Before you dive in: Jeaniene and the two of us are having a chat on Zoom this Saturday at 5:00 pm EST. The event is sponsored by Ashland Library, and it will be an informal fun chat. If you would like to attend, register here. If you would like a signed book from this event, order here.
By the way, we have changed the bookplate design, because now we are self-published and not beholden to the Ilona Andrews name. The new bookplate will say House Andrews, so this batch from Blue Willow will be the last of those.
When we last left the inn, the debate led by the First Scholar was about to begin. We bring you the first half of it. Please note, we have manage to procure a better image of Prysen Ol, since the last one was slightly off the mark.
The white light bounced between sections, highlighting their retaining walls, and stopped on Team Frowns. A small section of the front wall slid aside, and a stairway unfurled from the gap, leading down to the bottom of the arena.
Ellenda rose. She wore a black robe with an elaborately pleated deep hood. It was an odd choice. I’d noticed it when their delegation took their seats. The fabric of her garment was very basic, almost coarse. It looked out of place compared to everyone else’s formal wear.
The Uma woman descended the stairs, approached the orbs, and lowered her hood. Kosandion became very still. Her face and neck were splattered with gold paint.
I had encountered only three Umas counting Ellenda, and one of them had stayed at my parents’ inn. He also wore the gold paint. I was six years old back then, and I told him he looked very pretty. My father apologized and later explained things to me. The Uma wore that gold paint when they were in mourning. Someone had either died or was about to.
It was a safe bet that nobody in the arena recognized the gold for what it was. The Uma guarded their culture very closely. But Kosandion would know. They were his mother’s people.
“Choose your opponent,” First Scholar Thek prompted, indicating the orbs with a sweep of his wing. They looked identical.
I killed the breeze. Gertrude Hunt had been pumping air through hidden vents to imitate a slight wind, but the air current wouldn’t be helpful for what happened next.
Ellenda put her hand on the closest orb. Its transparent shell popped like a soap bubble, releasing a swarm of glowing golden insects into the air. They surged up, turned, streaked to the Murder Birds’ section, and hovered around Pivor.
Pivor rose with a big smile, bowed to the left, bowed to the right, grinned again, displaying even white teeth, and made his way down the stairway that formed from his section. He crossed the arena and stood opposite Ellenda. They faced each other with ten feet between them. Tiny blue sparks by their ears announced their mikes being activated.
I restarted the air movement. A lot of species, humans included, felt more at ease with a light draft versus completely still air.
“The question the two of you must contemplate today is …” The First Scholar paused dramatically. “What is more important, happiness or duty? You have one hundred moments to consider your answer.”
The arena fell silent. Seconds ticked by.
The First Scholar’s egg turned white. The time to prepare ran out.
“Daughter of Uma,” Thek said, “The floor is yours.”
“Duty,” Ellenda said.
The First Scholar turned to Pivor.
“Happiness,” the Murder Bird candidate said.
The First Scholar waited for a couple more breaths and turned to Ellenda. “You must defend your answer.”
“Happiness is fleeting, subjective, and selfish. Submitting to and successfully carrying out your duty ensures the continued survival of society.”
“Duty is equally subjective,” Pivor answered. “If I see a child being chased by a predator, is it my duty to intervene?”
“But, by intervening I put my own survival at risk. I am an adult who survived diseases and the perils of my own childhood. If I am killed by the predator, would my death not be a greater loss to society than a child who has yet to mature? Could that child take my place and assume my obligations? What of my duty to my clan and family who depend on me?”
Ellenda didn’t answer.
Pivor kept going. “You say that duty exists to ensure the survival of society. I say that the purpose of society is to create individual happiness. Every law of a successful society is designed to help its members attain that goal. We seek to guarantee safety, access to resources, individual rights, and we even guard mandatory leisure. Therefore, the pursuit of happiness is supreme over carrying out one’s duty.”
“I would save the child. I have nothing more to say.” Ellenda put her hood up.
The First Scholar waited a few seconds, but the hood remained up.
“Very well,” he announced. “Thank you both. You may return to your seats.”
The two candidates rejoined their delegations. The white light bounced again.
One of the twelve delegates was an assassin. I was hoping for a peek at their cards during this debate. Some clue, something that might identify them as a killer. So far, Ellenda was defiant, and Pivor came off as selfish. Not particularly illuminating.
The light stopped on House Meer. Bestata rose, her black syn armor swallowing the light. She had attached a white cloak to it, made of lightweight fabric. I upped the draft, and the cloak billowed behind her as she marched down her stairway.
“Dramatic,” Kosandion murmured.
“Vampires often are. One time they visited this inn in secret, but they still had to introduce themselves, so they forcefully whispered their House creed at me.”
Bestata reached the orbs and planted her hand on one of them without hesitation. It burst, and the glittering swarm veered to the Dushegubs and settled on Unessa’s hair like a crown.
“Nice touch,” Kosandion approved.
Unessa sashayed her way to the arena floor. She wore a brilliant green gown that moved with every step, giving hints of the pale skin underneath.
“I pose the following question for your consideration,” the First Scholar announced. “What is the purpose of your existence and why is your purpose superior to your opponent’s? You have one hundred moments to consider your an…”
“Procreation!” Unessa said. She turned to look at Kosandion and smiled.
Bestata stared at her for a stunned second and looked at the First Scholar. “I am supposed to debate that?”
“Do your best,” the First Scholar told her.
“There are other things besides procreation. Devotion, the pursuit of personal excellence, learning, gaining expertise, passing it on to next generation.”
Knowing Thek, she had just earned all the brownie points. She was talking about martial prowess, and he was thinking in terms of academic wisdom, but knowledge was knowledge.
“Honor,” Bestata continued. “Pride in accomplishments. The glory of your House. A death that would be remembered. All of these are more important than simple copulation and reproduction.”
Unessa smiled. She was likely going for sweet, but there was a rotten edge to it. She looked slightly reptilian, like a lizard about to snatch a grub.
“And if your people stopped breeding, who would do all those things?”
“My people haven’t stopped breeding for thousands of years. It is an instinct. I do realize you’ve been brought up by logs but do try to think less like a stump.”
A long shoot slithered out from the large Dushegub in the front row of their section.
Bestata kept going. “It is unfortunate that you have been raised for the sole purpose of trapping a male with your looks, but you don’t have to be just pretty fruit on the vine.”
The shoot coiled on itself in a tight spiral.
“At least I am pretty,” Unessa said.
“Thank the gods for that,” Bestata snarled. “Nature had to give you something to compensate for your boiled egg brain.”
The shoot snapped out, launching a projectile into the air. Sean and I moved at the same time.
A pit appeared in the middle of the arena floor, sucking the projectile into itself. Long flexible tentacles erupted from inside it, grabbed the Dushegub, wrapped him up like a mummy, and pulled him into the hole.
The arena went silent.
A single breath passed and then the stands erupted.
The Donkamins made a weird ululating noise. The otrokar stomped their feet. House Meer stood up and clapped, roaring. The Oombole section turned into a 4th of July fireworks show with colors and fins flashing in a dizzying display.
The Dushegubs hissed and creaked in unison. Unessa opened her mouth and hissed at Bestata. The vampire knight sneered and bared her spectacular fangs.
Sean slid the pit toward the killer trees, the tentacles hovering straight up, waiting to snatch the next troublemaker.
I rolled my voice through the arena. I didn’t scream, I didn’t raise it, but it sounded loud, and it was everywhere.
“No interference with the trials will be tolerated.”
The Dushegubs fell silent.
The First Scholar spread his wings, calling for silence. When the arena complied, he leaned forward and spoke to Unessa. “Do you have a rebuttal?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I wasn’t told I had to bring one with me.”
Bestata spread her arms and looked around at the audience.
“Very well,” the First Scholar said. “This debate is concluded.”
Unessa raised her chin and shot a triumphant look at the Dushegubs.
“You didn’t win, idiot!” someone yelled from the otrokar section.
Kosandion put his hands together, covered his nose and mouth, and shook a bit, making strangled noises. It looked suspiciously like laughter.
Unessa turned toward the First Scholar.
“While crudely voiced, the assessment is undeniably accurate,” he told her.
She spun on her heel and marched back to her section, her hands clenched into fists.
Neither Unessa nor Bestata seemed likely to assassinate Kosandion. Unessa might try, but she would be very obvious about it. Bestata didn’t seem like the subtle type either. If either of those two targeted the Sovereign, it would be a direct assault. The way he spoke about it suggested a cunning hidden enemy.
“Instead of attacking the question, the knight attacked her opponent,” Resven said.
“She holds her in contempt,” Miralitt said.
Resven raised his eyebrows, but Miralitt didn’t elaborate.
Kosandion glanced at me. He was Caldenia’s nephew, so he knew perfectly well why Bestata reacted the way she did, but he wanted a public explanation. Perhaps it was for the viewers at home.
“The Holy Anocracy prizes personal excellence,” I told them. “They strive for a life of individual achievement. Bestata had to train and fight since she could walk. She knows she can kill Unessa in individual combat without even raising her heart rate. Now she also knows that Unessa’s thinking is underdeveloped. From her point of view, the Dushegub candidate is a useless pretty thing unworthy of her true effort.”
The light bounced between the sections and stopped on the Kai. Prysen Ol rose, swept his layered robe back with an elegant gesture, and descended the stairs. He always held himself with a kind of quiet dignity. Even as he was walking now, his gestures were small, his right arm was bent at the elbow and held across his body. He didn’t swing his arms as he moved, he didn’t take large steps. It was all very deliberate and restrained.
Self-control would be an excellent quality for an assassin.
Prysen touched an orb. The insects spiraled out, floated over to the Gaheas, and danced around Nycati’s purple hair, matching the golden diadem on his head. The Gaheas candidate stood up, a flawless graceful movement, and took the stairs to the arena floor.
An appreciative murmur spread through the spectators and died down.
“Interesting,” Resven observed. “Those two appear well matched.”
I had looked through the footage from yesterday’s dinner and something caught my eye. On paper, Nycati came from a scholar family, aristocratic, but mid-ranking, and all appearances indicated that he was selected for his merits and achievements. The head of the delegation, Naeoma Thaste, was the equivalent of a duke, one step removed from the royal family. He outranked Nycati by a mile.
Yesterday at dinner, Naeoma made a disparaging remark about Donkamins. Nycati looked at him for a moment, and the duke looked down. The Gaheas were psionics. They duelled by staring at each other. To look away was to back down, but to lower your gaze to the ground was like kneeling with your head bowed. Complete submission.
Only a prince could stare down a duke. Nycati was Gaheas royalty. I was sure of it.
A Gaheas prince, even if he had been raised in secret, would have survived dozens of attempts on his life. Most of them were experienced efficient killers by adulthood or they died. His delegation lied about who he really was. They could have done it because they secretly wanted to tie their bloodline to the leadership of the Dominion, or they could have done it because Kosandion was their target. Either way, Nycati’s chances of being the assassin had just shot up into the stratosphere.
The First Scholar surveyed the two men. “The question before you is as follows: Why are you here?”
“Before I can answer,” Prysen said, “would the honored scholar be so kind as to define ‘here?’”
“Indeed,” Nycati agreed. “It is a fair request. Does ‘here’ designate a physical location or a fixed point in time? Does it refer to our presence or our purpose?”
“How can we be sure that we are ‘here’ at all?” Prysen added.
The First Scholar puffed to twice his size, looking positively giddy. His eyes sparkled. “The interpretation is entirely up to you. You have a hundred moments to compose your thoughts.”