Return to the Library

BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 1

— Episode 10

"The Blood of Aris"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

SS Blue Horizon PA1261

Captain’s Journal 

There is nothing like a disaster to take away the fun of a potentially flawless trip. We left Kantus a week ago with a full hold of general supplies for the CFCC, the Consolidated Fishing Colonies of Crescentis, but now that has all become irretrievable space debris. While doing a routine maintenance scan of the hold, Moss ran a diagnostic on the cargo deck’s control system which opened the bay door. The rapid decompression ripped everything from the deck through the plasteel webbing and scattered it across known space outside of warp. Fortunately, no one was on the cargo level at the time or we might have lost them too. Not for the first time, Durant has threatened to jettison Moss and Pockets and let them both join our lost cargo among the stars.

Durant has given me a copy of the manifest, the amount of the lost supplies and equipment, not to mention the loss of our payment (and future business) when we arrive at Crescentis without the colonies’ goods. Renny has altered our course and our heading is now back to the Anya star system we’d just left behind. Tanthe is the closest industrialized world where we might replace the supplies and try to save face with the Crescentis fleet. I can’t say I know much about the world as I have only been there once before to a rural community, so I have to do a bit of research on the library computer.

Pockets has given me his troubleshooting report on Moss, but the results were inconclusive. Despite that he’d had to reconstruct the unit following its encounter with Brand Arkram on the way back from Sillon, he found no cause for this incident. Pockets’ final opinion is that the fault lay in the control system of the hold. He is down there now running his own diagnostic on the system program, safely secure in load master’s pressurized office should the doors open again.

Durant has also worked through our finances and has delegated a substantial portion to cover replacement of the supplies. It looks like we will merely break even this time around, without a profit to show for our voyage. I have promised Pockets to dock his pay the full amount the next time something costly occurs directly caused by the flobot.

The last couple of weeks have been rough for Taro. Results of the Taquit Fever epidemic on her homeworld have put her on edge. She is alternately depressed, furious, and heartbroken at the events taken place as a result of that devil, Sagan. I have never seen her this agitated and am wondering how she will react if we run into more trouble before she comes to terms with all that has happened.  

Merlin Sinclair, Captain 

*** 

“Are we within range yet?” Merlin asked as he shrugged into his flight jacket.

“We should be in communication with Tanthe in two minutes, Captain.” Taro replied from her console.

Renny adjusted a flight control and then turned to the wolf. “What did you say this monarch’s name was again?” he asked

Merlin frowned and answered, “King Adion Aris. According to the Planetary Alignment database, his family line has been the primary seat of authority for Tanthe since the planet converted to single government world under coyote rule over two hundred years ago.”

Taro spied a flashing sensor light and then swiveled in her chair to face Merlin. “We’re within range now, Captain,” she said. “I’ve hailed their communication net and am waiting for a reply from the proper authority.”

Merlin merely nodded and straightened the hat between his ears. Even though their Com was not equipped with a video signal, he simply felt his voice would sound respectable if he looked respectable.

The vixen put a hand to her headset and nodded to herself as she listened. She seemed mildly surprised and then responded named off the species of everyone in the crew.  “Wolf, cheetah, bear, two foxes, two raccoons and two canines.”  Merlin watched her with an odd expression as she continued listening to her headset.  “The wolf is male, our captain. Of the canines, one is female and the other is a young male.” Another pause. “Sixteen.”
            Taro glanced over at Merlin and simply shook her head.  She acknowledged something said to her and then turned back to the command seat with a surprised expression. “Uh… Captain, His Majesty the King is online to speak with you.”

“The king?” Samantha repeated from the engineering console. “I think you mean the Prime Minister, who speaks on the king’s behalf.”

Taro shook her head, looked at the captain and held out her headset to him. “No, I’ve just been told that the King would like to speak with you.”

“That’s very odd.” Merlin waved a dismissal to the headset. “Okay, overhead com, please.” Taro tapped a control and nodded. “This is Captain Merlin Sinclair of the Blue Horizon,” he said over the channel.

“I am King Adion Aris,” said a rich baritone voice to the immediate attention of everyone on the bridge.

“Your Majesty,” Merlin acknowledged slowly.

“What is it we may do for you, Captain Sinclair?” The coyote asked. “We have checked your Planetary Alignment registry, Blue Horizon. You are listed as a commercial cargo hauler, but we find no record of any flight plans filed by your ship to our world.”

“We were on our way from Kantus to a fishing colony on Crescentis,” Merlin replied as smoothly as he could. “We suffered a mishap three days ago that resulted in the total loss of our cargo and we would like to negotiate with you to re-supply our shipment of general supplies.”

“What type of mishap?”

Merlin frowned slightly. “A faulty computer diagnostic initiated an errant code on the bay doors and jettisoned everything from the hold. Fortunately, none of my crew was in the area at the time.” He did not bother to add that the computer malfunction was caused by their mobile security system, Moss.

“I see,” the monarch replied. “Very well then, Captain. I will arrange to provide you with coordinates on where you should land. Upon arrival, I would like to meet with you personally, and I am quite sure we can reach an agreement on the supplies if we have what you need. I would also count it a personal favor if you would dine with me this evening.”

“Dinner, sire?” Merlin gulped. He wasn’t sure if he was up to dining with the ruler of an entire world. He wasn’t even sure why someone as elevated as the king was even talking with him. Surely he didn’t meet with every visitor to his world.

“That’s right, Captain, as my guest. You may also bring up to four others with you.”

The wolf sighed inwardly and replied, “Aye, King Aris. We accept your gracious invitation.”

“Good, good,” the coyote said merrily. “I look forward to meeting you. Now, I must see to the preparations for your arrival. Your communications officer should now be in contact with Sky Patrol for landing instructions. Good day, Captain Sinclair of the Blue Horizon.”

The connection broke off before Merlin could say anything more. The king’s words were confirmed as Taro’s hands moved across her controls to transfer landing coordinates to their navigator. The wolf looked to Samantha and frowned.

“How about it?” he asked, looking at the three on the bridge with him. “Any of you want to join me to dine with a king?”

“I think I’ll pass,” Renny muttered.

Samantha glanced at him with a smirk. “You? Passing up a free royal feed, kit-cat?”

Renny twitched an ear and shrugged. “Free food or not, those affairs are a little too stuffy for me,” he replied without rising to the bait to banter.

“I’d rather not be there myself,” Merlin added with a heavy sigh. “I had originally intended to send Taro and Samantha in to make the negotiations for the supplies, but as you heard, my presence has been desired by the King, himself.”

“Count me in,” the Border collie said. “How should we dress for this?”

“Knowing the Horizon’s a freighter, we won’t be expected to have full dress outfits available to us for dining with dignitaries. Dress as nicely as you can, but I wouldn’t bother with extravagance.” He looked back at the others and sighed. “Ask around and see if we can get more volunteers,” he said.  

*** 

The transport arrived ten minutes after the Blue Horizon landed. Tanis opened the primary airlock and stepped out into the springtime air of Tanthe. The smell was clean despite their proximity to the city visible in the near distance. They had been directed to land on a pad in an open field just west of Aris Grand.

The captain wore a light blue open collar shirt with bloused long sleeves under a dark blue vest. His loose, black trousers were tucked into knee-high boots. As usual, his captain’s hat was perched atop his head between his ears. Beside him, Taro stepped out into the sun and pondered the sight of the heavy forest nearby. She had been brooding over her hometown catastrophe on Hestra and Merlin had prompted her to join them for a change of scenery. She had first declined, but gave in when it looked as if Merlin would give her a direct order. If she was going to go, she wanted it to be her own decision. She looked stunning in a pair of tan pants and a loose white blouse. She took a step further and looked behind her. Samantha stretched her arms with a smile, inhaling inhaled deeply. She was attired in a beige jumper adorned with golden leaves drawn from shoulder to waist diagonally.

Hanging back in the shadows was Tanis, who wore light brown pants and a black short sleeve shirt with an open collar where the fluff of fur at his neck spilled out as if it were a scarf. The fennec fox scanned the far horizon suspiciously, wondering why this world’s king wanted so much to meet them. He pointed toward a growing speck flying out toward them.

“There’s our ride,” he said. Approaching them was a transport that looked as if it were nothing more than a flat platform with guard rails to keep passengers from falling overboard. At the front was a tiny control panel where the pilot stood regally in an outfit not unlike Merlin’s, though a black cape lined with blue satin flowed briskly in the wind behind him.

The coyote landed the flying platform ten meters from the bulk of the Blue Horizon. Merlin led his small group across a rich grass pathway. When they approached the platform, the pilot bowed slightly and said, “I am Kal Navar. It is my honor to take you to the city of Aris Grand, Captain Sinclair, and to meet with his majesty, King Aris.”

Not knowing exactly what was expected, Merlin executed a small bow as well. “Thank you, Mr. Navar.”

“Kal will do, if you please.” The tawny coyote smiled and opened a section of the railing to let them board the platform. “You need not bow to me, Captain,” he added with a small chuckle. “I’m just the hired help, not the royalty.”

“It’s nice to make your acquaintance, anyway, Kal,” Samantha said as she stepped up beside him. “We’re not royalty, either.”

Navar watched as each of the party boarded his craft and shut the gate behind Tanis, the last to step inside the railing. Before he returned to his instrument panel, he replied, “You may not be royalty, but be prepared to be treated as such. King Aris does not invite many off-world visitors to his table, so you are likely to have everyone’s special attention.”

“Why us?” Taro asked. “The Blue Horizon is only a common freighter.”

“I’m sorry, but the King did not disclose his intentions to me.”

“That’s okay, Kal. We’re just curious.”

“Please hold on. The deck beneath your feet will be stable, but you never know when a sudden burst of wind might blow through.”

When he visually confirmed that everyone had at least one hand on the railing, he tapped the panel before him. The platform lifted fifty meters off the ground and nosed back the way it had come, picking up speed as it moved.

Merlin made his way to the pilot’s side, mindful to keep an eye on the coyote’s cape fluttering wildly in the wind. “Can you tell us how we’re expected to act for your king, Kal?”

The coyote didn’t take his eyes from their destination, but answered with barely a shrug of his slender shoulders. “Just be yourselves would be the best advice I could give. Aris does not like deceit and he respects honesty. He already knows you may not be aware of royal etiquette and protocol, so is prepared to accept your ways for the occasion.”

Tanis moved to Samantha’s side as they floated over a tall grove of trees and their destination came clearer into view. The castle palace was as majestic as any they might see in a Terran storybook. The towers and parapets were all there, as well as a drawbridge and the classic moat. These were all for show, Navar explained, for although the exterior looked ancient, the interior of the place was high-tech and well defended.

“How many dignitaries will we be dining with?” the wolf asked. “No offense, but I don’t feel comfortable about being in a room full of people in a social class I don’t belong in.”

Navar smiled. “Don’t fear for that, friend. As I hear it, only the King and his family will be present. You will see neither the Chancellor nor Prime Minister during your visit; both were hospitalized from a transport accident a few days ago. The dinner is to be informal.”

“Probably best,” Tanis said dryly.

As the platform rose above the weather-worn walls of the castle, the visiting party saw the gleaming marble fineness of the palace nestled in the center of the vast enclosure. A moderate city surrounded the palace and its colorful gardens and they were surprised to realize that the castle walls encompassed the entirety of the metropolis as if danger was expected without. They also saw large arrays of pulse cannons snuggled in the parapets and towers, some of which eerily followed the progress of the platform.

Navar took them directly to the palace and set them down on a landing pad in front of the capitol building’s entrance. The marbled walls of the structure towered ten stories, and cut into the greyish white stone were images of what the party took to be past rulers of Tanthe. The top of the building was gently curved in a dome that also displayed carved images. Outside the large wooden double doors were crouched sculptures of wild coyotes, obviously harking back to their wilder ancestors.

Navar shut down the power on the transport and led the way up the steps to the palace doors. From behind the sculptures came two uniformed guards who looked mean enough to slay the visitors with merely a glance. Throughout the Planetary Alignment, coyotes were not known to be an especially aggressive race, but these two defied that description. Scars were prominent across their bodies and one guard’s left eye was permanently closed.

“Who be these?” the one-eyed sentinel asked in a raspy voice.

“Palace Secretary, Kal Navar, delivering honored guests to his majesty, King Aris.”

The second guard consulted a common slateboard datapak and nodded. “Kal Navar is scheduled to deliver up to five guests to the Library upon arrival,” he announced formally. “You may proceed.” He nodded to the other guard and they opened the doors in crisp unison. The small procession moved quietly in through the entrance, and when the panels shut tightly behind them, Navar chuckled lightly.

Samantha smiled and asked, “Why do you laugh?”

“That wasn’t necessary,” their guide explained. “They already knew I was bringing you into the palace. They’re trying to show off for the guests.”

“Well, I thought their presentation was nice,” Samantha replied. “Their attempt was appreciated.”

“I would let them know you said so,” Kal said with a chuckle, “but I’m afraid their heads would swell up and burst!”

Merlin looked around the foyer they had entered. The floor was carpeted in deep brown and the walls were beige accented with golden trim. The low ceiling gave the room a cozy atmosphere and the lighting was provided from glowing panels. A few portraits adorned the walls and potted trees were in each corner but one. A solitary desk occupied that space, though it was vacant at the moment.

“This is my normal post,” Navar said as he moved into the large cushioned chair behind it. He tapped a few keys on a terminal inlaid into the tabletop and then waited for a readout. “Just checking in with Security,” he explained. An x-ray image of the room appeared on his monitor and he nodded to himself when no weapons were detected on any of the guests.

He stood up a moment later and walked to a solid wall. When he came within a meter of it, two panels slid aside to reveal a long, wide hallway. He stepped through and motioned to the guests. “This way, please.”

Merlin moved forward with Samantha and Taro at his heels. Arktanis hung back a moment before following. “Marvelous!” he whispered to himself as the wall closed behind him.

The painted ceiling in the hall was high and expensive chandeliers provided bright illumination for their walk. It appeared their destination was at the far end of the palace. Every twenty meters was an ornate door, some labeled with the names of the rooms beyond, and twice they crossed a junction with another large hallway. Randomly placed potted trees and shrubs gave off fresh aromas that were pleasing to their noses.

As the group made their way and listened to Kal Navar recite a little of the history of the kingdom, they met servants and others with business inside the palace offices. At one of the main crossroads, Merlin noticed an elegant young female in a fetching outfit watching them with obvious interest as they passed. She might have been seventeen or eighteen and undisciplined, the wolf thought to himself, for the servant’s duties were apparently forgotten.

He nearly bumped into Samantha when the group stopped in front of him. He shook himself from his musings and noted that the door before them was labeled “Royal Aris Library.” Navar opened the panel and led them inside a chamber of polished wood shelving, lush carpet, and the leather bindings of books new and old. Large oil paintings resided on easels in each of the corners and depicted the King’s Heroes from nearly three centuries of Tanthean history.

Once the door was shut behind them, Merlin immediately noticed the intense silence of the place. The library had been soundproofed against outside noise. Several large chairs and lounges were situated in random places for the readers’ comfort. At the moment, Navar and his charges were the only occupants of the book-filled chamber.

The coyote motioned them toward the seats. “King Aris will take his audience with you in here, but it may be a few minutes. Feel free to make yourselves comfortable.” With that, Navar gave them a short bow and left the room.

Merlin took a seat next to Samantha on a lounge and smiled. Taro strolled over to one of the huge paintings and idly studied a coyote identified as Prince Tanager who was adorned in fancy garments of a past age. Tanis walked to a window and gazed out onto a neatly arranged courtyard where gardeners tended the lush plant life of a hedge maze.

Only a few moments passed before the door opened again. King Adion Aris walked in with a wide smile. Every article of the slender coyote’s clothing was the same shade of burgundy, including the large jeweled ring on his finger. He wore no traditional crown, but rather a circular amulet with the family crest on a golden chain resting upon his chest denoted his sovereign leadership. He looked to be in his late fifties and his gaze was clear and penetrating. Everyone stood up and faced the monarch as two guards in uniforms of dark green moved in behind the king and stationed themselves on each side of the door.

He offered his hand as Merlin gave him a slight bow. “My dear Captain, welcome to Tanthe and the capitol city of Aris Grand.”

“Thank you, your Highness,” Merlin said with a slight nod before taking the coyote’s proffered hand. He turned toward his small party and introduced each of them to the king as they gathered around him. “This is Samantha Holden, Taro Nichols and Arktanis TeVann.” The king shook hands with each of them; he seemed to enjoy the physical contact. When he looked at Tanis, he twitched his whiskers.

“TeVann?” he asked.

“Yes, Sire,” the tan fox replied with a slight bow. The king nodded as if remembering something, but then stepped back to face Merlin.

“I know it was a great loss to lose your cargo, Captain, but for me I am pleased to have your company.” King Aris sat in one of the plush chairs and everyone but the personal guards followed his example by taking their own seats.

“Thank you for receiving us so warmly,” Merlin replied, “but I do not understand why such a high-level person such as yourself would want to meet common freighters.”

Aris continued smiled. “Please indulge me, sir.”

“Aye, your Majesty. As you wish.”

The monarch nodded. “Do you have a list of the goods you need?” he asked. Merlin reached into an inner pocket of his jacket and removed several sheets of paper folded together. He handed these to the monarch. As the coyote browsed the list, a servant entered the room with a rolling cart containing glasses and a chilled wine bottle. The coyote servant poured drinks for all. Merlin tried to refuse, for he did not drink liquor, but a glass was placed in his hand anyway. He didn’t want to cause a stir, so he merely held the glass without sampling the amber liquid.

The king looked up from the papers and said, “I can provide you with everything on this list, Captain Sinclair, though it will take a day or two to gather some of the supplies from the different provinces on my world.”

“Thank you, your Highness. I’m sure the price of your goods will be fair.”

The monarch folded the pages and snapped his fingers. One of the guards behind him bowed. “Take this to Kal Navar and have him initiate the acquisitions.”

“Yes, Sire.” The guard took the list and promptly left the room.

The king looked back at his guests. “Navar will total up the figures for you, Captain. If you will honor me with your company for three days here in my palace, I will consider a substantial discount on the shipment.”

Merlin swallowed and tried to make his smile appear genuine. Three days would put them further behind schedule, but the Moss accident had already done that on its own. He also didn’t really want to stay longer than necessary in the presence of one who governed an entire world. The Blue Horizon had been to nice places before, but had never had this kind of reception. It made him uneasy, but his business seemed to depend upon the situation this time.

“We would be honored, your Majesty,” he answered to the king’s delight. Samantha leaned over and whispered into his ear and he nodded.

“May I request approval for shore leave for the rest of my crew, your Highness? If we’re to spend several days here, they would appreciate the opportunity to tour your grand city.”

King Aris nodded, pleased with the request. “Of course, dear Captain. It is good for the local economy when guests spend time with us.”

“Thank you, Sire.” 

*** 

After Aris had dismissed them, Merlin contacted Durant to inform him of the king’s permission to allow shore leave to the rest of the crew. Taro and Samantha followed a servant to their assigned quarters and Tanis arranged to be taken back to the ship to get a few items.

Merlin was interested in the fancy architecture of the palace and wandered randomly down the corridors. He didn’t notice the figure quietly following him everywhere he went, but after a short time he had the feeling of being watched. Not surprising, he thought, since everyone probably knows everyone else by sight, and although wolves were a similar species to coyotes, his dark coloring made him stand out among those who went to and fro throughout the palace.

He soon felt the need for relief and was distressed at the thought since he did not know the method or customs used here. He decided quickly that it would be best to swallow his pride, show his ignorance and just ask someone.

He looked around and gulped when he realized there were only four people in sight and all were female. He swallowed hesitantly but had to ask someone. Only one of the women was actually looking his way, a young servant girl trying to hide from him in a recessed doorway. Ah, he thought, my shadow. He walked toward her and, knowing she had been seen, she stepped out into the corridor looking embarrassed at being discovered. Merlin recognized her as the curious girl who had watched his party when they had first arrived, though she was now clothed in a peach blouse that she filled nicely and tan riding breeches with black, knee-high boots.

Oh well... he thought, might as well ask her...

“Pardon me,” he said, “but I am a stranger to this place and I would appreciate it if you would direct me to... uh...” His words lumped into his throat. How does one ask such a thing?

The girl tilted her head to the side curiously, awaiting him to finish. She was amused by his apparent distress, but did not know its cause. If she could read the wolf correctly, he looked self-conscious.

Merlin gulped and leaned forward to whisper his need to her. No sense in letting everyone around them know. “I... uh... need...” The girl turned her ear toward him. Merlin swallowed again and finally whispered, “Pardon me for being blunt, miss, but I need a place to... uh... relieve myself.”

The girl laughed in amusement, but politely hid her face behind her hands. Merlin frowned and wondered if he could crawl off into a hole somewhere. Perhaps he could hold on long enough to make his way back to the ship.

The girl wiped her eyes and said, “I can show you the way, mister wolf. Follow me.” She laughed again and took a fast pace back the way he had come from. Merlin smiled nervously and trotted after her. Fortunately it was not far. She led him through an ornate door into a sleeping chamber, past a frilly bed piled high and surrounded by fluffy pillows. A male servant eyed the wolf suspiciously as the he followed the girl through the room, but she continued on as if not seeing him.

She stopped before another ornate door and opened it for him. “In here,” she said.

“Thank you so much, miss,” Merlin gasped. He went in and shut the door behind him. Thankfully, the facilities were similar to what he was used to so he would not have to take precious time to figure them out. Good. Not a moment too soon.

He emerged a few moments later, clean, refreshed and ready to resume his tour of the palace. His savior sat on the edge of the bed and the other servant was now absent. The room seemed mighty fancy if it was the servant’s personal chamber, but then again, everything in this place looked fancy to him. Once again, Merlin felt embarrassed as he approached her, quietly noting the aromatic perfume in the air.

“My apologies and my thanks, miss,” he said with a smile. “I don’t know what I would have done without your help.”

The young girl smiled merrily and her eyes twinkled. “No doubt you would have embarrassed yourself in a different way, dear wolf.” She chuckled again.

“No doubt...” he replied. He leaned forward and gave her a quick lick on the cheek in traditional thanks. She drew back in surprise and touched the spot he had licked her. Her lips parted and Merlin suddenly noticed how pretty she was.

“I am Captain Merlin Sinclair,” he said, standing up straight with his right hand on his chest. “If my lovely benefactor will tell me her name, I will let your master know you were a great service to me.”

“My master?” The girl choked back a laugh. Her eyes widened and she dropped her hand from her cheek to her lap.

“Or whomever you report to,” the wolf added.

She motioned toward a plush chair beside the bed. “I think you’d better sit down, mister wolf.”

Merlin shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I think I should leave before I get you into trouble.”

She laughed again in a manner that seemed more fitting to her age than her previous words had. “Please sit. I like your company.”

Merlin hesitated a moment and finally took the seat. “Well, maybe a few minutes will be okay.” He looked rather stiff sitting there and the girl laughed again.

“You could start off by giving me your name,” the wolf prompted, wondering what joke she was pulling on him.

She stood up and extended a hand toward him. He took it gently and looked up at her with a look of puzzlement. She smiled and said, “I am Tinara Shei Aris, second daughter of Adion Aris, monarch of this world.”

Merlin suddenly felt light-headed. He had licked the cheek of the King’s daughter! If he had ever felt like fainting before, it was now - but he was afraid he would wake up with his head on a chopping block if he did. He swallowed multiple times but could not bring down the dreadful lump in his throat.

The wolf looked up at her with fearful shock and stammered, “I...I...I... I’m sorry, milady. I...I...I... was uh... uhm... Please forgive me, I’m terribly sorry for... uh... for...”

The princess put her free hand on his head and ran her fingers through the fur between his ears beneath his hat. “Relax, captain wolf,” she said. “I’m not going to hurt you… or report you to my master.” She chuckled and sat down on the bed facing him. She gently touched the spot on her cheek where he had licked her and said almost shyly, “I like you.”

He managed to meet her eyes and said, “I, uh, I don’t think I’ve ever embarrassed myself like this before, Princess. Please forgive me.”

She laughed, something she had done a lot of at his expense, and shook her head. “Listen to me, Captain. I forgive you. It’s okay. I’m not mad, nor insulted. Now, please, relax.”

Merlin finally smiled. “When I noticed you following me, I thought you were a curious servant wanting a glimpse at the visitors.”

“No,” she replied, “just a curious princess wanting a glimpse at the visitors.”

“We would have met during tonight’s dinner, wouldn’t we?”

“Yes,” she answered, “but I was impatient.”

Merlin started to relax a little under her easy manner, but he was still flushed. He was light headed and blinked rapidly several few times.

“Is something wrong?” the princess asked.

“It’s rather warm in here, your Highness,” he answered with a hard swallow. Panting, he removed his hat and began to fan himself with it. “Would you allow me to leave you to get some fresh outside air?”

“No,” she countered. “Now that I have you, I don’t want to let you go. However, I would appreciate your escort outside in the courtyard air.”

Merlin smiled and nodded. “I accept.”

Both stood up and Merlin discovered his legs still worked, despite his fright a moment ago. He followed the princess from the room, slipping his hat back on, and walked beside her down the corridor, ignoring the curious glances by the real servants.

They passed through a glass door that slid aside at their approach and the fresh aromas of the courtyard flowers were welcome to the wolf’s senses. He blinked at the bright sunlight and smiled. Much better. The princess put her arm in through one of his and led him along a cobbled walkway. Merlin was very aware of the surprised looks from the gardeners at seeing the daughter of their king on the arm of a stranger. Tinara smiled openly and nodded as they passed.

“I don’t know if this is such a good idea, Princess,” Merlin said, indicating their arms.

“Why? I like it.”

“Because word of it might get back to the King and I do not want to jeopardize my ship’s trade with him.”

Tinara laughed. “My father has been looking for a mate for me. He has no sons and my elder sister and her husband have produced only more daughters for the royal lineage.”

“And his Highness wants a male heir?” the wolf replied nervously.

“Uh huh... Unfortunately, there’s been no one for me on all of Tanthe, despite many suitors.” She looked up at him and smiled. “I think father would be pleased with you.”

Merlin stopped and stared down at her. “Me?” he said hoarsely. “Is that why he insisted on meeting us personally?”

“I do not know what my father’s reasons are,” she answered with a smile, “but I would not put it past him.”

Merlin swallowed and looked at her. “How can you be sure I’d be an acceptable mate for you when you don’t even know me?” he asked.

Tinara laughed again and hugged his arm tightly. “Silly wolf, I did not say I had chosen you as my mate. I was only explaining why my father would not mind me walking arm in arm with you...”

“Oh...” Merlin replied, aware he had just made a fool of himself in front of her – again. The princess chuckled and beckoned him on. They began walking again along the winding path through immaculately sculpted bushes and trees. The temperature was comfortable and only a slight breeze wafted by pleasantly.

“Tell me about your life as a merchant trader,” Tinara said.

Merlin shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “Well, Princess, there’s not really much to tell. I’m the captain and primary pilot for our ship during the main watch, and...”

“The captain... and pilot?” she interrupted, wide eyed.

“Yes, I’m the captain,” he answered. “As for being the pilot, my entire crew rotates at the controls, so none of us get too tired on the long journeys between systems. But for emergencies, I usually take the center seat, myself.”

She leaned into him as they walked and the wolf was momentarily distracted by her perfume in the midst of the garden scents. “What kind of emergencies, Captain Sinclair?”

“In case one of us is injured when we go into battle, then —”

“Battle?”

Merlin frowned. “Against pirate raiders, Princess. They like to prey on merchant ships like ours. Because of this, we have just upgraded the engines on my ship, the Blue Horizon,” he said, “but every time I’m ready to make much-needed repairs to other, older systems, we take another financial hit like our loss of cargo this time.”

“Oh...” They walked on a few moments more and then she looked up at him. “Would you honor a request for me?” she asked in a soft voice.

“I will try, Princess. What is your request?”

“That you would call me by name, and not by title,” she replied.

“Aris?”

“No, silly wolf. Tinara.”

Merlin smiled and replied as he ducked under the low-hanging limbs of a willow tree, “I didn’t know it was allowed to be so direct with royalty, Princess... Tinara.”

She gave a big smile. “It is allowed if the royalty desires it, Mr. Sinclair.”

The wolf was feeling more comfortable with the young coyote and returned her smile openly. “Would it be out of place for me to ask you to return the favor?”

“You mean call you by your first name?” She seemed delighted.

“Yes, please.” They entered an area of the courtyard garden with high hedges. She led him into a growing maze and held onto his arm as if he might run away were she to release him. As they wound through the organic labyrinth, they passed stone benches, marble sculptures or flower pots at every third turn of the path. They came upon several branches in the walkway, but the princess led them on through the warren with the knowledge of their destination.

“You’re nice, Merlin.” She giggled as she said his name. “I’ve never really known a wolf personally before. I know our original species were usually enemies, but I can’t find anything about you that I do not like.” They resumed walking and rounded a corner. The princess stopped suddenly when they came upon a couple on one of the many stone benches. It was Kal Navar and Taro, and they were oblivious to the intruders to their privacy. The coyote’s hand was inside Taro’s jumper as they alternately kissed and licked one another’s muzzles.

Merlin was caught by surprise and somewhat embarrassed for his friend, but smiled at the obvious pleasure the vixen was having. After her recent grief, it was good to see her with a smile again. He looked over at Tinara and saw the dark scowl in her eyes. She purposely scuffed her feet and the reaction was immediate. Navar looked up in shock at the royal princess and the coyote jerked his hand from Taro’s blouse with enough force that they all heard the fabric rip. The fox grabbed the torn section of her clothing with both hands and looked up with wide orange eyes.

“You ... your Highness!” Navar exclaimed, jumping to his feet to execute a quick bow.

“Kal,” Tinara acknowledged in a voice dripping coldly. The look in Navar’s eyes told Sinclair she was someone whose respect was highly valued by the servant, and he had just lost any favor he might have had with her. Taro merely looked embarrassed at being caught. Merlin winked at her with a small smile that went unnoticed by the coyotes.

After glaring at Navar for a silent moment more, the princess slid her hand into the wolf’s and said, “Come along, Merlin.”

The princess led him away through the maze in silence, at a pace quicker than what they had previously moved. At length she slowed and stared down at her feet. They came upon another of the stone benches and she motioned for them to sit down. She turned and stared at the wolf steadily, and then an unexpected smile crept across her lips. She looked back the way they had come and then back into his amber eyes.

“Merlin...” she said in a lilting voice. “What they were doing back there...”

“I’m sorry, your Highness,” the wolf said hesitantly. “I don’t think Taro meant any disrespect to your court.”

The princess put a finger to his lips. “I’m not concerned with her personally,” she said, “but about what they were doing together.”

“Yes?”

She leaned closer to the wolf so that their noses were only an inch apart. “Do that with me.”

Merlin blinked twice and swallowed. “Do that with you?”

“You like me, don’t you?”

“Yes, Princess, but—”

“Tinara, remember?”

Merlin closed his eyes just a moment and then looked around them. They were alone, and although there were windows from the surrounding buildings visible, he could see no one through their mirrored surfaces. He looked back at the princess and tried to think of a way to gently turn her down.

“Please?” she asked in a whisper. Her eyes had a soft expression and she looked as if there was an inner glow of anticipation within her.

Merlin nodded silently, resolving to limit his touches only to her lips. He could not bring himself to be as intimate as Navar had been with Taro. He moved closer and gave her a gentle kiss directly on the lips that she leaned into pleasantly. She was pretty and he had to concentrate to keep himself from giving in totally to her charms. 

*** 

Adion Aris now wore all green. He looked out from the third floor window of his office chambers into the courtyard and idly let his gaze wander through the pathways at the gardeners and guests to his palace. After a moment he recognized Kal Navar leading a vulpine visitor through the maze by the hand. They seemed in a great hurry. The king smiled to himself. Navar was a good coyote, but he usually kept to himself. It was good to see him with a female, even if only a visitor.

He looked around and then saw his youngest daughter. She was with the visiting wolf on a park bench near one end of the maze. He had intended to introduce them during the evening meal as part of his strategy, but it appears they had already found one another. He smiled at the scene, but then he saw what they were doing. He reached into a drawer of a small credenza beside the window and drew out a small spotting scope. He put it up to his eye and focused the lens upon his daughter.

“Well, well...” he said to himself. The wolf’s hands were around Tinara’s slender waist and hers were around the back of his neck as they enjoyed a kiss. The king watched a moment more and put the eyeglass away. He walked to his desk and sat in the chair before a small monitor. He touched a control and a face appeared on the screen.

“Yes, your Highness?” the female on the monitor answered.

“Shenna, has my visitors’ manifest request been initiated?”

“Yes, Sire. Kal Navar put it in an hour ago with Supply. It will take three days to gather the goods here to the capitol.”

“Three days...” the king muttered. He thought a moment and then said, “When Navar gets back to his office, tell him to slow the process by a day or two.”

Slow it, your Majesty?”

“Shall I arrange to have your ears examined, Shenna?” he asked tonelessly.

“No, Sire. I’ll see to it Navar understands as soon as he arrives.”

“Good.” He touched the control again and the screen went dark. He rubbed his hands together and stood up. He walked to the door and left his office after a quick glance back toward the window. 

*** 

As they walked through the long corridors once again, Tinara was lighthearted, happy and had her arm wound through Merlin’s as her tail wagged behind her. She had introduced him to a number of the staff, all the while clinging to him with smiles and giggles, but they were now in a different part of the palace and he did not think he would have been able to find his the way back if she decided to leave him. They had come in from the maze on the opposite end of the courtyard than they had entered. This way was less traveled, it appeared.

“Tell me, Merlin,” the princess said. “Why you didn’t touch me the same way Kal did to that friend of yours?”

The wolf tilted his head as he looked at her. “One step at a time, sweet Tinara. I don’t get intimate as quickly as Taro does, especially in public where someone might be watching from a window.”

“But you do like me?”

Merlin laughed. “You’re a bit young for me, but yes, I do like you.”

“A bit young?” she repeated with an arched eyebrow. “I’ll have you know I am an adult!”

“That was never in question, but you are still the king’s daughter.”

Tinara pulled him to the side of the hallway to a simple door. She opened it, switched on the light and then they went inside. She shut the door behind them and locked it. Merlin surveyed the room suspiciously. They were in a small bed chamber that was apparently unused and of simple design. The bed was a four-poster with a sheer canopy curtain that was drawn aside and a pair of high-backed chairs flanked it on either side.

“Why are we here behind a locked door, Tinara?”

“Just providing us with some privacy.”

The wolf was worried now. He had picked up her scent earlier and realized she would be in heat very soon. He would have to handle this diplomatically, since he was not about to put his neck on a chopping block for a bit of physical pleasure with the daughter of a planet’s ruler.

The princess looked at him slyly and swished her tail. “Whatever you do while you are here,” she said in a quiet voice, “just remember you are not to tickle me...”

The wolf looked at her strangely. What an odd thing to say, he thought to himself.

When he did not respond, she sighed and said, “Did you hear me? I said, ‘don’t tickle me’...”

Merlin raised his eyebrows leaning in closer to her, his nose almost touching her own so that he held her undivided attention. “You mean, don’t do this?”

He boldly grabbed her sides and she shrieked. Undaunted, he playfully danced his fingers about her ribs as she screamed out in laughter. He hoped she had chosen this particular room in the palace for its seclusion. It wouldn’t be good if someone recognized the princess’ voice screaming from behind a locked door.

Tinara jumped away from his fingers and fell on her back upon the bed through the sheer curtain. The wolf didn’t give her time to regroup. He threw caution to the wind, leapt up, straddled her legs and pinned them to the mattress. He faced away from her and began removing her knee-high boots.

“Oh, no you don’t!” she exclaimed. “Not the feet! Not the feet!”

Merlin laughed heartily as he managed to work one boot halfway off her foot. “Too late, Princess. You asked for it and now you’re going to get it!” Her boot hit the floor and he managed to get the other one off without much more trouble. She wriggled her feet frantically, but he held them fast while he removed the small socks she wore beneath the boots.

Tinara sat up and grabbed at the wolf’s ribs, but he only shook his head with a smile. “No good, your Highness. I’m not ticklish.” He pulled a finger along the sole of her right foot and she inhaled sharply. “Sensitive, is it?” he asked. He thumped the tip of his tail against the side of her head and she tried to grab it with a snicker.

Sinclair tickled both feet with his fingers and she shrieked in his ear. She wrapped her arms around him and tried to reach his hands to stop him, but her arms were not long enough. Merlin only doubled his efforts and she lay back on the bed screaming with her hands pressed up to her eyes. She laughed uncontrollably and bucked when he moved his fingers to her toes.

Giggling hysterically, she squirmed to get free but she was too weak from laughing to do much. Merlin focused his attention on the underside of her toes, where she seemed to be the most ticklish. Then, after a couple of minutes of the torture, he slowed and then stopped. Tinara continued laughing for a minute more and then finally wiped the tears from her eyes to look up at him. He stared at her over his shoulder and his mischievous expression put her into another fit of giggles.

Merlin got up off her legs and sat on the bed next to her. She panted and little chuckles would hit her from time to time. He lightly grabbed her right knee and she shrieked again without thinking. She snared his hands and held them as she sat up beside him.

“Merlin… Sinclair,” she said between heavy panting breaths, “I am… so hot...”

He laughed and asked, “Want me to turn on the ceiling fan?”

Tinara half closed her eyes and shook her head. “That is not what I meant, my wolf...” Merlin became suddenly aware of the strong scent in the air, and his sensitive hearing picked up her rapid heartbeat in the quiet of the room. She leaned closer to him and her eyes narrowed further.

“Tickling my toes is my big turn-on,” she said softly. “Now, turn me on in other ways...”

Merlin’s senses were swimming from the scent that permeated the room and he shook his head several times to clear his thoughts. It took a great effort, but he managed to put his arms around her in a soft embrace, instead of what he wanted to do. The embrace she returned was stronger and clutching.

His nose was near her left ear and he nuzzled it gently. “Tinara… I can’t do this.”

The princess slowly calmed, but she said nothing for several long moments. He could feel the tension dissipate and then she pulled away from him to look into his eyes with a halfhearted smile.

She swallowed, sighed and then said, “I know, I know — daughter of the king...” She licked the side of his muzzle and then kissed him long and hard. Merlin gasped for air when she finally pulled away.

“Thank you,” she said after a quiet moment. “No one’s ever discovered my turn-on toes before.”

The wolf smiled his mischief again. “Well, you did prompt me to tickle you,” he reminded. “You can’t deny that!”

She chuckled. “I enjoy being tickled, but I didn’t think you’d remove my boots!” The two of them laughed and the princess finally put her arms around him softly, snuggling up to his chest. “I don’t want you to leave, Merlin Sinclair,” she said quietly.

“According to your father’s predictions, it will be a few days before our cargo is assembled,” Merlin replied. “I’ll be here that long, anyway.”

Tinara closed her eyes and said in a voice too quiet for even the wolf’s sensitive hearing, “Perhaps longer...”

At that moment, Merlin’s stomach grumbled lowly. He laughed and said, “Sorry, it’s been a while since breakfast.” The princess sat up looked over at an ornate clock across the room. She bit her bottom lip as she noted the time.

“If we hurry back to our rooms, I think we can be ready in time to dine with my father and your friends.”

“How much time do we have?” Merlin asked.

“Just under an hour.”

“Then we’d better hurry!” Merlin handed her a boot and picked up the other one, forgetting the socks. He couldn’t resist, though, and gave her bare toes a quick tickle. She squawked and slapped his hand away playfully.

“Stop that, or we’ll never make it on time!” she scolded half-heartedly.

Merlin grinned and shook his head. “Deadlines...” 

*** 

King Aris was pleased with the spread of food set out on the long table. There was more than enough to satisfy them all. Merlin, Samantha and Taro stood beside him as he made introductions.

“I present to you my family,” the king said. Three female coyotes faced them all dressed in fine gowns. One of them was near in age to the king, one in her thirties and the youngest of eighteen. “This is my wife and queen, Sechsi, my eldest daughter, Carina, and my youngest, Tinara.” The three guests bowed toward them.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Merlin said politely.

“And I yours,” Sechsi replied in a soft voice.

Aris turned to Carina and asked, “Where is Dolan? I requested your husband’s presence, as well.”

Carina motioned to the air with a hand and answered, “He left this morning with our three girls for the Misty Amusement Park in Tamaranth, father. They were gone before our guests ever arrived.”

“I see.” The king indicated for them to take their seats. Servants moved in quickly to tend the chairs for the ladies and Aris gave his wife and daughters a pleasant smile. Taro looked up at the broad-shouldered coyote that held her chair for her and gave him a warm smile. Samantha was seated beside her with Merlin next to the Border collie.

“Will the fennec who joined us this afternoon dine with us tonight, Captain?” Aris asked as the servants moved around the room to attend the family and guests.

“My apologies, your Majesty,” Merlin replied. “He accepted the offer to see your city and has not returned as yet.”

“A pity,” Sechsi said as the servants moved in to fill their glasses and bring in laden plates. “He will miss an excellent meal.”

“Indeed,” Samantha agreed. “It looks absolutely wonderful!”

“So, Mr. Sinclair,” the king said with a friendly smile, “What did you think of our city?”

Merlin glanced quickly to Tinara and then back to the king. “I spent most of the day touring your palace and the courtyard, Sire. I never made it out into the city itself.”

“Did you see anything you liked?”

Merlin’s eyes darted once again to the younger princess and the cleavage her gown revealed before he returned his gaze to Aris — a subtle action that did not go unnoticed by the monarch. “Yes, your Highness,” he replied. “You have a lot of beauty and beautiful things in this place.”

The king looked over at Merlin’s interest and asked, “Are you all right, Tinara? You are usually quite the chatterbox at the table.”

She looked up shyly as a servant filled her glass. “I’m fine, father. I just have some things on my mind.” Under the table, she had slipped off one of her elegant shoes and had begun to rub her toes gently against the wolf’s ankle.

“Indeed? Anything you’d like to discuss?”

“No, not really.”

“All right, then.” Aris returned his attention back to the captain as the Sechsi asked Taro about the dress she wore. It was a Tanthean design and the vixen explained she had accidentally torn her own garments while in the garden courtyard; one of the servants had provided it for her.

As the talk went on and they began their meal, Merlin and Tinara exchanged another long glance and smiled at one another. The king watched them covertly as thoughts swirled through his brain. He kept his expression neutral, but continued to watch them. 

*** 

Merlin shut the door to the room he had been given and switched on the light. The bed was a large four-poster with a sheer fabric curtain around it underneath a matching canopy, very similar to the one in the chamber Tinara had taken him to earlier. A small stand was next to the bed and a massive mirror in an ornate frame hung on the wall. There was a plush velvet chair in two of the corners, a potted tree in another and expensive tapestries on the walls.

He walked to the closet and found an assortment of garments inside he noted were all in his sizes despite that he had not given anyone his measurements. He peeked into the bathroom and was delighted to see a sunken marbled bathing area with the top edge at floor level. It had been a long time since he had had an immersion bath. There were only shower cubicles in the cabins on the Blue Horizon.

The meal with the monarch’s family had not been as stuffy as he had feared. Although he did not get to visit much with Tinara, her presence had been nice, especially in that stunning gown she had worn. The king and queen had both been interested in talking with him, more so it seemed, than with his companions. It was likely due to his position of authority. Aris had seen especially interested in the genetics of his family history.

Merlin had wanted to speak with Tinara when the meal was over, but Aris had requested her presence in private. Instead, he and his shipmates had wandered back out into the garden for a bit. Although he had tried to hide it in the king’s presence, Merlin was irritated because he had been told their cargo was going to take a day or two longer to assemble as originally thought. The delay might cost him his next delivery, as they were already behind schedule. Cursing Moss’ existence beneath his breath, he and Samantha headed back to their assigned rooms while Taro sought out Kal Navar.

Merlin thought again about the bath and smiled. He began to unfasten the clasps on his shirt, but stopped when he glanced at the mirror. The whole business of being the king’s guest made him cautious, so he turned out the light and moved into the bathroom. He covered the mirror there with a huge towel and then started to fill the bath with hot water. He found a large candle and matches lying on the counter, so he lit it for ambiance and shut off the overhead light. He also discovered a bottle of bath soap, and when he opened the glass container, his nose was met with floral scent. He smiled, poured a small amount into the churning water, and was rewarded with frothing bubbles.

The wolf got out of his clothing and then stepped into the hot bath with a hiss. Very warm, but nice, he thought as he slowly sat down. He shut off the tap and suddenly became very still. He thought he had heard something in the outer room. He strained his ears for a moment and then shrugged his shoulders when he didn’t hear anything else. He slid down into the water until it was over his shoulders and bubbles were up to his ears. Merlin closed his eyes with a contented smile and relaxed.

His thoughts meandered to the afternoon and he remembered how compelling the princess had been. He had enjoyed her company. If she had not been royalty, he might have actually given in to her charms. He almost had, anyway. As he soaked, he pictured her in his mind and could almost hear her speak his name.

“Merlin?”

The wolf’s eyes snapped open. He had heard his name. His gaze darted to the doorway and a figure moved into the candlelight.

“Tinara?” he asked quietly.

“No, but I’ll leave if you were expecting her,” the Border collie said dryly.

“Samantha? No, I wasn’t expecting anyone, but she was in my thoughts,” he admitted.

She knelt next to the floor-level bath and scooped up some bubbles. “That looks inviting,” she said. “Is there room for one more?”

Merlin smiled amongst the bubbles. “There’s room enough for a whole cozy of us in here. C’mon in.”

“A whole cozy, eh?” she chuckled as she dropped her dress to the floor. “An interesting thought — want to cozy up together when we get out?”

Merlin looked at her suspiciously. “How many in our cozy?”

The collie slid into the hot water slowly to get used to the temperature and then made her way to his lap. “Just you and me, Merlin.”

He put his arms around her. “Anything wrong? I thought you were going to find Pockets and head out on the town. “

“I couldn’t find him and I didn’t feel like being alone.”

“So you crept into my room instead?”

Samantha slid a hand down his stomach and nuzzled his ear. Using his terminology, she whispered, “Well, you’ve always shown me a good cozy whenever we’ve gotten together.” She licked his ear playfully. Merlin closed his eyes and enjoyed her ministrations with a smile. He had needed a distraction from thoughts of Tinara and in walked Samantha. Good timing.

Samantha turned in his lap so that she faced him. After she got situated, she asked, “What is this about you and the princess I see?”

“Is our attraction that obvious?”

“It is to someone who’s known you for years,” she answered. “Taro noticed too. Did you and the princess…?”

The wolf shook his head. “No, not with the king’s daughter,” he assured her. “Not that I hadn’t thought about it, though.”

“I thought so,” the collie said slyly. Merlin smiled as she squirmed a bit in his lap and added, “Time to think of me now.”  

*** 

Merlin yawned lazily as he opened his eyes and saw Samantha dressing. “Good morning, Merlin,” she said. “Sleep well?”

“Mmm hmm,” he murmured. He stretched and smiled up at her. “Where are you off to so early?”

“To see if I can find Taro’s friend, Kal,” she answered with a smile. “He mentioned a clothing shop in the city I want to check out, and I also want to see if I can find more distractions for the Rec Room. After our journey out to Sillon and back, everybody’s sick of what we have now.”

Merlin looked through the bed covers scattered around the room, searching for his trousers. “Kal’s probably working, Samantha. Check his desk at the palace entrance.”

“I remember.” She moved over to him and nuzzled him lightly. “Thanks for last night.”

He licked his lips and smiled. “Anytime,” he replied.

It took the wolf half an hour to straighten up the room from the mess they had made of it and was relieved that nothing was broken. He had a towel wrapped around his waist as he stood looking into the closet. He would wear something today from the assortment provided for him. There was a knock at the door. Thinking it might be the princess, he rushed to answer it. He opened the door and peered into the faces of Renny and Tanis.

“Hi, guys!” Merlin said with a grin. “Come on in while I get dressed.”

“Hello, boss,” Renny said. He walked in with a smile and boldly snatched Merlin’s towel away from him.

“Hey!” the wolf exclaimed. “At least close the door first.” He covered himself with his tail, waiting for the others to come in and shut the ornate panel before someone else out there got a free show.

Merlin studied the closet again and selected a few items as Tanis closed the door behind him. He took the garments into the bathroom to change into and called out to them. “Everything okay?”

“Just fine,” Tanis replied.

“How did rubbing shoulders with the royalty go?” Renny asked. He put a hand on a bedpost and leaned against it, his eyes roving over the décor of the room.

“The king’s family is a nice bunch, not stuffy at all,” Merlin answered, “and the food was excellent. It’s too bad you two didn’t come with us.”

“The way I heard it, I’m surprised ya even tasted the food,” Tanis said with a chuckle.

“Huh?” Merlin walked out of the bathroom with his black boots in hand. He wore a loose pair of tan pants and a white, open-neck shirt with bloused long sleeves. Around his middle was a gold sash tied loosely on the right.

“Taro said you spent most of the meal making eyes with the young princess,” Renny replied.

The wolf sat in a chair to slip on his boots. “Well, I did spend the afternoon with her.”

Tanis sniffed the air and added, “Last night, too, from the smell of it.”

Renny sniffed and laughed. “You fast-moving wolf, you.”

“No, that was Samantha,” Merlin replied nonchalantly as he stood up; it was no secret to his crew that the two of them occasionally hooked up. “So, guys, what are your plans today?”

A light knock on the door stopped any reply to the question. Merlin walked past his friends and opened the door. It was Tinara.

“Good morning, your Highness,” the wolf said with a bow. “Please come in.”

“Your Highness?” she repeated. “What happened to calling me by name, silly wolf?” She stepped inside and slid her arms up over his shoulders. She was about to lick his muzzle when she saw his companions. “Oh, I didn’t know you had company,” she said in surprise. She drew back away from him a step and dropped her hands to her sides.

“These are my shipmates, Princess,” Merlin explained. “Princess Tinara, meet Arktanis and Renny.” The pair bowed slightly and Tanis even gave a small wave of his hand.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m sorry to disturb you and your friends, Merlin, but the king and queen would like to meet with you in the throne chamber.”

“Taking him home to meet the folks?” the cheetah quipped.

Tinara turned to him and smiled openly. “Something like that, Mister Renny.”

“Do I look presentable enough for the throne room?” Sinclair asked, spreading his arms wide. The princess looked at him with a critical eye and then moved to the closet. She pulled out a gold vest and held it out to him. He put it on and faced the mirror.

“All ya need is a turban,” Tanis said, “and a gold-trimmed cape.”

“And a camel,” Renny finished with a laugh.

Merlin glared at them until Tinara threaded an arm through his and said, “I think he looks like a prince.” With that, she gave them a wink and then gently licked the wolf on the cheek.

Arktanis coughed into his fist and said, “How do I look, yer Highness?”

She studied the short tan fox and replied, “You look like Rastus, our court jester.”

Merlin and Renny began laughing, but Tanis’ eyes lit up. “Rastus is here?”

“You know him?” Tinara asked.

“Is he a fennec fox, like me?”

“Yes,” she answered with a smile. “He’s a little shorter, but his ears are longer. His family name is TeVann.”

Tanis smiled widely. “That’s him. He’s my cousin.”

Renny pointed to Tanis and looked to Merlin. “How about that – there’s another one of him in the galaxy!”

“Would you like to meet him?” Tinara asked as she moved back to Merlin’s side. “He’ll be waiting in the wings of the throne room.”

“Yes, I would. It’s been about ten years since we last saw one another,” Tanis said excitedly.

“I don’t know what they want,” Merlin said, “but I don’t wish to keep King Aris waiting.”

“Probably not a good idea,” Renny replied. With that, Tinara led them out the door with the others trailing along.

“I wonder how Rastus wound up on Tanthe.” Tanis wondered aloud. “The last I’d heard, he left Nalirra when he was rejected by our military due to bad eyesight.”

Tinara nodded as they walked. “Kal Navar told me that he found Rastus lost and alone at the edge of town a few years ago. It seems the transport your cousin was on made an emergency landing on Tanthe and he wandered away before they took off again, stranding him here without his luggage and only a few credits on him. Kal hired him for the palace when he discovered his sense of humor.”

“Sounds like the Rastus I knew, alright,” Tanis replied with a grin at Renny.

Their conversation dissipated when they arrived at the massive wooden doors that led into the throne room. Tinara stopped and turned to the wolf. “Go on in, Merlin. They are waiting for you,” she said. She gave him another quick lick on the cheek and added, “I’m going to take your friend to meet his cousin.”

“Wait!” Merlin exclaimed, suddenly nervous. “Can you give me a clue on why your parents have summoned me?”

The princess smiled merrily and shook her head. “No, but don’t be worried, my wolf,” she said. “My father likes you. Just be yourself when talking with them, like you did last night.” She took Tanis by the elbow and led him away to a side corridor.

Merlin looked to his remaining companion and frowned. “I don’t know if I’m ready for a full-court conversation with the King and Queen — especially since Tinara is being purposely vague about why they want to see me.”

Renny put a hand on his shoulder. “Want me to come in there with you, in case you need a distraction for a hasty retreat?”

“Why would I need a retreat?” Merlin asked, feeling his dread deepen.

Renny winked at him. “Well,” the cheetah answered, “you have been pretty chummy with their daughter. The royal rulers may take exception to that. I think the story usually goes that only other royalty may court a princess.”

Merlin twitched his tail nervously. “But, I wasn’t actually courting her,” the wolf complained. “She just wanted...”

“I’ll be right behind you,” the cheetah promised.

Merlin nodded and turned to the doors. “Maybe they just want to inform me that our replacement cargo is ready,” he added with a frown.

“After only two days? That’s wishful thinking.”

He pushed the doors open with surprising ease despite their size and entered. Renny moved in behind him silently. The throne room was not a huge chamber, perhaps the size of small auditorium. There were several rows of seats near a raised dais, upon which were two ornate marble thrones. King Aris sat on the left and Queen Sechsi on his right. Exquisite purple draperies hung on the walls and a handful of people stood near the front. A uniformed guard beside the door walked over to Merlin and spoke to him quietly.

The male coyote turned and headed up the carpeted center of the room to the King and announced the wolf.

“Merlin Sinclair of the Blue Horizon, your Highness.”

The king motioned to the wolf to approach the thrones. As Merlin walked forward, his shipmate fell into step behind him. The pair halted before the dais and bowed in unison.

“Welcome, welcome,” the monarch said. His quiet voice carried well in the acoustics of the room. His expression seemed to be pleased and the wolf was eased somewhat.

“You come highly recommended by my daughter, Mr. Sinclair,” Aris said.

“Sire? Recommended for what?”

The king turned and looked at Sechsi with a smile. She returned it and he resumed his gaze to the curious wolf. “To marry her and keep the royal bloodline going, son.”

Merlin’s jaw dropped and Renny did a double take toward him. Aris continued as if he had not noticed the wolf’s stunned countenance.

“I spoke with her at length last night after our dining,” he said. “She convinced me that you should be the one to take up my offer of her hand in marriage.”

“She was most adamant in having you as her mate, dear Merlin,” the queen added with a gentle smile.

The captain’s face was of pure shock. “Me, your Highness?” he said hoarsely. “I’m not… uhm, I’m no descendant of royal blood that I could marry a princess!”

The king laughed aloud. “You do not have to have royal blood to marry a princess, son,” he explained. “Once you marry my daughter, you take on my family name and any children you produce through her will have my blood to become rightful heirs.”

“I’m not even a coyote!”

The monarch shook his head, amused by Sinclair’s anxieties, but he was used to getting what he wanted. “We are close enough in species for you to produce pups with the Aris blood.”

Merlin coughed. “Is this the reason why you wanted to meet with me?” he asked hoarsely. “The reason why you queried my First Officer on the species of my crew?”

“Yes, exactly.”

 “Your Highness, I like Princess Tinara very much, but I’m just a captain of a cargo ship and I’m only here to replace my lost cargo!”

Aris held up a hand to silence him. “Merlin,” he said, “you will be a prince here, with millions under your command and wanting for nothing.”

The wolf nodded. “I suppose that would be preferable to my lifestyle, Sire, but I understand royalty are not truly as free to do what they want as common folk.”

The king’s smile faded for a moment and he glanced back at his queen, who sat silently observing him. “True, very true,” the coyote replied. “I am ruler of an entire planet, but yet I have to follow more rules than my subjects.” He wearily looked back at the small group assembled before him.

“However, that’s a small price to pay for having all the needs and wants of my family provided for with just a spoken word, my dear wolf.”

Queen Sechsi extended a hand toward Sinclair. “Will you please consider joining my family?” she asked in a personal tone. “You are the first suitor she’s actually considered, and her standards are high. That young girl’s heart is taken with you.”

Merlin closed his eyes and bowed his head a moment in disbelief. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked into the large yellow eyes of his feline companion.

“May I speak with him a moment, your Majesties?” Renny asked with a slight bow of his own.

“Of course,” King Aris replied.

Renny drew the perplexed wolf off to the side and spoke to him in a voice barely above a whisper. “Merlin, think about this,” he said. “You’ll have a better life than flitting around the Planetary Alignment hauling cargo for other people. You can stay here to help rule a planet and make puppies until you’re all worn out. You could put Taro or Durant in charge of the Blue Horizon and buy a whole fleet of freighters if you wanted to keep the business.”

Merlin deepened his frown. “You’re not helping my situation, Renny. I’m trying to talk his Highness out of this...”

Renny gave him a sincere look and said, “The princess really likes you, Merlin, and she’s a beauty.”

“I’m not even the one she really wants,” he blurted, his words unintentionally carrying in the acoustics of the throne room.

“What was that?” the king called out. “Who is it she desires? She’s spoken of no one else, only you.”

Merlin and Renny slowly turned and faced the monarch. The wolf approached the throne, leaving his companion where he stood.

“Your Highness, I’ve only known Princess Tinara for two days, but there is someone here in your own palace who has already caught your daughter’s eye, and from what I’ve seen, his desires for her are just as real.”

Aris raised his eyebrows. “Here, among my own?”

He did not like to meddle in the relationships of others, but he was now committed to revealing what he really only suspected. “Yes, Sire.”

“That cannot be,” the king replied. “I put out an open invitation for suitors for Tinara months ago and she has rejected all who responded. If she desired someone, why did she not choose him?”

Merlin clasped his hands behind him. “Because he never came forward, your Majesty. He was probably afraid you would reject him, even if she did not. Besides, I imagine he feared she would discard him as with the others, for he does not seem to know that she desires him in return.”

“Who is this one you speak of?” Queen Sechsi asked. “Identify him.”

The wolf swallowed and spoke the name. The reaction was one of surprise and disbelief. The king and queen bent their heads together and began speaking to each other in quiet whispers. Merlin was not sure if he had done the right thing by voicing his suspicions. As far as everyone in the throne room was concerned, Sinclair had told what he knew, but in reality, it was only a guess based upon a single observation and numerous mentions of the person’s name in their conversations.

It was a gamble to counter the attention away from him on the subject of marriage to Tinara, and he hoped he was not mistaken. The king motioned to a servant and then whispered a command to the maiden. She turned and left the chamber at a fast walk.

“Captain Sinclair,” King Aris said in a neutral tone, “if you are correct and my daughter will have him, I will reward you for the trouble we have caused you and send you on your way.” The wolf bowed.

“However… if you are mistaken,” the monarch continued with a darker expression, “I will expect you to take Tinara’s hand in marriage and become an adopted son into my household. The future of the Aris family line is at stake here, and I will not take a negative answer.”

Merlin sighed and hoped again that he had been right in his suspicion. Without making any further replies, he simply bowed. Renny nudged him and motioned to the side of the throne room. Princess Tinara had just come through a side door and moved toward him with a smile. Renny stepped back a pace to give her room. She stopped on Merlin’s right and threaded an arm through his.

The wolf gave her a smile, but she noted the expression was weak. “What is the matter?” she whispered. “Has something happened?”

Merlin swallowed and frowned, but before he had a chance to answer, the guard stopped beside them and announced to the king, “Kal Navar, your Highness.”

All heads turned to the back of the room. Merlin and Tinara turned to look and saw the Palace Secretary approaching them, his ears drooping as he looked at her.

“Kal,” Tinara whispered quietly as he stopped beside her, “Why are you here?”

“The King sent for me, your Highness,” Navar answered. “I do not know why.”

Aris looked down at the small group. “Tinara, I need confirmation on something that was just brought to my attention.”

“And what is that, father?” she replied.

“In past months, you have refused every suitor who answered my open invitation for your hand in marriage,” he said. “Word has spread of your inaccessibility so that it has gotten to the point where no one has approached me in weeks for fear of your rejection. I had begun to give up hope of having more children born into our bloodline through you, until last night when you revealed your desire to have Merlin Sinclair as your mate. From the conversations your mother and I have had with him, neither of us have any reservations in your choice and we agreed he would be a welcome addition to the royal family.”

The princess heard a sharp intake of breath from Kal beside her. This was news to him about the wolf. Tinara swallowed but kept her attention on her father.

“Just a few moments ago,” King Aris continued, “I received word that there is one right here in the palace who is interested in you – someone who, I am told, you also have an attraction for.”

“Who gave you such information?” Tinara asked as she drew up closer to Merlin. “I have my Intended right here. Who are you talking about?”

“Kal Navar, present yourself.” The king extended a hand toward the coyote before him.

The palace secretary moved a step forward and bowed slightly. “Your Highness?” he appeared bewildered. “I did not circulate any such information.”

The king sighed audibly. “You misunderstand; since this all so vague, I will ask bluntly. Do you desire my daughter’s hand in marriage, Navar?”

Tinara looked sharply at Kal, taken completely by surprise at her father’s question. Navar perked up his ears and straightened his shoulders. He did not direct his answer to the king, but turned and faced Tinara instead.

“Truthfully, your Highness,” he replied. “I do, very much.”

The expression in Tinara’s eyes softened from shock to admiration. “Why did you never come forward, Kal?” she asked, a wag stirring her tail.

Navar looked to the king, who merely encouraged him with a nod. The coyote looked embarrassed, but now that his feelings were made known, he turned back to the princess and boldly took her by the hand. “Because I was never sure how you felt about me,” he replied. “And... I am only the Palace Secretary, no one of much influence.”

Tinara put her free hand up to his cheek and sighed. “Silly coyote,” she said, “I’ve dreamed about you for some time. My feelings for someone are not dictated by royal title or position.”

Navar took a breath and said, “Then, you would consider my bid to your father for your hand in marriage?”

Tinara slowly turned to face Sinclair, who had remained silent throughout the exchange. “Merlin?”

Sinclair smiled and nodded toward her. “Your Highness, I have grown quite fond of you,” he said, “but we have only known each other two days. You and Kal already have history and I believe you are meant to be together – I was merely the catalyst to make it happen, I suppose.”

“The catalyst?” Navar repeated.

“Yes, it was I who told the King about you,” Merlin said with a smile to the monarch. “I noticed the glances you two exchanged in the garden yesterday. There was more in them than mere humiliation at being caught in the act of something embarrassing. I saw feelings.”

“But…”

“The princess also couldn’t stop talking about you while she was showing me the palace and introducing me to your staff.”

“Then...?” Tinara looked up at him hopefully.

The wolf smiled openly and gestured toward Navar. “If you will have him as your mate, Princess, I give you my personal blessing, for what that may be worth.”

Tinara threw her arms around Merlin and embraced him tightly. “That means the world to me, my wolf.” She pulled away after a moment more and then turned to Navar.

She took his hands into her own and said, “I accept you, Kal, as my husband and a Prince of Aris.”

Navar smiled widely, and keeping a hold on Tinara’s hands, turned to face the king and queen. He bowed toward them and said, “May I present myself to you, your Majesties?”

The King and Queen both stood up and moved to the edge of the dais. The monarch took his wife’s hand and smiled at those assembled below. Servants on the periphery of the throne room looked to them with rapt attention.

“The King and Queen of the house of Aris, rulers of Tanthe,” the king said in a commanding voice, “hereby accept Kal Navar as a future member of the Royal family. Upon his union to Princess Tinara Shei Aris, Navar will be adopted into the family as Kal Navar Aris and become a Prince of this house. It is so declared!”

Applause from those gathered in the small throne room echoed around them. Tinara and Kal bowed in unison to the king and queen and then embraced each other tightly.

“Before the wedding can be arranged,” King Aris said to the young couple, “you will have to find and train a replacement for your job as Palace Secretary, son. Someone will be needed to help organize the ceremony.”

Kal turned to Merlin and extended a hand toward him. “Would you be interested in remaining with us?” the coyote asked. “I hear it on good authority there’s a job opening for you.”

The wolf laughed and shook his head. “Thank you, but, no. I have a crew of my own to rule. I wish I could stay for the wedding, but I’m sure it will take weeks to organize and the Blue Horizon has a shipping schedule to get back on track. We are already behind due to our original mishap.”

Navar looked to the king, who nodded to him. The future prince turned back to Merlin and said, “Your cargo will be assembled and ready to load onto your ship by tomorrow afternoon.”

“Tomorrow?” Merlin repeated. “I thought it would be several more days, and we still have not yet negotiated a price for the goods. We’ll need to discuss payment before you deliver…”

Tinara held up a hand and turned to the king. “May I offer this cargo to them as a gift to Merlin, father?”

The king nodded. “If you wish, then it is done.”

“I do so wish.” She turned back to the shocked pair and then gave Merlin another warm embrace. “Thank you, dear wolf, for your gift to me.”

Merlin felt a sudden panic, thinking she publicly referred to their tickling session the day before, but she moved back to Navar and put her head on his shoulder; he understood.

“I hope the two of you are very happy together, and that you are successful in producing a male heir to the blood of Aris.”

Kal laughed and said, “Thank you, Captain.”

“Merlin,” the wolf corrected. “I don’t know when we may be back this way, but I hope you will not forget me.”

“Not likely,” the princess whispered, with a barely noticeable wink. “If I have any say in the matter, we’ll name our first son after you.” 

*** 

Merlin sat at the helm of the Blue Horizon as it left the orbit of Tanthe. A photograph of Princess Tinara was taped to the console and he smiled as Renny gave him a course correction. He had come close to having a life of ease for the rest of that life, but he knew he belonged here with his friends, who were about as close to family to him.

“Now that we’ve left Tanthe,” Renny said, “I can give you this. A courier delivered it at the last moment before we sealed the ship, but I didn’t have time to give it to you before now.”

The wolf glanced up at him as the cheetah held up a fat envelope secured the with Aris wax seal. He set it on the pilot control console in front of Merlin. “I wonder what it is,” the captain said, looking down at the packet. “I left a short message for Kal before we left, but I don’t think he’s had time to read it and respond with something like this.”  Renny merely gave him a shrug and waited curiously.

Merlin could only wonder what it was. “Take the controls, Renny, as I see what this is.” The cheetah nodded and took the captain’s place in the pilot seat. Merlin picked up the envelope and moved to the engineering station. He leaned up against the console and then broke the Aris seal. With hesitation, pulled a set of parchment documents from the envelope and studied them in silence.

“Well?” Renny said impatiently. “You know the old saying about curiosity and the cat -- I’m dying to know what it is!”

Merlin sat down in the engineer’s seat and fanned himself with the documents in his hand. His eyes were wide and he swallowed hard. He took a couple of deep breaths and then grinned at the cheetah.

“These are official documents that grant us purchase of a new starship,” he said quietly, “paid in full, courtesy of the Aris Monarchy. All I have to do is sign one form and submit it back to the palace when I’m ready…  It’s hand-signed by the Princess and countersigned by the King.”

Renny was stunned. “Uh... Wow…!”

Merlin finally smiled and nodded. “The Blue Horizon still has life left in her,” he said, rubbing the console beside him with his fingers, “so I think I’ll just store these documents away for safe-keeping for such time as we might need them.” He motioned toward the controls. “Stay where you are. I’m going to make a thank-you call.” 

*** 

Kal Navar walked alone back to his desk, his feet barely touching the floor. He had dreamed of Princes Tinara since she had come of age and now he would be married to her. It had been a most pleasant, if not highly unexpected, chain of events with the arrival of the Blue Horizon.

He paused when he reached his desk and found a sealed envelope waiting for him. He opened it and found a simple message without a signature. He smiled to himself and tucked it deep into an inner shirt pocket.

The note had read, “Tickle her toes, she will reward you greatly.”

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Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.