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BLUE HORIZON

"The Secret of Tanager Castle"
by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Blue Horizon, PA1138

Captain’s Journal 

It has been three months since my last journal entry.  Most of what’s happened since the attacks on Renny and the Hidalgo Sun hasn’t been much to note and I’ve been lax writing anything down.

After we left Alexandrius, we made deliveries of general supplies to the SPF Headquarters on Joplin, transported the equipment of a film crew and several members of its cast to Earth, and then picked up a load of metal pipelines for shipping to Ganis. After that, it was back to Joplin for some training, and then to Kantus to deliver an export of archaeological artifacts to a university for study.

We’ve had no further attacks on the company, but despite how good this sounds, it continues to make me nervous wondering when the next strike will happen. Granted, we have increased our security measures on the ship and cargo, and I have forbidden anyone to go out alone while on shore leave. It’s been expensive, but I’ve hired guards to watch the ship every time we’re down for a delivery or pick up.

In light of the multiple attacks on the company, the SPF granted my request for concealed weapon licenses that are recognized by the local authorities throughout the Planetary Alignment, and I made it compulsory for all my employees to have firearm training. During the Blue Horizon’s most recent visit to Joplin, I arranged a week of training with the SPF officers in the use of firearms for my crew. I’ll have to say that everyone was taken completely by surprise by Lori’ marksmanship. She maintained higher scores than anyone, including the three of us who have had prior military training. 

To her credit, Lori played down how well she could shoot a gun saying that she had plenty of training due to the all of the military bases she lived on while growing up the daughter of a career-minded army officer of Kantus.  She doesn’t particularly like weapons, but she sure knows how to wield one… and I hate to admit that she was the one I had the lowest expectations for learning how to shoot.  Anyway, I made it mandatory for the crew of the Blue Horizon to carry concealed Binfurr handguns while on shore leave. I don’t like having to do this, but after what happened to Renny, I don’t want to take any chances until our enemy is finally caught.

We’ve run across JW Chon twice in the last few months and our meetings have continued to be amiable. Neither of us has heard anything more of Armando, so we can hope he’s behaving himself wherever he may be. Perhaps he’s learned some responsibility and is working somewhere earning a real living.

Renny’s road to recovery has been slow, much to everyone’s displeasure. My navigator makes a terrible bed patient and has nearly driven everyone crazy. Tanis, Taro and Lori have been working with his physical therapy these past few weeks, and although he’s now up and about the ship, he still has to take it slow. If he happens to make a sudden movement, his injuries will remind him sharply that he hasn’t fully recovered. Samantha has tried to get him to use the antigrav pillow that Pockets made for her during her own convalescence, but he doesn’t want to bother with it. It’s a personal frustration for a cheetah that is used to being quick on his feet to have to rely on an external device to get around. It would be easier for him to accept the offer and just use it, but on the other hand, it has given him incentive to work hard to get back into shape.

I have allowed him to help me on the bridge with navigation, but not with the actual flying of the ship. Before the attack, I’d fallen lax on having the other crewmembers perform the landing and launches, but with my primary backup pilot out of commission for three months, a few of the others are being reintroduced to the Blue Horizon’s flight controls. Lucky for me, I have some decent pilots among my crew — although Max frightens everyone whenever he’s in the center seat. Inevitably, he will forget some small process, but I make sure I am always on the bridge to watch him and compensate for his mistakes.  He may have impressed everyone with his mechanical aptitude, and I’m glad to have him in the engine room with Pockets, but he has a lot of practice to go before he can be designated a trustworthy pilot.

At this time, we are currently approaching Tanthe, where we will be landing at Tanager Castle. I’m the only one on board who has actually been to this location before, but not long after we’d launched from Alexandrius, Samantha received an invitation to a wedding addressed to her and the crew of the Blue Horizon. It seems that her friend Alex Rogers issued a proposal to his Lady Ayana and she accepted.

We were able to shuffle around our delivery schedules with the home office and the Hidalgo Sun to allow us the opportunity to spend a little time to attend the ceremony.  Since Lady Ayana Kojote is the cousin of Princess Tinara of the House of Aris, and Alex is the CEO of the largest pharmaceutical corporation in the Planetary Alignment, King Aris allowed that the wedding should take place at the ancient Tanager Castle.

As I understand it, Master Tristan, former Regent of Sillon, will be in attendance, which has been good news for Samantha. Alex worked for Tristan for a good many years and the Silloni master fully intended to be there for his wedding. It’s a long way to come from Sillon, but I understand that Master Tristan is in possession of a ship equipped with a new generation of LightDrive engines. It’s a little faster than what is currently on the market, and has enough of an edge that it could shave a week and half off the time it would normally take the Blue Horizon to go the same extreme distance. That may not sound like much, but when the journey normally takes three months going one direction, that week and a half could make a great deal of difference in food, air and water on board an interstellar ship.

I will have to talk to him about it when we meet. If it performs as well as I have heard, I may have to look into having the Horizon’s engines upgraded.

I admit that I feel strange coming back to Tanthe, especially back to Tanager Castle. I’ve not been back since being approached to take part in the Aris family tradition, and I am hesitant to see the Princess again. Of course, for the sake of her son who bears my name, I don’t intend to avoid her. I don’t know if her four-month-old twins will be there, but I have an obligation to see Tamari and Dorian if they’re also present. Needless to say, I am strongly curious to see how the little coywolves have developed.

I can’t say that this brief journal entry will make up for three months’ laziness, but I should wind this up and head to the bridge soon. We’ll be arriving at Tanthe in about two hours and I should begin my checklist. Tanis is assisting in the landing today and I’ll need to make sure he’s on the bridge long before we approach planetary orbit. 

Merlin Sinclair, Captain     

*** 

The great hall of the ancient Tanager Castle was lit by hundreds of white candles from eight crystal chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling, and garlands made of every color were draped around the walls of the room. Braziers of open flame with baskets of flowering shrubs hanging beneath them lined the walls to provide a modicum of warmth while lush draperies adorned the walls to keep it in. The bronze and iron statues of Tanthean heroes that occupied each corner of the room were also festooned with flowering garlands. The crystals of the chandeliers above sparkled from the lights and movements below, and more flower arrangements were placed tastefully in every part of the room.  Tables draped with white satin cloth with candelabras in the middle of each gave the place a stylish feel.

Royal dignitaries, media personalities and other invited guests were gathered in between the rows of tables, a hundred conversations filling the air with joviality and laughter. Near the forward end of the chamber were a pair of elegant thrones of velvet drapes of purple on an upraised dais, but at the moment they were empty.  We were unable to attend the wedding of Tinara and Kal, but I am sure it probably looked something like this.

Near the back of the room, a small group of various species was huddled together as if the regality of the place was overwhelming and something dread would happen if they split up. Each held a drink glass and most of them fidgeted while waiting. They were dressed in various garments of medieval design in order to match the fitting of the locale and the occasion.

“That was such a beautiful ceremony,” Lorelei said with bright eyes. “I just love weddings, don’t you?”

Tanis looked at her with an amused expression as he tugged at the strap across the back of his breeches that was just a little too tight for his tail. “Yeah, it was nice,” he replied in an unconvincing tone.  Lori looked at him suspiciously and then tsk’d at him.

“You’re lying,” she said with her hands on her hips. “What do you have against weddings?”

“That was a lot of pomp and showcasing,” the fennec fox said with a grin at her reaction. “In my hometown, all it took for a couple to become legally married was for them make an announcement at a local gathering that they had become mates. No certificates, no singing in foreign languages, no blessings by their parents or elders and no media coverage like those two just had.”

“That sounds rather dull,” Samantha said with the shake of her head.

Tanis grinned. “Oh, the couple would be given a grand party by family and friends,” he said, “but the union itself was nothing more than a public announcement.”

“Well,” Samantha said, “as much as I hate to agree with Lori on anything, I thought Alex and Ayana’s wedding was beautiful.” Lorelei tilted her head at the comment, but nodded.

“Alex has a gorgeous bride,” Durant said as he scratched the fur at his neck where the fancy medieval garment had been rubbing. “He certainly looks happy about it. All the fuss is probably worth it to him.”

“Yeah, but I don’t think I’d want all this attention either,” Renny piped up from the side where he leaned on his crutches.

Taro leaned over to him with a mischievous look and said, “What if Tsarina wants a big wedding, dear?” she teased.

Renny looked embarrassed. “I should have never told you all what was in Tsarina’s letter,” he groaned.  “I’ve gotten nothing but grief about it ever since I let you know she has a big crush on me.”

“Ren-Ren, we’ve all known she’s had a crush on you since our crews first met,” Samantha said with a smirk.

“More than a crush,” Tanis teased with a big grin. “If ya have not left out anything from the letter, it sounds as if she’s quite in love with ya.”

“I think she wants to have your kittens,” Samantha said with a sly look. Renny gave her a momentary glare, but couldn’t hold it. He grinned in return.

“Yeah, well…” Renny started, “she nice an’ all, but I’d rather spend my time with Taro.”

The vixen grinned and then whispered something into his ear that the others couldn’t hear. Merlin laughed at the embarrassed expression on the cheetah’s face and wondered what naughty comment the red fox had uttered.

“Is that Samantha Holden I see?” said a voice from an approaching figure.  As one, the Horizon crew turned to see a shapely human woman with long dark hair in a golden dress adorned with silver leaves. Her eyes sparkled at the recognition by the others and her grin was a mile wide.

“Holly?” Pockets asked in amazement.  “Holly Harken!”

The woman smiled down at the diminutive raccoon and nodded her head.  Samantha had a canine grin that was ear to ear and she held out her hands. Holly took them and then pulled her into a hug. ”I am so glad to see you here,” she said. “This was a surprise I had not expected.”

Samantha pulled away and beamed at her. “The groom is a childhood friend,” she explained.  “There was no way I would miss his wedding.”

“Well, I didn’t know either of them myself,” Holly remarked, “but it was a media event that INN wanted me to cover personally.”  She leaned in close and added, “They don’t let me out of the studio very much, so I jumped at the chance for some field work!”  She looked up at the Hestran fox and gave her a warm smile.  “You must be Taro Nichols,” she said.

The vixen nodded quietly and seemed subdued in the famous anchorwoman’s presence. “That’s right,” she said in a quiet voice.  “I can’t thank you enough for your help on Hestra.”

Holly took a step toward her and touched Taro’s cheek lightly.  “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more,” she replied with sudden moisture in her eyes. She and Taro exchanged a brief hug and then the woman wiped her eyes with a handkerchief she pulled from a small bag she carried.

“Now,” she said to Samantha in a voice that was a little stronger, “how about introducing me to your friends?”

The Border collie grinned and gestured toward Pockets, who was practically biting his lip to keep from blurting out his praise of the woman.  “This is our chief engineer, Jerad Porter,” she said.  Holly knelt down so that she looked the raccoon better in the eyes and shook his hand.  “I am delighted to meet you, Mr. Porter.”

Pockets felt himself blush beneath his fur and his bright eyes practically shone. “The pleasure is mine, I assure you,” he said in a shaky voice. He dug into a pocket of his suit and produced a worn notebook and a pen. “M-may I have your autograph, please?” he asked.

Holly’s eyes sparkled as she took the book and pen with a smile. She was used to this, but she never turned down the opportunity to please a fan with her autograph. She flipped through pages of engineering notes to a clean page near the back, and then signed her name with two small hearts.  She handed it back to him and then gently tickled his left ear.  Pockets took the book with honor with a short bow, his joy barely contained.

Max elbowed Pockets gently with a laugh and Holly gave him a wink.  Samantha introduced the German shepherd, and then went around their group one by one, ending with the wolf.

“This is our Captain, Merlin Sinclair,” Samantha said. Merlin took her hand and gave a short bow.

“Pleased to meet you, Captain,” Holly said in genuine admiration. “I have heard so many things about you that would fill up a program, were you to permit me to interview you.”

Merlin grinned at her lopsidedly. “I’m not so sure the life of a mere freighter captain would be of much interest to your viewers, Miss Harken,” he said in a smooth voice, “but I am pleased to meet you as well.”

“Modest, isn’t he?” Holly said with a laugh to the others.  “I’m glad to have had the chance to meet the crew of the Blue Horizon in person,” she added. “You have done the Planetary Alignment much service in your adventures, whether you are aware of them or not.  A mere freighter captain, indeed!”

Another human came up to Holly’s side and whispered something into her left ear.  She nodded and then he disappeared back into the crowd.  “I’m afraid I will have to cut our visit short,” she said apologetically. “I’ve been granted an interview with the bride and groom and have been told I’ve only ten minutes to prepare.  Nice meeting you folks!” she said.  She exchanged another short hug with Samantha and then she was gone.

“Well, that certainly was a surprise,” Tanis piped up after a moment of awkward silence.  “For a human, she’s a looker!”

Durant laughed and rested an elbow on the fennec’s shoulder.  “Fancy her, do you?” he teased.

Tanis grinned widely.  “I don’t’ think I’m alone in my admiration of the famous Holly Harken,” he replied.  “Pockets was practically drooling on himself when she was here.”

“Aww, I wasn’t that bad….” Pockets gushed. “Was I?”

“Yes, Pockets, ya were,” Tanis laughed, “and she could see it, too!”

“All I wanted was her autograph,” the raccoon said in embarrassment.

Renny put a hand on his shoulder.  “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’m sure she has big fans all over the PA, and your request was probably commonplace.”

“I feel like a goofus,” the engineer muttered lowly.

“That should feel natural, Pockets,” Tanis said with a grin, “because ya are a goofus.”

“Gee, thanks too much!”

Merlin chuckled and then took a drink of his punch. He swallowed it hard when he noticed someone else walking over toward his small group.

He’d managed to evade Princess Tinara since landing the day before. Even back when Sam had received Alex’s wedding invitation, he knew their eventual meeting was unavoidable.

Merlin approved the side trip and had the crew at HQ reroute their delivery schedules with the Hidalgo Sun so the Horizon’s crew could attend. When they had at last arrived on Tanthe, they were directed to land in a wide plain a mile to the south of the castle, where other ships and landers had been parked as well. Shuttle services were provided from the plain to the castle, but no one was allowed to set down within the fortress walls themselves, nor were they allowed within the airspace over the nearby Tanager Village. Visits to the small village were permitted, but all items electronic in nature were forbidden within five miles of the place. No explanation had been given over that last directive, but everyone complied.

“Good afternoon, your Highness,” Merlin said with a short bow. The other Horizon members turned to see the approach of Princess Tinara and each of them quickly gave a bow of their own, although Renny’s bow was nothing more than a nod of his head, owing to his prior injuries.

“Good afternoon to you all,” the coyote woman replied. Young Prince Merlin Aris trailed behind her, one finger resting on his lips at the crowds around him, and his other small hand resting comfortably in his mother’s hand. Durant exchanged quick looks with Tanis and then the two of them closely watched the expressions on Samantha’s face. They all knew well of the relationship between the captain and their supply officer, and of the recent events that tied them to Tinara. Max leaned over and whispered something to Pockets and the raccoon nodded silently.

Princess Tinara was dressed in an ice green gown with gold trim and white lace, with a plunging neckline decorated with an elaborate diamond necklace and matching gems in an understated tiara between her ears. Merlin thought she looked lovely, but felt a knot in his throat as he realized the attention from his crew that was focused on the two of them.

“Princess,” he said a little awkwardly, “I would like to introduce you to my crew,” he said. Tinara nodded quietly and then Merlin named each of his friends around them. When he came to Samantha, the princess’ eyes lit up.

“I am so pleased to meet all of you,” she said, “but I am most pleased to meet the woman who has the heart of my wolf friend.”

Samantha swallowed and then gave a short curtsey. The group around them fell completely silent. “Likewise,” the Border collie replied quietly. “I hope your Highness and her children are doing well?” Taro drew in a sudden breath at Sam’s comment. While it was a simple pleasantry, it was a little bold for those who knew what they thought they knew.

Tinara gave her a warm smile. “Thank you for asking,” she said. “I am doing well, and so are my children.” Prince Merlin looked up at Captain Merlin in sudden recognition and released his mother’s hand to jump up into the wolf’s arms. The lupine captain picked up the boy with a smile and lifted him up onto his shoulders to the delight of the child.

“Yayyy!” exclaimed the royal youngster.  Tinara’s eyes crinkled in amusement.

“Where are your other children?” Lori ventured to ask.

Tinara’s eyes shined when she looked at the rabbit. “Their nanny is caring for them in Aris Grand,” she replied. “Miss Dayl is a wonderful woman, but I still found it hard to leave my pups behind. Despite their royal upbringing, they are already becoming mischievous in their own ways. I suspect it is the wolf blood in them.” She turned and looked at Merlin with a look that silently suggested many things. Samantha moved closer to Merlin and threaded an arm though his, avoiding the child’s leg that dangled from the captain’s shoulder.

“That reminds me,” Princess Tinara said as she raised a handbag that had been hidden in the folds of her gown. “I have something for you.”

She pulled out an envelope of parchment and handed it to Merlin, who took it in curiosity. Across the back flap was a purple waxed seal with the Aris crest impressed into it. “What is this?” he asked.  There was no writing on the package and he turned it over quietly, hesitant to open it.

“That is a letter from the wolf who fathered my youngest children,” Tinara replied casually. “He asked me to deliver it to you personally while you were here today.”  There were looks of astonishment among the Horizon crew, and Samantha raised her eyebrows.

Merlin looked up at her, oblivious to the stunned looks of his friends. “What is it?” he asked.

“I do not know,” the princess replied. “It was sealed before he gave it to me this morning and requested that no others were to handle it until it came into your possession. He asked that it was for your eyes only - to be read in private, but he did not divulge the contents to me.”

“Excuse me, your Highness,” Durant said meekly. “You said the father of your children wanted you to deliver that envelope to Merlin?”

“That is right, Mr. Durant,” she replied. “Is there a problem?”

The grizzly swallowed his embarrassment. “No, milady,” he answered. “It is just that I thought…”

Tanis put an elbow into the bear’s side and Durant became instantly silent. Tinara noted the action and frowned. “There appears to be some confusion among you,” she said. “Please tell me your thoughts on the matter of my children.”

Merlin cleared his throat and all eyes from the small group went to him. “I must apologize for my crew, your Highness,” he said with a growl in his voice. “They have been making assumptions based upon a misconception.” Taro snickered at the wolf’s choice of words, but fell silent at the glare she received from him.

“What assumptions?” Tinara asked. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“They thought Merlin was the mysterious father of your cubs,” Samantha answered with a smirk. Tinara looked at her in sudden amusement.  She glanced over at the wolf and noted the embarrassed expression on his face.

“Is this what you have been telling them?” she asked him with a sparkle in her eyes.

“No,” Merlin replied. “They have assumed this on their own.”

“He hasn’t said a word, your Highness,” Pockets said, “but the timing of his last visit to see you would have been about right. We thought….”

“You thought that Merlin Sinclair had been chosen to father my children in a family tradition to bring new blood into the royal line?” she asked.  There were nods all around and Tinara suddenly moved to Merlin’s side, opposite that of Samantha. She threaded an arm through his and then laughed.

“You aren’t wrong, my friends,” she told them to astonished expressions. “Merlin was chosen for our tradition, but he declined.”  She giggled at the apparent awkwardness the wolf felt at her side.

“Why?” Lorelei asked boldly. “You are so beautiful!”

Tinara sighed. “Thank you, my dear, but he is a proud wolf who values family, and would not take part in something that would produce children if he could not stay to raise them. He even refused the royal counsel of my father, the king of all Tanthe. Imagine that.”

Samantha looked up at the fidgeting Merlin and felt a warm glow inside. He had told her of this before, but she’d been reluctant to believe he had actually turned down the advances of a princess whom Merlin was known to be fond of, as well as the offer of a nice fortune by the Aris monarch himself.

Tinara continued without interruption. “There was another reason he wouldn’t let himself be seduced,” she said as she looked over at Samantha. “His heart was already taken by another. He expressed strong feelings for someone already close to him.”

It was Sam’s turn to feel embarrassed and she clung to Merlin’s arm tighter. Merlin himself was unmoving, his eyes focused somewhere far away so that he didn’t have to meet the gaze of anyone in his crew. He absently fiddled with the envelope in his hands and met no one’s eyes.

“If Merlin’s not the father of yer kids,” Tanis said quietly, “then who is?” He glanced at the parchment envelope. “I understand that wolves are not common on Tanthe.”

Princess Tinara smiled. “It is customary in these matters for the father to remain anonymous, but apparently he is someone familiar with your captain,” she replied with a gesture toward the envelope. “I have said little to him about Merlin, but he is aware that my firstborn was named after Merlin Sinclair, commander of the Blue Horizon.”

“It has to be someone from Dennier, then,” Taro said.  “There are lots of wolves there who know Merlin.”

For the first time since the explanations began, Merlin moved. He lifted the youngster from his shoulders, much to the displeasure of the child, and set him on the ground beside his mother. He smiled sheepishly. “Now you all know it wasn’t me,” he said in a low voice, finally relieved to have the secret truth finally voiced.

“But why’d you never deny it?” Renny asked. “We’ve been speculating in front of you about it for months!”

Merlin shrugged his shoulders. “Because you wouldn’t have believed me anyway – especially since it was announced on INN that the cubs were half-wolf. It was safer just to let you speculate, than to have to endure your disbelief. Besides, I don’t know who the real father is either – or how he could choose not to stay and raise the pups.”

He removed Tinara’s arm from his and turned to face her. “Congratulations on your successful mating,” he said with a smile that was finally relaxed. “I know what it means to the House of Aris, and I am happy that you found someone willing to help you.”

Princess Tinara looked up into his golden eyes and felt unashamed before him and his friends. “I admit that I still wish it had been you, my dear wolf,” she said with a wink toward Samantha, “but I also admire your resolve, your sense of relationship and of family. These are commendable qualities.”

“Thank you, your Highness,” Merlin said with a short bow.  Tinara chuckled and then tiptoed up to lick the tip of his nose.

“That’s mushy stuff!” the young coyote prince said with a wrinkled nose. “Yuck!” The small group laughed at the child’s words and Tinara could feel the tension had gone out of the air.

“Well,” she said at last, “the Prince and I must mingle with the other guests now. I don’t know if I will have the chance to speak with you for the remainder of your visit, so I bid you and your crew a fond fare well.”

The Blue Horizon crew bowed to her in unison and then she left with her son in tow. She glanced back toward Merlin and winked at him before she turned her attention elsewhere.

“Wow…” said Pockets. “That was quite a revelation!”

“That sure explains a lot,” Durant commented.

Tanis stepped forward and pointed to the envelope still in Merlin’s hands. “Ya gonna open that?” he asked.

Merlin looked at the parchment package, held it up and looked again at the seal. “Yes,” he replied, “but she said I was to read it in private. Why don’t you clowns go eat some wedding cake while I hide out and see what this other wolf has to say to me?”

Samantha looked up at him with a smile, the feeling of warmth all through her. “You turned down a princess for someone closer?” she asked as the others dispersed, talking animatedly amongst themselves.

Merlin grinned and then gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “Yes, I did,” he replied.  “Now, go slap Alex on the back in congratulations while I go look at this.”

“What?” the Border collie asked in mock surprise. “I thought you’d at least let me read it with you.”

Merlin grinned. “Uh uh…” he said.  “It’s probably all the sordid details of his mating with Tinara and I don’t want your delicate eyes ruined by what might be in here.”

“My delicate eyes!” Samantha laughed.  “Go and read your royal porn, then,” she said. “I’m going to go tease Alex about his impending wedding night!”

Samantha left his side and started to make her way through the crowd. The few seconds she had delayed had already lost her to the others, but she didn’t care. She walked idly among the people and nodded in greeting to those who met her in like manner. She’d not heard a fanfare of any kind, so she knew that Alex and Ayana had not yet come forth to greet the visitors in the throne room’s reception hall, likely still tied up with Holly’s interview with them.

She milled around here and there, until she heard a voice she had hoped to hear.  She smiled widely and excused herself through several blocks of people until she stood before the one who had raised her as a pup.

“Master Tristan!” she exclaimed when a lull had come into the conversation with several other Silloni.

The tall, black equine looked down at her with gentle brown eyes and smiled. “My Samantha,” he said in a deep voice. “I had hoped to see my adopted collie,” he said.

Samantha moved forward and hugged him fiercely. She was so glad to see him, especially since he had suffered at the hands of a would-be assassin. There were very few off-worlders away from Sillon who was aware of the importance of the Silloni’s spiraled horns, but Samantha knew and was overjoyed to see him looking as if he were in his prime.

“I have missed you, Master!” she said with wide, moist eyes.

“There, my little one, no tears please,” he said gently. “Guinevere and Laura are around here somewhere, but until they return, I want to introduce you to the current Regent of Sillon.”     

*** 

When Merlin left the great hall, a coyote guard stepped up to him. “I am sorry, Sir, but there are no unescorted sojourns allowed into the castle during this time, please,” he said.

Merlin nodded, but from a pocket pulled out a metallic badge that had been given to him upon his arrival, granting him full access to the estate.  The coyote examined it and grunted.  “My apologies, Milord. You may proceed.”

“Thank you,” Merlin told him with a smile. He looked around and searched for anything out of memory to show him where he was. He wanted to go to the library, and if he remembered correctly, it was to his left.  The lupine captain moved down a shadowy corridor that was lit by torches placed just far enough apart to give the passage an air of gloom.  His footsteps echoed off the rock flooring and he met no one else. He soon came upon what he was looking for — a flight of circular stone steps that led up to the next level. When he reached the top, he walked quietly along another torch-lit corridor, passing armed sentries along the way. Without preamble, he showed his badge as he passed each guard, and he received nods from each that allowed him to pass.

When he was certain he had crossed the length of the fortress itself, he soon found a pair of polished wooden doors. He moved through them into a large chamber that 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 a cloudless sky of a warm spring day and the columns that held it up were covered in climbing ivy that issued a minty aroma.

Save for himself, the room was unoccupied and he moved quickly to a high-backed chair of comfort. He held up the parchment envelope and was about to break its seal when he noticed something on the wall opposite him. Merlin frowned and almost groaned aloud. The portrait of himself that had once been in the room where he had last stayed was now on display in the castle library along with other royal heroes of the past. As the princess had indicated earlier, he was modest when it came to himself, and seeing the portrait unnerved him. 

While there was no real reason to do so, Merlin got up and moved to another elegant chair that faced the other direction. He nodded to himself in satisfaction and then looked at the envelope.  With the tip of a claw, he pulled up on the flap and broke the Aris seal. It made a small snap in the quiet of the room and then he removed the contents.  Inside was a letter on matching parchment, and the neat lines of the missive looked as if they had been written with a well-dipped quill.

Merlin’s pulse skipped a beat and he felt his heart well up into his throat when he looked at the handwriting. He recognized it immediately. He closed his eyes momentarily and then swallowed hard before he allowed himself read the letter. 

 

Merlin, 

Please sit down, as this will undoubtedly be a shock to you. I have asked Princess Tinara to deliver this letter to you personally, for it to change hands with no one save between yourself and the Princess. If the seal to this letter is unbroken, then my secret may still be safe. As she has undoubtedly told you, I am the father of her newest children, due to a family tradition held in high esteem by the family Aris.  By Tanthean law, they are bound not to reveal the identity of the surrogate father to the general populace so that he may live in peace and remain anonymous, albeit highly rewarded. However, it’s in my right to reveal myself to whomever I please, so long as it is not brought to the attention of the public.

Tinara has told me of her infatuation with you, from the time you first met and through reports of the growth of your business in this time of trouble throughout the Planetary Alignment. As a schoolgirl sometimes does, Princess Tinara continues to hold a crush on you – one that will likely follow her for many years, even though you refused to grant her wish to take part in the Family Tradition.

The day after you left Tanager Castle, Tinara went horseback riding across the countryside, to clear her mind, she said. I don’t believe you have been there, but six miles from the castle is the tiny Tanager Village, which exists solely to maintain and support the castle. Just before arriving in the village, her majesty’s horse threw a shoe and she walked her animal the rest of the way to the stable to have it looked at. In the village, I was nothing more than a delivery boy to the castle, and it was while she awaited her horse to be reshod, I delivered some grain to the blacksmith.

Almost as soon as she realized that I was a wolf, she drew me outside under a shade tree and explained the Aris Family Tradition to me. I was offered wealth beyond my dreams and the granting of any wish I could ask for, so long as I remained anonymous. I have been down on my luck for many years, usually due to my own foolhardiness, and this was really the first time that something good had happened to me.

I told her what my “wishes” were, and although they took her aback to hear my odd request, she assured me that everything would be taken care of. She took me into her bedchamber that night and I satisfied my bargain with the Aris family bloodline.

Over time, she visited me often, and as promised my wishes were fulfilled. I was introduced to a lovely lass who has since become my wife and we reside still in the quaint village of Tanager. There are some in this place who suspect that I am the father of the twins, as there are no other wolves here, but I let their tongues waggle without comment, for no one ever leaves this place. Wolves such as ourselves are taught from childhood the importance of family, of children and belonging, but honor has long eluded me and I’ve made no demands to take a part in the lives of those I’ve sired.

One of my granted wishes was that Tanager Village be rid of all forms of electronic equipment within a five-mile radius of the outskirts. This was done and the Aris monarch set forth a law banning all technology from the village on the pretense of keeping the spirit of the origins of the castle on its surrounding countryside intact. Of course, Tanager Village was already devoid of having much technology, but now it’s free of all such devices. The penalty for disobeying is rather stiff.

The reason for this particular wish is that I had been previously captured by an evil force and had numerous explosives implanted all through my body to ensure obedience. The Cold Fire virus that the Planetary Alignment fell under during the Siilv War was of my design, but please don’t place blame for the deaths upon me. I was forced under duress to write the virus and was punished violently by these internal explosives when I wouldn’t comply. I was also informed that any attempt at surgery to remove even one of them would set them all off at once, so I’d had no hope of ever escaping his influence. Due to this, I am now missing several fingers and toes. In spite of my malevolent captor’s torture, I encoded the antidote within the code itself. Apparently, someone on the outside had the foresight to examine the virus code deeply, for it was broken and eradicated far too quickly. I praise whoever it was who was able to find it in time.

My Master was unkind to me, but in the confusion of the War and its unforeseen sudden end, I found the opportunity to escape. I made it as far as Tanthe as an extra hand on a slow-moving, low-tech ship. I was deposited near Tanager Village, and when I realized there was no real technology here, I felt that perhaps I might be safe from anything that might generate a signal to set off the explosives within me.

I decided to settle in this place, and with my pact with Princess Tinara, this place has been declared free of technology so that I may live the rest of my days without fear of my Master finding me.  He has many eyes and ears throughout the Planetary Alignment, and so long as I am thought of as dead, the better off I can be. I would also ask that you destroy this letter after reading it to further my chances of safety.

In this place, I am known simply as Jorge Flanelle, the deliveryman. I now have wealth to cover the needs of my wife and our own expected pups, and I have my safety, but to you and our sister Shannon, I am your lost sibling. Live well, big brother. I know we have had differences in opinion in the past, but you can rest assured that I am happy here. We shall never see one another again, and I ask that you swear yourself to silence of your knowledge of me if you value my life and my new prosperity. However, I wanted you to know what had become of me so that you and Shannon may put me to rest in your thoughts.

May you and your business grow in health and wealth,

Lucas

 

Merlin sat back in the high-backed chair and was tense in the cushions. He read the letter slowly three times to make sure he missed nothing, before he folded it and returned it to its envelope.  The wording of the letter was more formal than his brother was used to writing, but perhaps his time in the quiet village that served a royal castle had impressed itself upon him.

He put the envelope inside his tunic and then sat in the chair with his eyes closed for a long while.     

*** 

Merlin opened his eyes at the sound of voices and realized with a start that he had fallen asleep in the library chair. His first thought was that the letter had been a dream, but when he put his hand inside his tunic, the parchment envelope was still there.

He looked up and noticed that several of the chairs in the library were now occupied by guests of the wedding ceremony. Many were still garbed in the period medieval garments that had been required, but no one seemed to notice him.  He brushed a hand across the top of his head and fluffed up some of the fur that had been pressed down during his sleep. He sincerely hoped he had not been snoring.

With as much aplomb as he could muster, Merlin stood up as if he had only been sitting with a book and quickly left the library. The first thing he noticed was a large window to the outside and he was surprised to discover that night had fallen during his nap. A full moon shone in through the windows and he studied its pocked surface momentarily before he moved away.

The others must have wondered if I’d skipped out, he thought to himself. He made his way quickly to a staircase to find the third-floor rooms that had been assigned to him and the Blue Horizon crew. Either that, he mused with a wry smile, or they may think I have slipped off with the Princess again.

It took him nearly fifteen minutes to locate the area of the castle where his quarters were and another five to find the right door. He stepped up to the heavy wood door and hesitated. He looked across the hallway at a low brazier that lit the passage and then walked over to it. He pulled the parchment envelope from his tunic and held it out toward the flames. He hesitated a long moment before he let it fall into the middle of the fire and then stood transfixed until he had made sure the document was unrecoverable ash. He swallowed and heaved a sigh before he moved back toward the room.

He knocked lightly and Renny’s voice came through the heavy wood panel. “It’s open, come in.”

Merlin opened the door and stepped inside the room he shared with the feline navigator.  “It’s about time you showed up,” Renny said with concerned expression. A tray with a loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese lay beside him on his bed, as well as an amber bottle of drink. “We looked everywhere for you. Alex and Ayana wanted to meet with you before they left for their honeymoon, but if you haven’t seen them yet, I’m afraid you missed them. They left a couple of hours ago.”

“I was in the library,” the wolf replied.

Renny scoffed.  “I know you like to read, boss, but don’t you think you could have waited until tomorrow to check out a library book?”

Merlin looked cross at the cheetah. He didn’t feel he had to answer to his subordinate and suddenly wanted only to leave. He moved to the door that opened out into an upper courtyard and stepped out without another word to Renny.

“Did Faltane find you?” Renny called before he shut the door behind him.

Merlin stopped and looked back in at him.  “Victor Faltane?” he asked.  “He was here?”

“Yeah, it was strange. He asked about you, but he seemed more interested wanting to know the health of your brother, Lucas.”

A cold feeling overcame the lupine captain. “Why would he ask about Lucas?” he wondered aloud. “I wasn’t aware the two of them even knew one another.  What did you tell him?”

Renny shrugged his shoulders. “I just told him the last time we saw the flea-bitten cretin was when we booted him off on Quet a couple years ago,” he replied.

“That’s awfully strange…” Merlin muttered. “Did you say anything about what you found in the code of the Cold Virus?”

“No, it didn’t occur to me to mention it.”

He looked at Renny after a moment’s thought and then asked, “Was there anyone else there I should know about?”

“Max introduced us to his long-distance girlfriend, Wendy Bengoro,” the cheetah said with a grin. “The kid’s got good taste – she was cute.”

“Isn’t that the tigress he met when we were down on Pomen?”

“Yeah, they’ve been exchanging letters ever since.  They were holding hands and both of them looked quite the cute couple.”

“If I remember right, her father is a surgeon,” Merlin mused. “He must be pretty prominent to have been invited to this wedding.”

“I think Dr. Bengoro was associated with Alex in some way, as both are in the medical field.”

“Well, I hope Max got to spend some quality time with his girl,” Merlin said. “He’s a good kid.  Anyone else?”

Renny chuckled.  “By going to the library, you missed the melodious song of the artist who’d been hired to do the music during the reception, Pixly Dixly.”

“Now you’re pulling my leg,” Merlin said in surprise.

“Nope, they got the wonder bunny, herself,” Renny replied with a look of disgust. “I think everyone realized the mistake that had been made in hiring her after she and her performers started.  You wouldn’t believe how many different arrangements of her song, ‘Cause I’m a Girl she has — and she and her choreographed dancers have different routines to each version.”

Merlin shook his head. “Max must have been in heaven with Wendy holding his hand and his favorite performer on the stage.”

“Probably,” Renny replied. “He was gone almost as long as you were.”

Merlin’s smile faded at that. “Anything else?” he asked.

Renny flattened his ears against his head at the wolf’s tone. “Just the actual reception of Alex and Ayana,” he said. “Alex really wanted to see you.”

“Alright, I get the message,” Merlin growled irritably.  Without another word, he left the cheetah behind. When he stepped out into the moonlit night, he felt a gentle, warm breeze. There were many things on his mind and he felt like a little outside walk might refresh his brain. So much had happened in the past year and Merlin was tired - not just physically, but mentally as well. He walked over to a stone rail at the edge of the courtyard and leaned against it. Feeling warm, he opened the front of his tunic to his chest and looked around.

There were more flowering shrubs arranged all about the courtyard and potted trees at every available corner. Far away from metropolitan city lights, the stars above the castle were brilliant. Merlin gazed up at them and wondered if he really belonged out there among them. There were more changes ahead, he felt.  Some would undoubtedly be of his own choosing, but he was afraid that others would come of their own accord. It was rare that Merlin Sinclair was a wolf of indecision, but on this night, he wondered which course he should take.

He heard a soft footfall to his right and he glanced over toward its source.  Bathed in the full moonlight was a creature of beauty. The skirt of her blue and white dress wafted gently in the night breeze, and the moon light reflected gently from her bodice. Her hands were together in front of her and the white gloves up to her elbows added to her elegance. Delicate pink slippers put a dash of color to her raiment and Merlin stood entranced with his mouth opened in awe.

Samantha stepped toward him hesitantly, a look of concern on her face.  “You look troubled,” she said in a quiet voice. “I suppose the contents of the letter the Princess gave you contained bad news?”

Merlin shook his head and swallowed as she stopped close before him.  “No,” he said in an equally quiet voice, “It was merely a thank-you for allowing him to have the honor of the Aris family tradition,” he told her. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but he would honor his brother’s request to keep his existence a secret. He took a step back and looked at her. It was the same outfit she’d worn earlier, but he seemed to see her in it for the first time.

“You look absolutely stunning, milady” he said in a quiet voice.

The Border collie smiled warmly. “Why, thank you, milord” she said. She spun around slowly, flaring out the skirt so he could see her from all sides, and then stopped to face him again.  She lowered her nose, but looked up at him with half-lidded eyes.

Merlin caught his breath and moved closer to her.  He put his arms around her and then she tilted her head up to him. They shared an extended kiss and then held each other for a long moment. “Merlin,” Samantha said in a voice so quiet that even his sensitive ears almost missed, “I love you.”

Merlin looked at her and smiled. “I love you, Samantha,” he replied. Then he kissed her again, this time more passionately. Neither of them knew if it was the atmosphere of the ancient castle, the medieval garments or merely the night air under a full moon, but at that point in time, all either of them could see was the other.

Merlin Sinclair pulled away and took her hands gently in his own. She looked at him in wonder. He was handsome in his brown tunic that was open to expose his chest fur and dark blue pants that were bloused over black boots. She had seen the portrait of him in the castle library and felt that this is how the painter should have captured the King’s Hero on canvas.

Then, without warning, Merlin dropped to one knee and looked up at her, his hands still holding hers. “Will you marry me, Samantha Holden?”

Sam’s eyes misted over and a lump formed in her throat. For what seemed an eternity, she felt frozen in time and could do nothing more than gaze down into his bright, amber eyes. Then, finally, she could only nod her head and whisper, “Y-yes.”

Merlin swallowed the lump that had been in his throat and then stood up again. Without another word, he reached down and then picked her up in his arms. She slipped her arms around his shoulder as one of her slippers fell from a delicate foot, but neither of them noticed as he walked across the courtyard toward her room.     

*** 

Merlin looked over his shoulder at Tanager Castle. It was beautiful in the morning sunlight. The first time he had been here, he had left with his emotions in turmoil. This time he would be leaving with a lighter heart. He and Samantha would discuss their own wedding at a later time, but for now, the atmosphere of the ancient castle had been good for them both. The Blue Horizon would be departing in a few hours, but there was something he felt he had to do before leaving this place. He gave the reins in his hand a light flick and the palomino horse beneath him trotted down the road toward the community that supported the castle.

In the time it took for Merlin to reach Tanager Village, he had enjoyed the quiet countryside. Fields of wheat bordered each side of the one-lane road of gravel and he waved back at the friendly field workers who greeted him as he rode by. He was no longer dressed in the medieval garb of the castle ceremony, but back in his familiar captain’s trousers and boots. He wore a light blue, short-sleeved shirt that was open to his chest and his comfortable captain’s hat was perched between his ears, right where it belonged.

He had been searched before he left the castle to ensure he carried no electronic devices on him before he was issued the non-sentient horse, and now that he approached the village, he wondered if he was doing the right thing by coming here.

The local folk were friendly as he rode in and he felt touched by the quaintness of the area. The houses and buildings were made of stone and in one place, he could see that the sod covering on the roofs were just a decoration over a more modern, and likely more weather-worthy, roof beneath. He smiled and wondered just how “country” the village really was beneath its rustic exterior.

He dismounted his horse and held onto the reins as he walked through the town. His brother’s letter had mentioned a visit to the livery stable, so he asked an elderly coyote who idled his time in a chair outside a local store for directions.  He thanked the gentleman and led his horse to the stables. Beside the hitching post was a watering trough, so he let his mount have a drink before he tied off the reins. A moment later, he stepped inside the hay-strewn floor of the stable.

He heard the ringing of a hammer on metal and let his eyes adjust to the darker interior.  “May I help you, sir?” a voice called out when the ringing stopped.

“Yes,” he replied. “I’m looking for a wolf that makes deliveries to the castle. I believe his name is Jorge Flanelle.”

A burly coyote came up to him and wiped his hands on a dirty apron.  “Jorge? Yes, I think I saw him heading over to the market a bit ago,” he said.  He motioned Merlin to follow him outside and then pointed down the street.  “It’s that building down there with the green banner out front.”

Merlin nodded his appreciation. “Thank you, sir.”

“Have a good day, milord,” the man replied and then went back to his work.

Merlin left his horse tethered to the hitching post and walked down the street to the market.  He looked over the folk who moved up and down the aisles, but saw no wolves in the lot.  He stopped next to a pretty young woman in an apron who was arranging apples on a table, and pulled out a gold coin from his pocket. He had exchanged PA Credits for local currency before taking his leave of the castle.

“Excuse me, miss,” he said quietly. “I am new to this area. Will this cover two apples?”

The coyote lass smiled at him with warm eyes. “More than enough, milord,” she replied in a country accent.  She picked out two of the best-looking apples from her table, wiped dust from them with her apron, and then handed them to him.  Then she led him to a counter and opened a drawer. She pulled out five bronze coins and one copper, placing them in his hand after taking the gold.

“Thank you,” he said to her with a short bow.  The woman giggled and curtseyed in return.  Merlin put both apples in the pockets of his pants and then asked, “Pardon me, but do you know Jorge?” he asked

“Of course, milord,” she said with a nod. “He delivers things to the castle for me all the time. He was just in here a few moments ago, but I believe he had business with the groomer on the other end of the village.”

Merlin nodded, thanked her and then walked back out into the street.  He pulled one of the apples from his pocket and bit into it. He smiled, for it was juicy and probably one of the best-tasting apples he had had in a long time.  He continued munching on the apple as he walked through town with one hand in his pocket.

Half an hour later, Merlin returned to his horse.  The day had grown warm and he was disappointed. The people in Tanager Village had been friendly and helpful, but he had been all over the village and still had not seen his brother. It seemed he kept missing him every step of the way. Lucas was apparently a busy guy. He glanced at his watch and frowned. He would have to start toward the castle soon if he were to get back in time to start preflight preparations for their designated launch time.

He pulled out the second apple from his pocket and gave it to his horse, idly thinking that the animal’s coloring greatly resembled Roger Paxton of the Hidalgo Sun.  He waited patiently until the apple was eaten completely and he allowed the horse to drink from the trough. Then he stepped up into the saddle and took a last glance at the village before he urged his palomino back toward the distant castle.

As he rode past the last of the village buildings, Merlin didn’t see a pair of amber eyes watching his departure from the loft of a barn.  They watched until the horse and rider disappeared around a bend, and then they closed momentarily.

“Fare well, brother,” the wolf whispered to himself.

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