“Do you think the data is real?” Sean asked.
We were walking through the short dim hallway side by side. Beast trailed me, and Gorvar trotted by Sean’s side. The two animals had decided to ignore each other’s existence, concentrating on guarding us instead.
“Kosandion is Caldenia’s nephew, so he’s devious enough to manufacture this energy reading and use it to manipulate us. But why bother? He could’ve simply asked me to hand the ratings off to Caldenia. I would do it because he is a guest. Instead, he felt that there was a value attached to me running this errand, and he compensated me for my effort.”
Sean’s frown deepened.
I had taken the data to Caldenia right after my conversation with Kosandion. I found Her Grace enjoying a lovely breakfast on our back patio. I’d placed the cube on the table and told her Kosandion wanted her to have it. She raised her eyebrows and said, “He did, did he?” She scanned the cube with her reader, and then she smiled with all her teeth, and I’d been low-key haunted by that smile ever since.
We stopped before a dark wall blocking our way. Sean’s eyes were still grim. I reached over and squeezed his hand. “I’m sorry.”
“We don’t really know anything. We don’t know who is behind the corrupted ad-hal that took Wilmos, why he was taken, if he is still alive, and the not knowing is awful. I know that you really want to go and look for him, and instead we have to do this.”
“It’s not that. I’m used to the ‘do A to get B,’ because that’s what I want or need to do. This is different. All of this is because of me. I got us into this mess, and it keeps getting worse and worse.”
“Nothing really changed,” I said. “When we took this job, we knew we had to keep Kosandion safe. This assassination plot doesn’t alter that. We knew Caldenia and Kosandion have a complicated history. Predictably, their present relationship is complicated.”
He made a low growling noise in his throat. Gorvar’s ears twitched.
“And that’s exactly what I find surprising. What is the nature of their relationship? Is she plotting to kill him? Did he pick our inn because he is planning to punish her for the murder of his father? If I were him, I would arrange to be here and provoke her until she snaps and makes her play. When she fails, you and I will have to expel her from the inn. She would be done. The bounties on her head are still sky-high. I checked.”
“Sometimes you say things that make me wonder about you.”
“No need to wonder. I’m a simple man. I love you and I will protect you, even if I have to murder everyone in this inn to do it.”
I stood on my toes and kissed him. “What if we don’t murder anybody?”
The corners of his mouth curved. “No promises.”
“Are we ready?”
“As ready as we’re going to be.”
I touched the wall in front of us with my broom. Glowing dots of light pulsed from the broom, drawing an outline of a huge double door in the wall. The once solid surface split down the middle and the two halves of the door swung open, letting a flood of sunshine bathe us.
A large round arena spread before us, bordered by a raised amphitheater that was divided into fourteen sections, one for each delegation, one for Kosandion and his retinue, and the last for the observers. Each section was freestanding, raised thirty feet above the arena’s floor and separated from the adjoining sections by a thirty-foot gap. A short safety wall secured the sections. We had shamelessly stolen the idea from the Old Arena at Baha-char.
Ideally, I would have encircled each section by an impenetrable barrier, the same way I had secured Kosandion’s balcony. Unfortunately, maintaining that many barriers simultaneously was beyond Gertrude Hunt’s capacity. They also caused a distortion in the sensors, and since the whole thing had to be recorded, I settled for the wide gaps and bringing Gertrude Hunt to high alert. If the delegates as much as twitched toward each other, the inn would pluck them right out of their seats and toss them back into their respective quarters.
“What about the moderator platform?” I asked.
We needed a moderator for the debate, and Sean volunteered to make a special platform for him.
“I’m working on it,” Sean said.
He raised his head to the brilliant blue sky and squinted at the sunshine. In reality, the arena was deep inside the inn. I had done some serious damage to dimensional physics. The sky above us was real, but if someone flew a drone over the inn, they would find only the worn roof of an ordinary ornate Victorian.
Even a year ago, expending that much energy would have been impossible for me. Each inn had a finite capacity for energy storage. That’s why a constant stream of guests was better than occasional large groups. A steady flow was much preferable to the feast or famine scenario Gertrude Hunt had to endure for the last couple of years. Our reputation was spreading, and we’d had more visitors in the past few months than ever, each of them more troublesome than a typical inn guest but very much welcome. These guests allowed our inn a chance to grow, but its energy reserves were still insufficient to contain the massive influx of this event. It was a use it or lose it situation, so I used it to give the trials a wow factor.
Tony had shaken his head at the arena and told me I was working too hard. According to him, a college auditorium would have been “appropriate and fine” for the event. However, this spousal selection was broadcast across multiple star systems. The reputation of the Earth’s inns was on the line, and I had no doubt the Innkeeper Assembly was watching it and evaluating our performance. As Caldenia once told me, life gave us few opportunities to put our best foot forward, so when a chance to shine presented itself, it was best to take it. A little bit of showmanship didn’t hurt.
A chime pealed through the arena. It was time.
Sean tapped his spear on the floor. Huge screens descended seemingly from the clear sky offering each section a chance to view the action up close.
I planted my broom into the stone tiles, formed a tunnel between the closest section and House Meer’s quarters, and opened their doors.
“Greetings, my fellow beings!”
Gaston cut a stunning figure in the middle of the arena’s floor. He’d traded his trademark black and white clothes for a stunning white and grey outfit, embroidered with silver-blue thread that complimented his silver eyes. It fit him like a glove while still projecting the air of what he called “gentlemanly menace.” He looked like a space pirate before. Now he looked like a space pirate prince who had done very well for himself.
His voice matched his new for-TV persona, resonant and smooth, as it blasted from the hidden speakers. It took him exactly four words to get everyone’s attention. Sean a few yards away might as well have been invisible, despite his robe, his rather obvious spear, and his tendency to loom.
“Welcome to the First Trial!” Gaston announced.
The 12 delegations cheered, stomped, and made species-appropriate noises. Even Kosandion in the chair to my right clapped politely. Gaston clearly missed his true calling.
Sean’s voice murmured in my ear through the communicator. “If the words ‘are you ready to rumble’ come out of his mouth, I’m pulling him out.”
I hid a smile.
“I know all of you have been waiting to find out how our contestants will showcase their talents today. Are you ready?”
I braced, but he didn’t add rumble to it. Good that he stopped there.
The delegations roared to indicate they were most definitely ready.
“He’s turning it into a spectacle,” Resven murmured.
“It is meant to be one,” Kosandion told him. “People love a good show.”
“Today’s challenge is…. DEBATE!”
The alien equivalent of “wooo!” was rather loud.
Gaston waved them on, inviting more noise, then made a sweeping gesture that somehow brought instant silence.
“Our spousal candidates will face off in randomly selected pairs. Both candidates from a single pair will be asked the same question. One will respond first, and the other will reply. The winner will be determined by a combination of popular vote, Sovereign’s opinion, and feedback from our esteemed debate moderator.”
He gave them a moment to digest and went on.
“Our debate moderator is truly a scholar of great renown. He has devoted himself to contemplating the mysteries of the universe. Beings from every corner of the Galaxy travel thousands of light years to seek his advice.”
The floor behind Gaston split and an SUV-sized metal egg positioned on its side with the narrow end toward the centre of the arena rose from under the floor on a metal stalk.
Yes, yes, he did. As soon as this debate was over, I would find him, and I would make him pay. There would be no escape.
“Recipient of the Starlight Quill, Sage of Great Tree, Vanquisher of the Sphinx, First Scholar Thek!”
The stone egg split in half lengthwise. The top half retracted, revealing the First Scholar in all of his glory, holding his teaching stick, his hat firmly on his noggin with the glittering white feather attached to it. His two assistants dutifully stood behind him, looking down and playing the part of modest disciples.
“An egg?” I hissed into the mike.
The arena greeted the First Scholar with resounding applause. He nodded to them, waving his hand-claw benevolently.
The original moderator had encountered unexpected travel delays because his second wife kidnapped him and now his other four wives were having their own debate on the merits of rescuing him. We needed a substitute in a hurry, and First Scholar Thek was the talk of the Galaxy after the Sphinx escapade. Orata practically drooled when Sean suggested him.
They didn’t have to twist Thek’s wings. He demurred at first, but I had a conversation with Orata prior to her visiting him, and once she told him that it was a chance to illuminate millions of minds with the wisdom of scholarship, he was all in.
“I keep waiting for his hat to slide off,” Sean murmured.
He was right, the headdress should’ve slipped off his feathers by now. “Whatever his disciples did, it seems to be working.”
“Maybe they glued it.”
“Universe, I hope not.”
The First Scholar preened at the show of support and waved his teaching stick. His voice rolled out of the speakers.
“Let us begin.”