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Now the presence of a captured Starfleet officer forces her to make a fateful choice -- between exposure and escape. Between maintaining her cover -- and saving the life of...
Now the presence of a captured Starfleet officer forces her to make a fateful choice -- between exposure and escape. Between maintaining her cover -- and saving the life of Dr. Leonard McCoy.
Here, in a startlingly different adventure, is the truth behind one of the most fascinating alien races ever created in STAR TREK -- the Romulans.
Chapter One Arrhae ir-Mnaeha t'Khellian yawned, losing her sleep's last dream in the tawny light that lay warm across her face, bright on her eyelids. She was reluctant to open her eyes, both because of the golden-orange brightness outside them, and because Eisn's rising past her windowsill meant she had overslept and was late starting her duties. But there was no avoiding the fight, and no avoiding the work. She rubbed her eyes to the point where she could open them, and sat up on her couch.
It was courtesy and euphemism to call anything so hard and plain a couch: but then, it could hardly be expected to be better. Being set in authority over the other servants and slaves did not entitle her to such luxuries as stuffed cushions and woven couch fittings. It was the stone pillow for Arrhae, and a couch of triple-thickness leather and whitewood, and a balding fur or two in far-sun weather: nothing more. And to be truthful, anything more would have sorted ill with the austerity of her room. It was no more than a place to wash and to sleep, preferably without dreams.
Arrhae sighed. She was much better off than most other servants in the household: but even for the sake of the chief servant, the House could not in honor afford to make toward the hfehan any gesture that might be construed as indulgence. Or comfort, Arrhae thought, rubbing at the kinks in her spine and looking with loathing toward the 'fresher -- which as often as not ran only with cold water. Still, she did at least have one. And there was even a mirror, though that had been purchased with her own meager store of money. It wasn't so much a luxury as a necessity,for House Khellian had rigid standards of dress for its servants. Those who supervised them were expected to set a good example.
And the one who supervised everything was not supposed to be last to appear in the morning. Arrhae went looking hurriedly for the scraping-stone. Granted that this morning's lateness was her first significant fall from grace; but having achieved a position of trust, Arrhae was reluctant to lose it by provoking the always-uncertain temper of her employer.
H'daen tr'Khellian was one of those middle-aged, embittered Praetors whose inherited rank and wealth had placed him where he was, but whose inability to make powerful friends -- or more correctly, from what she had seen, to make friends at all -- had prevented him from rising any further. In the Empire there were various means by which elevation could be attained through merit, or through...well, "pressure" was the polite term for it. But H'daen had no military honors in his past that he could use as influence, and no political or personal secrets to employ as leverage when influence failed. Even his wealth, though sufficient to keep this fine house in an appropriate style, fell far short of that necessary to buy Senatorial support and patronage. His home was a popular place to visit, much frequented by "acquaintances" who were always on the brink of tendering support for one Khellian project or another. But somehow the promised support never materialized, and Arrhae had too often overheard chance comments that told her it never would.
She stood there outside the 'fresher door with the scraping-stone and the oil bottle clutched in one hand, while she waved the other hopelessly around in the spray zone, waiting for a change in temperature. There was no use waiting: the 'fresher was running cold again, and Arrhae clambered in and made some of the fastest ablutions of her life. When she got out, her teeth were clattering together, and her skin had been blanched by the cold to several shades paler than its usual dusky olive. She scrubbed at herself with the rough bathfelt, and finally managed to stop her teeth chattering, then was almost sorry she had. The sounds of a frightful argument, violent already and escalating, were floating in from the kitchen, two halls and an anteroom away. She started struggling hurriedly into her clothes: she was still damp, and they clung to her and fought her and wrinkled. The uproar increased. She thought of how horrible it would be if the Head of House should stumble into the fhaihuhhru going on out there, and not find her there stopping it, or, more properly, keeping it from happening. 0 Elements, avert it!
"Stupid hlai-brained drunken wastrel!" someone shrieked from two halls and an anteroom away, and the sound made the paper panes in the window buzz. Arrhae winced, then gave up and clenched her fists and squeezed her eyes shut and swore.
This naturally made no difference to the shouting voices, but the momentary blasphemy left Arrhae with a sort of crooked satisfaction. As servants' manager, hru'hfe, she monitored not only performance but propriety, the small and large matters of honor that for slave or master were the lifeblood of a House. It was a small, wicked pleasure to commit the occasional impropriety herself: it always discharged more tension than it had a right to. Arrhae was calmer as she peeled herself out of her kilt and singlet and then, much more neatly, slipped back into them. Pleats fell as they should, her chiton's draping draped properly. She checked her braid, found it intact -- at least something was behaving from the very start this morning. Then she stepped outside to face whatever briefly interesting enterprise the world held in store.
The argument escalated as she got closer to it. Bemused, then tickled by the noise, Arrhae discarded fear. If tr'Khellian himself were there, she would sweep into the scene and command it. If not -- she considered choice wordings, possible shadings of voice and manner calculated to raise blisters. She smiled. She killed the smile, test she meet someone in the hall while in such unseemly mirth. Then, "Eneh hwai'kllhwnia na imirrhlhhse!" shouted a voice, Thue's voice, and the obscenity stung the blood into Arrhae's cheeks and all the humor out of her. The door was in front of her. She seized the latch and pulled it sideways, hard.
The force of the pull overrode the door's frictionslides dramatically: it shot back in its runners as if about to fly out of them, and fetched up against its stops with a very satisfying crash. Heads snapped around to stare, and a dropped utensil rang loudly in the sudden silence. Arrhae stood in the doorway, returning the stares with interest.
"His father never did that," she said, gentle-voiced. "Certainly not with a kIlhe: it would never have stood for it." She moved smoothly past Thue and watched with satisfaction as her narrow face colored to dark emerald, as well it should have. "Pick up the spoon, Thue," she said without looking back, "and be glad I don't have one of the ostlers use it on your back. See that you come talk to me later about language fit for a great House, where a guest might hear you, or the Lord." She felt the angry, frightened eyes fixed on her back, and ignored them as she walked into the big room.
Arrhae left them standing there with their mouths open, and started prowling around the great ochre-tiled kitchen. It was in a mess, as she had well suspected. House breakfast was not for an hour yet, and it was just as well, because the coals weren't even in the grill, nor the earthenware pot fired or even scoured for the Lord's fowl porridge. I must get up earlier. Another morning like this will be the ruin of the whole domestic staff. Still, something can be saved -- "I have had about enough," she said, running an idle hand over the broad clay tiles where meat was cut, "of this business with your daughter, Thue, and your son, HHirl. Settle it. Or I will have it settled for you. Surely they would be happier staying here than sold halfway around the planet. And they're not so bad for each other, truly. Think about it."
The silence in the kitchen got deeper. Arrhae peered up the chimney at the puddings and meatrolls hung there for smoking, counted them, noticed two missing, thought a minute about who in the kitchen was pregnant, decided that she could cover the loss, and said nothing. She wiped the firing-tiles with three fingers and picked up a smear of soot that should never have been allowed to collect, then cleaned her fingers absently on the whitest of the hanging polishing cloths, one that should have been much cleaner. The smear faced rather obviously toward the kitchen staff, all gathered together now by the big spit roaster and looking like they thought they were about to be threaded on it. "The baked goods only half started," said Arrhae gently, "and the roast ones not yet started, and the strong and the sweet still in the coldroom, and fastbreak only an hour from now. But there must have been other work in hand. Very busy at it, you must have been. So busy that you could spend the most important part of the working morning in discussion. I'm sure the Lord will understand, though, when his meal is half an hour late. You may explain it to him, Thue."
The terrified rustle gratified Arrhae -- not for its own sake, but because she could hear silent mental resolutions being made to get work done in the future. Arrhae suppressed her smile again. She had seen many Rihannsu officers among the people who came to H'daen's house, and had profitably taken note of their methods. Some of them shouted, some of them purred: she had learned to use either method, and occasionally both. She dropped the lid back onto a pot of overboiled porridge with an ostentatious shudder that was only half feigned, and turned to narrow her eyes at Thue, the second cook, and tr'Aimne, the first one. "Or if you would prefer to bypass the explanations," she said, "I would start another firepot for the gruel, and use that fowl from yesterday, the batch we didn't cook, it's still good enough; the Lord won't notice, if you don't overcook it. If you do --" She fell silent, and peered into the dish processor: it, for a miracle, was empty -- there were at least enough clean plates.
"I've heard you this morning," she said, shutting the processor's door. "Now you hear me. Put your minds to your work. Your Lord's honor rests as much with you as with his family. His honor rests as much in little things, scouring and cooking, as in great matters. Mind it -- lest you find yourself caring for the honor of some hedge-lord in Iuruth with a hall that leaks rain and a byre for your bedroom."
The silence held. Arrhae looked at them all, not singling any one person out for eye contact, and went out through the great arched main doors that led to the halls and living quarters of the House. She didn't bother listening for the cursing and backbiting that would follow her exit: she had other things to worry about. For one, she should have reported to H'daen long before now. Arrhae made her way across the center court and into the wing reserved for tr'Khellian's private apartments, noting absently as she did so that two of the firepots in the lower corridor were failing and needed replacement, and that one of the tame fvai had evidently been indoors too long...At least the busyness kept her from fretting too much.
The Lord's anteroom was empty, his bodyservants elsewhere on errands. Arrhae knocked on the couching-room door, heard the usual curt "Ie," and stepped in.
"Fair morning, Lord," she said.
H'daen acknowledged her with no more than an abstracted grunt and a nod of the head that could have signified anything. He was absorbed in whatever was displayed on his reader; so absorbed that Arrhae felt immediately surplus to all requirements and would have faded decorously from the room had he not pointed at her and then rapped his finger on the table.
H'daen tr'Khellian was a man given to twitches, tics, and little gestures. This one meant simply "stay where you are," and Arrhae did just that, settling her stance so that she would not have to shift her weight to stay comfortable. She was mildly curious about what was on the reader screen, but she wasn't quite close enough to see its content. At least there were no recriminations for lateness. Not yet, anyway.
"Wine," said H'daen, not looking up from the screen. Its glow was carving gullies of shadow into the wrinkled skin of his face, and though she had known it for long enough, as if for the first time Arrhae realized that he was old. Very old. It was affectation that he still wore his iron-gray hair in the fringed military crop, and dressed in the boots and breeches more reminiscent of Fleet uniform than of any civilian wear. The affectation, and maybe the lost dream, of one who had never been anything worthy of note in the Imperial military and now, his hopes defeated by advancing years as they had been defeated by every other circumstance, never would. Arrhae looked at him as if through different eyes, and felt a stab of pity.
"Must I die of thirst?" H'daen snapped testily. "Give me the wine I asked for."
"At once, Lord." She went through the dim, wom tidiness of the couching room to the wine cabinet, and brought out a small urn good enough for morning but not so good as to provoke comment about waste. She brought down the Lord's white clay cup, noted with relief that it was scoured, brought it and the urn back to the table, and poured carefully, observing the proprieties of winedrinking regardless of how parched H'daen might be. There were certain stylized ritual movements in the serving of the ancient drink, and if they were ignored, notice would be taken and ill luck surely follow. That was the story, anyway; whether there was any truth in something whose origins were lost in the confusion of legend and history that followed the Sundering was another matter entirely. Perhaps better to be safe; perhaps, equally, as well to honor the old ways in a time when the new ways had little of honor in them. She drew back the flask with that small, careful jerk and twist which prevented unsightly droplets of wine from staining her hands or the furnishings, set it down and stoppered it, and only then brought the cup to H'daen's desk.
He had been watching her, and as she approached he touched a control so that the reader's screen went dark and folded down out of sight. Arrhae didn't follow its movement with her eyes; it would have been most impolite, and besides, all her concentration was needed for the brimming winecup.
"You're a good girl, Arrhae," said H'daen suddenly. "I like you."
Arrhae set down the wine most carefully, not spilling any, and made the little half bow of courteous acceptance customary when presenting food or drink, to acknowledge the thanks of the recipient. It might also have acknowledged H'daen's compliment -- or then again, it might not have. It was always safer to be equivocal.
"You run my household well, Arrhae," H'daen continued eventually, "and I trust you."
He touched the shuttered reader with one fingertip, unaware of the worried look that had crept into her eyes. A plainly confidential communication, and unexpected talk of trust and liking, made up an uneasy conjunction of which she would as soon have no part. It had the poisonous taint of intrigue about it, of meddling in the affairs of the great and powerful; of hazard, and danger, and death. Arrhae began to feel afraid.
H'daen tr'Khellian tapped out a code on the reader's touchpad, and its screen rose once more from the desk's recess. He read again what glowed there in amber on black, shifted so that he could give Arrhae his full attention, and smiled at her. She kept the roil of emotion off her face with a great effort, and succeeded in looking only intent and eager as a good head-of-servants should. H'daen's smile seemed to promise so many things that she wanted no part of that when he finally spoke, the truth was anticlimactic.
"It appears that this house will have important guests before nightfall. There is much requiring my attention before I" -- the smile crossed his face again -- "have to play the host, so I leave all the arrangements for their reception in your hands. It is most important to me, to this House, and to everyone in it. Don't fail me, Arrhae. Don't fail us."
H'daen turned away to scan the reader-screen one last time, and so didn't notice the undisguised relief on Arrhae's face.
Ch'Rihan was a perilous place; it had always been so -- plotting and subtlety was almost an integral part of both private and political life -- but now with the new, youthful aggressiveness in the Senate and the High Command, suicide, execution, and simple, plain natural causes were far more frequent than they had ever been before, and neither lowly rank nor lofty were any defense. With what she already knew about H'daen's ambition, it would have horrified but not really surprised her had she been asked to slip poison into someone's food or drink...
Some vestige of concern must have manifested itself in her face, because H'daen was staring at her strangely when her attention returned to him. "Uh, yes, my Lord," she ventured as noncommittally as she dared, trying not to sound as if she had missed anything else he had said to her.
"Then 'yes' let it be!" The acerbic edge was back in his voice, a tone far more familiar to her -- to any in House Khellian -- than the almost-friendly fashion in which he had spoken before. "I told you to do it, not think about it, and certainly not on my time or in my private rooms. Go!"
There had been guests at the house many times before, and both intimate dinners for a few and banquets for many; but this was the first time that Arrhae had been given so little notice of the event. At least she had complete control of organization and -- more important -- purchase of produce. Armed with an estimate of numbers attending, quantities required, and a list of possible dishes that she had taken care to have approved, she set out with the chastened chief cook to do a little shopping.
The expedition involved more and harder work in a shorter time than Arrhae had experienced in a very long while -- but it did have certain advantages. Foremost among those was the flitter. H'daen's authorization to use his personal vehicle was waiting for Arrhae when she emerged from the stores and pantries with a sheaf of notes in her hand and tr'Aimne in tow, and that authorization did as much to instill respect for her in the chief cook as any amount of severity and harsh language. None of the household staff were overly fond of H'daen tr'Khellian -- but his temper had earned him wide respect.
Arrhae checked the usage-clearance documents several times before going closer than arm's length to the vehicle. Oh, she knew how to drive one -- who didn't? -- but given the present mood of the innercity constables, she would sooner find an error or an oversight in the authorizations herself than let it be found by one of the traffic-control troopers. She listened to gossip, of course -- again, who didn't? -- but she gave small credence to the stories she had overheard from other high-house servants of strange goings-on in Command. Though there was always the possibility that Lhaesl tr'Khev had just been trying to impress her.
Arrhae smiled at that particular memory as she went through the vehicle-status sections of the documentation. Lhaesl was a good-looking young man, very good-looking indeed if one's tastes ran to floppy, clumsily endearing baby animals. He tried so very hard to be grown-up, and always failed -- by not having lived long enough. On the last occasion that they met, he had managed to talk like a more or less sensible person in the intervals of fetching her a cup of ale and that plate of sticky little sweetmeats that had taken her so long to scrub from her fingers. She hadn't even liked the ale much, its harshness always left her throat feeling abraded, but to refuse the youngster's attentions with the brutality needed to make him notice would have been on the same level as kicking a puppy. So Arrhae had sat, sipping and coughing slightly, nibbling and adhering to things, and being a good listener as working for H'daen had taught her how. It was all nonsense, of course, a garble of starships and secrets, with important names scattered grandly through the narrative that would have meant much more to Arrhae had she known who these doubtless-worthy people were.
But gossip apart, there was an unspecified something wrong in i'Ramnau. Arrhae had visited the city twice in recent months, not then to buy and carry, but merely to supervise purchases that would later be delivered. Because of that she had traveled by yhfi-ss'ue, the less-than-loved public transport tubes. They always smelled -- not bad, exactly, but odd; musty, as if they were overdue for a thorough washing inside and out. There had been times, especially when Eisn burned hot and close in the summer sky, when Arrhae would have dearly loved the supervising of the sanitary staff. That, however, was by the way. What had remained with her about those last journeys to the inner city was the difference between them. The first had been like all the others, boring, occasionally bumpy, and completely unremarkable. But the second...
That had been when the three tubecars had stopped, and settled, and been invaded by both city constables and military personnel, all with drawn sidearms. Arrhae had been very frightened. Her previous encounters with the Rihannsu military had been decorous meetings with officers of moderately high rank in House Khellian, where they were guests and she was responsible for their comfort. Then, looking down the bore of an issue blaster, the realization had been hammered home that not all soldiers were officers, and indeed that not all officers were gentlemen. What such uniformed brutes would do if they found her in a private flitter without complete and correct documentation didn't bear considering...
She carded the papers at last and slipped them securely into her travel-tunic's pocket, then glanced at tr'Aimne, the cook. "Well, what are you waiting for?" she said in a fair imitation of H'daen tr'Khenian at his most irritable. "Get in!"
Without waiting for him, she popped the canopy and slipped sideways into the flitter's prime-chair, mentally reviewing the warmup protocols as she made herself comfortable. Once learned, never forgotten; while tr'Aimne was securing himself in the next seat -- and being, she thought, as ostentatious as he dared about fastening his restraint harness -- her fingers were already entering the clearance codes that would release the flitter's controls. Instrumentation lit up; all of it touch-pad operated systems rather than the modern voice-activators. H'daen's flitter might have been beautifully appointed inside, and fitted with a great many luxuries, but it was still, unmistakably, several years out-of-date. No matter, for today, old or not, it was hers.
Arrhae shifted the driver into first and felt a tiny lurch as A/G linears came on line to lift the flitter from its cradle. Ahead and above, the doors at the top of the ramp slid open, accompanying their movement with a dignified chime of warning gongs rather than the raucous hooting of sirens. H'daen was a man of taste, or considered himself as such, anyway. Out of the corner of her eye, Arrhae caught sight of tr'Aimne tightening his straps, and his lips moving silently. Tr'Aimne was not fond of driving, and little good at being driven. "You could get in the back if you really wanted to," Arrhae said. "That way you wouldn't have to watch..."
Tr'Aimne said nothing, and didn't even look at her, but his knuckles went very pale where they pipped the hamess-straps while his face flushed dark bronze-green. Arrhae shrugged, willing to let him brazen it out, and took the flitter out of the garage.
She didn't even do it as fast as she might have, but nonetheless tr'Aimne changed complexion again, for the worse. "Sorry," she said. It was of course too late to change the speed parameters -- the master system had them, and in accordance with local speed laws, wouldn't let them be changed without groundbased countermand. "It won't be long," she said, but tr'Aimne made no reply. He was too busy holding on to the restraint straps and the grab-handles inside the flitter. Arrhae for her own part shrugged and kept her hands on the controls, just in case manual override might be needed. The system was fairly reliable, but sometimes it overloaded: and this was, after all, a holiday...
With this in mind she had let the i'Ramnau traffic-control net have them from the very start of the trip rather than free-driving it: people did forget to file driveplans, and there had been some ugly accidents in the recent past on the city's high-level accessways. One of them had in fact resulted in her appointment as hru'hfe s'Khellian, and she would as soon not provide someone else with advancement by the same means.
The flitter brought them to FRamnau far faster than yhfiss'ue would have, and too fast for Arrhae's liking; she was enjoying herself as she had rarely since she began working for House Khellian. Both lifter and driver of the Varrhan-series flitters were more powerful than warranted by their size, and they were less vehicles to drive than to fly. Arrhae flew it, with great enthusiasm and considerable skill. When they grounded in the flitpark, and the far door popped, followed by tr'Aimne leaning out and making most unfortunate noises, she busied herself with her own straps and lists, and carefully didn't "notice."
Finally he was straightening his clothes and had most of his color back. "Are you all right?" she said.
"I...yes, hru'hfe. I think so." He coughed again, and then spat -- close enough to her feet for insult's sake, and yet not close enough to let her make an issue of it.
Well, there it was, he certainly had taken it personally; and she didn't need a quarrel with the chief cook, not today of all days. Arrhae glanced at the spittle briefly, just long enough to make it clear she had noticed that its placing was no accident, and then looked at him wryly. "If I had wanted to make you unwell," she said, "I wouldn't have done so poor a job of it -- you wouldn't be able to stand. Come, chief cook, pardon my eagerness. I so love to drive."
He nodded rather curtly, and together they gathered up the netbags for the few things they would be needing and headed for the market. Arrhae pushed the pace. They were already later than she would have preferred to be.
It was annoying that she had to be in such a Powers-driven hurry on Eitreih'hveinn, one of the nine major religious festivals of the Rihannsu year. No matter that the Farmers' Festival was one of her favorites: she had no tune to enjoy it today. There was only one good thing about it, and Arrhae took full advantage -- the produce for sale was going to be superb.
Tr'Aimne, to her mild annoyance, refused to enjoy the shopping trip. One would have thought the sight of so much gorgeous food would have filled any decent cook full of joy, but he generally dragged along behind Arrhae rather like a wet cloak trailed on the ground. Maybe he's still not well, she thought, and slowed down a little for his sake. But it made no difference, tr'Aimne was incivility itself at the merchants' and farmers' booths, and his manners began to improve only as they got closer to the expensive, exclusive stores near the city center. By that time they had acquired most of the staples they needed, in one form or another, and had begun to shop for the luxuries that made H'daen tr'Khellian's formal dinners the well-attended functions they were.
Rare delicacies, fine vintages, fragrant blossoms for the tables and the dining chamber. Some were easy to find -- Arrhae enjoyed the simple pleasure of being able to point at anything that took her fancy regardless of its price, and striking the Khellian house-sigil nonchalantly onto whatever bills were pushed toward her -- but others proved much more difficult. And one or two were quite impossible.
"What do you mean, out of stock? You always had hlai'vnau before, so why not now?"
The shopkeeper went through all the appropriate expressions and movements of regret -- none of which, of course, put any cuts of meat in the empty cool-trays or did anything to calm Arrhae down. She had all but promised that the traditional holiday foods would be served at H'daen's table, and now here was this bucolic idiot telling her that he had sold every last scrap of wild hlai in the city. She was sure enough of that sweeping statement, because it could be bought nowhere else, at least nowhere else on this particular day. Only merchants approved by priestly mandate and subjected each year to the most stringent examinations were permitted to sell wild game on the day set aside to honor domestic produce and the people who provided it, and this man held the single such approval in i'Ramnau.
"Very well." Arrhae unclenched her fists, annoyed that she had let so much irritation be so obvious; tr'Aimne would doubtless delight in reporting it to his cronies. "Plain hlai'hwy, then." She leaned closer, smiling a carefully neutral smile that wasn't meant to reassure, and didn't. "But do make sure they're properly cleaned. If any of Lord tr'Khellian's pests break their teeth on a stray scale, your reputation would certainly suffer."
If only H'daen's mansion was closer to a large city instead of this mudhole. If only it weren't so fashionable to have a home in open country. If only...Arrhae dismissed the thoughts as not worth wasting brainspace on; H'daen lived where he lived, and that was all. But why here? the stubborn voice in her head persisted. Nothing ever happens here...
The sound began as a rumble so low it was beyond the edge of hearing; Arrhae felt it more as a vibration in her bones and teeth. It persisted there for long enough to be dismissed to the unconscious, like computer hum or the white-noise song from an active viewscreen -- and then it raced up through the scale to peak at an earsplitting atonal screech that chased its source across the sky as a military suborbital shuttle dropped vertically through the scattered clouds.
Nothing...? Well, almost nothing, Arrhae thought. The shuttle snapped out of its descent pattern and made a leisurely curve out of sight; probably on approach to the Fleet landing field that lay halfway between i'Ramnau and H'daen's mansion. The echoes of its passage slapped between the city's buildings for many minutes afterward, but long before they died away completely Arrhae had finished the last of her purchases and made enough amiably threatening noises to insure that they would be delivered in good time, and was making her way back to the holding-bay where her flitter waited. Another night, she thought, another dinner, probably another of H'daen's deals, struck but never completed. And with whom?
Oh, well. A full belly at least...
Turning away from the dining chamber for perhaps the tenth time since she had told him everything was in readiness, H'daen tr'Khellian made his tenth gesture of approval toward his hru'hfe. Arrhae acknowledged -- again -- and tried to keep the good-humored appreciation on her face when it seemed determined to slip off and reveal the boredom beneath. H'daen's guests were late, very late indeed, and without even the courtesy of advising their host of the reason why. The lateness was unusual, the lateness combined with the rudeness nearly unheard of. H'daen knew it; the original enthusiasm when he saw how well his instructions had been followed had long since eroded to an automatic wave of the hand, and these past few times Arrhae was prepared to hear herself ordered to clear the place and dump all the food. She privately gave him five more minutes before the command was given...
And then the door chime sounded loudly through the silent house. Arrhae could not have said who moved first or faster, H'daen or herself, but after the first three steps he remembered his dignity and let her attend to the guests, if guests they were, while he returned to his study for what was probably a well-deserved swift drink.
The callers were indeed the long-awaited dinner companions: a man and a woman, both Fleet officers in fall uniform of scarlet and black. Looking past them out into the darkness, Arrhae could see their transport sitting in one of the mansion's parking bays, and for some reason felt sure that it wasn't empty. The officers' aides, or their driver, or a guard, or -- Arrhae stamped down on her curiosity before it went any further; the transport wasn't her business.
"Llhei u'Rekkhai," she said in her best voice and most mannered phase of language. "Aefvadh; rheh-Hwael l'oenn-uoira." She stepped to one side so that they could walk inside and straight to the laving-bowl and fair cloths set out for refreshment after their "arduous journey"; no more arduous than a stroll from the military flitter, and no more for refreshment than the token dabbing of face and fingertips, but a traditional courtesy to guests nonetheless.
"Sthea'hwill au-khia oal'lhlih mnei i H'daen hru'fihrh Khellian...?" said the woman.
Announce whom? thought Arrhae. I don't know any names yet! "Nahi 'lai, llhei?"
One of the officers hesitated, a soft towel still in his hands, fingers clenching momentarily at the interrogative lift of Arrhae's voice, then glanced swiftly at his companion.
"U'rreki tae-hna," she said absently, not especially interested. "Hfivann h'rau."
"Hra'vae?" he said slowly. There was wariness and suspicion in that voice, and Arrhae wondered why. Then the officer turned full around, staring at her with cold, secretive eyes as if trying to read more than what he saw in her face. "Hsei vah-udt?" The demand came out like a whipstroke.
"Arrhae i-Mnaeha t'Khellian, daise hru'hfe, Rekk -- "
"Rhe've...?" The man didn't sound convinced. "Khru va -- "
"Ah, Subcommander, it's enough..." Though his companion spoke in a less formal mode, there was no mistaking the tacit warning in her voice. "This one is only doing her job, as are we all. And well she does it." She dipped her fingers into the bowl of scented water once more, then dried them off and waved their newly-acquired perfume appreciatively under her nose. "Very well indeed. Tell H'daen that Commander t'Radaik and Subcommander tr'Annhwi are here."
"Madam, sir, at once. There is drink here in the anteroom, and small foods for you." Arrhae opened a door off the hallway. "And servants to attend you." There had better be, she thought. Neither of H'daen's houseguests were the languid desk-captains she was used to; there was a quick and haughty anger about the man tr'Annhwi, but the lazy, controlled power of Commander t'Radaik was more disturbing still. The woman's every word, every gesture, bespoke a confidence in her strength or her rank that suggested both were far beyond what first sight might suggest. Arrhae bowed them through the doorway, saw that at least three of the other house servants were waiting with trays and cups and flagons, and slipped the door shut on her own silent sigh of relief.
She had cause, once or twice in the next hour, to enter or pass through the dining chamber, a place of dimmed lights and muted voices, where H'daen and his guests discussed what seemed matters of importance. Like any good servant, Arrhae could be selectively deaf when necessary, and moreover had little enough time to eavesdrop even had she more inclination to do so. The unexpected work created by her shopping trip meant that everything else was running hours behind -- an inspection of the guestrooms, completion of her half-finished audit of the domestic purchase ledgers, and even getting herself something to eat...
A successful raid on the kitchen produced a glare from tr'Aimne -- also meat, bread, and a jug of ale, watered down until it was almost palatable. After making a swift reverence, Arrhae fell to with a will. She hadn't realized just how hungry she had become until the savor of the baked hlai reached her nostrils. She made short work of everything on her platter.
Not that it took long, because even the dinner which the three upstairs had eaten was no many-coursed banquet, for all its elegant presentation, and Arrhae's stolen meal was only a degree or so above leftover scraps. Yet set against the standards of everyday fare it was a feast indeed, if not in quantity, then at least by virtue of its quality and flavor. The Rihannsu were not -- with a few exceptions -- a wealthy people, reckoning riches more by honors won and past House glories than in cash and precious things. She ate off one such precious/not-precious article tonight: a dish that was part of the set made by H'daen's ancestor nine generations back from the remnants of her Warbird, after the vessel had safely returned to ch'Rihan after a nacelle accident that should have killed everyone aboard. It had been decommissioned and scrapped after that, but its memory as something that continued useful when all reason and logic said otherwise was contained, with a sardonic humor that Arrhae liked, in the dining-service made of its breached hull.
She was debating whether or not to venture down to the kitchen again for any more of whatever was left, when the summoning-bell went off, loudly enough to make her jump. Its normally decorous sound had been turned up to an earpiercing clangor like that of a warship's tocsin, and that, Arrhae knew, was something H'daen would not normally tolerate. Even as she scrambled to her feet, wiping her mouth and straightening her tunic, she was wondering who, and how, and why...?
She found out.
Commander t'Radaik met her at the head of the stairs. No longer benevolent and defensive, the woman looked every inch what Arrhae had come to suspect she was: someone whose actual rank or status was far, far higher than that claimed or indicated by insignia. One of the guests at a dinner-party two years past had given her the same feeling -- and it had been vindicated when the man, ostensibly a Senior Centurion, had announced his true rank of khre'Riov and his position in Imperial Intelligence, and had arrested Vaebn tr'Lhoell, another of the guests, on charges of espionage and treason. Arrhae and all the other house servants had been interrogated to learn if they had seen anything suspicious during the party, and since tr'Lhoell had negotiated her present post in House Khellian, she had been terrified lest some ulterior motive should come to light and indicate that she was somehow implicated in whatever crime he had intended.
Tr'Radaik had that same look of a mask having been removed, and Arrhae thought abruptly and horribly of H'daen's enigmatic offer to take her into his confidence. Once again the small worm of fear twisted into life within her belly, and she fought with all her strength to keep any expression that might be construed as guilt from becoming visible on her face.
There was more introspection than anything else on the Commander's face; she had the air of a person deep in thought, and at first didn't see Arrhae five steps below. Then she focused on Arrhae as coldly as a surveillance camera, and her eyes burned right through Arrhae's to the brain behind, seeming to read whatever secrets were hidden there -- and disapprove of them all. "Hru'hfe," she said, all business now, "which guestchamber in this house has a lock that can be overridden from outside?"
Arrhae paused, wondering why such a place was required, needing to think about her answer and feeling foolish because of it. Commander t'Radaik watched her impatiently. "Come along, hurry up! H'daen tr'Khellian seems to think that you're reasonably intelligent..."
"The Commander's pardon," Arrhae said, embarrassed, "but this house is such that none of the guestrooms ever needed to be locked from outside. The storerooms, however, all -- "
"I...Of course. As the Commander wishes."
The store was very definitely a store; there was no way in which it could possibly be redefined as anything approaching guest quarters, and even terming it living quarters was questionable. But t'Radaik liked it. She inspected the barred and shuttered windows, the thickness of the door and how well it fitted to its jamb, and the all important lock, pronouncing herself wellpleased with everything. "Have this place cleared, aired, warmed, and furnished," she said, sliding the heavy door shut and seeming most satisfied with the ponderous sound of its closure.
Arrhae tried not to stare, but decided at last that to swallow all her curiosity would be worse than to let a little out. "If the Commander permits -- what purpose is there in all of this? It looks like a" -- realization struck her and she wished suddenly that she hadn't begun to speak -- "like a prison cell..."
"Hru'hfe Arrhae t'Khellian." Commander t'Radaik spoke softly. She didn't look at Arrhae, but she had the chill air of one fixing a face and a name securely in the memory. "Ask no questions, girl, and hear no lies." And the Commander looked at her a little sidelong. "H'daen makes much of your intelligence; he also says you can be trusted. Don't make a liar of him. Matters afoot in this house are no concern of servants, even trustworthy ones; if you love life, keep your questions to yourself."
She unclipped a communicator from her belt and said several words into it; they made no coherent sentence and were plainly a coded command, but the mere use of the device brought home to Arrhae the jolting realization that concealed by the uniform's half-cloak, t'Radaik was wearing a full equipment-harness. Including a holstered sidearm whose red primer-diodes glowed up at her like the hot eyes of some small, vicious animal.
Arrhae walked very quietly behind the Commander after that; well behind, avoiding notice as best she could but quite sure that she had drawn too much notice already. She replied to t'Radaik's occasional questions with unobtrusive monosyllables, ventured no opinions of her own, and heartily wished that she had kept her mouth shut earlier on. T'Radaik said nothing more regarding excessive curiosity, and seemed content to let Arrhae sweat over the possible consequences of her own error, or was once more engrossed in her own private thoughts and had dismissed the matter from her mind. Arrhae sent out a small, fervent prayer to all the Powers and Elements that such was the case, but she didn't dare believe it. Not yet, anyway.
Subcommander tr'Annhwi was waiting for t'Radaik, and the house door was open at his back. It was very dark outside; they were far enough from i'Ramnau for the city glow to be only a pallid thread on the horizon, and sometimes, if she had leisure after her work for the day was done, Arrhae liked to go outside on a clear night and look up toward the myriad stars and think very private thoughts to herself. But not tonight. Ariennye alone knew what was out there, or what would happen to any who tried to see without the authority of the two officers who now stalked past her with blasters drawn. The weapons' charge-tones sang an evil two-chord melody in Arrhae's ears, making her skin crawl and pushing any inclination toward curiosity very far down inside her mind. Feeling superfluous and, standing in, a well-fit hallway looking out into the ominous dark, very exposed, she began to back away.
"Hta-fvaul" snapped tr'Annhwi. He didn't turn around, much less level his blaster at her, but Arrhae knew without being told that it would be his immediate next move. She ventured a weak smile, and came back as bidden.
H'daen appeared from the dining chamber with traces of wine on his lips and chin. Arrhae glanced at him, and could see his hands trembling slightly; she wondered what he had been told to bring on such a fit of the shakes, and then decided that she really didn't want to know. There was already movement outside, the sound of approaching military boots, and Arrhae remembered her first suspicion that the military flitter was carrying more than just H'daen's two dinner guests. It seemed that she was to be proven right -- but the reason for the other personnel and their secrecy was not something that she wanted to dwell upon. There was too much similarity between tr'Lhoell's arrest and now. Arrhae's fears had never truly died away, and now they returned full force to haunt her.
The metalwork of weapons and helmets glittered as six troopers filed into the front hall of H'daen tr'Khellian's house, but it was not the incongruous presence of soldiers that made Arrhae catch her breath. It was the figure in the midst of them, staring from side to side at his surroundings; a man whose craggy features and angry eyes could not conceal the apprehension that he held so well in check. A man who wore civilian clothing, out of place in so martial a company, and more out of place than any form of dress might make him...
Because he was not Rihannsu-hominid, but Terran human.
If Arrhae stared, her staring was no more apparent than that of the rest of the household, most of whom had never seen an Earther before. Heard of them, yes; lost kin to them in one Fleet skirmish or another, quite probably. But never yet seen any face-to-face until now, when one stood in their own front hall and looked with faint disdain at the Fleet troopers who surrounded him. He looked at them all in turn: at H'daen, wiping the blue winestains from his face, at the house servants who had abandoned their duties cleaning up the dining chamber and who now stood gaping like so many fools, and at Arrhae.
She flinched from his direct gaze, so startlingly blue after the dark eyes of Rihannsu, and something about the way she flinched made him stare still harder. In the background of her confusion Arrhae could hear Commander t'Radaik's voice: "...a most important guest of the Imperium. Treat him well until the time for treating harshly comes around..."
While in plain sight of all present, the man's hands moved together in a gesture that might have been and certainly appeared to be simple nervousness. Except that it wasn't. It was one of the Command Conditioning gestures by which one Federation Starfleet officer might know another when more straightforward means of identification were impossible. Such as when one or both were acting under cover in a hostile environment.
Such as now.
Arrhae remained quite still for a long moment, not daring to move even an eyelid for fear it should compound her self-betrayal. It had been so long since she had looked on faces that were other than alien. So long that she had almost forgotten who she really was, or what her purpose had originally been. Almost -- but not quite. Her hands began to move almost of their own accord in the standard gesture of reply; and then she stopped short while a wave of trembling passed through her entire body. What if this were some trap and the presence of Commander t'Radaik no more than a means to insure that she betray herself? Arrhae dropped her hands and was still, or as still as her shuddering would let her be. She looked to H'daen.
"The Commander has bidden me prepare one of the locked stores as a secure guest accommodation," she heard her own voice saying as calmly as if the house were invaded daily by military people with prisoners in tow. "With your permission, I shall attend to it at once."
H'daen waved her away, not really listening to what she said. He was hanging on every word spoken by t'Radaik, seeing the chance of importance at long last for his house -- and more immediately, for himself. "Who is this?" Arrhae heard him ask. She continued her steady walk away, not turning around no matter what was said, or who said it.
"I can tell you who I am, sir," the man said angrily...and Arrhae broke out all over in cold sweat at the sound of him. She was not wearing a translator, and he spoke Federation Standard, and she understood him. Not that this should have been strange, of course. Arrhae's composure began to shatter, and she kept walking, steadily, to be well out of sight before it should do so completely.
"I'm Dr. Leonard E. McCoy," he said, and, 0 Elements, it was a native Terran accent, from somewhere in the South of EnnAy, probably Florida or Georgia. Arrhae made herself keep walking without reaction, without the slightest reaction to the language she had not heard from another being for eight years, and had stopped hearing even in her dreams. "I'm a Commander in the United Federation of Planets' Starfleet -- and what your people have done is a damned act of war!"
Copyright © 1987 by Paramount Pictures
Posted December 21, 2013
Posted September 1, 2002
Diane Duane, and her husband, Peter Morwood are both wonderful authors. As this book has been retrofitted into the Rihannsu series, it is important to note that in this really good book, Diane doesn't get an A because she and the editors weren't paying attention to the movies. The Romulan Way was released more than two years after Star Trek III. In the film, Leonard McCoy said his middle initial was "H." The authors gave him the middle name of Edward, and continue that into the new Rihannsu books. Some people would call me picky, but details are what can make a book instantly apocryphal instead of having it happen because of later television developments. The Rihannsu series is quite enjoyable, and I am waiting for new entries in Book 5 and beyond.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 20, 2009
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Posted January 12, 2011
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Posted September 25, 2011
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