When visitors came to the fine state of Texas, they expected a dry, rolling plain studded with longhorn cattle, oil derricks, and an occasional cowboy in a huge hat. According to them, that plain had only one type of weather: scorching. That wasn’t true at all. In fact, we had two types, drought and flood. This December, the town of Red Deer was experiencing the latter kind of weather. The rain poured and poured, turning the world gray, damp, and dreary.
I looked outside the living room window and hugged myself. The view offered a section of flooded street and, past it, the Avalon subdivision, hunkering down under the cascade of cold water, determined to wait it out. The inside of Gertrude Hunt Bed-and-Breakfast was warm and dry, but the rain was getting to me all the same. After a week of this downpour, I wanted a clear sky. Maybe it would let up tomorrow. A girl could hope.
It was a perfect evening to snuggle up with a book, play a video game, or watch TV. Except I wanted to do none of those things. I’d been snuggling up with a book, playing video games, or watching TV every night for the past six months with only my dog, my inn, and its lone guest for company, and I was a bit tired of it.
Caldenia exited the kitchen, carrying her cup of tea. She looked to be in her sixties, beautiful, elegant, and cloaked in the air of experience. If you saw her on the street in New York or London, you’d think she was a lady of high society whose days were filled with brunches with friends and charity auctions. Her Grace, Caldenia ka ret Magren, was indeed high society, except she preferred world domination to friendly brunches and mass murder to charity. Thankfully those days were behind her. Now she was just a guest at my inn, her past barely an issue aside from an occasional bounty hunter stupid enough to try to collect on the enormous price on her head.
On this evening she wore a sweeping kimono the color of rose wine, with gold accents. It flared as she walked, giving her thin figure a suitably regal air. Her silver hair, usually artfully arranged into a flattering hairdo, drooped slightly. Her makeup looked smudged and short of her typical impeccable perfection. The rain was getting to her as well.
She cleared her throat.
What now? “Your Grace?”
“Dina, I’m bored,” Caldenia announced.
Too bad. I guaranteed her safety, not entertainment. “What about your game?”
Her Grace gave me a shrug. “I’ve beaten it five times on the Deity setting. I’ve reduced Paris to ashes because Napoleon annoyed me. I’ve eradicated Gandhi. I’ve crushed George Washington. Empress Wu had potential, so I eliminated her before we even cleared Bronze Age. The Egyptians are my pawns. I dominate the planet. Oddly, I find myself mildly fascinated by Genghis Khan. A shrewd and savage warrior, possessing a certain magnetism. I left him with a single city, and I periodically make ridiculous demands that I know he can’t meet so I can watch him squirm.”
She liked him, so she was torturing him. Her Grace in a nutshell. “What civilization did you choose?”
“Rome, of course. Any title other than Empress would be unacceptable. That’s not the point. The point, my dear, is that our lives are beginning to feel dreadfully dull. The last guest we had was two months ago.”
She was preaching to the converted. Gertrude Hunt required guests, for financial and other reasons. They were the lifeblood of the inn. Caldenia helped some, but for the inn to thrive, we needed guests—if not a steady stream, then a large party. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to get those guests. Once upon a time, Gertrude Hunt had sat on a crossroads of a busy road, but decades passed, the world changed, the roads shifted, and now Red Deer, Texas, was a small town in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t get much traffic.
“Would you like me to pass out fliers on the corner, Your Grace?”
“Do you think it would help you drum up business?”
“Well then, that answers your question. Don’t get snippy, Dina. It really doesn’t become you.” She glided up the stairs, her kimono flowing behind her like a mantle.
I needed tea. Tea would make everything better.
I went to the kitchen and reached for a kettle. My left foot landed in something cold and wet. I looked down. A small yellow puddle greeted me. Well, doesn’t that just take the cake?
My tiny Shih Tzu dashed into the kitchen, her black and white fur waving like a battle flag. She saw my foot in the puddle. Her brain decided it was time to beat a hasty retreat, but her body kept going. She tripped over her own paws and smacked headfirst into the island.
“What is this?” I pointed to the puddle.
Beast flipped onto her feet, slunk behind the island, and poked her head out, looking guilty.
“You have a perfectly good doggie door. I don’t care if it’s raining, you go outside.”
Beast slunk about some more and whined.
Magic chimed, a soft not-quite sound only I could hear—the inn letting me know we had guests.
Beast exploded into barks, zooming around the island in tight circles. I hopped on one foot to the kitchen sink, stuck my foot under the faucet, and washed my hands and my foot with soap. The floor under the puddle split, forming a narrow gap. Tile flowed, suddenly fluid, and the offending liquid disappeared. The floor resealed itself. I wiped my hands on the kitchen towel, ran to the front door, Beast bounding at my heels, and swung it open.
A white Ford Explorer was parked in the driveway. Through the screen door I saw a man in the driver seat. A woman sat next to him. Behind them, two smaller heads moved back and forth—kids in the backseat, probably stir-crazy after a long trip. A nice family. I reached forward with my magic.
I’d thought the chime didn’t sound quite right.
The man got out and ran to the front door, shielding his glasses from the rain with his hand, and stopped under the porch roof. About thirty-five, he looked like a typical suburban dad: jeans, T-shirt, and the slightly desperate expression of someone who had been in a car with small children for a several hours.
“Hi!” he said. “I’d like to rent a room.”
This was exactly why Gertrude Hunt had a private phone number and no online listing. We weren’t on any tourist brochures. How had they even found us? “I’m sorry, we have no vacancy.”
He blinked. “What do you mean, you have no vacancy? It looks like a big house, and there are no cars in the driveway.”
“I’m sorry, we have no vacancy.”
The woman got out of the car and ran over. “What’s the holdup?”
The man turned to her. “They have no vacancy.”
The woman looked at me. “We drove six hours in this rain from Little Rock. We won’t be any trouble. We just need a couple of rooms.”
“There is a very nice Holiday Inn only two miles from here,” I said.
The woman pointed at Avalon subdivision. “My sister lives in that subdivision. She said the only person who ever stays here is some old lady.”
Ah. Mystery solved. The neighbors knew I ran a bed-and-breakfast because that was the only way I could explain the occasional guests.
“Is it because we have kids?” the woman asked.
“Not at all,” I said. “Would you like the directions to the Holiday Inn?”
The man grimaced. “No, thanks. Come on, Louise.”
They turned and went to their car. The woman was mumbling something. “…outrageous.”
I watched them get into the car, reverse down the driveway, and leave. The inn chimed softly, punctuating their departure.
“I thought we had guests!” Caldenia called from the stairs.
“Not the right kind,” I said.
The inn creaked. I petted the doorframe. “Don’t worry. It will get better.”
Caldenia sighed. “Perhaps you should go on a date, dear. Men are so attentive when they think there is a chance you will let them into your bed. It does wonderful things to lift your spirits.”
A date. Right.
“What about Sean Evans?”
“He isn’t home,” I said quietly.
“Too bad. It was so much fun when he and the other fellow were around.” Caldenia shrugged and went up the stairs.
About five months ago, I watched Sean Evans open a door and step through it to the greater universe beyond. I hadn’t heard from him since. Not that he owed me anything. Sharing a single kiss could hardly be called a relationship, no matter how memorable it was. I knew from experience that the universe was very large. It was difficult for a single woman to compete with all its wonders. Besides, I was an innkeeper. Guests left to have exciting adventures and our kind stayed behind. Such was the nature of our profession.
And telling myself all those things over and over didn’t make me feel better. When I thought about Sean Evans, I felt the way a business traveler from Canada might feel about an overnight trip to Miami in the middle of February. They would ride in a taxi, see the beach outside their window, knowing they wouldn’t get a chance to visit it, and wonder what it would be like to walk on the sand and feel the waves on their feet. Sean and I might have been great if only we had more time, but now we would never know if that beach would’ve turned out to be paradise or if we would find jellyfish in the water and sand in our food.
It was for probably for the best. Werewolves were nothing but trouble anyway.
I was about to close the door when magic brushed against me like ripples from a stone cast into a calm pond. This had a completely different flavor. Someone had entered the inn’s grounds. Someone powerful and dangerous.
I reached for my broom, which was resting in the corner by the door, and stepped out onto the front porch. A figure in a gray rain poncho stood by the hedges, just on the edge of the inn’s grounds, politely waiting to be invited inside.
We had a visitor. Maybe even a guest, the right kind this time. I inclined my head, more of a very shallow bow than a nod.
The two doors behind me opened on their own. The figure approached slowly. The visitor was tall, almost a foot taller than me, which put him around six two, maybe six three. He walked into the inn. I followed him and the door closed tight behind me.
The figure pulled the cord securing his hood and shrugged off his rain poncho. A man in his early thirties stood in front of me, muscular but lean, his shoulder-length blond hair pulled back into a haphazard ponytail at the nape of his neck. He wore a white shirt with flaring sleeves, dark gray trousers, and supple black boots that came midway up his calf. An embroidered vest hugged his frame, black accented with blue, emphasizing the contrast between his broad shoulders and flat stomach. A leather sword belt graced his narrow hips, supporting a long, slender scabbard with an elaborate basket hilt protruding from it. He probably owned a wide-brimmed hat with some fluffy white feathers and possibly a cloak or two.
His face was shocking. Masculine, well-cut but not at all brutish, with strong elegant lines people usually called aristocratic: high, broad forehead, straight nose, good cheekbones, square jaw, and a full mouth. He wasn’t at all feminine, yet most people would describe him as beautiful rather than handsome.
The man smiled at me. Quiet humor tinted his pale blue eyes, as if he found the world a perpetually amusing place. They were the kind of eyes that shone with intelligence, confidence, and calculation. He didn’t look—he watched, noticed, and evaluated—and I had a feeling that even when his mouth and his eyes smiled, his mind remained alert and razor-sharp.
I had seen him before. I remembered that face. But where?
“You found her,” I said. “Welcome to Gertrude Hunt Inn. Your poncho?”
“Thank you.” He handed me the poncho, and I hung it on the hook by the door.
“Will you be staying with us?”
“I’m afraid not.” He offered me an apologetic smile.
Figured. “What can I do for you?”
He raised his hand and traced a pattern between us. The air in the wake of his finger glowed with pale blue. A stylized symbol of scales: two weights in the balance, flared between us, held for a second, and vanished. He was an Arbitrator. Oh crap. My heart sped up. Who could possibly be suing us? Gertrude Hunt didn’t have the finances to fight an arbitration.
I leaned on my broom. “I’ve received no notice of arbitration.”
He smiled. His face lit up. Wow.
“My apologies. I’m afraid I’ve given you the wrong impression. You’re not a party to an arbitration. I came to you to discuss a business proposition.”
Business was so much better than arbitration. I pointed at the couches in the front room. “Please sit down. May I get you something to drink, Arbitrator?”
“Hot tea would be fantastic,” he said. “And please, call me George.”
We sat in my comfortable chairs and sipped our tea. George frowned, obviously collecting his thoughts. He seemed so… pleasant. Cultured and genteel. But in my line of work, you quickly learned that appearances were often deceiving. I clicked my tongue, and Beast jumped on my lap and positioned herself so she could lunge off my knees in an instant. Being cautious never hurt.
“Have you heard of Nexus?” George asked.
“Yes.” I had visited Nexus. It was one of those bizarre places in the galaxy where reality bent into a pretzel. “But please continue. I would rather have all the information I need than assume I know something I don’t.”
“Very well. Nexus is a colloquial name for Onetrikvasth IV, a star system with a single habitable planet.”
He didn’t stumble over the name. That must’ve taken some practice.
“Nexus is a temporal anomaly. Time flows faster there. A month on Earth is roughly equivalent to over three months on Nexus. However, biological aging proceeds at the same pace as the planet of origin.”
My brother, Klaus, had once explained the Nexus paradox to me, complete with formulas. We were trying to find our parents at the time, and the complex explanation had flown right over my head. I chalked it up to magic. The universe was full of wonders. Some of them would drive you insane if you thought about them too long.
“Nexus also contains large subterranean reserves of kuyo, a naturally occurring viscous liquid that, when refined, is used in production of what my background file calls ‘pharmaceutical assets of significant strategic value.’”
“It’s used to manufacture military stimulants,” I said. “They affect a wide variety of species in slightly different ways, but typically they boost strength and speed while suppressing fatigue and fear. They turn humans into berserkers, for example.”
George smiled. “I should probably speak plainly.”
I smiled back. “It would save us some time.”
“Very well.” George sipped his tea. “Kuyo occurs throughout the galaxy but only in small quantities, which makes Nexus extremely valuable. Currently there are three factions fighting for control of the planet. Each claims the rights to the entirety of Nexus’s mineral wealth, and none are willing to compromise. They’re engaged in a bloody war. It’s been going on for roughly eight Earth years and almost twenty years in Nexus’s time. The war is brutal and has cost everyone involved a great deal. Cooler minds on all sides agree it can’t continue. The matter has been referred for arbitration by one of the interested factions, the other two agreed, and here we are.”
“I’m guessing one of the factions is the Merchants?” When we landed on Nexus, we’d ended up in a Merchant spaceport. Merchants facilitated interstellar trade through the known galaxy and its many dimensions. When you needed rare goods or a large quantity of goods, you went to see a Merchant. They were motivated by profit and prestige.
George nodded. “Yes. The war is cutting into their profits.”
“Which family? The Ama?”
“The Nuan. The Ama family cut their losses and sold its holdings on Nexus to Nuan two years ago.”
Suddenly his presence here made a lot of sense. “Is Nuan Cee involved?”
“Yes. In fact, he was the one who recommended your establishment.”
Before my parents disappeared, they did a lot of business with Nuan Cee. Running an inn sometimes required exotic goods, and he procured the rarest items. Even I had done a deal with Nuan Cee. I’d bartered the world’s rarest honey for the eggs of a deadly giant spider.
“Your tea is delicious,” George said.
“Thank you. Which are the other two factions?”
“House Krahr of the Holy Cosmic Anocracy.”
Six months ago I had sheltered a vampire of House Krahr after he was injured trying to apprehend an alien assassin. His nephew had come to rescue him. The nephew’s name was Arland, he was the Marshal of his House, and he had flirted with me. At least flirted in vampire terms. He’d assured me that he would be ecstatic to be my shield and I shouldn’t hesitate to rely upon his warrior prowess. He’d also gotten drunk on coffee and run through my orchard naked.
Good God, who could hold the vampires of Krahr off for twenty years? They were one of the most ferocious sentient species in the galaxy. They were predators who lived to war. Their entire civilization was dedicated to it.
“And the final faction?”
George set his cup down. “The Otrokari.”
“The Hope-Crushing Horde?”
George looked slightly uncomfortable. “That’s the official name, yes.”
The Otrokari were the scourge of the galaxy. They were huge and violent and they lived to conquer. They’d started with one planet and grown their holdings to nine. Their name literally meant Hope-Crushing, because once you saw them, all your hopes died. The Holy Anocracy and the Horde had collided several times over the past three centuries, always with disastrous results. The two species hated each other so much their feud had become legendary. Half the jokes in the galaxy started with “a vampire and an otrokar walk into a bar….”
Having vampires and Otrokari together in close proximity was like mixing glycerin with nitric acid and then hitting it with a sledgehammer. They would explode. It would be a slaughter.
I leaned forward. “So you need a neutral venue to hold the arbitration?”
“Yes. An inn on Earth is ideal. It is defined as neutral ground, and we can rely on an innkeeper’s power to keep the participants in check.”
“Let me guess: you’ve tried other inns and everyone turned you down. Am I your last stop?”
George took a deep breath. “Yes.”
“There was an attempt to broker peace between Otrokari and the Holy Cosmic Anocracy during their Ten-Year Conflict,” I said. “About fifty years ago.”
He braided his long, elegant fingers into a single fist. “Yes, I’m familiar with it.”
“Then you also know how it ended.”
“I believe the patriarch of House Jero lunged at the Otrokar Korum, and Korum beheaded him.”
“He ripped the patriarch’s head off with his bare hands and then proceeded to beat the Marshal of House Jero to death with it.”
“Well, the venture does sound risky when you put it that way…”
“It’s not risky, it’s suicidal.”
“Should I take it as a no?” George asked.
This was a really bad idea.
“How many people do you expect?”
“At least twelve from each party.”
Thirty-six guests. My heart sped up. Thirty-six guests, each with robust magic. This would sustain the inn for years to come. Not to mention that if I managed to pull this impossible thing off, it would raise the inn’s standing.
No. What was I thinking? It would be crazy. I would have to keep the peace between thirty-six individuals, each dying to kill the other. It would be terrible. The risk… The gamble was too great.
What did I have to lose?
George reached into his pocket, produced a small tablet about the size of a playing card and just as thin, and showed it to me. Two numbers: $500,000 and $1,000,000.
“The first is your payment in the event the arbitration fails. The second is payment if we succeed.”
Five hundred thousand. We needed the money. I could finally upgrade my books. I could buy the additional building materials for the inn.
No. I might as well set Gertrude Hunt on fire.
My gaze fell on the portrait of my parents. They were looking at me. Demilles never backed down from a challenge. But then, we didn’t take unnecessary risks either.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I could simply sit here and continue to wait for a chance traveler to happen my way…
“If I do this, I would need you to meet my conditions,” I said.
“I want agreements of reimbursement to be drawn up and signed by all parties. I want a sum of money to be set aside in escrow from each faction and placed under your control. If they damage the inn, I want them to pay for the damages.”
“I find that reasonable.”
“I need each party to review and sign Earth’s nondisclosure policy. Ordinary citizens of this planet can’t know of their existence. For example, we may experience visits from local law enforcement, and I want it expressly understood that nobody will be crushing necks or ripping off heads.”
“I may think of some additional restrictions. Do you have any concerns?”
“A couple.” George leaned forward. “The nature of the relationship between the inn and its guests isn’t quite clear to me. Why does the inn require guests?”
“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” I explained. “The inn provides the guests with shelter and food. It sees to their every need. In return, it feeds on the natural energy all living beings emit. The more varied and powerful that energy, the more magic the inn is able to generate and the stronger it becomes.”
George narrowed his eyes. “So is the inn empathic?”
“No, not exactly.”
“Can it influence the mood of its guests?”
“Only in as much as we are all influenced by our surroundings.”
George frowned. “I’ve read of some cases that suggested a link can be forged between an inn and its guests.”
Oh. That’s what he was getting at. “That’s not exactly accurate. It is possible for the inn to forge a mental link between an innkeeper and a guest, but the inn can’t influence the guest’s mental state. The linking has been done only a handful of times in rare cases when the identity of a murderer had to be confirmed, for example. The guest has to be a willing participant in the process and try to forge the link. So if you’re asking me whether the inn can magically make the guests more agreeable and likely to sign the peace treaty, then no. I can make sure the peace delegates have the softest linens and the most tranquil of rooms, but I have no power to influence them. Even if I could, I wouldn’t. The privacy of my guests is sacred, and I am meant to remain as a neutral party. It would be a breach of ethics.”
“Oh well,” he said. “It was a thought.”
Considering the enormity of the task at hand, I could understand why he would reach for any possibility that could influence the outcome. “Anything else?”
“Yes.” George turned and glanced at the modest room. “I mean no disrespect, but your establishment is considerably smaller than I was led to believe. I don’t believe we have enough room.”
I rose. “Have you stayed at many inns?”
“No. I’ve visited several in connection with this summit, but I haven’t had the pleasure of being a guest. Yours is my first.”
I pulled the magic to me. What I was about to do would likely drain most of the inn’s resources and mine. If he walked away from our deal after I was done, it would take us a very long time to recover. But if we could get guests, it would be all worth it.
I picked up my broom. The magic vibrated within me, building and building, held so tight, like a giant spring compressed to its limit. George rose and stood next to me.
I raised the broom, bristles up, pictured the interior of the inn in my mind, and brought the broom down. Wood connected with floorboards with a dry knock.
Magic rolled through the inn like an avalanche, the wood and stone suddenly elastic and flowing. The interior of the inn opened like a blossoming flower. The walls moved apart. The ceiling soared. The magic kept streaming out of me, so fast I felt light-headed. Polished pink marble rolled over the floor, sheathed the walls, and surged up, forming stately columns.
Next to me George stood very still.
Two-story-tall windows opened in the marble. I leaned on the broom for support. Vaulted ceilings turned pure white. Crystal chandeliers sprouted like bunches of exquisite blooms. Golden flourishes spiraled and curved on the floor. Lights flared among the crystal.
I cut off the magic. The power snapped inside me like a rubber band. I reeled from the impact.
The grand ballroom spread before us, grandiose, elegant, and glowing.
The Arbitrator closed his mouth with a click. “I stand corrected.”