"The Romulan General's Woman"
Rating: NC-17 for mature topics.
Originally written 19 January 2009
-- In Romulan Star Empire, slave own you!
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 disrupter, 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 disrupter 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 disrupter 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 remaining 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. 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.
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.
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."
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.
"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.
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."
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."
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-"
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."
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?"
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."
"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."
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?"
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?"
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."
"I will speak to Lieutenant Yar," announced Enarrain Lethren, a 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."
"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."
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 disrupter 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, spring 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 disrupter. "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."
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?"
Echael puzzled over this, holding the door for him. "She spoke as if they were."
"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.
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 disrupter 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."
"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."
"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.
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.
"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?"
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."
"But I have something for you, there."
"I think I'll pass."
"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."
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."
"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."
"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.
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...."
"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."
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, 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."
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.
"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."
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 disrupter, 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 disrupter 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 disrupter, 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," 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 disrupter 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.
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.
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 disrupter 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 disrupter, 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?"
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."
"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.
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 disrupter 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 disrupter, 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 disrupter 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 disrupter 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 disrupter 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."
"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."
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?"
"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."
"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."
"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."
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.
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 disrupter 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 disrupter, 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 bootstrap 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."
"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."
"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.
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.
"And safe from the rest of the fleet?"
"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."
"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."
"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?"
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.
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 allianced with the Federation during the Dominion War. He pretended not to notice until a second officer appeared.
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 Invesitgation 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?"
"That's the plan."
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