We are late, because of the copyedit of Ruby Fever. Sorry about that. We should finish early next week, so we can keep to the schedule a bit better.
Watching Gaston eat was like witnessing someone have a religious experience.
He cut a small piece off the duck leg, wielding his fork and knife with the elegance of a concert pianist, slipped it into his mouth, and chewed closing his eyes. Behind Sean, who sat on the left, the entire kitchen staff waited with bated breath, including Orro.
“Divine,” Gaston said finally. “It is a multilayered symphony. The meat melts in your mouth, tender yet with a delightful texture, the skin is crisp yet delicate, an ode to all that is savory. The hint of thyme is sublime, the trace of garlic is almost buttery in its smoothness, and I detect something else, something non-Terrestrial. A touch of korran herb perhaps? Spring harvest, not fall.”
Orro’s quills trembled just a fraction. If he had been a cat, he would’ve purred. “Indeed.”
“This is much more than a dish. It is a memory.” Gaston smiled, displaying serrated teeth. “I shall treasure it, my friend.”
Orro gave a brisk nod and the chefs dispersed.
Some beings viewed food as fuel, some enjoyed it, and yet others were like Gaston. Not simply fans but connoisseurs. Somehow the chefs could identify them by some hidden sixth sense and gave them special treatment. Gaston had been part of George’s retinue during the peace summit that ended the Nexus war and Sean’s contract with the Nuan Clan. He and Orro formed a symbiotic bond. The moment I told Orro that Sean went to get him, the entire kitchen snapped into the “VIP Imminent” mode. It was just Gaston’s luck that Orro’s prized duck, which he had worked on for three days, had finished cooking.
Gaston cut off another piece, speared a sliver of potato dusted with herbs, and chewed with obvious pleasure.
“Should we leave you two alone?” Sean asked.
“No need. It’s just so difficult to find good duck confit outside of the Solar system. I have had several variations on the theme, but none can compare.”
Gaston reached for his wine glass and took a sip. “And of course, the Malbec pairing is perfect. You are so fortunate.”
We were sitting in the Ocean Dining Room with the amber waves splashing past the balcony. After we terminated the call, Sean had gone to fetch Gaston, while I went to tell Orro that his favorite guest was coming. It took Sean over fifteen minutes to come back, which gave Orro enough time to plate and serve his masterpiece. Fetching Gaston should’ve taken five minutes at most, so clearly an altercation with the female werewolf must’ve occurred. Neither Sean nor Gaston had elaborated on it.
“I suppose I should start,” Gaston said, dabbing his lips with a napkin. “It all started in childhood, you see…”
The inn chimed. Another return visitor from Baha-char.
“Hold that thought.” I got up and stepped away.
I walked outside the dining room, folded space to save time, and reached for the door leading to the galactic bazar. It swung open revealing a terminally cute creature. He was just under four feet tall, with sandy fur, a fluffy tail, and the jeweled apron of a Merchant. He stood on his hind legs, holding his paw hands in front of him. He twitched his lynx ears, making the two golden hoops in his left ear clink, opened his blue eyes wide, and held out his arms.
“Nuan Couki!” I bent down and hugged him. It was like squishing the world’s fluffiest fox.
“So formal,” he said.
“Well, I can’t call you Cookie now. You have two hoops in your ear.” Cookie’s rise through the ranks of the Nuan Clan was nothing short of meteoric.
“You can always call me Cookie,” he said. “I like it.”
“What can I do for you?”
Cookie narrowed his eyes into sly slits. “I have not seen you for so long. I miss my dear friends. I have come to spend time with you.”
“So Clan Nuan wants to expand to business with the Seven Star Dominion.”
Cookie’s eyes widened in shock. He clasped his hands to his chest. “How could we possibly, even if we wanted to? That’s Clan Sai territory. I am simply here on vacation. I work too hard. So hard.”
I leaned toward him and kept my voice low. “You’re turning into your uncle.”
He tapped his nose with one clawed finger. “You flatter me so. It’s no wonder I want to come and stay with you.”
I almost died of cuteness. That’s why other species underestimated the Merchants. They knew they were adorable, and they made the most of it. But no matter how cuddly Cookie looked, inside his furry chest beat the ruthless heart of a Merchant. Their species were assassins and poisoners, and when it suited their interests, they killed with unparalleled viciousness.
“No harm can come to the Sovereign. If any unfortunate incident occurs, not even the bonds of friendship would save the guilty party. I mean it. If the Sovereign comes to any harm, I will lose my inn.”
Cookie’s face turned solemn. “I swear to you on my Grandmother’s heart that Clan Nuan will not harm the Sovereign.”
It was the strongest oath a Merchant could make. They revered their elderly and prayed to their ancestors.
The rules of hospitality dictated that I accept any guest that had not been banned. Furthermore, Clan Nuan and our family were bound by more than business. My sister was engaged to Arland, the Marshall of House Krahr. She and my niece were now on the planet belonging to House Krahr, and a few months ago, during an attempted invasion, Helen, my niece, had been poisoned. She lived because Nuan Cee gave her the antidote. Our family owed Clan Nuan a debt we could never hope to repay.
“Gertrude Hunt welcomes you, Honored Merchant.”
I bowed my head and invited him in with a sweep of my hand.
“We have been invited!” Cookie called out.
A pack of lees came running around the corner. They came in all shapes and sizes, decorated with veils, carrying things, and pushing a massive antigravity cart loaded to the brim with chests and bundles. One, two, three…seven, not including Cookie.
The lees danced about me, waving their paws.
“Greeting, Honored Innkeeper!”
“You smell like delicious duck, Honored Innkeeper!”
“Thank you for having us!”
Cookie grinned at me.
Well, I suppose that was to be expected. Cookie had moved up in the world, and in Merchant Clans promotions came with bigger budgets and larger staff.
I widened the entrance and pulled the Merchant Rooms I had made for the summit out of storage. Here is hoping I wouldn’t regret this.