her lips were bloodless. “Thank you for your hospitality, innkeeper.”
Bestata swallowed and strode between the two columns of the Herald’s knights. Her people followed in a silent grim line.
“The Warlord thanks Gertrude Hunt for safekeeping House Meer, so they may be in good health for their judgement,” the Herald announced. “We bid you farewell.”
She turned and followed the rest of the knights across the bridge. I tracked them to the portal until they were gone.
“We will take yet another short break,” Gaston said.