I stood on the balcony in Kosandion’s private quarters and watched Resven struggle to contain his irritation at my presence. Being included in a very private discussion of the Dominion’s state secrets wasn’t in my plans, but Kosandion requested my attendance during the breakfast, and here we were.
I had built the Dominion suite to remind Kosandion of the Palace. The trick wasn’t to replicate his home but to nod at it subtly with the right shades and familiar contours. New experiences were an essential part of travelling. I tinted the colors slightly warmer, relaxed the geometric harshness, and threw a few unexpected shapes, like the asymmetric arches. The asymmetry showed in their haircuts and clothes, but a lot of the Dominion architecture was old and incorporating the new trend would give the suite some freshness.
My original design didn’t incorporate a balcony, but after watching Kosandion contemplate the orange ocean during dinner, I opened another door to Kolinda and fed a different view through it. Now his quarters featured a long balcony rising high above the water and equipped with an array of patio furniture. I had installed a carefully calibrated barrier that put an impenetrable invisible wall between the ocean and the Sovereign’s quarters. It shifted into a slightly less protective mode when anyone entered the balcony, so Kosandion got the sea breeze and sounds but not the monsters that hunted within the cool orange depths. Gertrude Hunt was virtually swimming in alien beings’ energy, like a glutton at a cake contest, and maintaining the barrier resulted in a minimal drain.
Kosandion was on the balcony now, sitting in a comfortable chair with a breakfast spread on a patio table before him. The sun had risen above the jagged dark peaks at the horizon. The Sovereign watched the ocean, tracking a massive sea serpent as it slid under the surface, its spines the only warning to its potential prey.
His inner circle was arranged around him. Resven rested in a large, padded chair in front of me and to my right. Miralitt sat on my left, one leg over the other, as close to the transparent rail as she could get. Between them, in an identical chair, perched Orata, Kosandion’s head of PR, although that was likely an inadequate title considering her duties and their importance. She had come through the portal this morning to deliver the voting results and would go back before the day officially started. Orata was curvy, young, and fashionable, with a purple tint to her skin and silver-blue hair, and every time I looked at her, I thought of Prince Lotor from the Voltron anime.
In my defense, I had woken up twice last night, one time because the Dushegubs had climbed onto each other trying to escape the Pit and the other because the Murder Birds had a fight and I had to treat the injured parties while Sean confined all of them to separate cells within their flock arena. I could’ve used a couple more hours.
“The ratings are as follows,” Orata announced, barely glancing at the holographic screen in front of her. “Behoun is in the lead with ten points over their closest competitor.”
Team Smiles, the ones with the enthusiastic female candidate whose name I kept forgetting. They represented Behoun, the fourth planet added to the Dominion.
“The people like Amphie,” Resven said. “They like her education and pedigree.”
Orata nodded. “Indeed. They especially like her enthusiasm. Key words mentioned most are earnest, relatable, and attractive. She’s trending well with parents.”
“A nice girl. The kind you take home to meet the family,” Kosandion murmured. “A safe choice.”
He looked away from the sea serpent and pondered his plate. I wasn’t the only one who noticed his love of the ocean. Orro had outdone himself. I didn’t know you could even make a pancake in the shape of an oyster shell and turn an egg into a pearl within it.
“Your breakfast is getting cold, Letero,” Miralitt murmured.
Kosandion gave his plate a mournful look. “It’s almost too pretty to eat.”
“You need to keep up your strength.” Miralitt held his gaze, making it very clear that she wouldn’t drop it until he took a bite.
Kosandion picked up a delicate two-tined fork and tried a small piece of the pancake. “Delicious. Continue.”
“In second place, Prysen Ol with the Kai,” Orata said. “The people view him as intelligent, dignified, and wise. He also trends well with parents. They feel he would be a patient and attentive father. His lowest rankings are in the under twenty-five demographic. They find him boring.”
Kosandion smiled. “Splendid. We should just marry those two to each other in a glorious spectacle of a wedding. Nearly every soul in the Dominion would be thrilled.”
Resven sighed. “Letero, I implore you to take this seriously.”
“I do. Think of the joy it would bring my people. Not to mention the ratings bonanza.”
Orata’s dark eyes sparkled.
“No,” Resven told her.
“You’re no fun,” Orata murmured.
“We are not here for fun,” Resven said. “We’re here to choose the parent of an heir and the spouse of the Sovereign. This person will have an impact on our society for decades to come. Please concentrate on the task at hand.”
Orata gave him a pointed look. “In third place, Lady Wexyn.” She had punctuated Lady Wexyn to make sure it sank in.
Resven jerked, startled. “How? Why?”
“The people find her endearing. She’s unpredictable and fun to watch. Those are direct quotes.”
“That woman is chaos personified. Your Majesty? Your Majesty! How many times have I gone over the proper forms of address? Letero Kolivion or Your Supremacy. How hard is it to remember?”
“I am sure she does it just to spite you,” Miralitt said.
“She doesn’t have the presence of mind. Have you looked into her eyes? They are as clear as the summer sky. Not a cloud of thought in sight.”
“The people think she is ‘cute’, ‘funny’, and ‘breath of fresh air’,” Orata announced.
“Breath of fresh air? She’s a fart at a funeral.” Resven realized what came out of his mouth and caught himself. “My apologies.”
Kosandion waved them on.
“In fourth place, the otrokar,” Orata said.
“Surkar, son of Grast and Ulde,” Kosandion said.
“Yes,” Orata confirmed.
“Key words?” Kosandion asked.
“Strong, decisive, and powerful.”
“Well, he is all of those things,” Kosandion agreed.
“His support among people 30 and under is 46% percent,” Orata continued. “62% among people 20 and under who are interested in civil and military service.”
Resven raised his eyebrows.
Kosandion smiled again. “They see me as soft.”
Orata cleared her throat. “Yes, Letero. The dominant chatter in the forums is that you are too civilized, and that the Dominion would benefit from ‘warrior blood.’ The Conqueror faction is making their usual noises about getting back to our roots.”
“Have they forgotten the Assassination War?” Resven growled.
The Assassination War was a bloody conflict that sparked when Caldenia murdered her brother. I was sixteen, in my junior year of high school. By Earth’s biological metrics, Kosandion was only about five years older than me. He would’ve been around twenty-one. While physically an adult, socially he would’ve been considered a “youth,” an equivalent to a fifteen-year-old. Many factions in the Dominion thought he was unfit to lead. He proved them wrong.
“Most of the younger hotheads were children when that war took place,” Miralitt said. “Our people know you are a gifted commander. However…”
“The age of peace and prosperity our population enjoys thanks to your wise rule hasn’t provided you with many opportunities to showcase your warrior side,” Orata finished.
“Those who haven’t experienced combat are easily impressed by a superficial show of physical power,” Miralitt added.
“He is a prime specimen.” Kosandion glanced at Orata. “Make a hard copy of the ratings for me.”
I had done some digging. The Hope Crushing Horde had settled a slew of planets, and Surkar and his delegation came from one of their frontier worlds. If Kosandion wanted, he could unleash an armada of ships that would block out their sun. No amount of muscles, flexing or roaring would save them from the hell that would rain down on them. And in the limits of this contest, none of that mattered.
Orata got up, placed a small data cube in front of Kosandion with a bow, and returned to her place.
He waved at her to continue.
“Then we have the Gaheas, followed by the Oomboles.”
“Really?” Kosandion asked.
Orata smiled. “They’re bright and colorful, and a certain segment of the population thinks it would be funny if you married a fish.”
“House Meer is seventh, the Higgra are eighth, the delegation from Kyporo is ninth.”
Team Frowns was from Kyporo, the sixth planet added to the Dominion. I would have thought the second of the Dominion’s home teams would’ve ranked higher.
“A poor showing for Kyporo,” Miralitt said.
“Their candidate comes across as unlikable and arrogant. The Zinera are tenth, the Stranglers are eleventh, and the Children of the Silver Star are in last place,” Orata concluded.
The Murder Birds, the Dushegubs, and the Donkamins. Apparently, nobody in the Dominion could pronounce the Dushegubs’ proper name either.
“I would’ve thought the Children would’ve rated higher,” Resven said.
Orata sighed. “They are… uncomfortable to watch.”
“The Dominion doesn’t want my child to bend their neck backward and address them with their face upside down?” Kosandion asked with pretended innocence.
“No,” Orata said, her voice very firm.
Kosandion smiled and sipped his orange juice. He didn’t look surprised by any of this.
In the ocean, a beautiful black fish leaped out of the water. It had to be the size of a whale, but it was built like sturgeon with pike jaws. An enormous, scaled mouth followed it, the cavernous maw gaping. The fish twisted in one last futile effort to escape and fell into it. The scaled titan slipped back under the surface. The sea was once again still.
“Good work,” the Sovereign said. “That will be all.”
The three advisors bowed in unison and departed. Resven managed to get in one last warning look in my direction before the door shut behind him.
Kosandion pointed to a chair across the table. “Please.”
“Do you have any questions?” he asked.
“I don’t want to impose, Letero.”
“Please no titles. I have so few opportunities for informal conversations. Let’s pretend we are friends.”
Where was he going with this? “In that case, what’s the real significance of the rankings?”
“As you know, the candidates face three challenges. The three least popular delegations are eliminated after each challenge until only three candidates remain for the final ceremony.”
“I understand that.” It was in their briefing. “How important are the rankings to you?”
“It’s a complicated question.” He didn’t seem inclined to elaborate.
“Can the rankings be manipulated?”
He nodded. “They are numbers produced by emotions. Both can be manipulated. It may be as simple as editing a few seconds out of the footage or as complex as triggering the right person to say exactly the right thing at a completely unrelated event. As your world shows, one can come to the funeral of a friend, proclaim their purpose not to praise the deceased but to bury him, and then incite a revenge riot.”
Unexpected. How in the world did he come by that story?
Kosandion took another sip out of his crystal glass. “The public opinion can never be permitted to run freely. It must be nurtured, steered, and moderated. That’s how dynasties stay in power.”
“What about your personal preferences? Do they not factor in?” I asked.
“They do. But personal preferences are flitting. I had many partners over the years, male, female, humanoid and not, yet none of them remain by my side.”
I had no idea if he was saddened by that, proud of it, or simply resigned to the fact. I wished Caldenia was here so I could take my cues from her.
“I am to be assassinated before the final ceremony is over,” Kosandion said.
I almost did a double-take. “How do you know that?”
“The same way I know many other things.”
“Is this the real reason you wanted to move the venue to the inn?”
It would have been great to have had that information before I put Gertrude Hunt on the line.
“Given my family history, it’s not exactly unexpected. You had to have at least considered the possibility and if you hadn’t, your highly trained significant other definitely has.”
Sean would not like this. He wouldn’t be surprised, but he still wouldn’t like it.
“Do you know the identity of your potential assassin?”
He shook his head. “Not yet.”
“One of the candidates?” All of the candidates were guaranteed a one-on-one date with the Sovereign. Any other member of the delegations would have a lot harder time getting close to Kosandion.
Twelve beings, half of them not human. One was a would-be killer. Which one? Or was it Caldenia?
“I trust you to keep me safe.” Kosandion gave me a brilliant smile.
Sure, he trusted me, but not enough to share this assassination plot with me before we signed on the metaphorical dotted line.
Smacking the Sovereign of the Seven Star Dominion was out of the question. No matter how frustrated he made me feel.
“We will do our best, Letero.”
Kosandion studied me. Looking straight into his eyes was difficult. He drew you like a magnet.
“Regrets?” he asked quietly.
“Too late for that.” We were committed now. “You know our reasons for hosting this event.”
“Have you heard from the kidnapper?”
Six days had passed since we learned that Wilmos was taken through the portal gate from Baha-char to Karron. We had no idea if he was still alive.
“I have something for you.” Kosandion flicked his fingers at the tabletop, and Gertrude Hunt obliged with a holographic screen. I had instructed the inn to summon conveniences on command for him. The screen flashed and turned toward me. An energy read out, waves of blue and white.
“What is this?”
“Feed from our sensors on Karron. Do you see the peak highlighted in green?”
There it was, a little mountain, a mere blip on the screen. “Yes.”
“A stasis pod entering the cluster gate.” Kosandion leaned back. “They give off a very specific energy signature. Look, same day, forty minutes later.”
Here it was again, a shallow peak in green, a little higher this time.
“That gate from Baha-char doesn’t lead directly to Karron. It intersects a transit point, a central location,” Kosandion said.
I had used cluster gates before. They typically led into a chamber with several doors, only one of which was open. Sometimes it would be a cave with only one passageway available or woods where all but one path, the one that led to the intended destination, were overgrown. When my father explained it to me, he drew a circle with different hallways radiating from it like spokes of a wheel. Each spoke led to a gate on some world. You entered through a gate, crossed the inner circle, and exited out of the door directly opposite. Where you were going depended on where you came from.
The two splashes of energy meant only one thing.
“The kidnapper took a stasis pod with him and left it in the inner chamber as he exited to Baha-char. Then he grabbed Wilmos, came back to the chamber, put him into the pod, and returned to Karron?”
The second energy peak was higher. A pod with active life support systems left a more intense energy signature.
“Thank you,” I said. I had to show this to Sean. It wasn’t the proof of life we both wanted, but it was something.
“A show of good faith between friends. If I could impose on you for a small favor?”
I braced myself. “It’s not an imposition. Your needs are my top priority.”
Kosandion pushed the data cube with the ratings across the table toward me. “Make sure my aunt sees this.”