While I have your attention, Jennifer Estep’s new book is out. Only Bad Options, a sci-fantasy with galactic empires and magic. I am still reading it, I didn’t finish it in time – because innkeeper is taking up all my time and I am a bad friend – but here is a great review. A more detailed post to come.
Game Day, Game Day! Clap with us! Oond the Oombole is our fish, if he can’t do it, you can only wish! Wooo! ::shakes the pompoms:: Doesn’t make sense, but it rhymes!
When we last left the inn, Nycati was recognized as the rightful monarch of East Gaheas and Bestata had some explaining to do to the Warlord. Four contestants remain. Let’s see who won…
Four candidates stood on the stage, awaiting their scores. Oond floated, seemingly serene unless you were familiar with the Oomboles and caught the slight shivering of his fins and erect tail. Amphie looked confident, her shoulders held back, her spine straight. Next to her Prysen Ol simply waited, his face a handsome blank. Lady Wexyn smiled, looking innocently clueless. During the break her forest of golden hair decorations had been pruned to a single kokoshnik-like golden comb modestly studded with grape-sized purple jewels.
The arena fell silent. Orata was milking every last drop of drama out of the elimination, because the crowning of an rebel Gaheas king and near complete destruction of a vampire house simply weren’t thrilling enough.
A large central screen, positioned above the exit to the portal, came on, showing a table with four rows and multiple columns labeled with Progress scoring categories: culture, medicine, science etc. The final column was marked Total Score.
“It is my priviledge and honor to now announce the results of the game,” Gaston proclaimed. “In the third place… Oond of the Oomboles!”
Oond’s name popped up in the third row down, as the scores in his columns populated. The Oomboles broke into their version of applause, and I had to look away because the cacophony of waving fins and colors was worse than staring into a strobe light.
The side screens above the delegate sections displayed a detailed breakdown of his statistics and strategies. His population was happy, his economy was solid, if a little less diverse than it could’ve been, and the unique Witness military units he’d engineered had no trouble defending his realm. Oond had managed to go through the entire game without invading anyone. Instead of relying on brute force conquest, Oond would sidle up next to the settlement he wanted to annex and send his missionaries in. The missionaries would build schools, hospitals, and temples. They would employ people. He would spend a couple of generations indoctrinating the populace and then they would voluntarily join him.
However, he failed to account for the inherent tribalism of humanoid creatures. His mono-religion created room for bias and discrimination against the less or differently devout. As his science advanced, so did free thinking, because science hinged on questioning everything, and a god-king couldn’t afford to be questioned. He had to suppress certain branches of the natural sciences to keep civil unrest down and that took a big chunk out of his score.
“In second place…” Gaston boomed, “…Prysen Ol of the Kai!”
Prysen Ol’s name appeared in the table on the big screen, in the second row from the top. His statistics and scores replaced Oond’s on the side screens, offering a detailed look into his strategy. The Kai didn’t do cheering. They stomped instead, driving their six limbs into the floor of their section in rhythmic approval.
Prysen had settled on a military republic with limited representation, citizen rights, and a focus on conquest. His nation quickly became a conquering juggernaut. Prysen didn’t get involved in large scale wars. He found a target he knew he could take and blitzed it, expanding his nation one small bite at a time. For the first half of the game, he was always at war, yet it never disrupted the lives or ordinary citizens. Unlike Bestata, he had invested in arts, sciences, and trade. His capital city was a shining jewel of civilization.
However, he also relied on slave labor, and once he exhausted the supply of the barbarian settlements in his immediate vicinity, that source of free workers dried up. Shifting to a paid work force proved costly and difficult. Inflation combined with labor shortages gave rise to corruption and tax avoidance. Cracks began to appear in the colossus’ massive legs and his two failed attempts to break through Nycati’s monstrous fortifications only widened them. Still, his score was 62 points higher than Oond’s.
The two women remaining on stage couldn’t have looked any different. Amphie stood ramrod-straight, stone faced, looking like a sword someone thrust into the floor. She kept touching the heavy silver necklace around her neck, stroking it as if it were a talisman. Lady Wexyn was smiling at Kosandion. He watched her, his face impassive. She gave him a little wink.
“At the top of the leaderboard, with an impressive score full 107 points higher than her closest rival…” Gaston said.
The pause stretched.
“Lady Wexyn of the Temple of Desire!”
Amphie stumbled back half a step. In the Temple’s section, Lady Wexyn’s entourage pulled off their veils and waved them around, flashing half of the galaxy.
Lady Wexyn’s scores filled the screens, her name glowing with golden light at the very top of the table. She reigned supreme. She had successfully transitioned to a monarchy with a democratically elected legislative body. She instituted meritocracy, allowing surfacing talents to rise, and guaranteed freedom of religion, organizing the representatives of various sects into a “spiritual council” so they could give her sage advice and squabble in person rather than through their followers. She redirected the harmful tribalism by developing organized sports.
Her trade network was superb. She had instituted a policy that offered additional reward for discoveries, so not only did her caravans bring back a variety of goods, but they also learned of new technologies and cultures and then delivered that knowledge back to their homeland to collect a hefty payout.
Despite staying away from large conflicts, she had a robust military. She had allowed one of the barbarian settlements to flourish into a 3-city civilization, and when she built new military units, she would send them to the border with that tri-city state, to repel their raids and carry on small invasions, always stopping short of conquering or debilitating the enemy. Once her military units had been seasoned in those wars, she sent them with the caravans as guards. Her people were prosperous, healthy, happy, and proud to belong to her nation.
“That girl is her mother’s daughter,” Caldenia murmured.
I looked at her.
“It is a long-held truth that one cannot build a foundation for a successful society in Progress without going through at least a brief period of slavery in the early stages of the game. When the civilization is in its infancy, the wars with small settlements provide a steady stream of captives, the level of technology and education is low, and large fortifications and a steady food supply are critical. Slavery is the most efficient answer.”
“Slavery should never be the answer.”
“Wexyn shares your view. She sidestepped it with her tiered citizenship system. It requires a very deep understanding of the game. Only one other high-profile player employed this strategy, and he could only make it work half of the time.”
“Who was he?”
Oh. Her entire strategy was a tribute. I glanced at Kosandion. He was studying the screen, seemingly deeply immersed in it.
“Unlike some, she has talent.” Caldenia stared at Amphie as if she were a worm. “A poor showing for the Dominion.”
“And the last of the four is Amphie of Behoun!”
Amphie’ s name appeared in the bottom row. She had the foundation for a successful state, but the war with Bestata had drained every bit of wealth from her coffers and demoralized her population. She had beaten Bestata by 24 points on the strength of her cultural achievements but lost to Oond by 7. She was staring at the screens now with a kind of strange slack expression.
“This is the non-interfering part, I’m guessing,” Sean murmured through the earpiece.
My pulse sped up. “Keep him alive, please.”
“Dina,” Her Grace said, urgency vibrating in her voice. “Whatever is about to happen will either weaken Kosandion’s position or make it uncontestable. If you resolve it for him, you will take away his victory. Promise me.”
“What if he dies?”
“Then he’s not fit to sit on that throne.”
Gertrude Hunt and I were bound. Losing the inn would rip out my heart. But I would still have Sean. I loved him more than anything. Caldenia loved her nephew. For his safety, she had sacrificed everything but her life, and even that was barely kept and had been forever changed. Kosandion knew an assassin was after him. He must have made arrangements, because he had reached out to the Innkeeper Assembly in advance. Caldenia wouldn’t risk his life unless she had confidence in his preparations.
It went against everything I was taught.
But Sean was with Kosandion. The small mountain supporting the throne was basically a triangle set on its side, with the slope facing the stage. The top of the triangle, where the throne was placed, was 20 feet above the stage. The bottom of the triangle, just like the bottom of the stage, was hidden in my fake clouds. Horizontally, 15 feet of clear space separated the stage from the slope. An attacker would have to clear these 15 feet, then run up the 30-foot -long slope, bypassing both Resven and Miralitt, and only then they would be within the striking distance. That would give both Sean and Kosandion all the time in the world to prepare.
“Do this for me, and I will never forget it,” Caldenia said.
She said things like that a lot lately. “Fine. I will sit on my hands.”
I hoped I wouldn’t regret it.
Caldenia took my hand, squeezed, and let go.
“I lost,” Amphie said, her microphone-amplified voice echoing across the Arena. “I lost to a fish.”
That was uncalled for.
Prysen Ol was looking at Amphie. She turned her head slowly. Their stares connected.
The philosopher sprinted across the stage toward the small mountain, his eyes fixed on Kosandion on his throne.
In the Observer’s section six seats away from me Tomato jumped to his feet and vomited a pearlescent orb the size of a basketball. The orb streaked toward the arena.
I clamped the green bear alien into a vise of Gertrude Hunt’s roots. They couldn’t blame me for securing him. He was an active danger to the Observers.
Prysen Ol leaped. He didn’t jump, he flew as if he had wings, shooting a full thirty feet up toward the Sovereign in a sharp diagonal line. A human being could not do this.
Sean activated a barrier around the Kai section.
Prysen reached the maximum height and streaked through the air toward Kosandion on the collision course with the orb. Was this levitation? What the hell was this? I could just snatch him right out of the air… Argh!
Prysen’s right hand snapped out toward the orb. His fingers touched it, and the orb popped like a soap bubble, releasing a coiled whip. Before it could fall, Prysen snatched it out of the air and swung it. The whip whistled, spinning in a wide arc crackling with red lightning.
A whip-sword. Made not out of leather, rubber, or paracord, but of razor-sharp metallic segments connected by a glowing monofilament. Released, it was a 20-foot whip that could behead a human being in a single snap. Retracted, it became a 4-foot sword, the segments fitted together into a flexible blade.
Time slowed. Prysen was still in mid-air, defying the limits of human bodies and gravity and flying toward Kosandion in a slowly descending trajectory. The whip-sword sliced in a devastating strike. He was aiming at Kosandion’s head.
The bladed segments whined as the whip completed its circle. Kosandion saw it coming but made no move to avoid it.
Lady Wexyn dashed to the edge of the stage, shot into the air like a bullet, and pulled a dagger from her cleavage. Prysen Ol never saw her coming. She caught him from behind, wrapping one arm around his neck like a lover, and drove the dagger between his shoulder blades.
Prysen jerked back, shock twisting his face. The end of the whip quivered, slicing a foot short of the Sovereign’s nose. Kosandion observed it with mild interest, as if it were a random curiosity.
Lady Wexyn hurled Prysen Ol away from the mountain. He hurtled through the air, spun, twisting his body as he fell, and landed on the balls of his feet near the center of the stage. The knife was still embedded in his back. Bright red blood spread through his robes.
Lady Wexyn floated down and landed near the edge of the stage, her back to the throne mountain, blocking the way to Kosandion. It had to be a technologically assisted jump. Gravity didn’t make exceptions.
Prysen Ol pulled a syringe out of his robes with his left hand and stabbed it into his thigh.
Lady Wexyn took a step toward him. There was nothing sweet or coquettish about her face now. She looked like Cyanide might have when she hunted her prey.
“Curse it! I’ll do it myself!” Amphie snarled.
Her necklace melted, sliding under her gown. The liquid metal slithered out of her short sleeves, down her arms, coated her hands, and hardened into four-inch claws.
She dashed forward, ridiculously fast.
Sean and I simultaneously sealed the Behoun’s section and sank the delegates into the floor up to their armpits.
Lady Wexyn glided sideways on an intercept course. Amphie raked at her with her new claws. Lady Wexyn caught her right wrist with her right hand, jerked her forward, moving with Amphie’s momentum and pulling her arm straight, and twisted the arm elbow up. Amphie gasped. Lady Wexyn drove the heel of her left palm into Amphie’s elbow.
The arm crunched with a dry pop. Amphie cried out.
Lady Wexyn let go of the ruined arm, spun behind Amphie, grabbed her other wrist with both hands, pulled her to the ground, as if Amphie weighed nothing, dropped to one knee, and broke Amphie’s left arm over it. The entire fight was over in two breaths.
“Goddess preserve us,” Karat whispered.
“Kosandion,” Dagorkun said.
Oh. Lady Wexyn had echoed Kosandion’s fight with Surkar. Same tactic: grab the wrist, pull the opponent forward, disable the arm. Except she didn’t stop with one arm the way he had done.
Amphie laid on her back and howled in pain. The Behoun delegation screamed with her, a chorus to her suffering.
Oond froze in his habitat and slowly turned upside down, his fins limp.
“Oombole down!” Sean called out through the earpiece.
“It’s okay, he just fainted.”
Lady Wexyn stepped over Amphie and stalked toward Prysen Ol. He bared his teeth in a grimace and snapped his whip-sword at her. The segmented blades pierced the air, ready to rend. Lady Wexyn sidestepped, and the whip sliced through the stage, scoring the stone.
Lady Wexyn pulled the golden comb out of her hair.
Prysen Ol swung again, sending the whip in a devastating horizontal curve.
Lady Wexyn didn’t try to evade.
The whip-blade connected. The whip-sword should have cut her in half, but somehow, she was still standing, the whip fully extended between the two of them.
“The hair comb!” Dagorkun spat out in surprise.
She had caught the filament of the whip-sword between the teeth of her comb.
Prysen jerked the whip back. The filament snapped, spraying half of its segments onto the ground. Prysen Ol backed away and flicked his damaged whip. The remaining segments slid together, forming a blade.
Lady Wexyn crouched, elegant as if dancing, laid the comb down, and picked up a single segment.
Prysen Ol watched, focused on her every move.
She held the segment between her thumb and forefinger, clamping it across its blunt spine, showed it to Prysen Ol, straightened, and started forward again, unhurried, relentless, unscathed.
He walked toward her, light on his feet despite the knife in his back and the trail of his blood following him. They watched each other as they moved, each step, each minute shift in weight deliberate and calculated.
Sophie, the ruler of her planet and George’s wife, once told me that she lived for the moment just before the clash, when both she and her opponent knew their lives hung in the balance. It was the world of possibilities, an infinite universe that shrunk to a single strike as soon as they moved. I finally understood what she meant.
Prysen Ol struck, a human blur too fast for the eye to follow. Lady Wexyn swept by him. They took a few steps past each other. She held his sword in her hand. Prysen Ol held nothing. A deep red line crossed his throat. His eyes turned glassy. He stumbled and collapsed.
Behind me in the second row of the Observer section, the First Scholar let out a scream of pure anguish.
Lady Wexyn turned to the Sovereign. “Are you satisfied with the fulfillment of our contract, Letero?”
“Yes,” Kosandion said.
Lady Wexyn smiled.
“That’s it!” Gaston emerged onto the stage, waving his arms. “It’s over. Today is over! We are done!”
Lady Wexyn sashayed toward her section. I dropped both Prysen Ol and Amphie through the floor right into the medward.