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Sweep with Me – Innkeeper Chronicles
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A charming, short novella in the Innkeeper Chronicles, from #1 New York Times bestselling author, Ilona Andrews.
Thank you for joining us at Gertrude Hunt, the nicest Bed and Breakfast in Red Deer, Texas, during the Treaty Stay. As you know, we are honor-bound to accept all guests during this oldest of innkeeper holidays and we are expecting a dangerous guest. Or several. But have no fear. Your safety and comfort is our first priority. The inn and your hosts, Dina Demille and Sean Evans, will defend you at all costs. [But we hope we don’t have to.]
Every winter, Innkeepers look forward to celebrating their own special holiday, which commemorates the ancient treaty that united the very first Inns and established the rules that protect them, their intergalactic guests, and the very unaware/oblivious people of [planet] Earth. By tradition, the Innkeepers welcomed three guests: a warrior, a sage, and a pilgrim, but during the holiday, Innkeepers must open their doors to anyone who seeks lodging. Anyone.
All Dina hopes is that the guests and conduct themselves in a polite manner. But what’s a holiday without at least one disaster?
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Some moments in life you remember forever.
One time, when I was five, my parents told me that we were going on a trip. I looked out of the window, at the grey November sky smothered with clouds, and decided that I wasn’t going. My dad brought me a pair of aviator shades, then he took my right hand and my mom took my left, and together we walked down a long hallway deep into our inn. At the end of the hallway, an ordinary door waited. We reached it, it swung open, and summer exhaled heat in my face. I shut my eyes against the bright light, and when I opened them, we stood in an alley paved with stone. Tall terraced buildings rose on both sides of us, and straight ahead, where the alley ran into a street, a current of creatures in every color and shape possible surged past merchant stalls, while a shattered planet looked at them from a purple sky.
Then there was the time when I first arrived at my own inn. It was early spring. The trees stood mostly bare except for the evergreen Texas oaks that only dropped their leaves when they felt like it. I had driven slowly, looking for the right address, and when the old Victorian came into view, I almost drifted off the road. Big, ornate and nonsensical the way Victorians often are, the building jutted against the morning sky, a dark ruin left to rot. Shingles had fallen off the roof and siding peeled from the walls in chunks. Brown weeds choked the grounds. I’d known it would be bad, since the inn had lain dormant for decades, but I hadn’t thought it would be that bad.
I pulled into the driveway, got out, and began circling the house, looking for any signs of life, reaching out with my magic, but finding nothing. I was losing hope with every step. And then I rounded the corner. There, bright against the backdrop of oaks and pecans, twelve apple trees bloomed, branches heavy with blossoms. It was the moment I realized Gertrude Hunt still lived.
Today was such a moment. It didn’t have the vivid colors of Baha-char or the fragile beauty of the apple trees, but I would never forget it. Sean Evans stood in our bedroom wearing an innkeeper’s robe.
“Mirror,” I murmured.
Gertrude Hunt shifted its magic in response. The wall in front of us liquefied, snapping into a mirror. We stood side by side, he in the copper-colored robe I had sewn for him and me in the blue robe my mother made me.
Sean was taller than me by a head. The robe covered him from his neck to his toes, but he’d left the hood down. He was very handsome, my Sean. He’d spent a long time trying to win a hopeless war. It left scars that even his body with its accelerated regeneration couldn’t heal, and the shadows of its memories still flickered in his amber eyes. But when he was alone with me, like now, his eyes turned warm and inviting, his posture lost the coiled readiness, and he relaxed the way a man would in the safety of his own home.
I studied our reflection. Innkeeper robes came in a variety of styles, but these simple ones were our daily uniform. We looked like a couple. My parents had worn robes just like this, except my father preferred grey and blue.
I’d never thought I would have this. When I was younger, I had imagined myself as an innkeeper of a successful inn, but in my dreams, there was never anyone standing next to me. My parents were still missing, my sister left to marry a vampire Marshal on a faraway planet and took my little niece with her, my brother still wandered the galaxy, but I had Sean. He loved me and I loved him. We were no longer alone.
The blond innkeeper woman in the mirror smiled back at me. She looked happy.
“I like it,” Sean said.
Three days ago, he’d refused to wear a robe, but I had made this one myself and now he liked it.
“You don’t have to pretend,” I told him.
“I like it. It’s soft.”
“I tumbled it with rocks for twenty-four hours. And I tattered the hem.”
Sean hiked up the robe and looked at the worn hem.
Our profession was old. By chance, Earth sat on the crossroads of warp points and dimensional gateways, a convenient waypoint on the way elsewhere. We were the Atlanta airport of the galaxy. Because of this special location, an ancient pact had been made between humans and the rest of the galactic civilizations. Earth was designated as neutral ground. Nobody could conquer us. Nobody would ever enslave or devour us. The human race would be allowed to develop naturally, ignorant of any alien intelligence in the great beyond.