Our house is undergoing renovations. The painters are kicking us out. We are leaving for a couple of weeks, and we will try to keep up with the installments, but we might not be able to pull it off. Half of the house is packed, and we are both really tired, so we will see how it goes. While we are gone, Mod R will be bringing you fun posts, so don’t forget to check the blog.
When we last left our crew at the Inn, Dina, Karat, and the werewolf fought the corrupted ad-hal. The Sovereign’s date with Ellenda is looming ever closer. Will our trio get back to the inn in time for Dina to fulfill her role as an innkeeper and will they survive that journey? Stay tuned for the next exciting installment… Okay I will stop now.
The door leading from Baha-char to Gertrude Hunt swung open, and Karat and I staggered through it, smeared with blood and fetid fluids and carrying the unconscious werewolf between us, her arms draped over our shoulders. We took a step down the hallway and ran straight into Sean.
“God damn it,” he snarled, grabbing the werewolf woman out of our arms.
“We don’t have time for this. She’s critical, and Karat is injured.”
“I’m perfectly fine.” Karat gave me a trademark vampire knight sneer.
Of course, she was. The left side of her face was the color of a pomegranate, she was taking short shallow breaths, and her armor would need hours of repairs. Vampires didn’t bruise easily. She either took a hard hit or landed on her face.
I opened the tunnel to the medward in the floor. Sean lifted the werewolf like she was a child and started down. “Once this is handled, we will make time.”
It sounded like a threat.
The medward was hidden in the lower levels of the inn, just under the main floor. A sterile room that could be hermetically sealed off in an emergency, it housed a decontamination shower, a storage with six different stasis pods, and until recently, a single ancient med unit that was barely up to the task.
The werewolf was on the verge of dying, and Karat’s injuries were urgent. With only one med unit, we would’ve been in trouble, but fortunately, we had junked it three months ago and replaced it with three brand new, state-of-the art robotic stations, which was why our little infirmary now qualified to be a medward instead of the medbay. They waited for us, three complex hospital beds with elaborate frames.
The moment Sean lowered the werewolf into the nearest med unit, it unfolded like one of those three-dimensional greeting cards. Scanners slipped out from under the bottom of the bed, sliding diagnostic lights over her body, and robotic arms sprung from the frame, stripping her clothes. The results of the scans flashed above the unit. Three broken ribs, shredded lung, internal bleeding… Oh wow. The corrupted ad-hal had sliced right through her hardsuit and her ribs like they were tissue paper.
Ironically, hardsuits were considered soft armor, soft being a relative term. There were many variations of soft armor, but the essential requirements dictated that it was flexible, close fitting, and able to stop a typical blade. I could hack at the werewolf woman all day with an ordinary knife and not leave a mark. One look at her chest told me her suit was beyond repair.
Karat touched the House Krahr crest embedded in her breastplate. Her syn-armor came apart at the seams. She lowered it to the floor. Oh. It was worse than I thought.
Normally getting a vampire out of their armor was an impossible task. They took it off only in the privacy of their quarters, for rest and intimacy. For them, the armor was a second skin that kept them safe, and when they were severely injured, they fought to keep it on even when it was illogical. My future-brother-in-law was the perfect example. The last time he was at the inn, we were attacked by a World Killer, a terrible organism that would’ve devoured the entire planet if Arland hadn’t poisoned it with his blood. The World-Killer toxins triggered a catastrophic response in Arland, and huge bloody blisters formed all over his body. He was dying, he knew he was dying, and it took all of us begging to convince him to get out of the armor so we could try to treat his wounds.
The dark grey suit Karat wore underneath was thankfully blood-free, but her bones had to be broken. Nothing short of that would’ve gotten her to strip. Even so, it was a stunning show of trust.
“If I fall asleep, wake me up,” she said. “I can’t miss the date.”
“We will,” I promised.
She climbed into the unit, and it sprang into action. The scan flashed on the holographic screen above the bed. She had a broken rib, and there were early signs of sepsis.
The new med units were a gift from Maud. My sister was now the Maven of House Krahr, which meant she was in charge of all of their diplomatic efforts, and her position came with a significant salary. She bought the units for us with her new Maven money and had them sent over on one of Arland’s scout ships. According to Maud, Gertrude Hunt was seeing more action than an average vampire stronghold on a hostile planet and thinking of us trying to cope with our outdated med unit kept her from sleeping at night.
When I was a kid, Maud would buy me cute clothes at discount sites online. Now she bought me advanced medical equipment. Nothing really changed. My big sister was still trying to take care of me.
Sean stepped in front of me, his face harsh. “Dina. Decontamination shower.”
I touched the nasty goo drying on my skin, looked at my stained fingers for a second, and went to clean up.
Ten minutes later, I emerged with clean hair and skin and wearing another robe over my shorts and a T-shirt. The runoff from the shower drained into a tank under the floor. The fetid slime I washed off my body felt inert, but I heated the tank until all of the dirty water evaporated and then flushed the reservoir with acid just to be on the safe side.
Karat was napping in her med unit with a dreamy smile on her face. Sean was staring at the werewolf woman, Gorvar sitting by his side.
I came to stand next to them. “How is she?”
“Karat will be happy. She insisted on slinging her over her shoulders and jogging almost the whole way home with her.”
“Tell me,” he said. “All of it.”
He looked up at the ceiling, his face unreadable.
“I’m sorry,” I told him.
“I had no idea she would jump from the roof and start a fight.”
It had been a priceless opportunity to communicate with Wilmos’ kidnapper. I didn’t even know if the corrupted ad-hal could speak or understand me, but I would’ve tried my hardest. My parents were missing, and I knew exactly how Sean felt. Wilmos wasn’t just a friend, he was almost a grandfather to him. I couldn’t do anything about my parents, but I could give finding Wilmos my all. Every crumb of information was precious. It killed me that I didn’t get anything more out of the corrupted ad-hal.
Sean exhaled. “Nothing it could tell us would be worth you getting hurt.”
“I wasn’t hurt.”
“I smelled your blood when you came in, and I can feel the way the inn is hovering around you. How much magic did it cost you?”
“More than I thought I had,” I said quietly.
And I shouldn’t have been able to do it. The last time I had tried using my magic outside of the inn in this way left me on the verge of death, gasping for breath in my car in the Costco parking lot. If Sean hadn’t come to get me, I might have died there. I sunk a lot more than that into killing the corrupted ad-hal, but I was still walking and talking. Did my power grow without me realizing it?
Sean shook his head. “It was enough to save you, and Karat, and her. Whoever she is.”
“Have you met her before? I mean before she showed up at the inn? Maybe during one of the expeditions with Wilmos?”
“If I did, I don’t remember.”
It didn’t surprise me. When werewolves encountered Sean, they either stared at him with worshipful eyes, hit on him, or tried to fight him. He made it a point to interact with his people as little as possible.
“We’ve discussed this before. There will be times I will be in danger.”
“I would like those times to be less frequent. This was avoidable. That woman came to you. You accepted her terms. You didn’t push back.”
“You saw the recording. There was no choice. I’ve met her, and I stand by my decision. There was no way she would ever set foot in the inn or let me change the location of the meeting. You should have seen her eyes, Sean.”
“I don’t care about her eyes.”
He stepped closer and kissed me. I tasted Sean, and the forest inside him swallowed me whole. The trees closed in, sheltering me, and the terrifying scarred wolf who lived in there wrapped himself around me to keep me safe.
He hugged me to him, his strong arms warm. There was no place safer.
“Were you worried?” I asked softly.
I leaned my head against his chest. “I was worried too.”
In Sean’s perfect world, we would live happily ever after in complete safety and nothing bad would injure us. But even he knew that a future like that wasn’t just unrealistic, it would be boring. It just wasn’t who we were. Even before we were together, he was a werewolf soldier looking for adventure, and I was an innkeeper who took it upon herself to police the neighborhood. We’d had multiple chances to get out and settle into a more peaceful life, and we’d rolled right past them. It wasn’t that we looked for trouble. It was that we didn’t back down when it found us.
“I’m okay,” I told him.
He squeezed me to him.
“I came back in one piece. I met the woman, I fought the corrupted ad-hal, and I am still here.”
He kissed me again.
“If you keep doing this, we’re going to miss the Sovereign’s date,” I murmured.
“It would be worth it.”
“We can’t. He might get murdered.”
He sighed. “Do you believe the scaled woman?”
“Yes. We need to verify all that, but if it’s true, that knocks at least one potential threat off the list. Besides, the fewer candidates remain, the faster we can get to the conclusion.”
“I agree that every candidate eliminated gets us closer to the end of this. The sooner the better. But, again, it wasn’t worth you getting hurt.”
“Even if it saved the Sovereign’s life?”
I pretended to sigh. “I can’t do anything right.”
Sean bared his teeth. “You kicked ass. You beat it, outside of the inn. That’s fucking amazing.”
He was proud of me. That made everything better. “Tell me more how amazing I am.”
“That thing did a number on Karat, and she’s good,” Sean said.
“She is very good.”
“It would have killed her.” He nodded at the werewolf woman. “And you broke it like a twig. If I was the one who kidnapped Wilmos, I would be worried right now. This did not go the way they expected.”
No, it didn’t. “I wish I knew what the hair meant. Is it ‘hurry up and come get him’ or is it ‘do as we say or he’s dead?’”
“No way to tell. Whatever animated those creatures doesn’t think like us. The only thing we can do is to proceed as if he’s alive and can still be rescued.”
The inn chimed. It was time for the Sovereign’s first date. I sighed and went to wake Karat up.
The broadcasting schedule of the Dominion had a definite pattern. Formal occasions of little interest, like the reintroduction of the candidates, were the most edited and presented to the audience with a significant delay. The trials were almost live, with only a few minutes of lag to make the emergency adjustments. The dates with individual candidates were practically in real time. Kosandion’s PR chief had installed a tight beam transmitter that actually shot data from the inn through the portal to the Dominion to avoid any delay. I had no idea that kind of technology even existed. The cost had to be staggering.
Nothing could go wrong.
When Orata realized just how much power the innkeepers had over our environment, she actually hopped up and down in excitement. Thanks to Kosandion’s PR chief, every candidate was asked for their preferred location for their date. Ellenda had chosen trees. No other guidance. Just one word: trees.
I took them to the orchard.
Back when I was growing up in my parents’ inn, I was responsible for the gardens. They were my favorite part of the innkeeping. I’d been an innkeeper for about four years now, and my orchard was a place of beauty. From the street, it looked like any typical backyard garden you might find in a house with a bit of acreage. Ornamental shrubs, a few apple trees, some oaks. If you worked your way through the bushes, you would run into my camouflage wall, a tall barrier designed to perfectly mimic the shrubs around it. Very thin and undetectable from the street, it changed with its environment and ran all along the property, keeping the actual orchard out of view.
Kosandion waited in the inner orchard now, the one nobody except the guests and us ever saw. Tall apple trees flanked a wide stone path. They had finished blooming, and their branches bore tiny fruit. The sun shone through the green leaves. Flowers grew between the trees and along the path’s edges, raspberry-colored coras, purslane in every shade from pink to lemon yellow, zinnias bursting with magenta, pink, and crimson, and finally, in brightly lit spots, red yuccas. Ruby-throated hummingbirds hovered near the tiny yucca blooms. The air smelled of flowers and summer grass.
“Could you put up the screen please?” Orata whispered through my earpiece.
I had my doubts about the screen. The date seemed like it should be a private affair, but Kosandion had asked me to defer to Orata’s wishes.
I moved my hand and a massive branch slipped through the canopy and grew a screen on it. The view of the Ocean Dining Hall appeared on it. We had packed all the delegates into it, with snacks and refreshments. The live feed from the date was projected onto several massive screens, so they would see every moment in real time. Sean parked himself at the back wall. He wore a grey robe and turned his usual spear into a staff for the occasion. Originally, he was going to chaperone the date, but I was too tapped out to handle a dining room filled with that many creatures right now.
A stir ran through the delegates. People and creatures turned.
Karat entered the room.
Repairing syn-armor was a delicate art requiring years of practice. Karat didn’t have time to fix it, so she didn’t bother. Her once pristine black armor was scuffed. A big rip crossed her chest, and two smaller ones marked her ribs. The injury to the left side of her face faded from bright red to a somewhat less fresh but obvious bruise, and she wore it like the badge of honor.
Dagorkun turned purple, from jealousy or curiosity, I couldn’t tell.
Karat raised her chin and marched to the observers’ table. House Meer practically dislocated their necks trying to get a better look.
“Quite an entrance,” Kosandion murmured next to me.
“Look at Bestata’s face,” I said.
Bestata’s eyes narrowed. She focused on Karat like a tiger who just saw another tiger bleeding from its wounds and was desperately trying to figure out what kind of predator made them.
Six tiny globes, about the size of a walnut, rose into the area, floating around us and above. Orata’s cameras.
“You are live,” Orata said into my earpiece.
Right. No more private conversations. I muted the sound on the screen showing the dining hall so it wouldn’t interfere.
The back door of the inn opened, and Tony emerged, leading Ellenda into the light. She still wore the gold paint and her rough woven dark garment. Her expression was flat.
Tony melted back into the dark entrance. He would be going back to the Ocean Dining Hall to help Sean.
Ellenda approached Kosandion. He inclined his head a couple of inches. “Welcome, kalenti.”
Elenda bowed her head slowly. No response. Off to an awesome start.
“Shall we walk?” he asked.
The two of them strolled down the path, leaving about a foot of space between them. I followed a couple of steps behind. Orata’s orbs followed. My screen did too, sliding from branch to branch.
“What branch do you hail from, kalenti?” Kosandion asked. His voice was calm and light. Reassuring with its warmth.
“My people come from Sahava.”
“The land of cliffs and dark forests, where the glowing ava flowers bloom in the deep.”
A little bit of life came back into Ellenda’s voice. “Yes. Have you ever been?”
“My mother took me there when I was young. We spent four days in the House on the Cliff. I remember sleeping in the spider cocoon hammocks suspended over the raging sea. I thought it was the best bed ever invented.”
Kosandion chuckled softly.
“I’m surprised. The cocoon hammocks scare outsiders.”
“I’m not an outsider. I’m a child of the Dominion and a child of the Uma. One doesn’t exclude the other.”
“I meant no offense.” Caution iced over her voice.
Kosandion offered her another smile. “I took none.”
They reached the pond where the stone path curved around the water. The pond took up a whole acre, a shallow, crystal-clear body of water with a large flat rock jutting a few feet from its left shore. Little fishes darted in the cool depths, and brilliant water lilies bloomed on the surface. Stone benches along the path offered a place to rest. This was Sean’s favorite spot. When the inn had a lull of visitors, we would come here, swim in the pond, lay out on the hot rock, and drink beer.
Kosandion and Ellenda continued down the path.
“Do you truly mean that?” Ellenda asked softly. “Are you a child of the Uma?”
Kosandion pulled his left sleeve up and raised his arm. A row of intricate white tattoos shot through with gold marked his dark skin.
Ellenda stopped and turned to face him, a resolute expression on her face. He pivoted toward her. They stood on the path, perfectly still, the same straight posture. In that moment, the two of them looked like they belonged to the same people.
Ellenda took a deep breath.
I braced for an attack.
“Tell me what troubles you, kalenti. You can tell me anything.”
“Anything?” she asked.
“Anything at all. This is our moment. My time and my attention are yours.”
Ellenda exhaled and shut her eyes.
If she moved a muscle in his direction, I would drop her right through the floor. I had expanded a lot of magic, but it wouldn’t take much, and my reaction time was just fine.
The Uma woman opened her eyes. “Do not choose me.”
On the screen behind them, the Ocean Dining Hall went perfectly still. Nobody moved.
“What do you mean?” Kosandion asked.
“Do not choose me. I don’t want to be your wife.”
Oh wow. I did not expect that.
“My branch owes a debt to the outsiders,” she said. “I am here to repay it.”
Duty over happiness. Of course.
“My presence was required. I do not want to marry you. I do not want to stay in the Dominion. So please, do not choose me.”
A silence fell. Birds chirped in the trees, a fish broke the surface of the water and splashed, but the two people in front of me were perfectly still and silent.
On the screen, the faces of the Frowns delegation looked contorted, some with alarm, others with outrage. Their leader clenched his fists on the table.
A subtle change came over Kosandion. He seemed larger somehow, formidable, majestic, no longer a man but an embodiment of power.
“What is it you truly want, daughter of the Uma?” he asked.
Ellenda opened her mouth and then spoke, as if jumping off a cliff. “I want to go home to my planet and the man I love.”
“It is done,” the Sovereign said.
There was a resounding finality to his voice. Goosebumps ran down my arms.
“Innkeeper, take Ellenda of the Uma to the portal. Once she passes through it, the Dominion will chart a ship to take her back to her homeworld. No citizen of the Dominion will ever trouble her or her branch again.”
On the screen one of the Frown delegates, a man wearing white and green, stood up and walked down the aisle to the door.
Where the hell was he going?
The man reached the table where the Holy Ecclesiarch sat with his entourage.
A transparent column shot out of the ground, sealing the holy man and his retinue inside. Wind jerked their hair as Sean flushed the inside of it with fresh air. At the same time a second column caught the man from the Frown’s delegation, cutting him off from the dining hall. He jerked and collapsed.
I killed the mute.
The sound roared in, beings jumping to their feet.
Sean leaped over the tables and landed in the middle of the floor, his grey robe flaring around him. The staff in his hand split, releasing a brilliant green spear head. His mouth opened, and he roared in the deep snarling voice of an alpha-strain werewolf. It was the same voice that had thundered over the battlefields of Nexus.
The three hundred creatures in the dining hall stopped as one.