Sean settled deeper into the couch and stretched his legs, and the inn thoughtfully grew an ottoman under his feet before they had a chance to hit the floor. “Resven is going to be a pain in the ass.”
I slumped on the soft cushions. We were in the small break room we had made off the grand ballroom so we wouldn’t have to walk too far. It was furnished with couches that felt like clouds and I loved them to pieces.
“He manages the entirety of the Capital palace, all 2o million square feet of it. Being a pain in the ass is in his job description.”
My feet hummed. It wasn’t even an ache, it was this odd throbbing vibration. I was so tired.
“I thought the half vampire would stab him,” Sean said and smiled. “That would have been fun to watch.”
“It didn’t even occur to him that she would take offence.” I leaned my head on the back of the couch. “The sislafs are convinced that their genetic material is inherently superior. Not in a bigoted way, but in ‘it will express itself no matter the odds’ way. As long as you have at least 12.5 % sislaf blood, they consider you to be sislaf. The insult half-breed is literally absent from their language. To Resven, Miralitt is a sislaf. Her vampire blood is an asset, but in terms of her loyalties and her place in society, it’s irrelevant. If you tried to argue that she was as much vampire as siflaf, you simply couldn’t make him understand or accept that.”
“The blood runs true sort of thing?”
“More like blood is thicker than water, and to them the blood of all other species is water. You’re right, Resven will be difficult. He’s professionally pedantic, and he hates surprises. As long as we can keep him from being shocked, we will be fine.”
“He’d be a great 1st Sergeant.”
“I’ll take your word for it. What’s the significance of the Temple of Desire?” I gave him some side eye. “How do you know about it? Have you visited the Temple of Desire? Was it everything you hoped, and more?”
He raised his hand, palm toward me.
“I’m sorry, are you telling me to talk to the hand?”
“I’m buying time while my exhausted brain figures out how to explain.”
The White Rose cluster in Cassiopeia, otherwise known as NGC 7789 or Caroline’s Rose, adorned the Northern Milky Way. A beautiful open cluster of about three hundred suns, it resembled a rose when viewed from Earth, a blossom of white with a yellow border on its petals. It glittered with diverse civilizations, and it was famous for its Temples, with entire moons devoted to the worship of universal aspects. The Temple of Kindness, the Temple of Rage, the Temple of Grief… The Temple of Desire explored exactly that, the urge to obtain something beyond your reach at any cost. Within its walls and gardens, the priests and supplicants pondered the exact nature of desire, whether it was inherently selfish, whether it was just, and if it could ever be pure and selfless.
Of all desires, the need for the love of another being was considered the highest and most unobtainable. The quest for power, wealth, and enlightenment hinged primarily on those who embarked on it. Their success or failure was almost entirely up to them. But no force could compel another creature to love you of their own free will.
“It’s not a whore house,” Sean said.
I lost it and laughed.
He sighed. “That didn’t come out the way I meant it.”
Sean sat up straighter and pivoted to me. “When?”
“Before we met, when Klaus and I were looking for our parents. I had questions. I was exhausted and desperate. I spent two weeks there, while Klaus was checking other neighboring Temples.”
A little evil light shone in Sean’s eyes. “Was it everything you thought it would be?”
“It was memorable.”
“Care to elaborate?”
I shook my head. “You still haven’t told me why it’s important to you.”
“The Merchants are some of the Temple’s most generous contributors,” he said.
It made sense. The Merchant clans of the Lees, who ran vast financial syndicates, desired things themselves and made their money by catering to the desires of others.
“Clan Nuan?” I asked.
“The second biggest contributor.”
He would know. During his time on Nexus, Sean was part of Nuan Cee’s inner circle. The shrewd little merchant never planned on letting Sean go. He knew the kind of secrets the clan would kill to keep.
“Do you think Lady Wexyn is backed by Clan Nuan?”
“Let’s say I strongly suspect. I’ll know more when put eyes on her. If Nuan Cee is involved in this, we need to know what he’s playing for.”
“Does Clan Nuan have business interests in the Dominion?”
“No. It’s Clan Sai territory.” Sean grimaced. “This worries me.”
The trade wars between the Merchant Clans were fought in secret with shocking ferocity. If a war between Clan Nuan and Clan Sai was brewing, we didn’t want any part of it and we could not let it happen here, on our watch.
“How did it go with Caldenia?” he asked.
I put my fingers into my ears and said in my best imitation of Her Grace’s voice, “I am not listening, I am not listening!”
“What has gotten into her?”
“Somehow this became less about me warning her than about her independence. No matter how comfortable we try to make her, she never forgets that the inn is a prison where she put herself.”
“It keeps her from dying. Well, from being killed.”
“True. But a prison is still a prison. I gave up. It will blow up in our faces or it won’t.”
“Maybe. It all,” he waved his hand to indicate everything around us, “could blow up in our faces. This whole thing could end up being a giant shit show.”
He shook his head. “I know why I’m doing it. I just want to tell you how much it means to me that you know all this and you’re still doing it.”
I got up and sat next to him. “I know.”
He put his arm around me, and I rested my head on his shoulder. Of all the places in the galaxy, this was the best one for me.
The inn chimed, announcing an incoming communication. The two of us groaned in unison.
Sean waved a screen into existence. A man stood bathed in the sunshine of Baha-char. He was short, with almost impossibly broad shoulders and the kind of build that promised overwhelming strength. He wore a white shirt with wide sleeves, dark pants, tall boots, and a short cloak hanging at an angle off his broad back. He’d left the collar of the shirt unbuttoned, revealing the segmented white space marine armor underneath. It clung to him like a second skin, climbing up his thick neck. A dark musketeer hat with a huge feather, white at the base and transitioning into yellow, then red, then green, completed the ensemble. He was carrying a huge gun that rested on his shoulder as if it were a toothpick.
The man raised the brim of his hat with his fingers. Silver eyes stared at us from a tan face with the kind of heavy jaw one usually saw on grizzled male vampires. He wagged his jet-black eyebrows and grinned, showing serrated teeth. The effect was slightly terrifying.
“In the flesh,” he assured me.
George had two people who watched his back. His brother, Jack, was one and Gaston was the other. The three of them had been recruited by the Arbitrators from a pocket dimension where an alternative Earth existed with its own magical rules. I had visited it once. George and I snuck back to his home world to invite the fourth member of their strike team, Sophie, to join them. Gaston wasn’t altogether human. I never quite figured out what exactly he was, but he was smart and deadly in a fight. He was also a self-proclaimed expert in “skullduggery.”
“I’ve come to assist in any way I can,” Gaston said.
“Where is George?” Sean asked.
We had both assumed that George would at least be present to observe. If you cut George, he would bleed pure intrigue and this whole affair would be irresistible to him.
“George can’t come. He sends his regrets, however. And me.” Gaston winked.
“I thought he settled things with the Valkkinians,” I said. I had given him a sure path to victory.
“Oh, he has. It’s not the Valkkinians. It’s his wife.”
“His what?” Sean and I said at the same time.
“His spouse. His undoubtfully better half. Perhaps I could come in and explain in detail? Over a beer and a bite to eat? I have rushed here from across the galaxy without much to sustain me on the way. Still, as eager as I am to get inside, I must warn you that there is a female werewolf watching me from the roof. I’m reasonably sure she will pounce the moment you open the door. Forewarned is forearmed. Please come and fetch me at your earliest convenience.”