The portal swirled with pale green.
“Here we go,” I murmured.
It was the delegation arrival day, and the four of us waited, positioned around the portal, Sean and I directly in front, Gaston on the left, and Tony on the right. Sean and I wore our robes, Tony opted for a plain brown robe as well, and Gaston decided on black boots, black pants, and a black pirate shirt with a black high-tech ballistic vest over it. The vest, which must’ve been custom made to accommodate his powerful frame, fit him like a glove and did a good job of masquerading as fashionable accessory rather than impact-resistant armor. Tony asked him what his outfit was called, and Gaston told him that if he had to be menacing, there was no reason he couldn’t be dashing as well.
A giant snow globe emerged from the portal. Oomboles, as expected according Miralitt’s manifest.
The eight-foot-wide bubble slid forward. It sat on a two-foot tall ornate base fitted with a communication screen. The base concealed the moving mechanism and the filtration system, while the globe was a flexible hyper-durable membrane containing the precisely calibrated water particular to oombole oceans.
More globes followed the first, each holding a motionless four-foot-long fish. The globes were dark and translucent and the beings within were mere outlines.
Oomboles didn’t deal well with portals. They always went into short-term sedation during transit, and their globes would attack anyone who approached.
All twenty-one globes completed the transit.
A minute crawled by.
The lights clicked on in all globes simultaneously, turning the membranes transparent and illuminating their passengers. The oomboles came in every color of the rainbow. They were covered with glistening scales, and their round heads with a slight overbite, big eyes and brightly colored snail-like antennae gave them hilariously comical expressions. The fringe of tentacles that sprouted under their chin and enabled them to wield tools had been withdrawn into their bodies. Their incredible dorsal fins, disproportionally large with pronounced spines, lay flat.
The oomboles opened their eyes. Our gazes met.
All 21 dorsal fins snapped open, vivid with a multitude of colors and flashing with bioluminescent sparks that ran down the spines. The fins went flat, snapped open, flat, open, flat, open. Open, flutter, flat, snap flutter, snap…
The more agitated the oomboles were, the faster they talked with their fins, and passing through the portal must have discombobulated the oomboles beyond their capacity. It was like being greeted to a psychedelic display of jazz hands viewed at ten times the speed. The translation units built into the bases struggled to transform the rapid chaos of colors and movement into words, spitting out gibberish onto their screens. The screen belonging to the globe on the far left crackled and went dark. A small puff of smoke slipped from its edge.
I raised my hand. A wide length of carefully dyed fabric segmented by plastic spines snapped open above me, held up by Gertrude Hunt’s tendrils. I went through the folding and snapping sequence, assuring everyone that currents were calm and free of predators. We would have to rely on the communication screens for anything more complicated but greeting species in their own manner tended to calm them. It was a small gesture that went a long way.
The oomboles quivered, slowing to a somewhat calmer frenzy.
I took them to their suite, which consisted of a constellation of shallow pools connected to a larger habitat. They immediately formed a school around the spouse candidate, a spectacular orange specimen, and the fins stopped flashing.
The Donkamins were next. I braced myself.
For visually evolved species, sight was crucial. We evaluated everything, from the suitability of a potential mate to our offspring’s health by eye. We noted the skin tone, the condition of the eyes, the sparsity or fullness of hair just so we wouldn’t miss that someone was deathly ill and would be able to avoid them in time. We made millions of assessments unconsciously, examining each other, our pets, and other animals, because fearing a rabid dog foaming at the mouth saved our lives.
Unfortunately, our perception was flawed. Our eyes had difficulties distinguishing between minor skin ailments like ring worm and a plague. Every year dozens of people thought they saw a monster instead of a mangy coyote. Things that were just different enough often freaked us out, because when our rudimentary biological brain had no frame of reference, it interpreted everything as danger just to be on the safe side.
Donkamins tripped every human visual alarm sensor in existence. A relative newcomer to the interstellar scene, they were aggressively trying to expand and grab their own slice of Galactic real estate. The first of their species had visited Earth roughly 200 years ago. An innkeeper urban legend said that the first innkeeper who opened the door to them, took one look, and blurted out, “Don’t come in!” which was how they got their nickname.
The portal swirled. Twenty-one donkamins entered the arrival chamber in an orderly procession. They were eight feet tall, hairless, covered with pale pearlescent skin, and unmistakably humanoid, although they were not even mammalian. Their tall, thin bodies stood upright on two appendages that resembled legs. Their shoulders sloped very sharply down as if their clavicles had been broken and just kind of dangled there. They had two upper limbs, long and reasonably arm-like, and two hands with seven very bony long fingers without fingernails. Their round heads sat on seemingly human necks.
I glanced at Sean. He had gone still like a statue.
To start with, donkamins were scantily clad. Their clothes consisted of lengths of diaphanous fabric, strategically tied at some odd place they considered aesthetically pleasing. Then came the nipples. They were pink, incredibly human, and arranged in two rows that ran down the donkamin chests all the way to where human groin would be. They were not technically nipples, but they definitely looked the part.
The chests themselves appeared to be deformed, as if someone took a giant trilobite shell and stuffed it inside the donkamin body so the ridges protruded under the skin. Then came the faces. They had large eyes that would’ve made any barn owl proud. Their nasal openings were shielded by a smaller version of that trilobite shell, and their mouths were very wide and lipless. The effect was at once revolting and horrifying, and it wasn’t even the worst part.
I took a step forward. “Greetings, Children of the Silver Star. Gertrude Hunt welcomes you.”
The leading donkamin opened his mouth, a bright red, wet cavity studded with conical teeth. The ridges in his chest slid, elongating, and his neck stretched forward in an arc, covering the eight feet between us until we were eye to eye. His owl eyes stared at me unblinking.
Yep, that was the worst part.
“Greetings, innkeeper,” the donkamin said. “We are pleased.”
I led them to their rooms. Technically it was Sean’s turn, but he was still standing still, and I took one for the team.
The Kai were next. Short beings from a high gravity world, they were covered in a natural armor of bony plates. They had six limbs and strange, snake like faces with three protruding bottom fangs and pretty pink eyes. They were the first of the nonhumans to have brought a human-like candidate, a lean beautiful male with silky blue hair, golden skin, and pink-colored irises. Clearly some genetic fiddling had taken place. The candidate’s name was Prysen, and he spoke all three languages of the Dominion flawlessly.
Strictly speaking, a human-like candidate wasn’t required for spousal selection. Only the potential genetic compatibility mattered, and the economic and diplomatic benefits the union would bring. However, having a human-like spouse definitely helped, something the oomboles and donkamins had yet to figure out.
The Kai were a very formal species. They inquired about my health, Sean’s health, the health of our respective parents and siblings, and informed us about their health and their relatives’ medical issues. Sean barely had a chance to settle them into their quarters and get back in time.
The Dushegubs were next.
The portal swirled with light. A mass of dark tree roots slithered out of it.
I tapped my broom.
A gaping hole yawned in front of the portal. Two thick branches shot out of the ceiling, grasped the wriggling root ball and yanked it out of the swirling light and down into the hole. Tree limbs, trunks, and foliage plunged into the gap and the floor reformed itself. The Dushegubs were safely in their underground pit.
A lone human walked out of the portal. She was statuesque and very pale, with long golden hair that fell in ringlets around her shoulders, and big violet eyes. An elegant gown sheathed her frame, showcasing all the right things.
On the edge of my vision, Gaston raised his eyebrows.
“Greetings, Candidate Sybate,” Sean said. “Your delegation is already in their quarters. I will show you to your room.”
She gave him a soft smile, the two of them went off, her high heels clicking softly on the floor.
“Trust is a wonderful thing,” Tony said when they were out of ear shot.
I nodded. “It is. Since she is the Dushegub candidate, she will eventually try something, and he can neutralize her faster than me.”
The portal flashed again. So soon?
The light swirled and two beings emerged from it. The one on the left was an Otrokar, and a familiar one at that. Tall and lean, he held himself with the ease of a predator in a familiar territory. His skin was deep bronze, his hair dark, coarse, and short, and when it caught the light, it shone with vivid red. He surveyed the scene with sharp eyes, startlingly light green against his sun-scorched skin.
The last time I saw him, he had worn the full armor of the Hope Crushing Horde, a combination of braided leather and chitinous bony plates embedded with complex circuitry. Today he’d traded it for a lighter spacer armor woven of ballistic material that looked like leather but shielded like reinforced steel. A belt with pockets hugged his waist, supporting an array of wooden and bone charms dangling from it. A golden medallion, a sharp-rayed sun studded with jewels, hung from a leather cord around his neck, identifying him as the emissary of the Khan.
Now it made sense. These were the observers. Miralitt did say that they would pop through in batches between the formal delegations. One of the delegations was from a southern Otrokar Clan. The Khan and Khanum were both northerners and there were always tensions between north and south within the Horde. They had sent their son to see what happens.
Envoy or not, his knife was still with him, a long slender blade riding in a sheath on his thigh. He was deadly with it. Sean would just love this.
The other being was clearly a vampire. Vampire knights lived in their syn-armor, removing it only for the most private moments in the safety of their rooms, and she wore hers like a challenge. It was in excellent condition, so black it swallowed the light, and her long red cloak took it over the edge right into drama. She carried a blood sword in a sheath on her hip. A mane of brown hair dripped over her shoulders, inconveniently obscuring the house crest on her chest. Her face was beautiful and familiar somehow, although I was sure I had never seen her before.
The otrokar and the vampire stared at each other, and I saw the precise moment they both realized that whoever spoke first would get greeted first. The Horde and the Holy Anocracy were at peace, but their rivalry was alive and well. They opened their mouths at the same time.
“Greetings, honored guests!” I said before they decided to get offended and start a brawl.
The Otrokar got there half a second earlier. “Winter sun to you. So good to see you again, Dina.”
The vampire knight clamped her mouth shut. He shot her a triumphant glance.
Yes, we have met before and know each other. No need to rub it.
“Winter sun to you also, Under-Khan Dagorkun. How are your mother and father?”
“The Khan and Khanum are well,” Dagorkun told me. “My mother recalls you fondly and has tasked me with delivering this tea to you.” He produced a small ornate box.
“I am deeply honored.” I bowed my head and let a tendril rise out of the floor and swipe the box from his hands.
The vampire knight rolled her eyes.
I turned to her. “Greetings…”
“No need for formalities,” the vampire knight said. “My name Alvina, Lady Renadra, Commander of the Krahr Vanguard, Daughter of Soren and Alamide.”
Lord Soren? Oh. Oh!
“You may call me Karat,” she said, hammering every word in like it was a nail in Dagorkun’s coffin. “I am Arland’s cousin. His favorite cousin. And I am your sister’s best friend.”
She pulled a small packet from the inside of her cloak. “Lady Helen sent these treats for the feline creature. She also sent you a hug and a kiss, but you will have to imagine it. I do not go around kissing random humans.”
Karat tossed her hair back and triumphantly strode toward me, leaving Dagorkun behind.