Even though she spoke Common, the language that allowed the diverse species of the galaxy to communicate reasonably well, she spoke with a strong Feline accent. These were isolated humans. She had not spent much time among humans, who spoke Common with a distinctly human accent.
Aree waited. A laugh. "Say your name again, please. More slowly."
Aree cringed. He was laughing at her name. She hated to be laughed at. Didn't that human realize his name would sound just as ridiculous to her? She tried not to repeat her name through gritted teeth.
"Oh—my apology. You are expected." The gate opened.
Aree kept her long striped tail close to her body as she walked through the heavy gate. The space between the gate and the immense stone castle was large enough to park a four-hundred-passenger shuttle.
The path had decorative stones featuring human faces interspersed among unmarked ones. The faces probably belonged to past rulers.
Pristinely manicured flower gardens lined the path. These humans must like their world orderly and planned. The entrance was designed to either impress or intimidate, but Aree was neither. She walked with purpose but not with haste to the wide wooden castle doors. The man awaiting her studied her from head to foot with a critical eye. His lips formed a tight straight line. The smell of him made her stomach turn. She had forgotten how awful humans smelled, but she knew she would get used to it after awhile.
"Here are my credentials and the pass I was told to present." Aree stood in front of the man and held his gaze with her gold eyes. His shoulders slumped slightly and he took a step back.
He blinked. "Oh... yes, thank you." He inserted the small triangular chip that the King had sent her into
a matching hole on a console and swiped the sensor of the square identity chip that showed her credentials.
"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."
Like everything else on this planetoid that she had seen so far, this large room was designed to impress and intimidate. They walked on a plush red carpet.
Several humans sat facing the front of the room. A dais raised the royalty above everyone else. The King, Queen, and young man who must be their offspring, wore ornate garments with gold metallic trim and sat in thick-cushioned chairs. Attendants stood nearby, behind them. A burly security officer with numerous metal insignias on his uniform stood beside the queen scowling, feet wide apart and thick arms folded over his chest.
This may not work. Maybe things would have gone more smoothly if this were a less backward colony. She would probably be asked to leave immediately, but she was not going to give up without trying. These were strange people, but maybe the assignment would be interesting.
"I present before Your Majesties Aree, applicant for the special security assignment."
The younger, curly-haired noble stared at Aree with wide green eyes and gaping mouth.
"Manners, Crispin," the Queen demanded.
Aree's fur fluffed and she returned the gaze. This yellow-haired youngster had issued a challenge. It took her a moment to remember that humans had an annoying tendency to stare. It did not mean the same thing as it did among Felines. She forced her coat to smooth but stared at him until he yielded and looked away.
Her escort released her arm and whispered, "Bow to them."
She hastily searched her mind for royalty words.
She did not bow but said, "Greetings King Geoffrey, Queen Eleanor and…" she struggled to remember the proper term. "…Princess Crispin."
"Hey, I'm not a girl. It's Prince!"
Several people laughed aloud. The King smirked.
Humans had an irritating need to be coddled. "I beg your pardon, Prince Crispin. There is only one other planet in this sector with royalty, and they have no offspring."
"And you're supposed to bow to us," he added indignantly.
The tip of her tail twitched, and she could not make it stop. "Prince Crispin, I bow to no one of any race. No Feline does."
The King ran his fingers through his long black beard. "Diplomacy is not your strong point, but perhaps that is not important."
Aree replied, "I know I am a terrible diplomat. But according to your job announcement, you are looking for a bodyguard, not an ambassador."
"Your boldness is refreshing," the king told her. "I like a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind."
The queen stroked his face with a long finger.
"That is a good thing, since you are married to one."
The prince rolled his eyes.
The King tapped a button in the arm of his throne and looked down, nodding occasionally as he read through Aree's credentials. "You have certainly worked with a variety of people. And weapons. Why are you interested in this position?"
"I have not decided whether or not I am interested. The announcement is vague. I need more information. You offered nothing specific about the nature of the task."
"Then why did you apply?" the King pressed.
"I completed my last obligation, so I decided to find out what you need."
The thick man beside the queen grumbled something that included the words, "inadvisable" and
"upstart" and "inhuman."
The queen did not appear to be paying attention to his objection. The rulers glanced at each other and nodded. Queen Eleanor rose from her seat and came with dignity and grace down the steps to stand in front of Aree. "Our son wants to do some traveling on his own, without his family."
"You have enough security guards in the… castle to protect a small planetoid. Why not send one of them to look after him?"
The grumbly guard announced, "Exactly what I had advised Her Majesty. I even offered to protect him myself if it would put her noble heart at ease."
"Joran, your concerns have been previously noted, considered, and dismissed. Thank you." The queen turned and addressed her son. "I am of an opinion—"
"What else is new," the prince complained.
"Crispin, you are not a child anymore. Behave yourself." She made a visible effort to muster self-control before returning her gaze and attention to Aree.
"I will only allow him to have his way under one condition." She waved off the retort he was ready to make with a flick of her hand. "I want him to travel in disguise, as a regular citizen."
"What? You never told me that. Why do I have to go as a commoner?"
Before Aree could stop herself, she said,
"Probably because you need to know how average people live so you have some hope of being a decent ruler."
"Exactly," the queen said.
Aree observed, "But you could send him with a bodyguard who already works for you."
"He needs to broaden his experience to work with people he has not known all his life."
Aree suspected there might be more to it than that. "What kind of danger do you anticipate?"
The queen returned to her seat. "There is always the possibility of trouble."
"True. What exactly are you expecting?" The queen was obviously a shrewd woman, unwilling to give too much information until she felt safe doing so. Aree could easily understand and respect that.
The prince leaned forward and grabbed the arms of his seat so hard his knuckles turned white. He smelled of fear. Apparently, he had not considered that his life could be in danger.
The king said, "What commoner travels with security? Our guards have been guards for their whole career."
Aree reasoned, "You want a protector who does not act like a guard, so no attention is drawn to him."
The king elaborated. "We expect him to have difficulty taking on an assumed identity."
"So you need someone who can help him create a believable persona."
Crispin became animated, "Ooh, like the undercover agent in one of the books I was reading.
That could be fun."
The queen fixed him with a disgusted look. "You and your books."
Aree offered, "I doubt the reality will be as entertaining as one of your books."
"Unfortunately, it never is," Queen Eleanor added.
Was the queen part Feline? Something about her eyes. They were a bit larger and more angular than humans’ were, and her scent was not quite human either. Plus she did not have the startled and suspicious reaction that Aree had noticed in the others' faces.
"Where will he be going?"
"If you hadn't noticed," Crispin complained, "I am right here in the room."
Aree fixed him with a cold hard stare. "Yes you are right here in the room, but if they offer me the job,
and if I accept it, your parents will be the ones paying for my services. Not you. Therefore, I am quite rightly addressing my questions to them."
The prince's mouth dropped. The servers turned away and busied themselves as they tried not to laugh.
The king and queen said, in unison, "You're hired."
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