When we last departed the inn, Donna was being soothed with doughnuts, Amphie shattered her girl-next-door image by resorting to intimidation and bribery, and Nycati and Kosandion had a cryptic conversation about their life choices. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and if one isn’t careful, the royal headband can become a noose.
On with the story…
It was almost 9:00 pm, and I was so tired, I couldn’t see straight. We were about to start date number I couldn’t even remember, Surkar, and there was one more after that. Caldenia’s visit with her niece and nephews lasted for about 2 hours, barely enough time for me to handle Donna, and once it was done, we launched straight into the date marathon without any breaks, one candidate after another. Today turned out to be an insane day that lasted forever, and tomorrow wouldn’t be much better.
I glanced at Kosandion. He leaned against the wall of the Gallery, his eyes closed. How in the world he could keep going was beyond me. After a whole day of standing, my feet cried when I put any weight on them.
The inn chimed in my head.
“Showtime,” I told Kosandion.
He pushed from the wall and opened his eyes. Orata’s cameras came to life like a swarm of annoying mechanical insects.
The door slid aside, and Sean emerged with Lady Wexyn by his side. She wore a pale blue robe dress, nearly transparent and embroidered with large white blossoms, over an inner white robe and harem pants. A single silver ornament held her hair back from her face, gathering it into coils atop her head. For her, this was downright subdued.
The two of them reached us.
“Where is Surkar?” I asked.
“He refused the date,” Sean said.
Refusing the date meant he withdrew from the selection. “Are you serious?”
“What about his small ask?”
“It’s forfeit,” Kosandion said.
I knew Surkar was proud, but that seemed shortsighted.
“My apologies for the sudden change in schedule, Lady Wexyn,” Kosandion said. ‘I hope it wasn’t too jarring.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Letero.”
“Where would you like to go?” Kosandion asked.
“To the amber sea,” Lady Wexyn said.
Easy as pie. I opened the door in the side wall. The four of us walked through it, down a short hallway, and emerged into the Ocean Dining Hall. It was mostly empty. Only one table was occupied. Karat, Dagorkun, Cookie, and Tony sat around it with Marais and Donna. Donna made big eyes at us as we crossed to the terrace.
I sealed the terrace door behind us, ensuring that we wouldn’t be disturbed.
“Could we get closer to the water?” Lady Wexyn asked.
We were on top of an island, a solid chunk of rock protruding high from the shallow ocean. There was no beach. The walls of the island, sheer and nearly vertical, weren’t suitable for walking on either. I would have to make something.
I tapped my broom. A section of the terrace dipped in front of us, sinking and flowing off the cliff like melting cheese, with a stone staircase forming as it touched the honey-colored waves. A small beach materialized at the end of the staircase, lined with smooth pebbles and sea glass, hugged on one side by the stone of the island and washed by the gentle surf on the other three. A tree rose out of the pebbles, its leaves a bright lemony yellow. I had stolen it from Lady Wexyn’s quarters. Its branches curved over the beach in a graceful bow.
There. Romantic enough.
Lady Wexyn smiled. “We’ll need a blanket.”
One of the inn’s tendrils snapped out of solid rock and hung a blanket on the tree branch. Kosandion offered his arm to Lady Wexyn. She rested her fingers on it, and they strolled down the staircase to the beach. Sean and I waited at the top of the staircase, giving them a little distance.
“Do you wish to tell me about your life in the Temple of Desire?” Kosandion asked.
Lady Wexyn took the blanket off the tree and spread it over the pebbles. “Sit with me, Letero.”
They sat side by side.
“Are you tired?” she asked.
A hint of fatigue slipped through Kosandion’s mask. “It’s been a long day.”
“It has. Does this hour belong to me?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Then we don’t have to talk, Letero.” She smiled a serene, easy smile. “We can just sit here and watch the waves.”
I had the inn pull a couple of firm outdoor cushions out of storage and quietly slid them over to the couple. Lady Wexyn winked at me, moved her cushion closer, and leaned back against it.
For several seconds Kosandion sat next to her, unmoving, and then some of the rigid tension drained from his spine. He reached for his cushion, adjusted it to his liking, rested his arm on it, and let his gaze drift out over the water.
Sean and I were near the top of the staircase, with Kosandion and Lady Wexyn about thirty yards in front of us and fifty feet below. Going down there would be intruding but letting the Sovereign out of my sight wasn’t an option.
A section of the rock slid out of the sheer wall, forming a small natural terrace to the right of us. A chunk of it curved, flowing into a smooth stone bench. I glanced at Sean.
“He’s safe,” he told me.
“What makes you think that?”
“Trust me. We can keep an eye on them from here.”
Standing on top of this staircase staring down at them felt stupid, and I was so wiped out. Besides, he said the magic words. I did trust him.
I landed on the bench. Sean sat next to me and put his arm around my shoulders. I leaned into him. He was warm. It felt so nice.
“Tired?” he asked.
“Exhausted. You and I can’t go on dates anymore.”
“Date is a dirty word.”
He smiled. “That bad, huh?”
“Yes.” I snuggled closer to him. “All of them were bad, but Prysen Ol and Amphie were the worst. He kept going on and on about obscure philosophical and ethical issues. I almost fell asleep standing up. She talked for the entire hour, super intense and tiresome, and then tried to bribe me on the way back to her quarters. At least Oond’s dance was pretty.”
Although a whole hour of jazz fins was really too much.
Sean’s body tensed. “Bribe you with what?”
“Unspecified favors which she would provide when she became a spouse. She wasn’t really clear on that part, but she did threaten to blacklist us if I didn’t go along.”
Sean cracked a smile.
“When you smile like that, you look like you’re plotting murder.”
“What’s the deal with Surkar?”
“He’s being strategic. They were in it to win it. He knows he’s done, so he’s cutting his losses.”
“Why? They won’t get anything now. They’ll leave empty handed.”
Sean stroked my shoulder with his fingers. “So will Dagorkun.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Surkar and his people must have a plan. The Spouse thing fit into it somehow, and whatever that plan is, they really don’t want the Khan to know about it. Dagorkun is smart. He doesn’t need much to put things together. Disclosing their minor ask might give away their hand, so Surkar would rather keep his mouth shut and go home with nothing.”
Huh. I gave Surkar too little credit. It was a smart move. Dagorkun was free to suspect as much as he wanted, but without evidence, he could prove nothing.
“Do you think there will be a civil war within the Horde?”
“It will never get that far,” Sean said. “Judging by their history, the Horde will find a new enemy soon, someone very dangerous and vicious. And then Surkar and his tribe might find themselves on the front lines. Nobody wants to admit it, but part of the reason the Nexus war lasted so long was because the Horde needed a meat grinder. Their numbers are growing faster than they can manage. Nexus thinned those numbers and hardened the survivors.”
“But the Khanum was desperate to end it.”
“The Khan and the Khanum are not the only voices the Horde listens to. There are a multitude of tribes, the elders, the shamans, the bureaucrats, the honored generals who had distinguished themselves… Many of them saw Nexus as the necessary evil.”
He fell silent. There were a lot of dark memories there.
On the beach, Kosandion lay on his back, rested his head on Lady Wexyn’s thigh, and closed his eyes. The ocean lapped at the pebbles with a soft whisper.
“Unessa’s date didn’t last long,” Sean said.
“No. How much did they show you?”
“Nothing. The feed was delayed by about ten minutes, then they announced that she was feeling unwell and wished to return to her rooms. I sensed she was with you and Kosandion for at least fifteen minutes, so what happened?”
I sighed. “She showed up in a see-through dress and nothing else. He tried to get her to talk about her childhood and how she came to the Dushegubs. It was like talking to a tree. She kept smiling, and then she pulled her dress over her head.”
Sean laughed. “At least she is direct.”
“So is Bestata. Apparently, House Meer is all about a new strategic military alliance. Not as part of the Holy Anocracy. Just them by themselves and their new best friend, the Dominion.”
“The Warlord would just love that,” Sean said.
House Meer had been excommunicated by the Hierophant of the Holy Anocracy, meaning they were barred from participating in religious events or holding federal positions in the government. They had dishonored themselves by refusing to fight on Nexus but they were still a part of the Holy Anocracy and subject to their laws and the mandates of the Warlord.
Technically each vampire House was free to make their own alliances, however, the Holy Anocracy as a whole already had a treaty with the Dominion. By trying to form an additional alliance on top of the official one, House Meer would be superseding the authority of the Warlord. They were playing a very dangerous game.
“That’s how wars start,” Sean said. “All the little secret agreements. If Bestata became the Spouse, and House Meer went to war with another House or with one of the other powers, the Dominion would be dragged into it.”
“He’s too smart to pick her.”
“He might not have a choice. Tomorrow is Game Day.”
The elimination followed by a nine-hour trial. I sighed. “Yay.”
“I can tell you’re excited.”
“You know what? I am excited. One more day, and then he has to pick one of them. I don’t care who it is at this point. That’s his problem. I just want to rescue Wilmos.”
Sean kissed me. “I think you pushed yourself too hard.”
“I mean it. I don’t care.”
“You care about everyone all the time. You probably even care about what’s going to happen to Unessa.”
“They will probably eat her.” The Dushegubs were pragmatic. They didn’t feel affection, and Unessa was a source of nutrients. Since they didn’t need her anymore, they would… recycle.
Sean squeezed me to him. “They won’t get the chance.”
“Do you know something I don’t?”
“Quite frequently, yes.”
I rolled my eyes.
He looked terribly smug. “What is it you tell me when you pull some surprise out of thin air? An innkeeper has their secrets.”
“I’m too tired for secrets. Ask me anything, I’ll tell you.”
“Do you love me?”
“That’s not a secret. Everyone knows I love you.”
“Even when I throw myself at pirate ships?”
“Even then. Although please don’t make it a habit.” We sat together and watched the ocean until the date ended and we could finally go to bed.