A faint chime tugged me out of my sleep. I opened my eyes and blinked. I’d dreamt of a desert, a vast endless sea of shifting yellow sand under a white sun. I wandered through it, ankle deep and barefoot, feeling the sand grains slide under my toes with each sinking step, trying to find something or someone. I had looked for hours, but found only more sand. The soothing ceiling of my dark bedroom was too much of a shock after the sunlit dunes, and for a confusing moment, I didn’t know where I was.
Magic chimed in my head again, brushing against my senses, feather-light and quick, but insistent. Someone had skimmed the boundary of the inn.
I swung my feet to the wooden floor, picked up my broom, and went down the shadowy hallway. Beast, my tiny Shih Tzu, darted from under the bed and trailed me, ready to attack unknown invaders. It was five days before Christmas, and I wasn’t expecting any guests, especially not at two o’clock in the morning. But then, of course, when Gertrude Hunt Bed and Breakfast did receive guests, they were never the usual kind and they rarely announced themselves.
The hallway ended in a door. I swiped the knitted cardigan hanging on the hook to the right of the door, wrapped myself in it, and slid my feet into a pair of slippers. This December started with a flood and then turned unseasonably cold. At night it got down into the low thirties. Going outside was like stepping into a freezer, while the inside of the inn was warm and toasty, so I bundled up when I went out, then shed sweatshirts and cardigans at random doorways when I came back in.
The door swung open in front of me and I stepped out onto the balcony.
The cold air hit me. Wow.
The moon shone brightly, spilling silver light from behind gauzy shreds of night clouds. My apple orchard stretched to the left. Directly in front of me a huge old oak tree spread its branches over the lawn, its limbs nearly touching the balcony. To the right, Park Street ran parallel to the inn. Exactly opposite Gertrude Hunt, Camelot Road shot off Park Street, leading deep into the Avalon subdivision, filled with the usual two-story Texas houses with old trees on the trimmed lawns and dark vehicles parked in the driveways.
All was quiet.
I probed the night with my senses. The inn and I were bound so tightly that I could feel every inch of the grounds, if I chose. The intruder had touched the boundary but hadn’t entered, and now he or she hid.
I waited, trying to keep my teeth from chattering. My breath made tiny clouds that melted into the night.
Someone was out there, watching me. I could feel the weight of their gaze. Shivers of fear or cold ran down my spine. Probably both.
“I know you’re there. Come out.”
I peered into the night, scrutinizing the familiar landscape. The row of hedges separating Park Street from my lawn appeared undisturbed. No strange footprints crossed the lawn. Nothing hid in the oak tree, nothing rustled the bushes behind it, nothing troubled the cedar twenty feet behind the bushes…
Two amber eyes stared at me from the shadows under the cedar. I almost jumped.
“Sean!” He nearly gave me a heart attack.
Sean Evans didn’t move, a darker shadow in the deep night. Several months ago we met just like this, except that time he was marking his territory on my apple trees. Now he just waited, silent, respecting the boundaries of the inn.
“Come closer,” I called, keeping my voice low. No need to wake up the entire neighborhood. “I don’t want to shout.”
He moved, a blur, ran up to the oak, leapt, bounced, and landed on the branch near the balcony. Deja vu.
Beast woofed once, quietly, just to let him know she was there in case he decided to try anything.
“Is something wrong?”
I scrutinized his face. When Sean Evans first moved into the Avalon subdivision, he’d caused a mild epidemic of swooning. If someone looked up “ex-military badass” in the dictionary, they would find his picture. He was closing on thirty, with a handsome face he kept clean-shaven, russet-brown hair cut short, and an athletic, powerful body that said loud and clear that he was strong and fast, and crossing him was a dumb idea. He was also a werewolf without a planet, something the overwhelming majority of people on Earth had no idea existed. Several months ago Sean helped me defend the Avalon subdivision from an interstellar assassin, learned about his origins, and then left to find himself. He ended up being trapped in an interstellar war in a place called Nexus, and it took all of my resources to break him free of it.
The war took a toll. A long scar now marked his face. The pre-Nexus Sean was arrogant and aggressive. This new Sean was quiet and patient, and if you looked into his clear amber eyes, you would find a steel hardness. Sometimes you would see nothing at all, as if you were looking into the eyes of a tiger. No hunger, no rage, just an inscrutable watchfulness. Sean and I had gone to the movies three nights ago, and a drunk guy tried to pick a fight with us outside the theater after the show. Sean looked at him, and whatever that man saw in Sean’s eyes must’ve cut right through the alcohol haze, because the drunk turned around without a word and walked away.
I could handle the arrogance and the anger, but that watchful nothing alarmed me. He hid it well enough. I saw him have conversations with people around the neighborhood, and none of them ran away screaming. But the nothing was still there. He didn’t say more than two words to me through the whole evening. With his neighbors, he took pains to pretend to be normal, but I knew exactly what he went through. With me he was himself, and that Sean held the door open for me, offered me his jacket when he thought I was cold, and put himself between me and the drunk, but he wasn’t talking. Whatever he had lived through on Nexus had pushed him outside the normal human life and I wasn’t sure I could pull him back into the light.
“How did you know?” he asked. “I stayed off the inn grounds.”
“The peace summit gave the inn a boost. Gertrude Hunt is spreading its roots and you’ve skimmed the zone of the new growth.” I pushed slightly. The boundary of the inn glowed with pale green for a second and faded again. “That’s the new boundary.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I’ll keep it in mind. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Couldn’t sleep?” I pulled the cardigan tighter around myself.
“Just have a feeling, that all.”
“What kind of feeling?”
“Like something is going to happen.”
“If something is going to happen, we might as well wait inside.”
And I just invited him in. In the middle of the night. While wearing a cardigan and a Hello Kitty sleeping T-shirt that barely came to my mid-thigh. What exactly was I doing?
“Do you want to come in?” My mouth just kept going. “I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
An amber sheen rolled over his eyes. “At two o’clock in the morning real men drink coffee. Black.”
He took his coffee with cream. Was that a joke? Please be a joke.
“Aha. And do they wait to drink it until it’s old and bitter and then compare the chest hair growth it produced?”
Definitely a joke. Hope sparked inside me. It was tiny, but it was so much better than nothing.
“Well, if any men here would dare to drink a cup of sissy hazelnut coffee with lots of cream, they are welcome to come inside.”
He leaned a little closer. “Are you inviting me in?” His voice held just a touch of suggestion to it.
Suddenly I wasn’t so cold anymore. “Well, you’re already here, it’s freezing, and we can’t just stand here on the balcony and talk. Someone might see us and get the wrong idea.”
Actually, nobody would see us, because it was the middle of the night and if we really got in trouble, the inn would screen us from the street.
He leapt off the branch and landed softly next to me. He was so very… tall. And standing too close.
“Wouldn’t people get the wrong idea if they see me sneaking into your house in the middle of the night?”
I opened my mouth, trying to think of something clever to say.
Sean whipped around.
The needle-shaped above-ground craft tore down the road, its engine roaring loud enough to wake the dead. The windows in the inn vibrated. Car alarms blared down the street.
The deafening blast of sound receded and came back, growing louder. The idiot had turned around and was coming back this way. Sean took off, leaping over the balcony.
“Smother cannon,” I barked.
The roof of the inn split open, the shingles flowing like melted wax, and a three-foot-long cannon barrel slid out.
The boost bike thundered, sputtering.
Lights came on in the two closest houses. Damn it.
The boost bike shot into my view.
The cannon made a metallic ting. The lights in the Ramirez residence went out. The lamp post turned dark. The engine of the boost bike died like someone had thrown a switch.
EMP was a terribly useful thing.
The bike spun, rotating wildly, crashed into a lamp post, bounced off the pavement, and skidded to a stop. Twenty feet from the inn boundary. Crap.
In a moment Mr. Ramirez would realize his lights refused to come on and he would do exactly what most men did in this situation. He’d come outside to check if the rest of the neighborhood had lost power. He would see us and the boost bike that clearly didn’t look like it belonged on Earth.
I leapt over the balcony. A massive root snaked out of the ground, catching me, and set me gently on the grass. I dashed to the street, the broom in my hand splitting to reveal its glowing blue insides and flowing into a spear with a hook on the end.
Sean darted to the bike, grabbed the small passenger, and threw him backward toward the inn. The roots snatched him out of the air, the lawn yawned, and they dragged him under. Sean spun and tossed something small and furry onto my lawn. The ground yawned and swallowed it, too.
I hooked the boost bike with my spear. He grasped the other edge, strained, and we half-dragged, half-carried it to the inn boundary.
Behind me a door swung open. Sean grunted, I cried out, and we heaved the bike over the hedge. I spun around and faced the street.
Mr. Ramirez walked out, his Rhodesian Ridgeback, Asad, trailing him.
“Dina,” Mr. Ramirez said. “Are you okay?”
No, I’m not okay. “Some dimwit just drove his bike up and down the street!”
I didn’t even have to manufacture the outrage in my voice. I had outrage to spare. All visitors to Earth had to follow one rule: never let themselves be discovered. That was the entire purpose of the inns. I’d had too many close calls already and as soon as I got inside, the rider of the boost bike would deeply regret it.
“We’re fine,” Sean said.
“This is completely ridiculous.” I waved my arm and pulled the cardigan tighter around myself. “People have to be able to sleep.”
“People have no sense,” Mr. Ramirez said. “My power went out.”
“Looks like he hit a lamp post. Might’ve damaged the power lines,” Sean offered.
Mr. Ramirez frowned. “You might be right.” His eyes narrowed. “Wait. Isn’t your house all the way down the street? What are you doing here?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” Sean said. “I went jogging.”
Asad sniffed the metal skid marks on the pavement with obvious suspicion.
“Jogging, huh.” Mr. Ramirez looked at him, then at me, taking in my cardigan and T-shirt, then at Sean again. “At two o’clock in the morning?”
I wished very hard to be invisible.
“Best time to jog,” Sean said. “Nobody bothers me.”
Asad pondered the marks and let out a single loud bark.
“Hey!” Mr. Ramirez turned to him. “What is it, boy?”
It smelled like something inhuman had landed on the pavement, that’s what.
The huge dog put himself between Mr. Ramirez and the marks and broke into a cacophony of barks.
“Hmm. He barely ever barks. I better get him inside. I’m going to file a police report in the morning.” Mr. Ramirez looked at Sean and me one last time and smiled. “Good luck with your jogging.”
I shut my eyes tight for a second.
“You okay?” Sean asked.
“Jogging?” I squeezed through clenched teeth. “That’s the best you could come up with?”
“What else was I supposed to tell him? He isn’t going to believe that I woke up out of a dead sleep, got dressed, and ran four hundred yards here in the time it took him to go downstairs and open the door.”
“He thinks we’re sleeping together.”
“So what if we are? We’re adults last time I checked.”
“Tomorrow he’ll talk to Margaret and by the afternoon the whole subdivision will be talking about our jogging. I’ll be fielding rumors and questions for a week. I don’t like attention, Sean. It’s bad for my business.”
Ugh. I turned around. “Come inside.”
“You sure?” He was grinning now. “People might get the wrong idea.”
“Just come inside,” I growled.
He followed me in.
Inside my front room, the long flexible roots of the inn pinned two creatures to the wall. The first was about the size of a ten-year-old human child, four-limbed, and wearing a pocketed leather harness from which hung a wide brown cape. A beautiful crest of emerald green, yellow, and crimson feathers crowned his head. Next to him, a furry eight-legged creature the size of a basketball struggled, trying to untangle itself from the roots. It was covered in blue fuzz and resembled an odd mix of a spider and a kitten, two things that should never go together. It looked like one of Disney’s artists got high on something vile and spent the night drawing his cute nightmares. A male Ku and his ons. I should’ve known.
The Ku were actually reptilian and had more in common with dinosaurs than birds. They lived in tribes and stumbled onto the greater Galaxy by accident while they were still in the hunter-gatherer stage. They never moved past it. On Earth, climate change combined with a the rising population created starvation, which became the catalyst for the development of horticulture, which in turn eventually led to agricultural society and feudalism. The Ku faced no such pressures. They didn’t try to understand the galaxy and the complicated technology of other species. They simply accepted it and learned to use it. Talking rules to a Ku was like reading a modern law brief to a toddler. This one, apparently, decided it would be a great idea to load his pet onto his boost bike and drive up and down Park Street.
“Have you lost your mind?”
The Ku looked at me with round golden eyes.
“This is Earth. You can’t make noise. You can’t ride boost bikes. Humans can’t know. You almost got all of us into big trouble.”
The Ku blinked. His eyes were clear like the summer sky: no thought clouded the depths. I sighed. I really wanted to yell at him some more, but it would accomplish nothing.
“Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”
He opened his mouth. “Message!”
“Do you have a message for me?”
Who in the world would send a message by a Ku? Might as well shove it into a bottle and toss it into the ocean. It had about the same chances of reaching its recipient. I held out my hand. The roots released him just enough for his arms to move. He reached into the pocket on his harness, pulled something out, and dropped it into my palm.
A silver necklace with a dolphin pendant. I went cold.
“And this!” The Ku dropped a grimy clump of paper into my hand.
Gingerly I pulled it open. A string of coordinates written in hurried cursive and five words.
“In trouble. Come get me.”
“Dina?” Sean loomed next to me. “You’ve gone pale.”
“I need a ship.”
“I have to go to Karhari.”
His eyebrows furrowed. “That’s deep in Holy Anocracy territory. What’s on Karhari?”
Karhari was a closed planet. I had no way to access it from the inn, which meant I had to get there the conventional way, which meant buying passage from Baha-char. Applying for permits would take forever and they probably wouldn’t be granted, which meant a smuggler and I couldn’t even begin to guess how much time that would cost me…
Sean thrust himself into my view and gently touched my shoulder. I looked up at him.
“Talk to me. What’s on Karhari?”