Kosandion was an excellent orator. His diction was perfect, his voice modulated to carry through the space without sounding harsh but conveying just the right amount of gravitas to underscore the importance of every word.
“We all know why we are here, but I shall reiterate for the record.”
Oh, it was all about the record. The inn was filming him from three directions simultaneously while also recording a panoramic shot of the ballroom from two directions and both the observer and the attendant galleries. Any rise in activity would cause Gertrude Hunt to whip out a sensor and dutifully preserve everything that transpired. The footage was downloaded into Resven’s databanks, edited, spliced, and at appropriate intervals, one of his assistants would run it through the portal back to the Dominion where it would be broadcast.
For Earth politicians, popularity was a major factor, but it wasn’t everything. Plenty of people took office based on the strength of their personality or a tough stance on a particular issue. Some of the politicians were even nearly universally disliked but continued to be reelected for complex reasons. For the Dominion, a ruler’s likability was vital. Kosandion knew that fact better than anyone. He had beckoned me over once he took the throne, and I stood only a couple of feet away. From this distance, the force of his magnetic personality was almost too much.
“We have gathered in this hall today to select my future spouse. After a long and careful consideration, twelve candidates have made the final cut. The parent of my future offspring is among you.”
In the attendant gallery, the Holy Ecclesiarch was nodding sagely. Elderly, with skin the color of old parchment and an elaborate headdress on his bald head, the spiritual leader of the Dominion seemed too slight for his luxurious vestments. He wore a silky white robe with an overdress embroidered with metallic brass colored thread. A short, carefully draped cape covered his shoulders, reaching to mid chest, its deep neckline revealing a tall asymmetric collar. A rectangular jeweled medallion hung from his neck, indicating his holy status.
He looked ready to keel over, and I was watching him for any sign of fainting. He was led in by his acolytes shortly after Kosandion’s arrival, and it had taken him a long time to cross the ballroom to the throne. At some point Kosandion became concerned and went down the stairs to escort him. I had suggested that we make the Ecclesiarch more comfortable in custom quarters from where he could watch the proceedings, but he had patted my hand and told me that this was the last duty he could do for the Sovereign, and he had never been one to abandon his responsibilities.
“Bringing a child into this universe is a grave and sacred task. A parent’s obligation is far deeper than a simple contribution of genetic material. One must guide, educate, and love one’s offspring, putting their needs above one’s own. That is why the candidate who will become my spouse will be required to reside within the Dominion for a period of no less than twenty-five Dominion years. In recognition of this significant commitment, the Dominion will honor one request from the spouse or their sponsors.”
And that was the deal in a nutshell. Prior to entering the spouse selection, each delegation was required to list a minor and a major ask. If they made it to the finale, the Dominion would honor their minor asks, but only one delegation would ever be granted their major request. It was the grand prize. The whole process provided the Dominion with an opportunity to negotiate some deals they wouldn’t have been able to make otherwise. Some delegations made it to the finale for purely political reasons that had nothing to do with the qualities of their candidate.
A movement in the far end of the room drew my eye. The Dushegubs were getting a bit more agitated. Sean was openly watching them. Both he and Gorvar stared at the dark forest with nearly identical expressions, like they wanted something to bite.
Looking around the room, it was clear which candidates thought they had a chance of winning. Most of the humanoids had taken care to match the Dominion’s aesthetic: structured garments in tasteful shades, a lot of white, a lot of delicate embroidery. The otrokars were the exception, and the vampire candidate was in her syn armor, but she had taken time to add a cream cloak and to decorate her hair with big white flowers.
“Let us remind those who are watching of every being’s origin and allegiance. We shall begin our introductions in a random order chosen by our host.”
That was my cue. I tapped my broom. Sections of the floor under the delegations lit up, the pale glow bouncing from group to group until it stopped under the Gaheas. It wasn’t really random, but nobody needed to know that.
A graceful Gaheas glided forward into the open space between the two rows of participants. He wasn’t lean, he was lithe, with long limbs, perfect amber skin, and a face that was androgynous in its delicate beauty. He wore a stylized scale mail, a deep burgundy accented with white, more of a ceremonial garment than battle-ready armor.
“My name is Nycati of Gaheas. Should I be chosen, I shall teach our offspring the beauty of the arts so their soul can reach harmony with the universe.”
I bounced the light again and stopped it under the Kai. Prysen moved forward. A full foot shorter than Nycati, he wore a pale blue robe cinched at the waist and a white circlet. His long blue hair streamed down his back, and the wide sleeves of his robe looked like delicate wings. The Gaheas was a tough act to follow, but Prysen held himself with quiet, calm dignity.
“My name is Prysen Ol. Should I be chosen, I shall love our child and share with them the teachings of ancient masters, the logicians and philosophers, so our offspring will seek understanding and harmony in all things.”
Clearly, harmony was the theme. They must’ve been given talking points.
I moved the light around and let it pause under the Dushegubs. Their candidate hopped off the root on which she had been perching and strolled into the open, rolling her hips. Her dress, a slight flowing gown, seemed to be held up purely by the fullness of her breasts.
The Dushegubs, subtle like bulldozers. Humanoids like sex. Here’s sex, now give us everything we want.
The woman tossed her hair back. The Dushegubs’ roots stopped undulating. The killer trees held completely still, waiting to see if the prey took the pretty bait.
“I am Unessa Sybate of… Creeeeeak hisss hisss creeeeak knock.”
And that’s why we called them Dushegubs.
“Should I be chosen, I shall commit fully to ensuring our children will be conceived in love and care…”
“… and I shall raise them to smother their enemies before they have a chance to root.”
There it is.
“And harmony,” Unessa concluded triumphantly.
“A harmonious smothering,” Kosandion murmured under his breath. “Of course.”
I tossed the light again. Let’s see… It had to be the Horde or the Anocracy. If I waited too long, they would get offended.
There was movement in the Temple’s quarters. I opened their doors and stopped the light under House Meer.
Lady Wexyn exited her quarters and moved toward us at top speed. Sean glanced at me. His voice whispered in my ear through a tiny earbud.
“Do you want me to bar the door?”
The vampire candidate rearranged her face into a milder version of a sneer. “I am Bestata of House Meer. Should I be chosen, I will raise our child in the finest tradition of my House. I shall make our child strong, powerful, decisive, skilled in the battle arts…”
The doors burst open, and Lady Wexyn appeared in the huge doorway. She was five foot nothing, and all of her was wrapped in a shiny golden gown and decorated with jewelry, as if someone had taken a 5-gallon bucket of precious accessories, tossed it at her, and most of it had stuck.
She wasn’t simply curvy, she was curvaceous and plump, with large full breasts, a round firm butt, and a soft tummy. Her naturally pale skin was sun kissed to a glowing tan. Her long dark brown hair was lifted to the top of her head in an elaborate ponytail that dripped curled locks onto her shoulders. A massive headdress rode on the front of her head, with the ponytail strategically threaded through it. It looked like a tree made of pure gold, complete with branches dripping with ruby flowers and supporting tiny, bejeweled birds. The whole thing added almost most three feet to her height.
She opened her big dark eyes as wide as they could go and declared in a loud voice, “Your Majesty!!!”
Resven turned green.
Kosandion didn’t miss a beat. “Lady Wexyn, what a pleasure to have you with us.”
“You didn’t wait for me, Your Majesty. Am I late?” She clasped one hand to her ample bosom. A dozen thin bracelets in every precious metal found in the galaxy clinked on her wrist.
“Only a little. Please join us.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty!”
She swept into the room, somehow keeping the golden oak upright on her head. Unessa’s hip roll was amateur hour. This was master class. It was hypnotic. There was no way I could ever imitate that sashay. Not only didn’t I have the hips or joints for it, I didn’t have the confidence.
Next to me Kosandion leaned his elbow on the armrest of his throne, rested his chin on his hand, and tried very hard to appear disinterested. At the observer gallery, Gaston was blinking rapidly. Tony leaned a little to watch as she passed, and Sean was staring intently at her back. Hehe.
“Sean, pick your jaw up off the floor,” I murmured with a small smile.
“She moves very well.”
“No, not like that. That thing on her head is real gold. Scan it.”
I nudged the inn. Lady Wexyn was carrying fifty-two pounds on her head and thirty-five on her body. And she moved like a weightless butterfly. She reached her delegation with a dazzling smile, and they swarmed her in apparent joy. Someone clapped their hands. Someone squeed in a high-pitched voice.
Kosandion gave them another twenty seconds to settle down and turned to Besata. “Please continue.”
She glared at Lady Wexyn and ground out. “Harmony. In battle.”
Kosandion nodded, and the vampire knight turned and stomped back to her House.
I moved the light around.
At the observer gallery. Caldenia sat very still, watching Lady Wexyn with an almost predatory focus, like an eagle sighting her prey. Karat pretended to look bored. Next to her Cookie was smiling.
I stopped the white spot under the otrokars. Their candidate strode into the open. He truly was a stunning example of good genes and focused physical training. Perfect, hard muscle corded his large frame. His broad shoulders strained his chitin battle armor.
“I am Surkar, son of Grast and Ulde, Champion of my tribe, Gutripper, Blood Drencher…”
The vampires were rolling their eyes. Dagorkun was too. Clearly, reading the room wasn’t in Surkar’s skill set.
“…Bone Crusher. I am not meek. When I am chosen, I will mold our child into a war machine. They will reap a bloody harvest of their enemies, until all who oppose them cower and tremble, too afraid to cry out.”
“Splendid,” Kosandion said with a completely straight face. “Thank you, Son of Grast and Ulde. Let us continue.”
I flicked the light around to the Right Dominion delegation. We still had six groups to go.