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Escorted by the Draconian Princess, our heroes head home, where a mysterious proposal awaits them.
Two days later, and nearing the Mordan border, we stopped next to a lake and made camp. Lord Captain Dewhurst sent a pinnace ahead to alert the Mordanian border patrol of our approach. The Ensign commanding the pinnace looked torn between excitement at his first command and dejection at missing the celebration that was sure to come on the shores of the lake.
To my considerable relief, the Supercilious Six remained aboard the Draconian Princess. I don’t know whether they volunteered or were told it was in their best interest to volunteer, nor did I care. I was just happy they wouldn’t be out and about, where they could irritate decent folk trying to have a good time.
Our celebration was nothing like a court ball, but we had music provided by a trio of Tartegian airmen. After weeks without hearing music, the spritely played flute, fiddle, and squeezebox sounded sweet to my ears.
After taking several turns on the packed sand with Jade in my arms, a nervous young Ensign requested permission to cut in. I glanced at Jade, who gave me an almost imperceptible nod, and graciously gave way to the boy. Returning to my Marines, I was surprised to discover I was the topic of a discussion between them and the Tartegian Marines.
“Aye, the Lieutenant do be young, but he be a smart un,” Sergeant Timms said. “He wants ta do right more and he wants ta be right, if ya know what I be sayin’.”
“Lord above,” a Tartegian Sergeant muttered, “I’d give me eye teeth fer an officer like that. All o’ yer looeys ain’t like that, are they?”
“Nope,” Sergeant Timms shook his head. “Most of ‘em got their fool heads so fer up their—”
“I believe, what Sergeant Timms means to say,” I interrupted, “is none of my fellow lieutenants has the benefit of his wise counsel.”
“Yes, Sir,” Timms grinned. “That do be ‘xactly what I be meanin’ ta say, it do.”
The other Marines laughed uproariously, raising mugs in a mock toast. Through his guffaws, the Tartegian Sergeant gasped, “I ‘spect Lieutenant Marlow do be the smartest looey I ever done met.”
Selecting a spot off to one side, I sat down. “Ignore me, gentlemen. I am afraid the music has temporarily deafened me. Please, do not be concerned if I don’t respond to anything you say.”
Having assured the Marines they could talk freely without fear of censure, my thoughts turned inward and I pondered what Callan and Rupor had in mind for Jade and me. I fell so deeply into my reverie, that Jade had to shake my shoulder to get my attention.
I smiled up at Jade, her face half hidden in shadows from the flickering firelight, and wondered anew that I had captured the affection of such a lovely woman. “I am sorry, I was just lost in thought. Would you like to sit down?”
She shook her head, “No, I would like you to take me for a walk along the shore.”
With a pang of regret, I said, “I wish I could, but I have the midnight watch.”
Even in the dim light, I saw Jade’s expression crumble. Apparently, I was not the only one who caught that.
“Beggin’ the Lieutenant’s pardon, but I was meaning ta speak to you ‘bout that, Sir,” Sergeant Timms said. “Might ya swap watches with me? I’d be much obliged.”
“Sir, when a purty young lady asks ya on a midnight stroll, you best take her up on it,” Timms interrupted. “And that, Sir, do be my wisest o’ wise counsels.”
Standing, I smiled my thanks at the Sergeant. “That is invaluable advice, Sergeant Timms. And, thank you.”
“I ain’t lost nobody on this trip, and that be thanks to you, Sir. Seems the least I can do be ta give you and yer lady one last walk alone.”
Taking my arm, Jade led me out of the camp and off around the lake. It was a beautiful night for a stroll, with warm temperatures and a sky brightly lit by Aashla’s planetary ring. Once we were out of sight of the camp, we slid our arms around each other and I gave Jade a long, deep kiss. Expecting her to return it, I was surprised when she grabbed my hand and towed me down the beach.
“Come on, Chris, I have something I want you to see.”
Letting myself be dragged along, I asked, “What is it?”
“A surprise. I spotted it from the air during our approach to the lake, and scouted it out while the rest of you were making camp. Now, no more questions.”
By this time, Jade was practically running along the beach. When the smooth ground ended, she led me into the trees, following some path only she could see. Ten minutes later, we pushed through a row of bushes and onto a small beach alongside an isolated cove.
Pointing to a couple of dark squares lying on the ground, Jade said, “I brought towels with me, earlier, so we would not have to bring them when everyone was watching.”
Feeling far from the smart young lieutenant Sergeant Timms claimed I was, I asked, “What are we doing?”
“Skinny dipping!” Jade grinned at me.
“Uh, not that I am complaining, but…why?”
“You remember when you first met my parents?”
“How could I forget? I thought your father was going to hang me from the yardarm for laying my head in your lap.”
“But do you remember how Mom said she and Dad went skinny dipping before they got married?” When I nodded, Jade continued, “Well, they’ve been married, like, forever, and the worst thing that has ever happened to either of them was Dad’s broken leg.”
“What’s that got to do with skinny dipping?”
“I have decided that premarital skinny dipping is a Cochran family tradition, guaranteed to bring good luck to the couple. Mom and Dad skinny dipped, and everything worked out fine for them. So, if we go skinny dipping…” Jade broke off and lowered her head. When she looked back up at me, her eyes glistened with unshed tears. “I was terrified I was going to lose you when you went after Private Vonn. You were gone for so long… I know this isn’t logical, Chris, but it will make me feel better when we’re apart.”
I smiled, “How can I say no to that?”
Smiling in return, Jade wagged a finger in front of my face. “But don’t get any other ideas, mister. You get that on our wedding night, and not before.”
“I wouldn’t want it any other way, Jade.”
When we returned to the Pauline, our wet hair drew a raised eyebrow from Dr. Agrilla and a wide smile from Sergeant Timms. No one said anything, though, so Jade and I retired to our respective sleeping quarters.
Our small flotilla resumed its journey at the crack of dawn and came within sight of Morda by late afternoon. By that time, we had a Mordanian brig escorting us, showing the Tartegian warship was in Mordanian skies by permission.
To my surprise, a royal carriage awaited us at the Pauline’s dock. Jade’s parents and my parents, joined by David Rice, met us when we debarked. We got hugs from both sets of parents—well, Mr. Cochran shook my hand, but Mrs. Cochran gave me a hug—and then David escorted us into the carriage.
Jade looked around at our parents and David, then asked, “What’s this all about?”
Our parents flashed nervous smiles, but didn’t say anything. David’s smile was much more reassuring when he said, “Callan asked us to keep it secret until we get to the Palace. I am allowed to assure you it is nothing to worry about.”
David’s words might have been more convincing, had my parents appeared as if they agreed with him. I will not say they looked worried, exactly, but ‘concerned’ would be appropriate.
Jade and I exchanged glances and shrugged. With our minds buzzing, we settled back and tried to relax.
Twenty minutes later, the carriage pulled up to a back entrance to the Palace. David led us through several twists and turns before stopping in front of a quite plain door.
“This is the entrance to the Royal family’s private living area. Callan thought it would be better to make her proposal in a relaxed setting, away from the public eye.”
David opened the door, and we followed him into a comfortable-looking sitting room. Callan, Rupor, and Heidi rose to their feet as we entered. All three smiled broadly at us.
“Jade, Chris, welcome back!” Callan said, her tone warm. “I hope you had an enjoyable and uneventful trip.”
“I do not have the full details, having only had a moment to speak with Dr. Agrilla and Lord Captain Dewhurst,” David said, “but I believe more commendations are in order for our young friends.”
Prince Rupor’s eyes brightened. “Would the two of you care to relate the tale?”
I was trying to come up with a diplomatic way of asking Callan and Rupor to move directly to their proposal, when Jade said, “How about we skip all that and you tell us what’s going on?”
Mrs. Cochran gasped, “Jade! That is very rude!”
“Yeah, I know, and I am sorry,” Jade said. “But for the last three days, Chris and I have been racking our brains trying to figure out what this is all about. So, please, Callan, can you tell us what’s going on?”
“It is I who should be apologizing, not Jade,” Callan said. “I should have realized how the uncertainty would work on their minds.”
Callan took a deep breath, and when she exhaled, casual Callan was replaced by Princess Callan, heir to the throne of Mordan. “Our world has been given a unique opportunity, one shared by a handful of other recently discovered lost colonies. Like our own star system, those other lost colonies inhabit star systems with unexplored wormholes. The Terran Federation wishes to explore beyond those wormholes. For obvious reasons, the lost colonies wish to be involved in that exploration. Specifically, we want our own Scouts trained for that exploration.
“At our prompting, the Terran Federation is starting a new Scout Academy, one mixing cadets from lost colonies with cadets from the Terran Federation. Each lost colony may send two cadets to the first class.”
My heart began hammering in my chest. The blood roaring in my ears was so loud I barely heard what Callan said next.
“After a lot of discussions and a lot of negotiation, the nations of Aashla have chosen our first two cadets. Jade Cochran and Lieutenant Christopher Marlow, will you represent our world at the new Scout Academy? Will you become Aashla’s first Scouts?”
How will Jade and Chris respond? Find out in Chapter 11, coming Wednesday.