Sean met the Drífan by the door. It swung open in front of him without me having to ask Gertrude Hunt, which made me ridiculously happy. He gave the guest a one-second look and stepped aside, inviting the Drífan to enter. The cloaked person stepped into the sitting room.
“Welcome to Gertrude Hunt,” I said. I decided that meeting him in the front room was the best strategy. The less time he had to spend in the inn, the better.
The Drífan inclined his head. The small creature by his feet looked ready to faint from stress.
A smooth voice issued forth from under the hood. “I shall stand.”
I sat on the couch. Orro loomed in the doorway to the kitchen on my left, while Caldenia perched in a padded chair by the window on the far right, sipping her tea and pretending to not be a part of this.
The guest drew back his hood. The same set of genes that gave rise to humans, vampires, and otrokars had spread far through the galaxy, but one look at the Drífan, and you knew this wasn’t a sibling, but a distant cousin at best. His otherness slapped you in the face.
His face was all angles, lacking the human softness. His nose was sharply cut, just like his cheekbones, and his nostrils resembled that of a cat rather than a human. Light and dark patterns colored his walnut-brown skin, the kind you would see on a piece of polished red agate. They weren’t tattooed on or drawn; instead they seemed to be a natural pigmentation of his epidermis. His wide amber eyes glowed slightly with an eerie light, and the hand holding his staff had long, amber-colored claws. His hair, straight and loose, fell in a grey curtain around his face. He was beardless, but long grey whiskers hung from his upper lip.
“Greetings, innkeeper,” the Drífan said in a melodious voice.
“Greetings, herald of Dryhten.” And I had just exhausted the knowledge of the Drífen pleasantries from Wictred’s account. We were on our own. “My name is Dina Demille. The man by the door is Sean Evans.”
The Drífan nodded slowly. “Call me Zedas. My mistress, who is without equal, she whose heart beats with the power of a mountain waterfall, she who is resolute like the sun, elegant like the moon, unyielding like living stone, yet versatile like a stream of pure water dashing about the rocks, she who kills enemies by the thousands, she who shelters her friends, who is feared by warriors, respected by scholars, beloved by her dryht, and recognized by the Emperor, sends you her greetings.”
“Cool,” Sean said.
I threw him a warning glance. “We are honored.”
“You are blessed for she has chosen this humble inn for her visit to this realm. I am here to show you the inner sights of her lodge so she may be comfortable in her time of hardship. Look well, innkeeper, for your eyes will see a sight not witnessed by one of your kind in hundreds of years.”
Zedas spun the staff and drew it in a wide circle. A ripple followed it as if the air had become liquid. The space between us shimmered and a holographic projection of startling clarity appeared in the sitting room. A throne room with a raised dais supported a crude throne chipped out of soft translucent white stone saturated with veins of crimson, so dense in places, they had turned it blood red. The carving was so primitive, it looked almost prehistoric. I would have guessed a very high-quality chicken blood jade, but that stone’s red color came from cinnabar. Cinnabar darkened to brown with exposure to light. The ancient throne sat bathed in the light from the window, and the veins were vivid and bright.
Everything else around the throne spoke of artisan craftsmanship and restrained opulence. The floor resembled a river, with alternating ribbons of malachite and onyx the color of warm honey flowing from the dais toward the walls. Wooden columns, square and elaborately carved, rose from the floor. The wood was unstained but heavily patterned, reminiscent of acacia sealed with a clear coat of resin. The walls matched the columns, interrupted by ornate stone reliefs, delicate metal screens depicting strange birds and animals with jeweled eyes, and paintings almost ethereal in their simplicity.
The view moved, as the carrier of the camera walked through a tall doorway to an outside balcony that wrapped all the way around the building under a protruding roof. Here the floor was polished grey stone, bordered by a matching stone balustrade. Stone columns supported a high eave. Beyond the balcony was an ocean of air. Far below small mountains rose, cushioned with trees that from this height resembled emerald green moss. A huge bird soared on the air currents, a hybrid of an eagle and a condor, its plumage a dark shade of sapphire. It looked large enough to carry off a human.
The projection vanished.
“I trust this is sufficient,” the herald said.
So many little details that had to be perfect. No two panels or columns matched, and the patterns were meticulous. This would be a ton of work, and we didn’t get to see a bedroom either. For all we knew, they slept in nests.
“It is,” I said. “How many beings will accompany your liege?”
“Myself and six others.”
Crap. I had to make extra rooms. “What are the dietary preferences of your mistress?”
“She prefers vegetables and fruit, cooked lightly or not at all, cold water fish cooked well, and red meat served rare. For her first meal, she has a special request. There are no equivalent words in our language, and my mouth is old and set in its ways, so I cannot shape the sounds. I have brought this small one to speak it for me.”
He nodded at the furry thing. It shrunk back, but Zedas looked at it. The furry creature stepped forward, clutching its hands into a single fist. The pinkie finger on its left hand was missing, the stump ragged, as if it had been sawed off. It caught me looking and curled its hands into fists.
“Go on,” Zedas said.
The furry beast opened its mouth and a clear voice that should have belonged to some cute Muppet issued forth. “A double Grand Burger with cheese, large fries, and a Coke.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
“Was the pronunciation satisfactory?” Zedas asked.
“It was,” I managed.
Zedas motioned with his hand. The furry beast scampered forward and held out a scrap of paper to me with trembling hands.
“Thank you.” I took the paper. On it written in ink in beautiful calligraphy were the words “Rudolph Peterson” along with a sequence of numbers that had to belong to a US phone.
The little creature dashed back and hid behind Zedas, clutching the cloak and holding the fabric like a shield between itself and us. He ignored it.
“My mistress is gracing your inn with her presence and is willing to endure the adversity of travel so she can meet this person. He has requested this meeting and in her infinite grace, she condescended to grant it. You will inform this person tomorrow that his presence is required here on the last day of the Treaty Stay, and you will provide my mistress with a secure location for this meeting. Should he be late, she will not wait for him. Should he be early, she will not see him before the appointed time.” Zedas looked at the beast again. “Time for your second message.”
The creature lowered the cloak so only its face was visible, looking at us with huge freaked out eyes. Clear English words spilled out. “Rudolph Peterson is an evil man and he’s not to be trusted.”
“Did you understand?” Zedas asked.
“We understand perfectly,” Sean said.
“Then my mission here is complete,” Zedas announced. “I shall return with my mistress in one day and night cycle. Prepare well, innkeeper.”