“It’s a spouse selection,” I explained.
We sat in the kitchen, Sean and I on one side of the table, Caldenia and Marais on the other, with Orro on the end, on Sean’s right.
“It involves a powerful head of state,” I continued. “The spouse selection is very complex and in a large part, based on the genetic traits the spouse can offer and also in part, what faction they represent and what kind of political benefits it will bring.”
Marais frowned. “But they are all the same species, right?”
“Not necessarily,” Sean said.
“It’s an old established practice.” Caldenia waved her hand. “With the genetic science available to those with enough resources, gender and species don’t matter. As long as there is enough compatibility, you could marry a whale, Officer Marais. They would splice the DNA together into an offspring.”
Marais shook his head. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.”
“It’s not about comfort but survival.” Caldenia bared her sharp teeth. “I carry the genetic roots of seven species in my body thanks to some long-term planning by my ancestors. They have served me very well.”
“The selection has been narrowed down to twelve candidates from three hundred,” I continued.
“So, they have about five heavy favorites.” Caldenia’s eyes sparkled.
“Seven,” Sean said.
“Why not just cut it down to seven?” Marais asked.
“You keep some in the running to give face to their backers and for show,” Caldenia explained. “There must be pageantry, after all. Spouse selections are greatly entertaining. A well-timed spouse selection followed by a lavish wedding can often quell civil unrest before it has a chance to explode in your face.”
“The ruler has an issue,” I said. “The prospective spouses-to-be keep killing each other.”
Caldenia leaned back and cackled. “This is absolutely delightful.”
“Apparently, it wouldn’t be an issue under normal circumstances,” Sean said. “However, their religious leader is at the end of his life cycle, and he must find a suitable candidate to whom he can transfer his holy gift before he expires. Random murder interferes with that on a psychic level, and by law, he is required to be present for the entirety of the spouse selection.”
“I love it.” Caldenia grinned.
She would be a lot less happy in a minute.
Sean kept going. “They’ve tried everything to secure their premises, but each candidate has twenty retinue members, and they keep nuking each other in elaborate ways. They need a safe ground.”
Orro raised his hand and counted on his claws.
“We’re it,” I said. “If we can help him get to the altar, he will give us access to the special portal and a special vehicle, so we can go look for Wilmos.”
“But you already know a portal that goes to this planet,” Marais said.
“We don’t know where it opens,” Sean said. “It could open at the bottom of the ocean. The moment we go through without the right equipment, we’re dead.”
“The ruler’s portal opens into an abandoned mining facility,” I said. “I don’t care if you’re a corrupted ad-hal, Karron is not a hospitable environment. It’s highly likely that whoever took Wilmos is hiding in that mining station.”
“What were they mining?” Caldenia asked.
“Fuel for a weapon,” Sean told her. We had done some research. “They mined a bunch of it and then decided the weapon was too inhumane to be used.”
Caldenia raised her eyebrows. “It broke.”
“Probably,” I said. “The point is, we have to do this, so we can get access to their portal and equipment, so we can go to Karron and rescue Wilmos.”
“So, you are hosting an interstellar season of the Bachelor?” Marias said.
“How many?” Orro asked. “How many beings total?”
I tried to sound upbeat. “Three hundred. The ruler’s retinue, the candidates and their escorts, and the observers. A lot of powers in that region of space are sending diplomats to see what will happen, since the marriage will affect the balance of power.”
Orro blinked. “How many species?”
“At least fourteen. Probably more.”
He blinked again.
“Screen please,” I told the inn.
Gertrude Hunt sprouted a small screen on a tendril and held it up to Orro. He scrolled through the guest list.
“They are due to arrive in two days if we say yes,” I said.
“Of course, you must say yes.” Caldenia clapped her hands. “This will be marvelous.”
I had to do it now. “Your Grace, there is one tiny issue. The ruler is…”
“Don’t tell me!” She jumped up. “I want to be surprised.”
“Letere Olivione…” Sean started.
“Not another word! You will not ruin this for me.”
She swept out of the kitchen, the sleeves of her long green gown flaring from the wind of her passage.
“Well, shit,” Sean said.
I slumped onto the back of my chair.
“I take it there is a problem,” Marais said.
“Not yet,” Sean said. “But there will be one.”
I groaned. This was exactly what I was afraid of.
“I can get her. We can have the inn hold her and tell her,” he offered.
“She would be mortally offended.” I sighed. “Do you want to deal with her carrying a grudge for the next six months? Because I don’t.”
Orro had stopped scrolling and was staring at the screen, his eyes distant.
“Orro,” I said gently. “Is three hundred guests too many?”
He raised his head. His eyes focused. “What are you implying? Are you implying my skills are not sufficient?”
Oh no, no, no, we’re not taking that scary road into Orro’s Offended Woods.
“She is asking if you might need some assistance,” Sean said.
The chef frowned, pondered it for a second, and his eyes brightened. “Two!”
“What?” I asked.
“I will need two assistants! Maybe three. I need the species list. I need to go shopping. I need to go to Baha-char! I need things and money!”
He jumped up and ran at the pantry door. The inn helpfully slid it out of the way before Orro could collide with it head on, and the chef vanished into the storage room.
Sean turned to Marais. “We would like to hire you for security. Just in case.”
“You don’t need to do that. I will help you anyway.”
“We absolutely have to pay you,” I told him. “It would be time away from your family.”
Marais thought about it. “I have to check regulations. There might be something in there that prevents me from taking a part time job. Let me figure this out.”
“Thank you,” I told him.
He got up and left. It was just me and Sean now.
“Do you have any contacts who deal in bioweapons?” I asked.
“Wilmos has some nasty stuff in his shop. I can take it, I’m sure he won’t mind. Why?”
“One of the candidates is backed by the Dushegubs.”
Sean frowned. “I’ve read about those. They are sapient trees. Are they problematic?”
“They are sapient, but unable to feel emotions. We don’t have a word for what they are. Psychopaths feel emotions, but their response is shallow, and they have low capacity for remorse. People with alexithymia also feel emotions but can’t correctly identify what they’re feeling. People with schizoid disorder have difficulty expressing emotions to others, but again, they do have them. Dushegubs are none of those. They are calculating, homicidal, moving trees that feed on animal life. They know that other creatures have emotions and what those emotions are, and they don’t care. Their first option is murder, their second option is murder, and if that fails, they go straight to murder.”
“Well, at least they have their priorities straight.”
“They are banned as a species from the inns. I will have to apply for a special permission to host them and if we get it, we are going to have to kill one as an example.”
Sean stared at me.
“Trust me on this,” I told him.
“Won’t it cause an issue with our bachelor?”
“I told them up front about it. They don’t care if we burn the entire delegation to the ground. Apparently, their presence is so oppressively bloodthirsty, they give the Holy Ecclesiarch migraines.”
“This is going to be fun,” Sean said.
That was one way to put it.