You're applying for the special assignment?"
"Yes. You sound surprised."
The man averted his eyes and shuffled. "I suppose I shouldn't be, but… you're a cat!"
Aree raised her chin. "The job announcement said nothing about species. Why shouldn't I apply?"
"Because you would be protecting—I will let them tell you. It is not for me to decide."
Her tail started to twitch of its own accord. How dare he judge her because she was feline, not human.
"Yes, that would be wise. Where do I go?"
He looked her up and down, frowning. "I am not certain they will admit you. The instructions you received told you to dress for a Royal Audience."
She wore little clothing. Being feline and thus covered in fur made garments unnecessary, except to compensate for extreme weather or keep out rain. She wore an ornamental leather body suit with diamond-shaped cutouts. Her tail twitched more vigorously, but she forced it to stop. "Oh yes, Ridan is very conservative. I am, as you see, showing no skin, as I have fur. And my—what is the human euphemism—
private parts are covered by the leather."
"My garment is formal by feline standards." She forced her claws to remain sheathed, with effort.
"Please direct me to the interview, if you please. Sir."
Finally, and with obvious reluctance, he called another uniformed guard to escort her through a seemingly endless series of passages to the door of the Royal Audience Chamber. The armed guard at the heavy wooden door must have been of higher rank, because his uniform was red instead of gray and tassels hung from the jacket collar.
Aree handed the triangular chip and credentials to the decorated door attendant, who repeated the same procedure she had already experienced. He, at least, was a lot more animated than the gray-clad gate guardian was.
"Let me save you some trouble. Present me as Aree."
A red-faced woman wearing a long green dress burst through the door and stomped down the corridor, muttering as she hastened to wherever her next destination might be. "That miserable louse was practically undressing me with his eyes. Some nerve!"
"Probably because her flesh is spilling over the top of her dress," Aree remarked. "How could a male human not stare?"
The guard, who had been holding his breath in an obvious effort not to laugh, lost control and laughed.
An authoritative female voice called, "Has our next candidate arrived?"
"That was Her Majesty." The man sobered with effort and extended a crooked right arm toward Aree.
She looked at the bent arm. "What are you doing?"
"Extending my arm to escort you to Their Majesties."
"What am I supposed to do with it?"
He blushed. "Put your left …front leg … through it and walk with me to the dais at the other end of the room."
"Since we walk upright, we call them arms." She held her tail straight up with the tip curved, as she would to show respect among her own kind.
Before leading her, he whispered, "I think the Queen is… not in the best of moods, so it would be best for you to remain silent until someone asks you a question."
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