When we last left Dina, Sean, and the Inn, Kosandion was still looking for his spouse. The introduction ceremony had finished, everyone had dinner, and we learned about the collective empathy of the Dominion citizens. Dina recalled the complete emotional breakdown the Dominion guests experienced at her parents’ inn when they learned that Caldenia murdered her brother, Kosandion’s father. The dinner ended with Her Grace wanting to have “a word” with Dina.
“I wish to visit Lady Wexyn.”
Not the word I expected. I had separated us by a soundproof partition, so I could still keep an eye on the diners, and I had to keep my expression calm, while Her Grace turned her back on them probably so they couldn’t read her lips.
“May I ask why?”
“I wish to have a chat.”
Her face told me that the only way to get more would be to honor her request and tag along. Unfortunately, I still had a busy dining hall to babysit.
I checked the other two dining halls. Sean’s was still half full, but Tony was done, and he was moving my way. A moment and he came around the corner. I dropped the partition and approached him.
“Would you mind looking after this crowd while I run a quick errand?”
He gave me a smile. “That’s what I’m here for.”
“Thank you.” I turned to Caldenia. “I will take you to Lady Wexyn, Your Grace. She may choose to not see you, and as you know, we guard the privacy of our guests.”
“She will see me,” Caldenia said.
And that didn’t sound ominous. Not at all.
We strolled out of the dining hall and back into the Grand ballroom. The sun was setting, and as we walked, the chamber transitioned from day to night, mimicking the sunset at the Capital. The floor and walls began to darken, steadily gaining a blue tint. Astronomical symbols of the Dominion shifted to sunset-orange. On the left side, where the sky dimmed, a faint edge of the purple moon slipped into view, delicate and pale as if cut from tulle. It would grow solid by the time we came back.
Crossing the Grand Ballroom took some time. We passed into a long hallway interrupted by arched floor to ceiling windows showing a projected view of Texas sunset over the never-ending fields.
“You could simply do that thing you do,” Caldenia waved her hand dismissively. “Instead of making us walk all the way.”
“But then how would we clear the air, Your Grace?”
Caldenia rolled her eyes.
“Are the decorations to your liking?”
“They’re adequate. Barely.”
She was really in a mood.
We kept walking. If I had to make this trip longer to accomplish this conversation, I would “do that thing” I did. We would keep walking until both of us said what we had to say.
“You should have told me,” Caldenia said.
“You should have tried harder.”
Sometimes the best defense is no defense at all. “You’re absolutely right, Your Grace. It’s my fault. I apologize.”
Caldenia glanced at me. If looks could cut, I’d have a big gash right between my eyes.
“Your insincere show of meekness will not pacify me.”
“Of course not.”
“Are you tired, Your Grace? Would you like a chair to rest in for a moment?”
I simply waited.
“I had no idea you had it in you.”
“I didn’t. Not always, but I had a very good teacher.”
Caldenia glared at me. “Yes, you did. And don’t you forget it.”
We resumed walking. She knew perfectly well that to tell her about the Sovereign, I would have had to cross the personal boundaries she had put in place. She would pardon me for respecting her wishes, but she would have never forgiven me for trampling on her freedom.
A part of her must’ve known. The description of the spousal selection had to have sounded familiar, so she must’ve suspected it and made a conscious or subconscious effort to avoid it. She would never admit it, but Caldenia was both perceptive and introspective. Her mind was as sharp as her teeth.
“Do you have any idea how much trouble this entire affair will bring?”
“I very much doubt it. You’ve jumped into the whirlpool, and you’re in danger of drowning.”
“If I do drown, would you throw me a rope so I can pull myself out, Your Grace?”
She arched her eyebrows. “Do we have that kind of relationship?”
“That’s up to you, Your Grace.”
I halted. The distant door at the end of the hallway rushed at us and stopped two feet from me.
“If any harm comes to the Sovereign, the Assembly will take my inn. If anything happens to one of the guests on my watch, I may as well surrender the inn, since I wouldn’t deserve it.”
“Are you threatening me with the loss of my safe haven?” Caldenia’s eyes blazed.
“No. You are a guest, Your Grace. My very first one. Your wellbeing and safety are my first priority. I am simply advising you of facts. I hope that when things become dire, you would give me your guidance as you have in the past. Do you still wish to see Lady Wexyn?”
She tilted her chin up. “Yes.”
I knocked on the door. “Her Grace Caldenia ka ret Magren to see Lady Wexyn Dion-Dian.”
The door swung open, and a veiled male attendant with dark eyeliner, broad shoulders, and tan muscular arms invited us in with a bow. We followed him inside.
The door opened to the courtyard paved with pale brown stones. A brook wound its way around it, spilling into a wide pond. Beautiful Fortune trees leaned over the blue pond like slender women, dripping their long branches with lemon-yellow leaves into the water. An ornate wooden pavilion perched on the shore, cushioned in Fortune trees and ornamental shrubs studded with blood-red blossoms the size of a large peony. Within the pavilion, Lady Wexyn reclined on a chaise, sipping tea from a flower-shaped cup.
She had traded her spectacular golden tree for a small crown of glittering green jewels that was likely worth millions but seemed modest in comparison. A chocolate brown, diaphanous skirt hid her legs, secured by a wide sash of lighter russet embroidered with gold. The sash wound around her hips, clasped in place with an elaborate golden broch showcasing a green gemstone stone the size of a walnut. A pale, rose gold top wrapped her ample breasts, leaving the soft stomach bare. Another wide translucent sash, this one green, completed the outfit, draping strategically over her shoulders and waist. She was barefoot and a dozen thin bracelets and anklets decorated her wrists and ankles.
She saw Caldenia and rose in one fluid movement, dipping her head. Her dark eyes sparkled. “Letere Olivione! You honor me.”
“Greetings,” Caldenia said, her face radiating menace. Her Grace, joy personified.
Lady Wexyn lowered herself to the chaise. Everything she did was beautiful. She was like a gifted artist who painted with her body instead of a paint brush.
Attendants appeared, deposited tea and snacks at a side table, and withdrew silently like brightly colored wraiths.
Caldenia scrutinized Lady Wexyn, who sipped her tea and fluttered her eyelashes.
“You look like your mother. Has she spoken of me?”
“Yes, Letere Olivione. At length.” Lady Wexyn nodded, her expression earnest and devoid of any subtlety.
“Then this will be quicker and simpler. If you interfere with my plans, I will kill every creature within your little Temple and explode the planet on which it perches.”
“Oh my goodness!” Lady Wexyn opened her eyes as big as they could go.
Caldenia narrowed her eyes. Lady Wexyn gazed back at her, a picture of innocence.
A few moments passed.
“Dina,” Caldenia said. “Please leave us.”
I looked at her.
“I won’t harm her,” Caldenia said.
Great. Now if I refused, she would take it as an insult. Caldenia had never broken a promise to me, but there was always the first time.
“Do you wish to allow Her Grace to remain in your quarters?” I asked.
“Yes,” Lady Wexyn said. “It is a blessing to be in her presence.”
Blessing was one way to put it. “Should you encounter any difficulties, call my name.”
“I shall,” she promised with a solemn expression.
Why did I get a sense that I was being humored?
The two of them were looking at me. Both guests requested privacy for their conversation. Not much I could do.
I walked away from the pavilion. Whether she liked it or not, Gertrude Hunt was Caldenia’s chosen sanctuary. I just had to hope she remembered that.
The Pit of the Dushegubs was 50 yards across and 200 yards deep. Even if they stood on top of each other, they couldn’t climb out. Three feet of murky water enriched with nutrients flooded the edges of the hole’s bottom. In the center a small mud island offered a bit of dry land. Above, a high-powered light source simulated the lavender sun of the Dushegub’s planet, cycling between red in the morning, violet-blue during the day, and a deep purple in the evening.
It was night now, and the light had dimmed to an indigo glow mimicking the native fluorescent clouds. In this diffused light, the Dushegubs were mere shadows, a tangle of roots and branches slithering over each other like black serpents. Luckily for me, Gertrude Hunt had excellent sensors, and the view on my massive screen was crystal clear.
I leaned back in my chair, trying to relax. Everyone else was safely in their quarters for the night. I had locked them all in so nobody could wander. My feet hurt, and my head buzzed a bit, as if a swarm of bees was trying to settle inside my skull after a busy day of flying and collecting honey. Beast napped in her dog bed by the wall. She’d rolled onto her back, and her four paws lay limp, sticking out in the air.
Even my dog was worn out.
Sean slipped into the room and wrapped his arms around me. I leaned my head against his warm muscular forearm.
“Problems?” he asked.
“They should have formed a copse for the night.”
Sean glanced at the screen. The Dushegubs were treading water in small groups, three or four trees in each one.
“They’re up to something,” I told him.
He let me go and stepped aside. My chair grew wider, flowing into a couch. He sat next to me and put his arm around my shoulders. I rested my head on his biceps. We watched the wandering Dushegubs. They would slither a few feet, slide their branches and roots against the reinforced walls of the Pit, then slither a little further.
“They’re testing it,” Sean said.
“Yes, but why? It’s concrete layered with space grade flexi-steel. They’d need a high-powered drill to get through it. What could they be planning?”
“Shenanigans,” Sean said in a somber voice.
I turned to look at him. “What?”
“Hijinks, mischief. They’re up to no good.”
I laughed softly.
“How is Caldenia doing?” he asked.
“She visited Lady Wexyn and promised her that if Lady Wexyn interfered in her plans, she would blow up her planet.”
Sean raised his eyebrows. “Plans? What plans?”
“She didn’t share that with me.”
Two of the Dushegub groups came together by the far wall. I adjusted the angle so we could see them from the side.
“Why that wall?” Sean murmured.
“I put a dummy camera on the opposite side. They saw it and now they’re trying to shield their plot from view.”
“Sly dog, you.”
I snuggled closer to him. I hadn’t seen him since dinner. After leaving Caldenia and Lady Wexyn, I headed back to the dining hall, but the Kai delegation informed me that one of their members had developed a twitch in his middle left limb, which was a matter of grave concern to the entire delegation. After an hour of medical scans it was confirmed that the twitch was a stress response, so I created a sensory respite area in their quarters where they could destress.
After that, Resven wanted to fight with me over the Holy Ecclesiarch’s meal, which I shut down flat by presenting him with the medical records of the Holy Ecclesiarch Resven himself had sent to me. That shut him up but didn’t endear me to him in the slightest.
After that I received a request from the Oomboles who explained to me that the water plants in their habitat failed to provide enough privacy. I doubled the number of plants, but they didn’t like their color and felt there was not enough variety, so I had sent Gaston out to Baha-char to get the different plants. They were now cycling in the quarantine tank and would be added to the habitat tomorrow provided they were free of diseases and contaminants.
“How did it go with the Otrokars?” I asked.
“Do you remember that cartoon we watched where Thor is an environmentalist?”
“The one where he kept having peaceful protests until he was provoked?’”
“That’s the one. The Otrokars want to be provoked. Very badly.”
We sat in silence for a couple of minutes.
“How likely is she to go after Kosandion?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I reminded her that the survival of the inn is at stake. Previously, when there were conflicts involving the inn, she was always a neutral third party. This isn’t a neutral matter. It’s family and painful memories. Kosandion is a reminder of why she lost everything and now lives in exile.”
“What?” I asked.
“Wondering if she’s considering going out in a blaze of glory. She’s already infamous. Murdering Kosandion would make her a legend.”
One of the Dushegubs split. Its thick trunk opened. The other Dushegub thrust roots into it and withdrew a mining drill, the kind used in asteroid mining.
“Huh,” Sean said.
“It’s probably an old injury. They shoved the drill in there and glued the stem back together with sap.”
“And it didn’t show up on weapon scans.”
The Dushegubs struggled with the drill’s controls. It was clearly made for someone with slender digits rather than thick roots.
“If Caldenia wanted to go out in a ‘blaze of glory’ she’s had plenty of opportunities to do so.”
Sean shook his head. “But none like this. Killing her nephew, the Sovereign, on Earth, in an inn, live, or almost live on galactic television. It would be even bigger than killing her brother.”
“I don’t think she’ll do it.”
“She could though.”
“But she won’t.”
The drill flashed with lights. The Dushegubs flailed their roots.
“Do you trust her that much?”
“I don’t trust her. I trust her survival instincts. Sean, this woman ruled over nine star systems. She gave it all up to come live at this inn where she drinks Mello-Yello and tries to murder tomatoes in her garden with her lack of nurturing skills. She did it because it was the only way to survive. Her will to live is that strong.”
“Why did she kill her brother?”
Sean sighed. “And that’s the problem. If she had done it because she could, if she gave up nine star systems to eliminate her brother, would she give up exile in the inn to eliminate her nephew?”
The Dushegubs planted the drill against the wall and turned it on. Sparks flew.
“I guess we’ll find out,” I said.
“True. It’s not like we have a choice.”
The only choice would be to exclude Caldenia completely by confining her to her quarters and neither of us would do that.
Sean looked at the world a little differently than I did. I kept track of various possibilities, but I was reasonably good at predicting what would happen. Sean concentrated on what could happen, and there was a vast difference between the two. It made us into a good team.
The Dushegub closest to the hole got hit with a spray of sparks and slithered away hissing up a storm.
“There’s one thing that puzzles me,” Sean said. “You’re Kosandion. Your aunt killed your father and started an interstellar war. You see her, finally after all this time, and you are civil to her. You are completely unbothered by her presence. Your heart rate doesn’t rise, your pupils don’t dilate, your breathing stays even. He wasn’t pretending. He was cool as a cucumber. Why?”
I spread my arms.
The Dushegubs withdrew the drill and inspected the quarter inch deep hole they’d managed to make. Branches shook, roots slithered, and they put the drill back in.
“Far enough?” I wondered.
“Yeah,” Sean agreed.
The leading Dushegub turned the drill on. An electric arc splayed out of the hole, hitting the drill dead center. The drill exploded. The miner Dushegub flew back, smoking, and landed on the mud island. The rest of the killer trees chased it and tried to roll it into the water.
“People are complicated,” I said.
He leaned over and kissed me. “At least these idiots are easy. Come to bed. We have a big day tomorrow.”
I smiled at him, and we left for our bedroom.