The inn chimed, announcing visitors. I groaned softly and opened my eyes, abandoning the Dushegub containment unit in mid-renovation. The tangle of Gertrude Hunt’s branches cradling my body hummed with energy. I had cocooned myself to speed things up.
We had managed to convince the Seven Star Dominion that 48 hours was an unrealistic timeline. I used the Assembly as a shield and told them that we needed to file necessary permits, which was only a half-lie. Being a Republican Empire with a developed bureaucracy, the Dominion agreed that the need for proper procedure had to be followed. It bought us five days to prepare. Today was day three. Tomorrow the Sovereign’s chancellor would be stopping by to inspect the premises, so we could make adjustments.
I had spent the last three days working from the moment I opened my eyes to the moment I passed out in our bed. I ate little, slept less, and this evening I had reached a kind of weird, depersonalized state, where I was still sort of me, but mostly I was Gertrude Hunt, frantically shaping rooms out of nothing.
The effort of calling up a vid screen to see who was outside was beyond me. I needed a few seconds.
A wall parted, and Sean emerged. He looked haggard. The lines of his scars were more pronounced, and his eyes were red. Even the werewolf genes couldn’t compensate for the sheer amount of work we had done in the last 72 hours.
“It’s Brian,” he said.
Brian Rodriguez ran the largest regional inn located in Dallas. He knew my parents before they and their inn disappeared without a trace, and we had helped each other in the past. Like my parents, he also sat on the Innkeeper Assembly. Innkeepers were notoriously reluctant to leave their inns unless it was absolutely necessary. Why was he here in person?
Sean waved a screen into existence. On it, Mr. Rodriguez got out of a blue Toyota 4Runner. He was in his fifties, a man of average height with bronze skin, dark hair sprinkled with grey, and a short beard.
My brain very slowly made the connection. Mr. Rodriguez <- Assembly <- Requests.
“They are denying us the Dushegub permit.” I pushed the branches wrapping me. They parted, lowering me to the floor. “He’s come to tell us in person.”
The passenger door popped open, and Tony stepped out. Tony was Mr. Rodriguez 2.0, but about twenty-some years younger, three inches taller and without the beard. He was the nicest guy. He was also an ad-hal, the Assembly’s secret enforcers.
Innkeepers wielded near absolute power within our inns, but outside of them, our capacity was very limited. The ad-hal had no such problems. Their power came from within them. They weren’t tethered to any inn, and they only showed up when a problem went from a disaster to a full-blown catastrophe. Some innkeepers went decades without encountering an ad-hal. We knew our regional ad-hal by name and fed him dinner on regular basis. Except this time, he wasn’t coming over to fanboy over Orro’s cooking.
Sean bared his teeth. It was a short instinctive gesture, one of those mannerisms that he used to successfully hide before his cosmic adventures. Now he did it and barely noticed.
“He brought an ad-hal to suppress us in case we balk,” Sean said. His tone said he wasn’t inclined to be suppressed.
An ad-hal, even one as powerful as Tony, would have a rough time fighting two innkeepers on their inn’s grounds. “That’s a losing battle, and both of them know it.”
Sean growled under his breath. His opinion of the Assembly wasn’t high.
Each Innkeeper was an island onto themselves. We had great autonomy, and since all the members of the Assembly were prominent innkeepers themselves, they jealously guarded that independence. That also meant that assistance was in short supply. We were expected to solve our own issues. However, the Assembly did have the power to block certain guests and entire species from visiting Earth. Technically, they could veto our entire event and there wasn’t much we could do about it.
“Let’s hear what they have to say,” I told him.
We met them at the door.
Mr. Rodriguez gave me a hug and shook Sean’s hand. “Sorry to drop on you unannounced.”
“You’re always welcome,” Sean told him.
Tony gave us a shy wave. “Hello.”
In his everyday human shape, Tony looked perfectly harmless. He had an easy smile and an even temper, and if you walked into a room full of people and tried to pick out the one capable of paralyzing his targets and taking them to a planet with a dying sun where they would suffer a century of solitary torment, he would be the absolute last pick.
Neither of the Rodriguezes looked tense. Maybe this wasn’t that kind of visit. Or maybe they were just absolutely sure that we would go along with what the Assembly decided.
“Please follow me,” I said. “Sorry about the renovations.”
I led them through the front room past the silent, empty kitchen, into the hallway just under the portrait of my parents. The hallway’s door slid open, and we stepped into another world.
A cavernous chamber lay in front of us, 100 yards long and 60 yards wide. I had expanded the main ballroom until my bones hurt. It was somewhat bare now, since we hadn’t settled on the appropriate finishes.
Mr. Rodriguez raised his eyebrows.
We kept walking. On our right, a wide arched entrance led to the new kitchen. Statistics said that an average restaurant kitchen in the US ran around 1,000 sq. ft., but those restaurants didn’t have to accommodate the dietary needs of over a dozen species. Orro’s new kitchen was a 4,000 sq. ft. monster. Half of it was taken up by the culinary equipment, stoves, ranges, and stainless-steel prep tables, and the other half held another 8 long tables specifically for plating. Each of those tables came equipped with a custom-build storage unit sprouting from the ceiling, which contained dinnerware, sauces, syringes, and a variety of mysterious culinary tools.
Orro’s new assistants flittered between the prep tables, furiously chopping and blending something. Orro was trying to finalize the menu.
“An upgrade.” Tony whistled.
“We had to,” I said.
The two sous’ chefs ignored us. One was a juvenile Quillonian, who looked like a smaller version of Orro, and the other was an Auroch, a five-foot tall, russet-furred being with delicate appendages and a vaguely antelope face and four horns crowning her head. Like Quillonians, Aurochs had a ridiculous number of tastebuds. They had evolved as herbivores and had to distinguish between toxic and non-toxic plants by taste.
“Where did you get them?” Tony asked.
“Orro went to see his mentor,” Sean said. “Apparently, he called to some fancy culinary academy, which promptly fell over themselves to participate.”
“I bet,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “That is one hell of a guest list. Any new chef would want that on their resume. I’m surprised they didn’t have a fight.”
“Oh, they did,” Sean said. “Once they realized there were only two open spots, there was a spectacular brawl. Those two are the winners.”
The Auroch looked like she couldn’t hurt a fly. Looks could be very deceiving.
Chef Adri also sent a plating specialist from his personal restaurant, a Vaskebiorn, who, contrary to the innkeeper nickname for their species, didn’t look like a raccoon except for her hands. She looked like an odd, yet devastatingly adorable hybrid of a fox, squirrel, and monkey with short golden fur, and her dexterity was off the charts. Her name was Droplet, and she and Orro had already clashed twice. He tried to bully her by raising his quills, and she smacked him on the nose with a pastry bag.
We passed the kitchen and came to one of the dining areas. Sean and I had built three in total, one enough to house everyone and the two smaller spaces. We called this one the Terrace. On three sides, tall walls, patterned with delicate mosaic with pale cream, grey, and white, supported a high ceiling that offered chandeliers of soft glass shaped like alien flowers. The fourth wall opened onto a terrace that overlooked an alien sea, an endless shallow ocean with water the color of deep orange honey under a purple sky.
“Kolinda?” Mr. Rodriguez said, studying the jagged blue grey mountains in the distance thrusting from the water like the fins of some massive beast. “An interesting choice.”
“It’s a reminder,” Sean said. “We can throw them into that sea at any time.”
Tony sighed. He caught the meaning as well. Not that throwing either of them into Kolinda’s treacherous waters would accomplish anything.
“Please, sit down.”
I picked the nearest table, and we took our seats. The chair molded to my body as it accepted the weight. Taking a nap would be so nice right now.
The nearest wall split, and the inn deposited a platter of small colorful snacks and four glasses and a pitcher of iced tea onto the table. Orro would never let a visitor go hungry.
Tony grinned and helped himself to a tiny emerald-green doughnut.
“Are you here to tell us to cease and desist?” I asked.
Mr. Rodriguez heaved a deep parental sigh. “No.”
“If Wilmos wasn’t a factor, would you still hold this event?” Mr. Rodriguez asked.
“No,” Sean and I said at the same time.
“Good,” Mr. Rodriguez said.
We had told them about Wilmos and the corrupted ad-hal. I showed Mr. Rodriguez the security footage when I filed for the permits.
“We’re not trying to make a name for ourselves,” I said. “No sane innkeeper would want to host this.”
“You don’t know how right you are,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “The Assembly is very uncomfortable with this entire thing.”
“It’s not ambition,” Sean said. “It’s necessity.” He looked at Tony. “Can you survive on Karron?”
Tony paused his chewing and thought about it. “Possibly.”
“There is your answer,” Sean said. “If they are so uncomfortable, they can send some ad-hal to Karron to figure out why corrupted versions of them are running around kidnapping people.”
“You know we can’t do that,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Our sphere of influence is limited to Earth.”
The Treaty that guaranteed Earth’s special status was very specific. You could go on a killing spree through the inns, but if you managed to escape Earth before the ad-hal caught up with you, they wouldn’t pursue you. Individual innkeepers could take action as individuals, but the Assembly as a whole would not, and the ad-hal were their representatives. If you ever came back to Earth, however, your fate would be sealed.
“This entire thing has the Arbitrators’ fingerprints all over it,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Is an Arbitrator involved?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Is it George Camarine?”
“Yes,” I said again.
“That man is a menace.” Mr. Rodriguez shook his head. “Are you two sure you have to do this? No other inn on Earth would be willing to host this mess. Especially considering your permanent guest.”
“We are sure,” Sean said.
“The Dominion knows about Caldenia,” I told them. “They don’t see an issue.”
“Your permits are approved in their entirety,” Mr. Rodriguez said.
“Nobody wants to offend the Dominion,” Sean said.
Tony nodded. “You got it.”
“We are raising your rating to 3.5 stars,” Mr. Rodriguez continued.
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. It had to be nerves.
Sean glanced at me.
“They are too embarrassed to let the Sovereign stay at a 2.5 star inn,” Tony told him.
“We hosted a Drifan Liege during a Treaty stay and they did not raise our rating,” I managed between the giggles.
“Yes, but the two of you also allowed a guest and a staff member to make a giant scene at a taping of a TV show and nearly exposed the fact that your chef is a seven-foot-tall alien covered in quills,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “The Assembly takes everything into account.”
I laughed harder.
“The Assembly has two conditions,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “If you stop giggling for a moment, I will explain them to you. First, Tony will stay here in his official capacity to back you up.”
Tony grinned, raised his arm, and flexed.
“And second, if the Sovereign comes to any harm during this event, your inn is forfeit.”
All the laughter went out of me at once.
Mr. Rodriguez leaned forward. “Think about this very carefully. There is no room for negotiation. Every innkeeper loses a guest once in a while, no matter how good they are or how many precautions they take. You cannot lose this one. The two of you don’t even know if Wilmos is still alive.”
I straightened in my chair. Around me the inn creaked, reacting to the change in my mood. The room leaned in slightly, as the entirety of Gertrude Hunt waited like a dog sighting an intruder and waiting for command.
Tony stopped chewing.
“This is not about Wilmos,” I said, each word resonating with magic. “The inn is our domain. If we cannot keep our guests safe, we do not deserve it.”
Mr. Rodriguez smiled. “And that’s exactly the answer I expected.”