Some moments in life you remember forever.
One time, when I was five, my parents told me that we were going on a trip. I looked out of the window, at the grey November sky smothered with clouds, and decided that I wasn’t going. My dad brought me a pair of aviator shades, then he took my right hand and my mom took my left, and together we walked down a long hallway deep into our inn. At the end of the hallway an ordinary door waited. We reached it, it swung open, and summer exhaled heat in my face. I shut my eyes against the bright light, and when I opened them, we stood in an alley paved with stone. Tall terraced buildings rose on both sides of us, and straight ahead, where the alley ran into a street, a current of creatures in every color and shape possible surged past merchant stalls, while a shattered planet looked at them from a purple sky.
Then there was the time when I first arrived at my own inn. It was early spring. The trees stood mostly bare except for the evergreen Texas oaks that only dropped their leaves when they felt like it. I had driven slowly, looking for the right address, and when the old Victorian came into view, I almost drifted off the road. Big, ornate and nonsensical the way Victorians often are, the building jutted against the morning sky, a dark ruin left to rot. Shingles had fallen off the roof and siding peeled from the walls in chunks. Brown weeds choked the grounds. I knew it would be bad, since the inn had lain dormant for decades, but I didn’t think it would be that bad.
I pulled into the driveway, got out, and began circling the house, looking for any signs of life, reaching out with my magic, but finding nothing. I was losing hope with every step. And then I rounded the corner. There, bright against the backdrop of oaks and pecans, twelve apple trees bloomed, branches heavy with blossoms. It was the moment I realized Gertrude Hunt still lived.
Today was such a moment. It didn’t have the vivid colors of Baha-char or the fragile beauty of the apple trees, but I would never forget it. Sean Evans stood in our bedroom wearing an innkeeper’s robe.
“Mirror,” I murmured.
Gertrude Hunt shifted its magic in response. The wall in front of us liquefied, snapping into a mirror. We stood side by side, he in the copper-colored robe I had sewn for him and me in the blue robe my mother made me.
Sean was taller than me by a head. The robe covered him from his neck to his toes, but he’d left the hood down. He was very handsome, my Sean. He’d spent a long time trying to win a hopeless war. It left scars even his body with its accelerated regeneration couldn’t heal, and the shadows of its memories still flickered in his amber eyes. But when he was alone with me, like now, his eyes turned warm and inviting, his posture lost the coiled readiness, and he relaxed the way a man would in the safety of his own home.
I studied our reflection. Innkeeper robes came in a variety of styles, but these simple ones were our daily uniform. We looked like a couple. My parents had worn robes just like this, except my father preferred grey and blue.
I never thought I would have this. When I was younger, I had imagined myself as an innkeeper of a successful inn, but in my dreams, there was never anyone standing next to me. My parents were still missing, my sister left to marry a vampire Marshal on a faraway planet and took my little niece with her, my brother still wandered the galaxy, but I had Sean. He loved me and I loved him. We were no longer alone.
The blond innkeeper woman in the mirror smiled back at me. She looked happy.
“I like it,” Sean said.
Three days ago, he’d refused to wear a robe, but I had made this one myself and now he liked it.
“You don’t have to pretend,” I told him.
“I like it. It’s soft.”
“I tumbled it with rocks for 24 hours. And I tattered the hem.”
Sean hiked up the robe and looked at the worn hem.
Our profession was old. By chance, Earth sat on the crossroads of warp points and dimensional gateways, a convenient waypoint on the way elsewhere. We were the Atlanta airport of the galaxy. Because of this special location, an ancient pact had been made between humans and the rest of the galactic civilizations. Earth was designated as neutral ground. Nobody could conquer us. Nobody would ever enslave or devour us. The human race would be allowed to develop naturally, ignorant of any alien intelligence in the great beyond.
In exchange, Earth provided the alien visitors with safe havens; specialized hotels, each manned by an innkeeper like me, existing in magic symbiosis with our inns. Within the inns, we could bend physics and open gateways to worlds hundreds of light-years away. Outside of the inns, we were only slightly more powerful than normal people. The innkeepers had only two primary goals: to see to their guests’ every need and to keep their existence secret from the rest of the planet.
Gertrude Hunt, my inn, accepted Sean because it sensed that he loved me. When he spoke to the inn, it obeyed, and it tried to make him comfortable without being asked. Sometime in the last couple of weeks, between fighting off a clan of alien assassins and nursing me back to health after the death of a seedling inn turned me catatonic, Sean had become an innkeeper. He had been an innkeeper for a few days, I had been an innkeeper for a couple of years, and in that short time we had both skirted dangerously close to crossing the primary laws that governed the inns. Now the innkeeper Assembly, a gathering of prominent innkeepers, decided they wanted a closer look at me and Sean. Refusing the invitation wasn’t an option.
“In the eyes of the Assembly, I’ve only been an innkeeper for the blink of an eye, and you even less,” I said. “I don’t want to show up there in brand new robes.”
Sean reached over and caught me in a hug. “It will be fine,” he murmured into my ear.
For a long moment I just stood wrapped in him.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” he asked.
“They’ll downgrade Gertrude Hunt to half a star, and nobody will ever stay with us again. Without the magic of the guests, the inn will wither.”
“We still have Caldenia,” he said.
That was true. Once a galactic tyrant, her Grace had chosen Gertrude Hunt as her permanent residence. She paid a hefty sum for it, but it didn’t come anywhere near the size of the various bounties on her head.
“Orro is staff, not a guest.”
“And your sister and the thick-headed vampire.”
That was true, too. Maud and Arland loved each other. No matter what happened I was sure they would end up together, and House Krahr, Arland’s clan, would always stay at Gertrude Hunt.
“And the Otrokars.” Sean kissed me. “And the Merchants.”
I kissed him back.
Something banged below us in the kitchen, followed by a deep roar. “Fire!”
Gertrude Hunt must’ve been concerned enough to channel the sound to us.
Sean groaned. “He has to stop doing that.”
“I’ll go check on him.”
I sank through the floor, slipping through his arms, and landed in the kitchen. Sliding through walls required practice. Sean would take it as a challenge.
The delicious aroma of broth and cooking meat enveloped me. At the stove, Orro poked something in a large pot with an even larger fork. Seven feet tall and bristling with foot long brown spikes, the Quillonian chef looked like a monstrous hedgehog. He spun toward me and bared a mouth full of nightmarish fangs. “Water for tea is boiled!”
I tossed tea leaves into a small glass teapot, poured the near boiling water from the electric kettle into it, and watched it turn golden brown. Orro found our TV fascinating. His latest discovery was the Food Channel and Garry Keys’ Fire and Lightning cooking show. Garry specialized in Latin American and Mexican cuisine and when things went his way while cooking, he’d shout “Fire and Lightning!”
Orro had shortened it to “Fire!” which he yelled at surprising moments, giving Gertrude Hunt kittens.
I poured my tea into a cup and sipped it. Mmmm…. Twelve days ago, the siege of the inn had finally ended, and we celebrated Christmas, a full week late, on New Year’s Day. Two days from now, on January 14th, we would celebrate Treaty Stay, the oldest of the innkeeper holidays. You could skip Christmas and forget Thanksgiving, but no inn ever failed to celebrate Treaty Stay. Hopefully we’d still have the inn to celebrate in. If everything went according to plan, tonight we’d leave for Casa Feliz, a large inn in Dallas where we would attend an Assembly meeting and answer uncomfortable questions…
Tony walked into the kitchen. Tall, tan, and dark haired, Tony Rodriguez gave an impression of being harmless. Sometimes he looked sleepy and slightly befuddled. Sometimes, especially around his father, Brian Rodriguez, who ran Casa Feliz, he wore the “grant me patience” expression instantly recognizable by any adult child who had to endure lectures on the wrongfulness of their life choices. The prospect of tasting Orro’s culinary masterpieces reduced Tony to excited giddiness.
Some of it had to be a front, because Tony was an ad-hal, the Assembly’s guardian and enforcer of its judgements. But most of it was genuine Tony. And right now, Tony looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here.
My stomach dropped. “What happened?”
“I have good news and bad news.”
“Give me the good news.”
Sean walked into the kitchen.
Tony perched on the edge of the dining room table. “The good news is that we don’t have to go to my father’s inn, because your appointment with the Assembly has been postponed.”
Orro spun around. “I do not like this Assembly. It jerks the small human to and fro.” He stabbed the air with his giant fork for emphasis. “Can they not see that she is exhausted? Do they not know what she has been through? Come to the meeting, do not come to the meeting, is there no decorum?”
“I’m not in charge of the Assembly’s decisions,” Tony said.
“What’s the bad news?” Sean asked.
“You have a special request.”
Now? “Treaty Stay?”
No innkeeper could turn away a guest during Treaty Stay unless that guest had been banned from the inns. The Treaty Stay didn’t start for another forty-eight hours, but the Assembly had cancelled our meeting, which meant they thought I would require these forty-eight hours to prepare… Oh no.
Orro sucked in an audible breath. Tony nodded.
“Are you serious?”
He nodded for the third time.
During the fight with the clan of assassins who had besieged our inn, the leader of the assassins sent me a seed, a little baby inn, too weak to survive. I had jumped through a dimensional gateway to keep its death from injuring Gertrude Hunt, but living through it had rendered me unresponsive. Gertrude Hunt had survived several days without me. If it wasn’t for my sister and my niece, the inn would have gone mad or turned catatonic. It’d been twelve days and as I moved around the inn, Gertrude Hunt watched me. The inn was always aware of me, but now it had redoubled its efforts. If it was a person, it would be hovering over my shoulder, terrified that I might stumble and it would miss the opportunity to catch me.
And now the Assembly wanted me to host a Drífan.
“Is it a liege?” I asked. “Please don’t nod again.”
“Yes,” Tony said.
Perfect. Just perfect.
Orro spun around and hurled a cabbage at Tony’s head. Tony caught it and set it on the table. “Again, I’m just the messenger.”
I sighed and poured more tea. This was fundamentally unfair.
“I swear, it’s not a punishment.”
“Who are the Drífan?” Sean asked.
“Drífan is singular,” I told him. “Drífen is plural. The first comprehensive account of them was given by an Anglo-Saxon innkeeper and we are stuck with a lot of Old English terms which we have since butchered. Drífan is a very old word. It means to drive, to force living beings to move, to cause one to flee before one’s pursuit, to chase, to hunt, to force by a blow, to proceed with violence.”
“Okay,” Sean said. “None of those are good.”
“The Drífen are probably the most magical beings in the galaxy,” Tony explained. “Their star system is only accessible through a dimensional rip. They are magic, the star system is magic, and their planets are very choosy about who they allow to enter and leave. We don’t know very much about them. We do know that there are several states within the star system and they may or may not be at war with each other.”
“The states are ruled by emperors,” I added. “The emperors rely on a vast bureaucracy and liege lords, dryhten, for power. Each liege lord is responsible for a dryht, a combination of a clan, a sect, and a magic order. The dryht exists in a magical symbiosis with the territory it occupies, and its members take on the characteristics of whatever their dryht is dedicated to.”
“So, if the dryht is dedicated to an animal predator, they develop a better sense of smell and grow claws?” Sean asked.
“Sometimes.” I drank more tea. Right now, I’d need an ocean of tea to make me feel better. “For example, if we had to host a person from a Fire Dryht, we would have to make special quarters for them as far away from the main building as we could, because Gertrude Hunt would think that they were literally living fire and would try to douse them. The inns intensely dislike the Drífen. Their magic scares them, especially if they are from a dryht that’s dedicated to a landscape or a plant. The inns, at their cores, are trees.”
Sean turned to Tony. “Which dryht are we hosting?”
Tony took a deep breath.
Please don’t be a regional dryht, please don’t be a regional dryht. I would take an element, a mineral, an animal…
“I’m sorry.” Tony raised his hands.
Sean looked to me.
“Green Mountain is called that because it’s covered with trees,” I said. “It’s one of the worst for us.”
“Can we decline?”
I shook my head.
“You could,” Tony said. “But the liege specifically requested this inn and no guest, unless they had been banned already, can be turned away from an inn for the duration of the Treaty Stay.”
“It’s worse than that,” I told Sean. “The Treaty Stay is the anniversary of the three days when the Treaty of Earth was written into being. The inns had existed before that, but not in an official capacity. On the first day of the Treaty Stay, the oldest inns in China, the Kingdom of Aksum, the Satavahana Empire, Rome, the three inns in the Americas, and the lands of Northern Venedae hosted representatives of different galactic civilizations. Each inn had three guests, each from a different species: a warrior, a sage, and a pilgrim. One of the warrior guests was a Drífan. Their name is on the original treaty.”
“If you absolutely kick your feet and refuse, Casa Feliz will step in,” Tony said. “But I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Caldenia swept into the room. Her Grace had elevated the idea of aging gracefully to an art. She wore a deep-green robe of shimmering silk. Her grey hair curled on top of her head in an elegant wave, studded with emeralds and dripping with platinum filigree. Her makeup was subtle and flawless, accentuating her cheek bones and brightening her skin. It did nothing to diminish the predatory light in her eyes.
“Why the sour faces?’ she asked.
Caldenia shrugged. “I have no doubt you will rise to the challenge, my dear. Or were you thinking of declining?”
“Gertrude Hunt honors our Treaty Stay obligations,” I told her. “As you well know.”
“Excellent. Life gives us precious few opportunities to put our best foot forward, so when a chance to shine presents itself, one should always take it.” Caldenia grinned, baring inhumanely sharp teeth. “Besides, it’s been almost two weeks since anyone was brutally murdered. Things were getting a bit dull. We wouldn’t want to die of boredom, would we?”