The last audience of the day at the court of Peladon came unannounced, at the heels of long negotiations with the Endosian expedition's scientific advisors. Quite literally, at the heels. Erimem was still attending the delegation's request for cesium fuel cells for the long-range transport ships when the main chamber door burst open, admitting a contrite custodian hurrying after a most peculiar guest.
"Apologies for the interjection, your Majesty!" Blond curls bounced in indignation as the man strode confidently into the room. From her vantage point at the head of the meeting hall, it took Erimem a moment to comprehend that he was wearing an incomprehensible patchwork coat. "I couldn't help but overhear--"
"He was practically ears to the door, Majesty!" the custodian said.
"Oh, be quiet. This is important." The newcomer adjusted what looked--of all things--like a covered market basket at the crook of his arm, and leveled a glare at the Endosian scientific contingent. "Cesium fuel cells? When solar sails will halve the risk at one third the cost?"
Meleska Dal, who until this time had been the most vocal fuel-cell proponent, shook her head. "My Queen, must we entertain this--?"
"Now, you see, that is exactly my question!" The man pointed an accusing finger at the Endosian.
Meleska stood abruptly. "Who is this--this, interloping buffoon?"
"Buffoon? Advocating cesium fuel in this day and age shows scientific negligence bordering on the criminal--!"
Erimem's command echoed through the ensuing silence.
"Meleska--" the queen began.
She was interrupted by a piteous mewling. All eyes turned to the newcomer, who opened the basket on his arm and directed a hurried, "Hush now!" at its contents.
"Meleska," Erimem continued. "As our . . . unorthodox visitor suggests, Pelleas and I are quite aware of your family's connections to the cesium refineries on Ontox. We wish to aid the trisilicate expedition with both funds and colonists, but we will not be responsible for putting our citizens--or yours, as it stands--at needless risk."
"My Queen--" Meleska said, but Erimem held up a hand.
"We are growing tired of your constant petitioning on this subject. This audience is over. Our decision on solar sails is final."
"Mmm-hmm, there, you see?" the stranger said.
"And that's quite enough from you!" Erimem exclaimed.
The basket mewed again, and the stranger had the sense to look sheepish. As the Endosians filed out of the hall, he set it down and carefully extracted a protesting, tabby gray kitten, cradling it against his garish chest.
Erimem leveled her gaze at the man, who took her scrutiny in stride.
"I am sorry for my haste, your Majesty. Though I shan't apologize for my social conscience, I do admit in this case it may have been slightly . . . precipitous. As I should have guessed, your Majesty had the situation quite well in hand, and, may I say, well done on that!"
Erimem said nothing. The stranger cleared his throat.
"I had meant only to deliver a gift." He held the kitten forward, which caused it to latch its claws into whatever fabric it could find, all the while mewling sadly. "May I present Anhur Mshai, given freely to the Queen of Peladon on behalf of her long-standing allies from the ancient families of Earth."
"That is quite a title for one so tiny, but I find it befits the circumstances." Erimem smiled. "Wouldn't you agree, Doctor?"
"Yes, I--What?" The Doctor looked up in surprise as Erimem came across the hall to greet him. "Oh, Erimem! How did you know it was me?"
"Pelleas has shown me several portraits of you, from your earlier visits to Peladon," she said, rescuing the kitten from its precarious position clinging to the Doctor's sleeve. Mshai quickly settled in the crook of her arm.
"I daresay, none as dashing as I am now?" The Doctor smoothed his lapels and straightened his mismatched cuffs.
She stepped back, eyeing him from head to foot with mock scrutiny. "Not as such," she finally decided. "Although I did learn to look beyond appearances when you come to call. But you know you need not be a stranger here, Doctor, especially to me."
"Well, in my experience, my former companions aren't always as bright as you are. It can make reunions difficult," the Doctor said as Erimem ushered him out of the meeting hall.
She studied the Doctor's manner as they walked. Though at the outset he had seemed very self-assured, there was a small undercurrent of defensive precaution in his eyes. When she and Peri had traveled with him, he had always taught them to study the landscape, learn the exits, and be prepared to make a quick departure. It was both disconcerting and dismaying to be at the receiving end of such preparations.
"I think it may be more complicated than you say," she said. "Or than you are willing to discuss."
"I'll explain later," the Doctor said.
"And will you explain why you have come to visit now?"
The Doctor didn't answer. They stopped at a large arched window to watch the sun sink below the far hills. Mshai mewled loudly at the change of pace, but soon settled into an enthusiastic purr. Erimem stroked the soft fur on his forehead, and broke the silence.
"For me, it has been four years since we parted. I must admit to some small amount of curiosity. I had hoped both you and Peri would come for the wedding, at least."
"I've come to fulfill an obligation."
"For Antronak?" Erimem asked, recalling the pet cat she had brought with her upon first joining Peri and the Doctor. "It seems so long ago, now."
His response was quick, almost opportunistic. "Well, I've gained an affinity for felines of late. You lost Antronak while in my care, and when we found this stowaway--"
"We?" Erimem said, hopeful. "Is Peri still traveling with you? Is she here?"
He was taken aback, unprepared. "She . . . It's . . . I'll--"
Erimem's heart sank. "You'll explain later?"
"She's well, Erimem," the Doctor said, frustration and empathy in his eyes. "And it's complicated. Time travel makes reunions tricky things to navigate, you know."
Erimem looked at the Doctor, so changed, and down at the kitten in her arms. For the first time she wondered from where and when, in all of the vastness of time and space, Anhur Mshai had come.
"Imagine, that I'd forget so quickly what life in the TARDIS was like," she said. "I do not regret traveling with you, Doctor, but neither do I regret leaving when I did."
"Hmph. I shall choose not to interpret that as an indictment of my current incarnation."
"In fact, I think it suits you quite well." Erimem gave a mischievous smile. "Especially your coat."
"You like it?" The Doctor sounded pleasantly surprised.
"Doctor, I was raised to believe that, with preservation in a single, silent moment, my ancestors would live forever. But I think you cheat death better than the pharaohs ever could." She brushed a finger along his lapel. "Your enchantment is every moment. A whirlwind patchwork of every moment. It's exhilarating, dizzying--"
"Better by far than beige and celery!" the Doctor added, stepping back and spinning on his heel to show off the full effect.
Erimem laughed as they set off again. "Just remember, Doctor. In the midst of the whirlwind, Peladon will always welcome you."
"Thank you," said the Doctor. And sometime among a flurry of servants and family members, a kitten's escape and recapture, dinner plans and talk of yet another portrait for the great hall, he discreetly disappeared.