SS Christopher Watson,
Bill and I are currently on our way to Tanthe, where we should arrive in another couple of hours. This is the first opportunity I’ve taken since leaving Dennier to make an entry to my journal. My brother-in-law is currently resting after a four-hour shift at the controls, and now it’s my turn again to mind the store. We left Dennier three weeks ago and have occupied ourselves during the voyage with books, videos and catching up on one another’s adventures. Taro is currently in charge of the Blue Horizon while I’m taking personal leave, and I know she’s a capable commander.
It was nice spending time on Dennier with Bill, Shannon and their four cubs. The children are already several months old, and as with all canine types, they’ve grown quickly. Jacob has solid black fur like his father’s, was the first-born of the litter, and he’s already asserted himself as alpha of the other children. He takes the lead in everything they do and often growls at the others if they don’t obey him well enough. Marissa looks just like her mother, down to her mask and the single brown spot on the back of her left ear. She’s a little cutie and it’s clear she does all she can to endear herself to everyone’s hearts. Jaran is a chubby little thing who sleeps a lot. His coloring resembles my own, but has tan mixed in with his fur like his mother’s. And then there’s Shane… he’s playful and into everything. He loves the attention and he’s already grown quite fond of me during my short visit. He loves to snuggle and was in my lap as much as possible. Shane has turned out to be quite a charmer, and he already knows how to use his personal cuteness to get what he wants. He has a light tan fur with a cinnamon sprinkling, with the same pattern shape around his eyes that I have.
When it was time to depart, it was almost heart-breaking. All four of them howled in distress when they realized I was leaving. Then they wailed harder when they discovered their father was going with me and would be away from them nearly two months. I know Shannon doesn’t like the business trips that Bill sometimes has to make to other worlds, especially now that they have cubs, but fortunately he doesn’t have to make them very often.
I know it’s only coincidence, but Bill’s company is sending him to Tanthe to smooth out a few difficulties they’re having at their branch office in Spurlock, a tropical city on the other side of the planet from Aris Grand.
After I disembark, Bill will take the Christopher Watson on to Spurlock, and then back to Dennier by himself when he’s finished his business. My plans are to visit with Kal, Tinara and their son for a week, and then I will take a public transport back to rendezvous with the Blue Horizon on Crescentis.
“Christopher Watson, PA Registry 30578, you are on schedule and authorized to enter Tanthe airspace as prearranged. You will proceed at once to coordinates being transmitted to you now.”
The lupine captain looked away from the image of the lean coyote on the vidscreen and glanced toward the navigational terminal. “Pardon me,” he said with a frown, “but these are not the coordinates for Aris Grand.”
“Good evening, Captain Sinclair – it is nice to see you again,” replied a rich baritone voice.
Merlin looked up from the bridge controls toward the vidscreen mounted above the forward windows. Unable to leave the controls of the pilot seat, Merlin tried to make a short bow while sitting. The monarch on the screen smiled at his attempt and nodded his acceptance of the effort. “I am pleased to see you as well, Your Majesty,” the wolf replied. “Thank you.”
King Adion Aris nodded and leaned back in his plush leather chair. As was his personal habit, the monarch dressed all in matching solid colors – this time he was in rich purple. “When I heard you were returning to our world to visit my royal grandson,” he said, “I was delighted to know you would honor us with your presence once again. I thank you, Captain.”
Merlin glanced down and adjusted a control. “I was prepared to set down in Aris Grand, your Highness,” he said, “but the Air Authority has directed me to coordinates far to the south of your capitol city. Is this correct?”
“The coordinates are correct, Captain. You are to land at Tanager Castle, a fortress that has been the traditional birthplace of monarchs in my family for generations. As Prince Merlin will one day rule Tanthe, we felt it was appropriate that his birth should take place there. That is where your new heading will take you, Captain.”
“If I may ask, how is the young prince and his parents?” Merlin asked.
“They are all well. Thank you for asking. Kal and Tinara are thankful for their child. The loss of his siblings was regretful, but this young one is healthy and has already shown signs of strong character. Furnishings have already been prepared for your arrival at Tanager and everyone will be most pleased to see you.” The king glanced down at something, and then looked back toward the camera. “You are not on board the Blue Horizon? Has something else happened to your vessel?”
Merlin shook his head with a smile. “I have taken personal leave away from the Horizon to make this trip, your Highness,” he said. “The Christopher Watson is a private cruiser to use for opportunities like this. My first officer is overseeing the operation of the business while I’m away. I will be here six days before I will need to return.”
“Ah, I see. Well, Captain, I know you have a landing to coordinate, so I will leave you to it. My daughter and her husband will be looking forward to having you with them.”
“You won’t be there, sire?”
“No, Captain. As much as I would like to spend all of my time with my grandson, I still have a world to rule. They have attendants to see to their wants and wishes, though security there will be high to protect the new heir. I trust you should not have any trouble. The Christopher Watson has been given clearance to enter Tanager airspace to land on the premises. Prime Minister Nishalt will meet you upon your arrival. It is possible that I may be able to make a visit at some point during your visit, but I will make no guarantees.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. I appreciate the trust and honor you give me. I am about to begin deorbit, so I must sign off for now.”
“Enjoy your stay, Captain. Aris Grand, out.”
Merlin switched off the vidscreen and was about to turn toward the navigational console when he felt a hand on his shoulder. “I knew you were chummy with Tanthean royalty, but I didn’t realize it would be the king to greet you!”
Merlin looked up at the black wolf beside him and smiled. “King Aris did the same thing the last time the Blue Horizon came to Tanthe, and that was before he even knew who we were. It must be some sort of personal practice to greet everyone who comes to his world.”
“Tanthe does a lot of trading with the rest of the Planetary Alignment,” Bill commented. “You’d think the king would be too busy to greet every ship that came here.”
“I know. His motivations have puzzled me, too, but I will not pretend to know the mindset of such an individual. Better sit down and strap yourself in. I’m activating the heat shields and am ready to take us down.”
Bill moved to the other seat on the bridge and fastened the harness across his waist and chest. He picked up a pair of dark goggles from a storage bin and handed another pair to his brother-in-law. Merlin put the goggles on top of his head and then thumbed several controls on the panel before him. With a satisfied nod, he pushed the goggles down over his eyes and grasped the guidance shifts with both hands to begin their descent into the atmosphere. He angled the nose upward so that the stronger shields on the lower section of the craft would take the brunt of the heat buildup, and immediately the small ship began to buck beneath them.
The forward windows lit up in blinding shades of orange and white, and even through the dark lenses, Bill and Merlin squinted in the brilliance. Long moments later, the Christopher Watson passed through into the atmosphere. Merlin leveled out the sleek red and black Starwolf to a smooth ride on a pair of narrow wings that quickly slid out from the fuselage. The forward windows were dark, but the nighttime sky was clear of clouds. Infrared circuitry in the windows activated at the touch of a button; the ground far below them stood out in eerie green relief.
“I’ve got the landing beacon,” Bill said as he glanced at a flashing blue light on the instrument panel before him.
“Nav computer is keyed in,” Merlin said. “We should touch down in about forty-five minutes.”
“How do I look?” Merlin asked Bill as the two of them headed toward the main hatch through the ship’s narrow corridor. Merlin was dressed in a stylish amber dress shirt, black slacks, and a pair of black boots; his beloved naval hat had been left back aboard the Blue Horizon. Bill wore a standard business suit of dark blue, which combined with his black fur, made him look rather ominous. Merlin didn’t mention this fact, however.
“You look gorgeous,” Bill teased. “You don’t have anything to be concerned about.”
“I hope you’re right.” Merlin stopped by the controls of the airlock and punched up the three-digit sequence to open it. There was a hiss of air, and then the hatch swung outward on pneudraulic arms. The cobblestone landing pad they had set down on was illuminated by a ring of torches. The autumn night air was cool, but pleasant with the smell of piñon smoke in the air. The towering walls of the castle were faintly illuminated by other torches in place around the forested courtyard.
The castle was an anachronism: stone and mortared walls, softly fluttering banners, but no trace of vine weaving up its many faces, as though the castle breathed with a life of its own and shirked creeping decay. The wolves had seen ruins of ancient places and historical reconstructions, but this was a place untouched by the ages, kept up by dedicated servants who ensured that it remained just as it had been when it was young generations ago. The castle existed in both the modern and ancient worlds at once, and the pair could feel a tangible presence like an ancient god looking down on modern creatures invading its slumber.
Armed guards surrounded the Christopher Watson just out of the light, but Bill picked out their forms with ease. The frown on Merlin’s features indicated that he had seen them too. Merlin picked up a small duffel, slinging the bag over his left shoulder. They moved down the small ramp to the ground and then waited for an escort.
A tall coyote dressed in a dark brown suit with a red tie stepped out from the shadows toward them as soon as they left the ramp. He held himself with a regal bearing, striding forth without hesitation. He gave a quick glance at Merlin’s garments and duffel bag before he smiled thinly and extended a hand.
“Captain Sinclair, it is so nice to meet you at last. I am Prime Minister Willingham Nishalt.”
“Thank you, sir.” Merlin replied and shook hands with the man. “This is my brother-in-law, Bill Wallace.”
Nishalt nodded toward the black wolf, but didn’t offer his hand. “Your flight plan to Spurlock is on file,” he said flatly. “We won’t keep you any longer. You may be on your way.”
Bill frowned at the tone of the coyote’s voice, but nodded. He turned to Merlin and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Take care and enjoy yourself, Merle.”
“Thank you,” Merlin replied. “Safe journey, Bill.” The black wolf turned without another look at the Prime Minister and walked up the ramp into the Christopher Watson. Nishalt gestured for the lupine captain to follow him away from the ship.
Prime Minister or not, Merlin stopped and turned toward the coyote with narrowed eyes once they reached the edge of the torchlight. “That was unnecessarily cold,” he said with a low growl in his voice. One of the nearby guards stepped forward with his weapon brandished, but Nishalt waved him back.
“Your relative does not have business at Tanager Castle, Captain,” the official replied, unfazed. “With the young heir to the throne residing within these walls, we will take no uncertain risks where his safety is involved. You are the King’s hero and have been approved to visit the royal family, sir. That wolf who came with you has not.”
Nishalt resumed walking as the Christopher Watson’s engines started up, but Merlin stood his ground. “That’s no reason to be discourteous,” the lupine captain said over the rising din. “You could have allowed him a few moments of fresh air, at the least. We’ve been on a ship for the past three weeks. He would have left shortly anyway, without your snobbish attitude.”
The Prime Minister turned and looked back at him with an upraised eyebrow and a deepening frown. “You don’t hail from a culture of nobility, and thus have no real grasp of what it means to possess title. You don’t understand the need for protecting against degenerates and their demands for ransoms. I am certain that you believe your companion is of good character, but I would be remiss in my duties if I allowed a stranger to enter the sanctum sanctorum of our noble seat. For the sake of the royalty,” he said sternly, “this discussion is at an end. Your presence is awaited.”
The Christopher Watson cut in its thrusters and leapt toward the sky with a blast of air around the landing pad. Nishalt grabbed his tie to keep it from flogging him in the face, and looked thoroughly annoyed. Merlin hesitated a moment more, and then moved to the Prime Minister’s side. Together, they walked along a series of stepping stones through a manicured lawn toward the castle’s main entrance, a pair of huge wooden doors on balanced iron hinges.
A pair of guards opened the doors when the Prime Minister approached. Merlin noticed the suspicious stares as they passed inside to a dimly lit corridor. The wolf felt uneasy here, more than he had at the capitol city palace in Aris Grand. This was medieval, and it looked as if the coyotes had kept up that particular appearance purposely. One of the torches mounted above their heads made a loud sizzling pop, and Merlin started in spite of himself. The place was eerily quiet, their footsteps echoing in the long chamber.
“Is this whole place dark or is it kept this way to intimidate visitors?” Merlin asked dryly. “I suppose I should expect to be quartered in the dungeon.”
“Much of Tanager Castle is dark,” the Prime Minister admitted, “but you will not have to reside in the lower levels, I assure you. You have not yet been demoted from King’s Hero to mere Prime Minister.”
Merlin glanced at him sharply and saw the wry smile on the coyote’s face. He sighed and nodded his acknowledgement of the Prime Minister’s little joke. He disliked Nishalt, but for the sake of the royalty, he would try to behave and keep further thoughts to himself.
They soon came to a branch in the corridor. Nishalt led him into the left-hand passage. Their footsteps quieted as they stepped upon exquisite green and gold rugs, and the lighting increased dramatically. Merlin could hear someone singing to the accompaniment of a harp from a large chamber up ahead.
He glanced over at Nishalt and saw the Prime Minister with a bit of a smile. They entered into a great hall lit by hundreds of white candles from eight chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling. Braziers of open flame lined the walls to provide a modicum of warmth, while lush draperies adorned the walls to keep it in. Bronze and iron statues of Tanthean heroes occupied each corner of the room. Clutches of robed monks moved in the shadows, conspicuously out of the open light. Behind the pair, an old man followed, swinging a censer in their wake. They walked down an aisle between rows of theatre seats, toward an upraised dais at the far end of the chamber where a pair of elegant thrones sat empty before velvet drapes of purple. Before the thrones at floor level were several ornate seats, where a small group lounged comfortably, listening to the harpist sing.
A Border collie turned and looked up at the approaching pair. He jumped up with a wide grin. “Merlin!” he cried in surprise.
The lupine captain smiled and walked over to the canine, who had turned to the harpist to apologize for his outburst. “Lady Ayana,” the collie said as the beautiful coyote lass set down her harp and stood up to meet the stranger, “this is Captain Merlin Sinclair, the king’s hero and also a good friend of mine. Merlin, this is Lady Ayana Kojote, cousin to Princess Tinara.”
Merlin bowed to the woman. “Your Grace,” he said, shifting his duffel bag off his shoulder to rest on the floor beside his feet, “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“I have heard much about you,” Ayana said in a quiet voice with a pleasant smile. “Between stories from Tinara, Kal and Alex, I’ve come to believe you are quite the dashing hero.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow and looked over at Alex Rogers with a grin. “You’ve been telling tall tales again, my friend. Stretching the truth can get you into trouble.” He looked back at Ayana and gestured toward the collie. “Alex and I have known one another for many years, milady, but he does not know me as well as he thinks he does.”
“Oh, yes I do,” Alex countered with a grin.
“Truth or tall tale,” Ayana said with a giggle, “you are well thought of in this place.” Merlin glanced over at Nishalt at that comment, but said nothing more than “Thank you.”
“Please join us and relax,” Ayana offered. The other three women who reclined in the seats smiled up at the wolf with enticing eyes, but otherwise remained silent.
“I’m sorry, Your Grace,” Nishalt said, “but the Princess is awaiting Captain Sinclair in the library. We must be on our way.”
“Of course, Prime Minister,” the coyote woman said with the shrug of her shoulders. “It was nice meeting you, Captain Sinclair. I’m sure we will have the opportunity to talk later.”
Merlin gave her another short bow and then looked over at Alex. “Yes, I’d like to visit with both of you again soon. I’m especially interested in finding out how Alex wound up here.”
Nishalt cleared his throat and Alex rolled his eyes. “We’ll talk later, Merlin.”
The wolf bowed toward each of the ladies, and then hefted the duffel strap back onto his shoulder. He quietly followed the Prime Minister across the chamber to another corridor. Ayana watched him go, and then turned her attention to a female Irish setter closest to her.
“I can see why the Princess is interested in him, Linn,” she said with a mischievous smile. “Do you think he’ll do it?”
Linn licked her lips, and then glanced over at Alex before she answered. “He’s a wolf. Of course he’ll do it, milady. I’ve heard stories about them.”
Alex looked at the women when the other two ladies joined in and giggled together. “Do what?” he asked. “What do you have planned for Merlin?”
Lady Ayana narrowed her eyes impishly and grinned. “There is a family tradition the Aris royalty practices,” she told him. “I suspect that Captain Sinclair will be introduced to it shortly.”
“What kind of tradition?” the Border collie asked. “He won’t be in any danger, will he?”
Linn laughed aloud, but clamped her hands over her mouth quickly with wide eyes. Lady Ayana chuckled and replied, “That depends on your definition of danger, I dare say, but I assure you that should Captain Sinclair take part in the tradition and succeed, he will enjoy many rewards from the House of Aris.”
Alex looked at each of the ladies in turn, but somehow didn’t feel assured. There was something about the expressions on their faces that bothered him.
Prime Minister Nishalt led the wolf up a flight of circular stone steps to the next level and then along another torch-lit corridor, where they passed armed sentries along the way. Merlin was certain they had crossed the length of the fortress itself, and wondered if they were headed for one of the high towers.
He didn’t have to wonder about it long. They entered through a pair of polished wooden doors into another large chamber, though nowhere near as massive as the throne room downstairs. This was well-lit and extravagantly furnished with chandeliers, sculptures, potted plants and ornate furniture that were all surrounded by floor-to-ceiling shelves of books – some of which looked to be centuries old. The overhead ceiling was painted in various shades of blues to represent the cloudless sky of a warm spring day, and the columns that held it up were covered in flowering climbing ivy.
Almost before Merlin could take in all the details of the room, a young female coyote in a light dress of powder green stood up from a high-backed chair with a large leather-bound volume in her hands. She turned to face them with a pleasant smile. Despite the lateness of the hour, the woman’s brown eyes were clear and alert. Nishalt did not have to give the wolf an introduction. The Prime Minister saw the simultaneous grins on the faces of both Merlin and the princess, and allowed himself to relax at last. Without another sound, Nishalt withdrew from the room to give them privacy.
“Merlin…” the coyote lass said with a twinkle in her eyes as she set the book on her chair, “I am ever so glad to see you again!”
The wolf stopped, set his duffel on the floor, and then bowed slightly toward her. He took her right hand and licked the back of it gently before he looked back up into her eyes. “It’s good to see you too, Princess,” he said in a smooth voice. “You are looking well.”
Princess Tinara stepped up to him and gently caressed the fur of his left cheek with a hand. “I have missed you, mister wolf,” she said in a quiet voice. She slid both of her arms up over his shoulders and drew his face down to hers. She boldly kissed him on the lips and lingered for a long moment before she released him.
Merlin slowly stood up straight, feeling very much at risk. He expected guards to come rushing in to save the princess from the big bad wolf, but no one else entered the library. He looked down at her in surprise, only to see her quietly chuckling. Before he could find his voice, Tinara took him by the hand, and led him toward an empty chair facing the one she had vacated. Merlin sat down, the princess picked up the book from her seat, and then she sat down with the tome in her lap. The book looked as if it might have been recently printed; Merlin could even smell the newness of the paper pulp.
“Princess…” he said cautiously, “that was a very dangerous thing to do. Prince Kal might have walked in and…”
“My husband is asleep, dear wolf,” she said in a quiet voice in keeping with standard library etiquette. “His day of business was long and full, and he won’t disturb our visit. The servants have also been instructed not to enter this chamber.”
“Are you happy with Prince Kal?” Merlin asked bluntly.
Tinara grinned at his boldness. “Yes, very much. I have never regretted marrying Kal Navar, but I will never forget the time you and I had together, Merlin.”
“That was a short visit, Princess, and we didn’t really do anything. Why would you treat me as if I were a childhood sweetheart?”
“Short as the visit may have been,” she said as she opened the large book to a place marked with a purple ribbon, “your presence those two days changed my life. Things would have been very different for me had your ship not lost its cargo. Merlin Sinclair and the Blue Horizon have been written into Aris history.”
She turned the book in her arms so that its open pages faced the lupine captain. He leaned forward to look at a painted portrait of himself that took up one third of the left-hand page beside paragraphs of text that were sprinkled with his name. The reproduction showed him in his brown flight jacket over a white shirt, blue trousers, black boots and his captain’s hat. He was standing in a spaceport with a book at his side in one hand, and the other upraised to shadow his eyes as he looked off toward the distance. Merlin raised his eyebrows and sighed as he sat back against the soft cushions of the chair, not believing what he had just seen.
He sat quietly for several moments, and then looked up at the coyote when she closed the book and set it on a short table beside her chair. “Princess…” he began. When she looked back at him, he dismissed what he was going to say and instead asked, “How is your son?”
“He is growing quickly, as all canine pups will do,” she replied. “He has an abundance of energy, loving to run everywhere he goes. Kal has already begun taking him to places around the kingdom, and we’ve begun teaching him about his heritage. Would you like to see him?” she asked.
Merlin nodded, thankful to have changed the subject away from himself. He disliked the attention he seemed to have garnered by the Aris family, but as they had been the ones to gift him with a ship so he could stay in business, he was grateful and tolerated their idiosyncrasies.
“Won’t he be asleep at this time of night?” he asked, glancing at a grandfather-style clock that stood nearby. Tinara stood up and offered him a hand. He took it courteously and got up from his chair. With a pleasant smile, she led him toward another door at the back of the room.
“Yes, he is a sound sleeper,” Tinara replied in a quiet voice. “It’s unlikely he will awaken if we look in on him.”
Merlin nodded silently and followed her out into the torch-lit corridor, their hands still clasped. It was only a short walk before they stopped before a green door. She put a finger to her lips and then quietly pushed the door open on well-oiled hinges.
Inside, the room was lit by a single candle that dimly illuminated a bed chamber. Merlin’s eyes adjusted quickly, as the corridor had not been much brighter, and he saw a pair of small fuzzy ears poking out of the sheets that covered a curled form. A plump woman sat with a book in a chair beside the bed and looked up quizzically at the princess. Tinara whispered something to her, and then the woman bowed and left the room quietly.
The wolf moved to the vacated chair and sat down in it. He reached over and gently pulled the lightweight sheet away from the small face, hardly daring to breathe.
Merlin Sinclair smiled pleasantly at the young coyote that bore his first name. Although there was neither species nor blood relationship here, there was an uncanny resemblance between their faces. The young prince bore his parents’ tan fur coloring, but the shape of his cheeks and nose was oddly similar to Merlin’s lupine face. He was only a few months old, but the canine was equal in development to a human child four years old.
The pup breathed quietly, his mouth partially open in his slumber. His head rested partially on a curled arm and partially on his soft pillow, and his other hand lay open beneath his chin. Merlin swallowed quietly and reached out to brush down the soft cheek fur of the youngster’s face, wondering what it would have been like to be a father raising a son.
Tinara watched the expressions play across Merlin’s face, and recognized the family instincts surfacing in the wolf. She put a hand to her chin as she mulled over the thoughts in her head.
There was a small whimper, and the princess’ thoughts were brought back to the present. The youngster opened his eyes sleepily and looked up at Merlin’s silhouette in the dark room.
“Papa?” the boy murmured. His little nose was quivering, and his little sleep-fogged mine was seeming confused by the strange scent. Tinara was about to correct the mistaken identity and introduce the wolf to him, but Merlin leaned forward and whispered to the child.
“All is well, little one,” he said quietly. “Go back to your dreams.”
Merlin kissed the child on the forehead and the boy snuggled closer to his pillow, his eyes closed and a look of contentment on his face. Merlin watched the young coyote a moment more before he stood up and walked over to Tinara’s side. He touched her lightly on the arm and then both adults left the room.
The child’s caretaker reentered the chamber and quietly shut the door behind her following a quick bow to the princess. After the door had closed, Merlin looked over at Tinara, a pleasant expression on his face.
“He’s a nice-looking boy, Princess,” he said quietly. “If it is permitted, I am looking forward to spending a little time with him while I am here.”
Tinara nodded and opened her mouth to reply, but she suddenly put a hand to her mouth to cover a yawn. “Please forgive me,” she apologized. “It’s late and I’ve been awake since early morning.”
Merlin smiled and nodded as they neared the library door. He was still operating on Dennier-time and was far from sleepy, although seeing her yawn made him do the same. “I think we should call it a night and resume our visit in the morning, Princess.”
Tinara nodded her agreement, but a moment later she looked over at him with a frown. “Merlin…” she said slowly, “you have forgotten my request.”
“When you were here last, I asked you to call me by my first name at times when we’re alone. I dislike living under a lens all the time and it would please me to have a friend address me as one. You’ve done nothing but call me by my title since you arrived.”
“Ah yes, I remember,” the wolf replied with a smile, “but you were not married then, and were so infatuated with me that you hadn’t realized Kal’s interest in you.”
The princess stopped just inside the library door and turned to face him with a grin. “My request still stands, mister wolf,” she said. “If you and I are alone together, you are allowed my preference. Please address me by my name.”
“If that is your royal wish, I will abide by it.”
“It’s my royal wish that you ignore my royalty for now.” The princess winked at him and they moved back into the library. Merlin walked over to his abandoned duffel and hoisted its strap back up onto his shoulder.
“If you will call someone to take me to my room,” he said, “I will leave you to retire for the night. Unless, of course, I am to stay in the library.”
“Ask me nicely, using my name,” the princess said with a very quiet voice, “and you can stay in my bed tonight.”
Merlin blinked twice before he realized what she had just said. He looked at her incredulously and swallowed. “Won’t you be cold sleeping on the floor?” he asked cautiously.
Tinara giggled. “I’m only teasing, mister wolf,” she said in delight. “There is a room of privacy already prepared for you. It’s nice and cozy, and is not far from the suite where Kal and I are staying.” She chuckled at his unbelieving expression. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you there myself and leave you alone until tomorrow.”
The lupine captain nodded, but said nothing more. Tinara shrugged and walked across the library with him following closely behind. They moved out into the corridor where Nishalt had brought him in, and then turned down a side passage that he had not been in before. Within a moment, they stopped beside a heavy door of wooden planks.
“This is your room,” the princess coyote said as she gripped the iron handle and pushed the door open for him. Merlin walked inside and gave the torch-lit room an appraising glance before turning back to his hostess.
“Very nice,” he said. “I think it will be just fi—”
While he was speaking, the princess shut the door behind them, and then threw herself into his arms. She kissed him deeply, wrapping her arms around the back of his neck to hold him close. Merlin resisted only briefly, but then dropped his duffel and returned the kiss. When they parted a moment later, Merlin put his hands on her shoulders and then looked down at her. He started to say something, but she tiptoed up and began licking the sides of his snout. Their bodies intertwined, the supple caress of her form driving him on, flaming through his veins like warm venom as he helplessly submitted to his impulses. Her perfume was doing something to his will, but finally he realized what he was doing and pulled away.
“Tinara,” he said in a breathless, but stern voice, “you are desirable, but I won’t put my head on a chopping block for you. Please… return to your husband before this goes any further.”
“You misunderstand the importance of your head to me,” she purred back.
“This is not a trade,” he half-growled.
The princess looked up at him with admiration, her lips parted slightly and her eyes alive with an inner fire. She looked as if she was going to argue, but instead she nodded and stepped back away from him.
“Good night, mister wolf,” she said quietly but in no way upset. She turned, opened the door and then left without a backward glance. She pulled the door shut behind her, and the wolf was left in the silence of the room.
Merlin waited a few moments to allow her time to go, and to give him a moment to clear his head. He then moved quietly to the door. There was a simple heavy bolt lock and he slid it aside to secure the panel, not caring if she heard. He then picked up his duffel, taking it to a large fluffy bed that practically filled the room. Beside the bed was a polished wooden table adorned solely with a pitcher of iced water and an ornate metal stein. He filled the cup and then gulped it down, willing his heart to calm. He drank a second cupful, though more slowly as he tried to relax by thinking of other things.
He set the water and the mug aside, and then turned back to the bed. He opened his pack and took out a slateboard datapak that bore the logo of the Blue Horizon across its outer surface. On the small table beside the water jug, he set up the slateboard. There was a small beep as the unit activated from its small, but efficient power pack. The room was lit by a few small torches sitting in iron braziers mounted into the stone block wall, and the wolf’s amber eyes reflected the flames as he watched the commands scramble across the screen. A moment later, his messaging program interfaced with the castle communication system that had already been authorized to allow it.
He sat down in a heavy oak chair at the table and then tapped out his passcode. At once, the interface came to life. Two messages awaited his attention. The first was from Bill, letting him know he and the Christopher Watson had arrived safely in Spurlock. The second was from Taro. It was a routine report on the business under her command. It was all rather boringly uneventful and Merlin was satisfied that all was well during his absence.
Despite his earlier yawn, he was not sleepy. There was enough of a time difference for him that he would not be ready for bed for a few hours yet. He glanced around his room at the purple and gold tapestries that covered the stone block walls, and his gaze fell upon a single large painting that hung on the wall above the bed. He had not really noticed it before, but now that it had his attention, he groaned audibly. It was the original oil painting of him that had been reproduced in the princess’ new history book.
Merlin stood up and walked around the bed to stand in front of the painting. He reached up, grasped the wooden frame, and lifted it off of its wall hook. He lowered it to the ground and then turned it so that the portrait faced the wall. He would put it back in its place before he left the fortress, but for now he didn’t want to have to look at it. From the pattern of portraits, statues and other displays throughout the castle, it was apparent the Tanthean coyotes were passionate about their hero worship.
Suspicious by nature, Merlin walked to each of the tapestries and tapped on them. Behind one was a hidden closet full of medieval-looking clothing that had been provided for him. Behind another tapestry was a door that he opened cautiously; it revealed an elegant washroom with an all-species squat toilet and it came complete with a large sunken bathtub big enough for two people, much like the one he had in his quarters during his first stay in Aris Grand.
The wolf smiled and nodded to himself. A lighter was on the counter beside a vial of bath oil, and there were many aromatic candles placed around the washroom. He lit them one by one, quietly humming to himself. He distrusted the large mirror facing the bath, and he found several soft towels in a cabinet to cover its surface with.
Shortly thereafter, hot water filled the tub as Merlin eased himself down into frothing bubbles. The aromatic candles mixed with the water to weave an intoxicating miasma about the captain. As it would not be a good idea to roam the castle alone at night in his boredom, he would spend his waking time alone relaxing.
Merlin awoke the next morning to a beam of sunlight shining in his face. He had not noticed the skylight in the ceiling of his room the night before, but by the time he had finished his bath, he had been drowsy enough to go on to bed and gently drift into slumber. His sleep had been dreamless and restful, and as he stretched, he realized that he felt good. There was nothing like a relaxing immersion bath to soothe tired muscles and nerves. Unlike a lot of folks, Merlin never had difficulty sleeping in unfamiliar places.
He allowed himself to lay there in bed for another twenty minutes before he felt the call of nature. He decided to dress native today, so after relieving himself, the wolf moved to the closet to see if there was anything in his size. Not surprisingly, everything in the wardrobe was his size. The servants had done their research well.
He picked out a pair of dark brown breeches, a hunter-green vest over a white tunic with leather laces across the front and billowing sleeves. He doubted the soft-sided, leather foot coverings would be as comfortable as his boots, so he left them in the closet in favor of his own. Thusly dressed, he finally uncovered the bathroom mirror and studied his appearance. Just a brush through the fur on his head and across one cheek would make him presentable. He was pleasantly surprised by the fit of the pants. Even the tail flap was at the right height for his anatomy – something he almost always had to have altered to fit him properly every time he bought new clothes. As soon as he unlocked the bolt, a small and plump coyote woman came over to him, bowed and then looked up at him with a warm smile.
“Good morning, milord. May I attend you?”
Merlin nodded and returned the smile. “Coffee and a light breakfast would be nice, if you please.”
“Yes, milord,” the woman replied. “If you will follow me, I will direct you to the dining hall downstairs.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” the wolf answered. The small woman turned after another bow and then he followed her through numerous spots of sunlight from overhead windows. Their short journey took them past a large set of glass windows, and Merlin stopped to look down upon the courtyard two stories below. The grass was lush green and rainbows of flowers were everywhere, especially up next to the ancient stone block walls. A few of the panes were partially open and Merlin could smell the freshly-watered plants on a small breeze. Gardeners were at work caring for the vegetation, and several people reclined on the lawn in the morning sun.
He could also smell the aroma of fresh coffee and he turned back to the woman who patiently waited for him. He gave her a smile and with a nod of her head, she led him to the circular stone steps he had ascended the night before. The woman had a little trouble negotiating the first step downward with one foot, and almost stumbled out into open air. Had Merlin not reached out to snare her arm, she might have been seriously hurt.
“Careful, now,” he said as he put her back on an even level.
“I’m sorry, milord,” she mumbled. “My ankles aren’t what they used to be.”
“That’s quite alright, ma’am,” the wolf replied. “If you will just give me directions, I think I can manage to get there without getting lost, so that you won’t have to bother with the steps.”
The coyote woman looked up at him with an expression of gratitude and nodded. “Thank you, milord. My ankles appreciate your kindness.” The directions she then gave him were fairly simple, and she bowed again when he thanked her and made his way down the steps.
Several moments later, Merlin found himself greeted by a well-dressed servant at the door to the dining hall. He was led to a long wooden table where two people occupied seats near one end.
Prince Kal Navar stood up with a smile as soon as the pair walked in. His companion got to his feet, putting his hands behind his back as the prince grasped hands with the wolf.
“Merlin Sinclair,” the prince said the name with enthusiasm. “It is nice to see you again!”
The lupine captain grinned openly. “Good to see you, too, sir,” he said. “At least this time I lost neither my cargo nor the ship itself.”
Kal chuckled and turned toward the other man. “Merlin, I would like to introduce you to—”
“Prime Minister Nishalt,” the wolf finished for him as he turned to face the other coyote.
“You two have met?” Kal asked.
“Last night,” Merlin answered. “He met me and my brother-in-law at the landing pad.”
“I trust you slept well, Captain Sinclair?” the Prime Minister asked politely.
“Very well, thank you.”
Kal motioned toward the seats at the table, and then said to Merlin as the three of them sat down, “If you will give Mr. Hivez your preference, he will have breakfast prepared for you.”
Merlin looked up from his seat and smiled at the servant who had shown him into the room. “Coffee, beefsteak and some fruit would be nice, thank you,” he told him. Hivez gave him a short bow and then moved off toward the kitchen.
“Where is your brother-in-law?” Prince Kal asked as Merlin turned back toward him.
The wolf looked quickly at the Prime Minister and then answered, “He had business in Spurlock that he needed to attend to.”
“Pity,” the coyote prince replied. “He would have been welcome to stay the night before pressing on to his destination. I imagine the both of you were tired of looking at the inside of your ship for the past weeks. I would have liked to have met him.”
Merlin saw the Prime Minister’s left eye twitch at those words, but he decided not to press matters. “Perhaps another time, sir,” he said with a shrug. “His company invests in Tanthean stocks and he makes periodic visits to Spurlock.”
“I see. So tell me,” Kal said casually, “how have you been?”
With breakfast completed and the casual conversations over, Merlin and Prince Kal left the dining room to walk along the corridors alone in silence. The Prime Minister had remained with them throughout Merlin’s breakfast, and despite his earlier rudeness, the lupine captain had found him to be an interesting individual once he had loosened up a bit.
Merlin chuckled and Kal glanced over at him with a smile. “What’s so funny?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t have imagined the Prime Minister to have a sense of humor,” Merlin replied.
“Why is that?
Merlin told him about their meeting on the landing pad, and Kal listened with interest. “So that’s what those looks between you two were about,” the prince remarked. “I apologize for him, Merlin,” he said after a moment of thought. “He’s a good man, but he’s paranoid about anything happening to my son. Having strangers so close to the boy makes him nervous.”
Merlin nodded. “I thought as much, but as he is a Prime Minister, he could have handled it a little more… diplomatically.”
“I agree. I’ll have to talk to him.”
“Please don’t,” the wolf said. “Talking together with him this morning has loosened him up toward me, I think. I don’t want to put a strain back into our association.”
Kal grinned widely and put a hand on his shoulder. “You act more like a diplomat than he does,” he said.
Merlin shrugged his shoulders. “I have to be,” he said. “I have twenty-one people working for me, each with different temperaments. I could also tell you frightening stories about customers I’ll never deal with again.” He looked toward the former Royal Secretary and noted that while he had become a part of the ruling monarch’s family, Kal was still easy to talk to. He liked the man. “When do I get to visit with your son?” he asked after a moment.
Kal smiled. “Right now, if you’d like. He’s outside in the sun right at this time, likely rolling around in the grass or chasing his nanny.”
Merlin returned the smile. “Lead the way.”
Moments later, they moved through a pair of wooden doors that opened out into the courtyard. Merlin immediately recognized the area as the one he had seen from above. As soon as Kal was noticed, a servant rushed over to greet him.
“Good morning, Your Royal Highness,” the elderly gentleman said with a pleasant smile and a regional accent so thick it was difficult for Merlin to make out his words. “Is there anything I can get for you, sir?”
“Nothing right now, Daron.” Kal replied. “The King’s Hero wishes to visit with my son.”
The old coyote squinted in the sunlight at Merlin and nodded his head. “Pardon me, sir, but I’ve not seen a wolf in ages and now you are the second one I’ve seen today.”
Merlin looked amused. “Second?” he asked.
Daron nodded and then looked back toward Kal. “A gray wolf made a delivery from Tanager Village this morning,” he replied.
“A relative of yours?” Kal asked.
Merlin raised both eyebrows and looked at the prince in amusement. “Do you think I’m related to every wolf in the Planetary Alignment?” he asked.
Kal shook his head with a grin. “No, of course not. Did this wolf have a name, Daron?”
“I heard Mrs. Nores call him Jorge, sir.”
“That’s not a name from my family tree,” Merlin remarked.
Kal turned quickly and got down on his knees in the grass. Merlin saw the same small coyote he had seen the night before jump into his father’s arms.
“Hello, son,” Kal said. He wrapped his arms around the child and then picked him up.
“Gimmee a shoulder ride!” the boy said excitedly.
“Have you been a good boy?” Kal asked. The child became suddenly interested in his fingernails and shrugged his shoulders.
“Uh huh,” he muttered unconvincingly. He then noticed the wolf as if seeing him for the first time. “Who’s that?” he asked. Kal opened his mouth to answer, but the lupine captain smiled.
“My name is Merlin,” he replied.
“Hey, that’s my name!” the boy exclaimed as Kal set him on the ground.
“Of course it is,” the wolf said in a near-whisper as he knelt down beside him. “I’m you.”
“Me?” the boy asked with wide eyes.
“Yes, you. I’ve come back in time to see myself as a boy.” The wolf winked at Kal, who grinned back.
“You’re a woof!” young Merlin replied. “I’m not a woof! You can’t be me!”
“Oh, yes, I can,” the captain countered. “I can prove that you and I are the same person.”
“Well…” Merlin Sinclair said slyly as he reached out a hand toward the boy, “I know that you are ticklish…right here!” He leaned in with a finger and wriggled it against the young boy’s ribs. The small prince squealed in delight and tried to dance away from him, but Merlin snared him in his arms and pulled him close. The other servants who had been with the boy came running over in alarm. Kal put out an upraised hand to assure them the child was okay.
“I also know that your toes are very ticklish, too!” the adult said as he gathered the kid up in one arm. He flicked off the small sandals in one swift motion. He wriggled a finger beneath two of the boy’s toes and the young prince squealed out in laughter.
Despite the boy’s apparent enjoyment, the lupine captain realized the concern he had caused in the royal caretakers and stopped his attack. The child looked up at him and wiped tears from his eyes with a wide smile and a fit of the giggles.
“Are… are you really me?” he asked at last, in awe.
The wolf set the boy on the grass beside him and shook his head. “No, I was just pretending,” he admitted, “but my name is Merlin. I’m a friend of your family.”
It was probably the thing that happened next that endeared the child to him. Young prince Merlin stuck out his tiny hand and said, “Pleased to meetcha, Mister Merlin.”
Once again, Merlin found himself in the fortress library late in the afternoon. His companion this time was Alex Rogers, the Border collie that had been Samantha’s childhood friend and was the current CEO of her father’s company. Alex studied the history book that the princess had opened the previous night. Merlin felt uncomfortable with the sly grin on the canine’s face as he perused the wolf’s portrait.
“Looks just like you,” Alex said finally. “Even down to the captain’s hat you usually wear. I almost didn’t recognize you last night without it.”
“Yeah, my crew has been kidding me for years about it being a permanent fixture on top of my head,” Merlin said with a smile. “Even Samantha claims that I can’t give an order unless I’m wearing it.”
Alex grinned. “No, all you need is just a healthy set of lungs to bellow out your commands.”
Merlin smirked at him. “I’m a space captain, not a sea captain, matey.” Alex laughed and closed the large book. It was heavy and he wanted it out of his lap, so he set it on the floor beside his chair. “So, what brings you to a secluded mountain fortress on Tanthe?” Merlin asked.
Like the wolf, Alex was dressed in local medieval fashion, and he unconsciously toyed with one of the lacings across the front of his scarlet tunic. “I came to Tanthe a week ago to attend a business conference for Holden Pharmaceutical,” he said. “At the gathering, I was introduced to the Representative for Royal Business Interests, a comely young woman named Lady Ayana Kojote. We had a lot of business to discuss, so I invited her to dinner.” Alex grinned at Merlin’s smile and continued. “It wasn’t until later that evening when I discovered that she was Princess Tinara’s cousin. I was introduced to Queen Sechsi at the estate where Ayana was staying during the conference.”
“How did you wind up in Tanager Castle?” Merlin asked.
“After the conference ended, Ayana and the queen intended to pay a visit to Princess Tinara and her son, and they invited me along,” Alex explained. “I was so taken with the Lady that I couldn’t refuse. She and I have spent most of our waking hours together since we got here.”
“You sly dog,” Merlin teased him. “Is the queen still here? I haven’t seen her.”
Alex shook his head. “No, she’s already returned to Aris Grand, but I understand that she and the King may be returning in a day or two.”
“Where’s your cruiser? I didn’t see it on the landing pad.”
Alex raised his eyebrows and looked embarrassed. “It’s back at the Avolane spaceport, where the conference was held. I’m here until Lady Ayana allows me to take a transport back to my ship.”
“Essentially, you are her prisoner in the castle,” Merlin laughed.
“You could put it that way,” the Border collie replied with a wide grin, “but I’m not complaining. I’ve really enjoyed the time with her. She has a lot of the same interests that I do. Did you know her name means eternal flower? She does remind me of a flower, and I’ve grown quite fond of her petals.”
Merlin leaned forward and studied the canine with interest. “If memory serves me correctly,” he said at last, “I have only heard you talk about one other woman like this before, Alex.”
Merlin waved his hand through the air nonchalantly. “Don’t worry about it. I won’t mention your Lady to Samantha. She’ll find out soon enough, now that you’re courting royalty. It’ll probably be on INN before long.”
Alex looked alarmed. “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” he said. “Ohmigosh…”
“Let’s just hope the tabloids don’t pick up on it first.” Merlin looked up at the sound of footsteps and recognized Mr. Hivez. He gave the man a pleasant smile and a nod when he stopped beside the two friends.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “If you will follow me to the dining hall, your presence is awaited by the Royal Family.”
Merlin Sinclair knew that Alex had kept a lifelong crush on Samantha, but it was nice to see the handsome collie with a lady of his own. Merlin had gotten along well enough with Alex, but there had always been somewhat of an underlying tension due to the feelings both of them shared for Samantha. Merlin didn’t get that impression now from Alex. The Border collie had someone new to occupy his attention and Merlin was happy for him. The two of them had just left Lady Ayana, Prince Kal and Princess Tinara in the dining hall, and were heading for their own rooms, laughing and joking together.
They bid one another good night and then Merlin opened the door to the room he had been given. His attention was immediately drawn to a flashing diode on his slateboard terminal. He closed the heavy wooden-plank door, unconsciously bolting it behind him. The room was still lit by a single torch in an iron holder mounted into the stone block wall, though he could tell immediately that it had been replaced sometime during the day. The wolf’s amber eyes reflected the flames as he approached the heavy wooden table next to his bed.
The Aris mountain fortress was equipped with modern conveniences, but to maintain the castle’s rustic medieval appearance, power lines and data transmitters were discreetly concealed behind draperies and wall boards. His room was also equipped with hidden indirect lighting, but since the torch was already burning for him, he saw no need to change the illumination.
Merlin loosened the leather laces across the front of his tunic and pushed the billowing sleeves up his arms as he reached for the slateboard. He sat in the heavy oak chair and then tapped out his passcode. At once, the screen came to life with three messages that awaited his attention. The first was Taro’s routine progress report. As there was usually nothing of importance in the reports, he tended to save that one for last each night. The second message was from his sister as a follow-up to his visit, and the third one was from Tanis.
The wolf frowned when he saw “Eyes Only” labeled as the subject of the last message. That was never a good sign. He glanced back toward the door to make sure he had locked it behind him and then keyed in their shared decryption code to unlock the message that Tanis had safeguarded. It wasn’t that he mistrusted the Aris royalty – they had helped him on more than one occasion out of friendship – but he still valued his privacy on matters concerning his ship.
When the message opened, the first thing he saw was a medical report for Clarence Duffy. Merlin remembered that this was a former military buddy of Tanis’ who lived on Fyn. The message was brief, although it didn’t explain why Duffy was on board the Blue Horizon, but Tanis had a notion that he wanted to bring to the captain’s attention.
Merlin read the message twice and then pored over the data. He was no medical expert, but he understood enough of what Tanis reported to know why it had been sent to him. There were no detailed descriptions or fanciful opinions in the message. Tanis had simply given him the results of what he had found.
He sat there for several long moments, mulling over what he had read. The odds of something like this ever coming to his attention were monumentally slim, yet it had happened. Merlin closed down the slateboard and then moved to the large bed that practically filled the room. He kicked off his boots and then stretched out on his back. He stared into the flickering flames of the torch, letting his mind wander.
Now that he knew what he knew, there was a tough decision to make.
Merlin awoke with a start. A slender hand caressed the fur of his right cheek, and before he opened his eyes, he’d recognized Tinara’s scent. He looked up into her brown eyes in the light of a small candle that had been placed on his night stand; his blood suddenly went cold. “Princess?” he asked hoarsely. “What—?”
Tinara placed a finger on his lips and leaned forward to lick his cheek. When she pulled back, Merlin realized that she wore a short purple silk robe that barely covered her slender form. His eyes grew wider when she stood up and let it slide off her shoulders to land quietly at her feet. She watched his eyes rove quickly over her body, and she smiled at his look of surprise.
“Princess… no,” he said after swallowing deeply. She turned around to let him see her from all sides, that her fur had been well-groomed from head to toe, and then she moved back to his bedside, her tail wagging gently behind her. The wolf glanced quickly at the door to the room and noted that it was still bolted. How had she gotten in?
“Merlin… yes,” she responded as she sat down beside him. “I need you to tickle my toes tonight.” She pulled down the thin sheet that covered the wolf, and noted with satisfaction that he had worn nothing to sleep in.
Merlin sat up, pulled the bed sheet back up over his waist, and then put a hand on her shoulder to keep her at arm’s length. “You are married, have a son and are the king’s daughter,” he said quickly. “I’m not going to do this!”
Tinara smiled, undaunted. “Dear wolf, let me tell you about an old Aris family tradition,” she said. She moved to the foot of the bed to allow him some relief, but didn’t bother to cover her graceful curves from view. “Every generation or so, it is traditional for female members of the royal family to take on an outside lover to infuse new blood into the bloodline after they’ve married and had their first child.”
Merlin furrowed his brow, but said nothing.
“There are no secrets to be hidden here. This is done with the full expectation and knowledge of the woman’s husband,” she continued, “as well as her immediate family.”
“Kal knows? An-and… the King?”
“You won’t lose your head over this,” she assured him. “As the King’s Hero, you will be honored ever more. Besides…” she said with a seductive glance, “I’ve fantasized about you ever since your last visit to Tanthe.”
Merlin let out an audible sigh and looked at her with uncertain eyes. “Princess…” he began.
“Tinara,” she corrected him.
“Tinara,” the wolf repeated, “not long ago, I might have been willing to take part in your family tradition. You are… very desirable. I’ve always been a willing partner to those I’ve shared myself with, but now…”
The coyote woman tilted her head. “But now?”
“I don’t know if you remember Samantha Holden. She was with me during our last visit.”
“Another Border collie like Alex Rogers, I believe,” Tinara replied with a nod. “What about her?”
“She and I have known one another most of our lives. We’ve always been close, but over the past year, we’ve been settling into an exclusive relationship with one another. I don’t want to do anything to ruin what I have with her.”
“Are you going to marry her?” the princess asked bluntly.
“That’s not something we’ve really discussed,” he replied after a moment’s hesitation, “but at this time, Princess, she’s the only one I wish to be with.”
Tinara crawled up across the bed and then pushed him back into a reclining position. She stretched out on top of him and his sheet, and then lifted her chin so that she was looking up at him, nose to nose. “Not to worry, dear wolf. You won’t lose your Samantha over this. I won’t require anything from you except one night as tradition allows. Afterwards, you may return to her without concern.”
“Without concern?” Merlin responded with growing indignation. “You are coyote and do not know what it means to be a wolf. Since our species are compatible, if I take part in your tradition, you will be expecting children to result from this bloodline infusion -- and then expect me to leave my child or children behind? Princess, if I should ever sire a cub, it’s strongly built into my nature to be there as its father, to protect and to raise the child as my family. I can’t do this with the offer you present to me!”
The lupine captain put his hands on both her shoulders and lifted her up so that he could slide out from beneath her and the sheets. He stood up beside the bed in nothing but his fur and looked down at her disapprovingly.
“Princess,” he said quietly, “I like you very much. You are young and very beautiful, but I cannot be a part of this.”
“Merlin…” she repeated.
“No, Princess. I mean it.”
Tinara sat back on the bed, her knees drawn up to her chest. As a princess, she had never been refused anything she had asked for in life, but twice this wolf had refused her. What had first been feelings of disappointment suddenly erupted into resentment and anger.
She was a princess!
Tinara slid off the bed and snatched up her robe angrily. She drew it around herself and gave the wolf a cold glare before she picked up her candle and stormed across the room. Merlin watched her slide behind one of the tapestries hanging on the wall, and then she was gone, leaving the room in sudden darkness.
Merlin could have sworn he had checked behind that tapestry and had found only a stone wall, so he fished a flashlight from his duffel and rushed over to pull it aside. There, as it had been during his initial inspection, was a stone block wall that felt just as solid as any other in the castle. He had heard tales of labyrinthine passages built into the walls of noble castles, and knew that the Princess must know a secret control to open his room into such a passage.
He searched for several minutes, but was unable to find a means to open it. The wolf turned around and leaned back against the tapestry, resting his weight on the wall behind it and thinking to himself in silence. He could still smell her ready scent in the air and had to rub his eyes to rid himself of the memory of her body up against his.
He turned off his flashlight and stood there in the darkness, but his mind could still see her standing before him. He shook his head in frustration and moved across the room back to the bed. When he crawled beneath the cool sheets, Merlin closed his eyes and let his mind wander back over her words. The offer had been tempting, but he was a wolf and responsibility to family was strong in him. So long as there were no offspring, Merlin was content to enjoy the females he had given attention to in the past, but should he ever father a child, he would willingly take his mate for life. It just was not in him to create a child and then leave, and that’s what they wanted.
Merlin took his breakfast alone in the library, instead of the dining hall. He was well aware that his morning absence would be duly noted, and his assessment was proven accurate when Prince Kal entered the book-filled room and walked directly to him with a frown.
“Good morning, Captain,” the coyote said to him in a strained voice. “Mrs. Nores told me you had requested your breakfast in here. This is most irregular.”
Merlin nodded and took a lap from a coffee cup on a tray on a table next to his chair. “I needed time alone this morning.”
“Are you okay? How are you feeling?” Kal noticed that the wolf was dressed in his own clothing today, rather than the local garments that had been provided for him.
Merlin considered his words before answering. “How am I feeling?” he repeated. “I got very little sleep last night and am probably a little cranky this morning. I decided I wouldn’t be very good company over breakfast… especially if the Princess was there.”
Kal looked over at him in puzzlement. “She didn’t spend the night with you?” he asked.
Merlin set down the cup and looked up at the prince with narrowed eyes. “No, she did not,” he replied through tight lips. “You knew she was in my room last night.”
Kal shrugged his shoulders. “Of course I knew,” he answered nonchalantly. “It’s a family tradition.”
“So I’ve been told.”
Kal tilted his head and saw the wolf’s tail twitch in agitation. “Is there a problem?”
“I take it that you have not spoken with the Princess as yet.”
“I’ve not seen her since last night,” the coyote replied. “I slept in my son’s room, and we rarely share breakfast together anyway.”
Merlin speared a small chunk of beefsteak from his food tray with a tiny fork and dipped it in a bluish sauce. “I opted out of Princess Tinara’s offer to take part in your tradition,” he said after he had eaten the morsel. “She was not happy about it, but I sent her away.”
Kal stared at him in amazement. “You turned her down?” he asked. “Why? Didn’t she explain the reason and the need for the tradition?”
Merlin’s frown deepened. “First of all, I want you to know I find the whole situation highly uncomfortable.” Kal opened his mouth, but Merlin held up a hand and continued. “I’ve never gotten involved with a married woman before – even with one whose entire family knows and approves of such an action. It doesn’t matter whether or not she is of royal blood; I simply cannot father a child and then leave it behind.”
Kal’s breathing had gone shallow. “Even if that were not the case,” Merlin added to the coyote’s look of disbelief, “I am already in an exclusive relationship,” he explained.
“Samantha Holden?” the prince asked. When Merlin nodded, he smiled and said, “She doesn’t have to know, my friend. You could fulfill your duty here and…”
Kal was getting flustered. He had not been reared as royalty himself, but he had been raised with the Aris family’s interests firmly in mind and the whole kingdom world had knowledge of the old tradition. Merlin’s refusal was not something he had been conditioned to expect.
“Merlin,” he tried again, “I implore you to reconsider our tradition. You are not a coyote, but we are close enough in species for a successful mating; your blood will help strengthen future generations of the royal family. This is not just an affair with a princess you will be having. This would benefit all of Tanthe. The King was in full agreement when your name was brought up to fulfill the tradition after our son was born.”
“Kal,” Merlin said, purposefully dropping the man’s title, “if I do what you want, it’s going to harm the friendship between me and the house of Aris.”
“No it won’t, my friend. This tradition has been acceptable on Tanthe for generations,” the prince tried to reassure him. “You don’t have to be concerned about me getting jealous of you for sleeping with Tinara. I’m okay with this and the child would be well cared for.”
“You are missing the point,” Merlin said with an exasperated shake of his head as he got to his feet. “I - will not - participate. The answer is No. You will have to find someone else to sleep with your princess.”
Prince Kal looked at the lupine captain for several long moments with his brow furrowed and his fists clenching. There was too much at stake for this kind of attitude, and he was sure this disturbance in their plans would not sit well with the monarch.
The lupine captain of the Blue Horizon looked up into the clear blue sky above the castle grounds. He allowed himself an audible sigh as he and his companion watched banners on parapets sway lazily in a light breeze. This visit had turned out to be more stress and less relaxation than he had anticipated, and he was anxious to be on his way. However, the main purpose of his visit was to see the young prince who bore his name, and he wanted to spend more time with him.
It had taken some coaxing for the boy’s caretaker to allow the wolf to take the young prince outside into the garden without her, but she had finally relented when he reminded her that he was the King’s Hero. At the moment, Merlin Sinclair and Merlin Aris were alone together as they moved among flowering shrubs and bushes along a stone walkway.
The young prince was not interested in the beauty of the garden. He stared up at the wolf as they walked, one hand holding onto the adult and the other with a finger lightly resting against his lower lip. When they came upon an ornate marble bench, they stopped to rest.
Merlin Sinclair smiled at the child. “Is there something you would like to do, your Highness?” he asked.
The boy’s face brightened. “Shoulder ride!” he said in excitement.
“You like sitting up high, do you?”
The prince nodded vigorously and Merlin chuckled. “Okay, one shoulder ride coming right up!” On cue, the young coyote turned around so that his back was to the wolf. Merlin picked him up beneath the arms and hefted him up over his head so he could straddle his neck with his little tail hanging down behind them. The prince put his hands underneath Merlin’s chin and held on as the adult stood up.
“Yaaaay!” the boy exclaimed. Merlin Sinclair began walking through the garden again, mindful not to take the boy under low tree branches. It felt nice to spend some time with a child. Merlin had always liked children; he had always thought he would have some of his own, but life as a freighter captain didn’t present the best of environments to raise them.
The garden pathway opened up into a maze-like arena with few overhead branches, so the wolf held onto the boy’s legs firmly and began to trot. The prince giggled with each bounce and seemed not a bit afraid. Merlin made a few wrong turns in the maze, but eventually the pair of them arrived at the opposite entrance. It was not as large a maze as he had seen in Aris Grand, so had been easy enough to wind through.
The wolf panted as he set the boy back onto the ground, and then lay on his back in the grass beside him. The air was thinner than he was used to at this mountain fortress, but he had not really noticed it until the physical activity. Young Merlin sat down next to him, and began pulling up grass a blade at a time with one hand while holding them in the other.
“What is it you are doing there?” the lupine captain looked over and asked with a pleasant smile.
“Pickin’ grass,” the youngster replied, as if that explained his reasons perfectly. Merlin Sinclair smiled and watched the industrious look on the boy’s face as he seemed absorbed in his task. Finally content, the wolf laid his head back and stared up at the flags swaying in the breeze high above them.
Then he saw a small hand move into view above his face and open its fingers. Grass dropped lightly onto Merlin’s face. He brushed the blades from his fur as the youngster giggled at his expressions.
He rose up on one elbow and looked over at the boy. “Is that funny to you?” he said to him in a playful tone.
Young Merlin laughed again and nodded. “You’re funny!” he said with a grin.
“Want to see some magic?”
The boy’s eyes grew wide. “Yeah!”
Merlin fished around into his pocket and pulled out a Dennieran coin that he had forgotten to convert back into PA-standard credits. He held it up between two fingers so that the bronze-colored coin glinted in the sunlight. The prince watched with rapt attention as Merlin hoped he remembered how to do this particular trick. Tanis had spent hours trying to teach it to him on their last voyage and he had nearly always flubbed it.
The wolf moved the coin slowly back and forth, and watched the boy’s attention lock to it as if he were a mesmerized serpent. Merlin made up a couple of magic words and suddenly said, “alie samanra” to his hand. With the flick of his wrist, the coin disappeared.
The young prince opened his mouth in awe. “Where’d it go?” he asked. He grasped the wolf’s larger right hand and turned it over, but the coin was nowhere in sight.
“It’s up here,” Merlin said. He reached toward the boy’s head with his left hand, and then tickled the fur just inside the child’s ear, making it flick involuntarily. When the prince looked up at his hand, the bronze coin was once again glinting in the sunlight.
“Wow!” the boy exclaimed.
“I would have to say the same thing,” a feminine voice said. Both Merlins looked up into the smiling face of the Tanthean Queen. Sechsi was dressed in a casual gown of beige with gold-colored trim and her fur was groomed into a silky texture that shimmered in the sunlight.
Merlin Sinclair got up to his feet, brushed the remnants of the grass from his tunic, and then bowed to her. “Good afternoon, your Highness,” he said formally.
The elder female coyote put a hand on his head and then withdrew it. “Good afternoon to you too, Captain Sinclair.” When Merlin looked back up at her, she smiled warmly to him. “It is good to see you again.”
“Likewise,” the wolf replied. “You are looking well.”
“She is rather beautiful, isn’t she?” another voice asked in rich baritone words.
Merlin bowed again as King Adion Aris stepped up to his queen’s side. “Hello, your Highness,” he said.
The king, dressed all in dark greens, put his arm around the wolf’s shoulders and said, “Nice to see you again, Captain. I was hoping to find you before you left. I understand you are leaving earlier than originally planned.”
The wolf nodded uncomfortably. He didn’t want to have to explain that the royal family tradition was the reason for his early departure. Instead, he just said, “Yes sire, I’m glad you had time out from your busy schedule to visit.”
The queen took her grandson into her arms and quietly walked back toward the garden maze, leaving the two adult males alone on the lawn. Merlin watched them go, and then swallowed when he noticed the king’s intent stare.
“I would like to have a discussion with you,” the monarch said to him in a tone that Merlin couldn’t quite decipher. He nodded quietly and then the king dropped his arm from the wolf’s shoulder. He began walking across the lawn with Merlin at his side.
“Now that you have taken part in our family tradition,” the king said in a quiet voice, “I would like to present you with a gift of our appreciation.”
“Sire,” Merlin said, “there’s been a—”
“I am prepared to back your company with enough financial assistance to—”
Adion looked up sharply at the wolf’s raised tone, and immediately noted the wolf’s apparent distress. “Yes?” he asked in concern.
“I have not taken part in your family tradition,” Merlin said cautiously.
“What is that you said?” the king asked in puzzlement. “I was told you would be taking my daughter into the bedchamber last night. Has something happened to her?”
“Princess Tinara is fine, your Highness,” Merlin said quickly. “The problem is with myself. I–”
The king looked at him and nodded knowingly. “I see, young man,” he said in a lowered voice. “We were not aware of any medical—”
“The issue is neither medical nor physical, your Majesty,” Merlin said in a rush. “It was a conscious decision on my part. I declined.” The king stared at him a moment, unable to fathom what he’d just heard. Before he could remark, however, Merlin began to relate the same reasons he had given to the Tinara and to Kal.
From a window two stories above them, the princess in question watched her father and the wolf with a sly smile. Merlin Sinclair had refused her advances, and he had refused her husband’s council; he would not be able to refuse the monarch of an entire world.
Although she could not hear their words, she could see the wolf’s arms gesturing as he gave up his excuses to the king. Her father interjected his own comments here and there, but the lupine captain continued to resist. Tinara watched in interest as Merlin became less and less animated in his arguments. The king occasionally nodded in rapt attention. She saw her father put an arm across Merlin’s shoulders and wave wildly in the air with his other hand for several moments.
After what seemed an eternity to the princess, the wolf said a few things more to the monarch and then King Aris brightened, nodding his head. The two of them shook hands, and then the princess sighed and nodded to herself. She knew her father would get through to the wolf. This night would mark another entry into the Aris history books.
Early the next morning, Merlin met Alex Rogers on the castle landing pad beside a small, two person hovercraft that had been delivered for them. The sun had not yet crept over the distant mountains, and Merlin resisted a yawn as he stepped up into the aerial vehicle to put his duffel into a storage compartment.
“Good Morning,” the Border collie said with a yawn of his own.
“G’morning,” Merlin responded. They crawled up into the narrow seats and he looked over at his companion. “I really appreciate you taking me to the Vilnia Spaceport. The Sagittarian Arrow leaves in three hours.”
“Sure thing. I trust you said your good-byes to everyone,” Alex said.
“In one way or another,” the wolf replied, securing his flight harness. “It was a long night.”
Alex nodded with a smile as he pushed his tail through the standard opening in the back of the pilot seat. He took a headset down from a clip above him and pulled the boom microphone around his chin to his lips.
“Sky Patrol,” he said into the communicator, “this is Tanager Transport Gee-Eee-Three-Nine. We are preparing for momentary liftoff from Tanager Castle, bound for Vilnia Spaceport. Authorization code Alpha-Omega-Zero-One.”
“Tanager Transport GE39, this is Sky Patrol. Royal authorization has been confirmed and your flight path has been registered. Launch when ready.”
“Acknowledged, Sky Patrol.”
Merlin allowed Alex to go through his pre-flight checklist quietly, and he let his gaze shift out the forward window toward the castle walls. His eyes roamed up to a lighted window and he could see a silhouette framed against thin curtains. It didn’t take much imagination to recognize the princess’ form as she watched him from above. He sighed in spite of himself.
I should have never come to Tanager Castle, he thought to himself. For the sake of everyone involved, it would have been better if I had stayed on the Blue Horizon.
A moment later, Alex increased power to the rotors and the hovercraft left the landing pad. Merlin’s stomach gave a small lurch as they rapidly passed the princess’ window, and then they were away, heading rapidly toward the south.
They flew along in silence for several minutes before Alex cleared his throat. “Is everything alright?” he asked. “You seem… preoccupied.”
Merlin looked over at him, the Border collie’s patches of white fur bathed in luminescent green from the instrument panels in the pre-dawn darkness. “Just wondering if I made the right decision,” he said after another moment of silence. He closed his eyes and then leaned back in his seat.
“Lady Ayana told me about the Aris family tradition, but also told me you were hesitant,” Alex said uncomfortably. “It sounded like an odd custom to me, but their reasons seemed sound.” Merlin nodded absently and Alex chewed on his bottom lip at the silence. “You’ve been on good terms with the royal family for a couple years now,” he added. “It seems like you would have been the ideal choice for something like this.”
Merlin looked over at him again and appeared to be choosing his words before speaking. “Alex, he said, “I know you’ve loved Samantha for many years, but—”
“But, now I’m interested in Lady Ayana,” Alex finished for him. “I feel like I’ve let Sam down, Merlin, but I’ve never been able to talk her into settling down. She likes space-travel too much.” The wolf looked at his friend in amazement. This was not what he was going to tell him, but apparently the canine had these thoughts on his mind.
“I’ve always hoped that Sam and I would be married and have a litter of pups,” Alex continued, “but I’m afraid our time apart has weakened me. When I saw Lady Ayana… I fell in love again.” He didn’t see the look of amusement on the wolf’s face at his comment about marrying Samantha, which was probably for the best. They had a long ride ahead of them to the spaceport, so Merlin let him talk.
“You know that Sam and I grew up together,” Alex continued. “I’ve adored her since childhood — and even after the death of her parents, when she went to live with Master Tristan, I stayed in contact with her. When I came of age and could leave home, I moved to Sillon so I could be near her.”
“I thought you moved to Sillon for the prestigious education you got there,” Merlin replied.
Alex shook his head. “Not originally. Once there, I had to do something so that I could be near Samantha. I studied hard and then made myself useful to the Silloni Regent, who just happened to be her legal guardian.” He glanced over at the wolf and his eyes glinted in the instrument light. “My plan might have worked if Tristan had not sent her to a university on Alexandrius at her own request.”
“Which is where I met her…” Merlin said.
“I have a confession to make,” Alex said after a moment of quiet.
“I resented you for a long time,” the Border collie admitted. “It took me a long while to realize that she wasn’t coming back to Sillon. When you bought your ship and she convinced you to let her join your crew, I thought it wouldn’t last, even for that one year period you’d agreed to let her serve with you. She later returned to her company as planned, right back into the routines she’d had before she’d left, but then she went a little crazy and rejoined your crew the next time you landed on Alexandrius, causing a major uproar with the board members. Honestly, I didn’t think you two would still be jumping around the cosmos together nearly ten years later. I kept hoping she’d eventually want to settle down, so I bought a house near the Dragon Loft and furnished it with the things I knew she liked.”
Alex shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “She’s never seen the place, doesn’t even know it exists, and I’ve been living in it alone for the past five years.”
“I’m sorry about that, Alex,” Merlin said quietly.
The Border collie flashed him a lopsided smile. “Oh, don’t worry about it now. I stopped resenting you some time ago, for her sake. You’re her best friend and I’ve grown to like you, too. You’ve been good for her and I can honor that.”
Alex sighed and corrected their course a bit. “Despite my love for Samantha,” he said, “I’m afraid that her absence has made it easy for me to take an interest in Ayana. I don’t know where our relationship might take us, but as you mentioned earlier, I don’t want Samantha to find out about it from some tabloid paper on one of the PA worlds.”
He reached into a pocket in his flight jacket and pulled out a data crystal inside a protective metal container. “I need you to give this to her for me when you get back to the Blue Horizon.” He handed it to Merlin without taking his eyes off his instruments.
Merlin held it up to the green panel light and saw the label: To Samantha from Alex. “What is it?” he asked.
“A private message to explain things to her,” Alex replied. “I can trust you not to read it?”
“Of course. I’ll make sure she’s the only one who sees it.”
“Thank you, Merlin. I really appreciate it.”
The wolf pocketed the container and both of them fell into silence as the hovercraft approached the edges of the spaceport traffic.
Merlin reached beneath him to adjust his tail with a frown. Amazingly, the First Class accommodations on such a commercial transport seemed to be more cramped than his freighter, and while the cost had been expensive, the cabin he shared with an elderly human lecturer was tiny; it was apparent the chair was not designed for someone with a tail.
He sat stiffly at the only desk in the small cabin, watching newscasts on a small vidscreen mounted to the top of a cabinet. His roommate, Professor Wombles was currently away having his morning meal, so Merlin had the place to himself.
He’d left Tanthe a week ago on the commercial starship, Sagittarian Arrow, which was headed to all three worlds located within the Goldilocks Zone of the Lia-Noa star system, where he would depart at Crescentis to rendezvous with the Blue Horizon. He had misgivings about going to Crescentis again – the last time he and his crew had been there, they had been shot down by pirates. Had it not been for the timely arrival of the Lady of Dreams, none of them would have survived the crash.
However, their next job was there and he was ready to rejoin his crew, although it would take another two weeks to arrive. That was a long time to be cooped up in a small cabin with an old man who loved to talk constantly. The gentleman had really done nothing against him, but it was almost enough to make Merlin want to start avoiding humans again.
The lupine captain stared at the tiny vidscreen a moment more and finally shut it off. He stood up from the ill-fitting chair, moved back to his bunk and stretched out on his back.
He lay there for a long while, trying to let his mind relax, but his thoughts turned to the information that Tanis had sent to him. King Aris had granted use of his scientists to examine the genetic data report for him and their conclusion confirmed his medic’s hunch. There was no doubt about it now, but Merlin still was not sure about what he needed to do.
Since Taro had finally given in to her conscience and told him about Operation Rainbow, he was fairly certain that Duffy could be recalled to active duty on Nalirra if his folder information had been processed before the facility was destroyed. Would it be fair to keep the knowledge from him — knowing that he could die in the war — or would it further complicate matters?
Merlin sighed and rubbed his head in frustration. He didn’t even know the Siberian husky, but he felt some sort of responsibility with the information. However, that was not his major concern. Probably the biggest uncertainty on his mind was wondering how Max would react to the knowledge that Clarence Duffy was his biological father.
Thoughts of family shifted Merlin’s memories back to Tanthe. After what had happened at Tanager Castle, he wondered if he would ever be able to go back there. The whole situation had been a tangled web, but after everything that had occurred, Merlin knew that for the sake of family and for the sake of a child, he knew he would have to go back.
— NEXT EPISODE —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.