Home > Sweep with Me (Innkeeper Chronicles #4.5)(13)

Sweep with Me (Innkeeper Chronicles #4.5)(13)
Author: Ilona Andrews

“That’s a complicated question.” Adira sipped a little more of her coffee. “The Mountain chose me. It didn’t ask. Twelve thousand souls depend on my leadership. Walking away would throw them into chaos. And even if I did, my life here was severed when I left. It’s been six years. Not so long, but it feels like a lifetime. I don’t know if I could fit back into the old me, into her life. Sometimes I try her on for size, and she’s like an old jacket that I outgrew. It smells familiar, and it holds the right memories, but it’s too constraining.”

“I’m sorry,” I told her, and meant it.

“Thank you. I never wanted adventure. I suppose I’m a hobbit by nature. I was perfectly happy with a mundane life and ticking items off my list: going to school, getting a job, buying a car, getting a mortgage…”

She fell silent.

“Do you miss it?”

“Yes.” Pain sharpened her voice slightly. She caught herself. “It’s a moot point anyway. I promised Zedas that if he agreed to this meeting, I would never again open a doorway to Earth. This is my goodbye.”

“Forgive me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t Zedas serve you?”

“Yes.” Adira sighed. “Life in my world is treacherous. Prospective liege lords train for decades, learning how to survive imperial politics, discovering how to harness magic, studying strategy and tactics. There are nine ways to greet an official depending on their rank, and the wrong bow or the incorrect inflection can mean the difference between peaceful life and the extermination of your dryht.”

It didn’t sound like a fun place.

“When I started, I knew nothing. I barely had six months of instruction before the Emperor invited my adoptive father to his court. It wasn’t an invitation one could refuse and my conduct in his absence would determine if he lived or died. Zedas held my hand through all of it. If it wasn’t for his guidance, the Green Mountain would have been overrun. So yes, I could ignore Zedas, and if I issued an order, he would obey, even against his better judgment.”

“But you won’t?”

“I won’t. Unless I have no choice.”

I had no room to talk, not after signing off on Orro’s San Antonio trip.

“Zedas isn’t wrong,” she said softly. “I can’t live in two worlds at once. That’s why I am here. To get rid of baggage I no longer need.”

She fell silent. In a way we were polar opposites. She had travelled to a new place and it forever changed her, so much that she couldn’t go back. I always tried to escape the world of my childhood, but after ping-ponging all over the galaxy, I had come back to do exactly what my parents did.

“I’ve been contemplating the meaning of mercy,” Adira said. “Are you merciful, Dina?”

I only managed one cup of tea this morning. It wasn’t enough for philosophical discussions. “Mercy implies power and sacrifice.”

Adira raised her eyebrows.

“Mercy is defined as kindness or forgiveness given to someone who is within your power to punish. To show mercy means to give up retribution, sometimes at the cost of justice. My hands are often tied. The safety of my guests is my priority. If I face someone who attempted to harm those in my charge, I must consider the possibility that if I let them go, they may try to hurt my guests again. I cannot allow that. I can’t afford to take that risk.”

“Did you show mercy to my uncle’s people when they tried to invade your inn?”

I frowned. “I suppose it can be seen as mercy. But most of it was prudence. Any sudden death or disappearance would be investigated. The inns must avoid attention.”

“Only if he reported them missing. He wouldn’t. My uncle has waited for this meeting since he was nineteen years old, before I was even born.”

That made no sense. “Do you think he will resort to violence when you meet him?”

She smiled. “There will be violence, but he won’t be the one initiating it.”

Crap. “Do you plan to kill your uncle here, on the premises?”

“I haven’t decided. We were talking about mercy. If you had a chance to show it, would you?”

The answer felt very important, and I wasn’t sure why. “It would depend on the person. Are they worthy of mercy? If I let them go, would they do harm or good? Perhaps it’s more about their character than mine. Or yours.”

Adira laughed softly. “Is it really that easy? What if you had a choice; to kill or to spare?”

“Killing a sentient being comes at a great emotional cost to me. Even if I am completely justified in it, I feel guilt and regret. I try to avoid it whenever I can. But I have my duty and if my obligations dictate that I remove a threat, I must.”

“Thank you for the company,” Adira said, setting her cup onto the tray. “I enjoyed speaking with you.”

On the way to the kitchen, I realized that Adira Kline, who was without equal, killed her enemies by the thousands, sheltered her friends, and was feared by warriors, respected by scholars, beloved by her dryht, and recognized by the Emperor, was deeply unhappy. She’d come to Earth for the last time and it broke her heart.

She was my guest and I had no idea how to help her.

7

I sat in a chair on the back porch, drinking iced tea and eating lemon muffins, and watched Sean dance around Qoros. The Medamoth attacked with vicious quickness, leaping and striking. Sean glided out of the way, as if he’d known where Qoros would land before he started.

The koo-ko had resumed their debate, and I was keeping an eye on them. The prospect of meeting his idol gave Orro a boost and he prepared a luxurious breakfast for everyone and then made me a batch of lemon muffins. I knew a bribe when I saw one, but I would be a fool to turn it down. Now Orro was marathoning his favorite ‘Fire and Lightning’ episodes in preparation. Caldenia immersed herself in the Laurents’ divorce. Rudolph Peterson stationed a spy across the street in a silver Ford Fusion. The man had been there since before sunrise, and around nine I brought him coffee and one of Orro’s lemon muffins. He seemed terribly embarrassed.

Adira and her people remained in their rooms. She hid her magic so well, I still wasn’t sure she had any. But her people brimmed with power, floating on the edge of my senses. It was like the Drífen room was a jar filled with glowing fireflies. Normally I afforded the guests privacy, but they were a special case, and I watched them quietly.

Zedas spent most of his time drinking tea and playing a complex version of chess with the man in black. They must have brought the board with them, because I’d never seen it before. The big white woman alternated between sleeping and watching TV. The older woman spent a great deal of time laying out Adira’s clothes and mending them. The little beast, who was a he, and whose name was Saro, had spent a large portion of the morning curled up, napping with his tail over his face, but in the last half hour had become restless. He dug through his bags, looked around the room, and tried to go out the door, but the big white woman told him no.

On the lawn, Qoros jumped up six feet in the air to deliver a devastating kick to Sean’s temple. If it had landed, Sean’s head would have been torn off his shoulders. “If” was the operative word. Sean leaned out of the way, let the kick whistle by him, grabbed Qoros’ leg, and dumped him unceremoniously on the ground. The Medamoth rolled to his feet.

I didn’t have Sean’s combat experience, but even I saw a pattern. Most or all of Qoros’ strikes were designed to take advantage of his claws and his superior size. He almost never punched, he raked and swiped. His kicks aimed to get his victim on the ground. Once he had his victim on the ground, he’d pin it down with his weight and rip out its throat. If sabretooth tigers had evolved to stand on two legs and then developed sentience, they would fight just like that.

Sean was shorter by almost two feet, but he was fast and strong and versatile. He switched between moves on the fly, punching one second, grappling the next, and despite the difference in weight, the Medamoth couldn’t muscle him.

Qoros feinted a kick at Sean’s left side and then struck out with his left arm. Sean locked the fingers of his left hand on Qoros’ left wrist and ducked under the Medamoth’s extended arm, pressing his back against his opponent’s side. For a second, it looked like Qoros was going to hug him from behind, then Sean bent his knees and did something quick with his legs and pushed back. The Medamoth went flying over Sean and landed on his back in the dirt. All the air went out of him with an audible woosh. Sean crouched by him, put two fingers on Qoros’ throat, and got up.

I soundlessly clapped out of Qoros’ sight. Sean trotted over, leaned over me, and brushed my lips with his. “That almost never works,” he whispered in my ear. “Every white belt in Judo tries that move.”

Qoros finally sucked some air into his lungs, coughed and sat up.

I offered Sean a sip of iced tea from my glass. He drank a long swallow.

“Good fight,” Qoros said, rising. He walked over and sat in the oversized chair I had made for him.

“Thank you for sparring.”

“My litter mate fought on Nexus.” Qoros kept his voice casual. “He told me this legend about his commander. His name was Turan Adin. He smelled like a human, but he wasn’t one. He fought like a demon on the battlefield, never tiring, never surrendering an inch of the ground he protected. He never removed his armor, and no one saw his face, but if you were in trouble during the battle and he saw you, he would carry you out. Then one day he left with the Merchants, the clan of Nuan, to help bring an end to the endless war. The war stopped, yet he never returned. Some say he died. Some say he found love and started a family. Some say he sleeps in stasis, waiting to rise again when he’s needed.”

It took all of my will to keep a straight face.

“That’s a hell of a story,” Sean said.

Qoros nodded. “One has to ask himself, what would a creature like that value most? What trait of his character made him succeed?”

   
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