The enormous bolt of faux silk unrolled slowly at my feet, its end disappearing into the marble floor. Beast had barked at it on principle for about five minutes, until she finally decided it wasn’t that exciting and went off to explore the vastness of the ballroom. She sniffed at the corners, found a quiet spot, and lay down.
I would’ve loved nothing more than to join her, except not on the floor but in my nice soft bed. Opening the ballroom had drained me. I felt like I had run several miles. Given the choice, I would’ve retired for a nap right after the Arbitrator left, but the time line for the peace summit was tight. George wanted to get started within forty-eight hours, which meant that instead of taking a nap, I had stolen a can of Caldenia’s Mello Yello to stay awake, jumped into my car, and drove through the rain to rent a truck. Then I drove the truck two hours to Austin to the largest regional fabric distributor. There I bought an enormous roll of faux silk and another of cotton. That cost me a third of my emergency fund. Next I stopped at a stone and landscaping place and purchased bulk stone. They helped me load it, and when I came back, I dumped it in the backyard where the inn promptly ate it.
Now I was here, valiantly doing my best to stay on my feet as the inn continued to consume the faux silk inch by inch.
“Well. This is quite a development.”
I turned to see Caldenia standing in the doorway. “Your Grace.”
The older woman slowly stepped into the ballroom. Her gaze slid over the marble floor, columns, and the soaring white ceiling with golden flourishes.
“What’s the occasion?”
“We’re hosting a diplomatic summit.”
She turned on her foot and looked at me, her eyes sharp. “My dear, don’t tease me.”
“This roll of faux silk cost me six dollars per yard,” I told her. “Once I purchase food, I will be destitute.”
Caldenia blinked. “Who are the attending parties?”
“The Holy Anocracy, represented by House Krahr; the Hope-Crushing Horde; and the Merchants of Baha-char. They are coming here for the arbitration, and they will probably try to murder each other the moment they walk through the door.”
Caldenia’s eyes widened. “Do you really think so? This is absolutely marvelous!”
She would think so, wouldn’t she?
“Tell me the plan.”
I sighed and pointed at the eastern wall. I had formed a balcony along the east, west, and south sides of the room. Each balcony terminated far from its neighbors, too far for any of the species to clear in a jump, and was too high to safely jump down. At least too high in human terms.
“The otrokars’ rooms will be up there. They give prayers to sunrise, so they require a view of the morning sun.”
I turned and pointed at the opposite wall. “The vampires go there. Their time of reflection begins as sunset ends, so they’re in the west.”
I pointed at the south wall. “The Merchants will reside there. They’re a forest species and prefer shady rooms and muted light. Everyone has their separate stairwell. Nobody can enter quarters other than their own. The inn won’t permit it.”
I pointed to the north, where long windows sliced the wall into sections. “I’m going to put a table there for the leaders to conduct their negotiations.”
“That’s a well-planned layout,” Caldenia said. “But why pink marble?” She waved at the ceiling. “Pink marble, white ceiling, golden accents… With the electric lighting, it will turn into this ghastly orange.”
“I had one chance to impress the Arbitrator, and I had to improvise.”
Caldenia arched one eyebrow.
“I saw it in a movie once,” I explained. “It was easy to visualize.”
“Was it a movie for adults?”
“It had a talking candelabra who was friends with a grumpy clock.”
“I see. What about a ballroom from your parents’ inn?”
I shook my head. I remembered it in excruciating detail, but when I thought about recreating it, my heart squeezed itself into a painful clump. I sighed. “I can make it completely white if you would prefer.”
Caldenia’s eyes narrowed. “So the color can be altered?”
“In that case, not white. White is the safest of choices. Also, as memory serves, House Krahr builds their castles with gray stone, and you don’t want to show favoritism.”
“Otrokari favor vibrant colors and ornate decoration,” I said. “They tend toward reds and greens.”
“So we must strike a balance between the two. Blue is a soothing color most species find conducive to contemplation. Why don’t we try turquoise?”
I concentrated. The marble columns obligingly changed hue.
“A little more gray. A little darker. Little more… Now, can we put lighter streaks through them? Can you fleck it with gold… Perfect.”
I had to admit the columns did look beautiful.
“Let’s take down the gold leaf,” Caldenia said. “Elegance is never ostentatious, and there is nothing more bourgeois than covering everything in gold. It screams that one has too much money and too little taste, and it infuriates peasants. A palace should convey a sense of power and grandeur. One should enter and be awestruck. I’ve found the awe tends to cut down on revolts.”
I seriously doubted I’d face any revolts, but if it cut down on the slaughter, I would be quite happy.
“Gold has its uses, but always in moderation,” Caldenia continued. “Did I ever tell you about Cai Pa? It’s a water world. The entire planet is an ocean, and the population lives on giant artificial floating islands. It’s amazing how many people you can stuff into a few square miles. Each of them is ruled by a noble grown rich on pharmaceutical trade and underwater mining. Space is at a premium, so of course the fools build elaborate palaces. I had cause to attend a meeting in one of those monstrosities. They have these underwater algae forests, quite beautiful, actually, if you are into that sort of thing. The entirety of the palace walls was covered in algae cast in gold. There was not a single clear spot on the walls or the ceiling that didn’t have some sort of flourish or a flower in gold or some other garish color like scarlet. And between the algae there were portraits of the host and his family with jewels instead of eyes.”
Caldenia paused and looked at me. “Jewels, Dina. It looked ghastly. After ten minutes in the place, I felt like my eyes were under assault by an interstellar dreadnought. It was making me physically ill.”
“Some people simply live to prove to others that they have more.”
“Indeed. I lasted a single day, and when I departed, the host had the audacity to claim I had insulted his family. I would’ve poisoned the lot, but I couldn’t stand to be in the building for another moment.”
Her Grace raised her arms. “This is your ballroom, dear. Your space. The heart of your small palace. The sky is the limit, as they say. Abandon conventions. Forget the palaces of your world. Forget your parents’ inn or any other inn. Use your imagination and make it your own. Make it glorious.”
The sky is the limit… I closed my eyes and opened my mind. The inn shifted around me, its magic responding. My power flowed from me, and I let it expand and grow, unfurl like a flower.
“Dina…,” Caldenia murmured next to me, her voice stunned.
I opened my eyes. Gone was the pink marble, the gold leaf, and the crystal chandeliers. Only three windows, all in the north wall, remained. A glorious night sky spread across the dark walls and the ceiling, endless and beautiful, the light patina of lavender, green, and blue forming gossamer nebulae dotted with tiny flecks of stars. It was the kind of sky that called space pirates to their ships. Long vines spiraled around the turquoise columns that supported the balconies, and delicate glass flowers glowed with white and yellow. The floor was polished white marble, inlaid with a rich mosaic in a dozen shades from black and indigo to an electric blue and gold, stretching to the center where a stylized image of Gertrude Hunt decorated the floor, circled by a depiction of my broom.
I looked up. Above it all three enormous light fixtures came on, each a complex constellation of glowing orbs bathing the room in bright light. I smiled.
“Now that is what I call awe,” Caldenia quietly said next to me.
The magic chimed in my head. I opened my eyes. Ten past midnight. A little early for the summit, which was supposed to start tomorrow evening.
I swung my feet out of the bed. I’d gotten an hour of sleep. My head felt too heavy for my neck. I couldn’t remember the last time I worked so hard. I still wasn’t sure if the pits in the otrokar rooms were low enough. There was some sort of sacred proportion between the central “pit” area and the height of the plush circular couches around it. I’d consulted my guides and made them to the exact specifications listed, but my gut told me the height was off. It just didn’t look right, so I’d spent the last thirty minutes of my day lowering and raising the wooden makeshift couches before I had the inn make them in stone. It would all be worth it.
Another phantom tug, like ripples in a shallow pond. Someone stood at the end of my driveway, just inside the inn grounds, waiting politely to be invited in.
I got up and slipped on my innkeeper robe. A simple gray affair with a hood, it hid me from head to toe. Beast raised her head from her post by my bed and let out a quiet, sleepy bark. I checked the window. A dark figure stood by the front hedge, melding with the thick night shadow of an oak. It would be tall for a human. Probably a couple of inches taller than Sean.
I picked up my broom and left the bedroom, walking down the long hallway to the front staircase. Beast trotted next to me. The architecture of the inn had changed so much in the past few hours, my trek to the front door nearly doubled.
The floor was cool under my bare feet. The rain was still falling, and the inn and I agreed on a comfortable seventy degrees inside, but like in any house, some spots were warmer and some cooler and I wished I had worn socks.
Why did I even think of Sean Evans?
Sean was an alpha-strain werewolf. His parents had escaped the destruction of their home planet and come to Earth where they built a life, had Sean, and raised him, all in secret. Earth served as a waypoint for many travelers from the Great Beyond. The universe, with all its planets, dimensions, and timelines, needed its central hub to be a neutral place to meet, do business, or sometimes simply stop over on the way to somewhere else. Earth had served this role for thousands of years while its native population lived in complete ignorance of the strange beings who sometimes visited the planet in twilight. That’s why inns and innkeepers like me existed. We had only two concerns: keeping our guests safe and keeping them hidden. We stayed neutral and we didn’t get involved. Sean Evans had entered my life when I’d chosen to throw caution to the wind and involved myself in something really dangerous.
In retrospect it was probably foolish, but I didn’t regret it. Together, Sean, Arland, a vampire from House Krahr, and I had saved my small town from an interstellar assassin. Arland got to avenge a murder as an added bonus, and Sean learned the truth: he wasn’t an Earthborn mutation like his parents had told him but a product of a military genetic breeding program from another planet. All werewolves were soldiers designed to repel a planetwide invasion by an overwhelming force, but Sean was an alpha-strain variant. Bigger, faster, stronger, a Special Forces kind of warrior. The genetic programming must’ve held true, because he became a soldier here on Earth, but he could never quite find the right place for himself.
Then we met and I thought we had something.
No, that would be wishful thinking. We had the beginning of something, but once he glimpsed the universe beyond this planet, it was all over. The werewolves had destroyed their own planet rather than surrender it to their enemy and he could never go “home,” but the stars called him. Because of me he ended up owing an old werewolf a favor, and once the danger here had been dealt with, Sean left to repay his debt. I knew the pull of the stars. I’d answered it myself for a while. When he walked through a portal to the sun-drenched street of Baha-char, some part of me knew he wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon, but still I hoped he might be back in a month or two. It’s been almost half a year now. Sean was gone.
I’d decided to put him out of my mind, and for the most part I completely succeeded, but sometimes he just popped into my head. I’d glance at the back patio, remember him jumping three feet in the air when I moved it, and smile. Or I’d recall his voice. Or how it felt to be kissed by him.
“I can’t help it,” I told Beast. “It will get better. It just needs time.”
If Beast had an opinion about my occasional involuntary mooning, she kept it to herself.
I opened the front door and strode down the grass to the dark figure waiting for me by the oak. He stood swaddled in a cloak. He seemed tall when I looked at him from above, but on the same level he was towering, six five at least. I had to tilt my head. Beast growled low.
The dark figure raised his left hand, fingers up. “Winter sun.” His voice was rough but his diction was flawless. Whatever translator he was using worked perfectly.
An otrokar. “Winter sun to you as well.” Winter sun was the kinder, gentler sun. “Welcome.”
We walked back to the front door and I let him in.
His shoulders were broad, his stance light despite his size. A dark brown armor of braided leather strips clasped his body. Hard plates dappled with sprays of black and red in an organic pattern only a living creature could produce shielded his forearms, thighs, and shins. The same plates guarded his chest, the chitinous substance streaked through with complex swirls of golden metal that announced the presence of high-tech electronics. A belt with pockets sat on his waist, and small metal, bone, and wooden talismans hung from it. Otrokari were excellent spacers, and his was the kind of armor designed to protect while still letting one bend and flex when fighting within the confines of a spacecraft. He carried no weapons except for a short sword or a long knife that rested in a sheath on his right thigh.
From the back he could almost pass for a really tall native, but his face made it clear—this was the same primary human seed that had given rise to us and vampires, but it had clearly grown on a different planet. Otrokari had evolved on a world with a scorching sun and endless plains. They hunted in packs and ran their prey to ground. The planes of his face were sharper than those of the Earthborn, as if he had been hacked with a knife from a piece of clay; the texture of his deep bronze skin rougher; the proportions of his features skewed slightly, giving him a dangerous, predatory air. His jaw was triangular, his nose narrow, and when he spoke, his lips showed a narrow flash of sharp teeth. His short hair, coarse like the mane of a horse, seemed black until it caught the light and shone with a deep, violent red of a pigeon’s-blood ruby. His eyes, under thick eyebrows, were a startling light green.
We looked at each other. Beast growled low by my feet. She clearly didn’t like his smell. The otrokar glanced at her, his eyes evaluating. He looked like a man who expects to be jumped at any moment, and he wanted there to be no doubt that he’d pull his knife out and slice his attacker to narrow ribbons.
“What can I do for you?” Stop sizing up my dog, please.
“My name is Dagorkun.” The otrokar raised his hand. A golden medallion studded with jewels hung from a leather cord clasped in his fingers. A stylized sun with stabbing rays, the symbol of the Khan, the leader of the Horde.
I inclined my head. “I’m honored.”
“I’m here on behalf of my people to inspect the rooms.”
“Very well. Would you like some tea as we walk?”
He blinked. “Yes.”
“It will only take a moment.” I stepped into the kitchen. Some things were constant in the universe. Two and two didn’t always equal four, but every water-based species at some point had heated water and thrown some plants into it.
Dagorkun followed me into the kitchen. I took two mugs from the cupboard, one with strawberries on it and the other with a small black cat, filled them with hot water from the Keurig, and put two bags of chai in to soak. Dagorkun watched me like a hawk. Clearly he expected to be poisoned.
“Is this your first time on Earth?”
He waited for a long moment, obviously deciding if it was wise to answer. “Yes.”
“You are now a guest of my inn. Your safety is my utmost priority.” I fished the tea bags out, opened a sugar canister made of thick blue glass, and put a spoonful of the sugar into my chai. “Neither my dog nor my inn will hurt you unless you attempt to harm another guest.”
“The vampires recommend you,” Dagorkun said.
I spooned sugar into his cup. One, two… “Yes, but that doesn’t mean I’ll treat them any differently than your people. I’m a neutral party.”
Three… Four ought to do it. He looked like a northerner to me. The southern Otrokari had a greener undertone to their skin. I offered him the cup. He picked it up carefully.
“What if you stopped being neutral?”
“The rating of my inn would be downgraded. It would become known that this was an unsafe place to stay. No guests would visit, and without guests, the inn would wither, fall into hibernation, and die.”
“And the witch?”
“The old witch who stays with you.”
Most people would’ve taken “witch” as a slur, but for an otrokar a witch meant someone of great dark power. He was simply giving Her Grace the respect she had earned.
“Caldenia won’t interfere with the peace talks. This inn and I are the only reason she is still alive. She’ll do nothing to jeopardize that.”
Dagorkun mulled it over, raised the cup to his lips, and sipped. His eyes lit up. “Good.”
“Shall we see to the rooms?”
He nodded. I led him through the front room to a simple hallway. It matched the front of the house perfectly: wooden floor and plain beige walls. And the portrait of my parents in the dead center, in a small alcove just as you walk through the doorway. I’d moved it there just for this occasion. Dagorkun glanced at them. I scrutinized his face. No reaction.
One day someone would walk through this doorway, see my parents, and recognize them. When that happened, I would be ready. I just needed a faint trail, a crumb, some drop of information that told me where to start looking for them. I would not stop until I found them.
We turned right, walked a few feet to another plain doorway, and stepped through it. Dagorkun stopped. A curving stairway of dark wood led up, its rail decorated with carved, stylized animals: the long-legged three-horned stag; the kair, a wolflike predator; the massive armor-plated garuz that looked like a three-horned rhino on steroids… I’d gone right down the list of the otrokar heraldry in the traditional order. Light fixtures imitating torches glowed in their sconces on the dark wall streaked with red and gold. Colorful banners of the Hope-Crushing Horde hung between them.
“Does the stairway meet with your approval?” I asked.
“It will suffice,” Dagorkun said carefully.
“Please.” I pointed to the stairs.
He started up the steps. Here’s hoping the pits were deep enough.
Twenty minutes later, we established that the pits were perfectly proportioned, the faux-silk pillows were sufficiently soft and in the correct array of colors, the arched windows were properly ornate, and the view of the orchard, which had required enough dimensional finagling to make an entire university of theoretical physicists beg for mercy, was stimulating enough. The orchard was visible from every new guest room I had built for the summit, which should’ve been impossible, but I never bothered too much with the laws of physics anyway. If they decided to jump out of their windows, they would end up in my orchard behind the house and out of sight of the main road and subdivision. Not that I had any intention of letting anyone exit the inn without my knowledge.
By the end of the tour, Dagorkun had relaxed enough to stop continuously checking corners for hidden assassins. We were almost back to my front room when the inn chimed. I glanced out the window just in time to catch the last glimpse of a familiar red flash. Oh no.
“We have company,” I told Dagorkun. “Excuse me, please.”
I walked to the front door and opened it. A massive figure filled the doorway, broad-shouldered and clad in black armor shot through with blood-red, which made him look enormous. His blond hair spilled onto his back like a lion’s mane. His face, masculine with a heavy, square jaw, was handsome enough to make you pause.
“My lady Dina.” His voice was rich and resonant, the kind of voice that would overpower the roar of battle, which was fitting since he was the Marshal of House Krahr and had to snarl orders in the middle of battle quite frequently.
“Lord Arland,” I said. “Please enter.”
Arland stepped through and saw Dagorkun. The two of them froze.
“Hello, Arland,” Dagorkun said. No traditional sun greeting, huh?
“Hello, Dagorkun,” Arland said.
The vampire and otrokar glared at each other. A moment passed. Another. If they kept this up, the floor between them would catch on fire.
I sighed. “Would the two of you like some tea?”
The vampire and the otrokar stared at each other over the rims of their cups. Arland was built like a saber-toothed tiger: huge, powerful, and strong. Dagorkun was taller than him by a couple of inches, and while his build was not quite as massive, he was corded with muscle. Neither of them seemed especially worried. They were just sitting there politely, drinking tea and trying to strangle each other with pure will.
“How is your father?” Arland asked, his voice nonchalant, each word precise.
“The Khan is well,” Dagorkun answered. “How is Lady Ilemina?”
“She’s well also.”
“That’s good to hear. Will she be joining us?”
Arland raised his thick eyebrows. “No, she must attend to matters elsewhere. Will the Khan grace us with his presence?”
“Likewise, the Khan has many responsibilities,” Dagorkun answered. “He sends the Khanum in his stead.”
So, Arland’s mother wasn’t coming but Dagorkun’s was. The Guide to Major Powers, which I had purchased during the summer and which had cost me an arm and a leg, listed Lady Ilemina as the Preceptor of House Krahr together with two pages of her titles and decorations, some of which included words like “Slaughterer of” and “Supreme Predator of.” The Khanum had an equally long list of titles studded with gems like “Spinebreaker” and “Gut Ripper.” All things considered, I was glad only one of them was coming.
Having their sons sitting across from each other, sipping tea and wishing they could drop all pretense and just tear each other’s head off was difficult enough. I finally realized the full extent of the mess I’d gotten into. When there was twelve or more individuals from each side, keeping them from violence was going to be almost impossible. This is exactly why Caldenia thought these peace talks were going to be great. My imagination painted a huge brawl in the ballroom and Her Grace quietly sneaking off with a bloody body.
“The Khanum?” Arland coughed. The last sip of tea must’ve gone down wrong.
“Are you unwell?” Dagorkun inquired.
“Healthy as a Krahr,” Arland said.
“That’s such a relief. I would hate for some illness to interfere and spoil the grand celebration I have planned for when I send you to your afterlife.”
“Really?” Arland’s eyes narrowed. “I’d think my succumbing to an illness would be a blessing, as that is the only way you could manage such a feat. I daresay, it would have to be a severe illness, and even then I fear the chances of your victory would be remote.”
The otrokar clicked his tongue. “Such hubris, Marshal.”
“I detest false modesty.”
“Perhaps we can test this theory?” Dagorkun offered.
Okay, that’s just enough of that. “I am glad the rooms were to your liking, Under-Khan. Unfortunately, I must ask you to depart so the Marshal of House Krahr can inspect the quarters of his people.”
Dagorkun’s eyes narrowed. “And if I insisted on staying?”
Thin, brilliant blue cracks formed in the handle of my broom. The floor in front of Dagorkun shifted, fluid as the sea. “Then I’ll seal your body in wood so all you can do is breathe and use you as a lawn ornament.”
“This summit is very important to me,” I explained.
The wall behind me creaked as the inn bent toward Dagorkun, responding to the tone of my voice. The otrokar’s hand went to his knife.
I waved my fingers and the wall snapped back to its normal state. “I won’t let anyone or anything interfere with the peace talks in my domain.”
Arland set his cup on the table. “You should test her, Dagorkun. She couldn’t possibly be that powerful.”
I pointed the handle of my broom at him. The vampire grinned, flashing his fangs, and chuckled.
“I see.” Dagorkun rose. “Thank you for the tea, Innkeeper.”
I solidified the floor and led him to the door. He pulled on his cloak and walked into the night. I waited until the inn announced his departure and turned to Arland.
“Ours is an old rivalry,” he said. “You can’t blame us. They are barbarians. Do you know how one becomes a Khan? One would expect a proper progression—a ruler’s son, learning statecraft at his father’s knee, studying with the best tutors, gaining experience under the guidance of talented generals on the battlefield, building alliances, until finally he takes his rightful place, supported by his power base. One would expect this, but no. They elect him. The army gathers and votes.” He spread his arms. “It’s ridiculous.”
Of course hereditary aristocracy was much better. That never went wrong. How silly of them to try this thing called democracy. I wondered what he would say if I reminded him that the US was a republic. “Shall we see to the rooms?”
“It would be my pleasure.”
Arland rose and I led him to the hallway. We turned left this time. The hallway brought us to the formal stairway of pale gray stone. Crimson banners of the Holy Cosmic Anocracy hung on the walls, illuminated by delicate glass ornaments that glowed with gentle, pale light.
Arland raised his thick eyebrows. “Just like home.”
Perfect. We started up the stairway.
“Six months ago, House Krahr was going stale from the lack of war,” I said. “Now suddenly you’re involved in the Nexus Conflict? What happened?”
Arland grimaced. “House Meer happened. What is taking place on Nexus isn’t a war; it’s hell. It’s been going on for almost a decade, and it’s too much for any one House. About a year into this war, the Holy Anocracy divided the Houses into seven Orders to share the burden of the conflict. Each Order takes the responsibility for Nexus for a year. House Krahr is the House of the First Order. We already fought on Nexus five years ago.”
Every time he said Nexus, he paused for a tiny second the way one would before saying Hell in the true sense of that word. Five standard years ago he would’ve been a seasoned knight. It must’ve been terrible, because the memories of it still haunted him.
The stairs ended in a stone arch. The walls there rose to a dizzying height and the bloodred banner of the Holy Anocracy hung from the ceiling with the Holy Fangs and the eight-point star emblazoned in silver on it. The star commemorating the vampire progress to interstellar flight wasn’t above or below the stylized fangs but sat between them. The symbolism was clear: the Holy Anocracy would bite the galaxy with its fangs and swallow it. Without a word, Arland lowered himself on one knee and bowed his head. He closed his eyes for a moment, then rose, as if the heavy armor he wore was light as silk. We stepped through the arch.
“Two months ago the Sixth Order was scheduled to take over, but the two major Houses of the Sixth Order had been decimated, one by a war and the other by a planetwide natural disaster. They had neither the means nor the power to mount a suitable defense against the otrokar offensive. They were willing, but it was determined that we would lose our hold on Nexus if they bore the sole responsibility for it. The duty should’ve passed to the Seventh Order. The Seventh Order consists of four Houses, with House Meer being by far the most powerful. House Meer dishonored itself and refused to fight. Given as the other three houses in the Order are small, and two of them are also warring with each other at the moment, the responsibility for Nexus passed on to us.”
I frowned. “House Meer can do that?”
“Not without repercussions. The Anocracy will excommunicate them and level economic sanctions, but they are willing to risk it. They’ve been eyeing our holdings for years. When we come off the Nexus rotation, our House will be exhausted. It will take us years to recover. House Meer will attack us when we’re at our weakest, and the riches they rip from our corpse will more than offset any economic sanctions. The Anocracy embraces victory and shuns defeat. The Preceptor of Meer may sacrifice his eternal soul on the altar of betrayal, but his descendants will be welcomed back into the fold of the Holy Church.”
Yes, they would be too powerful and too rich to remain ostracized. “On Earth we say that history is written by the winners.”
Arland nodded. “I’ve spent the past two months on that cursed planet. I’ve lost men, I’ve lost family, and I don’t intend to lose anyone else. If I have to make peace with the Horde, so be it. It would be infinitely easier if the Khan were coming himself instead of the Khanum. The Khan is a great warrior and a great leader; he understands diplomacy and he is the man the Horde wants to follow into the slaughter. The Khanum is a great general; she plans their wars and their battles, which the Khan then leads. I do not relish dealing with Dagorkun’s mother.”
He stopped. Bright rooms of pale stone spread before us, the lines elegant and powerful. Green vines drooped from the tall ledges, cascading to the floor of polished stone. Massive dark wood furniture, sturdy and simple, offered a place to rest, its upholstery and linens crimson and white. Floor-to-ceiling windows opened onto narrow stone balconies. It was a serene place, elegant and beautiful to behold the way a honed, functional blade was beautiful.
Arland turned around, his face puzzled. “This is Zamak, our House’s coastal castle.”
“It’s a duplicate,” I said. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t reproduce the sea, but I was told the view of the orchard is soothing. Does it meet with your approval?”
Yes. Great. Wonderful. Fantastic.
“How will the meal orders be handled?”
My stomach tried to pirouette out of me. Somehow I made my lips move. “Should any of your party have special dietary needs, please list them for me and I will do my best to meet them.”
Ten minutes later, I watched Arland step into a bright red glow, turn into a star, and shoot up to the night sky. The inn chimed in my head, informing me of his departure, and I sagged against the doorframe.
The food. I had forgotten about the food.
What was I going to do?