Title: The Romulan General's Woman
Author: K.K.Glinka
Fandom: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Characters: Lt. Tasha Yar, Gen. Volskiar, Cdr. Sela, Cdr. Charvanek
Rating: Predominantly R but some NC17 for mature topics.
Continuity: Post TNG "Yesterday's Enterprise", referencing "Vulcan's Heart", "Triangle: Imzadi II", "Taking Wing", "ST: Nemesis" and borrowing from Diane Duane's Rihannsu 'verse.
Permission: Archive at will.
Acknowledgments: Beta-readers Kae and Panyasan, Memory Beta, the Rihannsu Word Generator, "No Woman, No Cry" by the Fugees and "Tomorrow Never Dies" by k.d.Lang.
Disclaimer: Star Trek and related characters © CBS and Paramount. No profit being made.
Bonus!: Spleen-bursting fake book cover!
Summary: When Tasha Yar's suicide mission in the past goes fubar, and General Volskiar's glorious battle plans turn Pyrrhic, they cut a deal. It seems like a great idea, from his perspective, until everyone from the Tal Shiar, Starfleet Intelligence, the praetorate, and political rivals such as Charvanek find ways to get involved. Between politics, espionage and emotional entanglement, nothing is what it seems to be in Ki Baratan and a desperate alliance from 2344 can have unintended consequences reaching to 2381.


The Romulan General's Woman

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23

K.K.Glinka

1/18/09

-- In Romulan Star Empire, slave own you!

(1)

2380

If asked, Volskiar ir-Hwiehsuj tr'Rreaveo would say he joined the military to serve the Empire, to do his civil duty in the best way possible, but like most little boys playing soldier, he had once fantasized about being the next S'Task. Which was, of course, too melodramatic, self-aggrandizing and immature a reason to give, even if he excelled at waging war, and little else. The truth was, he had gradually come to the realization, over the decades, that he had no ambition to appointment as consul or winning a seat on the praetorate. The truth was therefore an equally unacceptable reason to give. He had watched many of his peers vie for such honors, and seeing their machinations had reinforced one, consistent observation: Military men made terrible politicians.

They had a deplorable tendency to continue waging war in the political arena, seeking to annihilate and crush civil obstacles, demolishing opponents, rather than compromising on mutually beneficial solutions for the complex challenges any government faced. As a result, if given the choice between being a bumbling, quarrelsome politician or a competent military commander, Volskiar would choose the latter, but he hadn't been given any say. So here he was, trapped in this unwelcome role as an unofficial statesman and his army playing civil servants. He had a great deal of patience, acquired through the endless waiting that could occur on a battlefield, but none for the bickering most of the newly appointed senators and council members were doing.

They were squabbling over money and, in the process, delaying the annual municipal budget for what remained of the Romulan Star Empire. All of them had recently been clerks, not even junior councilmen, for all in attendance on that fateful day when the current praetor had left a thalaron weapon in the senate chambers, were dead. It went down as the most blatant, crass, mass political assassination recorded - though it was not for Volskiar knew of less official group executions with higher body counts - and it remained unchallenged. It might be tradition for a praetor to assume authority of the praetorate by disposing of his or her predecessor, but there was a protocol to the procedure. After the deed was done, the new praetor was silently judged by all on the merits of his or her tactics, the skill, the audacity and either accepted as their new leader or politely ignored until another took his or her place.

Senator Tal'aura had shown no such grace, had not distinguished between ally and enemy, but on Shinzon's bidding, murdered them all. No one had noticed what she was doing until it was too late because she was mad Tal'aura, the hnoiyika barely tolerated due to her extremist position, swiftly ignored if she was not hounding some ludicrous scheme. It was even ironic because, after so many head praetors being military men, the current was a former senator. Yet, in some ways, she was better suited to life in the security forces than the Hall of State. As a result, she was impossible to ignore now, ruling easily over the inexperienced, dissolute, and often frightened whelps that passed for a senate.

Volskiar tried not to fault them. Between decades of border skirmishes with the Klingons and Cardassians, an expensive war with the Dominion, functioning as allies with the pompous Federation, then the Watraii affair followed by the Havrannsu rebellion lead by Shinzon, the Star Empire was in shambles. There was no money and no reasonable way to raise any funds without the support of a unified people willing to part with more taxes, or an easy military conquest, hence the current budgetary stalemate. To make matters worse, the Imperial Fleet had divided after the battle of Bassen Rift, two entire divisions defecting to follow khre'Riovs Donatra and Suran as they established their own Romulan Republic, stealing key crop planets in the process. Consequently, there was a rapidly dwindling supply of both food and dilithium crystals compounding the lack of funds.

As he didn't belong in the Hall at all, he had subsequently resolved to say and do as little as possible when present, to minimize potential gaffes. So Volskiar kept silent and watched the youngsters bicker, while the praetor calculated how she could best profit from the population's misery. Such judgment made him a traitor in spirit, if not in action, but the Empire he remembered barely existed. Instead, he wondered if this was what the first council meeting on ch'Rihan had resembled. If Spock and his Unificationist followers were to be believed, S'Task wasn't the great forefather; it had been the sly usurping, Councilor T'Rehu, using the former disciple of Surak as an aged, feeble puppet to manipulate the High Council. She had assassinated him, only to be overthrown herself to facilitate the creation of lasting tricameral system that was meant to thwart such tyrants.

If the Unificationists were to be believed, petty tribal warfare left some of the first travelers trapped in slavery within the bowels of ch'Havran, innocent of any crimes, others fleeing to distant words with the memory of such betrayals, and the lucky few inheriting the homeworld. The colonists of the new world turned upon each other, failing S'Task's vision, bringing the Sundering with them to ch'Rihan. Their evidence was a fragile neuro-recording of one of Surak's original disciples, gone conveniently missing. They claimed the only solution was to reform Rihannsu society by adopting Vulcan customs. Understandably, many insisted that old Karatek's artifact, recording that history, was a shameful ploy invented by any number of hostile factions. But if they were, if the Vulcans, Havrannsu and long lost Watraii were his brothers, their differences less significant than their similarities, then the Rihannsu were the betrayers. It had not been the bombs that had destroyed the ancient Vulcans; it had been the relentless cycle of betrayal that left no room for trust, cooperation or a unified government that reflected the needs of the people. But he was no politician to make such assessments.

"Enriov Volskiar," Tal'aura said with exaggerated patience.

He started, looking up from his folded hands. Judging by her expression, by the curious attention of the assembled senators, she was repeating his name. He hadn't heard it. He hadn't been listening. Perhaps he was tired of feigning respect.

"You will grant your support?" It was not a question, though framed as one, and her eyes bored into him with displeasure. Then her eyes flickered to Proconsul Tomalak, a twitch of her fingers in silent command to the former fleet commander.

With that cold, sinking realization, he decided that this was all a perverse Elemental joke. Some sadistic reprimand for daring to lack political ambitions beyond the sad acceptance that he would never gain a seat in High Command. His hesitation had damned him but Volskiar felt relief. He had out-lived one too many praetors and in doing so, his usefulness. He had no wish to watch the Empire crumble into a squabbling pit of self-serving Houses while those not fortunate to be servants or slaves starved. He smiled a bit at his own melodrama, knowing Tal'aura would see it as some petty insolence, but it wasn't hard to imagine such a world. Order remained in Ki Baratan by virtue of his soldiers, filling posts abandoned by beggared municipal workers and suppressing a constant tinderbox of protests and riots. Soldiers needed money and food too and soon trained loyalty wouldn't be enough to keep them from deserting. They served him, not her.

"Of course. I remain a loyal servant of the Empire. The First Infantry Corps is at your behest."

His obligation met, the council meeting dragged on into the night before he was permitted to leave. Volskiar went straight home, piloting his own transport, his Havrannsu guards long gone and most his bond-servants released or dead. He expected a systems error to flash on his navigation panel, before a fatal explosion, but none occurred. He waited for the pierce of a dagger, or the burning agony of a phase disruptor, but neither happened as he walked from the transport to the front entrance of his personal residence. Perhaps she had poisoned him with some pernicious toxin that would act after a pre-determined delay.

His estate was barricaded now, as crime had increased in both Ki Baratan and the countryside, poverty escalating, work unavailable or unpaid. The house wasn't empty; it remained heavily guarded by soldiers loyal to him with nowhere else to go. There was also his senior servant who had lived most his life in this house and refused to leave, and a cook who claimed there was no food to prepare outside.

He went upstairs, checking the side rooms, the library and study, the kitchen, the guest room and finally his own. "Nereya?"

"Was that her name?"

He whirled, fumbling for his disruptor pistol, losing his balance slightly, and banging a knee on a bureau. He caught his breath, hanging his head, holstering the weapon. His injured joint throbbed. "I wish you would not do that. I almost shot you."

"Sorry. I didn't realize it had gotten that bad here."

"My day is ended," he said by way of explanation. "I disrespected the praetor."

His heart continued to hammer in his side, so he went to sit on the bed, catching a glimpse of himself in a mirror. His hair had gone gray, his frame losing some of that youthful bulk, though he was proud not to carry any extra where it didn't belong. He looked away, not wanting that reminder that a glorious death in battle at the height of his power had eluded him. Age would take him, slowly and relentlessly, if no order to take final honor arrived from the praetor. He glanced at his personal communication terminal, which remained dark and inactive. He had no desire to turn it on. A quick disruptor blast to the head would be preferable to this slow game of hers.

"Well you don't have to glower at me like that. All I did was chase her off." Tasha crossed one leg over her knee, rolling her eyes. As always, she wore bland, forgettable traveler's robes, the hood bunched about her shoulders. "Sorry if it ruined your evening."

He raised a dismissive hand, leaning over to open a side table drawer. He had no sincere affection for the woman who sometimes shared his bed. He withdrew a bottle and glass, pouring a drink. He downed an entire glass and poured another, while Tasha frowned at him. Despite the disapproval, he preferred looking at her over his reflection. Though she aged quicker than him, the white in her hair simply made it brighter, their respective years drawn even in age. He snorted over his glass. Most the women who showed any interest in him these days were younger than him, and they weren't interested in him, per se, Nereya being no exception.

"Someone run over your dog?" she asked, companionably.

"Please, I do not have the patience."

"She already give you the order?"

By her tone, she wasn't mocking him and he knew if he looked her in the eye, he would see sincere concern. Instead, he offered her the bottle, in hope she would change the subject. He knew she wouldn't draw out the conversation, make him wait too long to discover why she was here, this time, but encouragement would expedite the process. He gestured toward the window with the other hand, at the evening skyline of the capital city. "Not yet," he said.

She leaned an elbow on the arm of the chair, canting her head, rejecting his offer by ignoring it. "You ready to stick a knife in it already? Because there's still work to do."

"Work? What work? My entire army cannot prevent the coming catastrophe, for the people are exhausted at heart." He finished the second glass and poured another. "And who would step forward to prevent this? Your Starfleet? They must be rejoicing at our collapse. The Dominion, the Cardassians, now us.... The Federation wins by attrition." He toasted her. "I congratulate you."

"Keep it. We have an old saying: Money makes the world go 'round. We may not use it anymore, not officially, but trade matters, legal or not. Everyone's broke. If the Romulan economy collapses, it'll be a complete vacuum." She shrugged laconically, leaving aside the empire they both knew would fill that gap. "The entire quadrant will suffer, and when one quadrant suffers, so do the rest. You guys stepped up and helped us with the Dominion." She trailed off, leaving the offer implicit.

"Because the Cardassians slime sided with them."

"You really think so?"

He rolled the glass in his hands, and set the bottle on the floor at his feet. They had worked out a tacit arrangement not to mix business with pleasure, not even the day she appeared in his library and he pulled a datapad out from drawer and gave it to her. It contained the crew roster for the newly commissioned Enterprise-D. Because it was the vaunted Enterprise, it hadn't been difficult to acquire more robust crew profiles, even if the clerk in the intelligence department did raise a knowing eyebrow at his specific request. Then again, anyone who recognized the name and the face of Natasha Yar had the same questions Volskiar did. While it was the same woman he remembered, the one he knew today was visibly older than the one in the profile, wary lines having grown at the corners of her eyes. With no way of contacting her, he fell back on researching the doppelganger.

He learned about a failed federation colony planet called Turkana IV, how its government flagged under the pressures of supporting a growing population. How it collapsed into an increasingly fragmented civil war that was successfully masked from Federation officials operating under the blissful assumption that no news was good news. In the process, he learned about a young drug addict, turned street gangster in an attempt to protect a younger sister, eventually recruited by one of the many internal opposition groups that functioned as a tribal government. When Starfleet finally came to investigate the spotty rumors of chaos, that uneducated thug requested entrance. They accepted and she excelled.

The next time she arrived in her typical manner, he hadn't been happy to see her.

She took one look at his stormy expression, raised her eyebrows, pursing her lips. "Someone's grumpy today. Did High Command give you a hard time about something?"

"A hard time?" he repeated slowly, though not because he misunderstood the idiom. "You might say that," he agreed, but didn't elaborate. Instead, he held forth that datapad, which she took gingerly.

He had a very clear memory of the assembled khre'enriovs of the council watching him in idle curiosity as the nominated speaker questioned him about what he knew about one Lieutenant Natasha Yar. By their judgment, he ought to have known everything, but he hadn't. Making matters worse, some of what he did know failed to align with intelligence reports. When he repeated a futile answer to a persistent question about a trivial fact once too often, the praetor stepped through the holographic wall seal that had concealed his presence.

"We must wonder why you did not come forward with this information at an earlier date, Enriov."

Volskiar endeavored to appear confused, as if he didn't quite understand the significance of the indirect reprimand. Injecting a note of insecure bewilderment into his voice, he said, "You tasked Enarrain Lethren with the duty of extracting information from the prisoner. As he was a capable and competent officer, I did not presume to interfere in his work." He ended by raising his eyebrows, shaking his head slightly to convey the magnitude of such impertinence.

"And yet you remained silent?" Narviat's voice contained that deceptively soothing note, as if though he were bored with the entire discussion. Despite his relative youth, his face was already acquiring frustrated lines and creases between his brows, around his eyes and mouth, inflicted by the duties of his chosen office.

"About what? What she allowed to slip in carelessness made little sense and soon proved irrelevant. Her future, her Federation, all that she knew, did not exist." He frowned, openly perplexed. "I believed Lethren was successful in his efforts to extract information and judged it worthless."

Around him, the senior commanders were trading glances. The younger ones wore expressions of thinly concealed disgust at the senile old man. The older ones, some who remembered him from his younger days, tended toward canny suspicion or remained conservatively impassive. Meanwhile, he sweated under his uniform. Frankly, he was surprised Charvanek wasn't in the room, gloating over his humiliation.

"You never were the sharpest sword." Narviat flipped a dismissive hand toward the chuckling council members, then looked perfunctorily at Volskiar, "You are dismissed."

He had been waiting for either an explanation or an execution order, since then. So he watched Tasha fiercely when she returned, though she appeared unmoved. They had both known that, if they survived to that day, certain unasked questioned would ask themselves.

She had skimmed through the profile he highlighted, with detached regret. When he asked what it meant, she told him, "The temporal prime directive's a real bitch." Setting the datapad back on his desk, she had begun her explanation with, "She'll be dead in a few years."

He chewed the inside of his lip, letting those memories fade back. Narviat's attention had shifted onto more important matters of border security in the face of the oncoming Borg, sparing Volskiar any further wrath. Six years ago, he was deposed by Neral, also now dead. Even his old nemesis Charvanek was finally gone after a brief tenure as head of the Security Department, following the near collapse of the Tal Shiar. Six blessed years free of excessive scrutiny, now ended because of Tal'aura's paranoia. Here and now, finances were a powerful motivator, but he suspected that the Federation was no less blind to the new praetor's faults.

He fingered the worn edge of his armored tunic, where it fell over his thigh. "A puppet government," he said with conviction.

"More like supporting the right people."

"And you are here to curry agents and offer an accord? Perhaps I will be assured a powerless but glamorous position within this new government?"

She smiled ruefully. "Nothing so grand. I observe and report. You know that but," she bit her lip and he knew she was about to break their decades old truce, "there's a way you can help us, if you'd prefer a chance to go down fighting."

He wished he could un-hear the words, but that was impossible, so he closed his eyes for a moment. The situation must be desperate for her superiors to make such a demand of her.

She rose from her seat, covering the short distance between them, and gently took the full glass from his hand. Placing it on the side-table, she adroitly straddled his lap, linking her arms over his shoulders. He waited, fighting back a reluctant smile, as she reached up predictably to mess up his hair. "There, less stupid."

Tentatively, for it had been some time since she had last visited him, he curled an arm around her hips, his hand bumping the hilt of a dagger concealed beneath the draped cloth. He was dismayed by the tension in the muscles of her side, so smoothed a hand up her back. Even through the layers of insulated cloth, he could feel rigid anxiety. That was not like her at all. "Do you intend to seduce me into cooperating with your commanders' schemes?"

She responded by pinching his ear, and laughing against his jaw. "Don't be stupid."

"Then you will not be delaying your return?" He wondered if she had already intercepted the praetor's order and if that was the reason for her unease, or if this time, he were allowing himself to be distracted by an enemy. Her breath tickled and he ducked his head away.

"I've got about twenty-three minutes before the next sensor sweep catches me here."

He raised his eyebrows. "You will not sway my decision in such a manner."

"Don't be insulting." She bit his ear, hard enough that he winced. "I'll tell them you said 'no' and that'll be that, but if you keep this up, we'll be down to twenty-two minutes."

"Ah. In that case, your phaser is digging into me."

She tucked a hand inside the folds of her robe, twisted her belt around in a practiced gesture, and he took the opportunity to drag her closer.


(2)

2344

Erei'Enriov Norelm was assigned, temporarily, to observe the infantry training compound operations, by order of Praetor Narviat and was, as such, the guest of honor. He wasn't their enemy, but everyone present at the officers' mess understood him to be an unwanted, barely tolerated, dangerous interloper.

Volskiar sat at the head of the table and politely ignored the silent threat Norelm represented. While technically subordinate to him, Norelm was supported by the new praetor, who was uncertain of Volskiar's loyalty. There was also the unfortunate matter of dishonor. The former praetor had tasked Volskiar to lead the attack on the Narendra III Klingon colony, feeding the entire infantry and Imperial Romulan Fleet fraudulent information. They had destroyed a civilian colony, feeble and unarmed opponents, in a methodical massacre. The single dissenter brave enough to oppose the maneuver, Riov Charvanek, was now Narviat's consort. The situation was awkward, but abasing himself wouldn't recover lost face. It didn't seem to mater to either of those two that he had been acting under direct orders.

Norelm was picking at the food on his plate, eating in a restrained, polite fashion. He had the fine features and smooth hands of a High Born and Volskiar reminded himself to avoid hostility. Rank meant less than blood, when push came to shove, the forgiveness heaped on Charvanek being proof of that. If their roles had been reversed that day on Narendra III, he would have been expected to take his life as recompense. He took a drink. None of his officers were High Born and he preferred it that way. Let them sit beside him on the basis of merit in battle, survival through tactics or sheer brazen courage, than fortunate accident of birth.

Norelm finally had enough, because he set down his tine. "Why is she at the table?"

Volskiar raised his eyebrows and looked over at the sole Human, Lieutenant Yar, who was not eating. She was building what appeared to be some sort of barricade or fortification out of her food. Either it didn't appeal to her, or she recognized Norelm for a stranger, the tension in the room, and was capitalizing on it to sow discord. "Because it pleases me for her to be here."

"Ah, I see. And everyone else? How do you feel about having a slave at the table?"

Erei'Arrain Ruvin kept his head down, too low in rank to dare speak on such a sensitive manner. His direct superior, Enarrain Zeril snorted derisively, making her opinion plain, but also possessing too little authority to elaborate. The compound's head of security, khre'Arrain Echael shot her a warning glance and finally Riov Soronar spoke.

"You have been misinformed, sir. She is a consort, not a slave."

"I have not been misinformed; I was doubtful of such a ludicrous claim. A Human prisoner," he looked straight at Volskiar, his voice saturated with contempt. "I understand you offered a compromise to secure her cooperation, to ensure she made no attempt to escape during transit, but dismiss with the charade. Surely you could do better."

"A Starfleet prisoner," corrected Volskiar.

"Indeed. She should be exhibited to the people, so they might share in your victory, not hidden away like a prize concubine." Norelm picked up his tine. "Especially considering what little else you have to show for such a costly battle."

Volskiar felt himself begin to flush with anger and took another drink. Norelm was correct. The Enterprise had been destroyed in battle, along with Charvanek's Honor Blade. Of the prisoners he had taken, one had been her and her surviving crew, which didn't count in the end, and a handful Starfleet crewmen. Of those, two had been senior bridge officers and one was killed, by accident. Yar was the last symbol left to satisfy public hostility toward a humiliating battle in which half the newly built fleet had been lost.

"Bring her out to the capital square. Let the people see how low the mighty Starfleet can be brought, what begging cowards even their officers are, to value personal honor so little." He finished with a curl to his lip, a very polite sneer flourishing the oily smooth voice.

Volskiar took an even breath, aware that his officers were watching him surreptitiously, and Yar was more or less glaring at Norelm. Without her communication badge, she was ignorant to their conversation, but certain tones of voice were universal. She noticed him watching and smoothed her expression, looking back down at her plate.

He leaned back, putting a hand on the table. "As you stated, the reward was limited. With one officer dead, another... escaped in transit," he nodded politely, smiling to indicate he held no animosity toward Riov Charvanek, "I think it wise to keep the last one under close guard behind locked doors."

Norelm sniffed. "Yes, I have heard of her escape attempts, and some odd reports that she frequently strikes you. She seems to be an intractable consort." He raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps I can provide you with interrogators to soften her, if yours are inadequate to the task?"

In his very best smug tone, adding the expected amount of leer, Volskiar said, "She is soft." He waited for the laughter to die down before adding, "I enjoy her fierce spirit. Why would I want to crush it?" There, let Norelm juggle some blatant truth in addition to his coiled insinuations.

"Is that the justification for your bruised eye?"

Volskiar raised a shoulder, in disinterest. "A minor injury. It will heal."

"And you reprimand her by allowing her to sit with you?"

In his peripheral vision, he saw Echael watching him. Yar's attendance was, though Norelm could not know it, the most effective way to keep her under immediate observation. "She is not a disobedient kharakh to beat into submission, and far too clever for that to work, regardless."

"Clever." Norelm raised his brows in a flick of amusement. "Not that clever if she has gone from officer to whore."

Volskiar saw Yar's posture snap from relaxed indifference into a familiar tension he had learned to associate with a lightning strike. "Akhh...," he managed to cry out in warning, standing simultaneously with Echael.

Norelm leapt back with a roar of shocked outrage, clutching at his shoulder, where a tine was planted firmly in the muscle. Yar stood, also leaning on the table, her face twisted into a mask of raw hatred, daring him to act and he didn't hesitate. Norelm lunged out an arm at her, lifting her by the neck, scattering dishes and pulled the other back to strike her. She made no effort to block it, a triumphant gleam of anticipation in those narrowed blue eyes.

"Hold your blow, you fool!" Volskiar came around the table, preparing to tackle the man.

"Fool?" Norelm turned his head to face him, still holding his arm at ready. "You call me a fool? I do not tolerate such impudence."

"Yes, a fool," Volskiar repeated. "Can you not see she is inciting you? Or is that too clever a scheme for you to understand?"

Norelm lowered his arm, then became aware that Yar was choking, but not struggling. He eased his grip. "Explain."

"I keep her under close guard because she had attempted to take her life twice, to date. You malign her honor, though she follows the Havrannsu way, over our own, seeking freedom in death." He moved his hand to his blade, cautiously, but Norelm released her.

Yar sighed in disgust at him, then sat back down as if nothing unusual were occurring.

"Would you have remembered she is but a weak Human and stayed your blow in time?" Volskiar stepped back, dropping his hand from the hilt of his blade. "You will forgive my concern, but such carelessness is how I lost the other officer from her ship."

Norelm righted his chair, pulling the tine from his shoulder, and sat. He ignored the small green stain saturating his sleeve, for it was a trivial injury. "Nevertheless, she assaulted me."

"Mm." He nodded at Echael. "Khre'Arrain, if you will."

Echael smiled at Norelm, then looked at Yar and held out her hand in silent demand. Yar gave her a hostile glower, then surrendered the carving knife she had pilfered from the center of the table, in the confusion.

Norelm inhaled sharply. "She is a menace."

"On the contrary, I wish to emphasize that if she had wanted to strike a mortal blow, she could have, but she merely sought to incite you. That," he pointed at the knife, "she would have used to harm herself, in the event her first plan of action failed."

Norelm stared at the knife, his lips tight. "You saw her take it?"

"No, but I expected she would, and when it was gone I knew what had happened. Did you not?" Volskiar made a well practiced expression of incredulous surprise.

"Certainly," answered Norelm, but everyone at the table knew it to be a lie. He looked at the mess he'd made of the table and picked up a napkin. He stood again, bowing slightly from the waist, and left without further comment.

Volskiar waited until the man was well out of earshot, then gestured to Echael.

She met his eyes, doubtfully and he nodded firmly. Waiting until Yar's attention was on him in curiosity, Echael struck, stabbing a tine neatly in Yar's shoulder. She jumped back to avoid the immediate counter-attack, before Yar caught herself, clutching at the wound with a hiss of pain.

"Goddamn mother-fucker."

He said, in carefully enunciated Federation Basic, "Do not stab my guests. It causes difficulties."

"I know what he said." She evened her breathing, and with a quick jerk, pulled the tine free, tossing it on the table. "Tired of hearing it."

"You understood one word, a barb that was aimed at me, not you." He nodded at erei'Arrain Ruvin. "He will escort you to your quarters."

Yar did not argue, following Ruvin out of the room, though she did give Echael a narrow glare on the way out.

Echael shook her head at him. "She will find some way to retaliate."

"I am certain you are capable of out-witting a simple Human," he said unsympathetically.

"She is not a simple anything," grumbled Echael.

Riov Soronar, who had kept his own counsel throughout the altercation, said, "Forgive me for saying it, but he was right. You cannot keep her for yourself."

"I can and I will. The destruction of the Enterprise should have been the greatest victory, but it occurred under such dishonorable circumstance that the last thing the people need is a reminder. If Narviat wished to make an example of her, he would have sent his own guard to take her from me, not that sycophant to bark at me."

Soronar stood in response. "I spoke out of turn."

"You gave counsel, nothing more." With that, Volskiar stepped away from the table, signaling an end to the meal. He gestured to Echael, preventing her from leaving with the others.

"You do not need me to stab anyone else, I hope?"

"No. Has she been eating?" He hoped that Yar had not resorted to such tedious tactics.

"Intermittently. I do not believe she is starving herself, if that is what concerns you. I apologize, but I have not been personally tracking her behavior. I can ask the guards if -"

"Ask them what she has been eating and give her more of those things. Let us assume for now that she will not complain about what she cannot eat, rather than being stubborn and refusing to eat." He fell in pace with her and added, after weighing the options, "And give her a translator."

Echael immediately challenged him. "She will use it to collect information about the base and troops."

"Does the language impediment prevent her from doing so, now?"

She smiled ruefully. "I doubt it."


(3)

2344

Volskiar watched the security screens, each recording a different entrance, room or area, within the army training compound. The uhlan attending this duty ignored his presence, as was proper. One camera was trained on Yar's quarters where she appeared to be doing her best to annihilate a ramshackle post. He wondered whom she had coerced into supplying the materials. It stood at her height, bearing four lightly padded struts, three high, one low. She would strike at one, causing the post to pivot, forcing her to block another, each blow sending the device careening about ever faster.

He cocked his head, watching as she battled the practice post until, inevitably, a wooden arm struck her. Yar staggered back, hunching over to clutch at her forearm and gather her wits. After a few moments, she straightened, checking her arm, feeling with her fingers where she had been bruised and testing the contusion. Apparently satisfied with whatever she found, she stepped back in to resume attacking the dummy.

He wasn't sure what to make of her aggression, even if it was that bearing that had attracted his attention as much as her physical appearances. When the other Starfleet personnel sank to the floor of his brig, acquiescent, wounded, she had bristled beside the single other surviving officer. It was not what he had been taught about the Federation. Young enough to be kept away from the immediate glories of battle when Riov Charvanek encountered Captain Kirk and his Enterprise on the borders of the Outmarches; old enough to consider her foolish and in dire need of swift reprimand for her ill-advised attempt to seduce a Vulcan rather than focus on the threat the incursion represented; he had lived his entire life behind that political barrier. What he knew about the Federation and its customs, people and military structure was up until now, second-hand and he was beginning to suspect, erroneous.

Barring such daring exceptions as Kirk and his crew, Starfleet were retiring sorts, unwilling to fight if they might talk a confrontation unto mutual boredom, keeping phasers on 'stun' lest they accidentally kill an opponent in fair battle, preaching peace, benevolence and compromise. Ostensibly, Starfleet bred soft officers, but who was to say how much the Federation might have changed while the Star Empire remained isolated, ignoring the stubborn enemy that had once fought them to a stalemate. Naturally, Volskiar had expected Yar to exhibit those traits, to cower under little pressure, cry when distressed, compromise at every turn, break easily to his will and provide an easy demonstration of what a sniveling target the Federation was, while providing him with exotic entertainment.

What he hadn't expected was a strictly ordered, rigidly mocking, deceptively soft-spoken, seething mass of calculating determination who silently dared him with every cool glare to prove how much stronger he was. Especially since she had been so meek for nearly three days, complying with orders as if barely cognizant.

He crossed his arms, aware he was frowning at an impartial bank of display screens. "How long has she been doing that?"

"Every day." The guard checked the time. "She will finish soon."

Volskiar left the room, walking slowly down the hallway. He knew a proconsul who had once acquired a brilliantly plumed mogai to serve as a centerpiece in a personal zoological collection. He had brought in trainers to break the animal's will, so it would be more docile in confinement. He had given it the best food, complete veterinary care, a well-maintained enclosure, and provided distractions to amuse it. The giant raptor had beat its clipped wings, clawed with futility at the stone floor, gnawed at the bars until it its beak chipped, and finally lay down. It grew fat, lazy and disconsolate, ignoring all efforts to draw its attention, making no more than minimal effort to eat and defecate. It rarely moved but to pick at its plumage, which grew dull and coarse as the bird's eyes. The proconsul grew so disgusted with the no longer magnificent creature's failure to thrive, at great expense, that he euthanized it. The raptor hadn't been fit enough to return to the wilderness and, regardless, pride wouldn't allow it.

He stopped outside Yar's quarters, listening to the faint impacts of flesh and bone against wood. There had been another option that the proconsul had not considered. He might have placed the animal in an open preserve, a more familiar habitat. Though it would have forced him to await the mogai's appearances, rather than have it readily available for his pleasure and convenience, the raptor might have thrived.

He signaled his presence before opening the door, entering soon enough to catch her stepping away from the post.

She was breathing hard, her clothes and hair damp with sweat and for a moment, the sheer smell took him off guard. While he did not find it offensive as a woman would, it was different. Distracted from her task, she swept a hand through her hair, matting it back, using the bandages wrapped up her forearm to wipe at her face. Her eyes darted to the location of the concealed camera, in a flash of open calculation, an unspoken derisive remark. "Yeah?"

He examined the practice post, giving it a spin on its base. "The staff say you also dance."

"Oh. That's aikido."

"But not what you are doing now."

"This is wing chun, muk yan jong form. It's something easier to practice without a partner." Yar sidled around the post, keeping it between them, adjusting the bandages wrapped around her wrists and hands. Despite them, now that he was in the room to see in greater detail, the tell-tale ochre stains of blood visible. They were dry, but for one area, across her knuckles that was bright red. She tracked his gaze.

"The aikido is less harmful?"

Yar practically barked in laughter, turning away to smother her amusement. "It depends."

"It must be a dangerous dance for you to be so amused."

"You can kill a person by accident, during practice, if you aren't careful, but that's not what it's about." She continued to edge away from him, avoiding direct eye contact. It was one of her maddening traits to ignore his presence, to shutter her eyes and look through and past him if he demanded her attention. She attended without attending at all, compartmentalizing well, an ability not developed overnight.

Volskiar raised his eyebrows at that contradiction. "It is a martial form that does not focus on defeating one's opponent? That seems a curious." As a courtesy, if it might put her at some ease, he remained still.

She shrugged. "There's no such thing as victory. The most you can achieve is harmony."

"Harmony. With an enemy?"

"Yep. Absolute, perfect harmony." Her explanation was clipped with an impatience that assumed for his dismissal.

"It does not seem a formidable fighting form," he prompted.

Yar quirked an eyebrow at him and he caught the flash of a humorless smile before she turned away, resetting the struts of her post. "There's a story about Morihei Ueshiba, the founder, well, there are lots of stories.... But in this one, a great warrior challenged him to a test of skill, against a boulder rolling down the side of a mountain. The warrior stood his ground and punched through the rock, but O'Sensei? He just got out of the way and let the rock smash itself at the bottom of the mountain. He won."

"He did not even fight. How can he have won?" It was not that he failed to grasp the philosophical idealology of deflection, but he wanted to see if she would continue speaking to him in complete sentences. It was a welcome change from her minimalistic, impartial responses, mixed with vague disinterest.

"Because he didn't waste energy or bruise his knuckles getting the job done."

He made a noise of acknowledgment, unwilling to dismiss the passive philosophy that sounded quite Vulcan. He considered the post she had constructed and saw her flex her injured hand in his peripheral vision. "Very well, then."

Her attentive curiosity was marred by aggrieved tolerance, and her lips flattened and eyes narrowed, when he removed his outer tunic. She turned obliquely, he suspected involuntarily, raising her shoulders as if preparing an attack, but instead released a breath and the tension with it. When she returned her attention to him, her face was calm but her eyes guarded.

He recognized the forced restraint, knowing himself how it felt to be overpowered by a need to strike, to know rationally that one could not. He also sincerely regretted telling her he enjoyed a challenge, for she had patently refused to give him any since then. "You misunderstand. There is no need for... aikido."

Her expression didn't change.

"If you continue hitting that post, you will injure yourself."

"Nothing a basic med unit can't fix. Besides, your soldiers are too scared of damaging your property to spar with me."

"They are forbidden," he said. "And I will not allow you to cause yourself harm."

A muscle in her jaw worked as Yar ground her teeth, frustration and disappointment plain in her eyes. That was replaced by cynicism when she looked at his discarded tunic.

He gestured at it. "That is warm and cumbersome, ill-suited for sparring." He stretched, rolling his neck and shoulders, checking his joints for stiffness and muscles for cramps of disuse. "Unless you would prefer to fight with such an inferior opponent?" He directed his gaze at the post.

"You're going to let me hit you?"

"I will defend myself."

"What if I win?"

He shrugged, then smiled slyly, waiting for her next logical question.

"Do I even need to ask what happens if you win?"

He let his smile grown into a grin, but was brought to a cold halt by the drawn expression on her face. She literally hunched, but it wasn't fear. He knew fear. It was the same on any face. No, it was the pain that came with an unbidden memory.

"You'll have to find someone else to indulge that fantasy, jackass." Her words were strong, but her voice was reedy. "I won't fight you over that."

He ceded. "Then I will not press the advantage, but your choice is to fight with me or go soft with boredom." He put his hand on the dummy. "I have lived all my life in the military. I know when a soldier trains and when a soldier grieves. If your commander saw this, she would not permit it, for the same reasons I give." He held his breath, waiting to see if she had the sense to take the option he was giving to replace the outlet he denied.

Her hands were shaking with suppressed rage, and he didn't know that Humans could move so quickly.

Volskiar smiled at the memory. She had broken his jaw that day, in three furious piston blows, pinning him with one knee to his chest, where he had fallen tangled in between a chair and that cursed post. Only when they both heard the unmistakable wet noise of fractured bone did she jump back in a flash of concealed fear, quickly looking at the door in grim anticipation but never apologizing. She stood there, rubbing sore knuckles with bald satisfaction, such pleasure in her eyes that he hurt himself with an answering grin.

He had been sitting on her bed, probing at the break with his fingers, waiting for the guards when they arrived in a timely fashion. Khre'Arrain Echael raised a stun baton at Yar who, as he had expected, did not flinch. He raised a hand to belay the unnecessary punishment. If he had left promptly, Yar would have been on the floor, struck down by the guards' batons, but treating his fracture could afford a slight delay.

"Sir?" Echael stood at ready.

He let her see him smile, a pull of his lip to one side, and shook his head in negation, rather than attempt to speak. Standing, he turned to Yar and bowed once, signaling the end to their sparring session, largely for the guards' benefit. They would gossip and soon the entire compound would know he had given Yar explicit consent to strike him.

Echael canted her head at Yar, gestured to the guards and slung the baton back on her belt, before escorting him to the medical facility. She had the good grace not to remark on his actions.


(4)

2344

"Echael reports you are often restless and wake from sleep." He looked at her bed but it was the same as it appeared in the security monitor, neatly made, minus a pillow. Less comfortable than his bed, but certainly more generous than a soldier's cot. He had been tempted not to provide a sleeping mat at all, hoping to drive her into his bed, but it was likely Yar would have dealt with the discomfort in as stoic a silence as she had indigestible food. He shivered at the chill in the air caused by the breeze from the unshuttered window. Though it was late spring, the temperature could fall dramatically in the dead of night.

"And you care, because...?" Yar wore a blue robe and sat cross-legged on a pillow, her back against the footboard, hands flat on her knees. She appeared comfortable, but then, Humans favored lower temperatures. She was attempting to sound hostile, but succeeded only at tired dejection.

"Your health is my obligation." He had noticed when she faltered sparring, her normally precise motions sloppy and inaccurate. The reason she slept poorly might give him insight to what passions drove her. With that, he could better predict her behavior.

"Yeah-huh."

He waited patiently until she looked at his face, to gauge his sincerity.

She snorted. "Gotta keep your status symbol shiny?"

He agreed, rather than debate the finer points of semantics through a translator keyed to Federation Basic and the common Rihannsu dialects. It mangled many words, phrases especially, but it would have to do as she seemed disinclined to learn his language. "Why are you not sleeping?"

"Because you guys don't believe in therapy or palliative care." She rolled her eyes, facetiously, "Weird Human traditions, I know."

"For what?"

She sighed and he had learned this meant she did not wish to answer his question, or found the answer tediously obvious. The expressions she made, he often found confounding for some appeared familiar and meant what he guessed, but others meant different things entirely. She was studying him intently and he took comfort in knowing she seemed to have equal difficulty interpreting his face.

"Post traumatic stress syndrome and the usual, being imprisoned on an alien planet, surrounded by enemies, no friends to lean on, et cetera. Nothing you have to worry about. I'll get over it." She bowed her head, closing her eyes, fingering the bridge of her nose.

He sat down in front of her, mimicking her posture. There was no point in debating the conditions of her imprisonment, however generous, and she hadn't raised any complaints about her quarters or treatment, thus far. He watched her rub the corner of one eye with the tip of her finger and waited to hear if she would explain more. His back was to the open window and he resisted the impulse to stand back up and close the shutters. He had tolerated far greater extremes in temperature during his varied career and that was not a concern at this time. "What is this syndrome?"

She straightened almost imperceptibly against the footboard, an involuntary tension in response to his proximity, her attention so compromised by the lack of sleep. "It means I've been through some crap and every now and then my brain randomly remembers how it felt. It's annoying and I wake up. Then I can't sleep for a while."

He mulled over her phrasing, aware she was simplifying what was probably a more complex phenomenon, for his benefit. There were similar colloquialisms in Rihannsu, which referred to enduring hardship or inconvenience. "You are blaming me," he hazarded.

She laughed abruptly, then caught herself, restraining the amusement, not wishing him to witness such freedom of expression. "No. You're a walk in the park. No offense."

He took a deep breath, reminding himself to be patient with her bizarre idioms. Whatever this one meant, it was negation, casually dismissive of his assumed fault. Even without knowing precisely what the phrase meant in her culture, taken literally, walking in a cultivated area was an exercise that required minimal exertion. It was as close as he'd ever heard her come to admitting the conditions here were favorable. He broke his reverie in time to witness her glance away, sharply, caught looking at him.

He politely ignored her slip. "We experience a similar neural imbalance, under great stress, but it is considered debilitating and a soldier in this state must be discharged. Your commander permitted you to remain an officer?" He cocked his head, waiting to see if she would provide information in the course of defending herself.

"Human emotions aren't as extreme. What I have is pretty normal, and damn common because of...." She stopped, smiling at him tightly. "It's kept manageable through a combination of medication and counseling, and usually resolves itself over time."

"But it has not resolved itself," he noted with assured finality.

"Sometimes it never does." She flickered an eyebrow in self-depreciating amusement. "Especially if a person stays in a stressful environment."

"And yet your commander trusted you to act rationally?"

"He picked me, first-hand."

He smiled.

She did not misunderstand his implication and countered immediately, "Because I was the best. He wasn't like that."

"He preferred men?"

"I think he preferred poetry," she said dryly.

He met her eyes but she gave away nothing. His men reported that she had been found at the tactical station of the Enterprise, which made her responsible for the dogged and wily fight the ship had given his fleet. It was also true that the surviving bridge officer had been a man, but a mere lieutenant, as was she. On the other hand, if her commander had selected her due to aptitude, it was possible she told the truth. There was one detail, that was not possible. "What we know of the Enterprise indicates the commander was a woman named Garrett."

Caught, she froze and swallowed, setting her jaw, exhaling evenly. It was a gesture familiar to him now, from sparring. She was grounding herself for defense.

"You are not from that ship?"

She kept silent, watching him warily for a show of temper or sudden attack, for him to summon guards and his mood to shift. She was too aware that in her exhaustion, her will might falter and she might confess some useful truth. He suspected she only spoke to him now in an effort to delay or distract him. It was a bit galling to realize that if were to reach out and push that robe off her shoulders, she would not stop him, but her eyes would slide off his face, the mask of an officer settling on hers. He was tempted to do it just to nettle her temper, but he was trying to speak to the woman. So, he kept his hands to himself and words in play.

"Your uniform was of a markedly different pattern. Your communications equipment was of a dissimilar design and of advanced technology. Your weapon, likewise. Your presence was incongruous with the rest." Setting his hands on his knees, he leaned forward. "What was your ship? This information I know your regulations permit you to give."

She smiled baldly and said with an absolute conviction that dared him to challenge it, "The Enterprise."

He saw the intent focus she displayed when sparring, that decisive absence of fear. He changed tack in response to her confidence. Perhaps the commanding officer to which she referred was not the captain, but a secondary responsible for choosing junior officers. "You will not return to sleep this evening?"

Taking the cue, she settled back, rolling her shoulders like a mantling raptor. "If I don't get too agitated," she hinted bluntly.

If she was going to raise the topic, however indirectly, he would not disappoint. "If you are restless then perhaps-"

"No thanks."

He grinned at her perceptive wit. "We are already in your quarters," he reminded her.

Aside from glancing at the floor, Yar did not even sigh to express dismay or hostility. The response was marginally better than her professional mask. "At least you're predictable."

"On the contrary, I do my best not to be." He craned down to see her face, leaning an elbow on his knee in the process. "You are already agitated, though you conceal it with the skill of a Vulcan, and I wish you to sleep, not growl at me in silence." He tapped the clenched muscle of her jaw.

She jerked her head away.

"I accept your challenge."

She snorted, then said in flat disinterest, "Wasn't making one. We made a deal, buddy. Time, place and position and I'll do it."

He compressed his lips in disapproval before schooling his features. He knew first hand that her disinterest was not a malicious act, but a simple matter of reality. "Crudity will not offend me and I know this strategy. There is no accomplishment in taking what is unwillingly given. I said I would be patient, so I will wait."

"And I wish you'd get it over with, but I guess your massive ego gets in the way." She managed to say that without unclenching her teeth, quite a feat.

"Spoken by one with such crippling pride."

Instead of being incensed, Yar raised one shoulder in a laconic shrug. "It's what I have." She pursed her lips and looked away again, uneasily. "So you've really got your work cut out for you."

"Yes. I have told you. I enjoy a challenge, especially one I so rarely encounter." Subduing an opponent was simple. Swaying them to allegiance, was an accomplishment. He suspected that was what she would call aikido.

"Well, it's always a joy to know you're entertaining someone," she said.

He couldn't help it. He smiled. "And I wish you would share in that joy."

She looked back at him with a cock-eyed, odd grimace that he well recalled from their first morning. He wondered if she would fall as silent as she had then, or if this time she would provide an interpretation for the curious expression. "I don't know you." Abruptly, her hand jerked up to wave at him tersely. "You're a complete stranger," and now she was shaking her head vaguely, "How can you expect me to have any response? It's just... it's.... You're not going to get it." By the time she finished berating him, her curious grimace had grown more pronounced.

"Mm," he said, absently, then to himself, "Yes," nodding. At least he knew what that face meant: absolute, incredulous disbelief laced with amusement. That was the way of it. For some, the body could only follow the mind, physical passion never overruling it. If it was his luck to pick such a woman, he relished the upcoming campaign, for such an opponent had a critical weakness: Where the mind went, the body surely followed. He reached into the pocket of his robe, not bothering to hide his own amusement at her consternation, and held out a small container. "Doctor Aranar says these will allow you to sleep without detrimental effect."

Her hand hovered in the air. "Addictive?" she asked.

"No," he reassured her. When she made to take it from him, he snatched it back.

"What do you want?"

"I have accepted your challenge. Do you acknowledge giving it?"

She sighed at him again, rather loudly. "Fine, if that's how you want to see it." She took the canister from him. "Good luck. You'll need it after the leg you got off on."

He paused on one knee, preparing to depart. "Yes, you have informed me of my error. It is unfortunate." He shrugged lightly, not intending to be dismissive, but not desiring to argue.

"Unfortunate?" she repeated, incredulously.

"Regrettable," he attempted to mollify.

"Regrettable 'please stop whining about something I don't care about' or regrettable like the Vulcans mean it?"

"The latter definition." She complained so little it was a relief to hear it. He fought back and urge to tell her he had not had a conversation like this since his wife had died, nor was he all that familiar with more particular Vulcan customs. In fact, he was becoming tired of her tendency to compare his people to that race. He knew merely that his words were not intended to mean her first interpretation.

Yar's anger faded, replaced by a weary resignation, compounded by fatigue. "You're still an asshole with stupid hair."

He stood, and clasped his hands behind his back. "I am a senior general. It is my duty to be an 'asshole' with stupid hair, but I strive to avoid repeating mistakes." He hoped she would provide a clue to what mistake he had made, because there was something. Something more than an officer chaffing at imprisonment, whenever she threw him with unnecessary force during practice.

She opened her mouth, held her breath, then exhaled, shaking her head. "You are a master of getting things backward."

"What do you mean?"

She put a hand to her face. "Too tired to explain it, buddy."

He was too tired to listen to explanations of Terran etiquette or social mores. "So there is no misunderstanding, what insult is 'buddy'?"

She opened the canister, removing a single dose. "It's not really an insult."


(5)

2345

He was rather pleased to discover he had succeeded in pinning Yar, albeit awkwardly, not quite in proper form, against the wall. As much as her aikido involved twisting around in endless combinations, there were certain ways the joints could not move. He held her right arm twisted up behind her shoulder, the other wrist kept tight in a nerve pinch, and grinned at her. "What is this immobilization named?"

"Brute strength?"

He wondered what the peculiar expression on her face meant. Was she calculating if she had enough leverage to twist free using only her shoulders, or perhaps kick him?

"So, you gonna hump my leg, or what?"

He found himself repeating her question, stupidly, before looking down. He had his groin pressed against her thigh in an effort to prevent a retaliatory kick. That was the cause of her peculiar expression. "Ah. That is your doing."

"I see, so what you're saying is, the bastion of Romulan self-control can't help it?"

He considered her goading and prevarications. "You cannot escape from this hold?"

"Sure I can, Heaven and Earth throw," she screwed one eye shut, "but it involves sliding down first and I'd rather not, under the circumstances."

He couldn't prevent his burst of laughter and released her, stepping back quickly to avoid being thrown if she felt churlish. "This is your fault," he repeated unsympathetically.

"Sure, blame me."

"Are Human men so oblivious?"

Yar, in the midst of returning to the center mat, responded with an expression of frank bewilderment. "Um... often?" Soon overtaken by reflexive suspicion, she canted her head warily. "You're not about to pull some weird Romulan thing, are you?"

He could not imagine how Human society functioned. How could they manage mating, marriage and conception with such poor communication? Such deceptive behavior was confounding. "It is not 'weird'. I know that you are aroused, which affects me."

"I'm not-"

"You are." He tapped the side of his nose.

She winced, looked down, making a face as if though she had just bitten into something sour. She ran a hand through her hair, rubbing the back of her neck and stepped off the mat. "You know, the Vulcans have something called 'tact' about that sort of thing."

"So do we, but you raised the subject." He took several casual steps forward, to test if she would veer off to avoid him, and she did.

"And I'm sorry I did." She went to the staging area and picked up a towel, drying sweat from her face and neck, the only areas of skin left exposed by her strange black and white uniform. In most ways, she had adapted readily to Rihannsu manner and dress, but insisted on observing proper form and tradition, in martial practice.

He trailed after her. "You do not wish to continue sparring? We may wish to further study one of our forms?"

"It's probably not a good idea."

"But you enjoy it."

"That's why it's not a good idea right now," she muttered.

"Do not the tenants of your aikido advise against resisting?"

"Don't twist budo out of context."

He did a mental calculation, and opted to push. "Am I unattractive? Do I smell unpleasant to you?"

The change in tactics worked, for she blinked several times and her cheeks turned pink. Pointedly keeping her attention on putting up her practice weapons, she answered, "Not everything is about you. I don't deal well with being cooped up but since I'm sure that's all part of your grand scheme, excuse me if I don't fall for it." She met his eyes on the last words, daring him to contradict her.

He grunted in acknowledgment, nodding once. "I would be disappointed if you were so easy to manipulate, but if you would prefer an unmonitored room, mine is available."

Some reflexive quip was ready on her lips before she remembered who he was, and bit it back. It must have been a refusal, judging by the glimmer of resentment in her eyes. He had asked a question, but by her own accord, she could not deny him, nor would she claim to desire his company. So she went mute, waiting to see if he would rephrase his question as a demand.

He inhaled sharply, and smiled for her benefit.

Again, she began to speak, then reconsidered her words. Finally, she bit out, "It doesn't mean I want you."

He nodded, as if he believed her. Then again, for all he knew, Humans were indiscriminate in that way.

"I should fuck Soronar just to piss you off." She snapped the towel over her shoulder to draw his eye, but he caught her swift appraisal of him, regardless. She was, after all, a practical woman. "I don't need a dog-like sense of smell to know he's interested."

"Please do not. I would be forced to demote him for demonstrating such weak will." It was a creditable threat, though, for Riov Soronar both served as his executive officer managing the compound and had displayed at least some fascination in his Human captive. Right now, he sympathized with Soronar's indiscreet interest, for Yar simmered with a certain righteous indignation. There was no rank fear suffusing the air and that was sufficient cause to allow her retreat but not without an appropriate parting shot, to keep her off center. "Are you finished with that?"

She craned her head to see where he pointed, and made a moue of bemusement. "The towel? Yeah."

"Good." He pulled it off her shoulder and tucked it into the waistband of his trousers. "Tomorrow then?" He waited for her to respond, giving Yar time to stare in fascination at the towel, figure out why he might want hers rather than his own, make a face of comprehension, shake her head and fight back a flustered laugh.

"Fucking weirdo." She smirked, despite her best efforts, stepping away hurriedly. "Going back to your quarters, huh?"

"First I will see if Echael is available."

There was a beat pause before she answered, "Oh. Well. Have fun."

He ducked his head so she couldn't see his dreadful amusement at her expense, and left the room, heading straight for the security monitor station. He found khre'Arrain Echael there, having commandeered the post from the assigned guard.

She turned in the chair, grinning unabashedly. "She threw her sticks across the room."

"I would have liked to have seen that."

Echael offered, "I can replay the footage."

"That will not be necessary." He stood beside the chair, watching the monitor and was disgusted to see Yar sitting cross-legged, meditating as if she were a cursed Vulcan. He sighed. He knew she would give unwillingly, but he had never understood the appeal, despite commanding men who did.

Echael craned abruptly in her chair, wrinkling her nose at the towel still dangling from his waist. If Yar had been present, she would have sniggered at the way Echael mirrored her own reaction. She pulled the chair away from him. "Proving more stubborn than you anticipated?"

"Mind your impertinence."

"Yes, sir, but for the record, I would not jeopardize my career to bed you."

He snorted. "Yar does not know that."

Echael made a noise, as if she disagreed.

"Do you have something to say?"

"She seems clever, as you say. I believe she will investigate your fabrication."

"No doubt," he agreed, still studying the screen. "Tell me, does she pleasure herself?"

Echael coughed in surprise. "Sir?"

"You heard me."

Clearing her throat, she ducked her head, and said, "I can check the records more closely, but to date, she seems to value her privacy."

"Mm." He crossed his arms. He had Yar at the advantage, then, if she was not willing to admit to such basic needs. "Excellent."


(6)

2345

From his office, Volskiar watched a combat training exercise in the practice field below. It was urban guerrilla warfare, the kind his troops encountered most frequently on hostile worlds or colony planets. Two teams squared off against each other, one firmly entrenched in a group of small buildings, the other breaching the outer perimeter. The battle seemed to progress smoothly for the offense, as they cut down outer guards, crossed into the second perimeter created by a series of bulwarks and snipers. Then someone closed a gate behind them and the area was flooded with gas. The snipers disappeared, though the intruders kept searching for them, missing the new enemy who rose up from hiding to shoot at their legs. Though crippled, the intruders retaliated, cutting down the new snipers with concussive ordnance. Those who were able followed some who fled into a building flagged as a command center, delaying only to lob concussive loads through windows.

The building exploded, a mock burst of smoke and light, tainting everyone inside and too close with identifying powder. They were dead. The surviving defenders rounded up the intruders, systematically 'executing' the crippled enemy who lay outside, extolled by a centurion waving her plasma rifle in the air. Erei'Arrain Ruvin, one of the 'dead', stood beside a bulwark with his hands on his hips, watching the imaginary slaughter of his unit.

The woman standing on that same bulwark shouldered her rifle, and pulled off her helmet to shake her hair free and wipe grit from her eyes. That blond hair should have reminded everyone that she was an alien in their midst, but her team was hooting in victory and soon the entire group was milling about, clearing the mess they had made of the grounds. Yar jumped down beside Ruvin, tucking the helmet under her arm, and he removed his as well.

Volskiar checked the chronometer. He needed to leave soon to attend a meeting with the regional staff, concerning a revolt on Bara'nesh II, but not yet. Whenever he thought he understood that Human woman, she introduced a new element. In this case, it was still a mystery how a fleet officer, trained in flight maneuvers and battle tactics, was also familiar with ground combat. Starfleet had no branch dedicated to ground forces, though they might send security personal down to assist planetary militia in times of need. Yet the challenge Yar was providing his officers suggested otherwise.

It had begun innocuously, according to what Echael told him, as a typical grousing session in the communal mess hall. Yar had been eating there, amongst the soldiers as if she were one of them, very obviously not, keeping her head down. That didn't stop several men and women from beginning a discussion about why they needed to tolerate that unqualified, unofficial interloper participating in their training exercises just because she was the general's pet. That hadn't precipitated the confrontation because if Yar heard the insult, she ignored it.

Erei'Arrain Ruvin started it by listening to his men complain for a while, then capping the conversation with a polite but firm agreement. He said, "It is unfortunate we are obligated to endure the interference of some fighter pilot." He put a sarcastic emphasis on the final term. As often as the ground forces worked with the imperial fleet, there was a long-standing rivalry between the two branches of the military. The soldiers jeered in agreement.

Yar said, almost impersonally, "I'm not a pilot. Helm is Ops."

Ruvin took the center stage, grinning at the eager audience, all too happy to goad their unwelcome guest. "Forgive me. You were at the tactical station, what Starfleet terms its gunners, yes?"

"I was filling in."

"Ah." He gestured in comprehension. "You are not a tactical officer."

"I can do that too."

Ruvin raised an jolly eyebrow. "You are a gunner that is not a gunner, a tactician that is not a tactician. Are you anything at all? Or do you wish us to believe you are also not a security officer?"

Yar finally looked up, gauging the mood of her audience. She put down her spoon, reluctantly, and said in a beleaguered tone, "I was Chief of Security."

Ruvin looked at his men and the same nonplussed response was mirrored in them. "What does this 'Chief' do?"

"I was responsible for maintaining order on the ship between battles and defending it during them."

Ruvin stared at her, then burst out laughing. "An erein? You expect me to believe Starfleet would permit an erein to be master of defense?" He slapped a hand on the table, smiling. "No commander would give a minor officer such authority. Did you think I would be so unfamiliar with your Starfleet?"

"Apparently you are." Yar waited patiently until the last of them stopped laughing. "Who told you I was an ensign?"

"No, we were told you are 'lieutenant', the lowest officer." Ruvin concealed his gaffe as best he could. "You must forgive me. I am but a lowly infantry officer. We do not study such matters as our commanders do."

Yar chewed on her lip, nodding. Volskiar had since revealed his own familiarity with Starfleet rank organization, though general conversation. As the Federation was one of the Empire's most powerful rivals, those commanders who served on central planets or along the Outmarches were expected to correctly identify common ship designs, rank insignias and unit structure. A foot soldier was neither required nor expected to keep track. "That's not the lowest officer. We have two levels of lieutenant and the lowest commissioned officer is ensign. I'm... I was two above that," she explained patiently, but without much interest in their heckling.

Ruvin pursed his lips in consternation, then corrected himself by asking, "Enarrain?"

She shrugged. "Your rank divisions don't really line up with ours, but I guess centurion is close enough."

"But you are also the master of defense. Was that a rank or a duty?"

"A rank," her answer was terse as Ruvin's questions began to concern more specific internal organization.

"You were the commander of the defense company?"

"Basically, yes."

Quizzically, Ruvin held up a hand to debate the matter with his squadron. After a brief argument, he asked Yar, "Then you were riov?"

"No," Yar said slowly. "I had a commander, and a lieutenant-commander, above me. In matters of ship security they would usually defer to me, but most times I had to follow their orders. If you need a point of comparison, then I guess I was a centurion with extra duties."

Ruvin kept frowning at her. "How can that be? If you command so many men... were there no other officers in your defense company?"

"Oh. Okay, right." Yar nodded in sudden understanding. "I forgot the obvious. We have two classes of officers on ships. Petty officers, who enlist and rise up through the ranks and commissioned officers who train in Starfleet Academy and are assigned command positions. A commissioned officer always outranks a non-com, but the two systems work in parallel, and a petty officer can always apply to the Academy."

They traded dubious looks before Ruvin said, disbelieving, "Your Starfleet would assign an inexperienced commander with no battlefield merit over a proven soldier, merely to satisfy class division?" He shook his head. "That is ludicrous. Even the highest born noble must begin as an uhlan." He raised his chin in silent challenge for a better explanation of how such a non-intuitive system could possibly be at the heart of the Federation's rapid expansion throughout the Alpha quadrant. He thought she was taking advantage of his casual ignorance and lying.

Yar shrugged. "Hey, all I know is that we fought you guys to a standstill, so we can't be all wrong." She began to defer explanation, believing none of the audience were genuinely interested to learn the differences in ranking systems, but then she noticed the rapt attention. They were soldiers, after all and this was part of their world. She leaned back in her chair, and took a deep breath, considering what she could and could not tell to her enemy. "In the Federation, we believe that everyone should get the chance to do what they love, or at least what they're good at. That means you don't send a pianist to do a mechanic's job, just because they both work with their hands. It's inefficient and a waste of resources. I've worked with officers who were brilliant at strategy, tactics, logistical support, resource allocation, you name it, but a lot of them wouldn't last a week on the front lines. Starfleet doesn't need everyone to do the same job and those people can't contribute to society if they're dead. We channel command officers earlier - that's all."

Ruvin waited, weighing her statement, then asked, "What is a pianist?"

"A type of musician."

He nodded slowly. "You attended this academy and commanded many such 'petty officers', but you are not a commander. Curious. Your Starfleet is generous in matters of education."

"I think you got it," she confirmed his guess without supplying any potentially sensitive specifics. "Like the saying goes, knowledge is power and Starfleet likes as many of its officers to have as much as possible."

There was a murmur of discussion amongst the squadron and gradually, Ruvin began to nod. "Ah, I understand. Your commanding officers are scholars and politicians," he smiled in appreciation, "separate from those in your government. An intriguing system to put your Starfleet in constant competition with your senators. Does your government not fear its fleet?"

"No." Her manner and attitude changed, to that of an instructor addressing a class. "If you hold one public office, you can't hold the other. Otherwise you wind up with government officials as de facto commanding officers, and there's some nasty conflicts of interest that can happen-"

Ruvin hissed, shaking his head sharply, in urgent reminder.

Yar halted, immediately. "Sorry. Forgot where I was." She smiled that way that was not a smile at all and laughed softly in some manner of regret. "It's been a while since I taught any classes."

Ruvin relaxed, and shifted the subject back on track. "Instruction? Because you are one of the 'commissioned' scholar officers?"

"I guess, by your definition."

"You are of noble blood?"

"What?" Yar laughed in surprise. "Geez, no. We don't have classes like that. Everyone's starts out the same in the Federation, and everyone gets the same opportunities. The only kind of nobility we have is through action. Like I said, anyone can apply to the Academy." She wriggled an eyebrow. "Qualifying and getting in is another matter entirely."

Ruvin made a noise, considering this for a while. It wasn't new information to him, but it was different to learn it as a dislocated cultural fact and to witness the attitude in person, from another. "It is not common for someone of low birth to gain formal education, beyond vocational training. One must be recommended or pursue it independently. Here," he gestured about the hall, "a centurion cannot advance past khre'Arrain without being recommended or sponsored by a commander to attend a War College." He smiled ruefully, raising an eyebrow. "There is great competition for this honor."

"Education is free of charge to anyone who wants it, in the Federation."

"Yes. It seems your people have great wealth to distribute upon each other. In this academy, what was your course of study, if I might ask?"

Yar made a face, raising her eyebrows as if she found the question difficult to quantify, then began by listing subjects by ticking them off on her fingers. "Let's see, I'm leaving some basic stuff out but: ordnance, security management, tactical analysis, law enforcement, survival strategies, logistics management, flight systems, advanced maneuvers, military history, Starfleet history, warp theory, and interspecies ethics and protocol, which is turning out to be really useful."

Reacting to the squadron's growing curiosity how Yar's own status would equate to theirs, Enarrain Zeril joined the fray by leaving her own table to stand beside the group. She recognized Ruvin's questions as ambition, searching out an advantageous association by which he might advance more quickly. If he could secure his commander's attention, he might gain the very education he coveted. She cocked her head, pensively, then said, "You say your Federation has no class stratification, but it would appear that your military does. It is a curious thing, such hypocrisy."

Yar acknowledged the challenge diplomatically. "We all start the same, and have the same opportunities, but that doesn't mean we're interchangeable. Not everyone wants the responsibilities that come with a commissioned rank, but anyone can apply to the Academy. There's no barrier. If a non-com wants to move up, he, she or it, can, if they have what it takes. Not all of our standards are different from yours."

"Mm. A fascinating system, very... permissive," Zeril said mildly. "But irrelevant. You are no longer in Starfleet." She finished the sentence with a meaningful look toward Ruvin's squadron, judging the worth of their rank debate. "You are not an officer here," she said smoothly, in a faintly suggestive tone.

Yar smirked, wryly at her plate. "Doesn't matter. I don't know what cock and bull story he's fed you guys, but I cut a deal to save my crew. I did my duty, and I'll keep doing it, and I know you understand that, because you've got your very own special word for it." She turned the depreciating smirk on Zeril. "Doesn't matter what they call me, but I can understand it. Lieutenant doesn't mean anything here."

Volskiar wished he could have been there to witness the paradigm shift as Ruvin sat uneasily, looking at a woman who had smoothly gone from junior to superior in his concept of chain of command, but Yar broke the tension.

She withdrew from the verbal battle, folding unnecessarily, and said in mollification, "But strictly speaking, you're right. I'm not an officer anymore and boredom doesn't excuse disrupting your combat training." Her expression had been flat and impartial, but her voice clipped with formality, her entire attitude diametrically opposed to her words. She was stiff and formal as the officer she claimed she wasn't.

Zeril smiled, a bit smugly, and opened her mouth to say something that was cut off by Ruvin.

"Enarrain Yar," he said, as if preparing to asking her a question. All eyes were on Ruvin then, but he seemed to realize that there was no honor in taking a victory that was handed to him without struggle. He could have laughed, agreed with her, pressed home that biting truth to pacify Zeril, but everyone would have known Yar was exposing her neck to the blade.

Zeril rounded on him, "She is not-"

"She commanded many more junior officers than you, Enarrain," he said in polite deference, "but it is a mere courtesy of address, for our convenience. Is that an unreasonable compromise?"

Accurately gauging the mood of the squadron, and the others nearby who had joined in the audience, Zeril ground her teeth. Her authority easily trumped Ruvin's, and she had never been schooled in diplomacy, but she was no fool. "It is reasonable."

He smiled in satisfaction, because now his curiosity could be met. "Enarrain Yar," he repeated. "It would please me to learn more of your ways." He stood, holding out an arm toward his squadron. "To hear the enriov speak, you might have bested his ships if you had more than one of your own. If provided a team, could a fleet officer best my men in combat training?"

Yar bit the tip of her tongue, and stared at him in disbelief. "Depends. Can they follow orders?"

He put a hand to his chest, as if wounded. "I would not assign you belligerents. There are many uhlans in this compound who would volunteer for the sport, alone. What do you say?"

Yar had smiled in that sly way and agreed.

Now there they were down below, weeks later. Yar and Ruvin were in a friendly discussion, probably about the exact points of error, where each had misjudged the other's tactics. She punched Ruvin on the shoulder, laughing and he held out his hands gesturing. He might have thought them old friends.

It was time to leave, so he turned his back on the incongruous scene, walking down a hall, to a central lift, then out into the the compound itself. He was passing through a field training area, when he lucked upon the confrontation. Volskiar stopped, ducking back behind an artificial course obstacle, as curious as the assembled soldiers.

Zeril was taunting Yar, attempting to spur a defensive response from her, for the watching platoon's entertainment. There wasn't anything overly hostile in her attack, but actions reflected a common point of dissent. While many of the troops were comfortable using Yar's adopted rank, other remained ill at ease. She was officially their general's consort, but she was also undeniably a prisoner and a Human from the hated Federation.

Zeril stepped between Yar and Ruvin, grinning. "Be careful. We will all think you are consorts."

"If you're all idiots," said Yar, veering away, shaking her head, "because I'm pretty sure I don't get a say in the matter."

"I am more of a consort to the enriov, than you are." Zeril badgered, backing to keep pace with Yar, who attempted to circle around her.

"Hey, where I come from, 'consorting' means spending time with someone. What he chooses to do with it is his business."

"Are you an idiot?"

"Nah." Yar kept her head down, her expression patient, though she kept at a steady angle to keep Zeril in her peripheral vision. "Hey, if you like him so much, have a go at it."

Zeril turned to parallel her, clasping her hands behind her back. "Then you must be an idiot, because that would not be in your best interest," she leaned in close to whisper something with a curled, thin smile.

Yar snapped around to face her, then held back, relaxing her shoulders and turning away again. "Whatever."

Zeril glanced over at her assembled unit as if to remark on what a coward she was. "I have met Vulcans with more fighting spirit than you." To prove her point, she casually grabbed Yar's elbow, perhaps expecting the woman to merely come to an obedient stop.

Yar crouched down, sweeping her hands along the ground as if picking a flower, rising again, arms out. Volskiar enjoyed watching Zeril spontaneously fall over herself, taken off balance quite unexpectedly, landing unceremoniously in the dirt. For all the world, it appeared as if she had lost her footing and fallen on her rear.

Yar took a few steps back, straightening her sleeve, appeared quite surprised. "Are you okay?"

Zeril didn't hesitate to recoup lost face and launched straight into a direct attack, which resulted in the most amusing fight Volskiar had ever witnessed. Zeril would strike, with a fist, foot, elbow or knee and Yar would dance around in circles, occasionally knocking Zeril down, or pushing her away. She made no offensive strike of her own, though no one watching could miss her pauses when she allowed an opening to pass.

When Zeril broke off, Yar waited, arms hanging loosely. Aside from disheveled hair, which comically resembled the erect crest of a bird, and a bruise forming on her jaw where Zeril had clipped her with a kick, she was unharmed. "You done?"

Zeril pulled free her short sword. Seeing this, one of the soldiers hastily removed his own, throwing it to Yar's feet. She looked down at it, then nudged it back in his direction with her foot, resuming her earlier open palmed stance.

"You cannot use it?" Zeril lunged forward. "Your problem."

Volskiar knew for a fact that Yar could use a wide array of bladed weapons and was pleased to see her stop toying with Zeril. The blade grazed her cheek, a strike she accepted for it allowed her to attain a joint locking grip on Zeril's arm. Rather than throw outward as she had been doing, she spiraled inward, in a quick flurry of movement, Zeril's feet in the air. They all heard the pop and the splinter of a joint twisted beyond its natural range of motion. Mid-throw, she snapped a harsh punch to her face, one he recognized from wing chun practice, and Zeril landed heavily. Yar's hand was wrapped around Zeril's wrist, and she removed the blade from her slack grip.

Zeril clutched at her arm, the torn elbow and dislocated shoulder, curled on her side and moaned. Meanwhile, Yar studied the short sword, tested its heft, whirled it experimentally and tossed it over her shoulder. It landed tip in the dirt, harmlessly. She scanned the ground in her general vicinity, spotting her target after a few passes, and crouched down to pick up something small.

She went back to Zeril, knelt on one knee, took the woman's good hand and placed something in her palm. She squeezed her hand shut for her. "Here're your teeth, bitch."

There was a moment of absolute silence from the gathered soldiers, followed by a hushed exchange as those who had been closest and seen what happened, explained to the rest. Soon, there was a ripple of laughter through the group. Hearing it, Yar straightened her uniform, wiped back her hair and looked straight at him.

Ah, she had known he was watching. Perhaps Zeril had, as well. He stepped out from hiding, in polite acknowledgment and the laughter died off as everyone waited for his response. They fidgeted, for brawling was not permitted while on duty. Though none of them had actively participated, none had attempted to stop the fight, either.

Strictly speaking, he ought to penalize Yar, but she was not one of his soldiers, and there was a question of status that required resolution. He allowed a smile to break free and walked over to the group. Zeril was holding her arm tightly, face pale, sweat beading on her forehead as she clambered to her feet.

"Sir," she braved.

"You know the penalty for brawling." He nodded benevolently. "You may see to your injuries, first."

Zeril looked at her feet, accepting the demerit, ignoring the audience, then departed for the medical facility.

Yar winced. "I shouldn't have lost my temper."

"Everyone witnessed her provocation," he dismissed mildly. "Come, walk with me."

Raising her eyebrows, she did not mistake his meaning, falling in step beside him. "Maybe you should warn me about your exes. After all, around here they have guns, knives, poison...."

"Exes?" He repeated quizzically.

"Ex-girlfriends, former lovers," she clarified.

"Rank has its privileges, but it also comes with limitations. It would be unseemly for me to consort with a mere enarrain." He saw Yar open her mouth to retort and added hastily, "Within my chain of command."

"So promote her," Yar suggested in a very serious tone.

He led them back inside. In such a situation, everyone would know he was promoting a woman for his own benefit. "I would prefer to surround myself with capable commanders. If Zeril demonstrates merit, Echael will submit a recommendation. As it stands, she may be demoted for disorderly conduct."

Yar smirked. "Not like she's going to allow the competition, huh?"

Volskiar weighed the merit of continuing the charade that he was involved with Echael versus admitting it was a sham meant to confound Yar. "We are not consorts."

"Yeah, I didn't think you were. Sorry to ruin Plan B, C, D or whatever you're on by this point." Yar circled around to face him, mid-step, without pausing in her motion forward. "Been out to the barracks. She has a cute kid and a husband to go along with it, an engineer who works out in the shuttle bay. Nice family. Completely ruins her tough guy security chief image."

He stopped in the hallway, clasping his hands behind his back. "Are you also aware that it is not in your best interest for me to take another consort?"

Yar didn't quite frown, but her back stiffened and her eyes slid away from his face. "Yep, Zeril mentioned it, in case I forgot. Have we walked together far enough to satisfy protocol?"

He cracked his knuckles, shunting back a surge of anger. He would not be a laughingstock who brawled with a particularly obstinate prisoner. "I appreciate your willingness to defend your status."

Her lip curled. "Save it. I was trying to walk away from it."

"Then I look forward to the next morning, for you have defeated the platoon's commander in fair duel."

Yar didn't understand at first, then appeared horrified. "It was personal. Besides," she wiped away her uncertainty, "I'm an off-worlder. They're not going to start calling me 'sir'."

"An off-worlder who demonstrated merit. We shall see, yes? Perhaps you will be wearing that sash off the field, in the future."

She shook her head and she was probably right. Regardless of merit, it was highly unlikely she would truly be absorbed into their unit. She was not Rihannsu. It was as simple as that and a bit unfortunate, for Volskiar found that the blue rank sash highlighted her eyes. He rubbed his fingers together, then shook off his ruminations.

He jerked his chin. "Walk with me further." He heard her fall in step without surly delay or complaint, but he could see the muscle clenched in her jaw. "Zeril has pursued me since my wife's murder and I do not trust her motives. I have great power and... there are inevitable consequences."

"The wife everyone says you poisoned?"

He sucked in his breath, raising a hand, stopping at Yar's limpid observation and refusal to dodge. "She was poisoned. She was dissatisfied with me, I knew, but I did not murder her. I would have released her to her lover," he lowered his hand before she could see how it trembled, "and killed them both, together."

Yar made a face, her lips compressed. "Nice."

"Adultery is not permitted."

"So if I told you I was married you'd let me go?"

"Are you?"

"No."

She had a most disarming honesty, but then again, she was intelligent enough to realize that if she invented a spouse, he would ply her with questions until she contradicted herself, revealing the deceit. In general, her strategy was to withhold crucial information if pressed for the truth. He was relieved to discover he would not need to overcome pre-existing emotional attachments on her part, nor suffer any guilt at having broken any. "Good."

"Good for you," she said with hostility.

"That is not what I was telling you."

She made a rude noise. "I understood you, I just don't give a shit about your sob story." She held her arms out. "Maybe if you weren't such an asshole, you wouldn't have that problem." She exhaled in a suppressed burst of anger. "And I wouldn't have to be here."

"No, you would be dead."

"May as well be," she said without any true heat.

He bit his tongue to prevent listing all the ways he indulged her preferences and whims, whether it was providing her with private quarters, freedom of movement, entertainment, association with personnel, or the right to refuse him. Those were the privileges of a consort, not a prisoner. Nor would he waste his breath explaining that his wife had almost certainly intended to confess her affair to him, prompting her lover to take action. As for that lover.... He took a deep breath, putting aside the memory. "You are irritable today."

She chuckled. "I get like that, every month or so."

He tried to guess why her moods would shift arbitrarily with the month, but could come to no reason. "Why?"

He hadn't yet seen her react the way she did. First, she stared at him, with her lips parted in some aborted answer, then ducked, face beaming in enormous amusement. Then she pointed at him, and said through the broadest grin imaginable, "I look forward to grossing you out when my contraceptives wear off."

"Why would I be disgusted?" he asked, more than a bit wary of her open delight.

"Let's just say my species didn't evolve to conserve water like yours did." She ducked again, before pivoting around. "I'm going to the records room for some quality reading. Bye."

He blinked, uncertain what to make of her shift in mood. "Attend your wounds, first." When she looked over her shoulder blankly, he held two fingers to his own cheek. What in the name of the Elements did she mean? He made a mental note to research Human fertility cycles.

Yar rolled her eyes and held up a hand. "I think I'll wait until Zeril gets out of there."


(7)

2345

"I will speak to Lieutenant Yar," announced Enarrain Lethren, two subordinate ereins standing behind him, in a matching beige tunics.

Volskiar bowed stiffly to the Tal Shiar officers. "Of course. This facility is at your service."

"Excellent. I will require the use of an interrogation room and, naturally, discretion on the part of your staff."

So Volskiar nodded, keeping his hand steady as he tapped a communication unit to life and instructed khre'Arrain Echael to escort their guest to Interrogation Room number three, and cordon the sector. He sat back down at his desk, restless, unable to keep still and resorted to a breathing exercise. It was never pleasant to submit to the intelligence department and its ruthless, single-minded intention. They had the uncanny habit of rooting out dissenters and spies where none existed, unfortunate soldiers or fleetmen who merely spoke the wrong words at the wrong time.

Volskiar occupied himself by completing the current queue of documentation, meeting with Riov Soronar to review personal performance records, observing drill practice lead by Enarrain Zeril and eating evening meal with his commanding officers. His appetite was poor and toward evening, he contacted Doctor Aranar and requested he remain available for duty, if necessary.

The gaunt old physician, a veteran of many battlefields nodded slowly, without comment, gesturing at two junior medics who attended him. He spoke quietly to them and they both looked at Volskiar, in turn, uneasily.

Volskiar went to the library and waited until erei'Arrain Ruvin came pounding on the door.

"Sir, they are finished," the young man sounded out of breath.

"Summon Doctor Aranar."

"It is already done. He awaits you."

Volskiar followed Ruvin, keeping an even pace to conceal the need for haste. He arrived in time to meet Enarrain Lethren passing on the way out, his aids trailing after him. Both were tidy the point of immaculate and a cursory study revealed no signs of blood. That meant little and he returned the Tal Shiar officers' salute, out of habit.

Lethren stopped, facing him squarely. "Lieutenant Yar is remanded into your custody, which will be overseen by Erein Saket. She is of no value to the Empire." His lips twisted into what might have been a smirk. "You may do with her as you please."

Volskiar experienced a sudden urge to backhand the man, followed by indecision. If she was of no value, he was expected to let her die and dispose of the body. It was equally obvious that Lethren expected he would not do what was proper. Moreover, if he did not, Yar would become a point of leverage that could be used against him at the Tal Shiar's leisure.

He said, tightly, "I appreciate your generosity."

Lethren raised his chin, met his eyes, and departed with a rote, "Glory to the Empire, Enriov."

Volskiar did not wait for him to turn the corner, but went straight to Interrogation Room number three, conscious of Saket trailing after him like a ghost. He found Doctor Aranar crouched over Yar. She was curled loosely on her side, in a pool of blood. It stained her tunic and he could not identify the source, at first.

Aranar was directing his medics, who prepared a stretcher, while he monitored her vital signs. Catching Volskiar in his peripheral vision, he said without breaking focus, "She is alive but has suffered contusions, internal injuries and... ruptured ear drums." He stood, with a cold but speculative expression that bounced between Volskiar and Saket. "Do we treat her?"

He found himself at a loss for words. Lethren had made his preference clear, Saket would report everything he witnessed, and it seemed Aranar had overheard. He drew himself straight. "It pleases me to keep her alive."

Aranar raised a bushy, gray eyebrow. "Out of my way, then. I may not be able to replace lost or poisoned blood."

Volskiar scrambled out of his way, and watched the medics leave. Aranar and his medics were trained for combat medicine, specializing in treating minor injuries or alleviating pain until a soldier was returned to base camp. A critically wounded soldier, regardless of his or her rank, was expected to die with dignity rather than squander resources. It was not that complex, refined life-saving procedures didn't exist, but they were reserved for the wealthy and elite who were judged to deserve such luxuries. Aranar's medical ward was not one of those privately funded, advanced facilities and he had no experience treating aliens. Few doctors on ch'Rihan did.

When they were gone, Volskiar walked over to the central table. The chair on one side was neatly positioned. The other lay on its side, red blood creeping along the frame. He picked it up, needing something to do, even though erei'Riov Dekesh, alerted by Echael, had probably already dispatched a duty crew to clean the room. Saket was watching him.

"Erei'Arrain Ruvin will direct you to the quartermaster."

The Tal Shiar officer saluted and left him. Volskiar looked at his hand. There was red blood on his fingers from the chair. The color was wrong, but it felt the same, viscous, drying into a ruddy film. He gauged the amount on the floor and hoped Aranar would not need to make potentially fatal genetic guesses to synthesize replacement plasma.

He found Echael in the security monitor station, hunched down in the chair, looking at the monitors through steepled fingers. Her lips were in a thin line and she didn't move but for a flicker of her eyes to his face, then away again. On the monitors, he could see all six interrogation rooms, the communal rooms, Yar's quarters and the Medical Ward. When he remained standing, watching that monitor, Echael stood, turning the seat vaguely in his direction.

He sat and she backed away two steps. "You may leave," he told her, settling in to watch.

He expected to see recrimination in Yar's eyes, when he went to visit her the next evening, but there was only fatigue. She lay still but attentive, the bluish gray pallor lifting from her skin as her red blood cell count gradually climbed. Aranar felt it best to allow her immune system to do the necessary work rather than tamper in ignorance.

"So, I'm not dead," she said by way of greeting.

"You almost were. Our facilities are not equipped to treat patients with iron based blood types."

"Yeah, doctor filled me in. What happened?"

"You were interrogated," he answered, blankly.

"I remember that part. I mean, afterward, when I was unconscious."

"You did not satisfy Lethren's curiosity and he seems to believe you cannot. You have been declared of no value to the Empire and remanded into my custody."

"Weird."

"What is?"

"It may surprise you to learn this, but I know what declaring a person 'of no value' means in your culture." She folded her hand in the top edge of the blanket, where it lay over her chest. "It probably would have been the smart thing to do."

He ignored her self-depreciating implication that he ought to have let her die. "You seem to know a great many odd details about my people."

She averted her eyes. "I didn't tell him and I'm not going to tell you."

"I did not expect you would, but your knowledge is curious. Nevertheless, I would not torture you for such information."

"And that's weird, too. You guys are smart. You must know torture isn't a reliable method of gathering information and I can still speak in complete sentences and feed myself." She rested for a few breaths. "Which means he wasn't really torturing me for information."

Volskiar tried to hide his wince. There was a distinct inconvenience to sparring with someone who specialized in tactical methods.

"Did someone not give the Tal Shiar first dibs on the prisoners like he was supposed to?"

He ducked his gaze. "They do not command the army."

She grunted, noncommittally.

"You would have all died, or disappeared." And he would have been left with nothing to show for his victory over the Klingons.

"For all I know-"

"Do not insult my honor!" He caught himself, struggling against an entire day of gnawing tension. "Your crew were escorted to the Out... the Neutral Zone and discreetly remanded into the custody of Starfleet Intelligence. They are unharmed."

"Discreetly," she repeated woodenly, not quite asking.

"Neither empire wants an unnecessary war," he explained, softly. The massacre known as the Tomed Incident was remained fresh in the Federation's memory, and neither side wished to be responsible for violating the Treaty of Algeron. A Starfleet vessel responding to a distress call, a tragic accident of crossfire between rival factions, was unfortunate but such things happened. No hostile intention was meant by the Star Empire toward the Federation. Such a tactful, forgiving accord would be impossible if the general public learned that the Romulans had taken Starfleet prisoners, for hostages were no accident.

She sighed. "At which point, you guys found out that I don't exist in any current Starfleet record and, quite naturally, didn't believe it."

"You must admit, it is suspicious."

She didn't say anything.

He gave in to the urge to sit on the edge of her bunk, folding his hands in his lap. "It is likely they expect you to divulge the information to me, over time." He left off that the Tal Shiar would also hold his responsible for failure. Yar was smart enough to figure that out. "I could not prevent what happened."

"I know." She nudged his hip, jabbing weakly with her fist. "Thanks for dinner. I won't ask how you got ahold of the replicator code."

"It smelled revolting."

"Hey, I never said you had to like pizza."


(8)

2345

Volskiar was startled awake by his door chime, followed by Echael's voice through the speaker.

"Sir, Yar has escaped again. Do we pursue?"

He rolled to his feet, groggy but knowing the khre'Arrain required an answer or else she would resort to sounding the base alarm. There was no need for such theatrics. "I will take care of this. Attend me with two uhlans." He scratched a hand through his hair in exasperation, but was satisfied by his forethought, even if his permissive stance with what had become their 'honorable guest' resulted in such inconveniences. While Yar had free reign over the training compound, she was not permitted outside its walls without an armed guard and explicit permission.

They found her at a nearby tavern, frequented by the troops who barracked in the compound. They had no difficulty locating Yar because the proprietor sent a politely vague message that a prisoner of interest might be located at his establishment, and if a party could be sent to escort her back to the infantry training compound, public fuss could be avoided. Volskiar appreciated the consideration demonstrated toward his reputation.

It wasn't far, nor was it crowded at the late hour. More fortunately, military personal were a common sight and so his entrance, even with an escort, drew little attention. Yar had ensconced herself at a small corner table, her feet propped up on the table, as she watched a musician. She was nursing a brandy that served as testament to her tenacity when pursuing an objective as the proprietor would have resisted serving her.

Volskiar gestured to Echael and the two guards. They took the long way around while he went directly to Yar's table and took leave to sit beside her.

She smiled broadly at him, from beneath the brim of her dock hat, checked her time piece and said, "Took you long enough. I was getting bored." She waved a hand at the stage. "Your music is crap."

He laced his hands across his stomach, leaning back against the wall. "You are not permitted to travel without an escort. It is not safe."

"Then get me a fucking leash," she snapped, then yawned, mitigating the display of temper. She rested her chin on her hand, pointing at him. "Or would that turn you on? Hey, I know, you could train me to follow commands." She laughed to herself, wagging the finger at him. "But you claim that doesn't do it for you."

Volskiar wondered how much she'd had to drink.

Echael and the two guards reached the table. She said quietly to him, "They are not here, yet."

He nodded once, privately relieved.

Yar made a face at the group and protested, "Aw, you brought company. Let me guess, he'll hold me down, he'll hit me a few times and she'll... um, hm." She raised her glass in a mock toast. "She'll watch because that's what she always does."

Echael stared at Yar, then asked him, "Should we stun her?"

"Way to be boring," sneered Yar. "I got a better idea. How about you let me keep drinking until I pass out? Or is that too much of a personal freedom for you to handle?"

"I like her better when she is sober."

"Fuck off, bitch. Or, hey, why don't you just go fuck him and save me the trouble?"

Echael reached for her disruptor and Volskiar stayed her hand. "She is no threat."

"Watch me," growled Yar, attempting to rise but succeeding in falling off her stool.

Echael picked her up and she wrenched her arm free, ungracefully.

"Get your fucking hands off me." She kicked him sharply on the knee, without provocation, almost losing her balance again. As abruptly as her temper flared, it settled again and she crossed her arms on the table, resting on them.

Volskiar ground his teeth, imagining the satisfaction of hauling her away from the table by the scruff of her neck, cracking her skull against the wall a few times, and letting the guards carry her back to the compound. Surely that plan would backfire, so he compromised on giving the attending soldiers a stern glare of warning should they wish to recount her behavior toward him. "Yar, I will warn you once; when you escape, Lethren follows."

She turned her head to face him, then looked away, hunching in on herself.

He removed the tracking device from a pouch, and set it on the table. "And you cannot evade me."

Reaching out, she rolled the tracker over with a finger, examining it in interest. She didn't bother asking what it was, though he saw the muscle of her jaw work, before she ground out, "Where?"

He smiled. "You will need surgery to remove it."

"A leash," she muttered sulkily. "I'll be sure to thank Aranar."

"Yes, now cease being... difficult. It is late, I am tired, and they will be here soon."

"Heel, girl," she answered, growing mulish again. "Difficult? I'll show you difficult."

Echael, who had remained at a closer distance than the guards suggested, "Sir, it would be best if I stunned her. She seems to be uncooperative."

Yar curled her lip, sneering openly at her. "Is that what you call it? 'Uncooperative?' You ever been raped?"

Echael jerked. "I have managed to avoid it, but that is not what I was implying."

"Oh." Yar raised her glass in another toast, finishing her brandy. "Good for you. I don't recommend the experience. Real lousy. Like him."

Self-control faltering, Echael burst into laughter. "Then your experience with him is limited and somewhat... skewed."

"Uh, no, I'm pretty sure that if it hurts, you're doing it wrong." Yar sniffed, then added, "Old aikido saying."

"I did not hurt you."

She held up a finger, looking confused. "My mistake." She waved that hand in a circle. "It runs together and," she quirked an eyebrow, "to be fair, my memory's a bit fuzzy."

He almost asked what she meant by that vague statement, but a quick glance at Echael gave him a clue. Her expression was a mixture of sympathetic pain, that she schooled into impassive disinterest as soon as she noticed he was watching.

"Oh, no, you've got that look on your face," Yar interrupted. "You're not going to start feeling sorry for me, are you? Because you're creepy enough with the nice guy routine."

He heard Echael muffle what could only have been more laughter. He had a well established, oft repeated and dutifully cultivated reputation for arrogance, destructive violence, a mercurial temper and pompously banal speeches. As a senior military leader, it was expected of him. No one would respect or follow a mealy-mouthed, shy, demure, kind or forgiving man. Which was not to say he possessed any of those qualities, but effective strategy usually required a subtle hand. Nevertheless, he had caught Echael concealing a smile more than a few times, while observing a choreographed tirade. "I am not sympathetic toward boorish drunks."

"You ain't seen nothing, yet."

"Fascinating. You did not behave thus the last time you were inebriated."

"Oh." She trained that finger on his nose. "That." Speaking very slowly, as if to an imbecile, she said, "I was in shock."

"You were startled?"

"No. Shock. A temporary neurological imbalance caused by," she drew back, her tone of voice becoming rote as she recited, "an extreme or series of traumatic events, resulting in a protracted fear response, impaired judgment, dissociation, lethargic response, lasting anywhere from several minutes to several days." She put a hand to her chest, proudly. "Hah. Not that drunk."

"I was not aware that you were impaired."

"Yeah-huh. Bet you just figured I was being, oh, what's the word we're using.... Oh yeah, cooperative." she raised her empty glass in a mock toast, "Smooth move, Romeo."

Privately, Volskiar thought the condition sounded like a rharit, so petrified with fear that it remained shaking in place so that a predator might devour it. If that were true, it was a wonder that the Human dominated Federation had lasted so long. It did explain why she went from being unusually passive and agreeable to bristling like an ill-tempered kharakh at his slightest approach. It also meant he had inadvertently taken advantage of a woman who was not of sound mind. He reminded himself that he'd had no way of knowing that Humans experienced such mental imbalances, and she had approached him with the bargain. Mostly, he found it odd that a tactical officer would be so easy 'shocked', even if the majority of her crew had died at Narendra III. Then again, one of them had died in the cell block, in front of her.

He nodded, wondering if 'romeo' was some slang term equivalent to 'clod', but asked instead, "The man Castillo, that my guard killed accidentally, he was your consort?"

Yar went quiet, then blew a puff of air between her lips. "Only knew him for a day." She slumped back down, laying her head on her arms. "But he was the last person I knew," she added quietly, closing her eyes.

He glanced surreptitiously to check that the two guards were out of earshot. He leaned forward, putting his hands on the table. "I am sympathetic to your loss, but the past cannot be changed. This is not a dignified way to honor the memory of your fallen comrades."

"Oh, fuck off!" Yar snapped at him, springing up from rest. "Like you would know anything about it. You don't have any friends. What's wrong, lord general sir, the subject matter making you uncomfortable?" She smiled unpleasantly. "You wanna know uncomfortable? Trying being on a away team captured by a Klingon advance party. The men got honorable deaths." She put a hand to her chest again, feigning appalled wonder, "but us? Well you know them, they don't put women in charge of anything." She fell silent, looking at her hands. "Then those arrogant shits left us unguarded'." She chuckled at a joke only she knew, about things that ran together.

Volskiar catalogued the new information swiftly, piecing it together with the few details they had about Lieutenant Yar, ranging from her unusual uniform design, the advanced technology of her communication unit and phaser, her surprising familiarities with Rihannsu custom, considering that the Romulan Star Empire had maintained social isolation from the United Federation of Planets since the Treaty of Algeron, to this. Isolation or not, it was well known that the Federation and the Klingon Empire were allies. This story, an unguarded drunken truth, was yet another anomaly.

Yet, it was one that fit with a newly revealed fact. He had sought the reason for Lethren's unannounced visit and found it. Rihannsu scientists had been investigating and analyzing the brief disappearance of the Enterprise-C during the battle at Narendra III. At the time, it had been considered a trivial event, but they determined that the spatial anomaly had been temporal in nature. They theorized that the ship had shifted out of the timestream to another point, for an indeterminate period. If that were so, there might be a simple reason why everything about Yar was outside of normal, expected specifications. While this discovery was limited to High Command and upper ranking officers, the Tal Shiar doubtless knew. If Volskiar could come to this improbable but not impossible conclusion, than so had Lethren.

If she were from another time, and judging from the advanced technology she carried, a future one, it would explain a great deal, beginning with Starfleet's insistence that there was no Lieutenant Natasha Yar in their registry. It would explain this war she described that did not exist. It might explain her odd, if spotty, familiarity with his people's customs. It would explain her failure to go anywhere when she escaped the compound, for if she were truly displaced, then she had nowhere to go. Or it could be his own desperate theory invented to tidily categorize a most confusing woman.

Yar had quieted and Echael was no longer amused, so he permitted himself to say something gentler than he had intended moments ago. "All soldiers face the imminent threat of the same indignities, Lieutenant. Do not presume to know what I have and have not experienced, and I will offer you the same courtesy."

In her witless inebriation, Yar frowned in perplexity. She probably could not catch the inflections, understand the inference, and probably wouldn't remember this conversation tomorrow morning. Perhaps she would discern his meaning on a subconscious level. Echael understood readily enough, and he pointedly ignored her questioning look. It was none of her affair and he preferred not to revisit his memories of being an uhlan, under the command of a foolhardy centurion, on the tangled Klingon front. At least they could agree upon a common enemy.

Yar gave up. "Shit happens? It's war, Einstein. But you know what's really screwed up? I spent four years shoving a torpedo up those fucker's collective ass and the one time I decide to do the right thing, the great moral heroic thing," she sliced a hand in his direction, and gestured around the room, "this happens. It's not supposed to be like this."

Echael ran out of patience. "Your situation is hardly untenable," she snapped.

"Oh, shut up you hypocritical bitch. You'd tie me up if he ordered you to, you damn fucking barbarians. Can't understand how women even serve in your army. Sort of, I dunno, masochistic." Yar examined Echael as if she were a specimen sample, an odd mutated creature or particularly grisly accident.

Echael raised her head, curling a lip in offended disgust. "A man who attacked a fellow soldier would find himself dragged from his bed in the dead of night and buried like a worm, in so many pieces."

Yar made a moue asking incredulously, "Oh?"

"Honor would be served."

Yar looked at him and he shrugged lightly. It was justice.

"Shit." She bent over grinning, covering her face. "You know, we did the same thing back in the gangs. We caught one of those fuckers out on his own," she sliced a hand through the air, "he was roadkill." She was laughing to herself while raising her glass in toast to Echael.

"In Starfleet?" he asked doubtfully.

"Hell, no!" Yar was still laughing. "Back on Turkana, when I was a kid." Without missing a beat, she swung back on Echael, "Murder him in his sleep, huh? Damn straight."

Volskiar shifted uncomfortably while Echael looked at Yar in bemusement. What he had done was a far cry from his soldiers, in their battle glory and bloodlust, might have done to anyone they found attractive, unarmed, locked in the brig when they thought no one was attending. The fact was, that if his officers thought ill of him, if they considered his actions dishonorable, he could very well find Echael's knife in his back with everyone looking the other way. He made a fist, cracking his knuckles in the process. The fact was, he had made and continued to make considerable effort not to hurt Yar, which was a challenge when dealing with a significantly weaker and easier to injure Human.

"What?" asked Yar unpleasantly. "You got something to say to me, lord general sir?"

"Alcohol disagrees with you."

"You disagree with me."

He found himself, unintentionally, smiling at some more pleasant memories. "Perhaps you might wish I did, but your body has a different opinion, yes?"

Yar froze and because she was inebriated, when her eyes dilated like that of ra'tar about to pounce and her nostrils flared, he had the satisfaction of knowing she wouldn't restrain her anger for a change. He stood in time to catch the stool she flung in his direction, the wooden rungs smarting in his hands as he threw it to one side and Echael dodged reproachfully.

He grabbed the khre'Arrain's hand when she swung around her phase disruptor. "That will not be necessary."

"Sir, she assaulted you."

He grinned, more cheerful than he ought to feel under the circumstances. "She assaults me every day, with my blessing."

Yar stood with her shoulders hunched, breathing hard, looking around for another weapon but finding nothing convenient. Close by, having witnessed the altercation, the two uhlans both pointed rifles at her and she snarled in anger, grumbled something under her breath. She had nowhere to sit, now and remained where she was, radiating hostility.

Volskiar leaned forward, took her empty liquor glass, and pulled it over to his side of table. He slid over on his wall bench and patted the seat beside him. "Sit down."

"I'll stand, thanks."

"I insist."

Yar balked.

Echael checked with him, then holstered her pistol. Averting her gaze a bit sheepishly, she reached for the standard issue stun baton. "Please, sit."

"You try to hit me with that thing and I'll break your fucking arm."

"I believe you, but are the consequences worth breaking my arm over such a meager request?"

Yar's stance eased and her drunken shake became more obvious. Her anger faded into vague defeat, though distaste was plain her eyes, and she sat beside him. She eyed her empty glass, mournfully, but he wasn't about to acquire more for her. He heard Echael sigh in relief, hanging the baton back on her belt, returning to rest. This close to her, the smell of alcohol was overwhelming. He wondered if she had drunk a great deal or if she drank rarely and was therefore highly susceptible. In his experience, it was the latter, for a couple glasses of wine had been enough to deaden her senses. He put aside the memory. Expedience wasn't a flattering testament.

He watched Yar to his side, but she ignored him, resting her forehead on a loosely curled hand, fallen silent. The longer he could encourage her to talk, the more he would learn about her strange past that did not meet his assumptions, in the least. Her accouterments were legitimately Starfleet. She was from the United Federation of Planets with its relentless model of social engineering, benevolent economy and personal freedoms. Yet, she spoke of running with what sounded like a lawless street gang in her youth, fighting and untenable war with the Klingon Empire, enduring the life of a soldier more than one of those brightly colored, soft officers. Perhaps she wasn't drunk at all and this was a ruse of misinformation and the temporal disturbance had been a curious coincidence. Nevertheless, he drifted back to wondering what was going to cause that disastrous war, if she would tell him.

She swayed and almost fell off the bench. He grabbed her by the shoulder and she slapped at his hand, blearily. "G'off me."

There was a commotion at the door and one of Echael's guards came scuttling to the table. "They are here."

Volskiar nodded at Echael and she perfunctorily stunned Yar with a swift club to her head. Without need for additional orders, the guards hauled her up and followed Echael out the back way, leaving Volskiar to confront Enarrain Lethren. Fortunately, this consisted of waving at the man in cheery departure and the only obstacle proved to be the business owner who claimed Yar had assured him that Volskiar would pay her bill. He did so hastily, with such open hostility that the owner was backing away before he finished taking the chain of cash.

Lethren followed him to the back alley, with an expression of thinly concealed, aggravated dismay, but stopped in the doorway. He looked over his shoulder at whomever was following him, probably Saket, shook his head curtly, and turned back inside.

Volskiar joined Echael, who had hung behind, dividing her attention between him and her soldiers. "He's turned tail," he said to her, in case she had missed the brief confrontation.

She nodded and kept pace with him, as they caught up with their transport. "Sir, has the Federation gone to war with the Klingons?"

"No."

Echael puzzled over this, holding the door for him. "She spoke as if they were."

"Yes."

"Is she delusional?"

"I do not believe she is," he met her eyes, "nor does Lethren."

She continued frowning pensively, piecing together that puzzle, but knowing better than to ask further. "It seems to me that she is a dangerous captive."

Mulling over his silly theory, Volskiar agreed, but said, "No, she is an unconscious drunk. Delay Lethren if he follows." He considered briefly, then decided, "Indeed, I tire of interrupted sleep. You are hereby tasked with the duty of ensuring Yar's safety." He handed her the tracking device, which she accepted in resignation.


(9)

2345

It took Volskiar several hours upon his return from the Pirek moon base to realize he hadn't spotted Yar in any of her usual locations, either lurking about the hallways, her quarters, the library or the training field. He had assumed she was with Zeril's platoon, assisting with training exercises, but when passing through the meeting halls, he saw erei'Riov Dekesh speaking earnestly with his senior centurions within the training operations company, which included Zeril. Spotting him in the hall, Dekesh almost broke off the meeting before Volskiar waved in quick dismissal. So he went to the security monitor station to ask whatever uhlan was on duty to find the damned woman.

The guard on duty bounced up to her feet, too new a recruit not to be nervous in his presence, and saluted awkwardly. "Sir?"

"Find Lieutenant Yar," he ordered mildly, suspecting he was looking at the reason why she was missing. He took a calming breath. All uhlans began somewhere and all of them made basic mistakes. This was, after all, a training compound. The real question was why he could never find the Human woman.

"She has been placed in a holding cell, sir."

"A holding cell?"

"Yes, sir, for three days now."

He raised his eyebrows and the uhlan swallowed nervously. "Khre'Arrain Echael apprehended the lieutenant in a shuttle out on the airstrip. She was attempting to escape and your standing orders, according to Riov Soronar, are to restrain her until you should return."

He nodded, dismissing her back to her post and headed straight for the holding facilities. As the compound was not a prison, the facility was composed of a small cluster of twelve cells in addition to the interrogation rooms nearby. The bored erein standing guard snapped to attention upon sighting Volskiar, saluting automatically.

"Which cell."

"One."

He took the left and went to the end of the narrow hall, so designed to limit a prisoner's potential attacks on restraining guards. Through the clearsteel, he could see Yar stretched out on the unadorned metal bunk, hands propped under her head, one leg bent at the knee. She could have been asleep, except that her eyes were open.

He tapped on the window.

She tipped her head just far enough to the side to see him, then rolled it back to resume her vacant study of the ceiling.

He almost rapped his fist against the window but thumped it against his thigh, instead. A closer look revealed a discolored area around her temple where she must have been struck by a blunt instrument, then left untreated. Echael must have been furious to do such a thing in violation of his orders to keep her from harm.

He called out to the guard, "Open the door."

The erein had enough experience not to question the order, and after several footsteps, Volskiar heard the quiet tapping of fingers on a console. Then there was the barely audible silencing of a force field before the lock opened with a clank and the door hissed open.

"Out," he said.

Yar slid off the bunk and followed where he pointed, sullenly mute.

He didn't ask her if she'd been trying to escape because Echael was smart enough to know the difference between a half-hearted wander and a genuine attempt. He waved a hand at her and she fell in step as he lead them to Echael's office. The uhlan at the security monitor station had probably alerted her by now. He didn't need to tap the door chime, because it opened as they approached.

Echael stood from her seat as they entered the room, saluted him briefly, then sat back down. She gave Yar a truly evil look and Yar sneered right back at her.

He had definitely missed something. "Report."

"She used the signal interference generated by a landing scout ship to mask her transmitter, to gain entry into a prepped shuttle."

"I didn't have any fucking launch codes."

"Be silent!" Echael set her hands flat on the table. "I am more than certain you possess the skill and training necessary to hack the system and generate false codes."

As ordered, Yar said nothing, going into parade rest, hands clasped behind her back.

Echael's cheeks started to flush green. "Sir, I request permission to dispense penalty. She almost succeeded this time."

He watched Yar's expression in his peripheral vision. He didn't want her to grow complacent in the assumption she was free from reprimand of any kind, nor did he wish to undermine Echael's authority in the matter as his head of security. On the other hand, Yar had spent three days and nights in holding already and had clearly been whacked good and hard on the head over her brazen attempt. She was grinding her teeth, offering no defense, but that wasn't an admission of guilt so much as acquiescence to whatever Echael intended to do. He recognized that studiously blank mask all too well. Yar was assuming that she wouldn't like it, it wasn't fair and it might hurt..

Finally, he said, "A near success remains a failure. As you, in contrast, were successful in apprehending her in a timely fashion so I see no cause to escalate procedure."

Echael was staring at him in frustration. When he shook his head minutely, she thumped a fist on the table and sat back down. "Respectfully, sir-"

"Echael," he interrupted her, then asked, "why was I not informed immediately?"

She dropped her eyes, then recited officiously, "A routine recapture is not considered an emergency as standard procedures cover such an incident."

"Or Major Bitch just wanted me to stew for as long as possible."

"Lieutenant," he warned softly, "I will not allow you to slander my officers." He had warned them not to slander her, though he suspected that some obeyed that command only when he was within earshot. She could return the courtesy. Since Echael wasn't saying anything in response to the taunt and he could guess why. Her job required more creativity than evidenced by her answer, which had been a direct quote from the guidelines governing prisoner detainment. She was citing Riov Soronar's justification.

"Very well. How long did the signal interference last?"

"Two minutes, perhaps three."

He nodded, then turned his attention back on Yar. "Could you override the launch code sequence in that amount of time?"

"Not without computer assistance to generate multiple series and no, I didn't have a PADD with me."

"And that did not cross your mind?"

"Of course it crossed my mind."

"You were aware that the interference would block your signal?"

"Yes."

He cocked his head. "Then you were either intending to make a wholly futile attempt to escape or you had another purpose. Which was it?"

She ground her teeth again, her eyes flicking to Echael, him, then straight forward again. She sighed quietly, then admitted, "I wanted to see the scout ship up close. I know I'm not allowed out on the airstrip and if anyone spotted me, I'd be barred, so I used the signal interference to drop off the grid. I thought I could get the shields up before the window closed." The corner of her lip pulled ruefully. "I was wrong."

Echael repeated woodenly, "You wanted to see the ship?"

Yar looked at her coldly. "You're army. I wouldn't expect you to understand."

Volskiar sighed, then jerked his chin at Echael. "This inquiry is over."

He might not understand how fleetmen preferred the feel of a constantly vibrating hull beneath their feet rather than solid ground, but he'd witnessed it enough times to believe in their discomfiture outside a ship. He felt trapped within a ship, at the mercy of a giant hunk of metal, bound to its direction with no path for retreat. He had come to reason that a fleetman would feel equally trapped by the stillness of the ground. He understood the issue intellectually, if not viscerally.

"Yar." He waved the door open and heard her follow him out into the hallway.

She kept her head down, still quiet, still choking on the admission.

"Come, walk with me." A change of scenery might do her some good, remove her from temptation at the very least.

"Do I have to?"

"Yes."

She dropped into a trudge, apparently tired despite her enforced rest. "How far?"

"The entire way."

She accepted the vague answer with a resigned, "Okay."

It wasn't until they reached the front gates of the training compound that her attention piqued, her gaze lifting from the ground to the surrounding countryside. The sun would be setting soon, the two moons already visible as pale shadows, but they had enough time so long as she kept pace. Besides, the temperature would fall soon and without a cloak to keep warm, exercise would serve. He took a path that cut directly across his property, through the barrier of trees between it and the compound. He couldn't afford shoreline but he could still attain some measure of insulation from the city and the compound.

Behind and to his right, he heard Yar scuffled without warning and turned in time to see her reach across her waist to where a phaser ought to be. She grasped at thin air twice, gaze intent on something in the distance, before confusion appeared on her face, soon followed by aggravated disgust. She threw one cold look at him, then ducked behind him, using him as a shield against whatever she had seen.

He raised his eyebrows and checked the line of fire. Before he could assuage her concerns, the brazen woman actually started to reach for his disruptor. He swatted her hand away before the watching Havrannsu guards took initiative.

"There are snipers-"

"My guards," he cut off her justification, swiftly. "Do you want them to shoot you?
I was hoping you had ceased your attempts to die."

Her expression remained perplexed for a moment, then shifted to nonplussed. "You could have warned me," she said, then added in a soft mutter, "before I made an ass out of myself."

He pretended not to hear the second part and said, by way of apology, "I am accustomed to them." As he spoke, he toggled the preset command on his communicator to signal and confirm his identity. He had thought he would see the guards first but then, he was coming to realize that Yar must not have lived a life of Starfleet safety ensconced within an exploratory vessel. She acted far too much like a war veteran.

Two men dropped from the trees where they had been concealed, though apparently not well enough. Yar watched them calmly now, her eyes distant as she scanned the tree line and surrounding grounds. He knew when she spotted additional guards, which had begun to converge on their position, by the barely perceptible pauses. Once satisfied, she made a noncommittal noise, then hunched in a bit with a shiver in response to the breeze that was kicking up. When she looked at him expectantly, he resumed walking.

Yar was breathing hard by the time his home came into sight. "So I take it we're not trespassing?"

"We are on my estate."

"This whole thing?" She looked back over her shoulder at the wall of leafless trees and skeletal bushes.

"Yes."

"And that house?"

"Yes."

She slowed, lagging behind.

He stopped, turning around to face her. The prepared jibe on his lips faltered. Was she limping? "Coming?"

She had come to a dead stop and was regarding that house with such a mixture of anxiety and dread that it was almost comical. Her lips were pressed into a thin line. She looked over her shoulder but the compound was invisible past the trees from ground level. Looking back, he caught sight of the tip of her tongue as she worried her lip. She mouthed something he was sure was a curse.

"There is both food and drink there, and my servants to attend you." He knew she must be thirsty because he'd fetched her out of the holding cell before evening meal. That meant she'd had no food or water since breakfast.

She straightened and resumed walking toward the house. He watched carefully but he couldn't spot a limp. Then again, she knew he was observing her. Soon they reached the front path, and whatever resolve she'd mustered faded, as she followed him inside past the tall, uncommunicative door guard. She ignored both him and his senior bond-servant, Khaelhik, who greeted them politely and asked if he required anything.

"Privacy," said Volskiar.

Yar slunk past him, putting her back to the nearest wall. She watched Khaelhik depart, moving her eyes but nothing else. She watched uneasily as Volskiar rummaged through several cabinets, fetching out a stoneware pot and a small canister. She pushed way from the wall and started to pace slowly.

Giving into his impatience with her poorly concealed hostility, he said, "And you accuse my people of paranoia."

She stopped pacing, meeting his eyes critically. She crossed her arms, bracing one foot against the wall, and leaned back. She had propped up the same leg he thought she'd favored while walking. He'd learned enough about her by now to know those were techniques to keep still when she would rather be moving. "I'd call it common sense, in this case." She watched him pour water into a kettle. "Everyone says you're impetuous, hedonistic and reckless. Gotta be some truth in it."

"Ah," he answered, waiting for her to continue. Personally, he liked to think he strove for unpredictability.

"But in my experience, careless people don't get far in any military structure. They die too easily when they get mad and do something stupid."

"I quite agree."

"Which means you have a reason for bringing me here, because you have a reason for most things you do, even if it's because there's no reason not to." Because the fabric of her shirt was pulled tight across her arms, he could see the betraying flex of biceps as she spoke. "Since I can only think of one practical reason for this excursion...." Then there was that faint pull to her lip, an unbidden sneer that she attempted to disguise as a polite smirk. It was a gesture he was learning to loathe as much as her officer's mask.

He grunted, wiping up some water that had spilled from the lip of the decanter onto the counter, as he poured the super-heated water into the stoneware pot. The tea would need a few minutes to steep, and then some additional time before it could be drunk comfortably. He considered whether to use a deft feint or a blunt instrument to parry her attack. "On the contrary, there are several practical reasons to bring you here."

"Oh, I'll bet. The question is, what can you do here that you can't do there?"

"I can make tea using my mother's pot."

"Cute."

A blunt instrument it would be, then. "There is nothing I can do here that I could not do there. In truth, the compound would be more convenient. I could call on guards to restrain you, which they would do without question. If I failed to restrain myself and caused you physical harm, accidentally or intentionally, there is a well-equipped medical facility on the grounds. Afterward, staff would attend you, leaving me without any tedious complications." He picked up the pot and set it on the table, then went to fetch two small cups. In his peripheral vision, he saw that Yar had gone deathly still.

"So, what you're saying is that you don't want to make a mess in your house."

"On a pragmatic level, yes, if your initial assumptions about my intentions were correct." Standing on one side of the raised table, he set down his own cup, then pushed the second toward her. "Which, it is not. On a practical level, I fail to see how such short-sighted savagery would achieve the goal set by our wager."

She had the good grace to look down in tacit apology, before stepping away from the wall, to join him at the table.

He poured her some tea, using the action to tamp down his own frustration. He had done everything in his ability not to hurt her but it made little difference. Knowing now that she had spent her childhood on what amounted to a perpetual battlefield, he could guess that she knew full well how often rape could kill. Her fear was hardly unreasonable for the most affable and courteous men could become vicious without warning. Mostly, it unsettled him to imagine that despite their different cultures, they were both apparently familiar with those same men.

She tested her tea gingerly, setting it back down when it proved too hot. "Okay."

"Okay," he repeated, though not because he was prompting for an explanation. It was one of those phrases that did not translate, but he had learned it was a noncommittal word that could mean anything from agreement, doubt, amazement to flat rejection. In this case, she wanted to know what he wanted. "You become increasingly agitated when you are surrounded by those who have tasks to accomplish but you have none. There is no one being industrious here and there is the added benefit of privacy that does not come with the requirement of remaining in your quarters."

"What can I say; I get tired of the hamster wheel."

It was on the tip of his tongue to ask what a 'hamster' was, but he could search for that information later. He knew perfectly well what a wheel was, rotating upon itself in endless repetition, so he took her admission for what it was. She was becoming frustrated by the unproductive routine of imprisonment. "Perhaps you will find something with which to entertain yourself for the time being, free from scrutiny."

"Does it involve phase canons?"

"No. I cannot permit you to handle live weapons."

"Not even here?"

"Not even here." That was a lie. On his estate, he could permit whatever he wished, but he wasn't comfortable with such a risk at this stage. She was too skilled in combat. In a physical match, he could rely on his greater strength and endurance, taking into account that she might know techniques for which he was unprepared. He'd be a fool to hand her a gun.

She sighed. "Anything to read?"

"Do you know the common written language?"

"No."

"Then I regret that there is nothing for you to read, either."

"How about this: We each stand on a stool and I try to knock you off with a lirpa."

"That sounds painful and awkward."

"It's a game we play."

"How interesting." She had to be joking.

"You'll get bored of me soon enough." She glanced up, with a wry tug of an eyebrow. "Even if it's taking longer than I predicted."

"And when my attention strays from you to the next woman, you will make your escape."

"Wouldn't you?"

"No, I am Rihannsu. If captured in this manner by an enemy I would take my own life."

She rolled her eyes, ducking her head hastily, but he saw it. "We do things differently."

"Yes, I know. I have researched the matter. Starfleet officers are charged with the duty to take any legitimate opportunity to escape, and you must wait until such an opening arises and return to your commanding officer with whatever information about the enemy you have gained. Suicide is acceptable only when sensitive information about Starfleet or the Federation government is at risk." He waggled a finger, remembering the curious facts he had learned governing her code of conduct. It hadn't been a soft heart guiding her actions the day they met; it had been pure obligation. He wondered if she could even name the crewmen she had protected. "And you must also surrender peacefully if recaptured to optimize the likelihood of successful escape in the future."

"Which made that rifle to my head completely unnecessary."

"The guard did not know that. Were you trying to escape?"

"Don't be stupid. I'm in the middle of a military facility, on a leash, in the capital city of Romulus, behind a massive defense grid, in the heart of the Empire. I'm probably the only Human in the vicinity, which would make my bio-signs easy enough to track, even if I didn't have an implant." She tested her tea again and blew on it. "I told you why I was out there."

"I appreciate an intelligent woman."

"Go fuck yourself."

"My compliment was sincere."

"Oh, excuse me. Go fuck a targ."

He smiled behind his cup. "There is no need when you are behaving like one."

"Am I supposed to be overjoyed about my situation?"

"As Echael informed you, it could be far worse."

"Yeah, I could have bled to death the day we met. Thrilling." She slid her arms forward on the table, resting her weight on it. "I don't need a lesson plan in prisoner processing." She snorted. "What the hell do you think my job was? Course, we were a lot more humane than the... than our enemies were toward us."

"Drink your tea," he grumbled in response. He wasn't about to dignify her concerns with further reassurance. Nor did he waste energy pointing out that she was failing to fulfill her half of the wager, which hinged on not being obnoxiously hostile to his every overture. He reasoned that between three days in holding, being startled by snipers only to be rudely reminded she was unarmed, and having worked herself into a froth over potential rape, she had reason to be testy.

For a moment, it appeared she would refuse on general principle, but she picked up the cup and sipped experimentally. Then she tipped it back and drank the whole cup in a single pull. Still holding it aloft, she picked up the pot and poured herself another.

"Do you drink everything that way?"

"When I'm thirsty and you made sure I would be."

He tipped an eyebrow in acknowledgment. He could have brought a canteen with them but he wanted to reduce the likelihood she would turn around and walk back once she realized where he had brought her.

She studied the pot. "Is she still alive?"

"No. My parents both died some years past." When she waited expectantly, he added, "my father from heart failure and my mother.... The doctors say she suffered from many stress related ailments and succumbed to exhaustion." He took the pot from her hand. "She lost the will to live."

"Sorry."

He shrugged. "Mine were with me throughout my life."

She made a face, lips pressed together, shaking her head at herself. "I blabbed everything that night, didn't I?"

"Everything? No. In fits and bursts you revealed more than you intended, as any drunk does, but incoherently. I know that you were orphaned at a young age, but not how."

"Civil war. They were killed in cross-fire."

"It is not a thing for a child to witness."

It was her turn to shrug. "I was too high to really understand what happened. After that, it was withdrawal, so I had more pressing concerns. By the time it sunk in, it was like it happened to someone else, and I'd seen a lot worse things."

"High?" He questioned the jargon because he understood that 'withdrawal' often referred to a chemical addiction but her constant slang gave him a headache. It wouldn't do for both of them to get testy.

"Things were pretty bad on our planet even before the wars. We didn't have much and.... My mother put...." She hesitated, then repeated, "My mother put me on a street drug that dulled the senses while generating euphoria. It was her misguided way of shielding me from reality. I guess she meant well."

He drank from his cup to give himself time to think. Yar despised false comfort and the added insincerity of participating in such a charade. He'd been attempting to achieve courtesy, but it was precisely that which she found offensive. Either that or she wished him to believe she found it offensive so that he would be offensive in truth. So, he offered no platitudes.

He pointed at the refrigeration unit. "You are welcome to any food you find. Otherwise, you are free to move about the house and grounds. If you are in need of anything, Khaelhik will assist you."

"What if I decide to leave the grounds?"

"You may return to the compound at any time. Go south and you will reach the unclaimed swamp lands where veruul and nei'rrh remain common. Veruul generally do not waste energy killing their prey before they begin consuming it and the nei'rrh's bite paralyzes before it kills, leading to the same fate. West will take you into the Apnex Sea. Choose another direction and Echael has been instructed to pursue you immediately." He added cheerfully, "It is possible you will be struck on the head again."

"I'm surprised you didn't set it so my head would explode if I went too far."

"You would most certainly be dead, by now." He tactfully didn't mention that the implant was set to cause excruciating pain, specifically the sensation of burning, if it passed beyond receiver range. If it came to that, then she would learn the hard way.

"I'd like it better if it did explode," she insisted glibly. "Then, whenever I got sick and tired of this game, I could take a nice, long walk."

He smiled ruefully. "And that, Lieutenant, is precisely why it is not set to kill."

"No messy accidents," she said in a bristling tone. "You really don't like those, do you?"

"I do not abide carelessness," he replied evenly, "for if I did, as you noted, I would not have my position."

She met his eyes from beneath her brows, an unexpected piercing blue gesture, then asked in a mild, amused voice, "So all it does is track me? Nothing at all will happen if I take a nice, long walk?"

He remained silent, keeping his expression neutral. Breaking eye contact, he tapped one finger on the table surface as if thinking. He straightened away from the table.

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Not much point in guards when your prisoner will wind up curled in the fetal position regardless." A muscle in her jaw tightened, and another ticked under her eye. "I take it Soronar knows I'm wearing a collar?"

"An invisible one that few are aware you bear. I can give you a real one, if you would prefer."

She continued to glare down at her cup with bitter hostility, then he saw her relax by dint of effort and a deep breath. She closed her eyes, accepted the limited grace he offered, and answered, "No, that's all right. You didn't answer my question."

"Yes, he knows. As the senior operations commander, he manages the compound in my absence. I cannot circumvent his authority by telling only Echael."

She nodded, a barely discernable bob, grinding her teeth again. Then she shook her head, an equally truncated motion, as if arguing with herself, or in resigned disgust.

If she had suspected prior to this conversation that the implanted tracking device could also incapacitate her, then it was unlikely she had been making a sincere escape attempt. So he asked in honest curiosity, "Such a risk to see a ship?"

"Why not?" she countered absently, looking down at her cup pensively.

He started to ask for clarification, then nodded. Once again he recalled the fleetmen who acted as hobbled on the ground as a soldier did without the unit at his back. It was as he had suspected. As there was nothing to offer in solace, he resumed his intended course toward the hall. He heard her pad along behind him.

"Your parents lived here?"

"No. They had a meager life."

"Just you?"

"And Zuro." It took some effort to draw out the words. "We intended to have children. At least, I did. Perhaps she was less enthusiastic but did not inform me. It is irrelevant, now." Irrelevant except for how his wife's dissatisfaction with him continued to reflect poorly on his life to this day. Most people pithily assumed for some character flaw on his part - which was perhaps true - rather than his inability to provide immaterial things she desired.

Yar was scrutinizing every aspect of the hallway, its furnishings, visible rooms they passed. He guessed she was judging its worth and value, comparing it to other homes she had seen. He didn't expect to hope she found it favorable.

"Big house," she said almost absently, distracted by some tell-tale motion from a nearby room as a servant worked.

"It is not so large," he qualified, immediately. "You should see some of the estates held by House Majors. Even the Minor ones can be ostentatious."

"Funny, that's what I was going to say about this one."

He drew short. "Your Federation has such great wealth that no one lives in need, yet you imply this is excessive?"

She was frowning slightly. "No one lives in need because resources are distributed fairly. If one person lives in luxury, ten or twenty others have to live in poverty. Social contributions are rewarded, of course, but don't...." She looked down the hallway, once again spotting a discreet servant. "Never mind."

"You think less of me because I possess more than I need or use," he said, careful to keep his tone even. He had worked hard to gain what he owned, and no matter how little it mattered in her Federation, wealth mattered a great deal here. It shielded him from both hardship and social strictures. How could she possibly understand the difference it made, coming from her mewling, pacifist society? He finally gave in to the twisting pressure in his chest, rounding on her and the ever so polite recrimination.

He jerked back, almost falling off balance, when he discovered her far closer to him than he'd realized. She was well within his guard and at his sudden motion, her easy stance had dropped into hanmi. That damned aikido and its tenant of becoming close to one's attacker. He found himself looming over her in an involuntary attempt to force her retreat, breathing harder than he intended.

She didn't move except for her brows, which tightened into a glower, a crease appearing above the bridge of her nose. There was something else there, in her eyes, some glimmer of aggression and anticipation. Her pupils dilated, creating a sharper contrast with the blue and so close, he could see the flutter of her pulse at her jugular. It was racing and he inhaled the acrid scent of fear.

"So help me, you're worse than a dog," Yar groused, then added as an afterthought, "no offense."

He straightened, leaning back to give her room. It was increasingly tedious to resist shouting at her in aggravation. If he shouted, he might gesticulate, and if he did that, he might grab at her. He wasn't entirely sure what might happen after that, but he could guess she would be quite furious with him afterward. Even if it was obviously what she trying to goad him into doing. He would not play the villain for her convenience and... he wanted to know what a 'dog' was.

"I beg your pardon," he said sarcastically, but drew no further attention to her tendency to become flustered when his nose defeated her artifice. "Surely, coming from your background, you understand the need for at least limited wealth and the suffering that can occur when you have none."

She frowned at him again. "Which happened because some people were greedy and hoarded resources." When he opened his mouth to defend himself more vehemently, she dodged politely, "But we don't impose our value system on other cultures. There are plenty of worlds where an individual's social worth and standing depend on monetary displays. This is one more."

He wanted to ask if her people had no honor in their values to so readily acquiesce to foreign standards but there was no point. Her culture would demand she accept the accusation with forgiveness and he was so damn tired of her tendency toward placating retreat. There was no way she could be ignorant of how her continued refusal to resist him in any manner grated on his nerves, as much as her challenges were invigorating. He had to admire the strategy.

"Yes. I had forgotten. Your people do not use money."

"Well...." She vacillated on the matter before saying, "We have credits we use internally, set units of value to obtain luxuries, and we barter with goods or raw materials like latinum. I understand trade just fine."

He judiciously suppressed the urge to banter in agreement, knowing the barb might sting too deeply in her frazzled state. Instead, he reached into a pocket and withdrew a small chain of cash, the clear crystals jingling softly against each other. "But you do not use money for the purchase of basic necessities."

She studied the chain with critical disinterest. "No."

"Do you want this?"

Her frown became troubled. "What would I do with it?"

"Do you know why money is useful?" He put the chain back in his pocket.

"No, but I know it can make real goods worthless."

"Yes, I suppose it can, but it has its benefits. For instance, it may preserve one from situations in which there is nothing to barter, or," he averted his gaze, releasing her attention while maintaining a peripheral view, "when you are unwilling to barter what little you possess."

As he had expected, her expression darkened into a tight-lipped glower. She didn't like being reminded of their arrangement. He had to wonder how she had been to approach him ethically with such a bargain if she were so loathe to honor its terms. To offer a false promise was positively Klingon.

Her jaw worked before she asked, "And would a bribe have worked?"

"No," he answered honestly. "It would take an immense sum for me to risk sacrificing my career and reputation over a monetary bribe."

"So much for money," she said, contemptuously.

"Very well." He touched his fingers to a keypad, and the door to his personal quarters slid open. "Will you follow me in here?"

She took one smooth step backward. "If it's all the same to you, I'd rather not."

"It is not 'all the same' but choose any room that pleases you. Sleep well, Lieutenant."

The next morning, he found her in the study, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of his lectus. She had three PADDs spread out in front of her, one at each knee, a larger one set in her lap. She was scribbling notes on it with a stylus, caught there in a patch of sunlight, and didn't notice him in the hallway.

He hoped she'd had the good sense to sleep. Even with the medication he'd given her, she seemed to have difficulty adapting to the native diurnal cycle. It was a problem that often occurred with fleetmen accustomed to artificial shifts on a ship that never had night and day. At least she had found something to occupy her mind, so he wasn't about to interrupt without cause.

He went back to the kitchen, greeting Khaelhik with a nod and beckoning him to follow. Once there was enough distance to mute their conversation, he asked his senior bond-servant what Yar had done the prior night. The somber Havrannsu told him she had investigated every accessible area of the house, attempted to override the security to his weapons locker, tested the perimeter sensors outside and broken into his skimmer. Every attempt had been successfully aborted by a servant.

Volskiar found himself smiling. "She is quite persistent."

Khaelhik grunted and said in an utterly dry tone, "Then you are well matched, sir."

Volskiar snorted rudely. "There are days when I doubt your loyalty." He pulled at his uniform collar, wondering if they grew higher ever year or if he was imagining it. "If she ever succeeds in obtaining a weapon while in the house, retreat to a safe location and summon personnel from the compound." It wasn't Khaelhik's job to die for him, even if others treated their Havrannsu slaves as disposable property. In truth, due to his own upbringing, he wasn't comfortable owning them, though he certainly appreciated the luxury. They were part and parcel of owning an estate, though, as Yar had acutely observed.

"Breakfast, sir?"

"Yes."

"And for the woman?"

"I will prepare her meal using the replicator." He had obtained a number of recipes but it had taken some time for communication specialists to translate the code, and then more to test it was replicating properly. Many of the foods tasted terrible regardless, so it was difficult for him to judge if the end results were correct or not. There was but one way to find out.

Yar was still taking notes when he brought her something to eat. He didn't bother knocking or otherwise announcing his presence.

She glanced to her left sharply, stopping mid-note. "Oh."

"Breakfast," he said, setting the tray on the floor beside her, which she ignored as if disinterested. She also swallowed, having smelled the food..

When she continued to ignore the tray, he settled down to sit comfortably adjacent to her but at a slight angle to avoid appearing as if he were demanding immediate attention. He let his eyes drift nearly shut. Yar watched him from the corner of her eye, a tension in the small muscles of her eyes, quickly wiped away. He could guess that she wanted to know why he was watching her but deigned to ask. If he confronted her, she would insist he could do as he wished and whenever she said that he carried the mental image of a thrai.

He'd seen one of those scavenging predators once. A prize fighter owned by a local subaltern had dug and burrowed its way into a pasture. After tranquilizing it, three men dragged and pulled on the animal, attempting to wrench it from a mutilated carcass, while the semi-conscious thrai dug in its sickle claws into maimed flesh and bone, clamping down rows of teeth. Another man was summoned to hold down the carcass, timidly doing his best to avoid entering in reach of the claws. When they finally managed to pull the beast free, it came loose with bloody green strips of torn flesh held tight in all four paws and a mouth full of splintered ribs.

That was what Yar meant when she said he could do as he pleased, just as the thrai had made no attempt to attack the men pulling on it. So he didn't provoke her on that matter, content to admire the view. She was normally moving when he was around, either because he made her uneasy or because they were sparring. Except for her hands, she was still, hunched over a bit to see all three PADDs. She wore the bland, ordinary clothing she'd been wearing when incarcerated, a lightweight gray tunic with long black breeches. He shouldn't be surprised by that color combination, though he'd noted with some humor that she absolutely refused to touch yellow.

Because he had seen her body, he knew that there was relatively pale skin tinged with pink under most of that clothing, sinewy muscle blending with softer curves. Right now, all he could see were her forearms, the outline of a collarbone, the pull of the fabric across her shoulders which formed a clean line to her hip. Her feet were bare, her toes tucked under her thighs, creating the illusion that they were harmless. He tracked up to check her face, to see if she were watching him watch her, but she wasn't. In fact, she was concentrating thoroughly on her work, brow furrowed, lips parted.

Except for that initial veiled look, she had ignored his scrutiny, focusing on the datapads in front of her. Though she appeared relaxed, intent only on her work, he saw the muscles in her neck and shoulder begin to tense. He waited for her to shift impatiently, to make some small irritated gesture or quiet sigh of aggravation, perhaps even to give him an ill look. Curiously enough, she didn't. With the briefest pause to gather herself, she dropped her shoulders, relaxing again.

That happened twice before he decided that she must have a reason to permit his silent harassment. She wanted him to keep his attention on her, however it unnerved her, rather than... what? He doubted she was suddenly conceding to a boon on his behalf. Keeping his eyes half-lidded, he moved his gaze slowly to the PADDs. When she ducked her head to write on the central PADD with her stylus, he smoothly grabbed the one nearest to him.

She jerked to a stop, following his hand with her eyes. Then, as if reconsidering any protest, she dismissed his action and returned to her work.

That was quite interesting because it meant one of two things. Either she was engaged in harmless mental exercise, or she wagered he wouldn't understand the material. Rather than take the easier path of scrolling back up through the menu options to discover the core subject, he examined the displayed screen. It was a mathematical equation, not the most common, but nevertheless one with several applications. He rifled through the possible uses, cross-referencing them against what he knew of Yar's training. He rubbed a thumb under his lower lip, then set the PADD down back by her knee. He craned forward to look at her PADD and saw what looked like an equivalent equation using Basic symbology and form in her lap.

"Uh," she stammered. She actually stammered. "Um, I was just doing some math. Universal language and all that." She rolled the stylus nervously between her fingers. "That's okay, right?"

He bit his lip. "Those are equations for transporter phase harmonics."

The stylus hit the PADD with a click and for once there was open astonishment on her face. "Er...."

He didn't know whether he ought to feel offended she thought him so ignorant or satisfied by causing such surprise. "I was under the impression you had been informed of my education. Why would I be unfamiliar with common mathematical equations?"

She recovered her nonchalant poise. "I was but I figured war college involved learning new and creative ways to kill large groups of people, not math."

"It does. Entering and withdrawing from an engagement are crucial elements of any combat operation. If those methods typically involve transporters, then it behooves a commanding officer to be familiar with the basic process."

She pursed her lips. "I'm sorry, but did you just tell me you're good at entry and withdrawal?"

"Yes, I...." He shut his mouth, feeling the tips of his ears burn, then cursed her for turning the tables on him. She did not flirt with him any more readily that she tolerated his proximity. In fact, he'd already had the dubious pleasure of enduring hours of explanation on how various weapons systems functioned along with proper techniques.

"Are you sure you didn't bring me here for-"

"I did not." He cut off her additional attempt to distract him by reaching over to take the central PADD from her lap. "But it would be wise if you ceased trying my patience."

Looking out the window at the sun crawling higher into the sky, she bit her bottom lip and tapped the stylus on her knee. She gathered up the two remaining PADDs, popping out the data crystals, arranging them in a tidy stack, stylus atop them. She shoved the pile toward him, surrendering it without question. "Guess I'm done, then."

He took the two data crystals and put them in shirt pocket. Even if she had discovered by now that the implant blocked her from the pattern buffer, she might invent a way to transport the implant out of herself. In desperation, she might use the transporters as weapons, but he doubted she was that rash. The prior night's conversation revealed she well understood the series of obstacles preventing her escape. So it was possible she enjoyed the mathematical exercise, but it was more likely she was searching for ways to escape. Given time, she might find a method to defeat every obstacle in her path.

She set her hands, loosely fisted, on her knees. The expression on her face was no longer carelessly studious, but distant. She was attempting to maintain passive disinterest, but he'd watched her enough to identify the downward pull to her lips, the dull defeat in her eyes. In the process of looking down, her melancholy gaze fell on the untouched tray. Her jaw worked for a moment before she heaved a quiet sigh of disappointment and prepared to rise.

"You have not touched your food," he prodded unsubtly. At least he understood her refusal to eat. She had valued the opportunity to learn more than she acknowledged hunger and eating might have cost her time. On the other hand, she wasn't an animal and he wasn't that petty.

She shifted uneasily, frowning dubiously in poorly concealed confusion.

He let his anger seep into his voice, saying, "I am not a tyrant. Eat." He held the PADD aloft. "I will inform Echael that you have acquired our basic transporter sequencing techniques and she will take the necessary precautions." If his senior officers couldn't do their jobs, they wouldn't keep their jobs.

She dutifully picked up the lid, grumbling in advance, "Either it tastes like sand or it'll give me copper poisoning so.... Is that bacon?" She stopped complaining, biting the tip of her tongue and picked up a cup to smell the coffee, her crafted disinterest completely undone by anticipation. "Oh, man."

"I do not know if these foods are in an appropriate combination or to your liking but...." He quit when she gave him her best aggravated look because her mouth was full of waffle and bacon. It was obvious she liked the food but he'd begun to wonder if she was a vegetarian. He hadn't even considered that she might be susceptible to copper. While there were native species on ch'Rihan, the original Vulcan outcasts had brought genetic templates for common livestock native to their homeworld. Those animals, like his people, possessed copper based hemoglobin. Even the replicated food tended to be rich in that metal, as it was a necessary nutrient.

He had thought that complication resolved, but judging by how quickly she was devouring the food, it hadn't been. At that point, he realized the second reason for her hunger and regretted not offering her something palatable to eat the prior night. If she hadn't eaten all that was provided to her while in holding, she would have been denied more for the remainder of her stay because it was wasteful to offer unwanted food. Of course, Echael knew of her dietary limitations, and surely would have informed Soronar, which meant he must have enforced strict procedure just as Echael had implied. Her frustration had been more with Soronar than Yar. Not that there was anything Volskiar could do about it; everything was perfectly legal and correct. He was left wondering how long the commander would have denied her food and for what specific purpose.

He raised his eyebrows as she licked the syrup off the plate, heedless of his observation. "You like this food?"

"It's better than combat rations and I've been living off those for years."

He wanted to ask if that was because of the Federation's war with the Klingons, but as her people were not at war and he wasn't supposed to know about her curious history, he held silent. He found he was watching her lick bacon grease from her fingers and decided that was unwise. Redirecting his attention, he read her notes as best he could, for they wandered all over the screen. "Forgive me for saying this, but your effort to circumnavigate the transporter system is futile. Your implant locks you out of the pattern buffer."

She swallowed hastily. "I know. Rotating frequency."

There was only one way she could have discovered that fact, but denying her the effort would serve to increase her frustration and determination. Instead, he made a mental note to inform Echael that Yar had already been successful in her attempt to reach a working transporter station, which meant at least one of her security officers was lax. He put the PADD back on her lap.

She looked down, surprised he would return it to her. "You're pretty smug."

"I am pragmatic." He hesitated, then decided it was better to inform her directly to save them both trouble and perhaps mislead her in the process. "You cannot beam out the implant."

"So it's not me that blocked, it's your gadget."

He inclined his head in agreement.

"Then I won't tell you about that one time I used the transporters to beam out a bunch of Klingon hearts."

"You were transporting medical supplies?"

"Nah," she tapped the center of her chest and explained between gulps of coffee, "Boarding party. Their hearts. Beamed them out."

"So I gathered. Please do not dismember me or any of my troops. You might incapacitate a few before you are apprehended, you might even succeed in killing me, but I do not run the compound, my officers do."

She half-smiled with equanimity, shrugging. Eyeing him warily, she popped the data crystal out from her work PADD and tucked it into a shirt pocket. She gave him a split second to belay her action, then set the PADD underneath the other two.

Privately, he marveled at how much food she'd put away and how quickly. Either she feared he would take it from her, or she was hungry. If his guess about Soronar was correct, it was both. "Would you like some more?"

She eyed the plate wistfully. "Right now?"

He tipped his head in a light shrug. He wasn't above using similar tactics, though he reasoned that if she hadn't bowed to such pressure from Soronar, it was unlikely she would respond to the same from him. Then again, as she might say, it was worth a try. "The replicator here is the only one coded."

She looked him in the eye with canny, wry comprehension. Then she sighed pointedly, looking down in her empty cup. "Some more coffee would be nice."

He took the cup, rising to his feet. He hoped otherwise, but wouldn't ask if she had been offered food in trade while in holding. He recalled that Yar had blamed Echael for her discomfort, but that could mean Soronar hadn't yet made an offer. The question was what Soronar wanted in trade. The obvious answer made little sense for he'd caught the man curl his lip in disgust after a sniff, sometimes watching both Yar and, when he didn't realize he was being observed, Volskiar, in open contempt. He wasn't the only one who considered congress with an alien to be repulsive and unnatural, perhaps done once in a fit of passion but not as a regular, public arrangement. Even if that was becoming an increasingly difficult goal to achieve.

"I will need to return to the compound shortly, as erei'Enriov Tal is arriving to coordinate an operation."

He waited as she picked up the tray, her boots and the PADDs, setting the latter on a nearby desk. Her brief animation had faded back into pensive attention as she followed him out to the kitchen. He didn't miss her wary glance at Khaelhik, who kept a polite but watchful distance in the central hall.

He set the cup back on the replicator port and asked, "The beverage comes with options such as sugar or cream. Did you want-"

"Sugar," she answered hastily, clearly unwilling to miss the opportunity.

Because he could, he sipped some of the beverage, wrinkling his nose at its sweetness, though it tasted vaguely like a common Rihannsu drink. He turned back in time to catch her putting on her boots. Unlike the previous night, he stood at a right angle to her, at the table. He was curious to see if she would sidle around to avoid his proximity now that she no longer had need to tolerate it. Aside from swiftly noting his position, she appeared more interested in the coffee. He waited for her to drink some of it, then slid his elbows forward on the table and raised a questioning hand to her temple.

She jerked slightly at the sudden motion, but the greatest advancement generated by their routine sparring sessions was that she had become comfortable, adept at recognizing a harmless gesture over a hostile one. She set down her cup, eyeing his hand, then raising an eyebrow at him.

"May I touch you?"

She snorted rudely, then ignored his hand, leaning on the table. "You can touch me whenever you want."

"It is not the all the same," he carefully repeated her phrasing from earlier. "May I?"

She shrugged, saying evasively, "I don't know why you bother."

He smiled a bit, then repeated, "Because it is not all the same."

"Maybe not on a semantical level, but it's the same end result."

"And I do not believe that for if you preferred assault and humiliation, you would not have approached me with a plea bargain. If you have changed your mind, I am certain the Tal Shiar would be pleased to accept you into custody."

"You don't need to threaten me."

"Yet you insist I should. Such contrary behavior leads me to suspect your are stalling for time rather than providing me a genuine opportunity to court you."

Despite whatever effort she was making to appear collected, her mouth dropped open in stupefaction. "Court me? Court? What?"

He pursed his lips. "You do recall our most recent wager?"

"Oh. Oh, right." She favored him with a wholly insincere smile. "Humor me. What happens if, irrespective of the fact I'm your prisoner, have no legal right to appeal and probably have no other options besides you, I don't like you?"

He raised an eyebrow. "You did not consider that a significant possibility when you chose your path?"

"I was in shock, remember?"

"Yes, driven to survive at any cost but you can make a decision in sound mind, today."

"Okay," she smirked. "What if I don't like men at all?"

He narrowed his eyes trying to determine if she was joking again, or if there was a kernel of truth glibly concealed. He weighed his response, then challenged, "Perhaps you were too inebriated or in shock to remember, but you were physically responsive enough for me to doubt that."

"Too bad for that flaw in your logic."

"Enlighten me."

With almost clinical detachment, she said, "Rape was historically so endemic in the Human species that women developed the capacity for reflexive arousal." She shrugged stiffly. "You can file that one under: Weird Human Facts."

Having no immediate response to such a simple, harsh fact, he rubbed a knuckle against his lips, thinking. She had already explained that night at the bar that the condition called 'shock' had left her operating on instinct and having witnessed the shift in her behavior first hand, he believed her defense honest. Nor was her species on the only one in which women had evolved a protective response to sudden sexual demands as Rihannsu women dealt with men suffering from the blood fires on a regular basis. It was biology and it didn't care about right or wrong. He resisted the urge to shift position uneasily because, after all, he hadn't been familiar with such quirks of Human biology.

Yar was watching him in sober silence, her head cocked slightly in curiosity. "What? No smug come-back?"

He pulled on his lip, considered asking her directly if she found him attractive, but decided that would sound vain despite being sincere. Instead, he waggled his fingers in the air and she rolled her eyes. It was entirely possible she would show continued resolve and refuse, but he'd been itching to touch her since seeing her that morning. She had been as such ease when engrossed in her work that it had briefly created the illusion that she trusted him. He couldn't help wishing that were true.

"Fine."

He checked the expression on her face, but it revealed nothing, so he brushed her temple with his knuckles. Her skin was cool around her eye, the ridge of her cheekbone, but warmed near the contusion, developing the characteristic tension of inflammation. "Has this been treated?"

"No, but they turned the heat off at night. I used the metal bunk as a compress. It'll be fine."

He suppressed a flare of anger. Soronar was excellent at following the regulations to his advantage, piling together small inconveniences until they became oppressive. He was also transparent in his petty retaliations. In this case, over his growing resentment that his rank had plateaued shy of his intended goal, for which he blamed Volskiar as if he were the one denying his repeated transfer requests. It was the man's own rash nature, impatience with long-term strategy, boredom without punctuating blood-sport, that limited his ambitions. He would be thrilled if the man were finally moved into a different position, but High Command was always uncomfortable when one of the lower caste ascended too high. A proper gentleman was needed to keep the peasantry in line even if that man was outranked by the peasant in question.

Yar was scanning his face. "Seriously, it'll be fine. I've been hurt worse and," she tipped her head in a shrug, "that's just the one you can see."

He exhaled sharply. She had been limping. Echael wouldn't have ordered her beaten. "Soronar," he guessed, understanding her quiet fury from the previous night. Soronar had known the punishment to be entirely unnecessary, done purely for his satisfaction.

"He wanted me down at his feet. I asked if he wanted a blow job while I was at it. Then some of the guys laughed...." She looked away, eyebrows raised, then shrugged again. "He didn't think it was so funny."

"Hmph." He mentally commended her ability to make light of the situation because he considered it fortunate she had been caught in such a public setting.

Wealth, he found, did not turn a man into a gentleman and whatever revulsion Soronar held for her species could be overturned in a moment of rage in the face of such bald spite. Based on their earlier conversation, she knew full well that gracious manners and affable behavior could conceal a cruel nature. But then, by virtue of such observation and experience, she would have known better than to make such a lewd suggestion in a more secluded setting. That was the reason for denying her food, retaliation over a minor but public humiliation. He contented himself by imagining Soronar's florid embarrassment over the facile verbal barb, shuffling off his lingering agitation.

Navigating around the purple bruise above her ear, visible through her hair, he traced her ear, then down along her neck. Though she was holding still, studying her coffee has if though it held the greatest mystery of the universe, there was no way to hide her nervous swallow. He changed direction, smoothing his fingers down the nape of her neck and he must have struck a ticklish spot, because she shuddered abruptly like a wet kharakh. He smoothed the area with his palm, biting back a grin. He lifted his hand before the pressure on her neck could become oppressive and she sipped at her coffee.

When Khaelhik followed them unobtrusively into the kitchen, he knew Yar tracked his movement by the way she maintained a steady oblique angle to the man. She did the same exact thing to him when she felt threatened, so he attempted to reassure her. "You need not fear Khaelhik. He has always been a loyal servant."

"You make it sound like he has some choice about whether or not he's loyal," she flung back in barely a murmur, looking up at him with pained amusement.

His initial sympathy for her supposed anxiety evaporated into inexplicable anger. It was true that Khaelhik, along with the other Havrannsu in his household, had no choice about where they lived, what they did or for how long they did it. The most any of them could hope for was to serve under a kind master rather than a cruel or indifferent one, yet he believed his servants at least had the small mercy of being spared the certain deaths of their brethren in the dilithium mines of ch'Havran or within the Irregular Corps. It took him a moment before he could speak, and despite that self-imposed delay, he could feel the flush on his face and neck.

He forced himself to try again. "You seemed uncomfortable in his presence. I sought to reassure you."

"We don't have slaves in the Federation," she answered tightly.

"You," he snapped, "are not in the Federation."

"Yeah, people keep reminding me of that for some reason. I guess someone forgot to issue me a blindfold."

He uncurled his hand from a fist on the table, noting that Yar hadn't even flinched and Khaelhik was keeping a courteous distance. Not that it mattered. As good as a Rihannsu's hearing might be, a Havranssu's was always better for they had lived generations in the darkness of ch'Havran and engineered themselves to fit the environment. "I will not allow you to lecture me on this matter, especially not when you made such a point of how your people do not judge other cultures."

"I'm not judging you. You thought I was scared and I corrected your misconception," she responded in facetious diplomacy. "I don't expect you to try and change things like that, it's just, I know what the history of many Federation planets, including Earth, shows: Sentient beings inevitably rebel against mistreatment, even in the face of certain death. I'm not the one who needs to be scared of your slaves."

He nodded more to himself than in agreement with her insinuation. He had directly witnessed two cullings in his career, both unannounced and indiscriminate between loyal and dissenter. They were all gassed to keep down their numbers, to fragment their social ties, to demoralize, all because there had not been a bloody battle in some years. "It has been this way for thousands of years and they have rebelled a number of times, but you are naive if you think we do not fear them. My people know to fear the Havrannsu and that is why their revolts never succeed," he finished in a soft voice. "They are not allowed to begin."

She raised one shoulder nonchalantly. "They'll succeed eventually, one way or another. You'll get complacent, they'll get desperate, and change will happen. Probably when you least expect it."

"You speak as if the revolution will occur tomorrow." He shook his head at her idealism.

For as long as he could remember, there were abolitionist consuls and senators in the government, but they held a minority. Proponents would argue that using slaves for undesirable labor was cost efficient. The abolitionists would counter-argue that the average slave cost more to raise, train, feed, clothe and house than a free man, and that the entire burden fell on the State and its tax-paying citizens. Volskiar had done the calculations once, out of morbid curiosity, and the abolitionists were right. Then again, that irony was made obvious by the fact that only the affluent could afford to keep Havrannsu.

The abolitionists would whittle away at the institution until there was another battle in one of the many perpetual border wars. A few thousand dead never failed to remind citizens how to choose between their children and the Havrannsu bred systematically for that purpose. Sometimes the Senate put the matter to a vote and there were always proponents of replacing a greater percentage of the Rihannsu manned security forces with Havrannsu. Volskiar couldn't remember how many times he'd been forced to explain that the soldier who volunteered was more courageous and dedicated than the soldier who marched at gunpoint. If the tradition were ever extinguished, it wouldn't be populist idealism that ended slavery, it would be the cost.

He swept an arm toward the interior of his house. "You cannot change the laws any more than I can, but here they can live until they die of old age."

"Or until you die and they get sold like cattle. Am I wrong?" She held up the palm of her hand to prevent an answer. "I got a better question, if it's still amusing you to humor me."

"At this moment, it would amuse me to throttle you."

"I'll take that as a 'no'." She immediately fell silent and took another placid sip of her coffee as if though she hadn't been arguing vehemently with him seconds earlier.

He ought to feel relief that this thrai of a woman had ceased snapping at him but instead he felt... disappointment. There were very few people who argued with him. Sometimes a senior officer over an ill-planned or uninformed action might say a few words, in a restrained fashion. A colleague might tease him, instigating a mock battle of wits. Alternately, he might be the one forced to hold his tongue as someone in High Command derided him or his choices. That was always an unpleasant experience, especially if the accuser was wrong.

He chewed on his inner cheek, considering whether to provoke her again. In the process, he glanced at Khaelhik and was bemused to discover the man watching the exchange in open interest. So much for loyalty. He leaned over to peer at Yar. "What is your question?"

"Forget it."

"But I want to know, even though I suspect you merely intended to heckle me."

Her mouth pulled into that damned reluctant, rueful twist, her eyes focused on an invisible distant point. "Okay. Tell me. Am I worth more or less than a Reman? More, because I have the bad luck of being Starfleet? Or less, like a pet?"

And his humor drained away. He wanted to tell her she wasn't a slave. He settled on, "You are a prisoner of war."

She raised her eyebrows, noticing the evasion, but didn't say anything to contest him. Instead, ever so faintly, she waggled her head from side to side, false smirk firmly in place. It reminded him of a bird perched on a stand, wings mantled, bobbing its head as it calculated the exact location of its prey.

He ignored it, pretending he didn't understand the Human gesture, but he couldn't ignore the way Khaelhik gracefully turned away, dipping his head to conceal what passed for his lips pulling into a grim smile. Volskiar shifted where he stood, no longer finding his kitchen a comfortable place. He folded his hands together on the table and Yar took that opportunity to finish her drink and step away from him. He heard her set the cup on the replicator port, and the faint whine as it dematerialized.

"I'm ready if you are."

He almost told an inappropriate joke. "Good. We will take my skimmer."

She fell in beside him without a trace of guilt. When they stepped outside into the chilly morning, she rubbed her arms. "Can I pilot?"

"No. You will attempt to dislodge me and escape, probably through the swamp." He slipped on a helmet, adjusting the visor. Zuro had always refused to ride the open skimmer, claiming it was a death trap. Given enough time and innovation, Yar would find a way to make it one.

"It was worth a try."

"I admire your attempts." He mounted the skimmer and motioned for her to get on behind him. Of course, when he attempted to activate the ignition sequence, the terminal failed because a certain Human had tampered with the circuitry. Without missing a beat, he reached in through an access panel and manually connected the circuit.

"Damn," she muttered.

He fought back a second urge to taunt her, but not the satisfied smile that came with it.

She narrowed her eyes at his smug expression, but mounted the skimmer. "Do I get a helmet?"

"No, it might encourage you to jump off."

"Spoilsport."

He activated the protective blast fields, retracted the landing gear and the skimmer lifted into the air with a whine. He pivoted it around slowly, to give Yar a moment to find the most secure position, then accelerated toward the compound. He deliberately increased speed while banking, forcing her to grab onto his waist. The satisfaction was short-lived, because she loosened her grip and leaned back once he was forced to slow at the main gate which appeared in sight all too soon.

When he veered left toward the airstrip, instead of right past the barracks to the central facility, she peered around his shoulder but didn't waste energy trying to shout over the wind-blast. He wound his way past the parked transport shuttles out into the peripheral field where erei'Enriov Tal's personal transport, a scout ship over three times the size of a troop transport shuttle, was parked. The new scout ships were styled on the recently built D'deridex-class class warbirds, evident in the downward swept nose of the ship and low slung warp coils. The metal hull was a fresh, gleaming green, the traditional colorful decorative cladding discontinued on the grounds of unnecessary cost. Over time, it would oxidize into a matte, ivy.

Tal was nowhere in sight, so Volskiar brought the skimmer to a stop, setting down right underneath one of the ship's stubby wings. He felt Yar slide off before he could explain why they were here, so he swung a leg over his perch to sit crosswise.

She had her head craned up to study the wing and he knew when she spotted the phase canons and torpedo tubes because she walked over to get a closer look. From there, she went to the hull, found the deflector dish, and then moved from bow to stern, dragging her fingers, hand over her head, along the uneven green metal the entire way. She only let go once the tail swung up over her head too high to touch and again, paused to study the rear gun arrangement. Then she disappeared around the other side.

Volskiar folded his hands together in his lap and waited. Due to the perpetual wind buffeting the airstrip, and his helmet, he didn't hear Tal approaching.

"And will you be helping her to escape, as well, sir?" Tal stood at loose attention, hands clasped behind his back, the sunlight catching on the gold threading of his fleet tunic. As with most senior officers, he'd dispensed with the helmet so both his hair and red rank sash caught on the breeze.

"She is not attempting to escape." He hoped she wasn't, though he'd expected to see her round the bow by now. Just as he prepared to hop off the skimmer, Tal looked up shading his eyes, backing up several paces.

"Seems she found the accommodation ladder."

Volskiar dismounted to walk out from beneath the wing. Sure enough, Yar had climbed up on top of the scout ship. She was sliding her way over the central hull, picking her footing across the forward guns and down the wing. Laying on her stomach, she held on to the forward edge and peered over the mouth of the phase canon. She wrapped an arm around it to brace herself more securely to examine it in greater detail.

Tal looked down, rubbing the inside corner of his eye but politely didn't comment.

Volskiar decided to enjoy the view as Yar, for all intents and purposes, fondled the ship.

Tal cleared his throat. "Respectfully, sir, that is my ship."

"Parked on my airstrip." He ignored the fleet commander until Yar backed off the wing, standing up to look into the sky to identify the source of angry avian shrieking.

One of the resident hawks that lived on a nearby sensor tower was being harassed by two far smaller birds, both taking turns pummeling raptor with their claws and wings, dive bombing it in rapid arcs. The hawk wheeled in the air, dove, flung itself back up and finally veered off from the stubborn attack.

Up on the wing, Yar grinned down at him, barely visible except for the bright flash of teeth. For one heart-stopping second, he saw unabashed happiness on her face. Then she spotted Tal and stopped smiling. She promptly headed back the way she'd come, and shortly dropped to the ground. Walking under the keel, she trotted back to the skimmer, keeping her distance from the fleet officer.

Tal turned to face her, giving a polite and wholly unnecessary bow, before turning his back without saluting Volskiar. Volskiar knew he ought to reprimand the offense, but he didn't want to spoil Yar's obvious good mood anymore than Tal's simple presence had. Tal knew that, no doubt, that oily little traitor. He always was and always would be Charvanek's right hand no matter what the orders from High Command.

"Is this his ship?"

"The Victorious is his ship. This scout is a personal transport because he is too important to use a mere shuttle."

She raised her eyebrows, making a face. "You don't like him."

"He does not like me. Tal was Charvanek's first officer before she so ineptly lost a prototype cloaking device to your Captain Kirk because she was unduly enamored of his Vulcan first officer. Now he is under my command and his vessel is my transport."

"I see." She held up a hand. "Do me a favor and leave me out of those century old personal vendettas. I wasn't even born yet, okay?"

"I have no intention of involving you. Come, I must attend a meeting with him shortly." He mounted the skimmer but she continued to look at the scout ship with an expression he couldn't place. It wasn't at all like the wistful gaze that formed unbidden when she watched the ships departing from the compound through a window. He pretended to busy himself adjusting controls that needed none.

She looked back up at the wing, he guessed at the canon, and because her attention was so intent, he doubted she realized he saw her lick her lips. Just a quick darting gesture, swiftly interrupted by the ignition whine from his skimmer and he mentally cursed. He filed away that expression for future reference and found himself irrationally envying the ship. She came back to the skimmer somewhat reluctantly.

He ferried them back to the engineering facility, rather than the central one, and shooed her off the skimmer. Leaving it airborne, he slid down beside her on the ground and beckoned to a nearby technician. The man ran out to attend him and he told the engineer to repair the ignition circuitry. The man looked at the skimmer, then promptly at Yar, but didn't say anything before nodding once.

Volskiar set an easy pace walking, conscious that she harbored unseen injuries, and she followed, still making no admission of guilt in the matter. He wasn't honestly expecting one.

The hawk screeched again and Yar looked over her shoulder before smiling down at the ground. "Those two sparrows showed him."

"Her," he corrected, absently, watching the raptor circle around her nest. In it, the smaller, drab male mantled, calling to her in hiccupping croaks. When she called back, he burst into the air and the two hawks spiraled up into a thermal.

"Oh." She shrugged. "Birds aren't my specialty."

"The female is larger and more colorful amongst most raptors. At this time of the year, both will hunt together. If they have young, the male will more often stay at the nest and guard them while she hunts."

"Unless she runs into sparrows."

"I do not know what the small birds were, but many will protect their nesting territory fiercely. They make poor meals for the effort required, so the hawk turns away."

"She's just chicken."

"Chicken?"

"A Terran species of domesticated fowl. We eat them," she clarified. "And they're so fat they can't really fly much."

He snorted. "We have similar fowl but that hawk is hardly a chicken. She is pragmatic."

"You need to quit using that word."

"Why?"

"Because I think words like 'self-indulgent' are more accurate."

"Already!" He stopped walking, turning on her in frustration.

"Already what?"

"Already your mood grows sullen."

"Can't help it."

Enough was enough. She could at least show some token amount of gratitude. "I am in no way obligated to indulge your whims or offer you entertainment, Lieutenant."

"Good, then don't, master." She started walking back toward the central facility and her quarters. "You wanna know something? My people have this old saying about how it's better to have something than nothing, but I think it's worse when you have something to lose." She forced out a thin, polite smile, then practically sneered out, "Thanks for taking me for a walk. Woof."

He frowned in puzzlement. How was taking her for a walk cause for offense? What in the world did 'woof' mean? Why was she furious with him when he had permitted her to examine the ship? His own patience was strained by the constant effort needed to corral her, never mind the baffling turns of phrase.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. "I realize this could be a lot worse for me, but please don't taunt me with things I can't have, okay? Just let Soronar, or whoever, knock me around and drag me back but don't play this game."

"I was not taunting you," he explained, quelling an unexpected dismay. It shouldn't matter to him.

"I know." It looked like she would add more, but fell silent for a time. "You better go to your meeting. I know the way to my quarters."

He nodded, knowing this was as close to an apology as he would get or could expect to receive from a prisoner. But as they started to part ways at the hall junction, he gave in to curiosity. "Yar, what is 'woof'?"

With an openly pained expression, she cursed quietly to herself. "It's a dog, an animal we often keep as pets, like your set'leths. They bark or 'woof' and you have to take them for a walk every day or else they run around the house, chew everything and crap on the floor. We call them 'man's best friend' because they'll usually adore their owner no matter how badly they're mistreated."

So that was a dog. His family never had the means to own a set'leth or kharakh but he knew they needed to be taken for walks to vent pent up energy, as well. He wanted to say that he did not expect affection from her, a comfortable tolerance at best, but settled on, "You are not a dog."

"Yeah huh." She turned to leave again.

"Yar."

"What?"

"My people have a saying as well: 'He who hoods the hawk must feed it.'" He opened his mouth to explain his actions, inexplicably drawn to defend himself, but gave up. He realized his mistake as soon as she canted her head to one side, with that same pained amusement she had displayed in his kitchen.

She shook her head sadly. "So I'm a bird instead of a dog. Thanks for answering the question. Enjoy the rest of your day." Just like that, as if slamming an invisible door between them, she ended the conversation by leaving, head down, mood somber.

He groaned to himself, pinching the bridge of his nose. He was no master of strategy when it came to women. His people had a great many adages concerning birds of prey and another was that the falconer must never neglect to permit the hawk its fair share of a kill, else it would shun the hunt entirely. It was true that the bird was an animal but it was one synonymous with all that was Rihannsu. The comparison was hardly an insult. He started to call her back because he had intended to give her the data crystals she had assumed he intended to confiscate, then changed his mind.

At this point, Yar would interpret the gift as a pacifying gesture and she was right. On the other hand, she couldn't expect him to grant her freedom and she had compared him to a dog, first. If she were the bridge officer she claimed to be, she understood his obligation to the corps preceded any desire to alleviate her dissatisfaction. Narviat would jump at the smallest opening to demote him if his control over a state prisoner became too lax and then command of at least this division would fall to Soronar. That man had more concern for advancement than protecting worthless, low born canon-fodder.

By the time he reached the tactical analysis room, Soronar had begun the meeting with Tal and two of the senior regiment commanders, without him. He suppressed a desire to shove the man out of his way, instead going to stand beside Tal. Proper form required Soronar to step back from his proxy position.

Volskiar was aware of the featherweight pressure of the data-crystals in his pocket as he dismissed Soronar with, "You may return to your post."

In his presence, his first officer was reduced to over-seeing the training operations, with nominal authority over the medical and security companies. He had no excuse to attend combat preparations. When he heard the door open and close, he tried to concentrate on Tal's explanation of the fleet maneuvers and how and when the infantry regiments would be deployed. Instead, he weighed the fact that Yar had refused a trade with Soronar but accepted one with him, astutely picking her way across an unofficial battlefield.


(10)

2345

Yar showed no surprise when he appeared one afternoon with two Havrannsu bodyguards, though she did eye them warily and stand. She appraised his dress uniform. "Are we going somewhere?"

"Yes. I have been invited to a celebration honoring the birth of Senator Fuldeznek's son. You will attend with me." He didn't waste breath reminding her that as his consort, she was expected to attend and failure would evoke pernicious speculation amongst his peers. He gestured at the guards. "They will serve as escorts."

She made a face at the tall, expressionless bodyguards. "Is it that time already?"

"Yes." He held forth a bundle of clothing. "Wear this."

She started, seeing the black and gold colors, then noticing the bulk of cloth indicated it was not her uniform. He had debated whether to provide her with colors matching the current Starfleet uniforms or her own, and had decided it might be convenient if the attending guests were misled. With a look that curdled blood, she took the dress robes, tucking them under her arm. "Knew you'd find some way to rub my nose in it."

He mulled over the idiom, but its meaning seemed relatively obvious. "Your uniform was damaged."

"Easy to fix."

"Would you wear it?"

"I'd burn it first," she growled in promise.

He raised a shoulder, smirking. "As I suspected. If you have difficulty with the fastenings or order, I will assist you."

She made a moue. "I think I can figure out how to dress, thanks."

"Ah, more of your curious familiarity with our customs?"

"Nah. I've been here for a while and I'm a quick study."

He smiled slyly, and agreed. "Yes."

She ground her teeth and flushed, stepping away to turn her back on him. "Go to the security room and watch me change."

He laughed and departed, but his mood wasn't so light when they reached Senator Fuldeznek's estate. His military transport was dull matte green, in marked contrast to most of the sleek, sophisticated private shuttles assembled. This event was a High Born affair, but as the nobles knew their power was entwined with the military, higher ranked flag officers from the security forces and fleet were also invited. His rank allowed him the entry his mean birth would never have permitted as anything other than a bond-servant.

On the outside, the estate was restrained, sedate, the quality of stone and metalwork in the barrier wall, and facade the only warning of the ostentatious wealth within the private residence. Volskiar ignored the excess on display, the wasted resources, hoarded to satisfy the avarice of a House Major. He spoke little, except to return greetings, for every word he offered would be twisted some other way by clever preening nobles who barely suffered his presence. Instead, he watched in polite disinterest as the guests watched his consort.

It was exactly the group response he had anticipated. Most were fascinated by the Human woman, by her unusual complexion amongst a people who were largely dark featured, and by the knowledge of what she was. Humans were encountered as smugglers crossing the Outmarches, or through long-range communications when they rarely occurred. For those that didn't immediately recognize her, the stark black dress robes, highlighted by Starfleet gold, effectively reminded them. Most of the curious had the well-trained manners to feign passing interest, rather than stare directly, but there were notably exceptions, most by the nobles who could afford such rudeness.

Yar feigned even greater disinterest, keeping her chin level but her eyes downcast and focused in the general area directly to front. She said nothing, but this was due as much to the tendency of guests to greet him and skip her, than as obstinacy. Volskiar recognized the relaxed yet formal bearing of a soldier keeping at casual attention, bored and prepared to endure hours of tedium. It bore a striking resemblance to the shuttered expression she developed in response to an unwanted sexual advance and he hoped the guests found it equally maddening. He had warned her that her behavior would reflect on him and stabbing the guests was unacceptable, but he could not predict how she might react to genuine provocation.

Such as the one that was approaching. Erei'Enriov Norelm cut through the crowd, his wife Vopeya, following at a distance that indicated she did not wish to meet with Volskiar, but neither wished to be separated from her husband in the group.

"Ah, and here I thought you had lost her, this time." Norelm smiled at the barb.

"How could I be so careless?" He forced himself to smile back, lightly. "My guards are proficient."

Norelm kept smiling, though a tightness around his eyes indicated he didn't appreciate being reminded of his manipulation by Yar. "Quite fortunate," he agreed, "else we would never would have had the privilege of seeing this prize of yours."

Yar looked up at him, with cold eyes, then dropped her gaze again.

"Come to heel, has she?"

"She has proven quite obedient." Volskiar raised his chin, smirking lightly. In his peripheral vision, he saw her jaw bunch, then relax as she mastered whatever anger she felt. The tightness in his chest eased. He wasn't going to tell Norelm that she was obedient by her own choice, for her own reasons.

Norelm curled his lip in a vague sneer. "You will spare me the details of how you achieved that, in present company."

"But of course. I would not wish to upset a lady." Volskiar nodded politely at Vopeya.

She grimaced in disgust, revolted by his cultivated civility in contrast to the gist of the conversation. She looked at Yar with open pity, then turned her back in open contempt. "I believe I will attend Fuldeznek."

Volskiar ignored the snub. He needed to impress his peers, to remind the petty nobles his earned status could not be ignored, not pacify their mates. He saw Riov Charvanek walking in his direction, erei'Enriov Tal predictably in her company. The gall of those two, assuming he did not know his fleet second was more loyal to his former captain, than his appointed commander.

Norelm noticed their approach, as well. "I believe I should take my leave, Enriov."

It wasn't until Charvanek was in front of him that Volskiar realized Yar had grown attentive, radiating nervous energy. Charvanek was one of the few who chose to greet Yar, and before Volskiar at that. She could afford to do so, not merely because she was descended from a House Major, but because of her new, insulating relationship with the praetor, Narviat. "I am pleased to see you in good health, Lieutenant."

"Same to you," Yar cracked her first smile. "Didn't think I'd see you again."

She hadn't come to see him, so Charvanek limited herself to a fractional nod at him. "Volskiar."

"Charvanek," he acknowledged, equally terse. The two women had shared little time in the brig of the Victorious, certainly not enough to concoct any schemes, but if they had established a camaraderie, it might prove inconvenient.

Charvanek studied Yar carefully, then looked at the Havrannsu guards hanging back at a discreet distance. She looked back at Volskiar in distaste. "I thought you would have tired of her by now."

Volskiar felt himself flush and fought back the urge to fist his hands, or strike the arrogant woman. "I am not so fickle."

"Odd. I thought it aroused you to see a woman cringe from your touch." She raised her eyebrows high, feigning innocence. "Have you found a woman who tolerates your tender nature? I must say, that if you have, it is quite an achievement; you must be quite proud." She made her underlying point by looking meaningfully in the direction of the guards, implying he could take and keep a woman only by force, then smiling blandly.

For a moment, he wanted to spit at her. Her rank, different branch of the military non-withstanding, was below his. If she weren't high-born, he could challenge her for that insult. With his size and strength, his far greater experience in ground combat, he would kill her easily and end the miserable, snob's life, consort to the praetor, or not. It was that same worthless blood that kept her alive after her spectacular failure, her loss of the cloaking device to the Federation, over lust for a Vulcan, of all things. He might be known for his brief affairs, but at least he had never allowed desire to blind him to duty.

And she called him fickle. None of these nobles knew what it meant to struggle all one's life to earn everything by merit alone, to be denied precious or fine things because they were considered unworthy, uncouth, uneducated and hopelessly beneath such rewards. He took a step forward, hand on the hilt of his blade.

She chuckled. Beside her, Tal matched his step.

Volskiar took a deep breath. Tal would claim, if questioned, that he had attacked Charvanek unprovoked, for speaking simple truths that all knew. He would claim he had no choice but to defend his fellow commander, and it would reflect poorly on Volskiar to quarrel with his own second fleet officer. So he took another breath and dropped his hand. It shouldn't matter to him what assumptions others made over his behavior toward a prisoner serving as a consort. They were perfectly reasonable assumptions.

It was his experience that Charvanek had a firmly set view of his nature, and he wouldn't be surprised to learn that she had been the first one to call him the 'butcher'. Nor did he bother explaining that near daily sparring sessions, involving a high contact martial art, had inured Yar to his touch. If anything, she was more likely to startle and shy away from light contact. He could imagine Charvanek's amusement if he told her that Yar by far preferred he throw a comfortingly predictable punch, or shout in frustration when her behavior became peculiar to the point of unfathomable.

Forcing his tone to sound amused and insinuating, for such was expected of him, he said, "She has a stern constitution."

"She must." Charvanek raked him over dismissively.

He threw back his shoulders, standing straight, taking malicious satisfaction in her ill concealed distaste. She preferred men like Narviat, with his lean build and aquiline face. He waited for her tire from craning her head back to look up at him, standing at a personal distance as she was. He smiled at her and prayed desperately that Yar would not choose this moment to interfere.

Charvanek's expression soured. "When she tires of your affections, I am certain the State would consider her a valuable resource, one that ought not be squandered." She looked Yar in the eyes, as she offered an escape, if she would but cooperate by providing information about the Federation.

Volskiar wanted to ask her if she thought Yar was an imbecile to trust such a bribe. Neither Charvanek nor Narviat would have a legitimate reason to keep Yar under their protection, especially if the official justification for snatching her from his keeping was to ensure strategic advantage. Either of them would be forced to hand her to the Tal Shiar for interrogation and, ultimately, execution. Or did Charvanek believe that Yar was so desperate to be free she would risk a plea bargain?

Charvanek bowed once, when he said nothing, a stiff enforced act of politesse to a commoner, and made her way back to Narviat. Tal hesitated, before imitating her and departing separately.

Volskiar breathed a mental sigh of relief, ignoring his informal audience of nearby guests, but when he checked on Yar, he was appalled to see her watching Charvanek, who was engaged in conversation with Narviat. Her face was speculative. When she caught him looking, she made no effort to conceal her calculations, giving a minuscule, insolent shrug. Some of the guests glanced at him in frank amusement, though he deigned to acknowledge it. He wheeled about and was satisfied to hear Yar fall in step beside him.

The remainder of the evening was uneventful and during the meal, he adopted Yar's strategy of tuning out the idle political chatter of freshly minted consuls cutting each other to pieces with pretty words, the magistrate to his left pontificating on colonial statutes, and a gaggle of nobles bickering over which grocer provided the best produce. After eating, he was relieved to find erei'Enriov Javerek arriving to his rescue from absolute boredom, initiating a discussion about the upcoming campaign on Bara'nesh II and which conniving Senator was secretly responsible for the ostensible civil revolt. Peripherally, he kept track of Yar but she didn't seem to have any scheme planned, despite her interest in Charvanek's offer, and the bodyguards would keep her out of trouble.

Javerek noticed his intermittent attention, saying with a smile on his lined face, "Worried she will outrun your guards? With those legs she might do it, eh?"

Volskiar frowned at his old friend. "She will not run."

"Ah, the meek sort." Javerek grunted thoughtfully. "Not your type."

"Meek?" he repeated, allowing his friend to hear the incredulous disbelief and amusement. "Like a thrai, perhaps." He watched Yar approach the boggling array of light foods spread on a table, as she determined which ones she could safely eat. "But smarter than one."

Javerek raised his eyebrows, looked at Yar, then the two Havrannsu guards who were both armed with disruptor pistols and stun batons. "I see."

Volskiar raised a shoulder in acknowledgment, and shifted the conversation back to tactical matters. He was debating how best to flush out militia cells with the admiral, when the commotion alerted him. Erei'Enriov Javerek was already stepping past him and he hurried to catch up, without appearing to run. A circle was forming around Yar and a liveried bond-servant. She was holding him by the wrist while he stood straight in affront, despite her visible fury.

The servant glanced around the gathered crowd and attempted to pull his arm free. It was all the momentum Yar needed. She moved into his reach, following the motion of his arm to tip him backward. He stumbled and she raised her right arm, hand clenched flat, the fingers curving slightly. The servant assumed she intended to slap him in histrionic feminine rage and moved to block his face with his left arm.

Volskiar bit the tip of his tongue and waved a negating hand at the bodyguards, who were moving to intercept her attack. He watched in anticipation as Yar tensed, rising up on the balls of her feet and snapped her arm down in a vicious chop, connecting with the servant's clavicle. He gasped and grabbed at the fractured bone, while Yar turned the wrist she still held, twisting his hand palm up, distending his elbow and sliding forward to jam her knee under it.

The servant went pale, broke into a sweat and flapped his other arm, his mouth open in breathless pain. Yar ignored him, reaching to take something from his right hand. She examined the object. From his vantage point, Volskiar identified a single use hypospray, easily concealed. He also saw the abrasion on the back of her hand, and felt ill.

Her faced twisted into outright rage and she wrapped her hand around the hypospray, swinging it in an explosive arc at the servant's temple. She stopped short, her fist shaking while the servant pissed himself, then frantically twisted and flailed to escape the hypospray. Wheezing, he collapsed from the burst of pain from his immobilized arm. Yar bared the tips of her teeth, breathing hard, looking down to gather herself, and released the man. She took several steps back, knuckles white around the hypospray.

Volskiar came to her side, holding out a hand discreetly. She rolled her head, cracking the bones of her neck, and gave it to him, never removing her focus from the injured servant. The man looked up at her, sullenly, at Volskiar, then at the ground in frustrated dismay. Without a word, he grabbed at his honor blade, sliding it free from the scabbard and slitting his throat in a single, smooth arc.

Yar was unperturbed. "If I knew he was going to do that, I'd have saved him the trouble."

"Magnificent," crowed erei'Enriov Javerek.

Yar stared at him blankly. "I hope you don't mean the part where he tried to poison me." She stretched her wounded hand, taking it in the other to finger the cut carefully. "And here I thought I was going to die from boredom."

Someone from the audience laughed. "I did not know she could talk."

Senator Sahmen, a relatively young man, with the smooth narrow features and queued hair of a noble, broke from the group to walk around the dead servant. "It is not her speech that is incredible." He stepped tidily over the growing pool of blood, pumped by a heart that beat in slowing futility. Sahmen appraised her openly, but when he raised a hand to touch her face, she evaded, withdrawing pragmatically behind Volskiar.

He leaned forward, impeding Sahmen.

Sahmen cocked his head, asking with confidence, "How much?"

"She is mine."

"Yes. How much to part with her?"

Volskiar could practically sense Yar bristling behind him. "You cannot have her."

"You forget your place," Sahmen said, icily.

For the first time that evening, Volskiar regretted bringing her. The situation wasn't unfolding as he imagined, or rather, it was, but to a greater extreme than he had expected. It was the original plan, to amuse himself, break her will, provide a spectacle that would cement his success, and discard her. Or, as the case might be, hand her off to another. Yet he found himself holding his blade and menacing a man who was undeniably his superior.

Sahmen didn't move, rearing his head back. "You dare? You idiot." He waved a hand, causing the audience to move back en masse, providing space, and reached for his own blade.

"Gentlemen," interrupted Narviat, adroitly, in a calm, soothing voice. "I believe there has been enough bloodshed to entertain us tonight." He stepped nearly between them, nonchalantly holding a wine glass in one hand.

"This trumped-up maggot defied me."

"Mm." Narviat shrugged, slowly. "That trumped-up maggot has served the Empire well."

"By losing half the fleet in a misbegotten raid?"

"Dralath's mad scheme," said Narviat, in a bored tone that brooked no argument. "And despite that handicap, Volskiar did take the Enterprise." He smiled thinly, then looked past both contenders at Yar. "Altogether a more valuable prize to the Empire than satisfaction of personal whims, would you not agree?"

When he continued forward, both Volskiar and Sahmen were forced to part way. Sahmen sighed and ceded gracefully, relaxing to watch the praetor. Volskiar sheathed his blade, frustrated by how his hand shook. He tried to guess Yar's response, but she was blinking in bemused horror at the entire altercation. She craned to look around Narviat and Volskiar tracked her gaze, spying Charvanek.

Narviat offered his wine glass to Yar, but she shook her head. "It would be deplorable if this opportunity to learn more about the Federation and its Starfleet was lost. I believe-"

Yar shook her head slightly, but not at him, at Charvanek, who jerked in disbelieving surprise. Her face was tight with anxiety, when she looked back at Narviat and he raised his eyebrows in surprise. Looking over his shoulder, he checked with Charvanek, who held out her hands and, after a moment, shook her head.

Narviat sipped from his glass to cover his lapse. "I believe that Volskiar has demonstrated he can be trusted to safeguard such a resource." He smiled insincerely. "Let him savor his victory."

Volskiar waited for his heart to stop pounding while Narviat departed languidly, cuing the audience to disperse in turn. He took Yar by the arm, nudging her toward the main doors, pausing so the bodyguards could fall in to escort them. "We have stayed long enough."

"Yeah," mumbled Yar, "any longer and I might stab one of these self-absorbed, slimy fucks."

"You use such eloquent phrasing."

Yar failed to quip in response and he examined her closely. Her skin was lighter than normal, a faint sheen of sweat on her forehead, the pulse at her neck was elevated and her breath was quick and shallow. For a Human, anyway. He took her hand, checking the welt, now red and inflamed, then picked up their pace holding her steady. She needed medical attention and he didn't trust Fuldeznek's staff.

She shook her hand, rubbing it and said, slurring, "He tagged me." She blinked hard, attempting to clear her vision. "So much for bodyguards."

"There is an emergency medical kit in my transport."

"Bet I die, anyway."

"It is more likely you were dosed with a hallucinogenic agent designed to make a victim susceptible to suggestion." He guided her to his shuttle, taking the rationale to heart. Now that they were outside, he could take a closer look at the hypospray. The chamber was full, which meant Yar had received a trace dose. If such a minuscule amount was causing such symptoms, the full injection would have sent her into immediate cardiac arrest. "I have given my enemies no reason to believe murdering you would impact me."

She yawned. "It's so sweet when you lie to make me feel better."

"Sit down."

"Okay."

"Stand on your head and sing."

She opened her mouth, blinking, then frowned. "I can't stand on my head." Confounded, she asked him, "Why would I stand on my head?"

"No reason." He nodded with a measure of relief, and sat beside her, pulling her close with his arm. Her good judgment was impaired, but her wits present. Her condition did not seem to be worsening, but he didn't waste time extracting a general purpose anti-toxin from the emergency medical kit. He pressed the hypospray to her neck. "I am pleased you chose to ally with me over Charvanek."

She yawned again, rubbing the injection site. "Dunno why she would help me. And she's with Narviat, so he'd have to give me to Lethren." She relaxed against him. "She really doesn't like you but I guess you destroyed her ship and killed the crew so I can understand that. I mean, you killed mine too, but you were supposed to do that."

"I see." If meeting a drunken Yar in a bar had taught him one thing, it was that argument was futile and demanding rational explanation moreso. Instead, he allowed himself to savor the way she curled against him and indulged in the fantasy that she trusted him. She wouldn't glower in hostility in her current state, so he played with her hair, enjoying the texture, and ran a finger around her ear.

"Hm," she sighed, and tilted her head to one side, offering better access.

He quelled his excitement. Tomorrow, she would rightly insist her judgment had been impaired by a central neural system depressant. Then she would blame him and Aranar would berate his judgment. Then Yar would insist he had every right to do as he pleased and the end result would put him further from his goal. It wasn't fair, especially since he didn't want to stop stroking her ear and neck when she closed her eyes to concentrate on his touch. Charvanek was as wrong as possible about that; he loathed seeing a woman cringe as much as he despised a man who whimpered and whined. With a frustrated sigh, he withdrew his hand, brushing his palm across the back of her neck.

She shuddered and twisted her shoulders free, pulling away from him.

He maintained his composure. Sometimes drugged responses were the most honest ones and he should not be upset by this one. When he became aware of her unbroken attention, he glanced over to witness something unexpected. She wasn't angry. She was assessing him visually, very frankly, a crease of worry or some other tension between her brows.

She twisted around in her seat to face him more directly. "Why'd you stop?"

He opened his mouth and said nothing, the prepared answer being incorrect. He tried again, but only managed, "Akhh."

"Akhh?" She tipped her head back, looking at the roof of the transport. "That doesn't mean anything." Rolling her head back, she bit her lower lip as if considering a serious dilemma. She went back to studying him.

It was a waste of words, but he tried regardless. "It would be best if I did not fondle you." He put his hands on his knees, motioning with his head around the confines of the transport. "There is time and opportunity and you will be very angry with me in the morning."

"So?"

"I do not want your anger."

She didn't move. "Huh."

"Yes, 'huh'," he repeated.

She moved carefully, bracing herself against the seat, using his arm as a support, her other hand on his shoulder. He wondered if she was preparing to climb over him, when she looked him in the face. "Hold still."

"What are you-"

She made a face, looking off to the side. "You might think it's weird, but hold still. And don't bite."

"Why would I-"

She licked her lips, and pressed them to his, and he froze with his hands in the air. He felt her tongue trace the outline of his lips, before she nibbled on his lower lip and took advantage of his gasp to dart her tongue in his mouth. He remembered reading about this. She slid her hands up to cup his jaw, holding him in place with a light grip, but he didn't know where to put his, curling them in his lap to keep out of her way. It was strange, but not unpleasant, so he did it back.

She broke off the kiss, unhooking her leg from where she had climbed onto his thigh, and averted her face. She was licking her lip, her face pensive and breath uneven. "Huh," she said again and twisted back around to flop down in her seat, without another word.


(11)

2345

His shoulder hit the mat and Yar put a foot on his back, twisting his arm until it wrenched. Attempting to rise or twist free only made the situation worse, but her foot was right beside his head. So he licked her ankle and she shrieked in surprise, releasing him as she darted away.

"Fucking weirdo," she said, wiping her foot on her loose black pants.

He stood, rolling his shoulder to stretch the muscle back out. She had not locked the hold as firmly as possible, perhaps because she knew his wrist was still tender from the healed fracture she had inflicted a few days earlier. Aranar had laughed, splinting the injury. He grinned now at her show of disgust.

Yar was agitated and over-exerting herself. When he feinted with a sharp jab of his fist, she gripped him poorly and he took the advantage. With satisfaction, he watched her hit the ground, unharmed but disoriented. He did not waste time applying a hold, using unfairly, a Rihannsu form she did not recognize. When she could not break free, she cursed in a language the translator did not parse, and slapped the mat.

"Hah."

"You're cheating." She was breathing hard, flat on her back, sweat matting hair to her forehead.

"I am in a pleasant mood." He set a knee on her shoulder and the other on the upper thigh of her nearest leg. She scowled at him and the sudden tension in her body was his only warning. He clamped his right hand over the knee of her free leg. "No kicking! You yielded."

With her free hand, she shoved on his knee. "You're cheating," she repeated.

"I am not cheating. I am taking a break."

"As if you're tired."

"No, but you are distracted."

"I'm not-" She stopped, because he had pulled the lapels of her tunic free from the waistband of her hakama. "Hey!"

He pressed his palm against her sternum, feeling the rapid beat of her heart. "You are restless."

"If that's a euphemism for 'horny as hell', yeah, but I don't need or want your help with that."

"But I can help." He put the same hand to his own chest, as if his heart was in the same location, and said, "I have been studying."

"Aw, that's sweet, really," she answered in a pained voice, "but I don't like being watched, so you're wasting your time." She punched his inner thigh, aiming for a nerve point. "And this isn't how you offer help."

He grunted, momentarily thrown by her accurate strike, then re-centered. "Please do not do that again."

He retaliated by grazing his fingers along the underside of her breasts. She gasped, then bared her teeth, quite literally hissing at him in anger. It could not disguise her erect nipples, that strange beige, tinged with pink. He alternated between cupping her breasts, drawing his palm around her ribs and across her stomach, grazing his knuckles along her collarbone, and back down to smooth a thumb over one nipple.

She made a strangled noise and glared at him. "Stop." Her breath was uneven, the pupils of her eyes dilated, and her expression took on a frantic edge. "Let me go."

He sighed, and shifted the weight off his knees, standing back. He watched as she rolled away, up onto her hands and knees, then settled back into seiza. She dragged a hand through her hair, but hung her head, so strands immediately sprang forward again. Catching her breath, she avoided looking at him, while setting her uniform to rights. She made no accusation against him and he politely did not remind her of their bargain.

She stood, shifting automatically into an open fighting stance and he realized with satisfaction that she was not ending their sparring session. Indeed, there was hostility in her eyes and she gave him little warning before attacking. It was still aikido, but now she did not allow strike openings to pass and he was forced to block a flurry of punches and chops snuck in between the usual grabs and throws.

He put aside her aikido and switched to the more familiar llaekh-ae'rl his people practiced. Yar noticed the change in technique quickly, adjusting the strength of her own attack to one of ferocity. It was a problem. She must know that if he defended himself with equivalent force, she risked grievous injury, but she continued to press the attack with sullen determination. Either she sought to be struck down, or she hoped Echael would send guards to subdue her seemingly murderous rage, with the same end result.

So he did not strike her down, enduring several painful nerve strikes that he was certain were neither aikido nor kung fu, but most closely resembled v'shan. She saw when he stayed his hand each time, a flash of ill-tempered irritation in her eyes.

He licked blood off his lip, where a punch as left him with a small cut, courtesy of the tooth underneath. Yar had paused, circling in temporary exhaustion. Her anger, not gone, was largely replaced by intent focus but he could see from a small stumble here, the way she stretched her arm and craned her neck, that she was tired. Tired and no less frustrated.

He taunted, "You have left me standing," and walked toward her as if he would attack.

She wheeled, but her defense was off balance, as her attention was more on ending the match than him. She lost her footing, but took him with her, grabbing him by the elbow and wrist, and went to her knees. That was no help to him, for her fighting form could be done while kneeling. Fortunately, she was exhausted and he was able to acquire a firm grip on her right wrist, using superior strength to hold her arm out. She could not break his hold and came to a stop.

"You're sweating," she said in bald satisfaction.

"Yes." He drew her arm in to rest her hand on his thigh, easing his grip but not letting her loose. She curled it into a fist. "Has your frustration eased?"

She rolled her eyes at the ceiling. "Let me go."

"Hm." He bowed his head until his nose almost brushed her ear, and inhaled. "Are you certain you do not wish me to assist you?"

"It may shock you to learn this, but the answer to everything is not the almighty cock."

From the direction of the conversation, as well as her acerbic tone, he could guess what the slang term meant, but he couldn't stop his smile. The trouble with universal translators was that the device could stumble over colloquialisms, rendering them literally. "A bird? You use a word that means bird?"

"Yeah, hilarious," she agreed crossly.

"I like this new word, but it may shock you to learn, that is not what I was suggesting. If I understand correctly, ritual combat will not help you." Reaching out, he brushed back the unruly bangs of hair that so frustrated her attempts to keep them in order. In her curiosity, she permitted the touch. "You have aggravated your symptoms, yes?"

"Symptoms? This isn't pon far."

"Sadly, not as convenient but," he grinned broadly, "more of a challenge."

"Quit gloating. If I told you once-"

He raised a hand, gesturing in the air, a slice of his fingers horizontally. Yar was watching and when she met his eyes suspiciously, he raised an eyebrow and smiled.

She sighed in aggravation, knowing he had eliminated her last rational defense. She pulled her arm, testing his grip, but made no complaint when he worked the knot of her belt loose. He didn't want it in the way. Pulling the long black strip of cloth free, he coiled it over her shoulders, then frowned.

"Why do you have two belts?"

She smiled, smugly. "Tradition."

"A strange tradition." He tossed the second, shorter black belt on the floor, his own smile pulling at the scab forming on his lip. Checking her mood, he discovered she was watching him with wary, fatigued attention. Most importantly, she was fully alert, looking at him, not through him with that usually shuttered gaze. He touched the back of his hand to her jaw, to see if she flinched away, but she remained rock steady. She was too irritated to be professional.

She merely watched him inquisitively, patiently waiting to see what he would do next. That was what he liked most about her aikido, it required a great deal of near constant physical contact. It was impossible to maintain a cool distance or self-conscious, awkward hesitation after sparring with a given person, over time. Being wrenched around or hurled on the floor wasn't particularly erotic or pleasant, but it was a small price to pay for an accustomed partner.

She pulled with her arm, a small tug to test his grip, but he held fast. "It'll be a lot easier for me to get my clothes off if you let go," she prompted him.

"I do not require you to disrobe."

He saw humor flash in her eyes, the corner of her lip curl up. "Uh huh, I see. What do you want?"

He smiled back at her blunt, direct question. It was more or less how she viewed their arrangement, with her own desires being irrelevant to the equation. He doubted that was true for her, and it definitely wasn't for him. She could no longer claim not to know him, nor to being incapable of physical response for her scent was plain as day to him. It had to be a matter of principle, some ethical code her people had. In studying her language and customs, he thought he might have stumbled on the answer.

Her people had one word for consent. His people had two. In his language, one word referred to consent given willingly, the other to it given unwillingly. In both cases, it was considered given, by law, by tradition and social custom. He had done no wrong. In her language, the word was most similar to the first definition, the latter form being invalid, called 'duress'. In which case, he did not have her consent. From his perspective, it was utter deceit because she had agreed, but she had not meant it. It was a problem, for she was not among her people.

She sighed at him, her patience wearing thin. Her respiration had eased, slowing with rest. She remained in the active form of seiza, perched up on the balls of her feet, knees spread like a tripod, ready to twist free should he allow it. He saw the muscle in her shoulder tremor, pause, then tremor again and recalled catching it hard with a chop, earlier in practice. "Whatever you want me to do, it'll be easier with both hands free. I promise I won't hit you just because no one's watching."

"I will not release your hand, but I will offer you mine." Of course she would not strike him, now that no one would come to interrupt. If she desired his life, she would have made the attempt weeks ago. So he pushed aside the lapel of her gi, clasping his palm over her injured shoulder, kneading the muscle. She shifted a bit, in surprise and he took the opportunity to wedge his knee between hers.

"You don't have to bother with-" she started to grumble, already irritated.

"Stop complaining. You enjoy this. In this matter, what you enjoy, I enjoy." He savored her skin. It was warmer than usual, owing to her recent exertion, and he worked the muscle until he felt her shoulder drop. She put her chin against her chest, resting and he continued along her back, up her neck, to the other shoulder. Smoothing his hand back around, he put two fingers on her jugular. Her pulse was up again.

She was leaning forward, her forehead nearly brushing his chest, but he could see her eyes were closed. So he brushed his fingertips up the side of her neck, behind her ear and was pleased by her shudder. Not so much by the way she straightened, taking a deep breath, in response. She licked her lips, nervously, eyeing his with suspicion. "Seriously, you don't-"

"Do you know," he began, while stroking down over her collarbone, along the outside of her breast, using his knuckles to trace circles around it, "you are very similar to a Rihannsu woman, but in some ways very different. I told you. I have been studying and I wish to test my knowledge." He saw the tell-tale tuck of her elbow, as she gradually tensed her side. Her nipple was erect, so he brushed the pad of his thumb across it and she failed to suppress a faint moan.

He leaned over to say against her ear, "I heard that." He felt her free hand fist up on his knee, pressing down.

"Yup," she muttered. "But you don't know what to do with it once you got it."

He chuckled against her neck, causing her to shiver, craning away a bit because it tickled. He licked under her ear, nibbling down the chord of muscle and she bent her head to one side to accommodate him. It was an awkward reach from his position, but he kept his hand occupied on her, using the back of his hand in a caress, along her sides, down her stomach until he bumped into the girdle of her hakama. Back up to trace her breasts until he felt her forehead touch his chest.

He slid his hand around the small of her back, cupping her hip, and tugged her closer until her groin bumped his knee. She could not prevent the way her hips rocked against him and he felt her breath hard several times against his tunic. She made a noise that could have been a moan, but sounded a bit more like a grumble of irritation. It was a good thing she couldn't see him smile, so he kissed that soft indent under her jaw where her pulse hammered.

She raised her fist from his knee and thumped it down, grinding her knuckles into a pressure point right above the patella.

He swatted at her hand and she set it back on her own thigh. "I do not toy with you," he reassured her, breaking their mutual silence. "Will you permit me to assist you?"

She muttered.

He nudged her groin with his knee and she jerked with a sharp, involuntary moan. He saw her jaw clench and she tried to jerk her trapped hand free, again.

"Is my other option to stew in my quarters?"

"You may do whatever you wish in your quarters."

"You know damn well I'm not comfortable with the fucking camera."

"Yes, but it is better than barred windows and a locked door, eh?" He brought his hand to her waist, holding her in place gently for a moment, then tucked his fingers under the waistband of her inner breeches. He waited.

"Damn it." She exhaled in such frustration that her shoulders heaved. "Fine. Go ahead."

Despite her mental preparation, her eyes widened in momentary shock when he expediently pulled the long flaps of her tunic free and slid a hand into her breeches, tucking his knuckles between her legs. Her hips jerked away in reflex as she sucked in her breath, blinking. His hand was wet and he wanted to smile, but he couldn't risk offending her at this juncture. So, he pressed up, rolling his hand to identify the soft folds, warm even to his touch.

Yar dropped her head against his collarbone, rocking her hips slightly. She fisted her own free hand in the loose folds of her hakama. He heard her swallow.

He searched with his fingers and found, yes, there, small and firm, catching it between two fingers so that Yar grunted, and ground down on his hand. He increased the pressure, catching and following a rhythm she established, knowing to increase speed when she moaned involuntarily and punched him rather rudely, but clumsily in the ribs. She twisted a handful of his tunic, wrapping the gray cloth around her fist. He pulled her closer, wedging a knee between her thighs to brace her steady because she was shaking, and slid two fingers inside her because he wanted to feel. Her breath hitched, he circled his thumb fractionally and with a strangled noise, he felt the ripple and clench of muscles.

She sagged against him gasping in undeniable relief. She was saying something in her native language, repeating it while catching her breath, but he couldn't guess what it meant. For all he knew, she was cursing him again. Her hands, clenched tightly moments before, were slack and he supported her weight so she did not fall.

Already so close, he leaned forward to lick her neck, behind her ear, and eased his hand free. He rubbed his fingers together, slick with moisture, and brought his hand behind her head, smelling. Experimentally, he licked his fingers and smiled. He felt her hand tense back into a fist, where he held pressed against his thigh. He gave a small grunt of warning, then said, "If you strike me, I will pin you again, but this time I will not release you until I am quite finished. Do you understand?"

With her forehead still resting against his collarbone, she could not be unaware of the erection tenting his breeches, unless her eyes were closed, but that was unlikely. She was ever watchful. He held his breath, watching as her fist hovered in the air, shaking in labored control. He licked his upper lip, his attention solely on her decision and couldn't prevent the flood of disappointment when Yar dropped her fist to her side, resting it stiffly on her knee. He closed his eyes, cursing mentally and took a steadying breath that he instantly regretted.

She lifted her head, and said tightly, "Let go."

He blew a puff of air on the side of her neck and the wiry band of muscle, the rising curve of her shoulder, jerked. "Do not blame me for your body's betrayal, nor for your decision to continue this bout when you knew you ought to stop."

He released her wrist, and crawled backward, coming to a crouch on his heels. He avoided looking at her and distracted himself with quadratic equations, plasma charge yields and the appropriate ways to address a senior officer in various social settings, in respect to class origin. It would be so very easy to take what he wanted right now, and he was relatively certain she would be more than cooperative, but equally so that she would be knotted with rage within the following hour. To press the attack now would cost him the advantage.

She continued to kneel in seiza, a fist on each knee, and glared at the floor. "Don't tell me what I do and don't want."

"I am not, but we are all subject to the whims of indifferent biology. I have known men that, consumed by the fires, have coupled with women they despised." He shrugged, approximating casual sympathy. He took another deep breath and promptly backed away further. "So it is."

"Save it. Besides, you guys don't have pon far." Her eyes flicked up, catching his motion, not commenting on his methodical retreat, but the stiffness in her arms gradually bled away. Tucking her feet flat, she dropped down at rest.

"No." He smiled, pleased to see her spate of anger broken. "We are not so repressed to suffer such untimely consequence, but nor are we immune. In this manner, I understand what you-"

She cringed, and covered her ears. "Don't. Just don't. Save your sympathy because this doesn't mean I like you."

"Yes, I know." He stood, remember how she had responded the last time the sheer sound of his voice so upset her. "You despise me in your pleasure. I have experienced this feeling." He grinned at the quizzical face she made, all piled together with awkward dismay, lingering fury and the overwhelming smell of sex in the air. He needed to leave before he broke his word. "Tomorrow, we will spar again?"

She huffed at him, pulling her belt off her neck and shoulders. "Whatever."

"You may come to my quarters, if you prefer."

"No thanks."

"But I have something for you, there."

"I think I'll pass."

"It vibrates."

"It what? Your-" Yar covered her face, but too late, he saw the beginning of an involuntary smile. "For a minute I thought you meant... on, never mind."

He knew exactly what image her mind had conjured. The word play had not been an accident on his part. "Sadly, no, but I have this in my quarters if you wish to examine it."

Then she just stared at him, completely nonplussed, until her mask of offended disinterest slipped, mirth bubbling through and she laughed. She bent over, bracing her hands on her knees, wheezing in bald amusement, for once not the sarcastic, vaguely bitter chuckle that was more familiar to him. "What the hell is wrong with you?" she managed to ask.

"Nothing." He basked in the sensation of accomplishment. "I have a target objective and intend to win, so I use the weapons most appropriate for the task."

"I am not a target objective!"

"Oh? Do you renege on your challenge? For I do not believe you would be so dishonorable or cowardly."

Though she no longer laughed, her mood was improved because she sighed in exasperation rather than snap at him. "You don't have to call me chicken." She raised her eyebrows, shaking her head, making her opinion of that strategy clear.

He shrugged, gamely. "So that may be, but when you decide upon your own objective, please inform me. I must return to my duties."

He went, as had become routine, to the security monitor station where Echael awaited his signal to return the duty to the nearest available uhlan. He checked the screen showing Yar's quarters and was surprised to see that she was not meditating or bathing, but slumped in her bureau chair. Chin resting on her fist, she leaned to one side, looking out the window. She appeared to be brooding. It was a change from her pattern of behavior, but whether good or ill it remained to be seen.

"You will forgive me if I do not congratulate you, sir. I do not envy her position."

He glanced at her in bemusement. It was the closest Echael had ever come to censure, though he knew full well she agreed with Soronar and Norelm over his course of action. They considered this protracted struggle the height of self-indulgence. It was more sensible, practical and merciful to take what one wanted and release a prisoner, whatever form that might take. If Yar had not bargained so ardently for her crew's freedom, there would be no struggle now. She would be long dead or in the tender hands of the Tal Shiar.

As luck would have it, she had negotiated unflinchingly, however her judgment might have been impaired by some odd, temporary neural imbalance. She abided by the choices she made that day, even knowing her crew were free and safe, to meet honor. In his experience, surprisingly few possessed that strength of character when tested and for a off-worlder to demonstrate such mnhei'sahe was rare. It was an appealing trait and left him in a quandary. He could execute her on whim, without penalty from anyone, but his own men would know he had treated honor with dishonor.

He became conscious of Echael's study. She knew he would not penalize her forward statement, for he had not risen to his rank by facing challenges alone. He relied on his officers to support him, to provide him respectful counsel, pleasant or unpleasant, as necessary. He could not trust his senior officers if they feared petty rage in response to the slightest bit of advice.

Echael smiled, knowing from experience what his delay answering her meant. "Or were you concerned she might slay you in a moment of disoriented passion?"

"It is none of your affair." He doubted Yar wished to suffer an execution over his murder.

"Should I deactivate the surveillance devices, tomorrow?"

He took a step back, preparing to leave. "Yes. If I do not exit in a reasonable amount of time, assume I am dead. If I do, tell me if she throws the bokken, again."

"Is there anything else?"

"Yes. I will deploy with the tenth regiment to Bara'nesh II, four days hence."

"The Outmarches?" Echael asked in masked concern, "How long do you expect to be gone?"

"It is a minor revolt, poorly armed. Most of the time should be travel. Riov Soronar will be in command of the compound in my absence." Soronar. He glanced back at the security monitor. Yar hadn't moved.

"Is that wise?"

He answered with a rueful twist of his lips. He could not circumnavigate his senior officer's authority without arousing his suspicion or disrespect, even if he would prefer to leave erei'Riov Dekesh in charge. The imperative was to return quickly enough that Soronar had little time for his petty machinations. "Focus on your duties and I will manage mine."

Echael bit her lip, looking in his face. "Sir, are you aware he has been harassing Yar?"

"I was not." It wasn't entirely the truth, as a fragment of conversation replayed in his mind. Yar had been angry with him, so he hadn't paid full heed to her idle threat to bed Soronar, but now it made sense. She had assumed he knew of the man's pursuit, perhaps believing that he condoned it. He unclenched his right fist. He wished his first officer would restrict his ambitions to earning rank, but his responses were limited by available evidence. Soronar would be more likely to take a direct action while Volskiar was gone. "Monitor the situation and keep me informed."

"If he threatens her?"

"If he is fool enough to try, permit Yar to defend herself." He saw Echael smile cheekily, but his own humor faded quickly. While Soronar typically favored brute force in battle, too impatient to hunt out the weakest point, minimizing expenditure of resources, he couldn't have risen in rank without understanding subtlety. He rubbed his thumb on the top edge of his belt. He reminded himself that Yar was far more suspicious and cautious than his wife had ever been.

On the monitor screen, Yar stood briskly, picking up the bokken from where it rested on the arm of her chair. She did not throw it anywhere, replacing it on a stand beside a staff and mock knife. These were the 'sticks' she often threw down when irate. The bo staff was a weapon in and of itself, and she had bruised him more than a few times with it. The second two represented bladed weapons. The longest was a relatively long, tapered sword called a 'tachi', originally used by a mounted cavalry.

It was the third weapon he found most fascinating, for it was a 'tanto', a type of long knife. Yar used it sparingly, for aikido possessed only crude attacks with the knife, specializing far more in defensive measures against such a weapon. Its true purpose was 'seppuku', a form of ritual suicide employing disembowelment, practiced by an ancient Terran warrior caste called the 'samurai'. The tanto served to preserve honor in a manner familiar to any Rihannsu, despite its alien origin. While carrying it was restricted to the 'samurai', women from that culture were bestowed a variant called the 'kaiken', and a few samurai had even been women. It had much the same purpose, but represented an additional tradition, as a wedding gift.

Standing there in front of the false weapon rack, she put her hands on her hips, her expression still pensive. Then she looked right at the camera and cocked her head in wry aggravation.

Echael cleared her throat. "She is waiting for you to leave, sir."

"I see that." He snorted in a response Yar couldn't hear, then said, "Give her an honor blade."

"Sir?" Echael asked a bit slowly, in doubt.

"A sharp one."


(12)

2345

He returned to the compound to find himself greeted with wary looks, an aura of tension and a missing Human. After a month on campaign, on a jungle covered, insect-ridden colony world, subduing a revolt fueled by an ambitious senator, this was a poor welcome. As there was no damage to the compound, no outward evidence of disarray, and all posts were manned, he returned to his quarters and summoned khre'Arrain Echael, erei'Riov Dekesh and Riov Soronar for a briefing.

The first two arrived and he might have waited for Soronar if Dekesh hadn't stepped forward, saluting, to announce that the man was dead. Both officers were stiff at attention.

Volskiar sighed, wishing the day were over and he could return to his estate and rest in a cool and dry bed. "I see." He waited for an explanation for why his first officer was deceased.

Dekesh looked at Echael, prompting her.

As her position kept her closer to the troops, and his kept him occupied in procedural matters, she invariably kept an ear trained on the gossip and private activities of the soldiers. "Sir, if I may?"

"Get on with it."

"Soronar conspired to take your position."

Volskiar smiled thinly at the well established fact. "Yes. I was wounded in an ambush." Tragically for Soronar, his agents possessed poor aim and miserably poor luck. They had hid in the jungle for two days awaiting his arrival, and in doing so, exposed themselves to a particularly unpleasant egg-laying insect. It was a common hazard, one avoided by routinely changing uniforms and applying copious amounts of repellents, a precaution the assassins had neglected.

Echael nodded. "He approached Yar, presumably with a proposition, to facilitate an immediate attempt on your life if possible."

Volskiar sank in his chair, a careless display brought about by fatigue. "I see." Once her cooperation with Soronar had been discovered, Dekesh would have had no choice but to order her execution.

"Yar informed me and I ordered an investigation. It took some time, but we confirmed her accusation. Upon acquiring evidence of his communication with agents on Bara'nesh II, I transferred the case to Dekesh." She raised her chin, signaling the end of her report.

Dekesh picked up where she left off, "As prescribed, Soronar was executed by firing squad three days ago, sir."

They both resumed waiting, tensely.

"Oh," he said and smiled, after a moment. Discovering that his officers held confidence in him and would carry out his wishes, regardless of his presence, was the first bit of welcome news he had encountered. "Then where is Yar?"

Again, Dekesh glanced at Echael.

She shrugged, helplessly. "She attended field exercises this afternoon, but she is gone again."

"Again?"

"She always returns," Echael said, reassuringly. "The security detail lost track of her in the central market. She is unusually adept at -"

"You cannot find her?" The embedded tracking device was not infallible, for it could be masked or removed. He was mentally damning Lethren before Echael spoke.

"I know where she is, but she is in no danger. I saw no need to waste resources retrieving her." As she talked, she reached into a pocket and handed him the tracking unit.

He read the coordinates, and relaxed. Volskiar rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Very well. You are both promoted by one rank. I will be returning to my estate. Dismissed."

He was not able to return home until evening, and his estate was quiet because of the late hour and his limited staff. He spent most of his time at the compound and retained his privacy, here. Nothing seemed out of place or disturbed, as his chief bond-servant took his affects and escorted him to his private quarters.

The door had barely closed when a familiar, sarcastic voice quipped, "About time you got here."

"You are fortunate I was not armed."

"As if you didn't know I was here. Besides, I went brain dead from purple prose about an hour ago, so you're too late." Yar tossed a datapad on the end-table beside the chair she occupied. She sat comfortably, one leg crossed at the knee over the other, arms perched on the rests. She wore a practice uniform covered in dust, with mud caked on the soles of her boots. Her hands were grimy, and a burn of some sort decorated one sleeve. At her side, he caught a flash of golden diamonds, a bright line of them against her thigh. She was studying him closely, as if seeing him for the first time. "I can't believe you have a whole library of epic poetry."

He scratched his temple, trying not to stare too obviously. Upon closer examination, the diamonds were a decorative pattern created by overlapping strips of yellow and black cloth, wrapped around the scabbard and flush-mounted hilt of a dagger. He processed those details while thinking what it meant that she was learning to read the common language. Such behavior usually suggested adoption of a long-term strategy, for learning a new language was labor intensive. "You did not come here to critique my taste in fiction."

"No, but it was a way to pass the time. Thought you'd be back earlier."

"I was occupied by administrative matters caused by the disruption at the compound." He was not fooled by her show of disinterested ease. She was tapping a finger nervously on the armrest. "The matter has been resolved."

"Oh, yeah?"

"I have promoted Echael and Dekesh and," he walked past her, "it would appear you have promoted yourself."

She shrugged, but remained in tense, jittery motion. Rather than admit everyone's behavior had changed the moment they saw she was carrying a blade, she said, "Everyone got chummy with me after I picked a side."

"Was Soronar's offer insufficiently appealing?"

"He offered to set me free if I killed you, but since he always looked at me like I was a piece of meat, I didn't believe him for some reason. Not that I couldn't kill you, especially now that I know my crew's free." She leaned back, studying him. "But I promised to cooperate."

He tugged his rank sash free from his belt, thoughtfully. She was raising their bargain, the one she had initiated the moment she confirmed he had brought her to her quarters for more personal than official reasons. As he recalled, she had offered him the choice between complete resistance or compliance, assuming he would not offer her the choice to return to the brig unmolested. He hadn't corrected her assumption, unwilling to dismiss an unusual opportunity. "And so you have."

"Back on the Victorious," she began flatly, "It was to test if I was good on my word, wasn't it?"

He bowed his head, setting the holster down on his desk. That was one reason. The second was more practical than the first. It would have been galling to return with a consort who proved wholly incompatible. Contrary to what the Federation touted, some differences between species could not be reconciled. "I would apologize, but I prefer not to offer false sympathy. The honor and security of the entire First Infantry Corps depends on the accuracy of my judgment. I must always be certain of my decisions." He thought she might rise and leave his quarters then, but she stayed, so he dared a quick look.

His expression was rather dark. "Trial by fire. Yeah, we have that too." Then something in her eyes shifted, filed away. "And you needed a good excuse not to butcher the rest of my crew."

"A convincing reason," he agreed, and it was true. His people did not make a habit of taking prisoners, so taking a captive required justification. Releasing captives, rather than summarily executing them, did as well. When she remained in the chair, he removed his outer tunic. Yar's presence in his quarters was, ironically inconvenient and therefore a staged measure on her part, if experience could be trusted. While he scoffed and mocked Riov Charvanek that day at Narendra III, he hadn't been able to discount her claims that the praetor had plied the military with disinformation, after her fervent attack on his fleet. Nor could he return empty-handed after the Enterprise self-destructed.

She sighed wearily.

Volskiar sat on his bed, carefully leaning over to work a boot loose, and raised an eyebrow.

"Not to mention your soldiers would have raped whoever they wanted and tossed aside the bodies, or left me in the brig for the ship's crew. They sure as hell wouldn't have asked for any sort of consent or offered an unnecessary trade, because we weren't in a position to bargain." Yar was watching him, her expression flat. "It's simple math."

He struggled with the second boot, hampered not only by fatigue, but the freshly healed shrapnel wound on his back. He paused, to gather himself against the shredding pain, nodding. "Despite my reputation, I do not abide wanton destruction, but I cannot control every action every soldier under my command might take. I had but a moment to make the conservative choice."

While he regrouped, Yar abandoned her seat and, of all things, helped him yank off the offending boot. Standing in front of him, she said incongruously, "You drink about as much as I do."

"I do not care for alcohol," he agreed, seeing the direction of her words, "but it may serve as an anesthetic, when necessary." He hoped the admission was enough, for it was also true that he had found her attractive but that was also, and she might say, simple math.

She didn't say anything, weighing the sincerity of his statement, then nodded pensively.

He warned, out of courtesy, "I intend to remove the remainder of my clothing."

She raised one shoulder. "Feel free."

"Mm." He wondered if she were truly at ease with him. It might be best to test this new current. "Have you been brawling?"

She gave no warning before his boot connected with his temple.

He saw spots and felt the warm trickle of blood, reaching up with a hand to press on the wound and staunch the flow.

She cleared her throat, and said without any repentance, "Have some tact or I'll hit you so hard with this boot, you'll go over sideways." She smiled. "There's no cameras and guards here to stop me."

"It is a nice-"

She raised her arm. "Keep it up and I'll give you something to smell the next time you're eating."

He grinned, unfazed Sometimes the best way to thaw a frigid mood was a bit of distraction. "Are you here to spar with me, then?"

She threw the boot beside the other and stepped away from him, pacing. "No. I... look, Zeril was right. I'm not holding up my end of the bargain. I just wanted to check on some things before we got into that." He saw her jaw work as she tried to formulate more words or further her explanation. "And everyone knows it, which makes you look like a real chump."

Another piece of jargon for which the the translator could not provide an appropriate substitute. He could guess the meaning from the context, but this was too delicate a conversation for guesses. "What is a chump?"

"A gullible, weak-willed fool."

"I thought as much." He stood, trying to decide if he ought to remove his breeches or if she would become reflexively hostile, despite her assurance. The hedge maze of Human taboos was maddening at times. He sat back down and changed the topic back to idle conversation, giving her time to collect her thoughts. "Did you win?"

"What?" She blinked at him.

"Did your team win? You are in practice uniform and... ah, Echael informed me that you recently returned from combat exercise." He half expected a boot, but Yar kept blinking at him.

"Yeah. I won."

He smiled broadly, pushing again. "I know."

She closed her eyes, shaking her head, but that did not conceal the twitch of a smile on her lips. For a second, she was at ease, distracted from whatever topic was causing her anxiety.

"Yar?"

"Tasha. Geez."

Taken aback, he temporarily put aside his question. He used her second name because it seemed to be the custom of her people to use a given title, followed by that name, rather than the first. The tradition was similar to his own people's, the difference being that the personal name was kept secret from all but the closest friends. She had never objected to his address. His consternation must have been plain.

"Sorry. Rank and file was easier to deal with, but no one except my commanding officers called me 'Yar'." She shrugged a bit, not quite meeting his eyes. "My name's Natasha, really, but my friends always called me Tasha."

He weighed Rihannsu tradition against what he knew of hers. He wasn't ready to tell her his name, if ever, if she would understand the significance of the gesture at all. He nodded. "I knew your name. You gave it to one of my officers and the complete form is programmed into your communication badge, but is is not our tradition to-"

"I know." Her voice was firm, but she was looking at him again in wary calculation.

"Ah." He inclined his head to demonstrate he accepted her permission. "Then what is it we must discuss?"

"How we can make the best of a crummy situation." She shrugged gamely, as if it were of no concern to her, but also turned away, reclaiming the chair. "And that I'm Human and we adapt, even to the point of self-detriment," she licked her lips nervously, "and because I couldn't do it. Back on the Enterprise when I realized that we'd been captured instead of destroyed, that I was still alive." The corner of her lip crooked into a poor approximation of a rueful smile as she rambled on, "Which means I'll adapt, whether I want to or not, so here I am."

He forced himself to focus on what she was saying, despite his exhaustion. She might not have been able to commit the final honor on her ship, but she had tried repeatedly, once on ch'Rihan. Luck as much as surveillance and guards had prevented her success. "Persevering through adaptation is a commendable trait," he offered in compromise.

"Not when it's caving in to some shitty hard-wired neurological defense mechanism that I've been trained to recognize, to fight." In her anxiety and discommode, she worried at her hands, stretching and bending her wrists in a familiar exercise. "Easiest way is if I die. You save face, the Tal Shiar quit snooping around the compound, and I've got no worries. Second way... We make a bargain I can live with."

This was not the confrontation he was expecting, after her playful feint. "I do not wish you to die."

"I noticed." She pursed her lips, studying him. "You want a consort who won't try to steal your job, kill you in your sleep or use you purely for status, right? Someone to keep you company?"

"I could buy companionship, but it is a poor substitute."

"So you put me over a barrel, instead."

He gleaned her general meaning, but asked to satisfy curiosity, "What barrel?"

"Old Terran idiom. It refers to stretching out a victim over a barrel and beating or raping them."

"That is indecent. I would not do such a thing."

She looked away, quirking an eyebrow, implying he was wrong but maintaining polite courtesy. Perhaps she remembered their conversation from the tavern but preferred he feign ignorance.

He would not cooperate. "It is not a pleasant experience." When she kept frowning at him, he tried again more directly and answered the question she had patently avoided asking. "I do not find pleasure in woman's revulsion."

Tasha merely frowned harder at him, uncomfortable with the turn in discussion. She glanced away, unwilling to see him in such a light. Then she deflected. "It's no big deal. I made my choices and going back to the brig if I could save the crew wasn't an option for me. You were just doing what you people do and when in Rome...."

"Rome?"

"Do as the Romans do."

He grunted, familiar with the Terran history used to apply their name, Romulans, onto his people. If this planet was Rome, then she was stating her desire to put aside a cultural distaste. He knew from experience, that at times, it was impossible to put aside ingrained abhorrence. It was a difficult thing to accept that something wrong might be considered acceptable, so he waited quietly while Tasha gathered for her next assault.

"Why don't you remarry? I get that I'm exotic to the average Romulan, but I'm still an off-worlder. Don't tell me you couldn't do better."

In this room, constantly scoured for the Empire's eyes and ears, he might speak the truth. "Because I do not come from either a minor or major House. I have no lineage to secure or pass on to any children and I do not wish to find my wife dead on the patio, again. I will not bear it, so I will accept less." Surely she understood that he had seized an opportunity and would not be overly offended by such pragmatism. "It is not an easy thing to accomplish when you are well-known as a murderer."

She made a rude noise. "It can't be that big a deal. Isn't that how you guys get divorced?"

Her joke, if it was one, left him temporarily at a loss for words. "You have some odd ideas about my people, if you believe that." He frowned, hoping it had been a joke. "It is a 'big deal', though I committed no crime. My wife's lover did the deed, but was clever and left no evidence. It was assumed I had the motive and opportunity, so the onus fell on me, though the lack of evidence preserved my life as well."

"Why would he.... Was it a man?"

"Yes." He took a breath, dredging up memories. "He did not love her, or if he did, it was outweighed by his ambition to power. However you judge my actions, this career was my path to social advancement, and I gave all my energy to it, for competition is fierce. He was my most immediate rival for this position. I was away on campaign often, and when not, absorbed in administrative matters. I gave her whatever she asked, but I could not give my time." He raised his hand in a futile gesture, dropping it again on his knee. "She was alone and he was affable and attentive." He found himself clenching his teeth, and chided the lingering resentment, forcing himself to relax. "He discovered that she intended to confess her infidelity, and silenced her to preserve his career."

She watched him intently. "How can you know that if she never told you?"

"I know the man, an officer here."

"Shit," she said quietly, then asked, "And you couldn't do anything about it?"

"There was no legal recourse and I could not challenge him without merit."

"With your resources it wouldn't be hard to make someone disappear."

"Murder is for cowards and weaklings!" He caught his breath, appalled by his own sour rage, fermenting for so long. "Forgive me, but I face my enemies directly or not at all. Let them behave dishonorably. Knowingly, I will not."

She bit her lip, but didn't appear cowed by his outburst. "So he's still carrying on homefree, right under your nose?"

Finally, he permitted a bubbling satisfaction to wash away the lingering hate, a fierce glee that left him giddy. He had felt the start of it earlier in the day, but tamped down on the inappropriate reaction in front of his officers. Here, he could grin openly. "No, he is not free. He is recently deceased, having misjudged the character of a woman."

Tasha cocked her head at the cryptic statement, considering what he meant. He knew she understood when her expression became peevish, brows beetled. "You used me to kill Soronar? You..."

"It would be more accurate to say I trusted you to act honorably."

"You...." She pursed her lips, her face flushed pink with anger, then looked away to compose herself. Presently, she drew a hand through her hair, a nervous fussy gesture and sighed. "You know, not to sound too egotistical, but I can count on one hand the number of men who can keep up with me, and one of them is an android."

"Then I am pleased to meet your standards." He kept grinning. "You are to my preference, as well."

"You mean I'm blond," she grumbled, still irked to discover how she had been maneuvered.

He laughed. "Yes, but that is not what I mean. Surely you notice what company I keep?"

"A bunch of smart alecs."

"Smart alec? Alec? If you mean clever people, yes. I become impatient with those who are not clever, women being no exception. Unfortunately, an intelligent woman knows to be wary of a presumed murderer." His smile faded to a wry grimace. "And my reputation on the battlefield follows me where it does not belong."

"And you're still a workaholic."

He nodded briefly. He had little leisure time to court a woman and convince her that he did not decimate all that did not agree with him. It was a legacy well-crafted by Soronar, for Volskiar's prosperity had run counter to Soronar's goals. Charvanek's undisguised slandering didn't help matters. "All together, it is a poor combination. I am, as you would say, over a barrel." He resisted the urge to fidget while he waited for her response. It was most likely her mood affecting his.

She twisted around in the chair, resting on the arm, rapid calculations flickering in her eyes. She had probably made her fundamental decisions before coming to his personal estate. "I think I can live with that but...."

"What do you desire in exchange?"

She shrugged one shoulder, a bit evasively and began, "I need something to do, or I'll go insane and, uh...." She trailed off before regaining courage. It took her several tries to begin talking again, and she averted her gaze. "A lot of woman would consider this a pretty cushy job, and I'm not about to go back on my word or anything - I made a promise - but I'm not really cut out for this. I've spent my whole life fighting, I've trained with the best, to be the best, but now I can't do anything I'm good at or care about. My entire life's shot and that's.... Well, that's life." She paused, ordering her thoughts. "This is a really nice cage, as far as cages go, but the fact is, I can't leave. If I have to be here for the rest of my life, whatever that turns out to be, there's at least one thing left that might not be a conflict of interest."

He raised his eyebrows. Like the guests at Fuldeznek's party, he hadn't thought Tasha capable of so many words at one time. Or rather, he knew she was, for she was more free with her words when her judgment was impaired, but never voluntarily. He tried to guess what she intended to request. It probably involved weapons.

"Um," she bit her lip, "how do you feel about kids?"

He blinked at her, several times, incapable of replying. Of all the things he might have suspected, that wasn't on the list. He was peripherally aware she often spent her free time with Echael's family, but had attributed that to her growing camaraderie with the newly minted erei'riov.

"I mean, you wouldn't have to do anything. I'm not asking you to play father, I just...." She had to stop again, before continuing, "And it would be cruel to have a Human kid, and I know how you guys are about genetic purity so a binary clone is out, but I've never been to a planet that didn't have orphans. I guess that seems weird coming from me, but I never planned on devoting my life to Starfleet. Figured I'd do my tour of duty and settle down once... when I could." She looked at him obliquely, licking her lips with the tip of her tongue.

When he still didn't answer, she set her jaw and a shadow crossed her face. She took a deep breath, then exhaled. She assumed the studiously affected expression of impartiality he had learned to associate with deceit. "Sorry. Forget I asked. It was just a whim. Thought it might be a good way to pass the time." She smiled that twisted facsimile of a smirk and amended, "Years, that is."

He didn't answer because that shadow reminded him of his parents. They had lived in the aftermath of the bloody, long-distance, expensive war with the Terran empire, its cost falling to the commoners. It always happened that way, and people like his parents were forced to shoulder increased labor at lowered wages. Over time, as he grew old enough to notice, their hearts grew exhausted by the unceasing toil with no reward or improvement until neither was willing to put forward more than a bare minimum of effort, toward anything. As an adult, he knew to forgive them on the basis of circumstance, for both had been forced to put aside hopes, ambitions or dreams, concentrating on survival. Of course, the only way to excise a deep rooted desire was to amputate it like a diseased limb, taking part of the soul with it.

An arm length away, Yar was consigning herself to such duty and when she turned to speak to him again, he held up a forestalling hand. He had to appreciate the irony as she petered off, falling still. One of his justifications for choosing her as a consort was the practically nonexistent risk of an accidental viable pregnancy. His species had more chromosomal pairs than Humans, so the intervention and attendance of a skilled geneticist would be required, leaving no doubt to what was and was not intended. On the other hand, if her desire for a child was sincere, it might serve to tether her more effectively than any oath of duty or fear. She had not asked for food when she was hungry, sleep when she was tired, or reciprocation of any kind, but she asked for this. Even then, she compromised from the out-set and retracted the request.

She sat watching him, her hands curled midair, pressed together as if she held an imaginary object she was preparing to snap in half. "What?"

"Are you the last of your family?"

She shrugged, stiffly. "I probably have distant cousins out there, on other Federation worlds."

He shook his head sharply in exasperation. "No, of your house," he specified.

"As far as I know," she answered guardedly.

"Then there is no legitimate objection any can raise. I will speak to Aranar. We are not equipped for such genetic engineering here, but he has associates in the greater medical community."

She actually stopped breathing, her mouth open in surprise. Taking a sharp breath, she looked away from him, blinking several times. To his dismay, he saw her hands begin to shake. Her weak laugh drew his attention, and he saw that she was studying her own hands with bemused detachment.

"It's adrenaline," she said. "A hormone that controls what we call the 'flight or fight' response. Don't worry. It'll wear off in about fifteen minutes." She ducked her head, abashed. "The other kind of shock."

He grunted, relieved. His people had a similar capacity to experience fear and rage simultaneously. "Then this bargain is palatable?"

"It's not a bad deal, compared to some I've had to make, growing up."

Making a display of frank doubt, though he recalled her tale of lawless youth, he asked, "In the Federation? Your people provide for each other, for all the united worlds. What difficulties could you encounter?"

Her lips flattened into a white line. "I'm pretty sure I already gave you some idea ." She took a moment to compose her next words, sifting through memories that left a crease between her brows, and eyes tense. "I promised myself the one thing I would never do was turn to some man for protection. If my sister could see me now, she'd laugh herself sick, but she's dead because she stayed on that planet, so...." Yar appeared as if she wished to explain more, but could not stomach the words, but added harshly, "I'm convenient. That's fine."

Much like his discovery that not all Starfleet officers were mealy-mouthed cowards, her revelation left him stymied, but she needed a response. "I cannot offer you more than that now but perhaps-"

She snorted and he turned to defend himself.

"You're almost cute when you try to be tactful," she said facetiously, then shook her head at his confusion. "I'm not a citizen of the Empire. No rights, no protections, which means you couldn't marry me if you wanted to, so please don't insult my intelligence. I'm convenient and you like me. I'm okay with that."

"Very well." He sat foolishly in place, looking at his clasped hands. She was conceding and he ought to feel triumph. Instead, he was nearly overwhelmed by a strong desire to slink from his own room. He tamped down on the irrational impulse and forced himself to consider that she was agreeing to stay with him purely because she had nowhere else to go. He did not wish to inflict the choice between his quarters or the brig on her again. "You have nowhere else to go?

The flash in her eyes told him she understood his tacit offer to free her. "It's not as if I couldn't escape if I wanted to," she declined, equally indirect.

"Indeed, you have made that abundantly clear, to the misery of several demoted officers responsible for perimeter security." He leaned forward, resting an elbow on his knee. "Yet you escape to nowhere, which leads me to conclude, you have nowhere to go. Unless I have misinterpreted your behavior?"

"There's a place I could go, but I don't belong. I shouldn't even be here." She rolled her eyes a bit absently and muttered, "Unless I'm supposed to be here, in which case I've no reason to put my life on hold and I owe Guinan a punch in the face."

"You have said this before, that you should not be here." If they were truly upright dealing, then it was his turn to make an admission. For a woman who sacrificed her freedom to preserve a crew that was not her own, the urge to seek out and protect her friends and loved ones must be nearly unbearable. It was somewhat mollifying to know that an unrelated fear had driven her repeated suicide attempts, rather than a fundamental distaste for him. Of course, he did not know that she was from another time, and he dared not ask. Once spoken, there was no plausible deniability and she might come to regard him with complete distrust. Then again.... "When you say this, do you mean here, or here now?"

She gasped, and the hunted, trapped look appeared in her eyes, for she knew he had his answer. "Can't say. Is that a deal-breaker?"

Idly, he scratched the back of his neck, feeling the accumulated jungle grime. He wondered who 'Guinan' was to deserve blame for Tasha's current predicament if she would ever tell him when she was from. If it would ever be safe for her to tell him. "I assume honor motivates your silence, but be aware that Lethren will persist."

She chewed on her lip. "I know. You've been keeping him off my back. Trying, anyway."

"I am afforded my proclivities and even the Tal Shiar would think carefully before penalizing me unnecessarily. I may bar him to some extent, as you are my consort, but I cannot gainsay his orders."

"So long as you don't look like a complete chump," she agreed glumly. He saw her eyes flicker in his direction, not at his face but in methodical appraisement of his body. In the months, except to mock his hairstyle, she had never made any overt indication whether she found him attractive, repulsive or simply unremarkable.

"Indeed. It is a fair bargain." He stood, testing the muscles in his back for stiffness. He needed to see Aranar to have the deeply imbedded shards removed or they would work deeper into the flesh. That could wait until morning, along with Tasha's surprising request. It gave him time to choose his next words. "Tasha," he said, testing the sound of her name, "you are proving most inconvenient."

She hunched in the chair, looking up at him impassively. Though she deigned to answer, he took comfort in the absence of mocking dismissal. Then she snorted rudely. "You gonna take your pants off, or what?"

So he did. "I am going to shower."

"About time." She peeled off her tunic and tossed it on top of his boots, hanging her belt and blade on the back of the chair. "I need a shower, too and you got a real one."

"I am tired," he admitted awkwardly.

She grinned cheekily. "That's the general idea. I know you won't get too frisky."

He threw out his hands and decided to head for the bathing room. It seemed Echael was correct and Tasha would go wherever she pleased.

"Oh, don't that face. Makes you seem ungrateful." She flung one of her own boots so that is grazed his shoulder and landed on a bureau. "C'mon, you scrub my back, I'll scrub yours. I'll even be gentle with that nasty looking shrapnel wound."


(13)

2380

At first, he was surprised that Tal'aura sent Sela in the morning to deliver his summons to tribunal, but then it made sense. What more fitting a cruel irony than to send his daughter with what amounted to an execution order? He hoped she choked on her mirth, as he took the PADD and read it out of obligation. Yes, of course. He had done nothing wrong, plotted no treason that could be proven, fomented no rebellion, but in these troubled times.... Evidence would be manufactured later, to appease any of the public who cared if an obsolete military officer were wrongly sentenced.

Sela stood with her arms clasped behind her back, watching him impassively. She wore the rank of riov, but here she was reduced to delivering messages for the praetor. Not too recently, in the common shifts of regime, she had gained the rank of khre'riov, owing to support from allies. When the Elements shifted, she was cast down again. Perhaps only deference to him kept her alive, or the chaos in the government allowed priorities to slide, so her own termination was delayed due to sheer inconvenience.

He fingered the PADD, then set it on his desk. "I did not believe she would allow you to see me before watching me die."

"Why not?" Sela stepped past him, going to the exposed window. She put her hand on the plane of transparent aluminum, and her reflection spoke to him. "She hopes I will commit treason by trying to save you."

"The question being, how is it treason to save an innocent?"

She grinned at him coldly, a pale shadow of gray, "None of us are innocent."

He grunted in agreement, too depressed to laugh at the ancient truth. A thousand deaths on a dozen battlefields but by law, none a murder. He looked at the PADD again, then nudged it with his finger so Sela would hear the skitter of metal on wood. "And will you be at my final review?"

"I imagine I will. Perhaps you will be at mine." She sounded unperturbed.

"And will you be so calm when someone you love watches you die?"

She turned away from the window, raised her eyebrows, biting her lip. It reminded him of someone else, but he knew she wouldn't appreciate the observation. She shrugged indifferently. "As calm as you were watching my mother die, I imagine."


(14)

2347

It was the annual Commemoration of Heroes and Volskiar was trapped in the government quarter while three regiments of soldiers and their officers, who had returned with him, were left at the compound. He could guess what was already beginning there, as it was all over the Empire on this day, coupled with their elated return from battle. Yet he couldn't go back to impose any semblance of order on their festivities because he had been invited to this soiree by the praetor. It might have been a generic form transmission, stamped by proxy, but it was tantamount to an order. He would rather be at home, and not just because he didn't care for the mob of nobles crowding the affair. Nor did it help that Tasha had cheerfully left him behind on the ballroom floor, intent on some mysterious and better left uninvestigated mission of her own.

The Commemoration began adjacent to the Hall of State in a public building reserved for such affairs, and would spill out into the Boulevard of Heroes as the evening wore into early morning. Senators, consuls, chairmen, priests and officers from the fleet, ground forces, Tal Shiar and Royal Guard were all present. While guests were mostly limited to higher ranks, the occasional centurion was visible, a slash of vertical blue on a gray or beige dress tunic where there would otherwise be red.

Volskiar spotted Narviat in his peripheral vision, but the praetor was in deep discussion with khre'Enriov Keodar, an admiral within High Command. He turned casually, having no desire to endure vacuous pleasantries with either man, and meandered through the crowded ballroom. He searched absently for Tasha, in case she had returned from her unofficial meeting that he wasn't supposed to know about, but had no luck. In truth, he wasn't concerned about it, even if this affair would permit her easy cover to meet any number of shady contacts. In such a public setting, with so many available excuses for conversation, there was little recourse for Lethren and his cohort.

He picked a table laden with food, surveying the ridiculous amount of choices. Most of it wouldn't be eaten, but that was a boon to the servants, many of whom wouldn't see this much food in their own larders within the entire year. He ate some cejtc fruit, which were out of season and probably came from a tended greenhouse, while loosely scanning the crowd.

There was a swirling crowd at the center of the grand room, partners dancing, ignoring the audience conducting personal business and gossiping about everything under the sun and the moons. He ignored the various government officials since he had little contact with the Senate or Consulate, and concentrated on picking out familiar officers, some associates, others rivals. It gave him something to do and hopefully, if he appeared occupied, no one would approach him for idle conversation. He wasn't in the mood for such petty chores.

There was a centurion he didn't recognize on the fringe of the crowd, but a dim memory tugged at his mind. She was young with the dark hair and eyes common among his people, no one particularly noteworthy. She was dancing a bit hesitantly with a young nobleman, judging by the cut and quality of his robes. He checked something anxiously over his shoulder while spinning her in an arc.

Volskiar looked in that direction and saw Riov Suran. Oh, he knew who the young woman was now. It was that girl Suran had fostered after her father was executed on grounds of sedition. Dralath had been infamous for slaughtering anyone who posed even the most harmless threat. Her mother was alive but fearing further reprisal, had surrendered the girl, Donatra, to a noble family who had befriended her husband. Apparently the girl had joined the fleet under Suran's guidance and was immediately tracking to command. He must have sent her straight to a war college at the earliest opportunity, a benefit of noble sponsorship.

The dance ended and the young man bowed to his partner. Donatra smiled, a bit shyly and said something, but the man shook his head urgently. He gave another light bow, then backed off under Suran's watchful eye. Curiously, Suran gave only cursory attention to the man after he was off the floor, dismissing him to return his attention to Donatra. Aside from a brief pause from her, side to her legal guardian, aware of his constant attention, she gave no sign she noticed.

Suran glanced abruptly to his right, straight at Volskiar, his features darkening when he realized he had been caught staring.

Volskiar politely turned away, going to pick out something to drink from the range of wines, liquors and mixed concoctions. There were ugly rumors about Suran because he had never legally adopted his charge and they weren't blood relatives. He kept the girl on a short tether. Volskiar chose a fruit wine. Maybe they were just rumors but then, few of the nobles had ever struck him as being truly noble.

Picking a new direction, he started walking calmly through the ballroom until he saw a familiar face.

Erei'Enriov Husser, his immediate subordinate in command of the mechanized infantry division based in Nourehan, was gossiping about something with Enriov U'Saeki. He was waving his arms around his head with great animation, exaggerating something no doubt, because his wife Awhei kept swatting at him. The size difference between Husser, commonly known as the Sehlat due to his height and bulk and Awhei, who possibly reached his elbow, made it that much more comical. U'Saeki, for her part, managed to keep a straight face while hiding behind a wine glass.

Volskiar enjoyed working with both of them. Husser kept the light ordnance and troop transports in top shape and U'Saeki never failed to bring the appropriate amount of heavy or dance and armored vehicles. He hadn't met either until he gained senior office, but all three had found themselves ducking for cover in the same temporary headquarters, on the same planets, more than a few times. He tended to trust those who bled for him, perhaps a misguided sentiment.

Awhei tapped Husser on the forearm, and he craned around, before shouting a greeting at Volskiar. "We thought you had missed the last shuttle out!"

"I almost did." Volskiar took a deep pull from his glass. It was better to drink early at these affairs in order to dull the senses. There was less chance of hearing and responding to the infinite supply of snobbish insults from the nobles, that way.

"Where is that pretty consort of yours?" Husser promptly danced around Awhei who stomped on his foot, then pursued him around U'Saeki, who didn't budge.

Volskiar waved toward the the crowd. "Somewhere."

"Abandoned you before you finished crossing the room?" Husser feigned stomping back on Awhei's foot and she jumped back. "For shame. I thought I might take her out onto the terrace and attempt to seduce her." He winked. "Give her something to do when you're away."

U'Saeki tipped back her glass and set it on a window ledge, and teased Husser, "Perhaps you should make an attempt to win her interest." Before Awhei could round on her, U'Saeki pointed a single finger of warning at the small woman, silently daring her to strike out at her.

"I would not dare. My commander would have my head on a stake," Husser bowed loosely at Volskiar, then straightened archly to say in feigned tragedy, "I would ask Soronar's advice on the matter, but that is not possible."

Volskiar shrugged at his friend's idle threat. "By all means, try. I will watch your doomed attempt and then laugh myself sick when she stabs you for the pleasure of it."

Husser grinned widely, knowing better than to crack a joke about Tasha's blade. It wasn't just the fact that her possession of one violated regulations regarding a prisoner's access to weapons, either.

Awhei ducked past both of them to stand primly in front of Volskiar. "Will you dance with me? Husser dances like a sehlat and he insists the music is too slow to enjoy."

He beamed at Husser, who frowned in exaggerated displeasure as if though he could not believe his wife would do such an outrageous thing in front of him. Volskiar held out his arm, which she took, and backed them both out onto the floor. He knew he really shouldn't, but it had been ages since he'd at the pleasure of dancing with a woman. Tasha loathed these parties and even when she stayed by his side, he was left to his own devices. So he danced with Awhei, who batted her eyes at him and he knew perfectly well she was taunting her husband.

When the musicians paused between numbers, he leaned over to whisper, "I should return you to your husband. You do not intend to generate that much gossip, do you?"

She flipped back her long black hair, regarded him dryly, chin raised and said, "I do not believe you are quite so foolish as some people say, Enriov." She sidled closer. "If you were a truly foolish impetuous braggart, you would spin me into another dance."

He fought to keep a straight face because if he did one or the other, she had her answer. That woman kept Husser running in circles. It was a most impressive spectacle at times. Oh, why not? He grinned predatorily at her, preparing to ask her for another set, when Awhei sniffed. She cocked her head gradually, and he saw her nostrils flare again before she cautiously stepped away from him.

"It might be best if you return me to Husser," she urged him, pointedly.

He straightened and held out his arm again and she dutifully took it so he could lead her back to her husband. It seemed he was running out of time to manage himself with a clear head. He scanned the room, searching for Tasha more earnestly.

"Already looking for another, are you?"

Volskiar groaned mentally. There was nothing like a killjoy. Directing Awhei toward Husser, he barely acknowledged Enarrain Lethren before answering, "Erei'Enriov Husser hurt his leg during a training exercise. I was providing a social courtesy."

"I see." Lethren made a show of searching the ballroom, before raising both eyebrows. "I thought perhaps you had misplaced that loann'na of yours."

A great deal of practice prevented him from flinching at the slur. "I am confident my Havrannsu guard has her well in hand."

Lethren shrugged laconically. "I could always take her in hand, if you prefer."

Volskiar felt a muscle tic at the corner of his eye. Even if the others listening to this conversation missed the insinuation, he couldn't. No matter how little Tasha discussed her experiences within the interrogation rooms, Doctor Aranar was sometimes more forthcoming. A smile twitched on Lethren's lips as Volskiar remained silent.

"Lethren," a smooth voice chided, "are you tormenting the general while off duty?" Khre'Arrain Koval, yet another Tal Shiar officer, joined the one-sided conversation.

With him was the recently appointed Senator Cretak, formerly the senior altern serving Senator Pardek. She cocked her head at Lethren, adding, "Yes, this is a ball. Should you not be entertaining yourself, Enarrain?"

"I find this quite entertaining," contended Lethren, refusing to move.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Husser and Awhei creep backward, discreetly excusing themselves from the politely vicious confrontation. He didn't blame them, not really. U'Saeki didn't move but the general consensus was that she drove an invisible tank and was therefore completely fearless. The entire building could collapse in a fiery explosion and she would stay to eat a canape. Then an investigation would reveal that Tasha had set the charges. He gave himself a mental shake.

Koval raised an eyebrow at Volskiar's continued lack of response. "But my man does have a point. Where is that consort of yours? She has not escaped again, has she?"

"As I told the enarrain, she is attended by experienced guard." Volskiar took a deep breath and tried to smile. "Moreover, she no longer struggles against my authority. I sincerely doubt she will make any attempt to escape."

"Ah," Koval nodded. "And here I was prepared to ask if she had made any attempt to smother that whelp of yours."

Volskiar tasted the bile in his throat. He couldn't dispense with the fiction upon which he and Tasha had agreed. Before he could speak, though, U'Saeki did it for him.

"The Human?" She laughed, a low throaty chortle. "They have so much less fire in their blood." She slung a sidewise look at Volskiar. "They are not capable of such passionate response. What is it you say, Enriov, that she cannot kill a fly?"

He snorted and forced through a smile. "She cannot kill what she considers innocent, but I keep a bio-monitor on the child to ensure she is not given the opportunity to harm it on my behalf. There is no cause for concern, khre'Arrain. So long as I control the child, I control her."

Lethren sniffed dubiously.

Koval looked at him, but when the officer said nothing, he made a face as if to say, 'how about that'. "I will admit, Enriov, I did not believe you so ruthless a man as to force a child upon a woman purely for the entertainment value. I admire your forethought, but I am surprised you have permitted her to keep the mongrel for so long. What has it been, a year now?"

"Nearly two," Volskiar corrected. "I am a patient man."

"And you are waiting for...?"

"For her to bond with it. She was exceptionally hostile toward the girl for quite some time. Indeed, despite her inherently passive nature, we were initially forced to restrain her to prevent her from harming the fetus. As my strategy appears to be effective, it benefits me to wait."

Koval's mouth opened, but then he smiled. "Ah, I understand. You will take it from her when it will cause the most pain."

"Indeed. In the meantime, it serves as most effective leverage." Volskiar sneered, which wasn't difficult at all under the circumstances. "When it no longer does, I will pack it off to ch'Havran so she will know that it lives and suffers. So, as you can see, your concern is unwarranted. She does not cause me any difficulty, in any way."

Koval started laughing, a deep chuckle, breaking off to shake his head. "I commend your creativity. Perhaps the praetor has misjudged you."

It might have been a daring statement coming from someone other than a Tal Shiar officer, but they were immune from virtually all offenses. They recruited from the most idealistic youths and idealists were the most dangerous people. An idealistic would betray anything and anyone, honor, honesty, decency, friends, family and the most trusted lover if it would help further the idea he or she cherished. The Tal Shiar nourished that behavior and the result was a group of men and an women who demonstrated unwavering, unflinching, mercilessly ruthless madness. That's what it was, though no one dared say it.

Volskiar felt the back of his neck break into a sweat as Koval peered at him thoughtfully.

Cretak broke the pall, saying quietly, "And to think we entrust the Empire to men like you."

Lethren blinked at her lazily. "Why, Senator, that sounded almost unpatriotic."

"If that was meant to be a threat, do not waste your efforts on me," she said tightly. "A true patriot does what is necessary and right for the Empire, not what is safest or most convenient for them. A true patriot challenges her nation to become a better one."

The most amazing thing happened for a split second. Koval's face softened as he looked at Cretak, as if he agreed with her. He chided Lethren, "Our government cannot function if its senators and consuls cannot speak freely."

Volskiar heard U'Saeki cough abruptly and he cleared his own throat at the absolute garbage that had come out of Koval's mouth. It was his protection that gave Cretak the freedom to speak so boldly. He wanted to wish Cretak well, to offer encouragement in her path, to warn her of potential enemies, but he was Volskiar the Butcher. He curled his lip at her and said contemptuously, "Then I am sure you will have the best of luck in your future endeavors."

She stared at him coldly, then said to Koval, "I believe I need to get some air. It has become stuffy in here."

"I will find you something to drink," offered Koval. Even he knew that these affairs were better when not sober. He jerked his chin at Lethren with implicit command and the junior officer followed him toward the beverage table.

Sometimes Volskiar wondered if anyone truly enjoyed these shams, but that was evident in the number of people laughing, dancing and courting one another. He sagged in relief as the two nobles left him in peace, then checked to his side to see if U'Saeki was still there. Like a rock.

She inclined her head toward his hand.

He looked at his glass and discovered he'd spilled some of the brandy and it shook. His knuckles and fingers had turned white. It was a miracle the stem hadn't shattered in his grip, though Koval would have found it amusing, most likely.

"You do not look well," she said, softly.

"I have had a lovely encounter with the Empire's kindest, most generous and helpful officers."

"You are sweating," she clarified, eyeing him perceptively.

He raised the fingers of his free hand to his forehead and wiped away perspiration. He touched the back of his neck and it was on fire. They both stood near an open window and it wasn't particularly warm that evening, so there was no excuse. He could claim to be sick, but any woman who scented him would know better. Well, any Rihannsu woman. When he looked back at U'Saeki, she shrugged sympathetically. He set his glass down on the ledge beside hers and wheeled toward the public 'fresher.

He didn't get far before he noticed a solitary, middle-aged woman approaching him with obvious intent to cut off his path. She wore relatively plain robes, clean, tidy but barely adorned. Her hair was pulled into a simple braid. She was biting her lip, working up the nerve to confront him about something, so he slowed down. If nothing else, she was an elder.

She came to stand half a length from him and asked apprehensively, "Are you Enriov Volskiar?"

"I am."

Her face crumpled into pain mixed with anger and her hands, which had up to that point been twisted together dropped to her sides as fists. "Good. I am glad I found you."

Warily, he forced himself to concentrate. "Have I done something to offend you?"

She raised her chin. "You took my son. My only son and you killed him."

He took a deep breath and said nothing.

"All those recruitment posters and advertisements! He refused to become a laborer and abandoned us to join your infantry!" She pointed a finger in accusation. "He did not know what he was doing. He had no idea, but you knew. You knew he was less than a hlai to the army! And for what purpose?"

He forced himself to look at the woman shaking in anger in the middle of a whisper audience. "I do not know how your son died, but if it was in service then he brought glory to the Empire. You may not believe this, but I grieve for your loss."

"Grieve?" she shouted back at him, "Grieve? I wager that you did not know his name!"

He resisted the urge to close his eyes. He had watched men and woman fall in front of him and sometimes they landed on him, whole or in pieces. He modulated his voice despite the increasing fuzz in his mind and said, "Good woman, I command over twenty thousand soldiers within two divisions. I cannot possibly know all their names. I regret your loss, but I assume your son was a grown man capable of judging risk and making his own choices." He lowered his voice so only she could hear. "Please do not devalue his sacrifice."

"A worthless sacrifice," she choked out. "He died for a barren rock in the Outmarches. How does that bring glory to the Empire?" She stumbled back, clasping at the sides of her head, trying to regain self-control. "I.... One child. We could afford but one child." She dropped a hand to clutch at her right side, breathing hard. Inhaling deeply, she met his eyes and said, "I hope you rot in your grave and take the praetor with you."

"No no no no...," he breathed out, the cold weight already settling in his stomach. It was too late. Everyone within earshot had heard and everyone in earshot included Narviat, Charvanek beside him.

"Guards," Narviat ordered implicitly, using a deceptively calm voice, and two uhlans from the Royal Guard jogged forward to take hold of the unresisting matron.

He saw Charvanek turn her attention from the woman to him, eyes boring into him in silent demand. She made no effort to argue with her husband, not in front of everyone. What did she expect Volskiar to do about it?

Volskiar squelched the urge to plead for mercy on the matron's behalf. The woman was upset, wounded by grief and had good reason to speak irrationally. If Narviat had been watching all along he must know that, but he couldn't permit an open threat to pass no matter how baseless. It was an accident but Volskiar wasn't Keodar to whisper schemes in Narviat's ear, or Norelm to command the Royal Guard. He was an inconvenient failure and would aggravate the woman's situation. Though her death was guaranteed, it didn't currently involve whatever family she had and he wouldn't cause it to escalate to that level.

He watched the woman walk to her death in exhausted obedience, then grimaced in a rough approximation of a sneer because everyone was waiting for a response from him. "In the midst of Commemoration? She reprimands one of us who defend this Empire?" In his peripheral vision, he saw Charvanek curl her lip in disgust at him, then look away smoothing her expression. He forced himself to bow at Narviat and say, "My gratitude, Praetor."

Narviat gave a single, slight nod before drifting around in a lazy turn to walk away in bored dismissal.

Volskiar looked down at the floor, fighting back unexpected nausea. It wasn't the alcohol. It was the unrelenting heat that made him want to crawl out of his dress uniform, and the pounding of his heart against his ribs. It had to be the heat. He focused on the 'fresher and headed straight for it.

He reached what ought to have been a sink but was, instead, one of those newfangled sonic cleansers. He could have used a cool splash of water, but there was none. Resting his forehead against the mirrored wall, he searched his pockets for the hypospray he'd started carrying a few days out while on the Victorious, returning to base. He found it and jammed the unit against his neck, wincing at the brief sting, waiting for the sedative to take effect. Zuro had once laughed at him, claiming he must have been cursed with bad timing biologically to compensate for his good timing on the battlefield.

He stepped away from the mirror, looking up. U'Saeki was right. He looked bad. His skin was covered in a fine sheen of sweat, his cheeks, neck and forehead flushed with a tinge of green distinct through his perpetual tan. His hair was mussed, probably from when he head-butted the mirror. Not for the first time, he wished his eyes were darker instead of light brown because his dilated pupils were obvious to anyone who looked. He yanked the sonic cleanser around, pointing it up at his face and closed his eyes before activating the unit.

At least the sweat was gone and if he went out to the terrace he could stay in both the cooler night air and dimmer light. He activated his communicator and ordered his driver to bring the shuttle back to the government quarter and retrieve him. He had fulfilled his social obligations and Tasha could cut short her own, however shady they were. He took a deep breath, feeling the first mitigating effects of the sedative and used his fingers to comb his hair straight.

Without further delay, he headed toward the nearest terrace exit. He heard someone fall in step with him before turning to discover Koval. "Following me?"

"Not at all. I saw Cretak head toward the terrace a few minutes ago. Now I am curious to see what is keeping her." Koval was tall and easily kept pace. "Although I suppose she may be avoiding my company."

Volskiar grunted, not caring about petty quarrels between courting high born.

"In a hurry to get somewhere?"

"Outside. I need some air."

"Oh? I thought it was something else you needed."

Volskiar felt his temper rise in response to the juvenile baiting. Koval was probably one of those lucky saps who suffered mild symptoms when the fires struck. He tried to regulate his respiration, knowing that if he allowed his temper to gain hold he would lose all self-control. That was a risky thing to lose in the government quarter, surrounded by so many powerful and easily offended politicians.

He reached the terrace and went straight to the corner at the far end, leaning his hip against the stone border. This way he could watch the main doors of the ballroom to his right and have a full view of the terrace guests stretching out to the opposite end. He searched for light hair, noticing that Koval chose to walk slowly through the assembled crowd and soon disappeared from sight. Volskiar was looking out over the city, bustling with activity, shuttles and small craft blinking in constant motion overhead, when Koval rejoined him.

"I believe I found something of yours." Koval smiled smugly before strolling back down the terrace. "If you would care to follow I will lead the way, but stay sulking in your corner, if you would prefer."

That caused the nearest guests to turn and look at Volskiar, so he pushed off the stone border and followed. The sedative had one chief side-effect, it impaired cognitive processes. He could feel his wits muddling. The sooner he found Tasha, the sooner they could leave and if that meant accepting a favor from Koval, then so be it.

She was sitting beside Cretak, the two in hushed discussion. Cretak saw them return first and lightly tapped Tasha's sleeve.

Koval tugged on his tunic hem, which didn't need straightening, murmuring sanguinely to Volskiar, "The way those two women like to gossip at these events, I almost feel obligated to invite you to dinner sometime."

Under better circumstances, Volskiar might have invented some witty refusal, but he hadn't the patience anymore. Before he could say her name, Tasha stopped mid-sentence and looked up at them.

"Oh, hey."

Ignoring everyone else, he said lowly, "We are leaving."

Without missing a beat, Tasha cringed in her chair, hunching down as if genuinely frightened.

"Now." He heard murmurs from several of the nearby guests, predominantly the women. There were also a number of hostile glares. If he weren't impaired by the drug, he would have amped up his arrogant, domineering display but then, if it weren't for the drug, he might mean it.

Tasha eased up and did a fair imitation of slinking up to him in cowed submission. From a meter away, the posture was convincing but up close he could see the twinkle in her eyes. He jerked his arm as if he intended to strike her and she swerved out of reach. Right on cue, Iridau, her obligatory Havrannsu guard, closed in to flank her.

"Come with me," he growled out and wheeled toward the nearest terrace exit, back into the ballroom.

"That poor woman," whispered a woman from behind and he didn't look to see which one. "That bastard will tear her pieces."

Koval chuckled again, that same laugh as earlier. "It is my understanding that she is well accustomed to him, my lady."

He saw Tasha look at him in surprise when he growled, a genuinely hostile noise.

"Are you okay?"

"We need to leave." Just the relief at having found her, knowing they could depart, helped uncurl the knot in his stomach. But nowhere near completely. He took a steadying breath and reminded himself of what he had told Tasha once, three years ago. He wasn't about to lose control like some sort of animal.

"And it's about time," Tasha agreed.

As they passed through the increasingly unruly crowd of guests, the irritating rumble of conversation and laughter mixed with background music, Tasha veered off slightly to glower threateningly at someone. He tracked her direction to an elegant woman now physically shielding her son from the sudden hostility. Behind Tasha, Iridau appeared almost anxious, silently requesting instruction over whether he should as usual merely follow her wherever she went or make a public display of authority to satisfy curious onlookers.

Volskiar looked back at the rich woman and blinked. "Tasha," he hissed, "that is the Vice Proconsul. What are you doing?"

"Putting the fear of Starfleet into that little shit."

He practically felt his blood pressure rise and nodded sharply at Iridau.

The normally superfluous Havrannsu guard dropped a taloned hand on Tasha's shoulder, reeling her back toward Volskiar. She wrenched free with a muttered curse which drew a smattering of nervous laughter from the audience that had gathered. She threw a puzzled glare at him, falling back in step.

"What the hell was that show for?" she whispered furiously. "You didn't really think I was going to hurt the kid, did you?"

"No, but his mother is the Vice Proconsul!"

"Who has no authority over High Command, so relax."

"I will relax once we are outside."

"Fine, but he deserved a good scare."

Taking another fortifying breath as they passed through the main doors, he reminded himself to control the atypical bursts of anger before Tasha noticed he wasn't pretending this time. "Oh? And what horrible offense could a young boy commit?"

She looked at him pithily, then raised her chin and said in a falsetto, complete with faltering lisp, "Mother, may I have a Human concubine?"

He choked on an involuntary laugh then tried to cover it with, "Yes, that is fiendishly cruel."

"He said right in front of me, like I couldn't hear him," she defended herself furiously. "He can't be more than ten! What does he know about 'concubines'?"

"Nothing, I imagine." He grinned. "It is unfortunate that he chooses to emulate me, mostly from his mother's perspective as she does not like me."

"Yeah, I can see how it's denting your ego." She gave in to a smile, despite her ire. "You think I'd be used to hearing things like that by now."

He was going to make some probably clumsy attempt at consolation when his communicator beeped softly. He tore it from his pocket, popping open the face plate. Instead of Vaetul, who was piloting the shuttle, Echael appeared on screen and asked to speak with Tasha. He thrust the device toward her and kept on walking. Her following burst of laughter was completely unexpected and quickly squelched. He imagined guests looking at them in wonder as she broke character. Tasha hunched back over, snapped close the communicator and handed it back to him.

The curiosity was an uncontrollable as his anger. "What is it?"

"Sela was being a pest and Saket made the mistake of ignoring her," Tasha said without breaking into a betraying smile. "She was hanging off his holster and shot him in the foot."

Involuntarily, he gave a single hoarse laugh. "Is it too much to hope he is dead?"

"Unfortunately, it was on the minimum setting." Tasha glanced back at Iridau as they exited the building and heading on down the stairs. The man was smiling toothily in shared amusement. "Besides, there's no guarantee his replacement would baby-sit. Are you sick?"

"I am not ill." He saw a shuttle, hovering in a nearby street, lift up to meet them at the foot of the stairs.

"Have you been poisoned?"

"No," he snapped and saw her draw back in surprise.

Then she cocked her head, the same way Awhei had, peering at him intently because he'd stopped too near a lamp post. Her eyes scanned his face, checked his posture, noted his uneven respiration, then went back to his eyes before he could move into the shadows. "Okay."

"There is no reason for you to be concerned."

"I'm not."

He followed her into the shuttle, but moved quickly to the opposite bench when she tried to sit next to him. Rather than change seats, she draped an arm alongside the window port, leaning into the corner of the bench, studying him. He heard the front hatch shut as Iridau joined Vaetul in the cockpit, then the change in pitch as the thrusters activated. If he didn't know what poor night vision Human's had, he would have worried, but she couldn't see any betraying details in the dimly lit confines. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, the deadening weight of the sedative behind his eyes.

"Something happen out on the floor?"

He almost said nothing had but she would know that was a lie. Maybe if he gave her some reasons for his distemper she would cease her line of inquiry. "The usual. Lethren cornered me with his snide humor and Koval joined him. They are worse than jay birds, each repeating and elaborating on what the other says as if it were a witty accomplishment."

She crossed her legs at the knee, the slit of her dress sliding back to expose her thigh and the high wrapped boot. "And this time it worked on you?"

"No. Somewhat. I.... There was a woman."

She raised an eyebrow, the corner of her lip pulling into a mild smirk. "One of those rich bored ones looking for a big strong soldier to liven up the weekend while the husband's away?" She continued to watch him intently.

He realized he was staring at her thigh, the tip of his tongue caught between his teeth. He cleared his expression, moving his gaze back to her face. "No. An older woman. Her son joined the infantry and she held me responsible for his death."

"As if you issue the marching orders."

His stomach flipped again and he looked at the empty space beside Tasha. "She knew that as well. She cursed me. She cursed Narviat and...." He released an exhausted breath.

"He was there?"

"Yes."

"Damn," she said mournfully. "I'm sorry."

"It is not your doing. It is the praetorate, the office, as if it were cursed to turn anyone who sits in that chair into a coward."

He leaned over, resting his elbow on his knee, trying to find a comfortable position despite the increasingly uncomfortable breeches. That was the last thing he needed her to see. Then he made the mistake of looking at her face again and saw the open compassion in her eyes. So he forced himself to drop his gaze and that lead directly to her breasts outlined by the form-fitting cut and ornamental laces. If he looked down further, he would fixate on her legs, so he changed direction to her arm. Surely that would be safe.

He mentally traced the line of her bicep where it disappeared into the crook of her arm and watched the subtle play of the smaller muscles of her forearm, highlighted by the moonlight and street lamps. Her hand was resting loosely on the rounded panel of the door, her thumb absently stroking the textured metal surface. He shuddered and looked at the floor. Was she sitting that way on purpose?

"Are you sure there's nothing wrong?"

"I am fine."

"Really? Why'd you just moan?"

He leaned over further, grasping the back of his neck in mortification. Had he? Then he realized why the sedatives weren't working like they ought. He'd become angered and then upset. He had experienced multiple hormonal surges, which meant he needed a higher dose. It was a short trip home, where he could contact Echael and she would find him some woman he needn't fear mauling by accident.

He heard the slide of cloth as she moved. "Stay where you are."

"That's awfully commanding of you," she answered silkily, displeased by the order.

He cleared his throat but his voice remained raspy, "Please do not antagonize me. Not now." He looked out the port and discovered, to his dismay that they were trapped by some sort of traffic. While the driver could break formation and take him directly to the compound, violating right of way laws, there was no legitimate cause that would prevent heavy fines. He kneaded his neck, head practically between his knees. He didn't want the legal trouble.

Predictably, she ignored his request and slid off her bench. Rather than sit next to him as he expected, she crouched down and wedged herself between his legs before he could stop her. She knelt in casual genuflection, resting her elbows on his thighs, shoving his own out of the way and his back hit the back of his bench with a thump as he tried to back away from her. When he tried to rise and jump free, she pressed the edge of her palm against a sensitive nerve close to his knee, disabling his leg.

He grabbed her wrist and she made a small noise of warning. He didn't let go, working his fingers along her forearm, fighting the urge to slide his hand up her arm, grab a handful of fabric around her shoulder and pull the whole top free. He heard his own strangled noise of frustration and started fumbling in his pocket for the hypospray. It didn't matter if she saw it and wondered what he was taking.

She took the opportunity to wrap her hand around his erection through the cloth of his breeches. "Let go of my wrist," she ordered.

He let go, his other hand shaking as he held the hypospray. All he needed to do was inject himself, just raise his hand to his neck and do it, but she had his fly undone while he pleaded with himself to move. He wanted to tell her they were almost home and she needed to be careful because he could hurt her, but he felt her lips around the head of his penis and whatever he thought dissolved into slick heat and the rhythmic grip of her hand.

He dropped the hypospray, dimly hearing it clatter to the floor. Sliding back in his seat, he tried again to tell her, to warn her but he was making inarticulate noises in between moans. She controlled the pace but he could prevent his hips from jerking up, attempting to plunge deeper, nor resist the urge to tangle his free hand in her hair. She paused only to grab his wrist, pinching the central nerve until his fingers went numb and he released her head and she slid his hand down to her shoulder.

He clenched her shoulder, hearing her grunt in protest, but felt her hand on his groin, fingers tangling loosely bracing against him, sucking in a hard pull. Spots in his eyes, he tried to warn her but it came out as a stuttering shout, gasping for air.

She was coughing, leaning back on her heels and he realized once he could hear past the blood pounding in his ears, chuckling. She coughed again, then cleared her throat, before falling back against the foot of her bench. She sat there, one leg bent up, arm resting on her knee, while reaching into a hidden pocket of her dress. She pulled out a small flask and took a drink. It was the one she took with her to avoid risking a poisoned drink.

He moaned again, trying to lift his arms but they were like lead weights. One leg still worked, so he pushed himself back onto his bench in awkward, jerking motions. Relatively upright again, he wriggled his fingers, dragging his hand back in to fumble with his fly. As his pulse slowed, a crippling lethargy settled over him and he closed his eyes.

He heard something land on the bench beside him and blinked down at it. It was the hypospray. He opened his mouth, preparing to explain what it was but trying to speak seemed a great effort. Then he was distracted by Tasha as she half stood, retaking her seat on her bench. When she moved the clear scent of her arousal hit him and he inhaled sharply. He tried to move but dizziness hit him so hard he grabbed onto the seat, tipping precariously. He looked down again, saw the hypospray again and this time noticed that the chamber was empty.

He looked up at Tasha. She held up a loose fist to her face, one finger extended like the barrel of a disruptor, and blew on it.

"Huh," he said and fell over.

He woke up in his dark quarters at the compound, flat on his back, wearing nothing but breeches. Rolling over onto his side, he flung out an arm but he was alone. With his ear pressed against the pillow, he could hear a low rhythmic reverberation transmitted through the walls and foundations. He sat up. "Lights."

Getting out of bed, he stumbled toward the 'fresher to relieve himself, which proved tricky with a partial erection and resorted to using the shower. Then he ducked his head under the shower faucet. He drank some water, after rinsing off. The icy cold water helped for a minute, but he felt the heat creeping back into his skin as he dried off with a small towel. He leaned against the wall to gather his wits, then went back into his room to search for his dress tunic.

The hypospray was missing. He checked all the pockets, the chair it was draped over and the floor underneath. He tried the drawers to the end tables, but there was no sedative. Throwing the tunic on the bed in frustration, he nearly walked into the door in his haste, waiting impatiently for it to hiss open. To his left, in the hall was Saket, drooping drowsily in a chair he'd set outside Sela's quarters.

Saket snapped awake and his eyes went wide. Without urging, he said, "She is not here."

Volskiar turned right, still barefoot, and went straight to the security monitor station. No one was attending it and the cameras showed no activity. He watched the screens but nothing on them moved, not even a guard making his or her rounds. He pressed his ear against the wall and heard the reverberation Yet there was nothing on the cameras? So he back-tracked to Echael's office. The security of the compound was her responsibility.

She was seated at her desk, looking up expectantly when he opened her door. Her tunic was partially undone and, her red rank sash tied around her head like a bandanna. Her hair was a disorderly mess and she positively beamed at him. "Good evening, Enriov."

"What is the meaning of this?"

She smiled cheekily, shaking her head and it took her a moment to formulate an answer. "The meaning of what? I am off duty. It is past final hour."

He looked at the nearest chronometer. It was over two hours into the morning. After some laborious thought into the matter, before he remembered it was the Commemoration, he asked, "Then why are you here?"

"I forgot something." She held a finger over the communication panel of her sensor unit, wobbling in the air, then jabbed down deactivating it. "All done." She looked down to her right, beckoning and her husband Imav stood up from behind the desk.

Volskiar backed into the hallway to let them both out. Then it occurred to him to follow them toward the barracks. Once outside the central facility, the low thrumming he had heard inside revealed itself to be the heavy beat of music pouring out from re-routed intercom units. He followed the low roar of voices, some talking, some laughing, some singing until he saw the flickering light of a bonfire.

There was a melee of soldiers, security personnel, medics, technicians and officers around it. While it was difficult to make out individuals toward the center of the group, backlit by the fire, around the edges and dispersed throughout the alleys between the barracks, through open doors or windows, he could see everyone was well into the business of serious celebration. Most had discarded the bulk of their clothing and even recently injured soldiers were in the mix, complete with splints, crutches, bandages and chairs.

Without his identifying uniform, in the darkness broken by flickering fire light, he blended in with the crowd and chaos. Instinctively, he drew back into a shadow thrown by a pile of storage containers and searched the group. He was conscious of the trio around the corner of the barrack to his back and the air was thick with the smells of alcohol, sweat, sex and smoke. Hiding there, he reasoned that he ought to find an unattached woman. Unfortunately, most of the troops had paired off and for every pair of men there was a pair of women, and some in haphazard combinations besides. He was late to the proverbial party.

He leaned back against a barrack wall, sorting out his options. In the distance, he could see a seated figure huddled up in an alley between two buildings, a man. He had his head on his knees, hands wrapped around the back of his neck. Volskiar started to look away, guessing that the man had lost a loved one on the battlefield. Then he saw another man, passing that alley, come to a stop and head toward the grieving one. Volskiar pushed away from the wall, wondering why he seemed to be the only person who couldn't find company on this particular night.

The tempo of the music slowed in meter and a woman was singing something mournful. After a few verses, he realized he couldn't understand a word of it and began searching the group intently. He knew that voice, though she never sang lullabies to him. He stepped out until the central path, trying to separate individuals out from the mass of dancers, until he became aware of being watched.

A man across the way, in front of a mirroring line of barracks, took off running toward the bonfire. Volskiar automatically sprang forward to follow him, not knowing why he was running or where he was running to, but assuming it was important. After the first few shoves against dancers, the group parted way for him and he found Tasha.

She had her arms wrapped around a half-naked centurion, one leg entwined his. She arched back, grazing her arms down his, brushing his sash where it was tied around his bicep, smoothing her palms down his chest until her fingers hooked on the waistband of his breeches. She yanked lightly, pulling his groin against hers, grinding in what could loosely be called dancing. When she threw her head back, lips curled into a smile, the man drew his his hands down from her shoulders to her hips, holding her close. She still wore the dress from earlier, its green becoming orange in the firelight, and he hesitated, admiring her legs. She didn't stop rocking loosely against the centurion, until the man with her leaned over to whisper something in her ear. She released his neck, sliding her arm down his chest and looked at Volskiar. And then she smirked.

Volskiar would have been on the hapless soldier if Tasha hadn't adroitly stepped between them, and then physically blocked his path when he tried to go around her. He swiped at her, trying to grab her shoulder so she would stay still, but she stepped out of reach and he stumbled. She cuffed his ear, a bit savagely, and he cried out in surprise at the burning stab of pain. Now his attention was on her and as he advanced, she retreated, while the assembled crowd scattered out of his path. Even in the dark, he could see the faint sheen of sweat on her skin, that tell tale sign of exertion.

As soon as the crowd blended back together behind him, she held still and let him approach. Expecting her to evade, he grabbed quickly, catching the side of her neck and she went into irmi. Instinctively, he lowered his stance but rather than make any attempt to knock him over, she craned back and bit his neck lightly, ending with a trailing lick on his bruised ear. His grip on hers loosened and she ground her hip into his groin, sliding a leg over his thigh.

"About time you showed up," she murmured into his ear.

He gulped for air, catching full scent of her arousal, causing him to growl in the general direction of the crowd. Her dance partner was long gone and then Tasha nibbled leisurely at the base of his neck, ending with another distracting bite. He let go of her neck, sliding his hands in a rush to grab her ass and lift her up. He wrangled a hand under the lengthy material of her dress and discovered she was naked.

She made a sound, half sigh, half moan, twisting slowly in his grip, engorged slick moisture against his palm. Then she gave a started gasp when he snarled, tucking into his shoulder, warning with quiet panic, "Wall!"

He got an arm up behind her before they both hit the barrack wall, the impact knocking the air from her lungs, hot against his chest. He tried to say something, but the words wouldn't come and the heavy beat of music all around blended with the rushing in his ears. Tasha's hands were on his shoulders, fingers biting into him and he felt her leg slide out from between his so she could wrap both around his hips. She rocked against him, slowly, deliberately and he tightened his grip and pulled her closer.

As she ground against him, her head fell back against the cool metal wall and he found himself gasping against her shoulder. Wriggling his trapped arm loose, feeling her grip on his shoulder tighten in response, he leaned his hips away long enough to loosen his breeches. They were in the open, the static of voices all around but all he could hear were her moans with every exhalation. As soon as she felt him searching, she rolled her hips, slid down and he found himself surrounded by slick heat that left him gasping.

Tasha wrapped her legs tighter, gasping for air trying to look him in the eye. She gave up, pressing her head back against the wall, eyes closing, and said between ragged breaths, "Oh fuck."

For a second, he held still. There was something.... He shouldn't....

"C'mon," she murmured beseechingly.

His intended protest died on his lips with an exhalation and gasp as she growled in frustration, looking at him narrowly, eyes a pale glitter through her lashes. She hitched herself up bodily, enough to ride down on him, muttering, "Quit screwing around, you fucking bastard. Move."

In that narrowing moment of focus, all he could feel was enveloping heat, the fierce grip of her legs around his hips, arms wrapped around his shoulders and hot breath against his throat. He heard his own stuttering, plaintive moan, the answering gasp and urgent groan from her as he rocked his hips in an experimental thrust. The urge to move as ordered took frantic hold and he pinned her in place and drove against the wall.

He woke up in his bed again. There was a horrible noise somewhere, a persistent, annoying screech that frayed at his nerves like acid. He pressed his hands to his ears, groaning as much from the cotton in his mouth, and aches in his joints, as the noise.

"Oh, good morning. Are we speaking in sentences using words yet?"

"Ugh."

"That's not a word but the tricorder says your hormone levels have stabilized."

"Why must she scream so loudly?"

"Because that's what two year old Humans like to do when they get angry."

He squeezed his eyes shut against the pillow. "Yes, you have told me. Your people evolved from creatures called apes that lived in forests, scream all the time, throw feces when enraged and sometimes eat their own young." He pointed facetiously over his back, still laying on his stomach, toward Sela's room. "Now would be a convenient time to regress into primitive behavior." He pressed the sides of the pillow against his ears, as if that would shut out the furious howls better than his bare hands.

"I've had enough primitive behavior, thank you."

Still groggy from waking into such a racket, it took him a moment to remember. He stopped breathing for a heartbeat, then dared a squint in the direction of Tasha's voice. She was standing in front of the 'fresher wearing a bright yellow robe, hair slicked back with water, reading the screen of a tricorder. He forced himself to roll over, dragging himself up to half lay, half sit against the wall. He tried to look around more clearly, but his eyes were filmy. He rubbed away the crusts feeling as if he'd been cleaner in a trench than his bed.

"There's food and water on your end table," she directed implicitly.

He looked to his left and sure enough, there was a plate with a sandwich, some soup, a glass and decanter. He reached for the soup first, drinking directly from the bowl because he was thirsty. It was cold and bland, but on an empty stomach greasy and spicy would be hazardous. He managed to get half the sandwich in his mouth in one bite but instantly regretted it when it was too much to chew.

Tasha studied the readings from her tricorder, then dropped it on the other end table. "And you know what Echael said about the screaming."

"Yes, we must wait until she stops else she will train us to do her bidding instead of the reverse." He finished the sandwich and reached for the decanter, spurning the glass entirely. "What trivial, inconsequential thing has angered her, this time?"

"Mm." Tasha pressed her lips together, wincing at another scream. "I made the mistake of checking on her. She thinks her daddy came back from space and she hasn't gotten to see him in three whole days and that's just not fair since mommy's been with him the whole time."

He leaned forward, intending to rise and go to Sela's room despite numerous warnings not to placate her temper. "Three days?"

"Yes. Dekesh rescheduled all your appointments and you better lay back down until she stops because I won't tolerate a spoiled brat." She sat down heavily on the bed, one leg pulled up, so she could twist around partially to face him. "And when she quits, she's your job because I'm going to crash as soon as the stims wear off."

"Stimulants?" he asked stupidly.

"Three days. Hello. Human being." She waved a hand in his general direction, causing the sleeve of her robe to slide down revealing a splint. Underneath it, he could see bruising around her wrist. "Over seventy-five hours," she clarified unnecessarily.

He looked away from her wrist, realizing dumbly why she hadn't removed her robe yet to change. He sought the right words, then settled on, "I am sorry."

"For what?"

"I did not intend to harm you."

"Well, no, you wanted to fuck my brains out but since that's more or less what I expected I'm not sure that I see the problem."

"I intended to find a woman here at the compound," he began explaining awkwardly, too conscious of Tasha's patient silence. "I knew when we began our return leg but there was limited opportunity and, akhh.... I am not comfortable on a ship. Then there was the Commemoration ceremony but I sedated myself and then...." He sighed. "If you had not been at the bonfire you would have been spared."

The tricorder hit him in the head.

"You goddamn idiot." Tasha leaned carefully on the elbow of her fractured arm. "You think I was there by accident?"

He rubbed his temple and shoved away the offending tricorder. "But how could you know?"

"I asked Echael to keep an eye on you and alert me when you woke up."

"So, that is what she was doing in her office after final hour."

"Yup."

"But that is not what I meant." He gestured at his chest. "How did you know?"

She bit her lip, made a face and looked up at the ceiling.

He sighed in defeat. "Is it truly so similar?"

"Well, I don't know. I've never seen a Vulcan like that because they always hide."

Flabbergasted, he asked, voiced higher than intended, "Then how can you know the symptoms well enough to make a sound judgment?"

She smiled sheepishly. "Because it's funny so we gossip about it. I mean, not when there's a Vulcan around, obviously, since that would be rude but...." She shrugged. "They slip up every now and then. Anyway, the way I here it, there are some pretty distinct stages the last one translates as 'blood fever' because it's characterized by elevated body temperature and impaired cognitive processes. On top of that, I heard several woman whisper about 'fires' when you showed up, never mind the one who predicted you'd tear me up." She stopped to roll her eyes. "You know how tactful and discreet they are around me."

It was his turn to roll his eyes. "You have been waiting for this."

"Yes."

"Even though I once explained quite firmly that my people do not suffer from that Vulcan condition."

She pressed her lips together to suppress a mocking grin. "I'm no biologist, but if all it took was a few thousand years to evolve out of it, I'm pretty sure the Vulcans would have found a way to engineer out the embarrassment." She shrugged. "So, yes, I organized a strategy well in advance with several contingency plans."

He grumbled, "I still wish you would not make the comparison."

"Right, right," she bit back a smile. "You guys use a different word and that changes everything. Look, I'm not going to argue about this with you but I hope you have the common sense to tell me next time." She reached over to drag away the tricorder and put it back on the table. "I'm a big girl. I can make my own decisions." Stretching carefully she added, "And we'll leave out the part where if you hadn't put it off for a week it wouldn't have lasted for three days."

He laced his fingers together in the sheet over his lap, saying quietly, "Everyone would have understood if I chose a surrogate."

"And now they understand something different."

He remained vaguely appalled at the risk she had taken but he couldn't squelch the warm satisfaction. Waking up with her was different than waking up with a nervous stranger, the awkward admission of gratitude, not knowing what malicious gossip might follow. He watched her massage her shoulder through the robe, rolling the joint to test against some pull or sprain. There would be gossip of an entirely different sort by now. When she looked back at him to discover the reason for his silence, he dipped his head in gratitude.

She released her shoulder, conscious he was watching.

A consternating realization hit him. "We were in public."

Swiftly, she covered her mouth with a hand, attempting to muffle her laughter. "Yeah."

"I do not know what will be worse. The laughter behind my back or the tremulous groveling to my face for fear of my temper." He heard choking noises from Tasha's direction.

"Don't worry," she managed to get out in between clearing her throat to conceal more laughter, "you were on fire so it doesn't count."

He snorted. "Yes. I am certain no one watched."

"Oh, well.... At least the cameras were disabled."

"Unless Lethren had some planted out in the barracks."

"Your insight is comforting." He raked his fingers through greasy, matted hair.

She bit her lip in amused grimace, hunching her shoulder up to catch a bead of water draining from her hair against her robe.

In the following silence, he heard... silence. "She has stopped."

Tasha looked to her left, listening. "About time she quit."

He took the opportunity to study her face in profile. Her eyes were sunken in with exhaustion and the edge of yet another bruise was visible right above the collar of her robe. He knew she wanted to end the current conversation, considered it moot, but he wanted to know one way or the other, for peace of mind. "Tasha?"

"Yeah? You're not making your sad face at me, are you?"

"I likely am. Do not change the subject. I respect that you consider this your duty but I am aware that your species does not experience... this. Your are not Rihannsu. You lack the biological capacity to respond in kind by reflex when necessary. I...." He exhaled hopelessly because she wasn't saying anything. "I know I must have hurt you and I wish I had not."

"You apologized already," she said tersely.

"And you dismissed it and changed the subject."

"Because it wasn't that bad. Look, you're right. Humans don't go into rut or heat or pon far or whatever Romulan word you want to use, but we do have common sense, stims and painkillers. I told you; I had a battle plan." She pulled back her hair from the back of her neck enough for him to see the slim black bio-monitor. "See? Aranar had an eye on me the whole time. Of course, the way he acted when I requested calfipexoline complex, you'd think I'd asked him to look into fertility enhancement for tribbles."

"Calfipexoline complex?"

"It's a sexual stimulant for Humans. Aranar mixed together a cocktail for me awhile back and I dosed myself as soon as the first lookout spotted you approaching the barracks." She pulled open the desk drawer to reveal a med kit and popped open the pouch. Inside was a hypospray and a series of empty vials tucked into loops. Three were full. "See? I have some left."

He processed that intriguing information feeling some of the weight lift off his shoulder. Apparently there was no need to hold a grudge against an unidentified centurion. There was a niggling detail, though. "I am surprised you were able to research such an obscure species specific chemical solution within our databases."

Her smile wavered and turned into a flat line, sadness creeping into her eyes. She said quietly, reluctantly, "I didn't need to research it. We called it 'Free Sex' on the streets." She paused to sigh softly. "The Federation lists it as a recreational drug but that's not how it was used." She smiled wanly, then added, "Never would have guessed I'd get a chance to redeem it."

He grasped that line and smiled slyly, trying to lighten her downward turn. "It is a shame I did not have access to this compound earlier in our relationship," he said in an utterly serious tone.

"It's a good thing you didn't." She scowled at him but he could see the hint of a smile mixed with it. She knew him well enough by now to realize he wouldn't have wanted drugged compliance. "Should I throw the tricorder at your head again?"

His smile was involuntary and sincere this time. "No."

That scowl always reminded him of her abbreviated pregnancy. While a viable blastocyst was created in vitro, development of a hybrid fetus was still more successful within a womb where its genetic expression could be regulated by its mother's genetic code. He had learned that a fetus left in vitro often began to develop unchecked deformities as individuals genes were or weren't activated in a timely fashion, and sometimes growth stalled out entirely.

That had left Tasha suffering through aggressive hormone manipulation to simulate a false pregnancy so her body would accept the transplant, then drugged to the gills on immuno-suppressants while her body determined whether or not the fetus was sufficiently Human enough to tolerate. She had scowled at everyone back then, hunched over in a chair, fight back nausea, hooked to an IV drip during the worst of it.

He dragged himself fully upright, leaning on one arm, remembering Lethren's thwarted outrage when he realized he had been foiled by a child. His favorite torture subject was strictly off limits until her child not only reached term but could be safely weaned. It had resulted in an irritable, uncomfortable yet welcome vacation for both him and Tasha. Even if she were willing to endure that misery again, another child would destroy the tenuous ruse shielding his useful reputation. Two would damn them both, which meant Sela would be the only one.

He didn't want to think about that or the pang it caused. "But why dance with another man?"

"I like dancing and the stims don't work on their own." She shrugged sheepishly.

He grunted. "You never dance with me in public."

"I like a different kind of dancing." She looked up, adding glibly, "And you always hide in here when the troops come back and party. I figured you were pretending not to notice the sheer violation of protocol."

He frowned at her because that was true. He had begun as an uhlan on the battlefield, versus a high born who might possess the rank but remain insulated by less taxing expectations involving basic operations on a base or ship. He understood the need to celebrate life after witnessing death. "You joined their celebrations in the past?"

"Every time they threw a party."

He crossed his arms, leaning against the wall on his pillow. "I will join you next time, otherwise I may throttle one of my own men and that would be unfortunate."

"That's an excellent reason to dance with me instead of Husser's wife," she dead-panned, standing back up to head for the 'fresher. She returned holding a towel.

It was his turn to duck in feigned embarrassment. "She was teasing him."

"Yeah, I know. It was better than watching some random woman fawn on you, especially when they do it right in front of me. And I know they do it on purpose because half of them think you're too far beneath them to touch with a cattle prod otherwise."

Well, that was true enough. He had to wonder if, while waiting for him to wake and arrive, she hadn't also meant to elicit jealousy on his part in retaliation. It wasn't his fault that some of the high born women who loathed him were flaming hypocrites. Nor could he do much about Tasha's lack of right to defend him against such encroachment. He suspected that those women flirted with him as much to test the true nature of their official relationship, as aggravate her. He didn't trust those women with a single honest word.

Tasha wiped a trickle of moisture from her temple. "What?"

He changed the subject. "I heard you singing."

"Sorry. I'm terrible at it."

"No worse than most but I did not understand the words."

"Auld Lang Syne. It's not in Basic." Wiping along the back of her neck, she broke off to peel the bio-monitor off and toss it onto the end table. "It's an old requiem," and then she wrinkled her nose, "but not good dancing music. One of them asked me if we had any commemorative music and that was the one I remembered. You know what we should do?" she said from underneath the towel as she dried her hair. "We should go out tomorrow in public somewhere, maybe the Quarter Gardens. I'll limp around in my cast and you can sneer at everyone until they're all whispering."

He bit his lip, reaching for the water decanter again. "It would not precisely be a sham."

"Exactly, and it would fit great with the stuff I told them at the party."

"Do I want to know what you told them?"

She stood up, her hair in complete disarray, grinning. "Were you too far gone to notice they way all the women were glaring at you?"

"I noticed, but high born women often do that around me." He set the half empty decanter back on his end table. "You told them dreadful lies."

"Mm hm. I told them you like to beat the crap out of me because it turns you on, that you enjoy hearing me beg for it and then," she put a hand to her chest, "you like to sodomize me with your disruptor." She started to smooth her hair back with her fingers. "I think they believed it, too."

"My disruptor?" he asked mildly.

"Mm hm."

"But you enjoyed that."

She grinned widely, winking at him. "Sure, but they don't know that."

"Okay." He snorted to himself, shaking his head and chalked up to her inappropriately good spirits to the stims. "I will take you to the Grand Memorial Gardens."

"If it's anything like that time you took me to the Traveler's Memorial Museum, don't bother. I think the guide was halfway through his explanation of how the pacifist Vulcans cast out the courageous followers of S'Task, abandoning them without aid into the far reaches of space, and how the traitorous followers of Surak were banished to Remus before I thought I was going to burst."

He pursed his lips and shrugged. "Can you be certain the Vulcan's version is any less biased than you claim ours is?"

"No, but I'm certain I'll bust out laughing if it happens again and that'll be awkward."

"I agree. That is why we will not employ a guide. You will wear something revealing?"

"Wouldn't work if I didn't." Over the course of their conversation, her jittery movements had slowed and now she stood in place, blinking as if confused.

"We should take Sela."

She pursed her lips at him thoughtfully. "Are you sure that's a good idea? The minute she gets tired she'll get cranky and start fussing."

He waved a hand. "Yes, but it would be unfair to go without her. Let her come. She will enjoy the flowers even if you do not. Then when she tires and fusses, you will become hostile and I will tell Iridau and Vaetul to escort you back to the shuttle. Sela will not notice anything out of the ordinary and we will return to the house for evening meal." He watched her yawn.

"Sounds like a plan, then."

"Go. Sleep. I will check on her."

"Fine." She yawned again, and rubbed one eye. "But it might be smart to take a bath, first."

"She is too young to care."

"Fine, okay. I'll be in my room."

Looking down at the sheets, he could understand why she wasn't staying in his bed. He wrinkled his nose and heard his door open, then close. Fetching a robe of his own, he made his way out into the hall where he saw Saket sprawled out asleep in front of Sela's door. His laugh woke the officer who rolled instinctively, lurching up against the far wall in surprise, then staggered due to his injured foot.

The young man regained his balance and stood more cautiously, favoring one leg. "You are awake."

"And lhhei Yar is asleep which means you may take leave until I deploy again." Volskiar made a shooing gesture at Saket who stumbled and limped on down the hallway. He opened the door to Sela's room and found her standing right there in front of him, eyes wide.

She started hopping up and down, flapping her arms and shouted, "Eneh, eneh!"

He put a finger to his lips, that Human gesture, and hushed her. "Your mother is sleeping."

"So?" she asked stubbornly. She squeezed her eyes shut, scrunched up her face and he realized she intended to scream again.

"No!" he hissed furiously. "If you scream I will leave."

She immediately deflated, sticking out her lower lip in protest.

He crouched down to look her in the eye. "I was very sick. Your mother was tending me and did not wish you to become exposed. You cannot blame her."

Sela sagged in place. "Bad?"

"Yes, bad." When he saw the telling brightness appear in her eyes, he sighed and held out his arms. She had dealt with enough disappointment these past few days. "Come here."

She threw herself into his arms and he scooped her up as she held onto his lapels. He sat on her low bed, crossing his legs loosely to compensate. Stroking her fine hair, he kissed her forehead and she jammed her head under his chin, arms around his neck in absolute trust. He hoped she would never join the military.

Then she craned back as far as she could against his arm. She wrinkled her face in disgust, pointing at him. "Peee-Ewww! Stinky."


(15)

2347

After searching the central compound, then his house, Volskiar asked Dekesh where Tasha was. That lead him to the barracks, specifically the officers' quarters, and Echael's residential unit. The first thing he saw after letting himself through the door was erei'Arrain Saket, with Sela perched on his shoulders, her hands wrapped tightly around his head, her fingers jabbing into his eyes. She was shrieking with laughter as he pretended to be in great pain and off balance. As a result, neither saw Volskiar, standing in the doorway, or heard the door swish shut behind him. He crept into the central room, which was decorated garishly in the tradition of the Feast of T'meakhi. He couldn't see Tasha, which meant she was probably pestering Echael and Imav in the tiny food preparation area.

Saket saw him, coming to an awkward attention, probably the only person besides Volskiar who was in uniform. He wrangled Sela off his shoulders, at which she protested, until she spotted her father and stopped struggling. Saket wiped the grin off his face and stepped back to the edge of the room.

Volskiar bent to one knee and caught hers, lifting her up so that she sat in the crook of his arms. He listened as she told him about her week, in that unintelligible manner that very young children learning to speak in two languages simultaneously did. He made noises of agreement whenever she paused and she would nod, punctuating her litany with a scolding finger.

He had briefly questioned the wisdom of employing Saket as an ad hoc nursemaid but Tasha was correct. He wasn't that much of a fool to violate basic social mores. Volskiar might be obligated to endure Tasha's abuse at his hands, but no one, not even the praetor, would expect him to tolerate any harm directed at his daughter. He almost wished Lethren would forget himself, grow careless and impatient and attempt to use Sela as leverage against Tasha, because then he could strangle the man with his bare hands in the public square, without consequence. Unfortunately, Lethren wasn't that stupid. Thankfully, he left Saket to serve in his place, assigned to observe the prisoner that ostensibly had no value to the Empire.

One day, aggravated by his constant presence, juggling one too many items from a storage closet, Tasha had rounded on Saket and demanded he make himself useful. She thrust a squirming baby in his arms and warned him not to let her cry. Saket had stood there a bit shocked, a young man with no children of his own, and responded by cradling Sela to his chest. He learned quickly and more often than not, Sela could be found tagging along behind what she assumed was a relative, asking him incessant, indecipherable questions. Whenever she tired of walking, she would cling to his leg and Saket gamely dragged her along in that awkward fashion, without complaint. No one had the heart to enlighten the girl otherwise and Saket dutifully kept her entertained whenever her mother was sedated in the medical ward.

Volskiar pried Sela's fist out of his hair, which she had begun to tug mercilessly. She giggled at his efforts, increasing her own to rip out his hair, with the other hand. He finally slapped her hand in reprimand, which she ignored with alacrity, and clapped.

Nvaell ran out of the preparation room, his hands held out to stop himself from running into anyone or anything, shouting, "Run! Run!" Being only five years old, it took him a moment to notice that there was another guest in his home, but he definitely did. "Volskiar! Mother! He has arrived!"

"Stop yelling! We can hear you! The neighbors can hear you!"

"Sorry!" he shouted back, ignoring the reprimand.

Sela decided it would be a fine idea to shout along with everyone else, and Volskiar winced, jerking his head away. Then he blinked, as a small arm pelted him quite by accident, because she was waving her arms in imitation of Nvaell. He sat her down in his lap and wrapped both arms around her shoulders to keep her still.

The next thing he saw was Tasha fleeing the same room as Nvaell, only she was being chased by a snapping towel. She ducked, covering her face and laughing.

"Get out! Out you miserable sseikea! You will eat with everyone else!"

"I just wanted some eadh," she protested, her back still to Volskiar.

"Later!" Imav came into view, waving a knife in one hand, the towel in another. He frowned ferociously at Tasha, then caught Volskiar's eyes across the room. He pointed past Tasha's shoulder. "Go to him and stay away from the food."

Echael pushed past her husband, ducking under his arm, to grab Tasha by the shoulder and spin her around. "He is correct. You should not even hold a meat skewer. I believe you could burn water if you stood too close to it."

"Hey, that's what replicators are for."

"Then it is fortunate Volskiar provides you with one, else you would eat all your food charred into cinders." Echael broke off to look at Volskiar, struggling to contain Sela in his arms, and grinned. "Go help him before Sela throws a fit. I will give you some ee'ssam to eat for now."

"Ugh!" protested Tasha. "Do you have any idea what that tastes like? Silt with crunchy bits mixed in."

Echael shrugged innocently. "Sela will eat it."

"Yeah," Tasha looked over at him, giving a wink, "she'll eat pieces of garbage she finds on the ground, too."

"She will also eat the asiet, if you do not stop - Nvaell!" Echael shoved past Tasha and grabbed her son by the scruff of his neck, yanking him back from a garland of bright purple asiet leaves. "Must you do everything I forbid you? Have you no sense?" She shook him, yanking the plants from his hand, then giving him a push toward Volskiar as if it were suddenly his duty to mind the children.

Seizing the opportunity in the confusion, Sela wriggled free and took off running around the room. Saket sprang back into action as Tasha danced around the children, and made her way to Volskiar, where he sat back on a couch. He held out his arms and she fell rather gracelessly, and heavily into his lap. He grunted at the impact, but raised no objection.

"You're not hurt, are you?"

She didn't mean as a result of her actions. He had returned from another foray on another border planet, this time a moon. A Klingon raiding party had attacked a mining facility and Volskiar had been sent to regain it. Even such a minor operation carried the risk of injury and death, but not this time.

He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, urging her lean back against him, and she settled herself further on the couch. "I am unscathed."

That didn't stop her from examining him surreptitiously, in case he were lying to put her at ease during the evening's festivities. So he played with her hair, which was growing more than a bit shaggy, as she called it. When he asked why she did not cut it back, Tasha shrugged, explaining that it was a regulation cut and a matter of habit, rather than preference. She told him her mother had cut her hair when she was a girl, to help disguise her as a boy, shrugged and left it at that. A curious cultural artifact, gendered hair length and he had grinned, saying he liked it either way.

Tasha batted his hand away. "Quit it."

He settled for tucking a hand into the collar of her shirt, resting his fingers on her collarbone. "What have I missed?"

"A bunch of soldiers shirking to hoard food, smuggle in liquor and act like a bunch of idiots because of some annual feast. The usual." She smiled up at the ceiling. "Oh, and I caught Zeril and Dekesh in his office. Now she turns green every time I see her."

"No," he said, in a mixture of glee and horror. "They cannot tolerate each other. Truly?"

"Yup. She's probably trying to work her way up the ladder. Then again, who knows. Maybe she secretly likes prissy men." She shook head, chuckling into his neck, while he pretended to miss her implied jab. "Haven't laughed that hard since Sela pushed Saket into the cattle trough. Speaking of which...." She looked up, craning to check on her daughter.

Sela was stuffing asiet leaves into her mouth, cheered on by Nvaell. Saket was flapping his arms, trying to get their attention without rudely interrupting what seemed to be an intimate conversation. He was quite distressed.

"Oh for Cochrane's sake," Tasha muttered, pushing off Volskiar to grab up Sela in a manner reminiscent of Echael's toward Nvaell. She plucked leaves of Sela's mouth, all while glowering at Nvaell who backed away and ducked behind Saket. His unwilling ally proved more sensible and stepped aside, exposing the boy to Tasha's silent wrath. He took one looked at Volskiar and fled back to his mother. Saket didn't have that option and resorted to standing at attention until Tasha sighed in disgust.

Tasha leaned over to look Sela in the face, holding the partially chewed leaves in sight. "No. Bad."

Confused by the change in mood, Sela's face dropped, her lower lip quivered and she started to whimper.

Tasha scooped her up. "Yeah, I know. He made it seem like a good idea. C'mon, no more salad buffet for you." She made her way back to Volskiar, throwing another aggravated glance at Saket, who appeared cowed. He might be the standing representative of the Tal Shiar, but he was surrounded by over ten thousand soldiers, most of whom were loyal to Volskiar and whomever he favored. It was quite a balancing act.

Echael came back out, her face etched with concern. "How many did she eat?"

"Oh, I don't know. A few."

"You know they are toxic?"

Tasha pursed her lips, both amusement and irritation erased by concern. "How toxic?"

"She may be ill and vomit." Echael held out her hands in consternation. "I hope not on the furniture?"

"Oh. Well, okay then." Holding Sela up on her hip, Tasha walked over to the nearest garland, plucked a leaf and chewed on it. Echael eyed her dubiously. "Huh. Cucumber," announced Tasha.

"Cucumber?"

"A mild flavored vegetable. Good in a salad."

"It is dry and bitter."

Tasha shrugged. "Not to me. Tastes good. I guess it tasted good to her, too." She sat down beside Volskiar again, Sela's arms hooked around her neck. "I guess we'll see if she pukes or not."

Echael sniffed pointedly, her lips in a flat line, then warned facetiously, "Do not eat my garlands."

Tasha rolled her eyes. "I'm not going to eat your garlands, so relax. I'll wait for dinner, so long as it's not ee'ssam."

Echael shook her head. "All you do is complain." She pointed at Volskiar, a quick gesture with her chin. "Occupy yourself."

"She can't mean what I thought she meant," Tasha said, wedging herself back under his arm, shifting Sela between them. "She'd kick us out."

"No doubt," he agreed. "Stop wriggling."

She craned her head back to smile at him, releasing Sela who had grown bored with pouting. Volskiar watched her go, but she stayed away from the garlands and sought out Nvaell, entreating him with some mysterious, serious sounding question. Saket went back on duty, which meant for a brief moment, no one was watching. He accepted Tasha's silent offer, and kissed her, a light, fleeting exchange.

Nvaell shouted in anger.

Tasha didn't even look, grinning up at him. "What did she do?"

"She kicked me!" The boy rubbed his shin.

Volskiar raised a shoulder in a shrug. "You should not feed her poisonous leaves."

Tasha punched his shoulder, then turned to confront her daughter who stood back expectantly, as if proud of herself. "Sela, don't kick. It's not nice."

Sela cocked her head in a very sober way, considering her mother's words with the direct incomprehension of a two year old. She looked at Nvaell, then at her father, and pointed at him.

He cleared his throat to stifle inappropriate laughter as Tasha took a calming breath, and warned him with a glare.

She said, very patiently, "That's different. Your father and I are playing. I don't kick him to hurt him. You shouldn't kick people for no reason."

Sela clearly didn't believe this, because she drew her foot back to kick Nvaell again.

"No," said Volskiar.

She sighed huffily at him, but put her foot back on the floor.

"You are mean," said Nvaell, hands on hips, lip stuck out as he glared at Sela. "You are a mean little girl. I do not want to play with you."

She hung her head.

Tasha observed the exchange in silence, then grunted in satisfaction. "Whatever works," she said under her breath, as Sela once again entreated Nvaell, tugging on his sleeve anxiously.

Echael popped back out, bracing her arm against the door jamb. "Perhaps if you did not fling him down stairs to amuse yourself, she would not imitate such poor examples."

"That was an accident," Tasha protested weakly.

Echael grunted, looking at the two of them sprawled in familiarity on her couch. "Perhaps you should have fewer accidents." She checked with Imav, who continued to prepare food out of sight, then stepped into the communal room. From behind her back, she drew forth a bottle of clear blue liquor. "Here, I knew you would appreciate some." She raised her eyebrows at Volskiar. "Be certain she does not drink all of it at once."

He laughed. "I do not wish to carry both of them home," he reassured her. He failed to understand the appeal of common ale to Tasha, for though she claimed it was impossibly sweet, he found it bitter and dry. In his opinion, if High Command ever wished to sincerely invade the Federation, all they needed to do was flood the black market with ale and the deed would be done.

"Don't be an ass," said Tasha, taking the bottle from Echael. "Thanks."

Undirected, his thoughts came back to High Command and their machinations. At one time, he had hoped to serve on the council, but if his repeated assignments to the Outmarches were any indication, that would never happen. He remembered with bile is tacit exclusion from the attack on Khitomer, even if it had proved to be a machination itself. He could still taste the success of so briefly attaining the rank of khre'enriov, being the senior commander general of the entire campaign, before the subsequent, unremarked demotion. He knew he was at his final rank and, as such, at the mercy of his peers in the High Command. He shook off the gnawing worries, reminding himself that such pity was worthless, and his loyalties lay with the Imperium, even if it seemed he was worth little to the praetor.

Holding the bottle against her chest with one hand, Tasha reached up with the other and brushed his temple. "Hey."

He shook his head. "It is nothing."


(16)

2348

He sat looking at his boots, in his personal shuttle, as a driver escorted him back from the Hall of State. That audience could have gone better, but he hadn't entered it with high expectations. His only hope had been that, if he made a suitable show of obedient humility, if he made the effort to travel back and meet with representatives from High Command in person.... No such luck, not for him, nor the Corps.

High Command hadn't forgotten how he had squandered and lost half the newly built D'deridex-class fleet on what was intended to be a quick and easy show of power, orchestrated by Dralath. His protests that it was inefficient and costly to use a ground force alone to invade a chain of barrier islands, when long distance tactical strikes would be more effective, were ignored. He was relegated to a lesser chair of the praetorate, in consolation. These days, the other members of the praetorate had no true power, little more than puppets to the head praetor, Narviat. He argued with the councilman for almost half an hour before receiving a noncommittal promise that his case would receive further review by High Command. What he meant was, he would ask Narviat who, being a fleetman himself, and still under the influence of that harridan Charvanek, would refuse.

The shuttle came to a stop and the doors hissed open, revealing the inner courtyard of the infantry training compound. A distant centurion spotted his craft and broke off the exercises, trotting over to meet him.

He arrived, out of breath, but greeted him by rote, "Enriov," drawing to attention. "We did not expect you to return so early." There was underlying concern in his voice, not for him, but the situation. Everyone knew he ought to be commanding the battle at Ahavva. As no victory had been announced over the newsfeeds, nor any inglorious defeat, Volskiar's presence was alarming.

Volskiar slapped the side of the shuttle, indicating to the driver that he could depart. Waiting for the rumbled and whine of the engines to cede, he acknowledged the officer, "Erei'Arrain," and began walking toward his offices.

The centurion fell into step beside him, awaiting orders or dismissal. He would not dare demand to know what had brought his commander back and Volskiar was disinclined to discuss it with a junior officer. On the other hand, the man needed orders or else the disquiet would spread like a virus throughout the compound.

Volskiar increased his pace, trying to shake off the aggravation of standing in front of a bored committee, pleading for the lives of his men, all while maintaining a facade of calm regulation. He had wanted to scream at them for their churlish, vindictive evisceration. Even the low-born of the lot were too cowardly to confront the high-born over such waste of life.

He reigned in his anger, again. "Tell erei'Riov Echael that I am here to review the campaign with fellow officers and High Command. I have taken personal leave for the day. That is all."

The centurion saluted and jogged ahead, pausing to speak with a bored uhlan guarding the main interior entrance. It didn't need such protection, but the guard was requisite, to satisfy protocol. It was also considered a welcome, easy duty compared to some others, so served as a reward. That meant it was typically filled by conscientious and attentive individuals.

Volskiar slowed as he crossed the threshold and asked, "Where is she?"

The guard hesitated for a moment, figuring out who he meant. He raised his chin, in comprehension and answered, "Tertiary field, with Zeril."

He headed for the locker rooms, to wait. When he arrived, the room was empty. He checked a maintenance panel and saw that the group 'fresher hadn't been used yet, which meant they unit hadn't completed the exercises and finished for the day. He mentally commended the guard and straddled a bench, engrossing himself in a report from the front-lines.

Eventually, he heard the doors open, then the babble of arguing and laughing recruits, before the first saw him. He didn't look up, pretending to read the PADD, but smiled when the man's frantic waving at the others failed to quiet them. Fortunately, Zeril coming to a sudden stop succeeded.

"Enriov." She blinked at him in surprise, then came to attention, prompting the others to do the same, except for one.

"What the hell are you doing back?" Tasha pushed past Zeril, thumping her on the shoulder, and leaned over him to read the PADD.

He tucked it into a pocket. "I had unexpected business to attend at the Hall of State."

"Yeah-huh." She pulled off her helmet, dangling it from one hand, and waved at the others. They resumed filing into the locker room, and going about their own business, albeit in a subdued manner.

"You are displeased by my presence?" he teased.

"This isn't the Hall of State," she clarified, pointedly.

He stood, wishing the others gone, then jumped free of the bench losing all dignity in the process, when he saw that Tasha intended to kick it over underneath him. Several soldiers failed to suppress involuntary laughter, before retreating from the two. "I completed my appointment there."

She smirked. "So now you're going to hold me up?"

He tried to keep a straight face, but he'd been forced to do that all morning. "Up, down, whichever way you would prefer."

"You're being awfully presumptuous." She tucked the helmet under her arm and asked facetiously, "What if I have a headache?"

"Then you would be cross." He clasped his hands behind his back. "I am here until evening, then I must depart." He held his breath and became conscious of Zeril watching the exchange from one side and Ruvin from the other. The two traded glances, then looked at Tasha, awaiting instruction.

She put a hand on the butt of her practice disruptor, rocked on her heels and huffed at the floor as if aggrieved. "Well, go on," she said to them, without looking up, "if you're not done, I'll be back out."

Zeril motioned to the unit, passing on the order. Then with a final grin at Tasha, she said, "Good luck with your campaign, Enriov!"

"I'm gonna paste you!" shouted Tasha, over her shoulder.

"But tomorrow," agreed Zeril, already out of sight.

"Don't get your hopes up!" Tasha continued to feign irritation until the last soldier left, and a flicker in her eyes was the only warning he got before she kicked over the bench. She used the edge to vault into a front kick, which he took to the stomach, his back to a wall of lockers. He grunted in mock surprise, partially to conceal a laugh, and grabbed her foot, twisting her leg. Somehow, she managed to drive her shoulder into his side and they both went down.

"Hi," she said.

He adjusted his position and craned his head, searching for her helmet. If she had wanted to hurt him, she would have clubbed him with it. Meanwhile, she climbed over him to straddle his waist, watching him fumble around. He grabbed the helmet with one hand, the back of her neck with the other and pulled her close to jam it back on her head. When she tried to pull it off, he seated it properly and buckled the straps.

She cocked her head, most of her face obscured by the sweeping cheek-guards and spade of the nose-guard. "Do your friends know what a pervy old man you are?"

"I am not old."

"You have gray hair."

"Only a few."

"You're four times my age."

"A technicality." When she tried to yank his sash, he grabbed hold of her wrists in one hand, and she permitted it.

She sighed at him. "I can't do anything wearing it."

"I do not require you to," he answered, very agreeably. Propping himself up using the over-turned bench, he pulled himself up to face her.

"Pretending I'm one of your officers?" She grinned at him, a truncated flash of white and pink, obscured by silver metal. "Pervert," she repeated her accusation.

He shrugged. "I am not pretending." Hooking a thumb at the corner of her eyepiece, he nudged her head back, exposing her neck. Blowing softly in warning, he darted his tongue against her pulse, followed by a leisurely nibble, until she pulled her wrists free.

Rather than shove him off, she worked at his sash until she yanked the stiff fabric off his shoulder, exposing the fasteners for his tunic. "Off with it," she ordered, in a distracted mutter.

"Very well," he paused, already catching his breath, his pulse hammering. He smoothed his hands up her thighs, bumping one hand into a holster before tucking under it. "But leave yours."

She met his eyes, her own dilated and he thought she was going to call him names again, but she licked her upper lip and nodded. Her gaze shifted to her side for a moment, something recalled, and she removed the disruptor from her holster, leaning over to put it on the other side of the bench. As soon as he heard the pistol clatter to the floor, he made a fist around her blue sash, pulling her back and holding her close, while peeling awkwardly at his own tunic.

Later, Volskiar sequestered himself in the tactical analysis room, surrounded by useless displays showing him various angles of the northwestern barrier islands of Ahavva. It was a planet along the murky border with the Cardassian Union, valuable more for its strategic position as part of a bulwark than any natural resources. If it weren't so close to enemy territory, he would consider it a pleasant world, covered in abundant foliage and populated by primitive, non-sentient life-forms. Instead, he was given the decidedly unpleasant task of rooting out 'rebel' forces, no doubt funded by the Obsidian Order, to infiltrate and disrupt the border. Intelligence had already revealed multiple long distance ordnance facilities on the islands, more were surely concealed. A strictly land-based assault, requiring him to ferry or drop his troops onto the islands, would result in a slaughter.

Narviat knew that, so Volskiar sprawled in the central chair watching Sela dismantle a short-range communicator, a primitive model specifically designed as a toy, instead of dwelling on manipulations he couldn't escape. He had dismissed Saket to go back to his skulking and following various officers, and only a few technicians kept him company. Most of the corps were away on active duty, leaving a skeleton crew behind to manage the compound. They ignored both his apparent disinterest in the holographic displays and the child, playing with focused intent. He mentally identified each component strewn on the floor, testing his own recollection of basic technology, and waited. If he didn't receive a response from High Command by evening, he would assume for a refusal and return to his troops.

Sela paused in the midst of wrestling with a small diode and held up a chipboard, grinning at him. It startled him sometimes, to see the nearly white hair and blue eyes. Tasha had tried to reassure him that the hair would almost certainly darken as Sela aged, possibly even developing into a dark brown. She said it happened with Human children all the time, but the truth was, he didn't mind. If anything, the girl's relatively flat and even eyebrows threw him the most, always making her seem overly serious or sad, if she weren't outwardly happy. He imagined, that as an adult, she would simply look angry all the time, compared to her full-blooded kin.

He smiled back, naming the part, for her benefit. At her age, she kept poor track of time and his return was simply a happy visit. He imagined, that from her perspective, her father was often away but was equally often home. Either way, if Volskiar wasn't about, Saket was and that was something else to ignore. He pushed aside the unwanted memory of finding Sela holding his hand, asking one of her endless questions, Saket patiently replying.

The door opened, revealing a nervous young uhlan, his training incomplete, relegating him to office duty. "Sir, Enriov Javerek is here to see you."

Volskiar nodded, standing to demonstrate some level of interest in what his old mentor had to say. High Command wouldn't send a senior flag officer as a messenger, so this couldn't be approval of his request.

Javerek waited until the soldier left, looking around the room absently. He spotted Sela and raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. He had grown children and grandchildren of his own. In his day, his schedule had been as demanding as Volskiar's and he understood the practicality of finding time for family wherever it occurred. He bit his lip, keeping his eyes averted, then shrugged as if to himself.

"I know," said Volskiar, quelling his faint hopes. "I expected as much."

"I wish I could give you better news."

"I am certain you did your best to convince them to see reason beyond..." he hesitated, knowing he shouldn't voice his opinion out loud, but not caring at the moment, "petty manipulations."

As Volskiar had given Narviat no legitimate reason to call him to final review, to strip him of rank and discharge him from service, the praetor was taking his army out from under him. The men that died would be carefully replaced by recruits vetted for their loyalty to the regime rather than their senior commander. With so many always eager to bolster the ranks of the security forces, the military being a popular way to advance, there was no shortage of replacements.

Javerek made his way over to Sela, crouching down on his heels to greet her, then said over his shoulder, "My old allies will not gainsay him."

"I would not expect them to," he agreed politically.

Sela gave Javerek pieces of the communicator, one right after another, and he accepted them gracefully, connecting several components. She immediately took them back and separated the pieces again, with a frown at the admiral. "It goes apart," she explained.

"And will you put it back together?" asked Javerek.

"No." She pried at a clip.

"I see." He picked up several pieces that she wasn't attending, and began reassembling them.

She noticed and grabbed at his sleeve, tugging furiously. "No! Stop! It goes apart!"

Javerek smiled with the patience of experience. "Yes. It goes apart, but if you do not put it back together, it does not work. That is the challenge." He made a face, shrugging elaborately. "It is easy to take it apart, but can you put it back together?" he taunted gently, holding up a diode that fit with the component she held.

She scowled at him, her lower lip jutting up. "I can," she declared, grabbing at the diode. There she sat, glowering in bafflement, at both her hands. Slowly, her anger drained away, replaced by growing distress, because she didn't remember how the pieces fit.

Javerek reached down without comment, guiding her hands to show where the diode connected.

"I can do it," she grumbled.

"Good. Do you know the next piece?" Without shifting his attention from Sela, Javerek reached discreetly for the next component.

Volskiar contented himself with watching, relaxing his guard around his compatriot. With most others, he was obligated to maintain the fiction that Sela was largely a symbol of his conquest, of how much he could take and force upon his Human prisoner. Outside the military compound, Sela was the object of some amusement, tolerant scorn and occasional open contempt by those less forgiving of her mixed heritage. Still, he was allowed his foibles.

The door opened again, this time to reveal a centurion who stopped cold upon seeing Javerek.

Javerek glanced over his shoulder and, seeing the blue sash and gold silver helmet, said, "Ah, good. Order my shuttle brought back around I...." He trailed off, noticing Sela's expression of recognition as she scrambled up.

Volskiar couldn't quite bite back a smile as Javerek covered his gaffe by taking a deep breath and clearing his throat. The older man stood in a smooth, even motion, hands on his knees, then turned.

Tasha removed her helmet, setting it down on a console, just in time to catch Sela who hurled herself at her mother's leg. She admired the partially assembled communicator Sela held up.

"I made this."

"Uh huh." Tasha spotted the pieces scattered across the floor, around Javerek's feet, as he picked his way around them. "But it looks like you aren't done."

"No. I put back together again. Will we go read?"

Tasha parsed the sudden change in subject easily, nodding. "Yep, but first I need to change into regular clothes. Then we'll go read." Her eyes strayed to Javerek, in question, but she didn't ask why he was here, just as she avoided looking at the tactical displays. She picked up her helmet, tucking it under one arm, taking Sela's hand in her own. She nodded at Javerek in polite greeting and started backing out of the room. "Say goodbye to the admiral," she prompted.

Sela put her free hand to her side and ducked her head in an abbreviated bow. "Have a good day, Javerek."

"And to you," he answered very seriously.

Volskiar motioned to one of the technicians, who were all dutifully ignoring the entire situation, to pick up the mess Sela left behind. Tasha would have instructed the girl to pick it up herself, both coaxing and bullying as necessary, if Javerek hadn't been present. But, she had long since developed the pragmatic habit of absenting herself from him when outside officers of any variety visited. There were fewer accusations that he was allowing a prisoner inappropriate access to his work, that way.

Javerek was shaking his head. "Someday she will get herself shot, dressing like that. Some well-meaning inexperienced uhlan will take one look at her, assume she is practicing some subterfuge or attempting escape and then...." He held up his in the shape of a pistol and motioned the acting of shooting, complete with sound effect.

Volskiar raised a shoulder as if that didn't concern him. "It would be a quick death."

Javerek wandered past him, examining the topographical maps and troop positions. He sighed rather loudly. "You are out of your mind," he muttered.

"I am not out of my mind," Volskiar countered quietly. They were not discussing his upcoming military strategy, and he relished the opportunity for honestly, however cramped. He studied the maps. "I am not asking for a great deal."

He let his mind wander back and savored the memory of Tasha catching her breath, simply resting on top of him, before she fumbled at the buckles of her helmet. He helped her unlatch it and she peeled it off, so it rolled free and clattered to a stop somewhere on the floor. She raked her fingers through her hair, muttering at him in displeasure, because it was matted to her head and itched. He kept his hands buried under her tunic and laughed until she sat up, taking a half-hearted swing at his nose, which he easily avoided, but his amusement was dampened.

He brushed his fingers against a fresh scar crossing her collarbone. She looked down at it once, then ignored his gesture entirely, which meant only one thing. The injury came courtesy of Lethren. So he fought back the urge to tighten his embrace or ask how the scar came to be, because it would irritate her. Instead, he untied his sash from his wrist and examined its wrinkled state in consternation, until Tasha interrupted him to demand use of his undershirt, declaring him responsible for the mess.

When he protested that she was equally responsible, she hurled the twisted up sticky shirt at his face. He ducked and she told him to 'do something pervy' with it but he said he would put it aside to be laundered. She called him a boring prig and finished dressing, then paused to grin at him standing there in an open tunic, with a mangled rank sash in one hand and ruined shirt in the other. The last thing he saw was Tasha holstering a practice disruptor, still smiling as she fetched back her helmet.

Javerek growled in disgust, intruding on Volskiar's reverie, but with sympathetic concern on his face. "You allow her too much," he warned. He took a deep breath, rubbing his thumb against the base of his jaw. He looked as if he wanted to say something more, but returned his attention to the battle strategy, in silence beside him.

The technician who had picked up the dismantled communicator looked up, uneasily.

Volskiar nodded at the man, indicating he should leave. "Take those to her room. She will be looking for them later." And she would throw a tantrum if she couldn't finish what she had started. He didn't care to examine which of her parents were responsible for that trait, so he considered Javerek's warning.

It wasn't unfounded, nor was Tasha without fault in the matter, despite her best efforts to maintain the correct public facade. Not that it was particularly her fault, either. By now it was common suspicion, not quite open knowledge, that the Federation's own Captain Spock and Commander Saavik had both infiltrated ch'Rihan recently, no doubt on command of Starfleet Intelligence. That was the problem with Vulcans - they blended in so well. Their activities, which remained a government secret, had assisted Narviat's rise to power. Regardless, if Starfleet could manage such a thing, then their intelligence department surely knew that one of their officers was alive and imprisoned on the outskirts of the capital.

Though Tasha traveled outside the compound under escort, twice now Echael had drawn to his attention suspicious contacts. In both cases, the individuals had seemed innocuous market-goers, curious to meet the resident Human. Yet when researched, both failed to produce credible origins, family or residence and soon disappeared.

The first time she was caught in such an exchange.... He rolled his shoulder, pushing away the tinge of acrid fear. He returned to find her in her quarters, ostensibly reading, but she stopped as soon as she saw him. Her face took on a familiar cast, but one he hadn't seen in quite a while. It was like catching a glimpse of slinking ra'tar, holding still in the snow, disguised by its winter coat, but ready to burst forward and leap onto its prey. She stood, slowly. putting aside the PADD, and greeted him with a cautious nod.

He stepped into the room quietly, for Sela was curled up, where she had fallen asleep listening to a bedtime story. He didn't want to wake her with unnecessary raging and he caught Tasha looking in her direction. She was biting her lip, but stopped as soon as she noticed his attention. She didn't offer any explanation, waiting for him to reveal his intent.

"You must be more careful with your associates," he said softly. He did not wish it to be a threat.

"Wasn't my call," she said, just as softly.

He swallowed, knowing logically that it couldn't have been. Her communications were closely monitored and Echael's team would would detected a transmission. Hence the courier. At that moment, he wished he had the mental powers of a Havrannsu, or Vulcan, but then what? Did he summon Saket to fetch Lethren? Over what? Someone else might receive commendation for turning in a suspected infiltrator, but he would be heaped with derision and scorn for willingly harboring a spy. At best, he would be shunned as a fool, at worst, tried and executed as an accessory. He studied Tasha but she merely kept watching him with desperate tension.

He exhaled, relaxing his stance. "I do not believe it was, but you must be more careful. You must."

Her own shoulders slumped and he heard her inhale deeply, catching her breath. She made her way back to the chair and sank into it, as if weak or exhausted. Leaning forward, she ran a hand through her hair, her face torn. "I wouldn't put her in jeopardy," she added, as if it were a satisfactory defense.

And he understood that she might very well put everyone else in jeopardy, but instead of summoning Saket, he sat on the arm of the chair and held on to her when she leaned against him. He could give no safe reply, for he doubted her new commanders, whoever they might be, had given her any choice. Why else would they leave her here with him, essentially imprisoned on a hostile world? Whatever illusions he had held about the Federation and Starfleet, Tasha had long since dispelled, and he doubted their motivation had anything to do with misbegotten sympathy for her semblance of a family. She was convenient. That was all.

The second time Echael caught her meeting with a suspicious individual, Tasha wasn't as lucky. When he warned her again, the words sticking in his craw, she sighed at the floor, nodding in a hollow, distant way. Rather than say anything in her own defense, she reached up to squeeze his shoulder in reassurance. In the brief moment she met his eyes, he saw something that might have been trapped exhaustion. His men had reached her first, but he could only guess what she had been doing, because Lethren arrived the next morning.

Tasha didn't seem the least bit surprised, standing to meet him. Volskiar remembered the way Lethren eyed him in somber consideration, before signaling his own men to strike her down, without ceremony. That time.... That time, it was two days before Tasha regained consciousness, and almost three weeks before she could walk without a cane. The first time he touched her, after Lethren left, she flinched but as always, refused to discuss the matter with him.

It was not an ideal circumstance, and Javerek knew that, so he kept his own counsel. When he saw that Volskiar was back from the past, he asked, "You will depart for Ahavva shortly?"

"Yes. This evening. There is no reason to delay."

Javerek kept frowning at the maps, then turned away, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Be careful, my boy."

Volskiar snorted lightly, and escorted him out of the room and to his shuttle. He watched one of his few allies depart and mentally composed the speech he would deliver to his troops. It would need to be emotionally rousing, full of lies about the enemy's strength and position, their commitment and purpose. He would need to stand in front of them and shout until he was florid was rage, until they roared back en masse, ready to die for him.

He found Tasha reading the speech off the PADD he left on his desk. Her expression was pained, half amused, half offended. "Geez, what tripe."

He snatched the PADD from her hands. "It will suffice."

She opened her mouth to tease him.

"Do not mock my efforts," he warned. "It was never my ambition to be a writer of speeches." Putting the PADD in a pocket, he fidgeted. He didn't want to go back to that planet and watch his men be slaughtered for so little reason, but he couldn't delay. Erei'Enriov Tal was waiting for him to board the Victorious and would send men to fetch him if he were late.

Tasha tried to smile and he knew she must have seen enough of the maps to understand the situation. She didn't force him to make any comforting promises, but they both knew that if he died, if he failed to return, she would need to run. If she were his wife, of his people, she would be treated with respect as his widow. But she wasn't, so he would do his best to follow Javerek's advice.

Sela crept out from around the corner, hesitant to interrupt them, but desperate to catch him before he left. She knew what his combat uniform meant. Her eyes were tinged green at the corners and she couldn't quite suppress the downcast frown.

Tasha beckoned her closer. "I told her she could see you again before you left even though she's supposed to be in bed."

He knelt down to catch Sela when she ran over to hug him, her arms wrapping tightly around his neck. He stroked her head and hugged her back, kissing her temple.

"Do not go."

"I must go."

"But you came back!"

"I am visiting. I must return to my duties, but I will come back soon." He pried gently at her arms and she released him, reluctantly.

"Soon?"

"Soon," he promised, telling himself that she couldn't count days. The truth was that if he didn't come back soon, he wouldn't come back at all. Fortunately, Sela was young enough that's all death was to her, an amorphous concept of someone who didn't come back or wake up. It was a small blessing.

She kept looking at the floor, so he stood, taking her hand. He guided her back to her room, conscious of Tasha trailing behind. She leaned in the doorway, watching him set the girl back to bed, not saying a word when he offered her a toy disruptor to keep under her pillow.

Unlike her, he spent that evening, which was high noon on Ahavva, in a bunker, dust caking his eyelashes as he braced himself against the wall with everyone else, mortars pounding the ground.


(17)

2349

Head Praetor Narviat was looking over a well-furnished dinner table, a piece of roasted meat on his skewer, and saying casually, "I am concerned by the reports that you have formed an excessive attachment to that Human prisoner of yours. I hear that some of your men, in their carelessness, even address her as Ihhei, as if she were your wife, but that must surely be a ridiculous rumor. In truth, I cannot decide if that is more or less plausible than Enarrain Lethren's reports that your troops cheer whenever she exits the medical ward." He ate the meat, chewing thoughtfully. "One might come to the conclusion that your men admire an off-worlder, but I do not credit you with such reckless sentimentality to permit such fawning over a loann'na."

Volskiar could not remember what he had been eating, only that the food was suddenly ash in his mouth. He suppressed his reflexive irritation at Narviat's choice of vernacular phrasing. Technically, the word referred to any citizen of the United Federation of Planets, but in reality it had gained a slanderous connotation over the centuries since its inception. He'd overheard the phrase used when he was in earshot, more than a few times, over the years. "I was not aware that a single confined Human was considered a threat."

Narviat raised his brows, giving a sharp laugh. "Confined?"

Charvanek, sitting beside her husband, smiled broadly. Her eyes gleamed. "You must have a curious definition of confined, for intelligence reports place her throughout the city, seemingly at her own discretion, just as Federation ships sneak brazenly through the Outmarches."

"That sort of lax security cannot be tolerated from an officer of your rank. You do understand?"

Volskiar had nodded, keeping his eyes on the plate in front of him. He had no desire to witness the triumphant retaliation in Charvanek's eyes and even less to relay this turn to Tasha. Lethren must have tired of their game and his had always been the winning hand. He delayed the news as long as he dared, until she teased him, demanding to know what dead animal had crawled under his ass. When he told her, she had stopped breathing entirely for a moment, then compressed her lips, looking away nodding.

That was not the reaction he was expecting to such grim news. It was as if she already knew, had prepared to hear his warning and, most likely, had a plan. Which meant she had. That was the expression she made, the unfocussed, distant calculation flashing in her eyes, her mind occupied. When he opened his mouth to ask who had warned her, she pressed a finger to her lips in silent negation.

He did the only thing he could do; he avoided interfering and most importantly, he avoided knowing anything that might later be revealed in a forced confession. He ordered her escorts outside the compound kept to the bare minimum that satisfied government security forces. He dismissed reports about her activities and meetings while on seemingly trivial errands. He did not ask her who she met, what they discussed. He only asked about Sela and Tasha answered haltingly that she would do whatever necessary to assure her daughter's safety.

She waited near two weeks, then woke him to say that it was time and she was leaving. She put her tanto on his chest and said she did not wish Lethren to have it, giving him no time for a response before departing. He dressed and sat in his chair, in his quarters, waiting for the inevitable alarm to sound. He waited longer than expected, but soon there was a hail at his door.

He admitted erei'Riov Echael.

She smiled sheepishly, at ease, reciting by rote, her phrasing more for the benefit of walls that might have sprouted ears, "Sir, I regret to disturb your sleep, but Ihhei Yar has escaped again. Do we...?" Her question trailed off as she noted his full uniform. "You knew?"

Volskiar remained sitting, giving Echael the scant time she needed to see Tasha's tanto partially concealed by his folded hands. She was unconcerned about the current 'escape' because it was well understood that Tasha might forget in a fit of pique to inform her escorts that she was leaving the compound, or might have left with Volskiar to his private residence. Ergo, there was no escape, but formalities were observed to satisfy any lurking spies. He stood, placing the tanto into a drawer that locked.

Erei'Arrain Ruvin cleared Echael's doubt when he pelted around the corner shouting, "She has taken Sela!"

Echael froze, mouth opening in shock, before she recomposed herself. "Sir, there is no legitimate reason for Yar to take her at this late hour." She gestured to Ruvin, directing him to to gather a search team, frowning pensively. "Unless you have sent them to your estate?"

He shook his head. Years Tasha had lived at the training compound, her legal status unchanged and her rights limited with it. The staff turned a blind eye when she stayed at his private residence, for it bordered the compound, but strictly speaking, it was outside the legal border of his jurisdiction. As a result, her regular quarters were here and so were Sela's. He rarely stayed at his own estate, seeing no reason to travel to an empty house upon completion of a duty shift, or returning from campaign.

"All these years, feigned escapes to lull us into a false sense of security?"

"So it would appear," he agreed evenly.

"We must pursue," she concluded reluctantly.

"Yes."

She looked hard into his eyes, for some further cue, but it was her turn, now. She reached into a back pocket, retrieving the tracking unit, then said with shock, "Sir, she has managed to deactivate her tracking device."

"How ingenious of her," he said blandly. "I imagine that Lethren will have as much difficulty locating her as you." If the Tal Shiar captured Tasha before he did, she would be executed on the spot. They might be professional espionage agents, but Tasha spent most her idle time in the company of Echael's family, so the erei'riov would know her habits and guess her direction best. There would also be Sela to provide unwitting direction. He turned his head so Echael would not see any revealing discomfort as he reminded himself that Lethren's men would curb their attack upon spotting a child.

Echael squared her shoulders. "I agree. Most unfortunate."

"Excellent, then I expect you to fulfill the duty with which I have tasked you." He spoke slower than was appropriate for a casual remark, pitching his voice low, and waited. Now he would discover how well he had chosen his officers, or if he would be forced to suffer fools.

Echael met his eyes and tipped her head ever so slightly, catching the inflection, but doubting her interpretation.

"Do not fail me," he warned softly.

Grown accustomed to a certain, almost friendly, camaraderie, Echael stiffened before saluting him. "I will not."

But as she left, heading down the hallway, Saket stepped out to join her from a juncture. Volskiar couldn't stop his growl of anger, the expression the man witnessed as he looked back at him. Whatever he saw in his eyes caused Saket to reel back for a moment, blanching. Echael saw his reaction and didn't hesitate, smiling at Saket with predatory anticipation. One false move from him and he would suffer an unfortunate injury in the potential crossfire. Saket composed himself and fell in step with Echael.

In the bustle of activity in the compound, several uhlans were in the room with him, keeping ready to relay information or send reinforcements if a rescue party were required. They were watching him, and he maintained a relaxed posture at the central monitoring station. He forced himself to wait. After all, he trusted his officers to behave competently, and if the Tal Shiar acquired Tasha before Echael did, it should not concern him. Everyone could see she had betrayed his trust and attempted to flee back to her own people. He needn't chase after her like an obsessed fool.

He allowed his displeasure to show when a guard opened the door to reveal Saket, Echael and two soldiers, holding Tasha. She hung between them, the right side of her torso and leg stained dark red, though she was breathing. His breath caught, but then he remembered, she was Human. That was a liver. His knowledge was limited to what he had learned from Aranar as the doctor worked, but that organ was more resilient than others. Echael looked furious, but Saket stood at stiff attention, his face impassive.

Volskiar stood and said, "Excellent work. Since she is still alive, put her in an interrogation room."

"Sir," interrupted Saket. "Enarrain Lethren will be attending."

"I expected as much."

While many were puzzled that she would dare take Sela with her, most wondered why she had failed to escape undetected, even with a child in tow. In was such a curious thing, almost as much as their commander's lack of grief, as he raged over her apparent betrayal. No one dared question his anger, though he had caught many speculative glances traded amongst those who filled his personal staff.

Tasha remained unusually calm for the condemned, citing her duty was to Starfleet, when questioned, and only flinched when she caught a glimpse of Sela staring in mute fascination from the doorway. Tasha had been propped up on the floor, against a corner and offered no medical assistance. This was not the Federation and she was expected to face death with gratitude, so she clenched an arm to her side, her face tinged an unhealthy green. Volskiar reminded himself that a liver could heal, if the wound were sealed, if she didn't loose too much of the blood they could now synthesize, but would not. It wouldn't matter soon, judging by her labored respiration. After that flinch, Tasha looked at him once, then set her mouth in a disapproving line.

He endeavored to look irritated, which he was, and barked, "Someone take Sela to her room. It is well past her bed time, or has everyone forgotten in the excitement?"

An uhlan jumped from the group, and grabbed up the girl from where she stood in dumbfounded fascination, in the doorway. Saket had always kept her away from similar scenes, though over the years it had grown more difficult to thwart her determined curiosity over why Doctor Aranar needed to help her mother so often. Or to answer her questions about why she was hurt during field training. It wouldn't have been much longer before she would have noticed that the injuries didn't always synch with the excuses.

Volskiar stood beside Dekesh and Echael, heading the brief tribunal, ignoring Lethren who stood with Saket. Nor did he protest when the Tal Shiar officer insisted that his man perform the execution, for such was an act of good will. In a symbolic gesture, for Saket had his own rifle, he took Echael's disruptor and her place as executioner.

"Disintegrate that Human trash," ordered Lethren.

"Respectfully, sir, it might be wise to keep the body for examination in case there has been," and Saket glanced at Volskiar before finishing dryly, "deception."

Lethren grunted, considering the implication and weighing it against his desire to see his tedious assignment ended firmly. He nodded. "The enriov is unusually calm for a man watching his favorite consort's imminent death."

Volskiar allowed Lethren to see a flash of distress, some emotion as if he had been caught in a poorly fashioned ruse. As if, any moment, he would begin pleading for leniency.

Lethren smiled thinly. Tasha was lifted to her knees and summarily dragged to the center of the room and all Volskiar could remember at the moment was that virtually all forms of aikido could be performed from that position. Memories blurred together, laying on his back in surprise, Tasha with one hand wrapped around his wrist, another pressed flat against his shoulder or chest, grinning. It was a ridiculous thing to occupy his thoughts, but they were interrupted by Lethren.

He stepped briefly in front of Saket, to smile in open triumph at Tasha. "You have escaped for the last time. Do you have any final words? Perhaps the truth, now that it will no longer save you?"

Tasha smiled right back at him, "Geronimo, mother-fucker."

Lethren looked sharply at Volskiar, but he shook his head minutely, shrugging. The officer stared at him hard, giving him time to reconsider, in case he was lying, but Volskiar had no guesses. It was probably a slang term, a derogatory curse or insult she hadn't used in his presence. It probably meant something vile.

"Record that the prisoner had waived 'right of statement'," Lethren said in a clipped voice.

Tasha caught Volskiar's puzzled look, and winked, so he missed Lethren's terse order to Saket. He blinked at the sharp flash of light, ignored the meaty thump of a body hitting the ground, and concentrated on maintaining proper poise. Saket lowered the disruptor, avoiding the eyes on him, and carefully returned the weapon to Echael. He nodded once to her, politely.

Lethren was smirking. "I sympathize with your loss," he drawled facetiously.

Volskiar sneered back at him, a gesture that needed little false effort, and pointedly took the rifle from Echael. He admired the weapon in satisfaction, then turned the sneer on Tasha's body. "There is no need, Enarrain. I tired of her and you have done me a convenient service." Smiling, he tucked the rifle under his arm, as if he considered it a memento or trophy, nodded at Lethren and left the interrogation room.

He went to his quarters. As soon as the doors closed, he dismantled the rifle, removing the modified power cell, with its distinctly Starfleet design, and disintegrated it. In its place went the original power cell, partially depleted in advance. If Lethren had managed to place surveillance devices in his room, he was a dead man, but Echael was as skilled in her work as Lethren was in his. He also suspected that Saket might be more ally than enemy, if such a thing were possible, but only time would tell. He set the rifle on his desk and poured himself a drink. He had no appetite and could not sleep.

Neither did Sela, and in the morning he was confronted by a very angry, and very scared little girl. "Where is she? What happened? Why am I forbidden to see her?"

He had always found sentimental displays difficult, and when tired, impossible. Nor was there sense in delaying the inevitable. "Your mother is dead."

Sela held her breath, then began hyperventilating. She had caught glimpses of her mother injured without apparent cause, on more than a few occasions. She knew that old Doctor Aranar often had to treat her, but Tasha always got better. She wasn't an adult to restrain her grief and soon, he could see tears. "Why?"

"Because she was shot." The past days events, the lack of sleep and food, combined with a hangover left him with limited resources to manage her grief.

"Doctor Aranar could not help?" She was blinking back, still reeling, asking the question automatically.

He realized that Saket must have failed to shield her on at least a few occasions. "She was hurt too badly. Humans are not as strong as us."

"But why...?" she started to ask, then hunched her shoulders, blinking again, at the memories of the prior evening. "Who shot her?"

He almost told the truth, but remembered the way Saket had nodded at Echael, the way Echael had informed him solemnly that it was done. "Lethren shot her because she was running away with you. She was executed."

Sela frowned at him, perplexed and he saw a spark of anger in her eyes. "Why did you let him?"

"What?"

She bit her tongue, doing her best to pronounce his rank correctly, "You are enriov. Everyone has to follow your rules," she added with confidence.

He had to close his eyes and shatter an illusion. "No, sweet one. Not everyone. Sometimes I must follow the rules and the rule was that if your mother ever tried to run away from me, she would be punished by the Tal Shiar." He wanted to explain more but knew to keep it simple.

She frowned more deeply, looking at the floor. "Lethren?"

"Yes. He is Tal Shiar."

"But he is enarrain," she reasserted her prior complaint.

"Yes, but he is Tal Shiar. We must all do as they bid, and your mother was ordered to remain with me."

"Why did she run away?"

"Because she was an officer. She made an oath to her commanders to escape her enemies if she were ever captured."

"Why?"

"It was her duty."

Sela frowned, cocking her head to one side, chewing on her thumb, looking away from him while distracting herself with a puzzle. Inanely, he wondered which of them were at fault for that mind. "You were enemies?"

"No. We...." Taking a difficult breath, he stopped. "Yes. We are Rihannsu. Your mother is, was, from the Starfleet Federation. She was an off-worlder."

If it were possible, she frowned even harder and repeated her questions. "But... you were enemies? She promised to run away?"

"Yes." He tried rephrasing his answers. "She promised Starfleet she would run away from here if she could, or die trying. It is their way."

Sela kept looking away, breathing hard. She was a child, after all. She hiccupped and he saw the tell-tale brightness of tears in her eyes as the puzzle failed to curb the pain. "She kept the promise? That is good. That is not bad. That is honor-" She couldn't get it out, squeezing her eyes shut and trying so hard not to let him see. "I hate you," she cursed him in a whisper.

"She broke her promise to me!" He hadn't meant to yell that defense, not at her.

"I hate you both!" She shouted hotly, this time, fists at her side.

Of course, Sela had been a very young child, precocious or not, and she soon overcame her hatred of him for she could not help but love her father. When she could no longer endure the gnawing guilt, Sela took a scalpel to her heart and gouged it free. She told him, so confident in her youth, that her mother's cowardice was a Human weakness, and she would not be subject to that capricious neurology. She was Rihannsu, and her mother would be alive if she hadn't heartlessly manipulated his affections, then run like a groveling Havrannsu slave. Her mother had obviously been an idiot not to realize that a young child would cry out in fear. He almost faltered then, almost told her that of course Tasha had known.

She maintained that she hated her mother throughout, even when she reached her majority and understood such concepts as duress and prisoners of war. Then again, she claimed to hate a great many things, a behavior her peers attributed to her mixed genetic heritage. Surely the inferior Human stock left her susceptible to emotional instability and other mental weaknesses. When instead it became apparent that she possessed a prenatural ability to remain calm, in icy control when presented with situations that sent her peers into fervid rage, the ability was attributed to her superior Rihannsu blood.

They kept saying that, even as Sela continued to outstrip them in academic performance, much of her seemingly precocious nature largely the result of the accelerated maturation cycles of the Human race. When they were still juveniles, she was a capable adult, so young for a Rihannsu, but ready to hunt. He had known intellectually, but had not been prepared when she announced that she had passed the entrance battery examinations for admission into the Tal Shiar.

He told himself that Sela was, like Nvaell, Echael's oldest son, selecting a different branch of the security forces to escape her guardian's shadow. Yet deep in his mind, where none could hear them, the words rang false. He had asked why.

She had said, "I prefer to face the truth than wallow in the comfort of lies."

He had drawn short at the accusation. "I have always endeavored to be honest with you, but if you do this, we will be barred by a web of deceit."

Sela came to stand in front of him and took his hands in her own as if he were the child. Cocking her head to one side, she smirked, saying, "Then we shall be deceitful."

It had been a curious departure and he remained skeptical, unwilling to voice his concern that her mixed heritage might bar her way into the upper ranks. He was not Narviat's favorite general, as he had been Dralath's, and the dishonor of Narendra III stained him forever, but being General Volskiar's daughter proved more help than hindrance. In return, he did not fail to notice that when his personal enemies circled too close to his roost, they would fall prey to investigation by the Tal Shiar. It was not humbling so much as disconcerting to imagine that his duplicitous daughter might be the key to his unusually long-lasting tenure as 'that old war hawk'.

He spoke little with his daughter, though she visited regularly, because she always came with attending uhlans who recorded every word they spoke, and every gesture she made. Aside from them, she maintained a solitary life, sometimes taking a lover but never a consort. She would tell him, when he asked, that her life was both dangerous and demanding, leaving no room for such selfish indulgence. He tactfully never pointed out that her career choice provided a convenient excuse for her continued isolation. He never told her that he had noticed.

She had been a teen, and he hadn't known what to do, if he ought to do anything at all, when he overheard some of the men discussing her in a mixture of flattering and derogatory terms. They were on break, together at a small table, sharing a meal, oblivious to his passing presence. One said that she was fine for a night, a damn fine night, perhaps even a week and the other grunted in agreement. Then he added, but any man could do better than a half-blood and there was a woman at a shop he frequented. Volskiar didn't know how the conversation ended, as he had left hastily before intruding on them in an embarrassing display of parental outrage. Sela wouldn't have appreciated that.

On the other hand, she didn't seem to appreciate what some of the men said about her either and was apparently less disaffected than she seemed. He learned that when one of the men known for making such recklessly disparaging remarks was found beaten in a service lift. No witnesses were found, no culprits stepped forward and the security footage had been altered. Believing it had been erased, he sought out Echael, dreading her report. Instead, he found his second officer glowering in a mixture of irritation and reluctant amusement.

She told him that a damaged crystal had been supplied to the affected surveillance net, in advance. The incident had, therefore, never been recorded properly. Part of him was stunned that his daughter was committing such acts at so early an age, but a greater part was proud that she had invented a solution to a problem he couldn't solve. When Echael offered him the damaged data crystal, he waved it aside, having no intention to pursue the matter. Scratching an eyebrow, she wished him the best of luck with that girl of his, but it didn't sound terribly sincere.

Later, a second man was trapped in a malfunctioning shuttle, unable to escape a circuit failure that resulted in a chemical fire. Both survived, but the soldiers learned to being more circumspect and temper any remark that might be overheard or recorded. Others were disinclined to respond to any overture Sela made toward them, but she overcame what little challenge that presented and almost always acquired whatever she sought.

So she joined the Tal Shiar and fed him implausible motivations.

On a small handful of occasions, she arrived alone, in the dead of night, without warning. It was on one such evening, years into her service with the Tal Shiar, that she brokered an unusual subject. "Khre'Arrain Lethren believed I would know what 'geronimo' meant. He is quite persistent on the point. What does it mean?"

Taken aback by the non-sequitur, he hesitated, for it must have wounded her pride to ask a question relating to her mother. "'Geronimo' was not his name, but what his enemies called him, as they prayed for mercy. He was an ancient Terran warrior renowned for his ability to evade capture. In the end, his enemies resorted to chasing him until he tired and he surrendered to preserve his followers. He died at a great age, for a Human of that time, but myths that he ultimately escaped capture persist."

Sela made a noncommittal noise, turning away from him. "Is it not also a declaration of faith used when entering battle?"

He raised his eyebrows. "Yes." It seemed his daughter had already researched the word, as he had so many years ago.

She had not said anything more on the subject, discussing with him political matters of the state, military maneuvers and other trivial subjects. Not until she was ready to depart did she inform him, pulling on an over-robe to shield her from the snow outside, that she had been promoted to rank of erei'riov.

He had congratulated a closing door, and listened to the wind howling in bursts, outside. So it was between them, but he learned soon enough through associates that Lethren had the most sorry misfortune to be assigned to an extended covert assignment on rain-drenched Ferenginar.


(18)

2353

It was not the form of a stranger that made him gasp like a new recruit, but the familiarity of it, despite the camouflaging plain clothes of a tradesman. Tasha Yar was standing outside the door to Sela's quarters, one hand stretched out, a palm pressed against the flat metal. Her head was bowed, but he saw her glance over her arm at him. "I heard you coming."

"What are you doing here?" His pulse still raced and he took a calming breath. "You cannot be seen."

"Relax. All they'll see is static and shadows. I know what I'm doing." Tasha dropped her arm. "And I won't stay long."

He regained his wits, blandishing himself for a fool. "You will leave now, and tell your superiors that shams do not work on me. Yar is dead."

"Good to know you haven't turned into an idiot." She grinned at him, a dim flash of white in the dark hall. "Would it help if I hit you with a boot?"

"No." If it was her, she was mad to return. If it was her and she was not mad, then it was his duty to take her prisoner, if not kill her outright. Significant resources were required to travel so deep into the Empire, and suspicions began to curdle in his gut. He reached for his disruptor automatically.

Tasha tracked his motion and ignored the gun as he raised it. "How's she doing?"

Keeping his weapon trained on her, he reasoned it was not necessary to fire unless she made a hostile motion. "She excels, advancing beyond her peers and taxing the wits of most the staff."

"Sounds like a real menace," Tasha said fondly. "Next she'll be trying to take over the world."

"She is ambitious," he admitted, "and studious."

Tasha sighed but he could hear the concealed shakiness, a familiar pitch he remembered from whenever she became too agitated to continue whatever she was doing, without distress. She had always hated to cry, even in private. She took a small half-step away from the door, keeping her hands loose at her sides. With her future survival in question, they had both agreed Sela would remain in his custody. It seemed her circumstances had changed somewhat. If it was her, he reminded himself. And if it was, she worked as a covert agent by choice this time.

Though she would not cry, her eyes were bright and he had that weak urge to hug her, however awkwardly, but he kept still. It had been several years since she arranged her escape, assisted by Echael and his tacit approval. For his people, that was a negligible period of time. For hers, with their life spans one half, or even merely one third of that, it could be life-altering. She might have found a Human lover, married and had children with him, by now. He could not presume to hold her affection, nor be lulled by a sense of nostalgia.

"Step into the light," he ordered.

She complied, taking the time to study him, cataloguing changes in his appearances.

He rubbed the grip of his disruptor, growing more uncertain and wary. Plain clothing or not, she stood at military rest, with the bearing of one who continued to serve in some capacity. She didn't have the furtive air of a rogue operative. He trusted his instincts, which meant he was obligated to capture and present her to the appropriate authorities.

"Sorry to bother you, but I couldn't resist stopping in to check on her, while I was passing through." She chuffed quietly. "I shouldn't be here." She crooked that familiar smile at him. "You gonna shoot me, or what?"

He narrowed his eyes, and firmed his aim, until his disruptor was pointed at her forehead. "You are a spy."

She licked her lips, just the tip of her tongue, calculating. "Let's say that an antagonist of yours put me in touch with someone from my side, who happens to have old friends in high places."

He swallowed, aiming at a non-vital point. "A spy, by your own choice."

"Not quite. I'm just here to make sure everything happens the way it's supposed to happen."

"Yes, by arranging events to suit your commanders' desires. You cannot expect me to permit that."

"Sometimes, but not today." She reached up slowly, cupping a hand around his wrist, to pull his tense hand down and away from her face. "But I'm not going to compromise you," and she whispered his chosen name.

That and the coolness of her touch, the lower blood temperature of her species, and the equally familiar scent convinced him. He let her push his disruptor away and gave into the urge to brush a fingertip along her jaw. He listened attentively, in case Sela had been woken by their argument, but she slept.

She jerked away from him. "I should get going. I...." She looked back at the door. "Thank you for taking care of her." He heard her knuckles crack. "It's more than I can do."

He remembered the constant threat of separation whenever Saket would arrive with that expression on his face and announce that Enarrain Lethren would speak with Tasha again. That was what they called it, speaking, and he remembered the first time it happened after Sela's birth. Tasha held Sela who, like most babies, woke at random times of night to shriek for either food or attention, and she hunched reflexively at Saket's words. As he had warned her, Volskiar could not gainsay the demand, not even in what amounted to his home away from home.

Tasha had stood, careful not wake Sela, coming in his direction to hand him the child. Her hand was fisted tight in a swaddling cloth, and she swallowed hard. "See you in the morning, huh?"

But his rage had been so great, he had choked on whatever reply he might have made to her weak quip. He couldn't affirm that promise and she knew it. So he did his best to keep calm for Sela's sake, because if he shook or tensed, if his mood were too intense, she would cry.

Tasha nudged him with her foot and said, "Careful tough guy, or he'll think you wanted her more than I did."

Saket had the grace to look at the floor, in shame if Volskiar could believe a Tal Shiar agent capable of it, before leading Tasha away. Sela had woken, after all, oblivious to anything but her father. She had waved a small hand, urgently grasping at the trailing edge of his sash, and giggled.

So now, he holstered the disruptor and quickly stepped around her to thwart Tasha's hasty escape, if only for a moment. She dropped reflexively into a defensive stance, her arm snaking to her side for a concealed weapon of some sort. He held up his palms. "Will you return?"

"Do I look crazy and stupid?" She attempted to sidle past him and he grabbed her shoulder.

Which meant they both ended up on the floor but when she automatically pinned his arm, he grabbed her into a hug and dragged her back up. He accepted that she must leave again but his mind already worked to find the opportunities in this new development. She stomped on his foot and he winced in pain, releasing her.

Raising a finger to his lips, he pointed at Sela's room.

Tasha raised her chin mulishly, ducking under his arms to escape the wall. "Quit it."

"Will you return?"

She put a hand on her hip. "I don't know. It's not healthy for me to come back here."

"Healthy?"

"It's a Human psychology thing."

"Oh." He nodded as if he understood, then closed the distance she had put between them. "Does that mean, if I kiss you goodbye, you will bite me?"

She stared at him in such bemused disgust, he might have laughed, then sighed loudly, shaking her head tersely. "One for the road," she consented.

Which was how they ended up against the wall again. He was trying to decide if they should use the library or a nearby storage room when Tasha tangled her fingers in his hair, hooked a leg around his own and muttered crossly, "So much for therapy."


(19)

2356

Rain drummed silently on the window, the wind driving it evident by the swaying trees in the distance. Another flash of lightning illuminated an open field, not an animal in sight, and the outline of the training compound outer walls that bordered his property. The dim rumble of thunder that soon followed was audible as a slight tremor in the walls of his home. The darkness outside that followed, revealed the reflection of two people who had entered the library.

"The dead come calling, sir," his senior bond-servant announced gravely, but he knew the Havrannsu man well enough to recognize a sparkle in those deep-set yellow eyes. He bowed his head and shoulders and stepped backward, disappearing into the hallway.

Tasha stepped in, the door closing behind her automatically. Her clothes were soaking wet and she shook her arms, before peeling off her anorak. She hung it on one of the hooks that lined the wall beside the door, taking note that he hadn't moved from his lectus except to sit up.

"You have chosen a poor night to travel," he said.

"Not much choice. Ship I was tracking just fell off the grid and the area's full of ion storms." She started to walk toward him, then tugged at the neck of her tunic. It was damp as well, and probably uncomfortable. She stopped to remove it and hang it beside the anorak, leaving her down to a tight-fitting gray undershirt. She resumed her prior direction, unlatching her phaser to drop it on a work desk, within acceptable reach, if she were ambushed in his home. But that was unlikely.

"It is not like you to give up. You were ordered to withdraw?"

"No. Some sort of artificial wormhole. Sucked them both in."

He sometimes wondered why her commanders permitted her to visit him. Surely they knew. Just as, no matter how skilled she was at circumnavigating the security grids, the Tal Shiar must know. At the very least, they suspected, else he would have been trusted with more significant campaigns by now. Even a praetor couldn't justify such a petty, lasting grudge; officers who erred more than him had been provided opportunities to regain honor on the battlefield. No, they knew, which left him wondering why they took no action.

As for Tasha, he asked her once, a teasing aside why the intelligence department ignored her forays that yielded no useful information. She had given him the strangest look, as if she found his question incongruous, developing that wry smirk. Then she had told him that Intelligence had little say in the matter.

She wiped water from the back of her neck, drying her palms on her breeches. Leaning on the work desk, she studied him intently, taking in his partial dishabille, the wad of bandages around his torso, and shoulder. She smiled. "Been ages since I've seen you with that stubble. You trying to grow a beard?"

He scratched at his jaw. He normally depilated every morning, but hadn't seen the need since he was kept in during his convalescence. The 'fresher was too far a walk, as far as he was concerned, and it wasn't worth worrying about. She had seen in far worse states. He was more interested in ships that disappeared into a mysterious wormhole within Rihannsu space. "Both vanished?"

It appeared she intended to ignore the question regarding sensitive information, as she often did, but then she looked toward the window. "A civilian research vessel was following an unknown alien craft." Her smile gradually disappeared, sorrow in her eyes, so much more she couldn't tell him, everything in between. "We almost got sucked in by the wake."

"Ah. It would seem we have both been brushed by death, recently."

"Probably aren't dead," she muttered, "but be better if they were." She shook off whatever recent event chewed at her mind, ending that discussion by shifting her focus onto his injuries. "Someone try to kill you?"

"Me and the entire battalion." He put a palm to his side over the bandage. "Shrapnel bombs."

She winced, reaching out to finger the wrapping on his shoulder. "Shame. Our doctors could patch you up in a day." Her gaze tracked several old scars on his chest and shoulders. "Never know you'd been hurt."

He caught her fingers, holding them briefly, before she pulled her hand back. In some ways, it was what disturbed him the most when he saw her. Lethren's scars were gone, at least from the flesh. If he met her again for the first time, he would be fooled into believing she had never suffered grievous injury. A mistake he had made once. "Ours are not incapable, but tissue regeneration takes time. My doctor has forced me to take medical leave, though I believe I could work."

"Yeah, that's what we all say."

He wasn't sure if that was a courteous warning that she intended to leave, so he asked, "Can you stay?"

The look she gave him, full of cheery, knowing amusement made him smile. "I'm not about to pull your sutures, tough guy."

He shook his head, grinning now, because he had not intended his question as a sexual overture. "For the evening." He held out a hand at the door. "I have no work and no company. Stay for some time, if you are able."

She bit her lip, watching the storm, pondering. Then she nodded once, leaving his side in favor of the window. "May as well wait out the storms."

A weight he hadn't noticed fell from his shoulders and he sighed. He wanted to ask how she lived now, if she had a family or companions, a comfortable residence and any other number of questions. He knew already that she worked with some manner of small crew, but not whether she was part of a team or commanded it. He also had the impression that she reported back to another ship, though perhaps different ones. Instead, he suggested, "Khaelhik can bring you something to eat or drink, if you desire either."

"No, I'm good. Thanks." She was lit by a flash of lightning, then back in shadow again. "Echael doing all right?"

"Yes. She commands the compound now. Her oldest boy, you remember him?"

"Nvaell."

"He has applied for entry into the fleet."

"Oh, I'll bet that went over well."

He shrugged ruefully. "She did not truly expect him to enlist in the infantry. He does not care for life on the ground."

She canted her head, and said the rote phrase of good will, "Long life to him."

"If the Elements will it."

"How's Sela taking it?"

"Poorly." The boy had remained a brother to her, in function if not by blood, her entire life. It was a difficult break for her, especially now. "She insists that she will also join the fleet." He made a dubious face, making it plain what he thought of her angered bravado.

"She's too bossy. She'll never make it."

He snorted in agreement. Sela did lack the humility necessary to properly function as an uhlan long enough to rise to any rank. If she didn't find a way to at least feign subservience, she would never have a life in the military. Not that she needed to enlist in any branch; he had earned more than enough to provide for her formal education and career of her choice. "She is growing difficult," he downplayed.

Tasha wasn't fooled. "What's she blame me for, this time?"

He scratched his temple, unsure how to tell her, in a way that wasn't alarming. "The doctor warns that she will likely develop a hormonal imbalance."

Tasha raised her eyebrows, waiting for him to elaborate.

"Something cyclical, but he is uncertain of the typical duration."

Tasha closed her eyes and groaned. "Yup. She'll definitely blame me and she'll be right, for a change."

It was his turn to raise an eyebrow. "You can offer some predictions?"

Tasha leaned against the window sill with her arms crossed, watching something of interest, staying hidden behind the curtains. "As you've pointed out on numerous occasions, you aren't Vulcan, but I can tell you what happens with them and pon far." She pursed her lips, then continued. "Most times, the Vulcan genes are dominant and the kid just develops pon far when they're supposed to. Sometimes it's late, and sometimes the Human half is co-dominant. In which case a boy might get it during puberty, and a girl will manifest a more frequent," she made a pained, sympathetic face, "but usually less severe, estral cycle." She shrugged. "I guess if you're pent up for seven years, it's not as bad, like you guys figure."

The estral cycle. He nodded, because that was the most likely culprit. As Tasha had once promised him, he had been struck by horrified fascination upon discovering the regular cycle that afflicted Human females. It was bizarre. While Rihannsu women were far less... messy, some were afflicted by elevated or irregular hormone fluctuations during ovulation. Such a woman was said to be suffering from the fires, just as some men did. Understanding the magnitude of her words, he winced. "She is too young to cope with such desires."

"I know."

"Puberty?" he asked.

"My species enters physical and sexual maturity simultaneously around, well, Sela's age."

"What do we do? How do we stop this?" He could barely imagine how he would have coped with the fires if he had experienced them in the same years he became an adult.

"You can't stop it," she snapped. "You think if the Vulcan doctors knew a way to stop it they wouldn't have?" She backed away from the window, pacing in agitation. "All you can do is guide her actions."

"She is too young!" He stood carefully, following her. He recalled the few stories she'd been willing to tell of her own youth. There had been no guidance or protection for her and what little there was she conferred upon her younger sister.

She turned to face him, before he could put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry. It doesn't usually happen." He saw why she had turned away with the misery on her face. "Look, I.... A lot of Vulcans can meditate their way through something a lot worse. I know how much you value passion, but if you help her, she can learn how to keep a lid on it until she's older. And maybe it won't be as bad as you think. She may just be grouchy for a week."

He brushed at her hair, unnecessary, for it was too short to be in her eyes. She permitted the gesture out of familiarity, before shaking her head. He said, with less anger, "I am not faulting you. It was my choice far more than yours."

"My idea, though."

He nudged her shoulder, keeping two fingers on the rigid line of muscle. "It is no great tragedy, but an inconvenience." He cupped a hand under her jaw, smoothing it down her neck, and he felt her shift her weight onto one leg in response to the coaxing. "I was not expecting it for some years yet, but then I am not surprised. She does everything quickly."

Tasha finally leaned against his chest, catching his wrist and holding it against her shoulder. Her cheek brushed his bandages and she straightened, giving him a silent reprimand.

"I am not an invalid, but if you are so concerned, come lay with me."

She took the wrist she held and pressed his hand to his chest, with a poorly concealed smile, in a gesture of refusal. This close, he could readily see that her eyes were sunken with haggard fatigue. Following two ships while remaining undetected could be tiresome as stalking an advance scout.

"No, you misunderstand. I am taking a great deal of medication to assist my recovery," he admitted reluctantly. "I can do nothing, but I do not wish to stand and surely you must be fatigued. Rest," he urged her.

She gave him chest a light shove and he obligingly rocked back, but held her hand, pulling her with him. She followed him back to the lectus, which was a bit narrow for both of them. He didn't care and she didn't complain when he lay on his uninjured side, tucking her close against him. He used his arm as a pillow, but when he nuzzled her neck, catching her scent, she made a noise and squirmed her head free. Reaching over her shoulder, she shoved his scratchy chin away, rubbing her jaw against her shoulder. He laughed and nipped her fingers, so she pulled her hand back, curled in a loose fist against her chest.

He blew a puff of air against her scalp and she pretended to elbow him. He took that opportunity to wrap his free hand around her breast and she simply dropped her arm around his. What he told her about his medication was true, and as he watched her doze off, felt himself falling back asleep, he knew she would be gone when he awoke.

He hadn't the heart to tell her what happened after she left. Sela was too young to cope with either the fires, or to master sufficient self control in the time allotted. When it struck the first time, the only one prepared was Echael, whom he had warned to keep watch with every surveillance device available. When self-restraint failed and Sela couldn't managed her own distraction, when he caught her standing stock still in the midst of a hallway just shaking in rapt attention, staring hungrily at some man she didn't even know, he locked her in her quarters. She tried to beat down the door in absolute rage.

When Echael reported that Sela was finally subdued, he opened the door to discover her sitting against the far wall, fists balled up on her knees. She glared at him, sullen with lingering fury, and he swiftly closed the door behind himself. She stood up, taking several steps in his direction and he prepared himself for anything.

She stopped, stiffly, by force of will. Taking labored breaths, her teeth bared slightly, she closed her eyes and lowered her head. She was concentrating to manage her temper, perhaps now understanding the need for such lessons, that her passions would not abate swiftly as those of her peers. She opened her eyes, looking at the floor.

"I apologize, but it was necessary for your well-being," he said, as gently as possible.

"Why?" Her voice shook.

"You are not like other-"

"I know!" Her head snapped up and she glared at him. "I know I am not. Why this time?"

As so often, he found himself tongue-tied and admitted awkwardly, "You were ovulating."

She stared at him, her mouth open. Then she shut it with an audible 'click'. "I am too young."

"Not for a Human," he said, and promptly regretted it.

"I am not Human!" She came straight at him and he blocked before realizing that she had come to an abrupt halt again, both fists raised. She was gasping for air, and hunched over, grasping and pulling at her hair. She hobbled around, away from him until she could put a hand on the wall. Backing against it, she crouched back down, forehead to knees. "I am not."

He bit back the words, "Apparently, you are," because that would definitely be the wrong thing to say. Though it was true, in this matter, as best he understood it. So he slanted the truth and said, "You experienced the fires. They can be unpleasant for some."

She inhaled, then sighed deeply, mumbling, "The poetry makes it sound nice."

"Poetry can be misleading." He padded over to her side, taking a position beside her, legs crossed. When she didn't stand and leave, he said, "For some, it is a euphoria but for others, it is a confusing intoxication of the senses."

She raised her head, resting her chin on folded arms. "I think I had the confusing kind."

He tried to smile sympathetically, then gave up. "Then I am to blame."

Sela raised her eyebrows in surprise, looking at him. "You? How?"

He wasn't ready for this discussion and felt his face flush.

She kept staring at him and eventually said in a fascinated voice, "You are biting your lip."

He stopped biting his lip and pretended he was addressing High Command. Then he imagined they were all wearing their under-clothing. It was one of his favorite strategies for the actual event. Conscious that Sela was waiting with bated breath for his response, he said, "A few times, when I was younger and... less experienced. I preferred to work over pursuing entertainment, especially once I joined the infantry. I wanted to be the best, so I did not waste my energy on trivial things."

Sela rolled her eyes at his choice of innocuous phrasing.

He ignored her silent jeer. "It was not a healthy strategy. On one unfortunately memorable occasion, I awoke in a strange woman's bed and did not know the day of the week. I did not know her name, our location or, at first, why I was even there. I thought I must have over-indulged in drink." He scowled at the memory. "She thought it was hilarious."

"What was her name?"

"I do not know. I left before asking."

"You ran away!"

He sniffed. "I returned to my unit and made certain such a thing did not happen again."

Amusement replaced by stern curiosity, Sela asked in all earnestness, "How?"

He hated to crush her hopes, but there it was. "I take a lover."

She blinked at him a few times, then asked, in that same exact tone, "May I?"

"No!" He lowered his voice, startled by its volume. "No. You are too young."

"But-"

"No." He tried to come up with solid reasons, floundering on his own logic. For once, he was glad her mother was a taboo subject, because Tasha had admitted to taking lovers when she was little older. She had also explained that her environment was abnormal, many of them without parents to guide behavior, some of them becoming parents in an effort to replace what was lost.

Sela tried again. "What if you choose him? If it is always like this, I will not care who it is. So it will not matter-"

"It will matter." He put a hand on hers. "It always matters, even when you think it will not. People are not objects to forget what you do to them."

Glumly, considering his words, she said, "That does not help me. This was...." She sighed again, looking straight ahead. "How often? Does Aranar know?"

Aranar hadn't known, but he couldn't tell her that. "In Humans, it is approximately once every lunar cycle but-"

"Every month?" Her voice was aghast.

"But, as I was saying, he believes you will have far longer periods of dormancy. Several months, perhaps even a year or more."

She made a face, pushing her lips to one side. "Oh." Then she chewed on her bottom lip, absorbing the news, while an all too familiar distant calculation appeared in her eyes. She cocked her head. "When will I be old enough?"

He opened his mouth, with no ready answer. He could lie, but it would be for his own benefit. He could invent an age, but that wasn't the point. "I took lovers before I was afflicted, so I understood what I felt and what I wanted, when it happened." He held up a finger, seeing already that crafty gleam in her eyes, "But this does not mean you should take one for the sake of taking one. Be honest with your desires, and with those that are not, or you will confound yourself."

"So when will I be old enough?" she repeated impatiently.

"When you know what you want and can make a responsible choice."

Her face flushed with growing frustration. Her expression was such an eerily familiar offended disgust that his skin crawled. Her chin jutted up mulishly. "Responsible? If you had been less irresponsible, I would not have this problem."


(20)

2364

In the temporary shelter that housed the field command center, Volskiar sat on a stool reading an intelligence report. It was hot and dry on this planet, though a welcome breeze kicked up every now and then. He swatted at a fly, all of them attracted to any moisture they found, which forced his troops to sleep and rest under netting or suffer infections. More than a few had fallen asleep in a dug-out and woken up covered in painful hives.

He heard the door-flap open and a junior centurion entered. It took him a second to realize the woman hadn't given even the most cursory salute. In that time, she sat on a stool across from him, setting a proximity field dampener on the table.

"Hey."

Logically, he knew it was Tasha, but he couldn't understand why she was visiting him here out on a border planet. She never did that.

"Relax. I was in the area and found out you were too."

He set down the PADD he'd been reading. "May I ask why?"

"Following hostiles. Figured they'd tell me to break off before they reached your quadrant, but I guess not."

Uneasily, he waited to see if she was going to divulge any information. She rarely did except under extenuating circumstance. "What sort of hostiles?"

"We've never seen them but some reports we're getting in..." She rested her chin on folded hands, troubled. "Best case scenario, they'll pass on through or turn around."

If the best case was Starfleet's fervent hope that a known alien hostile force would choose to leave... But of course, he could do nothing about it. He could not so much as ask Sela if her agents knew anything. "Yet you are here instead of there," he pried unsubtly.

Tasha shrugged. "My people will do their jobs."

It was possible she meant her people as in Starfleet, but there was a possessive tone to her voice, and a familiar proud set to her bearing. It was something he would never forget because it was one of the first things that drew his attention to her, so many years ago.

When one of his officers reported to him that a woman wearing Starfleet's command gold was in Tal's brig, Volskiar had to see for himself. He dropped the casualty report on the stack, pushing back his chair, relieved to have something to do. Perhaps it would be little more than a cursory inspection and disappointment, but it was better than waiting in the belly of a ship while everyone else was in battle. His place was on the ground, following his army, not trapped here, surrounded by Tal's minions and the incessant humming and rumbling of a warbird.

He scanned the brig, spotting Charvanek and her crew first, all sitting in weary patience. No doubt the woman would find a way to contact her former first officer and Tal would be sure to provide such an opportunity. The only way to prevent a meeting would be to stand guard himself, but couldn't.

He spotted the Human woman next, surprised he hadn't noticed her immediately, upon doing so. She was standing stiffly, legs shoulder length apart, fairly bristling at everyone on the other side of the bars. One other Human stood, a man, but he kept behind her and appeared tentative. She must not realize how her behavior would be interpreted, though he caught Charvanek and several women of her crew, watching her with anxious sympathy. If they could warn her to be more timid, they would.

A centurion guarding the block was watching her with avid interest and Volskiar gave him a hard look in warning, as he passed. The guard straightened to attention and looked away, but that would only last so long as he was present. He had expected an older woman, one less attractive and definitely less provocative. She raked him over, looking for a badge of office or rank.

If he lingered, it would be unseemly, but if he left her in the brig, he might return to find her far in far worse condition that she was now. There was blood on her uniform, dried rusty brown that he first mistook for fresh Rihannsu, and splatters of mossy green. Nevertheless, the gold of her tunic was unmistakable and in sharp contrast to the red the other crew wore.

Everyone serving in the Outmarches was well aware that Starfleet had discarded the three-tiered color scheme, adopting an ubiquitous red and black uniform for its officers, but the standard operating procedure was too ingrained. Only the youngest didn't know the adage: Shoot the red ones, ignore the blue ones and capture the gold ones. Tal had no choice but to contact Volskiar and inform him that a potential command officer had been isolated on the bridge, but there were irregularities that required further investigation.

He ordered her brought to his quarters, citing the justification as interrogation, at which point the man standing behind her objected. When she failed to reprimand his inappropriate behavior, one of his soldiers did it for her with unfortunate result. By the time they reached his quarters, the woman 'Yar' had attacked one of the guards restraining her, cursing in fury, nearly killing the man with his own baton. It took three others to subdue her, and a firm warning from Volskiar not to cause her harm, before she was manageable. The centurion in command resorted to tying his rank sash around her eyes, blinded her liked a hooded hawk, to prevent further struggle.

He guided her into his quarters by her shoulder and she stumbled a bit at the change in speed and direction. Head down, shoulders forward, jaws clenched with impotent fury, she listened for his position. He closed the door and began unlocking her manacles. Though he expected her to round on him in offensive, she tore off the blindfold, took several steps forward, then stopped to examine his quarters.

"Oh, I love surprises," she muttered.

He set the manacles on his cabinet. "It is fortunate you did not succeed in killing the soldier."

"How so? I would've called it even."

"I would have been forced to reprimand you and as I cannot demote you, that would not have sufficed."

"Gee, that's terrible." She didn't sound either impressed or intimidated, still fixed on searching his quarters for either weapon or means of escape. When she saw his bed, something in her eyes flickered and he could have sworn she shook her head, as if in disgust.

He put a hand on her back, pushing lightly, and pointing at a comfortable sofa chair, a personal luxury. "Please, sit down."

She did as ordered, without protest, settling down to watch him expectantly. "So what's the special occasion?"

He stood beside his office desk, contemplating disparate elements. "I wished to speak with the commander of the Enterprise. That is not unreasonable."

"Oh, well, you're shit out of luck then because the captain's dead and your klutzy guard killed the last CO."

"You are not a commander?"

She smirked. "I'm a lieutenant, and a security officer, at that. I'm not worth anything to you."

"Yet you were on the bridge." She had to be lying. If it weren't for the Enterprise, the mission would have gone smoothly. Perhaps not perfectly, with the Honor Blade interfering as well, but certainly with fewer losses. He needed something to show for it.

"I was filling in for an officer who got killed earlier in the battle." She continued in that arrogant tone, "The way I see it, there's nothing you can offer me and I've got nothing to lose, so how about we skip this interrogation because I'm not about to lick your boots or anything else."

He wanted to kick his desk chair, but restrained himself. If it were possible to demote the responsible officer past uhlan, he would. "Very well, Lieutenant Yar. Who is next in the chain of succession?"

At least she stopped smirking. "Depends. Were those all the survivors in the brig with me, or did all your ships beam out some?"

"All that we could beam out before your ship self-destructed were with you," he confirmed. He wasn't sure what an ill Human looked like, but he immediately suspected that it involved going pale.

Her mouth twisted inward as if she was loathe to answer. "I am."

"It would seem that I have something to offer you, after all, Lieutenant." Going to his cabinet, he removed a bottle of his favorite wine and metal goblet. At the very least, he could be civil and being Human, her nerves were probably frayed. A drink would be soothing.

"You think I'm stupid?"

"I have not yet decided." He poured a glass, bringing it to her.

"Flattery will get you everywhere," she responded dryly, eyeing his offer with suspicion, but taking the goblet. "You guys don't take prisoners. Whatever you're going to do to me is just foreplay to the part where the Tal Shiar tear us to pieces." She gave him a thin, insincere smile. "If I'm lucky, it won't hurt too much before we're executed, but I came here expecting to die so...." She raised a negligent shoulder, sniffing the drink.

"Hmph." He kept his position oblique. She was unusually calm for a woman who expected torture and death, glib even. "You are partly correct. We do not keep prisoners. It is inefficient and a waste of resources to care for insignificant captives. Those that can serve no purpose are discarded."

"And I'm not interested in serving this purpose."

"You are not in a position to object."

She raised her shoulder in another mild shrug, her faint smile finally reaching her eyes, but it was sad and tired. She sipped the wine, testing it, then tipped back the entire thing. "I'm not, so hurry up and interrogate me."

Her continued assumption was too much and he lost his composure, rounding on her. He took two long strides forward and stopped, seeing her tense in preparation. She was watching him with straightforward attention, her feet braced firmly on the floor, hands relaxed on the armrests. The hair on the back of his neck prickled in warning and he canted his head, studying her. She had gone into a fighting stance of some fashion, despite being seated. In another step he would have been in range of a kick.

"Are you so fearless to provoke me?" He reviewed the martial forms he knew that permitted a combatant to strike effectively from positions of poor or no leverage. They were limited and required great skill. Still, as a Human, she was far weaker and probably slower than him. "I have the advantage of size, strength and position. You desire to fight me?"

She cocked an eyebrow, realizing he wasn't going to step into range. "Well, you don't seriously expect me to roll over for you?" She twisted the stem of the wine goblet between her fingers, then leaned over to slide it toward him on the floor. "Besides, being small and out-numbered didn't stop us from dicing half your fleet."

He took a measured breath. "Yes, thank you for reminding me." This wasn't merely a woman he found intriguing; this was the woman essentially responsible for incurring the deaths of several thousand loyal soldiers. The crews of those ships weren't his, but they each carried a battalion of his men. Had carried. Several hours of pent-up frustration uncurled in his stomach and any sympathy he might have had for a prisoner evaporated. He twisted his wrist, popping the joint, stretching and prepared to deliver the violent response she seemed to crave.

The prickle at his neck stopped him again. He stretched out a leg and hooked the goblet with his foot, dragging it closer. Enough alcohol and the threat would be curbed. Then he stooped to pick it up, turning back to the side table. He heard her shift position and the words of harsh warning came out of his mouth without volition, "Do not."

He poured her a second glass of wine, then faced her. He weighed his options on how best to give it to her, then stepped into range of an attack, knowingly this time. "I admire your persistence, but cease provoking me. Such manipulation will not succeed. If you truly wish me to harm you then, by all means, strike at me, but it is not my intention to cause you pain."

She took the proffered glass, keeping still except for that. Her face was difficult to read. She kept her own outward expression limited, a sensible strategy, but it was more than that. Her eyes were distracting, and not because blue didn't occur among his own people. It did. If she had green eyes, that might have disturbed him, for such a trait was restricted to albinos among his own people. No, blue was convenient, for it allowed him to readily identify where she was looking and now, her pupils dilated in response to his threat.

It was the flat, shallow brow that confounded him, because he couldn't tell if she was angry, scared or anything else beyond noting the tell-tale crease between her eyebrows. Even at this range, her pulse and respiration told him nothing, both so unnaturally slow compared to his own people. He briefly wondered how Humans lived with such sedentary function. It was probably why their blood ran so cold. He tried again to find some evidence of her underlying mood. Nothing except where she held the goblet, the skin of knuckles was pale compared to the rest, lacking the pink tinge. She was holding it too tightly.

He tried stepping back and she dropped her gaze, turning her attention to the wine as if she had lost interest in him. She drank this glass more slowly, taking the time to taste it. He pretended not to notice that she was, in fact, examining him closely in a methodical fashion. He resisted the urge to spread out his arms helpfully or otherwise taunt her. As he had little difficulty acquiring companionship when he desired it, he doubted that woman found him unattractive. Then again, her species likely held different criteria.

She abruptly downed the remainder of her drink and set the goblet back on the floor.

He looked at it for a time. "That is a strong wine."

"Yep." She folded her hands with almost comical politeness in her lap. "But judging by the way that commander looked at me, I'm gonna need it."

He felt his face twist into a derisive sneer before he could prevent it. "Charvanek," he supplied. Smoothing his expression, he said, "We are not allies. Take that into consideration before you dismiss my word." He crossed his arms, refusing to pick up the goblet.

"We're not allies, either."

He shrugged. "Perhaps, but you are no longer in any position to be my enemy."

"Yeah, okay. Why don't you hurry up and get this over with?"

"Do you know, Lieutenant, I have been waiting all day to fight someone. At this moment, I am certain I would take great pleasure in subduing you if only to take recompense." He saw a vein in her temple begin to tic. "But you were doing your duty, as I would in your place."

The muscle at the corner of her eye finally spasmed and she gave in to a sneer. "Oh yeah? And what do you propose my duty is now?"

"I believe it is to your crew."

"They're just as screwed as I am, no matter what I do here."

"Were you not listening?"

"And I'll ask you again, you think I'm stupid enough to fall for hollow promises?" Her hands tightened into fists, which she set on her knees. "Does this usually work for you?"

He waited patiently for her to explain, to vent and reveal some emotion.

"You annihilate some planet or population, and you see something you like. So then you offer a deal and she'll be so grateful.... Hey, maybe you'll even spare her family's life, right?" She smiled tightly again. "Must work out great for you, most times."

"It does." Let her cling to her assumptions. After all, sometimes it was true and what harm was there in a fair exchange? "As the senior commanding officer, I have great discretion over the transport and processing of prisoners."

Her gaze slid off him, the feigned amusement waning to leave behind compressed lips, pulled down at the corners. The furrow between her brows deepened as she looked around the room, cataloguing every detail, except his bunk, to her right, which she bypassed. He guessed that she was weighing her duties as the final surviving officer capable of assuming command. If he understood correctly, her people valued survival and escape over an honorable death, when given the opportunity.

He gave her time to make a decision and privately wondered at himself for pressing such a wager. Some of the reason was, of course, her aggravating assumption that he could want but one thing from her, even though she was not of his people. The Federation, with their culture of inter-species relations was not quite an abomination, but definitely odd. The rest was his knowledge that within days, she and her kin would be smeared out of existence, anything unique destroyed.

He poured her half a glass of excellent vintage wine. Having risen to the top of the ranks, with little further to go, he had come to appreciate the advantages of rank and power. For one thing, he could afford fine things, whether they were food, drink or various creature comforts such as tailored clothing, as much as he could want, or comfortable linens. For the most part, such things were not valued by the military, which espoused practicality and purpose over luxury. But what was the purpose of all that work if he could not enjoy life when opportunities presented themselves, however fleeting?

He held out the glass to her. If she would aside some pride, they could both enjoy the limited time she had left. If she were amendable, he might be able to justify sparing her life entirely, perhaps even her crew's.

She took the goblet from his hand and settled back in the chair somewhat, sliding one foot forward, resting her elbow on the arm. She swirled the wine in the glass, still frowning with something he had decided was despondence. Quirking her lip, she apparently came to a decision. "Guess I should be glad you're willing to compromise."

That wasn't a final answer, so he raised his eyebrows slightly, to provide a cue that he was listening.

She emptied the goblet in a single pull and he winced. Then she rose from the chair and tottered for a moment. He must have frowned because she chuckled at him, the first genuine sound of amusement he'd heard from her. Her cheeks were flushed and she held herself up with one hand, for a second before straightening.

"Okay," she began. "If you let them go," she held up a finger, "alive and unharmed, I won't fight you." She blinked several times and he feared she was having trouble focusing. "You do whatever you want to me, but they go free, back to the Federation."

He hesitated. "It might be difficult for me to escort them to the border."

"Then I swear on my mother's grave I'll find a way to kill you with either this chair or this glass." Her words were slurring now, but she sounded absolutely sincere.

"I would overpower you."

"Not in your sleep."

He realized he was smiling, though he believed her. "I said it would be difficult, not impossible. I meant to warn you that there might be a delay between the crew's formal release and their transport, so you would not become suspicious." He closed the short distance between them, in part to test her tolerance for him.

She took the opportunity to examine how the small plates of armor fit into the weave of his tunic. Then she looked up, no choice because he was a head taller, and seemed to notice for the first time that he was, in fact, larger than her. In his experience, that was a mark of well-established confidence, suddenly undone. He had to credit her when she refused to retreat.

Having used the same time to figure out how her shoulder rig was fixed in place, he unbuckled the white gunny strap and belt, removing the empty holster with it. She watched him set it on the chair, but offered no assistance until she realized he didn't know how her uniform unfastened.

"Don't you dare rip it," she growled, swatting his hand away from her collar, the alcohol disinhibiting her natural temperament. In a quick, efficient motion, she released a hidden collar fastening, which loosened the neck, then one at her waist. Absently, she pushed against his chest with her palm to give herself room, and pulled the tunic off over her head. Underneath was a bland gray, form fitting shirt which she pulled off in the same manner. "There."

He noticed that her respiration was irregular and a faint sheen of sweat had appeared on her forehead. She was watching an imaginary point, breathing through pursed lips, and he realized she was in pain. There was dark red, becoming green and blue, bruising all along her right side, her shoulder, ribs and continuing into the waistband of her breeches. She must have been thrown during the pitched battle.

She put her head down. "Just a minute."

He caught her elbow when she hooked her hand under the last article of clothing that covered her breasts. Her lips had actually gone pale in the effort. "I will assist you." He thought about cutting it off, but if she didn't want him ripping anything, she probably wouldn't appreciate that either. When she relaxed her arm in his grip, he lifted it for her and peeled off the undergarment.

"Thanks, I guess." She licked her lips with the tip of her tongue, avoiding his eyes. Her own were distant, the absence of her former piercing focus suggesting flat disinterest.

He rested a hand on her unmarred side, and the small muscles of her ribs instantly clenched, though she remained still. After a moment, she relaxed again and he guessed that was the alcohol more than genuine interest, but it would do. "I admit, I did not expect you to demonstrate such dedication to your Starfleet."

"They saved my life." She pulled his sash free from his belt, and tossed the tag end over his shoulder, where it hooked through an epaulet. "That's, uh, what's it. You guys got a word for it," she prompted casually.

"Mnhei'sahe," he said, for the first time that day, thrown.

"Yeah, that one." She found the buckles hidden by the sash and soon opened his tunic, then frowned almost comically at his black undershirt. "Okay, you're gonna have to take that off."

"I see no need to remove all my clothing."

She nodded with a shrug, that rueful twist to her lips and agreed. "So leave your boots on."

It took him a minute to decipher the colloquialism, that she was not giving him literal permission. Then he grabbed her right wrist, too tightly for he felt the bones grind, and she hissed in pain and surprise. Easing his grip, not even sure why he was smiling, he pulled his disruptor from her hand. He shouldn't have left it in the holster. It really was his own fault, but he wasn't going to admit that as she looked up at him, biting the tip of her tongue.

"Hey, it was worth a try."

He knew he shouldn't be smiling the way he was, or nodding in acknowledgment, so he stepped away. He picked up the wine bottle, drinking directly from it. Mnhei'sahe. Of all the concepts to evoke, she chose that one. Taking both the bottle and his disruptor, he locked them in his cabinet. On his way back, he discarded the tunic. He could leave the shirt on, but she obviously wanted it off.

When he looked back at Yar, she had sat on the edge of the bunk, one foot slung over her knee. She was stretching the stirrup of her breeches off the heel of her boots. It struck him as a needlessly complicated system of dressing, though it did have the advantage of creating a near seamless line of black from the waist down. It was a passing curiosity compared to the vacant despair on her face, when she thought his back was turned. He hoped she wasn't prone to weeping.

She noticed he was watching her, and resumed disrobing in a detached, mechanical fashion, pulling her boots free.

He came back to stand beside her, permitting himself to enjoy the view. Her skin color wasn't so different as to be disorienting, and she was fit. At his eyes wandered over her back, arms, shoulders, the tops of her breasts, he realized she was unmarked. Such a strange thing, for a combat officer. Perhaps she was younger and less experienced than he had assumed, merely possessing some coldness of heart that allowed her to unflinchingly target the ships. "You are amicable with this arrangement?"

She stopped, looking up at him with that quizzical face, one eye slightly closed, the opposing eyebrow raised. "Was that a trick question?"

"It was upright."

"Right. Okay." Her mouth worked as she fought back whatever more offensive thing she wished to say, conscious of her tenuous position. Again, he saw her take a deep breath and calm herself. Then she said in a tone laced with reluctant admission, as if she expected displeasure in response, "There's a lot of things I can fake, but happy isn't one of them."

"Happy?" Under the circumstances, he would expect only falsehood from such a demand. "I did not ask if you were happy. I said," and he took greater care to enunciate, "amicable."

"Oh." She blinked several times, then stopped glowering, with a sigh. She looked down at the floor, then chuffed once in amusement.

"It would seem your translator is less than proficient in my language."

That got her attention back, earning him a facetious eyebrow. "You didn't grow up on Romulus, did you?"

"Indeed not. I was born and raised on a colony planet, the Hwiehsuj province."

She nodded, then explained, "Either you're speaking in a dialect or you've got one hell of an accent. Don't blame the UT."

He bit back a smile. "Forgive me for slandering your superior technology."

She ignored the jibe. "But yeah, I'm amicable. At least I'm achieving one of my goals for today. Granted, I was aiming for steak and potatoes and I'm getting weird exotic food, instead, but beggars can't be choosers."

"Food?" He didn't know what 'steak' and 'potatoes' were, but he gathered that as a point of comparison, they must be types of food. Good or bad, he didn't know. He also understood that those in poverty could not choose what they received in charity. What he doubted was his interpretation of her implied personal goals and, if he did understand correctly, that he was a substitute of some variety.

"Never mind." She smiled cheekily, inappropriately amused. "Gallows humor."

He understood that choice readily enough. Apparently she had been referencing some Terran custom that involved a meal prior to execution. "Then I will endeavor to provide you satisfaction."

"Yeah-huh."

"I am pleased to know that this situation can be to our mutual benefit." He would have continued to compliment her logic, but she was cringing in some fashion, in slow motion, ending in a clear and unmistakable wince. He stopped.

She closed her eyes, with that pained grimace and said, "Do me a favor and stop talking."

"You are not in a position to give me orders," he said in absent warning, more preoccupied with watching her hand as she snagged a finger on some concealed fastening of her breeches.

She casually leaned over to where her tunic hung from the chair and and touched a fingertip to the Starfleet insignia badge. When it chirped in response, she said, "Disable UT," and it gave a quick double-chirp in response.

He grabbed at the tunic, sliding the thin fabric through his hands until he got hold of the insignia. He touched a finger to it, but it wouldn't chirp for him. "How does this work?"

Yar smiled at him in pleasant incomprehension.

Taking a calming breath of his own, he reasoned that he could summon for a translator of his own. Later. She was perfectly correct in her assessment that words were unnecessary at this point. And if silencing him offered her some comforting illusion of control.... He hung the tunic back up on the chair, then gestured at Yar to stand. She did, but he didn't miss how she avoided looking at him too directly, and he understood that she imagined another in his place.

"Earth to Volskiar."

He jerked in his seat. "My apologies." He pushed a PADD around in a circle on the temporary command console, that doubled as a table. "Perhaps I am growing senile with age."

"Doubt it." She studied the troop positions visible underneath a clutter of reports. "Credit for your thoughts."

"Akhh." He waved a hand in a slight gesture.

"Oh, c'mon. We both know that doesn't mean anything."

He turned the PADD over again. "I recalled when we met."

"Oh, that. Forget I asked." She rolled her eyes. "Now there's a do-over if you ever need one."

"A do-over," he repeated, chewing on the new phrase. Twenty years and she managed to give him another one. It was such a small surprise compared to the most recent one, discovering her duplicate self serving on the Enterprise-D. As fascinating as he found that, Tasha did not, having no interest in following or meeting any of her former, future, comrades. In her own words, the people she knew never existed. She even refused to seek out her sister, who lived in this reality. He canted his head, because she had a point. "But if events had transpired differently, we would not be here today."

"Maybe. Might be better for both of us."

He raised an eyebrow. The more likely scenario was that she would have died days after he met her, his daughter would never have been born and he would have rotted in unofficial retirement under Narviat's regime. At least he had something to do every time he was sent on some foolhardy, often pointless, campaign. There was also that satisfaction of returning home unscathed knowing it was not what the praetor desired.

Before he could ask Tasha why she remained in his company when any junior officer might barge into the temporary shelter, she asked, "How's she doing?"

"Promoted to erei'Riov." And for a second, he wanted to ask her about Geronimo and if she had ever told that story to Sela, when she was a child.

"You've got to be joking."

"No."

"Geez." Tasha was shaking her head as she braced her hands on the console and stood. "I was a cadet at her age."

"She remains dedicated and ambitious," but didn't add what they both knew, that she was driven by the infamy of both her parents.

"And Tal Shiar agents drop like flies." The concern crept into her voice despite her intention to sound upset over her daughter's choice of career.

"The junior officers," he agreed soberly. "If she can reach commander, she will face better odds. She has a talent for delegation."

Tasha sighed but in the quick glance she gave him, he saw rueful amusement, some point of humor not shared with him. "Mm," she said.

He smiled back, anyway. "Do you face worse odds as well?"

Her attention snapped back to him, though she was clearly preparing to leave. She chuffed. "Don't congratulate me yet. Not in my line of work." She picked up her proximity field device, tucking it away. "And watch out for ships shaped like big ugly cubes." She looked around, cocking her head, then started backing away hurriedly. "Gotta go. Bye."

He was standing when two security officers rushed into his shelter, holding scanning devices. They both looked at him and traded confused, suspicious looks before one said, "Sir, we detected a disturbance in the security net."

He raised his eyebrows, shaking his head. "There is no one else here. I have been reading reports. Perhaps it was another one of those large burrowing rodents that keep eating our food."

They looked at each other again and one approached him with a scanner. He held up his arms and gamely submitted to a bio-scan.

The man shook his head, baffled. "It is him. Anything?" he asked his companion.

"Nothing."


(21)

2375

In the distance, Volskiar could hear the almost rhythmic pounding and rumble of phase canon fire and mortar shells. Worse, it was growing closer from the west, which meant the anterior flank must have broken under Jem'Hadar assault. Though the Dominion War was over, and the Changeling master race called the Founders had retreated, they had left behind their canon fodder. As for those Jem'Hadar.... He almost felt sorry for them. They had no purpose except to fight in drug fueled desperation, though perhaps that was little different than how his people manipulated the Havrannsu. Regardless, without the Founders and their overseers, the Vorta, they fought for whomever would supply the ketracel white they craved. In this case those suppliers were colonial rebels, all too eager to use imperial unrest to make a bid for cessation that the Empire could not afford to allow lest it encourage other planets.

To make matters worse, the Empire had made it clear that their tenuous alliance with the Federation was finished when the newest praetor, Neral, sent a fleet into Sector 221-G attacking the USS Independence. Fully aware he lacked the innate charisma of his predecessor, Neral won the people by vowing to appease the increasingly dissatisfied majority rather than catering to special interest groups. Though he bore no vendetta against Volskiar, and Sela had her devout allies within the government and military, she had far more detractors. As was becoming his obvious strategy, Neral bowed to public pressure, while shrewdly throwing a scrap to the growing war hawk faction. Many were demanding a return to insular autonomy, no matter how inane the strategy seemed in the face of continuing insurgency along the borders.

Since maintaining prestige mattered more than the hard reality of a depleted military, Sela daughter had been put in command of that ill-fated mission. Backed with a crew composed of those most resentful of the humiliating alliance with a long-hated alien foe, she led an unprovoked display of flagging strength and hostility meant to impress a former enemy that knew full well how little tooth there was behind it. She had told him, without a trace of expression on her face, it was an honor to be given the task, no matter the purpose, all things considered. Her voice was devoid of inflection for the benefit of whoever was monitoring the channel, but that empty tone spoke volumes. Trapped in the Outmarches with the remnants of an exhausted infantry corps, mopping up the mess left behind by the Dominion War, he replied by rote: Glory to the Empire.

He wished there had been opportunity to say something different.

Two years earlier, when he received a message from Sela announcing that she was on brief furlough and wished to see him, he thought it might be good news. After the recent, disastrous Battle of the Omarion Nebula and the decimation of the Tal Shiar, virtually all surviving officers were receiving promotions. Having fallen out of favor with High Command after her failure to assassinate the Chancellor of the Klingon High Council, despite her eminently successful raid on Lazon II, Sela had been excluded from that ill-fated alliance with the Obsidian Order. In retrospect of the trap set by the Changelings, leading the allied intelligence agencies to attack an uninhabited planet they believed was the Founder's homeworld, she had been lucky.

Three distinct categories of such lucky Tal Shiar officers had been excluded from that mission. First were the elderly, nearing retirement, that no one trusted to be fully competent and so were left to handle administrative duties at regional headquarters. The second were those who were little more than sociopaths who took too much pleasure in various unpleasant duties and therefore required supervision and limited public exposure. The third group were those who had at some point had the audacity to show common decency and challenge department policies. As one of those survivors, Sela was due a promotion, possibly by more than one step.

When she arrived at the house, he discreetly checked the collar of her uniform but all he saw was the ever-present arrangement of chevrons designating the rank of riov. Not a single shiny new one, so he held his tongue. An updated record mattered more than a piece of ornamental metal.

Sela looked around the kitchen, having entered through the side door they both favored over the ornamental main entry. She nodded amiably at Khaelhik, who favored her with a menacing smile, and took off her traveling cloak. Because she was in the closest thing she could call a home besides her transient temporary quarters, he expected her to remove her belt, rank straps and outer tunic, but she didn't. She retained the accouterments of office she normally discarded when off-duty and padded past him to check what was cooking on the stove.

"I have not had curry in ages," she said in a voice bursting with incongruous joy.

He smiled, pushing aside his dismay over a recurrent issue. "It is finished but we were waiting for you to arrive."

"I had to wait for an available transport."

Tal Shiar officers usually received priority transport, causing a second pang of concern, but he pushed it aside with the other. "It was no hardship; waiting is what we do in the army. Come, eat."

While Sela plowed through an odd melange of native and Terran vegetables, stir-fried with equally Terran spices flavoring native fowl, he had the chance to observe her more closely. She was more pensive than he recalled, keeping her head down, which did nothing to conceal the increasingly haggard planes of her face. As she ate with pragmatic efficiency, she appeared to be studying her food until she slowed. There was a line forming between her brows, some undefined mixture of anger and anxiety. Even her hands looked tense where she gripped her tine with one, the edge of the table with the other. Then he noticed her uniform was fraying at the cuffs, worn at the seams and her communicator badge was rounded from polishing.

"Are you well?" he asked, cautiously.

"As well as can be expected."

"Have you been assigned any new tasks?"

"I do not know," she said brusquely. "I imagine I will be ordered to once again single-handedly topple the Klingon Empire."

He had no comforting words of wisdom to offer on that subject, so he suggested, "You may take this opportunity to fulfill other goals."

She raised her eyes, but not her head, in a derisive blue glare before asking venomously, "Other goals?"

He took a fortifying breath before saying, "Learn a new craft, join the consulate, write a book, take a husband. There are a number of possibilities."

"You mean, resign and marry." She stabbed a piece of meat on her plate. "Is this where you ask if you will see grandchildren?"

"Sela, I did not-"

"Because that would require finding a man who does not change his tune in the morning, or worse, force me to kill him because his only interest in me was my office," she cut him off with a casual twist to her lips, raising her eyebrows facetiously. "At least that saves me the trouble of emotional entanglements."

He sat mutely, processing her nonchalant admission and decided that habitual dishonesty and bluffing dominated her interactions. Was it nostalgia that made him think that it was a growing flaw of the youngest generation to practice chronic, reflexive deceit? While he believed that she had been forced to kill the occasional man who feigned romantic interest in an effort to worm into her confidence, he doubted it was routine. "Perhaps you should cast a wider net."

"What precisely are you suggesting? That like you I take a consort outside my species? Did that work well for you?"

Having spent one too many days attending senate hearings debating whether or not to take sides in a foreign, alien conflict, hearing otherwise intelligent officers and officials denounce the threat on the grounds it involved a group of squabbling aliens, and refusing to take sides because they were not Rihannsu, he snapped. "I was not aware there was a species composed of hybrids such as you."

Sela's aplomb faltered before his eyes, her skin going sallow, the tine trembling in her grasp where it had stopped halfway between her plate and her mouth. After a moment, she replied mildly, "I fail to see how that is my fault."

"No, it was our choice but you are an adult. If you despise your own existence that greatly, then seek your final review. You will not succeed in shaming me for having a daughter."

She tried to raise her tine, but faltered again, setting it down. "It did not need to be with a Human and I have always wondered: Why? Was I intended to be an act of petty malice foisted upon her? Was I a tool to bind her to you, to hold hostage against her obedience? Do you think I never overheard the elders tell those stories?" Her face flushed green and even her eyes appeared to grow blood tinged, "Sometimes to my face? Or worse, was I a misbegotten attempt at pacification based on some misguided belief that all any woman secretly desires is a child to be satisfied? Was that it?"

As her tirade brushed close to a permutation of the truth, he felt a sad smile tug at his lips, despite her venomous tone.

"What is so amusing... father?"

"You make it sound like an epithet," he murmured, wondering what smoothly crafted lecture designed to raise her doubts enough to question his fidelity had filled her ears.

"Oh, do share."

He met her eyes, recognizing the traces of old pain freshly stirred and stripped bare. There was a suspicious brightness in them he hadn't seen in a long time. "Our situation was more complicated than you imagine, but you were not an act of manipulation or petty malice."

"Then why am I here!"

"Yes," he agreed firmly, injecting as much approval as he could muster through his frustration. "What reason is left?"

She broke visual contact, eyes darting away in rapid consideration, a muscle working in her jaw. When she looked back, it was set back in stubborn resolve. "I can think of several, but none explain why you call me your daughter."

He tried to find the most political phrasing, then sighed. He'd never expected her to be grateful for mere existence, not with the persistent racial bigotry she faced, but he'd hoped that time and regime changes would lead to greater tolerance. That had been naive and he was no smooth spoken intelligence operative accustomed to manipulating legal officials. "Your mother desired a child and I desired her contentment."

"Oh, well, that worked brilliantly. She was so content she fled you at the earliest opportunity and tried to kidnap me!"

"Which simply means that she was not content without freedom." He could taste the irony in the conversation. He'd always intended to tell Sela when she was old enough to demonstrate wise silence and thought the opportunity lost when she joined the Tal Shiar. He dared not tell her directly of his involvement, yet she deserved to know. "She was not kidnapping you."

"She accidentally took me for a walk and decided on whim to run for the airstrip?"

He worried the inside of his cheek. He'd put it off for so many years, always telling himself he would find some way to at least hint at the truth, next time. If the rumblings in the senate and consulate were any indication, along with the intelligence reports he'd seen, war was arising in the Alpha Quadrant right on their doorstep. They had little information, but what they did suggested that the far-flung Dominion empire matched or superseded the Federation in terms of technology and force. The Cardassian Union had already bowed in bloodless defeat, terming their assimilation an alliance. His gut instincts placed him in agreement with those predicting that the Dominion would not stop with one nation, not an empire that named itself for domination. If he died, there would not be another chance.

So he met her eyes, still cutting through him like daggers, and repeated, "She was not kidnapping you. She believed you would have a better, safer life in the Federation, but knew there was limited chance of success."

"Are you implying that you allowed -"

"If you do not allow me to finish, I will not make a second attempt."

Sela sighed pointedly in disgust, falling silent.

"You must recall how often I was away, deployed on perfunctory, undesirable missions, though you could not have known that as a child. On occasion, I commanded a genuinely crucial battle, but on the whole, the praetor sent me to the Outmarches to die. As a result, your mentor Saket functioned as more of a father than I did."

By this point, her anger had faded into bald disbelief until he mentioned Saket's name. Then saw the betraying flinch in her eyes. The older man had been injured gravely during the attack on Lazon II and succumbed to his injuries, after which Sela had been forced to dissect him in search of a concealed data chip he'd been transporting.

"As much as I loathed the man, I grieve for your loss. I cannot blame him for taking you from me, for I was not here to stop it."

"Fortunately you were present to stop my mother."

"Fortunately," he repeated quietly. "Yes, but not for you."

Her brows lowered again in an outward display of hostility, but he could see distress in her eyes. "You are beginning to sound disloyal."

"Honesty and loyalty are separate matters. I am not disloyal because I can see across the border and admit you would not have been forced to hold a gun instead of writing PADD or faced ignorant bigotry amongst your mother's people. What you call kidnapping, I call protective instinct. If there had been any hope of success, you would have lived a safer and I believe, more fulfilling, life. Instead, you walk a razor's edge."

"Or perhaps Humans are fundamentally cowards and she took me to strike at you, to show everyone how little power you had over her." She raised her chin, her earlier unease gone. "But I thought I might be wrong. I thought I was missing some obvious fact, so I tried your strategy. I thought that maybe if I experienced it for myself, I would understand what drove you to such foolishness."

He sniffed at the unexpected insult, quashing bitter disappointment. She hadn't listened and it seemed she was piling together reasons to despise him. "I heard. You took a prisoner."

She shrugged and said, flippantly, "It was hardly intentional but I was curious, given the opportunity, and he seemed cooperative because he was so deeply rooted in his own deceit." She smirked. "He labored under the misconception that I did not know he was the clone Thomas, rather than true Commander William Riker. I will admit, it was rather entertaining to see how desperately he sought to maintain the illusion."

"In that context, terror is hardly a compliment." He wanted to tell her about Tasha and her first weeks in his custody, how gingerly he'd navigated around her reflexive fear of him. He wanted to explain how sickening it had been to know he was the cause of it, how each cultural blunder frustrated him beyond reason.

She smiled frigidly. "I am accustomed to it. He was quite skilled at presenting a calm demeanor but I checked his personal file and confirmed that the original Riker was serving aboard Enterprise. Apparently, Thomas had a well established record of using William's identity as an alibi when faced with a high risk of failure."

"I see. And what did you gain from your entertaining experience?" He listened with half an ear, eating without interest in her gloating. He didn't recall Tasha ever gloating at length which meant the damn woman had been right. Sela got it from him.

"That Humans are physically weak, lack stamina, eat all the time and frequently smell foul, though I will admit he was able to follow commands. Aside from that, I should have killed him and if I ever meet him again, I will." Her tone became pointedly contemptuous as she added, "If I had not indulged in curiosity, I might have succeeded in my task and avoided... a less glamorous assignment."

He stopped eating, considering the implicit condemnation. There had to be reason why she continued to belabor his faults when all her life she had forgiven him his flaws, defended his name against slander, warded off rivals with veiled threats and often suffered unofficial retribution for such favoritism. She couldn't have been deaf to what he said. The more thought, the more a cold pit settled in his stomach and he took a shaky breath. "Which you now seek to lift by sealing my tomb?"

"No, my mother's."

"She caused no dishonor," he rebutted flatly. He imagined he ought to feel terrified, but he'd understood this moment would come to pass when his daughter joined the Tal Shiar. With so many years to prepare, it was almost bemusing to realize he'd been more alarmed the day Sela had run his skimmer into a tree. He would never forget the ashy expression on Tasha's face as she had looked past his shoulder, through the kitchen window, and asked if he'd remembered to lock the inertial dampener.

"How can you defend her? Because in her misguided hysteria she wanted what she thought best for me? I remember what you told me when I was a child, that she betrayed you! She broke her word of honor and yet you insist she did not?" She had her palms pressed against the table, all pretense of enjoying her meal forgotten. "It was her actions that cemented your fate as an inept, gullible fool who could not be trusted with critical assignments! Her lack of gratitude destroyed your career and now it is destroying mine."

"I told you what it was safe to tell a child, what you would understand without repeating!" He pushed back his chair with a shove. "And I will no longer tolerate this charade from you. Play this daft game with your comrades but do not try and tell me that you have not read the classified reports. That you do not know how frequently Lethren tormented her."

She compressed her lips, without argument.

He pointed toward the wall in the direction of the compound. "Yes, I gave her more than ever necessary, but I can show you the surveillance footage, if you wish. Then you may look into my eyes and ask again why she fled."

"As a coward."

He took a calming breath before blurting out too much in anger. "Running has its uses. In her case, to draw fire away from us, to protect both of us from unjust retaliation."

Sela acted as if she hadn't heard him. "So you were consorting with a spy, as Lethren believed."

"She was not a spy until we forced her to become one."

"We? It was your choice to keep her as coup."

Setting his palms on his knees, he nodded at the floor. It would be a waste of breath to explain that he had succumbed to a moment of both compassion and desire. She had probably already come to that conclusion through process of elimination. "Is that why you agreed to sup with me? Is this the test demanded of your dedication to lift your banishment?"

"I have not been banished."

"You have been banished to a condemned, barely functional warbird to the Outmarches, but now you are back and asking a great many questions about a mother you have always ignored. I heard rumors that you lost the only Starfleet prisoner you managed to obtain to Picard because you required his assistance to survive. You cannot sink much lower without drowning, so am I your test?" He met her eyes with solidifying resignation. "Did your commander speak to you about how a true Tal Shiar officer must invariably choose between personal interests and his or her Empire? How he knew you would make the correct choice and burn the final bridge behind you, ensuring you could never choose disloyalty by admitting shame?"

She resorted to silence again, staring at him. It might have worked on a coworker or stranger, but he was her father. He could see the blank desperation in her eyes and wanted to ask her what failure to complete this assignment would cost her.

"Do you think that because I am always given fool's errands that I have no experience?" He leaned forward. "Do you know why Lethren never used the neural probe on her?"

"Humans are weak," she said in carefully intoned bored dismissal. "She might have died before he obtained all the information he sought."

He spat to his side, causing Sela to jerk her head back in surprise. "She had no useful information. All she remembered of the past diverged from the moment of her arrival. She was not an engineer to reveal detailed technical schematics for future weapons or defenses, nor a senior commander privy to the workings of Starfleet Command. Lethren had no other purpose than flaying me."

Sela looked up at the ceiling briefly. "Because you were consorting with a spy and he was giving you the opportunity to admit your error. It was an embarrassment to the praetor."

"No, it was because the praetor's wife loathed me."

She raised an eyebrow. "Charvanek?"

"The feeling is mutual."

"Why?"

"I do not know," he answered sarcastically. "Why are you called the half-blood?"

Sela toyed with her tine, a bit of squash speared on the tip, growing cold on her plate. "You are telling me that my mother was the victim of a political vendetta?"

"I am asking you not to play the pawn as I once did in prideful ignorance, assured an award for faithful service, but granted the mad praetor's dishonor by proxy. Or, do you believe that one more act of proof will make you Rihannsu in their eyes? That they will no longer pull your wings to see you crawl, offering rewards for impossible accomplishments?"

Finally, her face twisted into open anger. "I will not hand them victory by resigning."

"I do not expect you will."

He had smiled fondly, despite the unshakeable expectation that the next morning he would wake in an unmarked cell. The remarkable turn was that he woke in his own bed, reported to his office and discovered that Sela had disappeared into the government quarter. He didn't ask he what she had been doing, who she had sought out or what had been achieved, but she came to evening meal again the next week and asked if he knew anything about the disappearance of her mother's corpse. He responded by asking how he could possibly know such a thing.

Then the Klingon-Cardassian war escalated into a Dominion invasion and full scale intergalactic war. One assassination later, the Empire became involved as Federation allies despite persistent rumors that the alleged evidence of Dominion hostility against the Empire had been fabricated. Proconsul Neral overthrew Narviat and he seemed perfectly willing to let bygones be bygones and give Sela a chance at glory once the war ended. At least, it had been painted that way in public.

Volskiar tried to focus on the casualty report he was reading as a way to pass the time until either reinforcements arrived at the ruined temporary headquarters to escort him, or the Jem'Hadar broke through and reached him first. He ignored the gaping hole in the buckled side wall where a missile had plowed through the building after the shields failed and the dead communication technicians within that room. If he looked, he would see Zeril trapped in her chair, impaled on shrapnel, and remember putting his disruptor to her temple. He tried not to think about what else that battle had cost besides a potential cessation of hostilities.

Closing his eyes, he pushed away the memory of a certain missive delivered dispassionately by a records clerk in the central personnel office. An execution would have been so much more decent and it was his fault. If he hadn't all but begged her to spare his life, Sela would not have been penalized with such a reckless task, doomed to a swift and deadly counter-attack by Starfleet. Her commanders doubtlessly found the irony satisfying. The child spawned by Starfleet ended by Starfleet.

There, listening to his heartbeat, he heard the unmistakable static of a transporter through the damaged windows as someone beamed in close to the building. Seconds afterward, he saw the blue flashes of Jem'Hadar phaser fire outside. Heart in his throat, he grabbed his disruptor, hunkering down beside what passed for a work desk in the abandoned municipal building commandeered into a regional headquarters for the infantry. They must have discovered his location and come to remove the serpent's head.

He was ready when the door slid open, the access panel hacked open by the intruder. He raised the rifle, aiming loosely at the first thing he saw in the dim light, the dark, ridged armor of a Jem'Hadar trooper. Then he fired, spotting too late an uncharacteristic corinthian helmet.

A personal force-field flashed bright yellow, breaking into a scattered haze. The soldier fell forward, clutching at his chest but a woman's muffled curse came through the mouth-plate.

He caught his breath, rising in panic, because his disruptor had been set on maximum. Not only was the intruder wearing a helmet, but the Jem'Hadar came in one size and gender. Jogging close he could see where the armor had been cut down crudely using a phaser or torch. "You- What are you-?"

She rolled on the floor, still reeling. "Fuckin' hell, you idiot. It's me." She flopped onto her back, patting at the flak armor over her chest, experimentally. She inhaled, exhaled and stretched experimentally."

"Are you hurt?" Dropping the disruptor with a clatter, he crouched down to help her clamber to her feet.

"Yeah, I'm hurt," she growled incredulously. "You shot me."

"That is not what I-"

"I'll be fine." She tried to straighten, then leaned on one arm heavily on the desk. "The field took most of it but I can feel the bruise already."

With the other hand, she fumbled at her neck until he reached over to help release the re-breather covering her mouth. Grasping the rim, he freed her from the helmet and knew she had to be in considerable pain when he saw how pale her face was. Her lips were turning blue and beads of sweat had cropped up on her forehead as she searched under the flak jacket for something at her waist and finally extracted a hypospray.

He snatched it before she dropped it or missed her mark, pressing the hypospray to her neck. It hissed and he waited, hearing her respiration grow less ragged, even out and the color return to her skin. He searched in a field kit on the desk and found a tricorder, but the instant he pointed it at Tasha, she swatted it from his grip.

"I want to-"

"Record my presence? Get yourself arrested?"

He clamped his jaw shut, because she was right. "I am not stupid," he pointed out dryly, retrieving the tricorder.

She put a hand to her forehead, giving him an apologetic look. "Sorry. I'm on edge."

"There is no need for apology," he murmured, using the tricorder to check her vital signs and the extent of her injuries. He had watched Doctor Aranar enough times to recognize dangerous readings. He considered the levels and forced himself to relax. "You will require medical care, but there is no emergency."

"I could've told you that, you worrywort."

"Then I appreciate your indulgence." He set the tricorder on his desk, crouching back down to fetch his rifle. Pointing it at the medical device, he casually disintegrated the unit, then set the gun to rest. It would be nothing more than another casualty of the missile.

"Anyway, serves me right for sneaking up on you in the middle of a battlefield." She took a deeper breath, winced slightly, then took a good look at him. "Figured you'd be unconscious."

There was nothing he could do about the blood and mud staining his uniform, the ash in his hair or the flickering lights in the room. He pulled at the hem of his tunic, wiping a hand across his chest and shoulders in useless grooming. "I apologize."

She raised one shoulder in a weak shrug. "It's not the first time you've shot me." She nudged him out of the way, heading for the lone stool in the office. "I think I'd better sit down for a bit."

There were tears prickling at his eyes as he tried to laugh at her mirthless joke. He had almost vaporized her and she was trying to make him laugh. He blinked them back, surprised there were any left. "No, I suppose it is not."

After she recovered her breath, Tasha took inventory of the room, leaning to one side to see through the wall into the adjoining one. Her breath caught again and she looked away, lips pressed together. "I thought she was part of the training company."

"She was, but we are short on recruits. All available men are on active rotation, especially experienced officers, no matter their specialty." He looked through the slits of the barricaded window, seeing the distant flashes of explosions. Valuing Zeril's expertise, he'd given her what was considered a safer post within communications and operations. "So now we fight with raw troops."

"Sorry ass state."

"Yes."

"Is that why you're sitting here all alone?" She looked deliberately back through the wall at the scattered debris, the smoldering equipment, maimed and immolated bodies within the room. She looked back at him quizzically. "No one else survived?"

"I sent the remaining company forward while we prepared to evacuate. I was outside in the camp latrine. I... I did not feel well." He shook his head slightly, unwilling to be more specific about using the privy specifically for its solitude. "When the shields failed, long range missiles struck our bunker, but I was not inside."

"Caught with your pants down. That's usually a bad thing."

He regained his equilibrium, scratching at the back of his neck where it itched from the accumulation of dust. While she rested, he tried to guess why she had come to see him through such hazardous territory. It couldn't have been a whim considering the risk involved. If nothing else, it gave him something to keep his mind diverted.

He asked, "Why did you not wait until I returned home?"

She shrugged.

"Will I die here, then?"

"I have no idea," she answered mildly, "but I did try your house first. Khaelhik said you were out here." She paused to take several breaths. "Was in orbit waiting for you to finish but monitoring...." She waved a hand toward the door. "We saw the explosion, one life sign left and...." Her eyes darted to him involuntarily, her mouth flattening into a line before she cleared her expression. "They broke off from the anterior flank and disappeared off sensors so I guessed they were coming here to finish the job."

"Our sensors showed no foreign vessels," he said absently, weighing the sincerity of her outward concern. He doubted she had come simply to rescue him, not even in a cloaked ship.

Officially, Starfleet had been permitted one cloaking unit to use on the USS Defiant. Unofficially, that was because only an idiot would believe that the Federation hadn't acquired or developed the technology over the passing decades. Even if they hadn't, it was inevitable their technicians would reverse-engineer the unit once in their possession. Not that it mattered. Neral had essentially violated the long-standing Treaty of Algeron.

She bit her upper lip and scratched at her temple, before looking up at him innocently. "War's over, and apparently our alliance, so it's back to business as usual."

Back to business as usual, the eternal cold war between their nations, spies on both sides because the Federation had no desire to declare war on the Empire. And he was talking to one of them, but that was no revelation. That she had been sent to see him rather than visiting of her own volition left a sour taste in his mouth until he was overwhelmed by bitterness. It was an unspoken line he'd trusted her never to cross.

"You were ordered to visit me?"

"Would it help if I told you I filed an objection?"

"Okay," he agreed facetiously. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?"

"There a reason for your sour mood?" She rested her head on her hand, regarding him curiously. "Or are you just bent out of shape over shooting me?"

"Yes, I have a reason and, for the final time, what is yours?" The more he thought about the dissolved alliance, the Federation, the senseless continuation of conflict, the more impotent he felt. Mostly, he didn't want to remember what happened to Sela but seeing Tasha invariably reminded him.

"I was told you had some information for me."

"What information would I have that your spies do not already possess? That our forces and fleet are depleted? That Neral was forced to consent to the senate and ally with the Federation, in order to overthrow Narviat, but now that the war is over he pursues his hatred of it with their blessing? That the senate and consulate remain divided over our diplomatic path, whether we should ally ourselves with one pair of old enemies, or another group of enemies, or withdraw into complete isolation? That the Tal Shiar remain so weakened by their disastrous alliance with the Cardassians that they can barely function well enough to gather credible intelligence, which no one trusts due to their blunder? What is it that I must tell you?"

Tasha shifted, balancing her chin on her thumb, fingers curled loosely over her mouth. "I warned them this was a stupid idea."

His self-control crumpled. "How can you stand there and demand information so callously? Have you the blood of an Andorian?" He swallowed. "I know she was a self-sworn enemy of the Federation, that she avowed hatred for all things Human, that she harmed your captain and his crew on multiple occasions, but she was your daughter. Our daughter! And she is dead! Are you trying to sign my warrant, as well?"

Though it had been decades since his temper had ever frightened her, Tasha reeled back visibly, eyes widening. Her lips parted as if she intended to argue with him, but he didn't give her the chance.

"I have nothing to give you." He swallowed and took a measured breath. "Go back to the Federation. The one reason you had to maintain this... this farce of a relationship is gone. Do not pretend you have come to protect me when you are on assignment. Go home."

"Dead?" Her friendly professional mask slipped into pain he had troubling believing. "Go home? What home? You think I'm here to recruit you?"

"Is it not what you are doing by requesting I compromise security of information?" Straightening, squaring his shoulders, he smoothed his features. "If you think grief will compromise my judgment, you are mistaken. Your commanders are mistaken."

"Oh, I know they're mistaken but we've got to get something straight-"

"Was it a clean death?"

"That crazy kid is fine," she snapped in exasperation.

He shook his head in denial. "Her ship was taken by the Excalibur after taking heavy damage. She is listed as missing, presumed dead with no hope of retrieval, which I should not need to tell you."

"Then they're fucking with you," Tasha chided him emphatically. "I saw her. She was unconscious, but the doctors treated her injuries and she'll make a full recovery." She shook her head in argument. "They lied to you," she insisted, her voice dropping in both wonder and suspicion, "And you believed them."

It was as if, with her revelation, she had reached out and cut and invisible tether holding him stable. For a heartbeat, he was blinded by such incoherent rage he couldn't breath, and then he was gasping in shallow gulps. He stumbled back until his back hit the wall, where he slumped, bracing a hip against the desk.

He bit the tip of his tongue, then squeezed his eyes shut, hanging his head because relief warred with a new form of anguish. It had been a test of his resolve, a leisurely manipulation to see if the aging officer remained fit for command. They had sent Sela in one direction and him the opposite, knowing he would not discover the truth until he'd been given ample opportunity to commit some grief-stricken, rash offense. Volskiar cursed himself for falling prey to their tactics and then.... He was awash with simmering contempt at how lazy they were, believing it would take so little effort to unseat him. They considered him superfluous enough to warrant feeding him misinformation without fear or repercussion.

He heard Tasha shift on her perch and said, guttural with bile, "Those spineless veruul!"

"It only took you thirty years to notice?"

He laughed weakly to cover what threatened to become a sob of relief, then forced himself into a calming breathing exercise. Their last meeting had been a hostile contest of wills and now it was unlikely he would ever see Sela again. Once in control, he pushed away from the wall and met Tasha's eyes. He swallowed, trying to clear his throat and asked, "Then she is trapped in a Federation penal colony?"

"Being counseled by thinly concealed intelligence officers?"

"This is not the time for-"

"Over my dead body," she practically growled, then untwisted her features to smile pleasantly. "I figure she's back in Romulan space, by now, so get your head out of your ass!" The last came out as a shout and left her doubled over, panting.

The wind went out of his sails and he took several labored breaths, the fight draining from him until weakness took its place. Nearly a month of concealed anxiety, combined with days of continuous battle on little sleep left him sagging in place. Either that or the knowledge that High Command felt it more convenient to treat his daughter's loss as a casualty rather than make any effort to collect the body, even to confirm her death. He made a fist at the first frisson of anticipation. They would have no choice but to grudgingly reward her when she returned, having ostensibly escaped the enemy, else admit implicitly their perfidy. Neral wouldn't risk his public personae over a single mid-ranking officer.

He ground his teeth and asked dubiously, "You had the authority to arrange this?"

She rolled her lips inward, looking up at the pock-marked ceiling. "No, but I have the security clearance to make it happen."

He rubbed his chin, scratching at the stubble in giddy agitation. She was alive. She was free. And if he knew his daughter, she would descend on her enemies like a sheering ice storm, approaching with devastating stillness and leaving disaster in her wake. At least, he hoped she would. He paced in a tight circle, torn between fury at High Command's casual deceit, reluctant amusement over Tasha's blatant protocol violation, and gratitude. "You will be reprimanded by your superiors?"

She made a dismissive noise, raising a shoulder. "Maybe, but after all these years, they owe me. Besides, the older I get the less I care about their approval. She may be a war criminal on our side of the border, but she's also my daughter, even if she doesn't want me as her mother. As for you...." She looked over her shoulder toward the door that led to the adjacent, burnt out room. "You're a Romulan general. I don't expect you to transform into a model Federation citizen any more than I expect Sela to take up pottery."

They both knew the carnage that lay outside the door. Despite her reassurance, he was formulating a defense, difficult to do with the blood stained evidence all around him, when the door to the office slid open again. He swung out an arm to grab at his rifle, but only succeeded in knocking over, and Tasha turned sluggishly, impaired by her medication.

Bedraggled, a green stained bandage wrapped tightly around her arm, his executive office stood frozen in the doorway. Her hand crept automatically toward her disruptor, then hovered and dropped to her side. Echael blinked at him owlishly opened her mouth to say something, closed it and let out a puff of air between her lips.

"Is there something you need to report, Riov?"

"Uh, yes, um.... Pardon the intrusion. We detected a detonation and shield failure, followed by anomalous signatures closing on this location, then weapons fire. I saw the bodies outside and thought you were in danger." She kept blinking, then resolved to look straight past Tasha as if she weren't present. "Enemy forces have broken through the western flank and northern perimeter. We have transmitted proof of the treaty to them several times but they keep telling us that victory is death."

"Yes, yes," he waved a hand. "As you can see, I am unharmed, but this facility has been disabled. Order all units to withdraw."

"Sir?" She raised a questioning eyebrow, though there was no reproval in her voice.

"There is nothing to gain from continued occupation. The colonial senators and their families have been given sufficient time to evacuate the planet and I do not believe the Empire can afford to waste valuable manpower over some futile display of honor. When the troops are clear, bombard the planet."

Let High Command demonize him for what they would brand an act of cowardice if they wished. Withdrawing for an air strike was the logical, efficient choice, despite orders to take the capital city. Field command was his purview, not theirs. Like Tasha, age was rendering him immune to their dissatisfaction. He could not please them and he was weary of trying.

With another lingering look at Tasha, Echael saluted him with such approval in her eyes that he felt himself flush, and said, "At once, sir."

He glanced at Tasha and was surprised to see indecision on her face as she watched Echael turn aside to speak into her communicator, relaying orders to communication officers spread throughout the front. As soon as Echael looked up and announced that all units had acknowledged, Tasha stood and walked the short distance to her former antagonist, turned friend.

"Colonel, huh?"

Echael swallowed nervously, her eyes darting to Volskiar's for a second, before she nodded curtly. "Dekesh was promoted to command of the Second Artillery Division." She smiled, with a soft laugh. "Zeril was beside herself and...." Her face fell, as she remembered that everyone in the facility aside from the general had been killed.

Understanding the unspoken realization, Tasha looked down at the floor with a sigh. "Yeah."

"And you? Are you well?" Echael frowned slightly, eyes narrowing in observation as she spied the obvious phaser burn on the flak vest. Unbidden, her gaze strayed toward the adjacent room before she took a deep breath and ignored it. "You seem pale," she said, diplomatically.

"Oh, that," Tasha answered disparagingly. "That drooling meathead over there shot me."

"What?"

Volskiar protested hotly, "I thought she was Jem'Hadar!"

Tasha rolled her eyes.

Echael raised her brows and said archly, "It is a legitimate error."

"He's still a meathead."

"Oh, I quite agree." Echael smirked briefly, before the humor faded. "But you have not answered my true question, lhhei."

"I'm getting by." Tasha looked like she wanted to explain more but redirected her attention, jerking her chin at Echael's arm. "Hold on."

"The medics will treat this in due time."

"Yeah, they'll fuse it together and wrap it in a bandage because you're a worthless low-born soldier," Tasha countered, having pulled a field tricorder from under her vest. She pointed the small cylinder at Echael's arm, muttering, then reached in her vest again, revealing an emergency regenerator. "Gimme your arm."

Echael balked.

"I brought it for him and I'm damn well going to use it on someone."

Echael held out her arm, feigning grudging patience, but the relief on her face as her features smoothed was unmistakable. When Tasha palmed the regenerator, Echael prodded her arm and winced.

"It's a quick fix. You'll still need to heal."

"I gathered," Echael said dryly. "But I am grateful for the unnecessary care."

"Uh huh. You're welcome." Tasha smiled cheekily at her pompous response. "How's your family?"

Initially stymied by the change in subject, Echael hesitated, then smiled back. "Exhausted and over-worked. My husband complains that I leave him all the housework and my oldest joined the fleet. He is already a centurion."

"That's war, for you."

Echael snorted in agreement then asked directly, "And yours?"

"Uh...." Tasha bit her lip, putting a hand on her hip, looking over her shoulder, before meeting Echael's eyes. "I'm in what's considered a high risk occupation. It really wouldn't be responsible of me."

In was on the tip of his tongue to interrupt when Echael cocked her head, her features tightening into perplexed concern. "You are taking the news well," she said cautiously.

Tasha straightened abruptly. "Oh."

"He did not tell you?" Echael looked directly at him in horror.

"She is alive," he answered in a rush.

Almost simultaneously, Tasha added, "They pulled a fast one on him."

"A fast one," Echael repeated haltingly. Then she bared her teeth in a growl of frustration.

"And to save a repeat conversation, I helped her reach the border with the help of some friends. Not that the ungrateful wretch of a girl knows it."

Echael covered her face to conceal a pained smile. "She does not truly hate you."

"Oh, I know," Tasha admitted ruefully, but added morosely, "Just everyone else."

"You cannot say she does not have good cause." Regaining her composure, Echael raised her chin, obviously wanting to say more but knowing time was limited. "But we all 'soldier on', yes?"

Tasha closed her eyes briefly, then nodded. Raising a fist and tapping her knuckles against Echael's collarbone she replied, "Semper fi."

Echael put a hand over the fist, then reached up to pull Tasha into a hug. "If High Command knew Humans had such a phrase...."

"But they're too busy fucking themselves to care."

Echael stepped back, bitter acknowledgement on her face. "I should return to the others before they come searching for me." She nodded at Volskiar and with a sly smirk, saluted Tasha with a straight palm to her forehead before departing.

Watching the door slide shut, Tasha asked conversationally, "So how many people are still on the planet?"

"I do not know," he answered, his voice clipped as he was taken off guard by her mercurial shift in mood. "Some have been evacuated, some refused to leave and a good portion are enemy troops. Many on this planet supported the Dominion, believing it would free them from our tyranny. Now I must be that tyrant to preserve the cohesion of the Empire."

"Well, that's your job."

"If you came here to moralize-"

"No. I was ordered to come here and fetch something and I thought you should know that Sela was all right." She stood carefully. "Sorry I bothered you in the middle of a massacre."

"Tasha," he said to stop her. "I cannot change the law."

"I know, but that doesn't I need to approve. It's just...." She closed her eyes, holding up her palm. "I've seen war, but I don't need the reminder. I'm tired of it."

He followed her, raising a hand tentatively to her cheek. "And I am tired of watching my troops die on fool's errands. I have spent over a month laboring under the belief that my only child had been killed by your people and you come here demanding information I do not have. Nor may I suddenly end my obedience to the Empire. It is not in my nature, regardless of how spoiled and childish some of my commanders are."

"A dyed in the green patriot. It's why I told mine this was a bad idea." She leaned her cheek against his knuckles, closing her eyes.

So close, he could see the lines creasing the corners. He uncurled his fingers to grasp a strand of white hair at her temple and she pulled her head free. "Am I permitted to tease you?"

"No."

"That is not fair. I cannot recall how many times you accused me of being an old man merely over a few gray hairs but now I am only two and a half times your age instead of four times." He waggled a finger in the air in front of her nose. "I should be permitted to gloat."

She swatted his hand aside. "Which makes you an old bastard."

"No." He put a hand to his chest and said very seriously. "My parents were married."

Her eyes crinkled as she favored him with a weak but genuine smile. "You're dumb as dirt, you know that?"

"I do my best." Wishing she weren't wearing all that butchered flak armor, he slid his hands down to her hips, sinking down onto the stool she had vacated.

The humor had been as much to delay his own emotional roil as to cheer her spirits. Since the center of a closing battlefield was no time or place for romance, he rested his temple against her hip. He gave up trying to fight himself for a moment, knowing she would feel the tears as they soaked through the fabric. Shutting out the muffled noise of approaching Jem'Hadar troops, the bustle of his own soldiers working outside and the staccato hisses of damaged communications equipment, he let go. He felt her shift against him, then her fingers in his hair, raking lightly against his scalp. He wrapped an arm possessively around her thigh and she snapped a finger against his forehead.

"I need to get going. It's bad enough I popped down here to save your ass."

"I know, I know. There is never time for you to stay. Akhh." He wracked his mind for some reason to delay her departure. "Your ship we cannot detect for some odd reason, is to your satisfaction?"

"Are you stalling for time?"

"Yes." Keeping his head down, he reached up quickly to wipe away any remaining moisture from his eyes.

"All right. It's compact with heavy armor plating, tough shields and big guns. Now let go."

"A flying tank. I approve."

"That's crucial, I'm sure."

He felt a muscle in her thigh flex as she shifted impatiently. "Is it one of those silly dish shaped ones?"

"Saucer."

"Saucer, dish, same difference." He flashed what he hoped was a charming grin, looking up to see if he had her attention. "You never did explain why Starfleet uses such a ridiculous design."

"Ridiculous? As if flying around in green birds is more plausible."

"Birds fly. Saucers do not."

She smiled, a lop-sided twist of her lips. "The only green bird I've ever seen was a parrot in a wildlife preserve, but if you must know, it has to do with late early space history. Because Human technology was limited in the twentieth century, the first passing alien starships they saw often registered as floating disks in the sky. That gave rise to the convention of flying saucers."

He clapped a hand over his face, trying to smother a laugh she would not appreciate in her mood, regardless of his lifted spirits. "No, permit me to guess. When Starfleet was formed, they honored this tradition in their ship design?"

"It might be an urban legend," she admitted, with a shrug, taking advantage of his loosened grip to step back.

He bit his lip, allowing her to slip free, knowing she had allowed him to distract and delay her with frivolous topics. "In my experience, the more foolish a reason, the more likely it is true."

"It's possible I agree with you," she said, then sighed and chided him gently, "You're not the only one who was worried the past few years."

He wanted to ask what task she had been assigned for the duration of the war, but could guess that she had been restricted from participating directly. Her commanders doubtlessly considered her too valuable an asset to waste on the front lines, regardless of her combat experience. He could imagine them quizzing her on what techniques and strategies her version of Starfleet had employed against the Klingons, then forcing her to watch from the sidelines. Then again, the Tasha he knew tended to get what she wanted, especially if it was a fight.

His gaze drifted past her to the helmet sitting on his work desk. He looked up at her and remembered a single, odd incident from the prior year.

It was the battle of Ubitz IV and they were falling back, meter by meter, as the hours crept toward dusk. The Jem'Hadar had established a relay station, planting a squat transporter facility in the midst of the ruined capital city. While ships above attempted to break through the barricade of fighters to reach the troop transports, while warding off a barrage of transporter incursions, his people were on the ground holding the line. Trying to hold the line, trying to reach the transporter and disable it. For all that his people were more experienced and better equipped at ground combat than their Starfleet allies, they were severely outnumbered and the warbirds above were occupied with their own tasks. If they didn't reach the facility, it was simply a matter of time before the Jem'Hadar beamed a warhead onto a ship or multiple charges into the field.

Around him, the smoke from unchecked chemical fires from assault vehicles pounded by concussive blasts obscured the field. A near constant rumble of heavy weapons fire, crackling, hisses from disabled communications equipment and cries of fear and pain blended into a deafening static. He had been at the rear, conducting the battle through his officers, but one by one they had fallen, less experienced centurions taking their places. So he had ordered them forward, making his way toward the front to provide visible proof of centered authority. That was all good and well, but his power cells were depleted and he'd become separated from the final squadron when they held him back during a firefight.

Two cells were empty at his waist, the third in his rifle. On a low setting, the charge might remain indefinite but they also failed to drop the average Jem'Hadar. They had no choice but to use the maximum setting, killing or vaporizing their opponents. With repetition, that resulted in spent power cells and a constant need for more. The Jem'Hadar seemed to have no such difficulty in obtaining ammunition.

He jogged in a crouch, from behind one burnt husk of shrapnel to another, searching the bodies. Two Rihannsu for every one Jem'Hadar it seemed, but most of their disruptor grips were vacant, power cells already scavenged by fellow soldiers. In between methodical glances, he scanned the vicinity, checking for figures wearing helmets. The Jem'Hadar, like the Klingons, wore none, arrogant in their suicidal confidence. If he managed to kill a Klingon ally in this firefight, he'd be more upset at the loss of a soldier than guilty. So, he focused on bare heads because his own troops, like those of the Starfleet ground forces, wore helmets. From there, the distinction was simple: gray for his men, black for Starfleet.

A bluish white phaser blast caught the edge of his shoulder, impacting on a mobile canon behind him and he stumbled, grasping instinctively at the wound. He fell on a mangled metal object and feeling around, identified a disruptor rifle. There was a power cell and he could see figures closing through the haze. He couldn't see helmets, just the outline of spikes and ridges. Freeing the power cell, trading it with his own, he aimed at the nearest one and pulled the trigger.

The rifle blipped softly and a pit formed in his stomach before he turned the disruptor around, lunging forward from his crouch to club the Jem'Hadar soldier across the face. He felt the resistance and crunch of bone, that satisfying wet schunk as he pulled the butt free. The answering blow was deflected by his helmet, the second by flak armor and the third caught him in the throat followed by the jumbled impression of figures closing around him and a series of impacts.

Then, so close that his skin tingled beneath his uniform from the electromagnetic disturbance, red phaser fire erupted around him. Someone tackled him from the side, pushing him behind the disabled canon and dimly, he heard the fuzz and whine of a localized force field. Catching his breath, trying to swallow, he squinted past the spade of his helmet in time to see a line of Jem'Hadar soldiers topple under a blur of red.

Staying tucked in, he righted himself as much as possible. To his right, genuflecting at ready, rifle swiveling back and forth across the field, his anonymous benefactor wore a standard issue surface operations flak jacket bearing the gold divisional stripe across the chest and arms. In his immediate field of view, he could see a squadron more. Each wore a black corinthian helmet emblazoned with a golden delta shield, his or her face covered by a head-up display visor and re-breather mouth plate. He had to admit, Starfleet had adapted quickly to new challenges, borrowing techniques from their allies without question or pride to meet their enemies in battle, through improvisation.

He cleared his throat and croaked out, "General Volskiar, First Infantry Division, field commander." The greeting ended in a fit of coughing, so he pulled tight his own re-breather which had been jostled loose.

The officer glanced down at him and he spotted three pips, two solid and one open, at her collar.

"I know," she shouted back. "B Company, Third Battalion, Second Regiment, Armored S.O.B's Brigade. We're here to escort you to the front. General U'Saeki has initiated a pincher movement." Looking back toward her troops, she pumped her fist in the air in a quick series of coded signals.

He strained to hear past the cacophony and his own damaged hearing. "I need a weapon."

"Hoyer! Gun!"

A trooper carrying an extra rifle threw it toward them and the woman handed it off to him. He didn't complain about it being Starfleet issue or ask how it worked. He knew how it functioned and quickly checked the power cell, confirming it was fully charged, and gave a silent prayer of gratitude to the Elements around him. The lieutenant-commander reached into her ammo bandoleer and handed him an extra power pack and two concussive charges.

"Target secure! Let's go!"

He scrambled up to follow her and once past the debris, he could see the entire cohort fanned out around him, all trotting forward in a hunkered group, ducking and weaving around bodies and obstacles. How his comrades would laugh if he admitted to the wash of comfort, seeing the glimmer of gold dotting the helmets, the yellow, red and blue bands across their jackets, as they traveled to join forces with the remaining Third Artillery and First Infantry Corps.

Once reunited with his forces, B Company vanished into the field and he didn't spot any of them until after the battle. They captured the transporter facility, breaking a link in the supply chain, but incurred heavy losses. That was readily apparent from the number of new senior centurions introduced to him, their former commanders dead. He was trying to memorize their names while standing in the midst of a neat row of bodies being processed, singling out one amongst the former senior commanders.

He had U'Saeki's rank sash and communicator badge draped over his arm and he couldn't remember half the new names, when he decided it was time to rest. The casualty reports would fill in the details, and he needed to sign off on them so that family members could be informed. If he had time, he would tell U'Saeki's family himself. If not, he would send Dekesh, who remained at the training compound overseeing the new recruits.

Making his way back toward the newly erected temporary headquarters, he could see the flurry of medics around him, Rihannsu in white, Starfleet in blue and it was one of them who blocked his path.

The Vulcan medic stood in front of him, a tricorder in hand, scanning Volskiar's shoulder. "There is nerve damage. You require tissue regeneration." He continued scanning the rest of his body, using methodical horizontal sweeps. "Multiple contusions caused by blunt trauma. Concussion." He paused over Volskiar's throat. "Glandular damage and bronchial inflammation."

His hand tightened around the comm badge. "It is nothing and we have our own medics. Go treat your own people."

"I have been ordered to attend you. Hold still. I will treat you here."

"Ordered to-" He cut off his own protest, watching in curiosity as the medic held a regenerative device of some manner just over the surface of his skin. It was warm, almost uncomfortable, sending an electric tingle through his entire arm. He flexed his hand, trying to shake the sensation.

The Vulcan grabbed his upper arm, immobilizing it. "Do not move." He moved from the shoulder to the throat, causing Volskiar to cough as he worked. From there, he isolated and healed a number of the deeper bruises. That done, the Vulcan took one step back and did a second tricorder sweep.

When Volskiar looked at his shoulder, where there had been and ugly, dark green, almost black charred area, there was nothing but a faintly discolored patch of skin. He touched it, probing the wound that would have taken weeks to heal naturally.

"There may be some scarring," the medic explained in a dutiful monotone, then nodded tersely and pivoted away to treat another patient.

His eyes fell back on the black straps draped over his arms, the waist buckle identifying its owner and her rank, then he looked back at his shoulder. He scanned the Starfleet side of the medical staging area and the army of blue officers. They had their own rows of stacked bodies, but he doubted they would have many permanently wounded survivors. In the process, he saw the cluster of yellow banded officers reporting to three in standard red fleet uniforms, one of whom wore the reversed pattern that indicated an admiral.

In the corner of his eye, he saw another flash of yellow and spotted a straggling security officer. Well, no, she wasn't straggling at all; she was heading away from the group just as a fellow officer pointed at her, while speaking to the admiral. From the opposite direction, he saw two men in bland, gray uniforms block the woman's path. Behind her, now at the head of the group, the admiral crossed his arms and waited.

Recognizing her defeat, the woman raised her arms out to her sides, phaser in one hand, rifle in the other and remained still. The two gray officers approached without apparent concern, one confiscating her weapons, the other speaking to her furiously but quietly. The woman listened until he was finished, said something, to which the man snapped a terse reply. Then she raised one hand in front of her face, made a fist and raised her middle finger.

Volskiar raised his eyebrows, the tickle of awareness in the back of his mind and held his breath.

The woman started to obediently follow the two gray officers, then hung back slightly. She didn't look back at the admiral or her fellow officers; she looked at Volskiar.

Angling his hand, which hung loosely at his side, he waggled his fingers slightly in timid greeting.

Something about the way she bobbed her head, pausing before falling back into step behind her chaperones, made him smile. He couldn't shake the absolute certainty that she had winked at him.

Here and now, a year later, he bit the tip of his tongue, then said, "Your commanders will be furious with you for crossing a field of battle to speak with me."

She shrugged guilelessly. "They ordered me to fetch. I fetched."

He shook his head slowly, still fighting back a smile.

"Fuck them," she said with finality. "They should have checked ahead where you'd be."

"And how could they know where I would be?" he asked with a laugh.

"Where you were," she modified, perhaps a bit too glibly, then changed the subject. "Look, I need to go. I've got a long trip down the Cardassian border to the Neutral Zone." Stepping back in closer to him, she ran a hand through his hair again, brushing loose ash.

"And I must return to my ship before I am vaporized," he agreed. "I regret you could not complete your mission but as I have rudely discovered, I am not privy to government secrets." She was tracing the point of his ear and he held still to savor the sensation.

"Wasn't a government secret," she said absently, withdrawing her hand. "Some sort of old message that supposedly you were going to pass on."

He opened his eyes. "An old message?"

"Yeah, I know. I figure you've told me anything you've been meaning to over the years so it doesn't make much sense. Don't worry about it."

He craned his head to peer up at her, reluctant to disrupt the brief moment of comfort. The truth was, he had intended to give her something the next time they met, but when confronted by her demand, in his anger.... "There is an old message, but I thought it so trivial...." He forced himself to attend her request. "It came into my possession during the war and I thought it might be of interest to you, but," he shrugged, "more pressing concerns came to fore."

"Who knows. That might be it."

"Do you remember Enriov Javerek?"

"How could I forget him? Sela loved when he visited."

"He died recently."

"I'm sorry."

"He was at home," he explained so that she would know it hadn't been violent, "but he willed a single item to me, an old data crystal. From what I understand, it had been given to him by the wife of a commander under his authority. Upon her husband's death, she read a transmission on it that caused her such great concern that she surrendered it to Javerek to avoid suspicion being cast upon her family. It must have been in his possession for years but...."

"But he willed it to you."

He smiled ruefully. "Yes. My guess is that he did not wish his own family to fall under suspicion. It would seem he was never as oblivious as he seemed to my political leanings."

"This message is beginning to sound less trivial by the minute."

"No, it is trivial but," he held up a finger, "it originated from a Federation Vessel two years after you... after you left. It is back at the house, but as I recall, the captain of the vessel claimed she and her crew were from the Terran year 2371. Her message was simply that the ship and crew were intact and alive in the -"

"Delta Quadrant," Tasha finished for him.

"Then you already know this message?"

"No, but I think I know the ship. It was fitted with some pretty new technology at the time, an experimental science vessel, so losing it was a big deal. If it's still out there.... I mean, that was four years ago but still...." She was biting the tip of her tongue, eyes bright with excitement.

He took the opportunity to run a hand down the back of her thigh. "Over a lost ship?"

"Nah, over the Delta Quadrant." She used her hip to push him upright on the stool, leaning over to grasp the sides of his head. "We think the Borg are out there and if that ship's still going, we've hit jackpot."

Which was more or less the same thing he was thinking when she captured his lips in an enthusiastic kiss.

She peeled his hand off the back of her neck, pushing a hand firmly against his chest. "I need to get back to my ship before the hypo wears off." She directed her eyes toward the door. "Or Echael runs out of excuses why no one should come in here."

He let go of her hand, in weary defeat. "Very well."

She backed up toward the door, where he had shot her. The energy signatures in that area would be indistinguishable from a transporter beam, and in the continuing battle afield, her exit would go unnoticed. She tried to smile in consolation, but it wilted into the facsimile of a smirk that failed to disguise the set of her jaw. "You know what they say; all's fair-"

Whatever she intended to quote was cut short as she faded away, transported back to her invisible ship.

He stared at the door quizzically, asking thin air as if it might answer back, "What is fair?"

When there was, predictably, no reply from the door, he stood, intending to reach for his rifle. Instead, the black S.O.B. helmet caught his peripheral vision and he paused to pick it up. Turning it around in his hands, noting worn edges, scuff marks smoothed by polishing, he wondered if it had been hers or a disguise she acquired from discarded surplus marked for recycling. He scraped a fingernail against the tarry substance blotting out the delta shield and was rewarded by slivers of gold underneath.

That could wait. He picked up the rifle, slinging it over his shoulder and pulled free his blade, which he no longer carried outside of battle. Few did, with the younger generation largely scorning the practice as base and archaic, too Klingon for their tastes. Going to his cot, he cut a swatch from a sheet, wrapped the helmet securely in the cloth and tucked it under his arm. Then he exited the decimated temporary headquarters, pushing open the broken door. Stepping past the bodies of his fallen guards, he went to join Echael and the retreating army.


(22)

2380

When the fleet escort came for him, to ensure his own soldiers didn't conspire to prevent his fate, Volskiar was ready and waiting in uniform. All his accounts were closed, his debts settled, his few remaining bond-servants pensioned and all legal documents in order. Everything he owned would fall to Sela, unless she died as well. Then... well, it didn't matter then. He would let looters burn it before Tal'aura and her cronies could have his estate.

He was in an armored, guarded transport when he felt the tell-tale sensation of a transporter beam and found himself sitting ingloriously on his rear in the cargo bay of an unknown ship. "Hmph," he said, rising and wondering if he was to be tortured and imprisoned in secret, or if this was a not entirely unexpected rescue.

An erein approached him, stepping out of an unlit niche. "Enriov Volskiar?" It was more of a greeting than a question, for he held a medical scanner forth to confirm his identity. "This way, sir."

He followed, scanning the corridors for clues about which ship this was, eventually spotting an internal status monitor identifying it as the Valdore. He gave a mental groan and prepared a response for the commander, to warn her he would be of no use, to spare effort of bribes or threats. If he had to pick sides in this growing civil war, it would be with the Empire, not an upstart Republic backed by the Klingons. He hoped this wasn't the opportunity Tasha has promised.

The erein brought him to the bridge, as he expected, and erei'Enriov Donatra twisted around in her chair to greet him.

"Enriov! A pleasure to see you alive and... grumbling." She slid out of her seat, waving at her erei'riov to assume command, and the erein to return to his post. Both scrambled to do as bid without another look at him, as Donatra circled around him appraisingly.

"I fear you have wasted your time and effort, erei'Enriov."

"Nonsense. You do not know what I want."

"To aid your upstart rebellion, I assume." He pushed her hand off his shoulder, where she had begun to toy with the links of his rank straps.

"Mm," she said noncommittally, still uncomfortably close. She examined him with almost hostile suspicion, as if she didn't want him on her ship at all.

"You are wasting your time," he repeated with emphasis, refusing to step back. Under different circumstances, he might return her interest, or whatever it was, but awaiting execution put him in a foul mood and, frankly, her hair was the wrong color.

"No, I believe you are exactly the man I want."

Ignoring her persistent advance, Volskiar growled, "You seem to have overcome your grief for Braeg readily enough."

As he hoped, his cutting observation brought Donatra's advance to a halt. Her expression beetled, in a flash, nostrils curled into a sudden snarl as her face flushed. Her hand dropped to her belt, before she stopped her hand by forming it into a fist. Enriov Braeg was dead, executed by order of the praetor. "Forgive me for being sociable, but make a remark such as that again, and I will cut you."

"Duly noted, but if you brought me for an assignation, you have wasted your time."

"And I keep telling you, I have not. To be honest, I fail to see what a woman would find attractive about you." She stepped back, courteously, checking over her shoulder. "We will be at our destination shortly."

"It must be close," he raised an eyebrow.

"It is."

"And safe from the rest of the fleet?"

"Yes."

"Ah." There was only one location that was both close and safe, which meant they were on a heading for ch'Havran, that toxic, radioactive frozen ball of misery. Last he had heard, the Havrannsu had abandoned it in favor of some equally doomed Klingon colony world. The Elements truly had a odd sense of humor. "I hope you do not expect me to address you as 'your highness' or 'your eminence' or any other such nonsense."

Donatra grinned at him, answering glibly as if she had not been enraged moments before, "Why, I could have you executed for such insolence."

Volskiar grunted. "I am a dead man, regardless. Your threats mean nothing "

"So I have heard. You would not give Tal'aura her army."

"I gave her the army but if she wants to praetor, let her work for it. The soldiers are tired of doing her job."

"And out of funds?" Donatra smiled, as sly and confident as he remembered, watching her climb the ranks along with her fellow fleet commanders. He rather suspected she could be covered in refuse and stripped of all rank and that smile would remain in place. Discovering that the unsurprising praetor she and Suran had backed was an utter madman hadn't dimmed it, anyway.

He snorted softly. "Everyone needs to eat," he said, agreeing indirectly. He watched the central viewscreen, waiting and as he expected, the image of ch'Havran soon appeared.

Donatra pivoted to stand beside him. "That is my theory, as well."

For a second time, he felt the transporter, but this time he was prepared. They were in a dimly lit, frigid corridor, and Donatra was already walking briskly in one direction. He caught up with her in two easy steps, both in silent agreement that a quick pace would serve to keep them warm. They reached a set of industrial doors that opened with some prodding, into a small chamber. That proved to be a generous description for what must have been a storage room of some fashion, barrels turned over to serve as chairs, a worn table set between them. It was warm, at any rate.

He sat on his barrel, when directed. "Opulent," he noted dryly.

Donatra sat on another, ignoring his facetious comment. "It is a secure room. The empress will be here, shortly."

"Pardon?"

"The empress," repeated a deep voice, reverberating with sub harmonic undertones, from an ignorable nook. Enriov Xiomek stepped forward, his chitinous armor refracting light, scattering it so that he blended easily into the dark stone walls.

Volskiar flicked his eyes to Donatra and Xiomek shook his head once, without blinking those pale, reflective eyes. After Shinzon's death, the Havrannsu commander had taken advantage of the civil chaos on ch'Rihan to lead the Reman Irregulars in open revolt, and succeeded. The remaining government on ch'Rihan had widely agreed that he had done so with covert aid from Unificationists, possibly the Federation itself, but there were more pressing concerns to attend than a slave rebellion. It still boggled his mind to think of ch'Havran as being a Klingon protectorate, one step over from the homeworld, within the very heart of the Empire.

Donatra shrugged at him, sheepishly. "I am still a mere erei'enriov."

"Not Empress of the Romulan Republic?" It was becoming apparent that military intelligence was woefully confounded in regard to current affairs. Then again, it was more likely High Command was deliberately feeding him erroneous data to keep him ignorant and harmless.

Donatra cocked her head at him, as if he were behaving like a particularly obtuse child. "She will not be happy to learn you have gone senile."

He resisted the urge to rise or ask further questions. The most recent information he had placed erei'Enriov Donatra as self-declared empress, based on Achernar Prime, having combined her fleet with erei'Enriov Suran's to annex five Rihannsu colony planets. The fleet coup was a fact, the worlds were taken and no longer under Imperial control. He narrowed his eyes. That suggested it was her own status that was the ruse which would be, to some extent, a relief. He had no wish to be ruled by such an insolent pup.

"He has not gone senile," interrupted a depressingly familiar voice.

"Charvanek," he said, but nothing more. Former Riov Charvanek t'Rllaillieu, former Head of Romulan Security, widow of Head Praetor Narviat, political dissident, traitor, defector, pacifist, Unification sympathizer and last surviving heir to Emperor Shiarkiek. So she wasn't missing after all.

Donatra flashed him another humorless smile before assuming a more sober air, nodding in acknowledgment of Charvanek's presence. It told him that there was little formality here, and no need for excessive fawning or titles, but he kept his peace. The bad blood between them had fermented over the years, with her every success and escape. He took an exhausted breath and waited for whatever blow came next.

Charvanek leaned a hip against the table, crossing her arms. She looked at him for a time, perhaps remembering all that he had, in her own way, then nodded. "Enriov, it is my understanding that you do not support the current praetor."

"I cannot support a madwoman."

Her eyes crinkled and Charvanek smiled briefly at his double entendre. "I assure you, I am quite sane."

"Forgive me madame, but Dralath insisted as much to his dying breath, as did Shinzon."

"Yes, I remember. He was also a gutless coward whereas, I suspect that if I were to order you to attack a civilian colony planet, to glorify myself, you would refuse."

Volskiar folded his hands, weighing the insult against the compliment. What could he do if offended, regardless? Go back to Ki Baratan and face a lifetime of imprisonment or secret execution? He snorted at himself. So often he had mocked her tendency to turn the flat of her blade and yet....

He once promised to crush Charvanek, and repeated that vow on many occasions. He could cripple her plot now by refusing to help, but the truth was, Tasha had required assistance to cross the Romulan border. He and Echael had done what they could to provide her with an exit from the infantry training compound, but it was Charvanek who contacted an old enemy. Upon discovering that the final survivor of the Enterprise-C was in finally in immediate jeopardy, Ambassador Spock contacted a former crewmate of his own, who had since ascended to head Starfleet Intelligence.

Captain Uhura wasted no time assembling an extraction team to retrieve what was, tactically, a valuable but volatile asset that could not be left in enemy hands. There was too high a risk that the Empire would acquire knowledge they shouldn't yet have before they finished killing her. Perhaps Uhura's only regret was that Starfleet would no longer possess an operative in such a convenient position. He could only speculate, but when the infiltrators were ready, Spock contacted Charvanek again. She invited Volskiar to dinner and took that opportunity to inform him with great satisfaction, that he was about to lose his favorite trophy.

A part of Volskiar wanted to believe that if that damn woman hadn't interfered with her petty revenge, Tasha would have stayed in his house to this day. The more experienced part of him knew that she would have been a corpse on the interrogation room floor, discarded by Lethren, once he tired of toying with an general who had since fallen out of favor with the praetor. Instead, he was forced to come sniffing about the infantry training compound, because her body had gone missing during transport, though Saket assured him that Starfleet transporter signatures had been detected in the area. Volskiar had raised an unsympathetic eyebrow at Lethren and the enarrain had slowly, darkly turned his penetrating gaze on Saket.

The junior officer had remained unperturbed, continuing to remind his commander that the body had disappeared while fully in the custody of the Tal Shiar, so the loss became their responsibility, and it might be wise not to alert the people that Starfleet could penetrate homeworld defenses. Indeed, it might be most judicious to record that the body had been disintegrated, after all so that no one lost face. Lethren exhaled, a tic at the corner of his eye, because his obligation to oversee the compound had effectively ended with Tasha's death. Saket was right, mnhei'sahe was best met by this compromise. Then he elected to stay as the official representative, in Lethren's place, which had more to do with an oath to watch over Sela, wrung out by her mother than loyalty to Lethren. So it was because of Charvanek, however selfish her motives, that Tasha was able to honor her duty to Starfleet.

"You are correct. I would refuse such a dishonorable task, your eminence." In another time, in another place, he would have stood, genuflected, keeping his eyes to the ground lest they fall on her face, and sworn fealty to every title she possessed. But here, today, he was sitting on a cargo barrel, in a room carved out of damned ice cold rock. He took a measured breath, and touched his fist to his chest, before dropping his hand back into his lap.

Enriov Xiomek came to the table, sinking his lanky frame onto a seat, meeting his eyes in silent approval.

Volskiar looked away. He had survived five praetors and the riots that had swamped the planet following Shiarkiek's assassination. He had not thought he would live to start a civil war, for what else could it be when the entire Reman army, the Third and Fifth Imperial Fleets, and possibly the First Infantry Corps stormed Ki Baratan? Truth be told, he wondered if it needed to be a storm, for the riots continued to simmer, barely restrained by his soldiers.

"I believe you know why we have brought you here. Tell me, Volskiar, what do you think would happen if you ordered your troops to withdraw?"

He raised a shoulder. "Chaos." After a rueful pause, he amended, "More chaos."

"Would it be sufficient to disrupt her control?"

"Tomalak will send forces to the surface to compensate."

"Inexperienced fleet servicemen." Charvanek sat, finally. "They won't have time to mobilize and transport in the second and third infantries, without losing control of the outer provinces. So they'll deplete the fleet crews, leaving them vulnerable to counterattack by our own fleet and Klingon allies."

He shook his head. "They will become entrenched on Ki Baratan, resulting in stalemate, with us in the sky, my divisions either surrounded or worthless, and Tal'aura safely ensconced in the Senate chambers. While we are confounded, the Tal Shiar will send operatives to pick off our commanding officers."

Charvanek sighed. "The same conclusion I reached." She met his eyes, allowing his to see her acceptance. "Can you, in good conscience, order your men to take the Hall of State?"

"They need only an excuse, but I must ask, what will replace the Council?"

"I said 'take', not 'murder'. Too many of them are dead already." Her face tightened hawkishly. "It is the praetor we do not need."

"Then a better question is: who will you install as praetor?" Volskiar looked around, judging present company. If his choices were Donatra or Xiomek, he might prefer the terminal imprisonment back on the home planet. One lacked experience in civil matters, as most soldiers did, and the other wouldn't have the support of the people due to race. He took for granted she would not choose him, which left....

Charvanek shook her head in swift negation. "I was married to one. I cannot imagine wishing to be one." Her lips twisted into another wry smile. "I have less desire to be head praetor than to be empress, but even less to watch my world fall into ruin over such greed. I will not install a praetor; I was reinstall the praetorate. The people need a recognizable leader and I will serve as such, until order and those twelve seats are restored. I am tired of this, but I cannot abandon my homeworld."

His disbelief must have shown, because she uncrossed her arms, righting herself to stand more attentively. "I have no children. There is no need to fear a dynasty from me, at my age. The one aid I might have trusted to take my place, lives in the Federation. When I die, my House dies with me and the Chair will be empty again." She snorted, nodding to herself. "Good riddance."

Too many of his superiors in the Council had spoken honorable words while scheming to use him and his men to further personal agendas for him to take her at face value. Then again, this was the woman who, despite being crippled by social disgrace and disfavor, had sent the Honor Blade at him full tilt to protect a Klingon colony for no other reason than simple decency. This was a woman who, in deepest exile, without a single ounce of true force or power, was able to rally allies who assisted her escape and now her authority. Besides, he had already pledged allegiance.

He heard the doors open again.

"She speaks the truth, Enriov." Ambassador Spock stepped past him, taking a seat opposite Xiomek, the two nodding in mutual greeting. "She has always struck me as both an honorable and patriotic woman and I do not expect that has changed."

Charvanek smiled at him. "Flatterer. I thought Ruanek would be with you."

Spock cleared his throat, glancing off to the side. "He is otherwise occupied."

"Doing?"

"It would be imprudent to discuss the matter at this time."

"You will be the death of him."

Because Volskiar was busy staring in shock at the Vulcan he had never thought to meet in person, alive and free, it took him a moment to notice that Charvanek was looking at the doorway. He craned back, hoping he did not resemble an inexperienced uhlan, then sucked in his breath.

"Father." Sela trailed in after Spock, pausing once to curl her lip in a sneer at him, at which he raised his eyebrows slightly. Volskiar promptly suspected this was a rote performance between them. "T'Selis will be the death of him, with her poor timing."

Spock cleared his throat.

In his peripheral vision, he saw Charvanek suppress a laugh before rolling her eyes. "It is a poor time for trivial jests."

"My apologies," Sela responded stiffly, caught herself, and relaxed again. Even without her familiar uniform, she bore than officious air. Looking over her shoulder, she beckoned impatiently, before finding a seat right beside the Vulcan she claimed to hate. Whoever was out in the hall must have responded in a negative or with request for delay because Sela looked at Charvanek and shook her head sharply. Her expression was unusually neutral.

Donatra glared at her. "How wonderful that the Tal Shiar are involved. I am sure that will buoy our efforts tremendously."

"Of course they are involved!" snapped Sela. "They are occupied in a great many missions, on a great many tasks, all over the quadrant but you must know perfectly well that I do not represent their interests here, today."

"You expect me to believe you have defected? You? The ice hawk herself?" Donatra snorted, glancing down at the pitted table, tapping a finger on its surface. "Why?"

As Charvanek lifted her chin, shoulders tensing, Spock interceded, "Could it not be more obvious?"

Sela shot him a heated glance, loading with both displeasure and warning, which he ignored.

"Because we need her father's help? Forgive me for doubting her capable of sentimental attachment."

"No," Spock said moderately, "She has grown weary of being called a mongrel by her own respected colleagues."

At the word Sela lowered her head in his direction, more like a snake than a person. Her breath hitched in a lifetime of barely suppressed resentment, before she caught herself, settling back like a raptor ruffling its feathers as it mantled. Calm again, she said to Donatra, "Idiot. They have no further use for me, and I have no more for them."

Donatra raised an eyebrow. "How stupid do you think we are? That is their favorite strategy, but we all know that there is but one way to exit the Tal Shiar, and you are yet living."

"You know full well that I am little more than an exile. If the Tal Shiar were not in as much disarray as everyone else, I would be dead, and they have tried. They will not forgive me for the embarrassment I caused them." Sela stood, bracing her arms on the table.

"As entertaining as this cock fight is, could we please return to the matter at hand?" Charvanek asked archly. "Sela has provided us with reliable information for some time and has yet to betray me, nor do I believe she will." Very slowly, almost casually, Charvanek began to circle the table in Donatra's direction.

"You will refuse to believe it until her superiors come to congratulate and promote her for leading them to us? We all know she is Tal'aura's agent."

"Her agent," sneered Sela. "Yes, on the heels of a demotion serving no other purpose than to pacify her fears of my ambition. She sent me to an irrelevant ice-world in the Outmarches, so crucial to nothing. She did not trust me to accomplish even that simple task, sending another of her spies to report my every action. Believe what you will of my intentions, but she certainly does not favor me," snapped Sela, her face expressionless in an attempt to conceal her anger, in uncharacteristic struggle.

"Why should I believe you are not on an extended mission, spewing pleasant lies as all your kind do? Because you are angry? We are all angry." Donatra swung her head around to face Charvanek, not having missed her approach. "I trusted you to have better judgment."

Lips thin, Charvanek said icily, "Credit me with the wisdom of experience, erei'Enriov. Sela has no reason to betray me, and every reason to cooperate with my goals, for I do not assign her irrational tasks. She is as much an exile as anyone in this room. That she is alive is a testament to her intuitive sense of strategy which has kept us, and you, safe."

"You mean the strategy that always left her scuttling away from the Enterprise? That doomed an entire regiment and three crews? Is that the advice we want?" Donatra looked around the small room, checking her audience.

Sela kept her hands clasped on the table, as stony as Spock beside her. Volskiar noticed that Charvanek was looking at him, the shadow of a smile pulling at her lips. They had held similar arguments in their youth, him recriminating her foolish judgment and poor decisions, her too furious to defend herself properly. How their quarreling must have entertaining the senior officers in High Command whose favorite strategy to rid the Empire of inconvenient or undesirable officers was to send them to the proverbial front lines. He remembered believing that being sent as the senior commanding officer to attack a Klingon outpost was an honor, given no warning that he was Dralath's pawn to discard in shameless butchery. Had Charvanek believed she had been assigned the prestigious task of confronting and confounding the Enterprise at the furthest border of the Outmarches?

Charvanek snorted softly. "Do you expect me to believe you cannot recognize manufactured failures? The Empire has tried to vanquish the Klingon Empire since before I was born, whether we were allies or not. We have sent its best armies, its best fleets, its best spies, for naught, but a single commander, was expected to succeed through some paltry subterfuge?" She smiled unpleasantly, "What could any of us in that situation do, but try?"

"Let us not forget her preposterous mission against Vulcan," Donatra continued to challenge.

Charvanek gave a bark of laughter. She turned to Xiomek. "Enriov, I will bow to your greater combat experience. Tell me, if Sela had succeeded in her task, ferried a few battalions in three derelict, decommissioned ships, that were not swiftly identified as fraudulent imposters, crossed through half the Federation and bombed Vulcan; would High Command admit to multiple violations of our treaty with the Federation? Would they have backed the inevitable war with the Starfleet empire?"

Xiomek stared at her, inscrutable bony features, until a gravelly laugh escaped between a mouthful of fangs bared in a smile. He laughed until he wheezed to a stop, cocking his head. "I think High Command would say to the Federation, 'We apologize for your tragedy and suffering caused by this spurious attack by a rogue Tal Shiar officer who abused her authority to misappropriate resources. If there is any way we may recompense, the Empire is at your bequest.' " He turned his pale eyes on Sela and continued, "I think that given this task, I would fail also. Better than to live as a prisoner, or return to execution for such audacious treason."

Sela had her gaze fixed on an imaginary point somewhere above the table. She appeared unaffected by the cross-examination, her face sedate as Spock's. Even her hands gave away little, laying curled open in front of her, but Volskiar saw the tic of a small muscle in her thumb as she strained not to clench them into fists. She must have come to this meaning already agitated and he resisted the urge to look toward the exit. Sela neither confirmed nor denied Xiomek's interpretation.

Charvanek studied her for a few seconds, then looked back at Donatra. "Send an inconvenient officer on enough fool's errands and they will either resemble a fool or die in the process." By the time she finished speaking, she was looking at Volskiar. "I know few officers who would endure such orchestrated failures, refusing to die, and fewer still would who strike back by sabotaging their commanders knowing the likely consequence."

"I heed your point," growled Donatra, but her expression made it obvious she disagreed, "but I find it difficult to trust our lives to the Tal Shiar."

"We need not fear betrayal by her," Xiomek murmured, blinking lazily. He raised a hand, fingers outstretched, toward Sela's face and even at a distance, she reared back with instinctive fear of his telepathic abilities. "I share your concerns, for my people were not untouched by your Tal Shiar, but should she consider harming us, I will know it." He thrust his arm out, to emphasize his point.

Volskiar was off his seat, grabbing the man's wrist just as Spock interrupted with a single, low, "General."

When he added nothing, Volskiar managed his temper. Sela was a grown woman, but she remained his daughter. He tightened his grip. "Perhaps if you had children, you would understand the mistake you made right now," he said in warning to Xiomek.

Xiomek was unruffled, watching him from an angle. "I had two children. Both were taken from me when they were old enough to hold rifles. They did not live long enough to bear their own but perhaps you are correct and I do not understand."

Volskiar released him, ignoring Sela's glare of irritation at his interference. For a moment, he didn't know what to say and stood there catching his breath. He was so tired of laying down his arms. Like most his people, he never thought of the Havrannsu as having families and it effectively derailed his temper. The effect the other man had, no doubt, intended. "You have my sympathies, sir."

"I did not wish to alarm you for I would not harm her without just provocation. I seek to reassure all present that we are not at the Tal Shiar's mercy."

Donatra's face tightened into anger, and she raised her chin mulishly. "I will not argue with your logic, madame," she nodded at Xiomek, "sir. We are all familiar with High Command's strategies, but what did she do?" She looked at Sela, implacably. "What did she do to earn such poor treatment? Surely her commanders had a motivation to allegedly thwart her ambitions."

Xiomek answered, beginning with a hiss of inhaled breath, "For the same reason my commander was always one of you." He remained seated, but leaned in her direction, looking up at her from his deep set, pale eyes. "That regiment was Havrannsu. There was no loss; I know well. Do you know how often I was forced to order my troops to their deaths, not out of necessity to win a battle, but the convenience of appeasing fears of a revolt?" He canted his head, dismissing the question with a hiss, before continuing, "I think for her commanders, it was a profit whether she succeeded or failed, but more convenient if the half-blood failed and they could deny her reward," he pointed a slim finger at Volskiar, "and remind him of his error."

"As I said earlier," began Spock.

"Shut up!" snapped Sela, then rounded on Xiomek. "And stop calling me that, you old bat! I have a name and a rank. Use either." She brought her looming tirade to a sudden stop, choking on whatever she planned to say next. Her was face contorted with anger before it was replaced by raw dismay. She sat down in disgust at herself.

Xiomek grunted in tacit affirmation, sending a single placid look in Donatra's direction but she was busy staring in shock at Sela.

Donatra had the grace to look down, but said, "Do not fault me for the culture in which I was raised, Enriov. Our forces are limited and I look to the safety of our people. The Tal Shiar have been the death of many friends. One mistake here, and thousands die." Donatra licked her lips nervously, perhaps conscious of Charvanek still at her side, waiting along with everyone else. She took a calming breath, and sat down. "I am aware of the prejudice. Forgive me. I spoke out of turn."

Volskiar saw Sela's shoulders drop in relief, though her mask remained in place. He knew, along with everyone, that his position had guaranteed her the minimal rank of erein in the military branch of her choice, and perhaps spared her life in these later years. Nevertheless, only merit and accomplishments had provided for her advancement, and her spectacular failures, the impossible tasks given to her, were backed by a history of success. Though she had rarely confided in him as an adult, he knew she had fought tooth and nail to advance through the Tal Shiar command ranks, even with Saket's sponsorship and mentoring. If Sela were a fool or incompetent, no such effort to curb her advancement would have been made. Either that, or she was truly the most unlucky, foolish Tal Shiar commander in history who had, through many flukes, succeeded in dismantling that organization from within by exposing its every weakness to public ridicule. He was disinclined to believe in such repeated chance.

Making her way back to her barrel, Charvanek sat down, level with everyone else. "I think it is best to remember that everyone here is Rihannsu, one way or another." She finished with a half-smile, silently acknowledging the stretch in truth. Settling her attention on Sela, she prompted her, "Khre'Riov."

Sela gathered herself and finally looked at Volskiar and he saw the glitter of pride over her reinstated rank. How it would rankle High Command if they succeeded and they were forced to accept her authority. Her composure returned, she said, "Tal'aura has appointed Norelm in your place as Enriov of the First Infantry Corps. Fortunately, many of your officers, down to the lowest erein, question your sudden absence. Whatever you do, act quickly and I believe they will follow."

He took in the news without surprise. Several senior commanders within the division would have been passed over for promotion to facilitate Norelm's appointment, among them, erei'Enriov Echael. Being a smart woman, she would not have raised any objection, not with her son serving in the Fourth Imperial Fleet. High Command knew where her loyalties lay and would expect treachery from either her or him. Worse, they were correct for if he were to choose an officer to contact, to act in his stead, it was her. The sentimentality of age caused him to hesitate, frowning in reluctance.

"Who is your successor?" asked Donatra. "Sela is correct; you must give the order quickly, before Norelm displaces your loyal officers."

Instead of answering her, he asked, "Is there any way to warn Enarrain Nvaell?"

"Pardon?"

Before he could explain, Sela said, "Echael's eldest son. He serves in the Fourth Fleet, on the Koall."

Donatra stared at him, coldly. "We don't have time for this. If erei'Enriov Echael is competent, she will do her duty."

He balked. "Forgive me, but you have no children used as leverage against you. Gain some years and you will understand my concern is pragmatic. I cannot guarantee her loyalty, on such a gamble, if she will consider me responsible for his death. Honor would demand she avenge him, regardless of our past association." He raised his eyebrows, knowing that last reminder hadn't been truly necessary. "Passions run high amongst all of us in these troubled times."

Donatra heaved a beleaguered sigh, then looked at Charvanek in question. Some tacit communication passed between them and Donatra nodded sharply. "As you know, the dissent between our people divided without regard to Imperial Divisions. Many of our ships defected in favor of supporting Tal'aura. We wager that just as many among the remaining fleets would defect to us, if given amnesty, knowing that we follow the legitimate heir to the throne." Her face softened for a moment. "I will pass word onto him. If the Elements holds him in favor, he will serve on such a ship or succeed in rallying the crew to mutiny. That is all I can offer."

He nodded slowly, wondering how he would contact Echael, then realizing the obvious. He looked to his left and met Sela's eyes. She didn't even blink, but he saw her file and catalogue his order as if reading his mind.

"Ah," interrupted Charvanek, looking at the door.

Volskiar could not claim he was genuinely surprised when Tasha Yar stepped through the doors, turning back to gesture in dismissal toward the guards, who closed them behind her. She still had the other hand on her communication badge, her uniform in stark contrast to everyone present. It was the first time he had seen her in the proper Starfleet attire since they first met, the austere black with the ribbed gray shoulders and gold under-tunic. It was with a certain consternation mixed with relief that he caught the flash of three pips on her collar. He risked a look at Sela, but she was pointedly ignoring her mother, though he gathered they had arrived together.

Looking at him once, at an angle, Tasha might have smiled awkwardly before finding her own barrel, which she pulled against the wall, using it as a back-rest and remaining apart from the central group. She glanced over at Sela, her face tight, but made no effort to draw her attention. Whatever needed to be said would wait and aside from the necessary acknowledgments, this was neither the time nor place. She spoke to Charvanek, "Tuvok says that Tomalak has the First and Second Fleets moving toward Achernar Prime."

Charvanek nodded. "More or less what I expected."

Volskiar tried to guess how long the two had been in league. Yet, how could she work amicably with Charvanek, after enduring Lethren's treatment at her indirect bidding? Professional decorum or not, she could not overlook Charvanek's petty manipulation of Narviat's authority over the Tal Shiar. Contacting Tasha's allies to extract her, at the cost of her daughter, didn't balance that ledger. Unless, Charvanek wasn't responsible, unless Narviat had simply been doing his duty as praetor and safeguarding the Empire from a known security threat. In which case, she hadn't sent Lethren. He mouthed Saket's name and Charvanek's eyes crinkled in amusement.

By this point, Donatra was standing again, arms stiffly braced on the table. "Who is she? Who invited Starfleet? Are we so desperate?"

"We have already allied with the Klingons," pointed out Sela, "and it is my understanding that you are favorable toward allying with Starfleet. Must we waste time arguing again?"

"It would be more accurate to say I favor an end to unnecessary hostilities." Donatra leaned heavily on the table, looking at Charvanek. "I was expecting one new member, not three. If we are so feeble to need so much support, we are better off dead. Let us parcel out the Empire to them and Federation."

"I'm here as an observer, nothing more," Tasha said. "But with as much paranoia that's been going around, I thought I'd be honest about it. Yes," she inclined her head, "Starfleet knows what's going on here. We'll help you if you need it, but we won't interfere." She snorted softly. "And we've got enough territory and people to take care of."

Sela looked as if she would contest the half-truth, stretched too thin, but then thought better of it. She stopped mid-turn, sniffed pointedly, raising her eyebrows in Tasha's direction, and returned to contemplating her hands. Seeing this, Donatra held silent, following suit.

Charvanek cleared her throat. "As you know, the Federation has offered the Empire humanitarian aid in our time of need. Commander Yar has been assigned as our liaison, with my permission. I do not consider the Federation our enemy in this situation."

"Is anyone the enemy, anymore?"

Charvanek quirked a wry smile at Donatra. "We are. Let us stop fighting or we will accomplish Tal'aura's goals for her."

Volskiar tuned out the political appeasement to study Tasha's uniform and what her presence as a Starfleet officer actually meant. The others wouldn't know, except perhaps Sela due to her experiences working in a covert agency. If Tasha was here in uniform, she did so with her superior's knowledge and blessing, which meant she had truly extracted compensation for what they had asked her to do. He found himself smiling a bit, despite the resulting inconveniences that would surely follow.

Contrary to what some of his less experienced comrades believed, Starfleet wasn't populated by idiots. Like any cautious government, determined to remain stable and secure, the Federation possessed an intelligence department. And like any good espionage agency, it had a shadow arm composed of covert agents. If confronted about this pragmatic reality, the Federation would vehemently disavow any knowledge, endorsement or support of this department, created by an innocuous clause in a section of Starfleet's founding charter. They insisted it was a rogue agency, and perhaps it was. And it wasn't Starfleet's department responsible for covert operations, so he had never been sure.

Unlike a member of the Tal Shiar, there was no glory in being a covert agent for Starfleet. It was a task that required dedication and a certain measure, he would guess, of bitter humility, for public recognition and reward came only with the uniform. The agent might be free to take whatever action was deemed necessary, but it was the officer in public office who reaped the benefit, for the agent was required to remain invisible. A dead officer from a defunct alternate reality was an ideal candidate, especially one closely involved with an enemy officer. Her superiors had seen an opportunity, and they had taken it. That was what her new uniform meant; Tasha had retired from field service, and was bound to a desk on her side of the Outmarches. Well, at least now he could ask her.

"Oh?" Donatra questioned, the edge back in her voice. "I thought Starfleet's official position was to offer aid to the Empire, not the Republic."

Tasha smiled faintly. "It is. That is what you're trying to do here, isn't it? Save the Empire?"

Donatra looked at the gathered assembly, checking each person in turn, stopping longer on Spock. She looked back at Tasha. "You seem well acquainted with us, Yar."

"Not really." Tasha chuckled, tapping a finger on her PADD. "Good intel."

Donatra opened her mouth, intended to ask another question, but then halted with a puzzled expression. After a few thoughtful moments, she looked hard at Tasha, at Sela, and back again. She was a young fleet commander, after all, and would have been a lowly erein earning her wings on her first ship when history passed. She frowned at Volskiar. "The dead one?"

Sela sniffed, and with a cool, baleful sidewise flicker of her eyes in Volskiar's direction said, and said, "She got better."

He clasped his hands, unwilling to respond to the implicit accusation. Sela had needed merely to confront him as an adult and he would have confessed. She had chosen to avoid the subject and he would not blame himself for that.

"I heard she betrayed you," Donatra gestured at Sela, "and tried to kidnap you and was executed... by order of the Tal Shiar." She was studying Sela again as she finished the sentence, a question hanging in the air.

"No," he said, simply. He had done such an unusual thing by taking a Human consort, that everyone seemed to know his personal history. The assumed familiarity was sometimes tedious.

After a few seconds, Donatra started chuckling. "And here I was questioning the wisdom of recruiting you, with your reputation for slavish obedience to the praetorate. I had not thought you capable of determining your own judgments." Audacity was a well-respected trait amongst their people, as was a successful deceit. She looked at Charvanek as if she wished to ask something, but would not in front of present company.

He grunted. "I was not disobedient."

Donatra raised an eyebrow. "The punishment for treason is the same as the punishment for attempting to escape imprisonment: death. It seems to me, you evaded one but not the other."

"Me?" He smiled, painfully. "We shall see." His gaze drifted to Charvanek, "Narviat ordered me to get rid of her. I did." He shrugged, hands in the air, suddenly conscious that he was in a cave with a motley crew and had no real need to justify himself.

"I do not believe the administration will see it that way," Donatra pointed out, dryly.

He took a deep breath, sighing. That was the other reason Tasha was revealing herself, knowing full well the news of her existence would invariably leak outside this cave. "No," he agreed.

Donatra braced her chin on one fist, smiling unsympathetically. "Then you had best pray that we succeed in this coup, Enriov."

Volskiar said nothing, watching Tasha in his peripheral vision. Conscious of his glower, she glanced up at him from her PADD, then smirked fleetingly. He failed to suppress a peevish growl, doing his best to disguise it as another weary sigh, to no avail. He heard Charvanek cough discreetly, to cover a laugh, and saw Sela break into a smile. Even Xiomek bobbed his chin, looking away. The only one to keep a straight face was Spock and Vulcans didn't count.

Spock raised an eyebrow, leaned forward to brace his elbows on the table, clasping his hands. He said in a perfectly innocuous tone, "As the fleet commander suggests, it would appear that your only logical course of action to cooperate with us."

Volskiar stared at him, then sniffed. Trust a Vulcan to state the ruddy obvious. What Charvanek saw in that smug, prissy scholar he would never understand. He shrugged. "I could always be spiteful and leave you without an army."

Spock nodded thoughtfully, as if this were a considerable threat. "Then I hope you find the living conditions on Remus tolerable."

Donatra came to his rescue, clearing her throat. When Spock raised an eyebrow at her, she shook her head and he relented. Smoothing her expression with practiced ease, she snapped her attention to Xiomek and resumed their earlier tactical discussion, without missing a beat. "I can hold them if you take the Fourth at ch'Rihan."

Volskiar silently thanked the annoying woman for the kindness. Then he wondered what would happen if he survived the upcoming battle. His gaze drifted right back to Tasha. Unlike her, he had never traveled beyond the borders of the Empire.

Sela leaned casually on the table, around Spock, giving him a shove when he continued to block her line of sight. "And I can tell you where Tal'aura is, though I cannot promise to keep the entire body of the Tal Shiar from getting in the way." She waggled an eyebrow. "But I do have allies on the surface, which means I can provide reliable target coordinates." She smiled blandly, as if she hadn't just promised to massacre her former comrades.

Now all eyes were on him. He felt the pulse at his throat, and his hands were sweating as if he were a callow youth subjected to a first lover. He was too old to behave in such a fashion, but there it was, and his eyes strayed back to Tasha, who managed to appear completely disinterested, before she winked at him.

He asked Charvanek when she required the First Infantry Corps to take the capital. But as he did, his mind strayed back and he wondered when Tasha had been recruited. The first year? The first month? It couldn't have been before they met. He tried to heed Charvanek as she began coordinating their attacks, but he could feel those inscrutable blue eyes on him. He dared a quick glance at Tasha and that same apologetic look she had given Sela earlier was on him. She couldn't have been.


(23)

2381

He stepped through the docking bay doors, then stood uncertainly in the hallway. Granted, it only went one direction, forward, but he could see it split into three up ahead. There was supposed to be someone to escort him. Since there wasn't, he assumed a leisurely pace until he reached a billboard of some variety. There were what he assumed were directional instructions and lists of numbers, in several languages, but none that he could read. He thought about waiting for someone to notice and identify him, but he'd never been to a Federation outpost. There was no reason to waste an opportunity.

He went straight forward, past the junction, until he reached a busy thoroughfare. It swarmed with the bustle of aliens, so many species he knew from holovids or databases but had never seen in person. Leaning over a guard rail, he could see down for several levels, people everywhere on some floors, scant movement on others. Those were probably maintenance decks.

In his peripheral vision, he saw a Starfleet officer in yellow pause, looking at him. It was Human man, fairly young. He touched his communication badge and spoke quietly. Volskiar could have heard him if it weren't for the background din, but it was probably an identity request. His people weren't a common sight this side of the Outmarches, even with the informal non-aggression treaty that had taken hold after their alliance with the Federation during the Dominion War. He pretended not to notice until a second officer appeared.

"General Volskiar?"

He turned to find an Andorian wearing yellow and bearing two and half pips. "Lieutenant-Commander," he greeted him with a nod.

"Trehdonhel, sir. I apologize for the lack of escort, but you are early."

He nodded again. "My crew detected gravitational disturbances in the area and increased our speed to avoid them. I regret any inconvenience this has caused you."

"It is not a problem. If you would come this way, please, you have been assigned guest quarters on C deck."

"Would it be possible for me to go directly to the commander's quarters?"

Trehdonhel pursed his lips, but did not pass the request by his superior. Instead, his antenna curled inward as he said, "It is." The slight, relatively short man took the lead and added, "She anticipated your request, in which case I am to warn you that she is on duty at this time."

"Then I will be patient," he reassured Trehdonhel agreeably, following him into a turbolift. He had plenty of practice with that.

Trehdonhel led him down a quick series of corridors until they reached an remarkable set of doors, identical to several others. He keyed an entry code, and stepped back to allow Volskiar to pass when the doors slid open. "If there's anything you need, instruct the computer."

"Thank you for your assistance," he returned formally and the officer nodded sharply, understanding the inherent dismissal.

He allowed himself to relax, walking to the center of the room, looking around. It was larger than he expected, with spartan furnishings, occupied by someone who traveled light and often. An unbarred entrance was along one side, and he could see the corner of a bunk. He wandered past a recessed door, and touched a finger to its keypad, experimentally.

It opened to reveal some sort of 'fresher. He wasn't sure how its components were activated, though when he passed a hand in front of one device, he could feel his skin tingle. Drawing it back swiftly, he backed out of the 'fresher into the central room. It might be best to sit down and wait on the couch, which he did. It afforded an easy view of space out the broad window, the stars moving slowly as the station rotated, bringing departing shuttles and ships into view.

He heard an animal, but only because it made a small noise, a sort of chirp really. It was sitting in the bedroom doorway, a relatively small creature covered in dense, mottled gray and black fur. It blinked slanted yellow eyes, narrow pupils, tufted pointed ears angled in his direction. He sat very still and the creature batted a bushy tail in agitation. It looked like nothing so much as a miniature ra'tar.

It 'mrped' again, then stood, stooping into a broad stretch, tail in the air. It yawned, revealing a mouthful of white fangs and he heard claws catch on the dense carpeting. The ra'tar strolled over to the couch, bounding up on a low center table, to sit and study him.

He assumed it was tame, but he wasn't about to try touching it, so he kept his hands in his lap and avoided sudden motions. Tasha had told him about a similar animal that she had once as a child. She had also told him it could be quite savage when threatened and he didn't doubt it. Even a small predator could be dangerous.

It craned its head suddenly to the left, ears craning forward, then bounded off the table in a ground covering leap past the couch. The ra'tar went straight for the exit doors, then stood in place prancing on its front feet, anxiously.

Tasha stuck a foot through the door, forcing the animal to back up. "Oh no you don't. Back back back."

As soon as she was through, the ra'tar wound itself around her feet, causing her to stumble as she walked. "I take it Jerry's already introduced himself?"

"He stared at me."

"Yeah, cats do that." She stood in front of the couch for a moment, looking down at him. "Weird. I'm used to seeing you in uniform."

He picked at his collar, the heavy tabard over his council robes. "I am not yet accustomed to it, either."

She kept looking at him curiously and he realized she was watching his eyes and expression, not admiring the cut of his official robes. She looked away, unzipping the front of her duty jacket, removing it entirely. She hung it on the back of a nearby chair. "Computer, raise temperature by seven degrees Celsius."

He waited until her attention returned to him, a quick glance as she set down two PADDs on work desk, and beckoned. Just seeing those datapads reminded him of the stack that would be awaiting him upon his return to High Command. He had anticipated that the post would involve greater administrative duties, but was still astounded by the sheer amount at times. Nevertheless, it was better than waiting for a mortar to land on his head.

She came back to sit beside him, not quite touching, and he actually saw her fidget. "This is weird," she repeated.

He looked around the strangely designed quarters. "I find it equally discomfiting."

She clasped her hands, looking away. "I didn't think you were going to come here."

"Because you were not entirely honest with me about your duties?" He settled back more comfortably on the couch, watching as Jerry hopped up onto Tasha's lap, kneading her leg. She petted the cat, absently, still avoiding his eyes. "We were both required to keep secrets by our commanders."

She tried to smile, but failed. "You weren't ordered to do the same kind of things I was, buddy."

"Mm." He shrugged. "In honesty, I am merely confused by what your intelligence department hoped to gain through me." He held out two fingers to Jerry, who sniffed them, the jammed his head under his hand. "The Tal Shiar knew my position was compromised and distanced me from government operations."

She was biting her lip.

He sighed, mentally scrolling through the options he'd researched. "Or did you work for the Section 31 that does not exist?"

She shook her head in negation. "Not that they didn't try, but even they didn't stand a chance." He saw her take a fortifying breath. "I don't work for Starfleet Intelligence. It's more like I'm in their custody."

He stopped petting the cat. "You are a prisoner?"

"It's not like that. It's.... I made a choice, but the Federation has a department devoting to making sure people like me toe the line." By that point, she her right hand was in a fist, which she clasped in her left, as if to conceal the tension.

"Akhh," he sighed, and dropped an arm around her shoulders. He too had made a choice that seemed like a good idea, at the time. "Yes. Your government has an agency devoted to monitoring temporal incursions."

"And displaced officers." She hesitated, but then leaned into him. "When we go back, we're not allowed to screw anything up."

He rested his chin lightly on top of her head. "If you err, they will correct your mistakes?"

She sighed and heard her swallow, before she agreed quietly, "Oh yeah."

He tried to imagine what it would be like to live life knowing every choice he might make had already been made. Even those that influenced others. She had told him once, that first time, that she had no choice and he had taken it as a figure of speech. Then again, he hadn't known that a Department of Temporal Investigation existed.

"There's this old philosopher that said calling something fate was the coward's way to avoid making choices. I thought I was gonna thumb my nose at fate in some tiny, insignificant way, before I went back to being dead. Instead...." She reached over to tug on his lapel.

"I find that philosophers often have no experience in the matter they are discussing." He flattened his hand over hers. "And that the Elements find a way to remind us all."

"I don't believe in your Elements."

"I know. Do you believe in fate?"

She pulled her legs up onto the couch, twisting to lay against him, temporarily displacing Jerry. "No, not really. In my experience, the timeline is sturdier than people give it credit for."

Jerry jumped back up, this time onto Tasha's stomach, and lay down purring loudly. He glared up at Volskiar for a few seconds, then closed his eyes, ignoring his presence.

He snorted at the possessive animal, then traced his fingers along Tasha's eyebrow. "As are my people," he said, finally. "You will be staying at this outpost?"

"Probably. The station commander seems to like me well enough - glad to have a chief who knows how to take care of problems less officially." She caught his hand, holding it by her head. "The rules get a bit fuzzy out here along the border. Everything okay on your side?"

He mentally skipped past the riots, the death toll and senators already scheming against each other. "It is the Star Empire."

"Same old, same old?"

"Most of the other khre'enriovs in High Command look as if they will burst every time they must address Xiomek as an equal, the remaining Tal Shiar thrash against Sela's authority and the elected praetorate jockey amongst each other for position as Head." He smiled. "Same old, same old."

"Oh well. Maybe we'll get some peace and quiet before the next coup."

"One would hope, but there is one question remaining." He felt her tense up, even though none of that appeared on her face. "Have you been given yet the opportunity to punch Guinan?"

She didn't say anything at first, then tugged his hand against her chest and rolled onto her side, chuckling quietly as Jerry sprang off her. "I wish, but I'm not allowed anywhere near the Enterprise."

"That is disappointing."

She bit his hand.

He ignored it. "Perhaps she will prove foolish and seek you out."

She kissed him lightly on the knuckles. "Doubt it. She's too smart for that. You gonna stay for a while?"

"Will you be here in the morning?" he countered.

"That's the plan."

He inhaled, closing his eyes and listened to the sounds of the station, those barely audible hums and vibrations of constant shifting motion. They blended with the rhythmic purring of the cat as it passively warred with him for Tasha's attention. He felt her sigh, settling more comfortably. When he reached underneath the tabard, she rolled her head slightly upward to see what he was doing.

He pulled free a narrow bundle, wrapped in a faded blue rank sash, the kind no longer employed by the military. "I brought you a gift, if you will accept it."

"So formal," she murmured sleepily.

Unwrapping the sash, he held out her tanto in its sheath, where she could easily take it. For a moment, she merely studied it ambivalently while her cat sniffed the new item in curiosity, and he felt the betraying sweat on his palms.

She reached the short distance to take the tanto from him, turning it over to inspect the hilt, pull the tarnished blade a few centimeters, then slide it back into the sheath. She lay it on her chest, trapped loosely beneath her fingers.

He exhaled, smiling.

A smirk pulled at the corner of her lip and she said, with a wink, "You damn idiot."


BACK