Tony ambushed me as soon as the Higgra’s date was over.
“Dad wants to talk to you.” He thrust the phone at me.
My heart made a pirouette. Most innkeepers avoided personal phone calls. Even getting a phone number of an innkeeper was a sign of trust, and it was understood that direct communication was only for emergencies. What was bad enough for him to call me?
Brian Rodriguez looked back at me from the screen. “Have you gotten anything from Lachlan Stewart?”
“No. I don’t know who he is. Should I know who he is?”
Brian heaved a sign. “How much do you know about the Loch Broom Inn?”
“Um… It’s an old castle in Scotland. Very remote. They specialize in large scale events.”
Loch Broom was off the beaten path, and its beautiful but severe landscape meant that human visitors were rare. If you wanted to have a destination wedding on Earth, or a diplomatic summit, or a convention, Loch Broom Castle was your venue. It wasn’t the only inn catering to large scale events, but it was one of the better known.
“Lachlan runs Loch Broom Castle. He is fourth generation, old, and crochety. Also stubborn like a goat.”
“He wants to adopt you.”
“He’s eighty years old, and he’s been looking for a successor. His oldest is an ad-hal, and her kids live off planet. His youngest took over a small inn in Bulgaria just to get away from him. His kids don’t want to deal with their grandfather either. Lachlan’s been watching the coverage of the selection, and he’s decided you are worthy.”
The walls around me creaked in alarm. In the innkeeper world, adoption could take place at any age, provided the “parent” was at least twenty years older than the “child.” Once adopted, the “child” would be considered a rightful heir to the “parent’s” inn. But I wasn’t an orphan. This was ridiculous.
“I already have parents.”
“That was pointed out to him. He says enough time passed that they can be declared dead soon by our guidelines.”
“They are not dead!” They were missing.
Brian nodded. “I know. We told him. He is determined to get you and Sean over to Scotland. He says you have ‘the vision.’”
A wall to my left parted and Sean came out of it, looking ready to fight somebody.
“It doesn’t matter what he’s determined to do. I’m not leaving Gertrude Hunt. The Assembly can’t separate us, I won’t–”
Sean put his arm around me and leaned over my shoulder to pin Brian with a stare.
Brian raised his hand. “Dina, if Lachlan reaches out to you, he might make it seem that this has been decided and you must leave your inn and go to Loch Broom. I’m telling you right now, as a representative of the Assembly, you don’t have to do what he says. If he tries to bully you, call me. You’re doing a good job where you are. You’ve bonded with your inn. Nobody is going to remove you unless a catastrophe happens. So don’t worry about it and if he calls, tell him no. Okay?”
“Okay. Thank you for the warning.”
“Let me talk to Tony, please.”
I handed the phone to Tony, and he walked away, muttering something.
Sean hugged me. “What happened?”
“An elderly Scottish innkeeper wants to adopt me.” I shook my head. “What’s next?”
“Next, you’re going to sit down for at least 15 minutes and eat something. Come on.”
He sat me down at the kitchen table, and Droplet brought me food. I took exactly two bites of the most delicious burrito I had ever tasted, and then the inn tugged on me. The werewolf was awake.
I found the werewolf in our high-tech med unit. She must’ve heard me come in, but she gave no indication of it. I approached the bed. She looked at me and didn’t say anything.
I pulled up a chair and sat. Her color was much better, and she seemed alert. Around us the walls and ceiling were a nebulous charcoal, swirls of darker and lighter gray. Karat had an aversion to the sterile white, so I had adjusted it to her preferences.
Gertrude Hunt pulled me on, announcing an incoming call from Gaston. I took it.
“We have a slight problem,” his disembodied voice said from the empty air about eight feet up.
The werewolf sat up and squinted at the source of the voice.
“What is it?” I had dumped, that is delegated, the responsibility for the 2nd Trial, the talent show, onto Gaston and Tony. They should’ve been at the rehearsal now.
“One of the talent demonstrations is in poor taste.”
“What do you mean?”
“I personally find it distasteful,” he said.
What would Gaston find distasteful? Was it something Lady Wexyn did? Orata warned me that the candidates were allowed a lot of latitude when displaying their talents. Even if one of them were to light themselves on fire, we couldn’t interfere.
“Is it dangerous to other guests?”
“You have to let them do it. If we block any of the candidates from demonstrating their talents, they could claim we prevented them from becoming a spouse.”
He broke the connection. We sat in silence for a couple of minutes.
“You win,” she said finally.
“I saw you kill that thing before I passed out. You’re stronger than me, so you win.”
“I never was in competition with you.”
She looked away.
“What’s wrong with your ossai?” I asked.
She gave me a dark look.
“You didn’t go into a wetwork form during the fight,” I told her. “And your rate of regeneration is lower than that of a typical werewolf.”
The ossai was a marvel of bioengineering. A programmable manmade virus, it was the reason werewolves could change shape, bounce up tall trees, and murder their opponents with insane speed and accuracy.
She sucked the air in and let it out slowly. “Activation failure. In your boyfriend, the ossai particles are linked into a single nanonet. They communicate with each other. My ossai particles don’t. Sometimes chunks of them link up, and I get a boost, but most of the time they fail.”
Oh. Like a faulty fluorescent light. When Sean flipped the switch, the light came on instantly and was blindingly bright. When she flipped the switch, it pulsed and flickered.
“Can your ossai be fixed?”
She shook her head. “I hoped so, but Wilmos said no.”
Wilmos would know. He had worked on the improved version of ossai, the one that produced alpha strain werewolves like Sean’s parents. If anyone could help her, Wilmos was it.
The werewolf shrugged. “It took me three years to make my way to him, and in the end, it was for nothing. My parents are normal. Apparently, this just happens sometimes during fetal development.”
“You fight well.”
She gave me a bitter smile. “I like how you didn’t say the second part out loud. I fight well – for a defective werewolf.”
“Only things can be defective, not people.”
There was a lot of self-loathing there. Arguing with her would only provoke hostility.
“Wilmos said that if I find a strong werewolf, the kids would be normal. If at least one parent is fully active, and the fetus is monitored and treated in the womb, the activation failure usually doesn’t reoccur.”
“Is that why you fixated on Sean?”
“I asked Wilmos who the strongest werewolf was. He said Sean but he was taken. I never run away from a fight.”
“No, you just run into it without thinking.”
She glared at me.
“I was talking to the thing that took Wilmos, and you attacked it before I got anywhere.”
It took a few seconds to sink. She slumped on her pillow.
“You know where Wilmos is,” she finally said. “What’s there to talk about?”
“Why they took him? Is he alive? What do they want? We are doing something for the Dominion. If we succeed, they will give us a vessel that will permit us to enter Karron, but it would be helpful to know what we are up against.”
She looked at the ceiling. I could see it in her face: she realized that she screwed up. It wasn’t the first time, and I could tell it was getting old for her.
I flicked my fingers. A screen appeared on the wall. On it, Sean glided through the brush beyond our backyard in his wetwork shape, a huge shaggy werewolf beast. The moon was out, and the world was a palette of gray.
“Nexus killed all of Sean’s predecessors. Every Turan Adin died, sometimes only days after they were hired. He lasted 18 months.”
Sean stopped. Around him Draziri warriors rained from the trees, armed with long slender blades.
“Consider the kind of willpower required to wake up every morning and fight through hell, then heal your wounds, and do it again. And again. And again.”
The warriors moved as one, their blades slicing, creating a deadly whirlwind with Sean at its center.
“No force in this Galaxy could make Sean do something against his will.”
Claws flashed. The head of the nearest warrior hurtled toward the camera, a stunned expression on his dead face.
“He cares about me more than he cares about anyone, and even I can’t force him to do things my way. I have no desire to try, so it works for us.”
Sean grasped a Draziri, shook him once like a rag doll, and tossed him aside, broken.
“He isn’t hiding here because he’s gone soft, or he doesn’t have anything better to do. He stays here because it makes him happy.”
The last Draziri collapsed. Sean stood alone.
“I’m not going to fight you for Sean. I don’t have to. Would you like to talk to him again?”
She shook her head. “It was a long shot anyway.”
“Your wounds should heal in another couple of days. Do you have a place to go? Where is home?”
She laughed. “A small room a block away from Wilmos’ shop. I’ve been living there for the last six months. When he doesn’t have werewolf guests, I go to hang out at his shop and listen to his war stories. Hanging on to scraps of other people’s glory because I haven’t got any of my own.”
Wow. Sean had viewed the recording of our fight with the corrupted ad-hal, and according to him, she was actually well trained. She knew what she was doing in a fight, and despite her activation issues, she was faster and stronger than the average human. A lot of security forces would be happy to have her. Failing that, she could make a good living as a mercenary.
None of that mattered. Her self-esteem was nonexistent. She seemed to tackle every problem head on, without strategy or planning, trying to power through it on sheer will and physical persistence. It must have worked for her in childhood. She probably learned that even if her ossai misfired, if she just ran fast enough, hit hard enough, and didn’t quit, she could hold her own. But the older she grew, the wider the gap between her and other werewolves became. She was likely almost as good as everyone in elementary school, by middle school she would’ve started to lag behind, and come high school, she probably realized that no matter how hard she tried, she could never keep up.
If she continued on the same path she was on now, she would die fighting. Heroically, but probably needlessly. She needed to feel competent, to be in a place where her skills were valued, so she could stop seeing herself as a failed werewolf. I needed to talk to her more, but it was almost 10 p.m., and I had somewhere else to be.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Derryl of Is.”
I waved my arm, opening a floor to ceiling window in the far wall with a soothing view of our pond. The rest of the walls lightened to a comfortable soothing blue gray. Side tables appeared, and a plush rug sheathed the floor.
“Things are not as bleak as they look, Derryl,” I told her. “You still have a couple of days to recuperate. Rest. We’ll talk again.”
I knocked on the door of the Gaheas’ quarters. The door opened slightly, giving me a narrow view of a female Gaheas. Like most of her people, she was tall and willowy, with amber skin and long dark hair put away into an elaborate arrangement on top of her head. When Gaheas felt at ease, they let their hair down, literally. With the exception of their candidate, not a single one of them let themselves have a L’Oreal moment after that first opening ceremony. They considered themselves to be in enemy territory.
“A calm night to you, innkeeper,” the Gaheas said. “How can I be of service?”
“A calm night to you as well. I have a small gift for Nycati.”
“Now is not a good time,” the guard said.
“On the contrary, now is the perfect time. It is the end of the 4th Phase, and if we wait another half an hour, it will be too late.”
I raised my hand and made a small gesture, gently forcing the door to open a bit wider. Behind me Gaston carried a large trunk. I lifted the lid so she could see the shimmering fabric inside.
The woman’s eyes widened. She stepped aside, inviting me to enter with a sweep of her hand. I walked in, with Gaston right behind me.
The interior of the Gaheas’ common room was perfectly round. While they recognized the need for straight lines in technology, when it came to their living arrangements, they considered corners inauspicious. The floor was smooth and gray, like soapstone. The walls were slightly curved, forming a gentle dome overhead, and made of burled wood and smoky resin. On their native planet, the resin would be polished quartz, seamlessly fitted to the wood swirls, but we had to make the quarters in a hurry, and the tinted resin was a quick and easy substitute.
The entire delegation had gathered in the center of the room, clustered around Nycati. They turned as one at my approach, their stares hostile. Hands went to weapons, which in their case meant they simultaneously touched the ornate tiaras and diadems on their heads. Duke Naeoma Thaste, the official head of the delegation, stepped forward, body-blocking Nycati from my view.
“What is the meaning of this intrusion?”
I waved my arm. The dome above us opened like a flower bud blooming. The view of the night sky spread above us, the moon bright like a silver coin. A small red spark ignited in the wall to the left, projecting a translucent red circle with a complex border upward, centering it on the light of a very distant star. An equally complex array of light painted the floor with twenty-one spaces arranged in three concentric circles. One in the center, three in the middle, and the rest along the outer rim.
The Gaheas stared at me, unsure. I raised my hand, indicating Gaston’s trunk. The female guard who’d greeted me at the door gently lifted the fabric out of the chest. It unfurled into a shimmering metallic sash, and the light of the array reflected on it and fractured into a rainbow of colors.
Everyone went still. It was a royal stole.
The moon of Gahea dominated its night sky. Several times larger than Earth’s satellite, Gahea’s moon rotated very slowly on its axis, and as it turned, it changed colors, flowing from one Phase to another. The Phases dictated every aspect of the Gaheas’ calendar. Their passage of time, their holy days and rituals, even the selection of the most auspicious day for marriage, birth, battle, and the signing of contracts, everything depended on the moon.
Today marked the end of the 4th Phase, the conclusion of the Gaheas’ winter. It was a holy day. Failing to carry out the correct rituals meant bringing ill fortune for the next six Gahea months, until the 10th Phase, the middle of Summer, the date of equal spiritual potency when the effect of neglecting the 4th Phase rites could be negated.
The Phase rituals were complex. It was vitally important that proper formalities were observed, especially the correct attire. However, the Gaheas hadn’t brought a royal garment for Nycati. It would have been an obvious tell of his identity, which they were desperately trying to hide. Now the lot of them didn’t know if they should kill me or thank me.
Nycati murmured something, too quiet for me to hear.
Naeoma Thaste stepped aside. Nycati strode forward, stopped before us, and raised his arms. Carefully, with great reverence, the guard carried the stole to him and knelt, offering it in her outstretched hands. The duke approached, picked up the stole, and draped it over Nycati’s shoulders.
“How did you know?” the hidden prince asked.
“I am an innkeeper. It is my sacred duty to see to the security and comfort of everyone within the inn.”
I put a bit of emphasis on that everyone.
“Understood,” Nycati said.
I bowed my head, and Gaston and I retreated, leaving the chest on the floor. The doors shut behind us, and we walked down the long hallway back to the throne room.
“What the hell was that all about?” Gaston said. “That was a very near thing. One wrong word, one wrong gesture, and we would have had to make a very undignified exit.”
“Nycati is secret royalty.”
“The best kind. I take it, they’re hiding his pedigree?”
“Yes. Except their society is hung up on etiquette, and the duke slipped up a couple of times and treated their candidate with too much deference. The gap in rank was obvious.”
“And you wanted them to know that you know. Any particular reason?”
“Nycati has a date with Kosandion tomorrow, after the 2nd Trial. If he tries anything, I won’t just restrain him, I will expose him, and I wanted them to understand that.”
“And you brought me along to demonstrate that not only you know but other people are aware of his lineage as well. Killing you would be pointless and killing me would be difficult.”
Gaston let out a rumbling chuckle. “Have you ever considered a career in skullduggery, Dina?”
“Everyone is offering me a job lately.”
“You’re doing so well. That’s how it works. Do you find any of the offers tempting?”
“None at all. I don’t need a new job, I just want people to stop making the one I have more difficult.”
I waved goodbye at him and headed straight for my bedroom. Tomorrow would be another busy day and I needed all the rest I could get.