The dates are over and Kosandion is refreshed after the gift of Lady Wexyn’s time and care. It’s the second elimination ceremony at the inn. Oh the pageantry, the sites, the drama… Hark, do I hear a ship sinking?
We were back to the arena for the Elimination ceremony. The previous elimination went well, so I saw no need to change the layout. Everything was the same: the miniature mountain topped with Kosandion’s throne jutting from the arena floor at the far end, the enormous banners of the remaining delegations suspended from the invisible ceiling behind it, the raised center stage shaped like a plateau, and the narrow bridge that led from it directly to the portal chamber. The only difference was, instead of parking myself by the bridge, I ended up in the observers’ section.
I had woken up with a slight fever and my head felt heavy, as if someone had poured lead into my skull without me knowing. Sean promptly freaked out and dragged me to a med unit, which diagnosed me with the beginning of a common cold, calibrated the right cocktail of antivirals, and injected me with it. Within a couple of hours, my head cleared up, my fever vanished, but Sean insisted on me “taking it easy,” which amounted to chasing me off to sit in a comfortable chair and eat snacks while Tony took my spot by the bridge.
I didn’t fight Sean on it. As much as I hated to admit it, I was running on fumes. The sheer amount of magic that flowed through me every day as I moved things and beings around without any regard for the laws of physics was enough to tire out any seasoned innkeeper. Combined with lack of sleep and the constant low-level sense of anxiety that hung over me, the strain wore me out. I could either rest today and jump back in tomorrow, or I could heroically insist on working and risk collapsing. Kosandion was perfectly safe with Sean by his side, and Tony was more than capable of handling any problems that popped up on his end.
I leaned back in my ridiculously comfortable chair. Caldenia sat on my left, and Karat on my right. We had gotten through Kosandion and his people making their entrance, and once the Sovereign assumed his throne, Gaston delivered his introduction. He was dressed in rust and white for the occasion with a brilliant red feather in his hat, and the giant screens above each section were giving him all the close ups. Orata must’ve decided that he was “an asset.”
“It’s my unfortunate duty to announce that the first delegation leaving us today are the Higgra,” Gaston solemnly proclaimed, exuding regret with every fiber of his being.
“He’s a born showman,” Her Grace said next to me.
“He does enjoy it,” I said.
The images of Cyanide rolled on the giant screens, as the Higgra delegation made a circle around the stage with Cyanide in the lead and stopped directly in front of the throne.
“Noble Higgra,” Kosandion said. “We are fortunate to have experienced the wonders of your civilization and your memory will be cherished for years to come. What do you ask of the Dominion?”
“We desire to trade our neural nets with the Dominion and only the Dominion, unhindered by any other parties,” Cyanide answered.
“Granted,” the Sovereign said. “The Trade Bureau shall draft the agreement immediately. Please allow me to extend the Dominion’s hospitality to you and your people while you await the necessary documents.”
“We accept and we are honored,” Cyanide said.
“We look forward to centuries of prosperity together.”
The Higgra crossed the bridge and disappeared from view. I felt them enter the portal and then their presence was gone from the inn. Their banner went dark.
Well, that was easy.
Gaston made some regretful remarks and moved on. “… the second delegation leaving us are… the valiant otrokar.”
The otrokar delegation entered the stage. They wore their battle leathers and they jogged, keeping a steady, relentless pace that ate up miles, which the Horde warbands used when they had to cover long distances on foot. They had formed up like a warband too, with Surkar in the lead, the heavier fighters on the flanks, shielding the auxiliaries and ranged units in the middle.
I tensed. On the right, in the seat next to Karat, Dagorkun leaned forward like a wolf sighting his prey. Caldenia seemed perfectly indifferent. A small smile curved Karat’s lips.
I leaned toward her. “What did you do?”
“What makes you think I did anything?”
“The last time you smiled like that, Gaston turned himself inside out reciting French poetry.”
Her smile widened slightly. “Lady Dina, you give me too much credit. I assure you, Surkar will not be serenading me with sonnets.”
Vampire humor, ha ha. I gave her a side eye.
The warband halted in front of the raised throne, gathering around Surkar, as if expecting an assault at any moment.
“Surkar, son of Grast and Ulde, Champion of your tribe,” the Sovereign said, each word landing like the blow of a hammer. “Do you wish to withdraw?”
“Do you understand that your withdrawal prohibits the Dominion from granting your minor ask?”
“The Dominion regrets this decision, but it is yours to make. We wish you a safe return to your homeworld.”
“I wish to ask a favor,” Surkar said.
“I would like to remain at the inn to witness the next delegation’s departure.”
If Dagorkun focused any harder, Surkar would develop laser burns on his face.
“Are you trying to set him on fire with your mind, Under-Khan?” Karat asked, her voice mild. “Is this some secret talent of the otrokar?”
Dagorkun ignored her.
“I have no objections, but it is not up to me.” Kosandion turned to Sean.
“You may stay,” Sean said in his scary innkeeper voice.
Karat shivered. “I hate when you do that.”
“That’s the point,” I told her.
The majority of the otrokar jogged down the bridge to the portal chamber. Only Surkar and the shaman remained on the platform.
What were they up to?
“A surprising turn of events!” Gaston boomed.
The remaining delegates made various noises, ranging from faint outrage to approval confirming that yes, the turn of events was surprising, and they were conflicted about it.
“That brings us to the final candidate departure of the day.”
The center of the stage sank and came back up, carrying the Dushegubs and Unessa. Tony had returned the lawn ornaments to the pit last night. He’d also mentioned that the Dushegubs had difficulty accepting their elimination. He tried to explain it to them three times, and they just hissed back.
“I find it hilarious that he didn’t even try to pronounce their proper name,” Caldenia said. “You have to admire a man who knows his limits.”
Kosandion stared down at the trees, his face glacial. “The Dominion thanks you for your participation in the spousal selection. We are saddened by your departure. What do you ask of the Dominion?”
The Dushegubs didn’t respond. Seconds ticked by.
Gaston stepped forward. “You lost. State your ask and leave.”
Sometimes simplicity was the best policy.
The Dushegubs flailed their branches. The largest tree stretched its limbs toward Gaston like a nightmarish, menacing octopus, then pivoted toward the throne.
“Statement: Our candidate is the best. Proposition: chose our candidate, send others away, or we destroy the Dominion. Do you wish to discuss?”
As controlled as Kosandion was in his Sovereign persona, he failed to hide the flicker of irritation that crossed his face.
“The Dominion fears no enemy. Our military, technology, and resources are superior to those of your civilization. Attacking the Dominion means the extinction of your species. Leave peacefully, and I will grant your minor ask. Declare war, and you will die now, and your planet will die tomorrow. Make your choice.”
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Kosandion meant every word, and it mattered very little to him which way they chose.
The Dushegubs braided their branches, creaking and hissing. Unessa stood alone, a hint of uncertainty on her lovely face.
“Proposition,” the largest Dushegub announced. “We leave, and Dominion builds a gate to Ugobuh. Do you wish to discuss?”
A green planet appeared on the screens with a description flashing by it. The Dushegubs wanted to colonize the other habitable planet in their system. Their spaceships were clunky, so an interplanetary gate would be the best way to do it, but what would the Dominion get out of it? Kosandion didn’t do things without a reason. He had permitted them to progress this far, so there had to be something he wanted out of this interaction besides their entertainment value.
“The Dominion will build a gate to Ugobuh, if your civilization agrees to mine and supply the Dominion with all pulsar requarzite found there. Do you wish to discuss?”
Pulsar requarzite was an essential component of most energy weapons. Now it made sense. According to the description, Ugobuh was hot, swampy, dangerous, and generally inhospitable to most humanoid life. Mining on it would have been an expensive nightmare.
For the first quarter of their lives, Dushegubs remained stationary, their roots burrowing deep into the soil. They were organic miners, pulling the minerals out with their roots. They also took everything literally. If they said yes to this, they would dig in that planet until every last ounce of requartzite was extracted and safely stowed away in Dominion warehouses, because Kosandion didn’t want some requartzite. He wanted all of it. No sane creature would ever attempt to steal any of it with the carnivorous trees prowling the planet.
Not only would he get his mineral, but the Dominion would control the gate. They would be able to shut it down at will, severing all travel between the two planets. They would hold it over the Dushegubs to keep them in line.
There were times I was very grateful for Earth’s special status.
“We agree,” the Dushegub leader announced.
And they went for it.
The Dushegubs turned to leave.
“Wait!” Surkar’s voice rang out.
“What is he doing?” Dagorkun growled under his breath.
“What happens to her?” Surkar pointed toward Unessa.
“She has failed. We will consume her to recoup our resources,” the leading Dushegub said.
Unessa went white. The arena snarled in outrage.
“She is ours!” The Dushegub hissed.
“I wish to purchase the female.” Surkar held out a sack.
“Inquiry: what do you offer?”
Surkar tossed the sack to the Dushegub leader. The tree snapped it out of the air, ripping it in half. Golden spheres, fuzzy like dandelions, tumbled out. Baderi fungus, filled with rare nutrients. The Dushegub equivalent of the rarest caviar. He just dropped enough of it to ensure the survival of an entire acre of young Dushegub saplings. To the Dushegubs, it was nearly priceless.
“Statement: she is yours.”
The Dushegubs exploded into action, snatching the fungus and stuffing it into the cracks in their bark. In seconds it was gone, and the trees slithered their way to the portal and out of the inn.
Surkar looked at Unessa. “You are free. You can come with me if you wish. You will be safe. No one will abuse you.”
“Do you wish to go with him?” Kosandion asked.
Unessa gave Surkar a long look.
“Are you strong?”
“Yes,” Surkar confirmed.
“Are you rich?”
“Do others serve you?”
Unessa looked at the Sovereign. “I wish to go with him.”
“The Dominion has no objections. Does the inn?”
“No,” Sean said.
The arena erupted in applause. Surkar offered Unessa his uninjured arm. She held on to him. They made a victory lap around the stage, followed by the shaman.
“Damn it all to all known hells,” Dagorkun swore. “He was beaten and humiliated, and now he’s a hero again. That lackwit couldn’t come up with that move in a million years. Who helped him? Who? When I find out…”
“It was me,” Karat said.
“I told him how to put this together.”
He turned his head slowly to look at her. The shock and betrayal on his face was almost comical.
“Why?” Dagorkun squeezed out.
“Why not?” Karat sneered at him. “I do not owe you an explanation, Under-Khan. Our nations are at peace, but we are hardly allies. Consider it a small reminder.”
Dagorkun surged to his feet and marched off. I barely had enough time to open the door for him or he might have just walked through it.
“I thought you and Dagorkun had… something?”
Karat gave me a short laugh. “No. Dagorkun and Gaston had something. I am a vampire knight. I’ve seen this kind of farce play out many times before. This was a competition between two men who disliked each other and decided I would serve as the winner’s prize without consulting me. Me, my wishes, my feelings were quite incidental to the entire affair. The Under-Khan is a smart man. I simply showed him he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.”
“None of them really are, dear,” Her Grace said.
Below us, Gaston waved his arms. “Six candidates are gone. Six remain. We have said our farewells to the departed and now we must begin the 3rd Trial.”
The remaining six candidates entered the stage: Amphie, Bestata, Oond, Nycati, Prysen Ol, and Lady Wexyn. A massive round table emerged from the center of the stage, sixty feet in diameter. Six chairs flanked it at even intervals. A terminal appeared in front of every chair, enclosed by privacy screens. The center of the table ignited, projecting a huge planet into the air.
Gaston grinned. “WELCOME TO GAME DAY!”