The official colors of Treaty Stay were green and pastel lavender, closer to pink than to purple, because the first inn to receive the three visitors for the ceremonial signing of the treaty was located in China and the innkeeper, hoping to impress the guests, coaxed the foxglove trees on the grounds to bloom.
I surveyed the Grand Ballroom and waved my broom. The glowing nebulae on the ceiling turned pink, lavender, and white against the cosmos. The enormous light fixtures suspended from the ceiling withdrew. New green stems of pale metal spiraled out, braiding into a canopy around the columns, and sprouted glass flowers a full two feet across. The foxglove-tree blooms started purple at the base of the flute, then paled at the tips of the frilly petals. The flowers shivered and opened, revealing glowing yellow centers and dark purple dotted lines running down the length of the delicate flutes. Pastel-colored lanterns appeared in the canopy, bathing the room in a soft light. Matching banners unrolled on the walls that had turned sage green. I turned the color of the columns to a deep red and surveyed the room.
Good. The floor didn’t match though.
Fatigue rolled over me. Tinting the floor mosaic would take a lot of magic.
I sat down with my back against the nearest column. Beast, my little black and white Shih Tzu, trotted over to me and flopped at me feet. I scratched her tummy.
I’d spent most of the day making rooms for the Drífen. I had stripped the Otrokar wing of its decorations, since we wouldn’t be expecting a large delegation from the Hope-Crushing Horde any time soon, and repurposed the space. Sean spent the day cataloging the damages to our defenses. Fighting with a clan of interstellar assassins had taken a toll, and he had gone through the garage looking for tools and ended up pulling the spare parts out of storage. I’d passed him on the stairs a few times, as he carried various odd-looking doohickeys a normal human shouldn’t have been able to lift. At some point he went to repair the particle cannon on the west side, and I heard him cursing in three different languages while I reshaped the balcony.
It was evening now, and I was tired. The fight with Draziri damaged more than just our guns. Living through the death of the baby inn was like entering a comatose state, except I had been aware of everything that happened. Breaking out of it was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. I still felt… depleted somehow. And inn wasn’t responding as readily as I was used to. It didn’t exactly hesitate, but the connection between us was slightly muddled. Maybe I could do the mosaic first thing in the morning.
Sean walked into the Grand Ballroom. He’d traded the robe for his usual jeans and T-shirt. There was something wolfish about Sean Evans even in his human form. It was the way he moved, with a deceptively leisurely stride, or the way he held himself, ready, or maybe it was in his eyes. Sometimes when I looked into them, a wolf gazed back at me from the edges of a dark forest.
He approached and smoothly sat on the floor next to me. Beast immediately crawled in his lap.
“I can’t find anything on the Drífen in the archives,” he said. “I’ve read Wictred’s account in the inn’s files and looked through the books, but there is nothing since that. Is there a code word I don’t know?”
“No. There simply isn’t that much information available about them.”
“Usually there are notations by other innkeepers,” he said.
I raised my eyebrows.
“I read a lot when you weren’t yourself. The inn helped me to look for a cure.”
Poor Gertrude Hunt. Poor Sean. I could picture him sitting in the room searching for the answer while the inn pulled up one archive after another. I had to make sure this didn’t happen again.
“You’re right,” I told him. “When an innkeeper learns something new about a particular species, they will add notations to the general files. In old times, they would write entries in the books. That’s why the margins are so wide. But with the Drífen, it’s different. The original guidance the innkeepers received was to safeguard their privacy at all costs. In addition, each Drífan is different. There are hundreds of dryhts. You can live for a hundred years and never see two Drífen from the same dryht. Actually, you can live for a hundred years and never meet a Drífan at all.”
“So, what do we do?”
“Usually the lieges will send someone ahead with their demands. We will try to get as much information as we can and go from there.”
A soft melodious sound rolled through the inn. Hmm. Someone was requesting a vacancy in advance. Usually the guests simply showed up. The inn always had a vacancy, because I could make as many rooms as the guests required.
“Let me see,” I told the inn.
The ceiling parted and a folded parchment fell into my hands. Sean raised his eyebrows.
“The innkeeper before me died in 1980’s,” I explained. “He was solitary, a bit odd, and overly fond of antiques. A lot of Gertrude Hunt’s communication happened on parchment when I got here. I fixed most of it, but once in a while something like this happens. In the future, a screen would be fine.”
I opened the parchment and read it. Just what we needed. This was shaping up to be a hell of a holiday. I passed the parchment to Sean.
He glanced at it. “A family dispute, party of sixty-one?”
“It looks like two sides of the same family have descended from two brothers. One of them left and founded an influential philosophy school on a different planet, while the other remained on the home world and established his own philosophical academy. Now they are feuding about which of the brothers can truly be considered the family’s founder: the one who left to colonize the new planet or the one who stayed on their original world. They’ve invited a wise elder to settle their dispute.”
“Sixty-one new guests. Seems like it would be good for the inn, but you don’t look happy.”
“They are koo-ko.”
Sean looked at the ceiling. “Show me a koo-ko.”
A screen slid from the wall. On it a being about thirty inches tall spread its plumage. Soft cream feathers covered its face, brightening to a shocking pink on the back of its head and back and turning vivid crimson on the wings and bushy tail. A second pair of appendages that resembled the front limbs of a dinosaur or perhaps a monkey if the monkey somehow grew talons, thrust from underneath the wings.
An oversized tail marked the koo-ko as a male. He wore an elaborate pleated harness that fit over his head and sat on his shoulders, then widened into a lavish utility belt stuffed with electronics, quills made from bright feathers, and rolls of something suspiciously resembling toilet paper on a wide bobbin.
The koo-ko looked at us with purple eyes, fluffed up his feathers, and strode back and forth, his plump body rocking with each step.
Sean cracked a smile. “They are chickens.”
“Technically they’re not even avian.”
“Dina, we’re going to host sixty-one space chickens.”
I gave up. “Yes.”
“And they’re going to argue philosophy.”
“Mhm. This means they will want a forum with a podium and a debate circle, and a coop to sleep in, and we have to buy a lot of grain…”
“You’re not taking this very seriously.”
“We’ll have to tell Orro to stop serving poultry.”
He put his arm around me. I leaned against him.
“A beautiful room,” he said.
It was beautiful. There was something ethereal about the Treaty Stay, something fresh and clean and hopeful, like a bright spring day after a terrible winter.
“You’ve hosted a peace summit between the Holy Anocracy, the Merchants and the Hope-Crushing Horde. And then you took on the Draziri,” Sean said.
“I’ve never seen you this anxious. What’s the matter?”
“Is it the Assembly?”
“Partially. I don’t like not knowing where we stand with them, but in the end, as you said, they can only downgrade us. They can’t take away Gertrude Hunt unless we commit a truly heinous offense.”
“So, it’s the Drífan.”
“I abandoned my inn.” It just kind of fell out.
Sean frowned. “I don’t follow.”
“When I jumped through the door with the seed of the baby inn, I abandoned Gertrude Hunt. The inn had to survive without me. I traumatized it.”
“You had no choice.”
“I know. But the inn is fragile now. It waits and watches and the connection between us… is more tentative. I don’t know if Gertrude Hunt is afraid of getting hurt or of me being hurt, or maybe it worries it might hurt me somehow. But there is a distance between us. It wasn’t noticeable day-to-day but redecorating the inn for the Treaty Stay is complicated and requires precision. I feel it, and now that I’m aware of it, it worries me. Adding a Drífan on top of it is too much…”
The floor in the back of the Grand Ballroom parted. That’s where I had put the massive Christmas tree before. Gertrude Hunt was doing something…
“We’ll take it day by day,” Sean said.
Something rumbled underneath the floor. A massive foxglove tree emerged from the depth of the inn, spreading huge branches through the ballroom. The long tree limbs dripped flower buds, still closed but tipped with faint lavender. I had no idea Gertrude Hunt had that hidden away. The inn didn’t show it to me the last two Treaty Stays. But then we had barely celebrated. Hard to be excited about holidays when you know your inn will be empty.
“Wow,” Sean said.
“That’s why they call it the Empress tree. Wait until it blooms.”
Magic tugged on me. Someone had crossed the boundary of the inn.
Gertrude Hunt tossed the video feed from the back camera onto the screen. A tall man strode through the back field toward the inn. A two-tone cloak, large green on one side and black on the other, wrapped his shoulders, elaborately draped and secured with an ornate metal pin in the shape of a dagger. The metal of the pin shone faintly as he walked. He wore a complex layered robe, charcoal and accented with bright green, and carried a long staff tipped with three claws. The claws clutched a blue jewel the size of a medium apple. Two blades curved around the jewel, turning the staff into a halberd. A deep hood hid his head.
A small creature about three feet tall walked by him, holding on to his cloak with a dark brown racoon hand. Fuzzy with cream and brown fur, it moved upright on two legs, the fur dense and thick on its body but slicker and darker below its knees and elbows. A long fluffy tail curled into a squirrel-like S behind it. Its head was round, with a short dark muzzle and an adorable cat nose. Its eyes were round, too, and huge, glowing with pale yellow when they caught the light. Its ears were layered, frilly and trembling, pointing downward like two floppy flowers on the sides of its head. As it walked, it must’ve heard a noise, because its ears snapped upright and it froze, terrified, standing on one skinny foot, its tail fluffed out so the fur stood on end like spikes.
The person in the cloak kept walking.
The small creature shook, seemingly torn, dashed after him, and clutched at the hem of his cloak again.
The Drífan’s representative had arrived.