Home > Sweep with Me (Innkeeper Chronicles #4.5)(10)

Sweep with Me (Innkeeper Chronicles #4.5)(10)
Author: Ilona Andrews

The defeat in his voice was so absolute, I wanted to hug him.

“Of course you can’t,” Caldenia said. “You simply cannot make bad food.”

“I should be able to replicate it. It’s a simple dish. I have all the ingredients.” He sounded so hollow.

“This hamburger is not natural,” I told him. “Most dishes evolve naturally. Stews have meat and root vegetables because livestock is slaughtered in early winter and root vegetables keep well in the cellar through the cold months. Spring salad is called that because it’s made with the leafy greens and grasses available in early spring. The hamburger is an artificial construct. Cows are slaughtered in winter, tomatoes are best in late summer, lettuce is in season in spring, and that’s not counting the extra cow required to produce the milk used to make cheese for the patty and butter for the bun.”

Orro stared at me.

“It’s mass-produced, inexpensive, and meant to be quick and convenient, but still pack enough calories to be filling.” I couldn’t tell if I was making any headway. “They use a particular cut of meat for it, likely the cheapest possible, and they add things to it, which accounts for the texture and moisture of the patty. No matter what I do to ground beef, it doesn’t have that texture.”

“But you don’t have my training and experience. I have tried everything,” Orro said, his voice still flat. “I added fat, I added stock, I emulsified the meat. I have tried corn starch, oils, and spices. For the sake of this hamburger, I have committed the sin of adding MSG and silicone dioxide. It’s all for naught. I’m a failure.”

He spun around and marched out of the kitchen.

I took a deep breath and slowly blew the air out.

“We have to let him stew in his despair,” Caldenia said. “Otherwise, we may never again be served a decent meal.”

“That’s a bit harsh, your Grace.”

“Coddling never leads to improvement.”

The inn’s magic brushed against me, as if someone had tossed a rock into a placid pond and the waves from it splashed against me. Someone had crossed the inn’s boundary.

It was past nine, and Sean was still out.

I called up a screen from the northeast side of the property. Four people in dark clothes crept through the brush. They wore black balaclavas that hid their heads and faces except for a narrow strip around the eyes and carried submachine guns.

I pivoted the screen to Caldenia with a flick of my fingers. “Rudolph Peterson’s ninjas.”

Caldenia rubbed her hands together. “Would it be too presumptuous to ask for one? I’ve been eating these dreadful hamburgers.”

“You know our policy. Gertrude Hunt doesn’t serve sentient beings as food.”

Caldenia rolled her eyes.

The four “commandos” snuck through the bushes, painstakingly careful where they put their feet. The original plan was to pretend to be just a normal establishment, but guns upped the stakes.

If Sean were home, he would hunt them down, put their heads on a pike, and then present it to Peterson like a shish kebab.

I tapped my fingers on the table. The leading ninja, a man, judging by the height and the shoulders, sank into the ground up to his knees.

Everyone froze.

The intruders scanned the brush, listening for any noises. When nothing out the ordinary happened, two of them stepped closer to their leader and tried to pull him out. I let them work him free and then sank the one on the left up to his hips.

Everyone froze again.

It took them three minutes to get their friend out. They huddled up and made fancy hand gestures, some of which included forceful pointing, making fists, and drawing lines across their throats. Finally, a consensus must have been reached, because they backed up a few yards, fanned out, and started north, trying to skirt the troublesome patch of ground.

I let them take ten steps and then sank the one on the right down to their knees.

Caldenia cracked a smile.

They pulled my victim out and formed a single line, the leader taking point. He unsheathed a large knife, hacked off a sapling, and tested the ground with it. The ground held. He raised his hand and moved two fingers, motioning the team forward. They started moving again, single file, each intruder putting his feet in the steps of the one in front of them.

I let them take fifteen steps and sank the last ninja into the ground down to their waist. The masked human frantically pawed the ground, as the team kept moving.

“Help,” the ninja hissed in a female voice.

The leader whirled around. The balaclava hid his face, but his body radiated “what the fuck” with every cell of his being. The two other gate-crashers grabbed their sunken friend and tried to pull her out. I held her still.

They strained.

One, two, three…

The intruder popped free with sudden force and the three ninjas collapsed on the ground in a heap. Caldenia chuckled.

The leader raised his arms.

The three ninjas scrambled upright. The woman I had sunk dusted off her pants, pointed to herself, and jabbed her thumb to the right, indicating the direction they had come from.

The leader shook his head and pointed toward the inn.

The female ninja shook her head.

The leader pointed to himself, pointed to the ninja, and pointed at the inn again.

The female ninja gave him the finger, pretended to wash her hands off, and raised them in the air.

I sank the three remaining ninjas down to their armpits.

The woman nodded, executed a crisp about-face, and marched back the way they had come.

“The voice of reason,” Caldenia commented. “She deserves the chance to skulk another day.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Mercy, your Grace?”

“Natural selection,” Caldenia said.

The door to Baha-char opened deep within the inn. Sean.

In thirty seconds, he came into the kitchen, put his arms around me, and kissed me. He came back. The relief was so real, I almost slumped down in my seat.

Sean smiled at me and saw the screen. “Visitors?”

“Rudolph Peterson came to see us this afternoon.”

“Do me a favor, hold them just like that.”

Sean pulled off his shirt and walked out of the kitchen door.

On the screen, the three figures struggled to free themselves. Digging yourself out when you are in dirt up to your armpits was difficult under normal circumstances, and I had no intention of letting them go.

I felt Sean move through the grounds, unnaturally fast, and whispered, sending my voice to his ear. “Don’t kill them.”

The moon slipped out from behind a ragged grey cloud, flooding the scene with silver light. The brush parted.

The three struggling humans held still.

A lupine beast emerged from the undergrowth, so large, his head would be even with my chest. Sheathed in dark fur, huge, silent, the king of wolves lowered his head, his amber eyes glowing with reflected fire, and padded toward the three intruders.

They didn’t move. They didn’t blink or breathe, as his hand-sized paws landed next to them.

Sean circled them, inhaling their scent. He stopped before the leader, in plain view of the two others.

A long moment stretched by.

Sean opened his jaws. In the light of the moon, his fangs glinted like daggers. He bit the leaders head.

The ninja on the left screamed, a hoarse cry of pure fear.

“Oh dear,” Caldania said. “I think he broke that one.”

Sean pulled the man’s mask off and spat it to the side. The leader gaped at him, a light-skinned man in his early forties, with brown hair cut military short, his eyes glassy and wide open.

Sean lowered his head and stared at the man, his fangs an inch from the intruder’s face. For a torturous few seconds nobody moved. Then Sean turned and melted back into the darkness of the woods.

I jettisoned the ninjas from the dirt. They scrambled to their feet and ran back the way they came.

Sean had bought enough spare parts and weapons to outfit a small army, so much so, that he could only carry a small fraction of his purchases, which he referred to as the “really cool stuff.”

“A three-coil liquefier?”

Sean hefted the six-foot-long cannon that resembled some ridiculous video game gun. Two tendrils of striated wood slithered from the ceiling, wrapped around the gun, and sucked it up. Gertrude Hunt and he seemed to have no trouble communicating.

“Why would you ever feel the need to turn carbon-based life-forms into primordial soup?”

“Because it’s easier to dispose of the remains.”

“Why not an anti-matter death ray then?” I was only half joking. There were several weapons in existence that would have qualified for that description.

He winked at me. “Liquefier was on sale.”

I rubbed my face, trying to adjust to the new arsenal. Above us, Gertrude Hunt creaked, installing the cannon.

I’ve had to shut down the koo-ko “discussions” twice in the past four hours. A liquefier was entirely too much temptation at the moment.

“Wilmos is going to deliver the rest tomorrow. Do you think we have enough firepower to survive one night with the Drífen in the house?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I loaded a house’s worth of sarcasm into my voice. “We will have to muddle through somehow.”

“I said I was sorry about Marais.”

“I appreciate the two of you conspiring to keep me safe, but the inn and I had it under control and there are strict rules that govern what we can and cannot do. Marais is not a guest. He’s not staff. He’s an aware outsider. That means that the responsibility for his awareness and what he might do with it rests on our shoulders. You already broke the rules when you gave him a subatomic vaporizer. If the Assembly finds out, it will create a problem.”

Sean grunted. “First, Marais is cool. Second, the vaporizer is telepathically linked to him and is indistinguishable from a normal police baton. It’s harmless, until he decides it’s not. Third, I keep hearing how the Assembly doesn’t like this and there will be trouble if they find out about that. What has this Assembly ever done for you?”

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