When we last left Gertrude Hunt, Mrs. Marais learned the value of friendships and strawberry doughnuts and not a single can of beans was thrown at anyone. Will wonders never cease?
But the spousal selection marches on, and now Kosandion must date. Mandatory flirting. Ah, the sad life of the Sovereign.
Amphie’s date with the Sovereign was the most tiring experience. She was supposed to have a date after Nycati, but Kosandion requested the switch, and after spending an hour in Amphie’s company, I could see why. He wanted to jump the biggest hurdle first. The second elimination ceremony was tomorrow afternoon, followed immediately by the Third Trial, which was why we were packing the remaining dates into today and tomorrow morning like sardines.
Amphie had chosen the Gallery for her date, one of the pre-made environments I had specifically created for the selection. I had taken a page out every heist movies’ playbook and built a somewhat cliché museum room: large, with a high ceiling featuring a beautiful skylight, walls of frosted white glass, and a floor in a mosaic of creams and white. I’d pulled various alien items out of storage, arranged them on pedestals with some strategic lighting, and finished it off with a small vala tree.
The tree was a gift from Lord Soren, Arland’s uncle. I loved it to pieces. It was my baby, and I moved it from its special spot in the vampire wing and gave it the royal treatment it deserved: its own focal point directly under the skylight where its blood-red leaves glowed against its black branches. It grew from a patch of moist soil dotted with mossy rocks, with the traditional House Krahr stream winding around through a shallow streambed. The stream continued through the room, creating a natural separation between sections.
It was a serene environment, designed to inspire quiet moments and contemplation. Amphie attacked it like she was in a fight for her life. She steered Kosandion from item to item, offered a quick factoid about its function or origin, asked him a question, and then eagerly hung on every word.
About ten minutes into it, I realized it wasn’t about Kosandion. It was a performance for the Dominion’s citizens, designed to show off her comprehensive education and understanding of Galactic cultures. Periodically, she would make a small joke, just a little wink that said, “Yes, I’m educated but aren’t I also clever and charming?”
It felt very “A student” to me. As if she were called out by the professor to stand next to him in front of the class, and she was committed to proving to everyone that not only she could converse with him, but she could also impress him.
It was incredibly draining, and I didn’t even have to keep up my end of the conversation the way Kosandion did. I kept hoping she would run out of clever, but more kept coming and coming, until finally after an hour, she was forced to exit.
Now I was escorting her to her quarters through a long hallway, with Beast leading the way. Nycati was next. He had also chosen the Gallery, and I would pick him up as soon as I dropped her off. Normally either Tony or Sean would’ve brought the candidate to me while I remained with Kosandion, but Amphie’s date was broadcast in its entirety and they both had to babysit the delegations in the various dining halls.
Hopefully nobody would get poisoned this time.
I had sealed the Gallery with Kosandion inside to give him a few minutes to relax. The inn was watching him, but I was still paranoid.
“How do you feel it went?” Amphie asked.
“It’s not my place to offer an opinion,” I told her.
“You are with him all the time. You’ve earned his trust. Does he talk about me?”
She was barking up the wrong tree. “Gertrude Hunt prides itself on confidentiality.”
Amphie’s eyes narrowed. The hint of a different person shone through, a driven, cut-throat woman focused on her goal.
“You sit in on their strategy sessions. There are no cameras here. Nobody would ever know if you chose to share a few drops of information. Help me, and I promise to compensate you. If I become the spouse, I will have unprecedented influence on the Dominion. You and your inn won’t regret it.”
I stopped before the door to her rooms. “We’ve arrived.”
She gave me a frustrated stare. “You truly don’t know what’s good for you.”
“The kitchen staff has delivered your dinner to your quarters. Enjoy.” I flicked the door open.
“Will you tell him?” she asked.
“I keep the confidence of my guests. All of them.”
Amphie marched through the doors, and I shut them behind her. Beast woofed once softly by my feet.
“I agree,” I told her, and we headed down the hallway to Nycati’s quarters.
I never fully bought Amphie’s earnest act. Every selection candidate was extraordinary in some ways, the best each delegation could offer, and the Dominion was a place of nuance and political maneuvering. Amphie was projecting an earnest sincerity that bordered on naivete, which was absurd because nobody would send an innocent into this process. The arrangements for the selection began as soon as the Dominion realized that Kosandion would be able to keep his throne. Even if she had started as a sweet young flower, years of education and preparation would have shaped her into a clever, ruthless political operative.
Amphie was ambitious. There was no question about it. She didn’t want Kosandion, but she definitely wanted the power that came with being the spouse and the mother to the future heir. And she wasn’t above holding that future power over my head. Being blacklisted by the Dominion would damage Gertrude Hunt’s standing.
I had no idea what Nycati wanted.
We were still nowhere near to figuring out the identity of the hidden assassin. And we hadn’t heard anything more from Wilmos’ kidnappers. I felt like a skier midway up the slope of a steep mountain, eyeing the buildup of snow at its apex. Eventually it would break and become an avalanche, and I wasn’t sure we could dodge it.
I didn’t want anything bad to happen to Kosandion, and not because we would lose Gertrude Hunt.
Nycati had chosen a white robe that floated around him like a cloud, a striking color against his amber skin. A silver ornament, shaped like a melting snowflake, rested on his long hair. He gave me a brisk nod, and we proceeded down the hallway without a word.
Gaheas royals lived dangerous lives and they remembered debts, those of others and their own. I knew his secret, which gave me power over him and made me his least favorite person. He would retaliate to reclaim that power. I just didn’t know how or when. He had requested a game of Dominion chess with the Sovereign. Dominion chess was played on a twelve-sided board with 60 different pieces. It was insanely complex, and a single game took forever. Maybe his revenge was to bore me to death.
We stepped into the Gallery. Orata’s cameras were already floating, recording our arrival.
“Candidate Nycati,” Kosandion said.
I pulled a small table with the chessboard out of the wall.
“Shall we?” Kosandion nodded to the chess board.
What moment? No moment. Sit at the table and play chess.
Nycati gave me a smile. “It occurred to me that staying at the inn is a once in a lifetime chance for new experiences, so I wondered if I could impose on our host and ask for a different setting.”
Aha. I nodded. “What did you have in mind?”
“Something unique and extraordinary. I want to see something I would otherwise have no chance of witnessing in my lifetime.”
Not just something he hadn’t seen but something he would never see in his lifetime. This had to be his stab at revenge. He thought he could stump me. The entire Dominion was watching and so was the Innkeeper Assembly and half of the Galaxy.
Kosandion raised his eyebrows.
I had to make this good. The floor under our feet shifted, carrying us up. I raised my hand and the wall in front of us fractured, spinning to the sides.
“Your wish is granted.”
A large room opened in front of us, the tall ceiling supported by square wooden columns, unstained so the rich grain of the wood was clearly visible under the resin. The floor flowed like a river, with currents of malachite and brown onyx twisting as they flowed to the dais at the far end of the room. The walls were the same stunning wood as the columns. Metal screens in shades of silver and white gold showed odd creatures with gemstone eyes. Elegant paintings hung on the walls.
The dais supported a throne. It was a rough, simple seat, carved from a translucent white stone traversed by blood-red veins. They spread through the stone, sparse in some places and dense in others and the throne glowed in the light streaming through the massive open doorway and large window.
Beyond the doorway, a balcony of polished grey stone wrapped all the way around the room, sheltered by an overhanging roof that was held up by massive stone columns. The vast plain that rolled into the distance was so far below, the sea of grass and isolated copses of trees looked like a miniature built by an artisan crafter.
The detail was breathtaking. No two columns were the same, no two stone reliefs mirrored another. But it wasn’t just about the detail. Stepping into this space was like entering an entirely different world, completely foreign and yet so cohesive, so refined that being in it was effortless. It was as if you suddenly found a better version of a room, where everything was in its most natural place, and you too became a part of it. Leaving it filled you with regret.
The two men held still, taking it in.
“What is this?” Kosandion asked finally.
“The Seat of Drífan Liege Adira of Green Mountain.”
Shock slapped Nycati’s face.
The Drífen were one of the great mysteries of the Galaxy. Their entire solar system existed within a dimensional rift, and it was deeply magic. The sun, the planets, the moon, the plants, the animals, the beings inhabiting it, everything existed within this magical biosphere, connected and shaped by it. The Drífen didn’t trade with outside worlds. They didn’t exchange emissaries, although some of them travelled through the galaxy for their own secret reasons. The only way to access the worlds of Drífen would be if one of the planets wanted you there, and then it would summon you whether you liked it or not and make you its own.
Sean and I had hosted a Drífan Liege during Treaty Stay, an innkeeper holiday, months ago. Her emissary showed us a holographic projection of her throne room, which the inn recorded. I had made her quarters with elements from that image, but the throne room haunted me. Before Adira left, I’d asked her permission to replicate it. I didn’t have to, but it felt right at the time. She agreed.
I’d been working on this space for almost half a year, tinkering with it when I had a moment. I’d started over three times, but I finally got it close. It still wasn’t perfect, and it would likely never be finished. For one, the topography outside was all wrong. The Green Mountain view was that of mountains sheathed with forests. I wanted the height, so I built it in Wancurat, one of our lesser used doors, on top of a giant fossilized megatree.
I pulled the chess board out of the floor, set it on a low table and offered two floor cushions to Kosandion and Nycati.
They played chess for the next hour. Both were expert players. It was a surreal experience, to watch two very different men, both highly intelligent, both driven, sit in this serene space, completely absorbed in their game and yet seamlessly fitting into the room. Perhaps that was the true magic of Drífen. It was a place that collected strays from a dazzling variety of cultures and species and made them feel like they belonged.
When the hour was up, with the game reluctantly abandoned, and Orata’s cameras deactivated, Kosandion and Nycati walked onto the balcony. They stood side by side, looking at the plain far below.
“Are you sure?” Kosandion asked.
“There will be no going back.”
“I know,” the Gaheas prince said.
“Do you really want it?”
Nycati shrugged. “Does it matter? Did you want it?”
“I didn’t, but I didn’t have a choice. You can walk away from it.”
“So can you. You can ask our innkeeper to open a door into some distant place, walk through it, abandon everything, and disappear.”
“The Dominion would be thrown into chaos.”
Nycati’s face was somber. “My people are in chaos now.”
“If I didn’t know, you would have been my choice,” Kosandion said.
“I’m honored,” Nycati said.
A gust of wing tugged on his hair. He brushed it off his face with an impatient jerk of his fingers.
“You have been kind. I may never get a chance to repay this kindness, so let me humbly offer this small piece of unwanted advice. We are focuses of larger forces. Duty. Honor. Survival. And yet, there are times when we must claim something for ourselves. Not because of duty, but because we require it to keep on living. Don’t miss your chance, Letero.”
“I’ll take it under advisement,” Kosandion said.