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Before embracing exile, Karatek had been a physicist at the Vulcan Space Institute in a ShiKahr he would never see again. Now that Vulcan was receding fast, both in fact and in memory, the Fifth of Tasmeen had become a day of meditation and reflection. Thus, it was Karatek's duty to ask: Was it the fleet that needed the Fifth of Tasmeen, or Karatek himself?
He glanced out into the long night. Here were few stars. No planets; therefore no new home. Beside the viewscreen were hangings woven in traditional designs. His consort had hung them in his meditation chamber to soften the severity of the bulkheads. They fluttered constantly as air circulated through the ship like blood through a heart.
The air was cold. It smelled of chemicals, not the wild sweetness of the desert as the sun erupted up from the horizon, turning the cold into blazing heat and dazzling light, shimmering off the crimson sand.
Karatek focused on the gleaming crystals and bloodmetal circuits of his coronet.
Of all the tasks he performed as one of Shavokh's leaders, Karatek thought the duty of remembrance was probably the most valuable. Certainly it was the one for which he was best suited. The thought, as it always did, brought some reassurance. He had reluctantly inherited the task of command, and it still came hard to him. Most of the people he would have preferred to follow were long dead.
He adjusted the coronet. His hair was brittle from the air, even more arid than that of Vulcan. It had begun to gray earlier than it would have done on the homeworld, assuming he had managed to survive the battles that had been the Mother World's daily lot.
From years of making this record, he knew that the great green gems that were the coronet's memory, created in an art banned by the adepts both of Gol and Mount Seleya, pulsed in time with the beat of the blood in his temples. Wrapped around the glowing crystals were fine-drawn unbreakable metal wires. Clad with bloodmetal, the wires formed intricate lattices that simultaneously ornamented the memory device and linked into his cerebral cortex through filaments almost too delicate to be felt.
The tiny wounds those wires inflicted every time he set the coronet on his head stung for a moment longer as they healed. They would reopen when he removed the crown. But the pain did not matter. As Surak said, there was no pain.
Certainly, there was not pain enough to interrupt the thoughts, memories, sensations, and even the emotions -- for even after years of study of Surak's disciplines, Karatek's emotional control remained imperfect -- that the memory device would capture and record for all the years of exile and afterward, when they finally found a new homeworld. If that day ever came in the long night of their exile.
It was Karatek's habit to combine meditation and memory. But the task that Surak had personally entrusted to him turned bitter every Fifth of Tasmeen when he recalled events from the past year and sealed them in the coronet's memory.
"I could make the calculation, if I chose, of today's date on the Mother World. At our current speed, while 3.9 years have passed on board this ship and its consorts, 25.86 years have passed on Vulcan. Obviously, today is not the Fifth of Tasmeen back on Vulcan. Although some who follow Surak deem hope to be illogical, I cannot agree: Surak might have been ruthless, but he was never cruel. Therefore, I believe it is not illogical to hope that the homeworld has survived and that finally -- after all the bloodshed -- it may live long and prosper, as Lady Mitrani wished us. She may still be alive. I hope she is well.
"On all the ships that have survived thus far, other memories occupy us today. It is with grief that I must record the loss of seven ships."
Karatek took a deep breath. He organized his thoughts, then marshaled all his courage before he made himself pour the memories of that loss into the coronet's glowing green gems. He recalled faces that, from now on, he would see only in memory, and knew the crown would preserve them for all times. Tears blurred his vision before the veils flicked across his eyes, preventing precious moisture from evaporating in the dry air of this chamber where art from home fluttered in a ceaseless artificial breeze.
Those ships that died had acted in error. They had paid for their error with their lives. And Karatek had failed to dissuade them. Their blood was on his hands.
In the last council among all the ships that traveled like a caravan across the Forge through this greater desert of stars, Karatek had heard a propulsion model advocated by an unlikely, possibly unholy, alliance of technocrat party functionaries with two of the adepts from Gol. Much to the council's not-well-concealed astonishment, they had even been joined by some of the te-Vikram who had found themselves trapped on board the great ships when they left at the start of what had to be, it just had to be, the last civil war on Vulcan.
The new propulsion model, admittedly, had at first been intriguing. It fused technology with the arts of the mind in a way that Gol adepts had once condemned as blasphemy. Those same scruples, Karatek recalled, had caused the priestess at the shrine atop Mount Seleya to hand over to Surak the crown of memory that Karatek now held.
But, ultimately, the new system was bad politics and worse science, Karatek had decided. He had refused to consider it for Shavokh. And he had argued against its implementation on any of the ships with all the authority of his training as a physicist and his experience as a propulsion engineer.
What had become of the logic of the adepts who advocated its use? For them to abandon their former scruples -- Karatek shuddered. Seven ships went against the council's vote and installed the new propulsion system.
How triumphantly they must have raced ahead, Karatek imagined. You see, the augmented drive works! When we return to the fleet, we shall tell Karatek how wrong he was! And then, we shall bring the ships home.
Those ships had raced off like boys who dashed ahead of their friends on a dare, looking back to laugh or jeer, only to find that their mad dash forward had taken them to the le-matya's den or to the edge of a precipice with no time to stop, no rock or root to grab to save themselves.
They had left themselves no margin for error and therefore no escape.
Karatek shook his head: how illogical it was of him to seek to deny his memory and the evidence of his own ship's sensors. But, in strict honesty, let the coronet record his denial too. Something hot trickled down his temple: he had jarred loose one of the filaments that bound him to the coronet.
In the most ancient rites, blood had been used as a sacrifice to appease the katras of travelers lost in the desert, spirits blowing on the wind until they dissolved.
You, alone of all on board this ship, traveled with Surak. Though your journey now is greater, that is still no reason to lose control, he chided himself. The coronet would capture his self-recrimination as well as his mourning.
His memories would be preserved, but what of the thoughts and emotions, even the katras of the people on board those lost ships? For the initial acceleration trial, the Gol adepts had been linked to brother and sister adepts on other ships. Some of those adepts had burned themselves out. Some had died as hearts and blood vessels burst from the strain.
Others survived, if one wished to call it life. Of the survivors, some howled, while others sat or lay soiled, mindless, and silent, a burden on family and healers who would tend them gently until their lives' ends, for there was no desert into which they could walk, had they been able to move. And it was thought blasphemy to assist them out into the Long Night.
As for the seven lost ships -- Karatek hoped that gravitic strains would have made their engines explode. There had always been that possibility. The minute structural weaknesses he had distrusted would, at least, have given the people within a quick, merciful, and sane death before the black hole that had opened before them sucked them into a night devoid even of stars.
Perhaps if Karatek had argued more forcefully, if he had explained more clearly to Commissioner T'Partha how risky that drive was, the ships now lost to the exiles' fleet would still be traveling alongside Shavokh across this trackless forge of stars.
The catastrophe had caused some of the scientists who followed Surak to theorize that a chance -- perhaps 1.3 percent, perhaps even less -- existed that at least one of the ships might have survived a transit through the madness of space, light, and gravity into which they had plunged. Perhaps, if an exit were possible, such a ship might emerge in some other place, near some other star that might possess even one Minshara-class world and, in this second exile, finally find itself a home. The mathematics of that theory were dubious: cold comfort, if logic could be considered comfort. What was, was.
Karatek's eyes scalded. This much of his own disgrace he could spare future generations, he told himself.
He pulled the coronet off. A brief warmth, almost as hot as the tears he fought to suppress, spread at his temples as the filaments withdrew. His biocontrol healed the tiny wounds almost instantly. The pain of memory lingered.
The coronet glowed in his hands, the flicker in the crystals almost as subtle as the whisper of micrometeorites and dust as they brushed against the ship's hull. Useful finds of tritanium and duranium had enabled the surviving engineers to strengthen the ships' hulls in case they had to last well beyond initial estimates of one hundred years.
For all the emphasis on safety, the obsessive care the exiles took to strengthen their ships in case the journey lasted past even the most pessimistic estimates, they had made no advance that wasn't accompanied by accidents. A barrage of delta rays, two years ago, had taken out half of one ship's population and exposed the remainder to radiation that would, no doubt, shorten their lives, make their deaths more painful, and reap a deadly harvest among any children they dared to have.
Among the survivors had been a cadre of the fiercely independent te-Vikram, whose priest-kings had plunged Vulcan into at least three wars and constant border skirmishes in the past hundred years. A raid on the shuttles that carried the exiles to their ships had resulted in te-Vikram coming on board. They had never wanted to be there.
The surviving te-Vikram had seized the opportunity of catastrophic crew loss to stage a mutiny, wrest control of the ship from its surviving crew, and turn back. Karatek had watched that ship explode as its engineers, loyal to the fleet, staged a desperate, final rebellion. He himself had trained at least two of them. In physics, not in logic.
Karatek remembered the explosion as well as the pain of recalling it. The gems that were his coronet's eternal memory flickered, the rainbows buried in their depth shimmering, and he realized that his tears had fallen on them.
Where is your control?
Karatek tightened his hand on the artifact. Even though crystals and metal pressed into his skin, the coronet felt agreeably warm in his hands. At the last council, a vote had been taken to decrease some elements of life support. Vulcan's air had been thin; it was no sacrifice to reduce oxygen content. And a slightly lower gravity actually made them feel stronger than they were and gave them greater ease in manipulating heavy engine components or hull plating.
But Karatek had never quite accustomed himself to the cold. They could drape the bulkheads with weavings created here on the looms built for the workshops psychologists had deemed necessary to help ease the bleakness of the ship's environment. They could fill compartments with art: a geode found on a mining expedition; a ceramic representation, made by his adopted son Solor, of the shavokh for which this ship was named. They could wear warmer tunics and cloaks over their shipsuits. But the ship was still cold.
An incentive, of course, to find a new homeworld and find it soon. Illogical to have mixed feelings about that idea. Illogical to admit to feelings at all.
"If I forget thee, O Vulcan..." Karatek murmured. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to form a mantra of control before resuming the coronet and the torment of memory.
Sunlight on the sands outside ShiKahr, where the flanged gate had stood for millennia, where he had watched for pilgrims and caravans ever since he was a boy. Where he had seen Surak and two of his disciples emerge from the desert, take his life into their hands, and weave it, like a thread of bloodmetal, into the tapestry of their hopes and dreams for their people.
A soft chime sounded. Karatek's lips softened in what would have been, in the days before he met Surak, a smile as his consort T'Vysse slipped into his study. On this Fifth of Tasmeen, she wore the dulled blood green of mourning. The color did not suit her. But she was always beautiful to him.
Karatek rose as T'Vysse entered the room. She pressed one hand to the small of her back. She was pregnant now with what would be the fourth child of her body.
With the door open, he could hear shouting in the corridor outside their quarters.
"Your pardon, my husband," she said, with the impeccable manners that had been hers since childhood: the formal training of a well-born Vulcan. Their eldest daughter, dead these many years, had had similar manners, as did Sarissa, their adopted child, who combined them with the control she too had learned from Surak.
By now, their grandson -- stranded back on Vulcan with his parents in the last dreadful moments of violence before the final shuttles lifted off the Mother World -- might well have children of his own.
Children I shall never see. Descendants of my House.
There was some satisfaction in knowing that his House, if nothing else, would continue. Assuming that Vulcan itself survived.
As if sensing his thoughts through their bond, T'Vysse stepped close to him. Karatek held out joined fingers to touch her free hand, then used their handclasp to ease her into his chair.
This child-to-be, however, this child of their exile, would have everything that Karatek could provide despite the healers' concerns about the health of a child born in the long, radiation-filled transit between star and star. Healers, like physicists, adepts, and warriors, had been wrong before. They could be wrong again.
With T'Vysse present, her fingers brushing his, the tiny chamber held all the warmth of home.
"Thee has word?" he asked her, gazing into her eyes.
"The shuttle awaits. Its pilot begs pardon if thy meditations were interrupted, but he asks that thee come swiftly. To avoid further controversy."
Karatek raised a brow at his wife's choice of words. T'Vysse was a mistress of understatement.
The decision taken at the last council to limit travel between ships and postpone transfers of people or families from one ship to another had been unpopular. But "limit" and "postpone" were words that the exiles, like the Vulcans left so far behind them, had grown to distrust. As a result, any time a shuttle took off from any one of the ships, Karatek heard protests and charges of favoritism.
If Shavokh was cold, the shuttles would be colder. Karatek had helped modify their design, diverting most of their energy to propulsion lest they fall behind the fleet and, lacking the power to catch up, be marooned alone in the night -- another reason that councils were infrequent now.
But there was another reason still, one that was barely whispered. After te-Vikram rebels had commandeered one ship, the council had calculated a 47.1 percent chance that too-easy transfers could allow factions to concentrate themselves in individual ships and gain power again. Would a te-Vikram ship willingly keep company with one crewed by Surak's disciples or Seleyan adepts?
"I will come now," Karatek said.
He would finish the recording later, he promised himself. Assuming he survived this meeting. And if he did not, T'Vysse had informed him that she would take up the burden of memory. The crown had been given to him. Well enough, then: the task was his. But if he laid it down, she was a historian and logically the one to take it over -- even if Karatek hated to see her further burdened. Logically, however, if T'Vysse inherited the burden of memory, he would not be alive to see anything at all.
Draping a heavy ceremonial cloak woven in shades of muted crimsons over the dulled green of his mourning clothes, Karatek entered the larger cabin where his family spent much of their time. Solor and Sarissa waited for him there. So did Commissioner T'Partha, wrapped in an even heavier cloak of her favorite bronze, along with two members of ship's security.
Karatek remembered them well: Streon, a slim, intense man who played the flute when he was off duty, and tall, foursquare T'Via. They had been handpicked as recruits and specially trained for the exile by Karatek's old friend Commander Ivek. If no one had assassinated Ivek, he was probably many times a great-great-grandfather by now. If he were dead, well, Karatek only hoped that someone had managed to convey his katra to the Halls of Ancient Thought. Ivek had had the integrity of a man who had studied no philosophy but his duty.
"An honor guard?" Karatek asked, raising his eyebrows at
T'Partha. "Commissioner, I hardly think..."
She had never been a woman for superfluous formality. Karatek knew that if he played the role of leader aboard Shavokh, he did so only with her cooperation.
"There is a crowd forming," T'Partha confirmed his fears. "You can hear it in the corridor. And it would be unwise to allow any provocation."
"From security or from the crowd?" asked Solor.
T'Vysse and Sarissa fixed him with identical glares.
"My brother's manners may be atrocious," Sarissa announced, "but his question is appropriate. That is why we will accompany you to the shuttle. All of us."
T'Vysse raised her eyebrows at Karatek as if picking up one of the antique swords that some people brought on board, either smuggled or as part of their weight allowance. Karatek knew better than to argue with her. More: she was right. Even the most battle-hardened te-Vikram would not offer violence to women who were visibly pregnant, like T'Vysse, or old enough to take a mate, like Sarissa, who remained unbonded after her betrothed since childhood had been slain in the desert defending her.
T'Partha drew herself up, always her habit before she arrived at what she considered the sense of the meeting. No one sensed how opinions flowed into a consensus better than she or channeled the information to the scientific, technical, and security staff more diplomatically. She had greater skill with the arts of the mind than anyone else he knew who was not an indweller on Seleya or at Gol. He would rely on her at the coming council.
But right now, he would have to rely on her, as well as security, to get to the shuttle that would take him there.
Before leaving, his guards put on their helms. The heavy cheekpieces made them look curiously faceless, symbolizing the fact that the law was no respecter of persons.
That some on Vulcan disagreed with this maxim had been one cause of the exile. The rule of law: many had already died back on the homeworld to defend it. Now, each year, more in exile died to preserve it.
Streon and T'Via formed up ahead and behind Karatek and T'Partha. T'Vysse and their children joined what Karatek began to think of as a procession. Lovar, their middle son -- the eldest now remaining to him -- was standing watch. He had inherited Karatek's gift for science and his mother's dislike of the politics in which Karatek regretted involving her.
("Am I an indweller, to be thus secluded?" she had demanded of him. "We all dwell within these ships; seclusion is not only illogical, it is impossible.")
Streon reviewed the small party. As always, Karatek felt a moment's surprise that a security guard had chosen to take an S-name in honor of Surak, now long dead. But he supposed that keeping order was, in itself, a logical activity.
"Ready," Streon announced through the com link built into his helm and opened the door.
Noise erupted in the thin air as they walked down the corridor. The bleakness of its metal walls had been concealed, partly, by a mosaic of the land around Seleya, worked in cubes of glass that gleamed in the steady overhead lights.
"Let us pass, let us pass," Streon's and T'Via's voices were insistent monotones as they guided Karatek, T'Partha at his side, past people who pressed against the mosaics. Someone had chipped away some of the tesserae that had gone to form the image of the Gate of ShiKahr. Karatek saw Streon pause and quite obviously make a mental note for future investigation: casual disregard for public property was a hazard to the ship, even in so small a thing. Survival lay in detail.
He knew better than to turn to see how T'Vysse fared. For one thing, she had already rebuked him with "I am only pregnant, not helpless" three times just in the last day. For another, he knew well that their children had taken her arms and were guiding her. Besides, he knew T'Via had medical training.
As they edged through the gesturing, shouting crowd -- no Surak followers there, to be sure -- T'Partha kept up a far-from-casual flow of conversation. Duty rosters. The agenda of the conference they were to attend. It was meant to reassure, and it more or less succeeded.
The guards whisked them into the welcome silence of the nearest ship's lift.
"No doubt the crowd will be worse at the shuttlebay," Karatek observed.
Behind him, T'Vysse sighed.
Do you regret the decision to leave home, my wife? Karatek forbore to ask. He remembered their small, walled villa in ShiKahr. Every creak in the walkway leading to it, every splash of the fountain in the pebbled courtyard, every line of the Forge beyond its walls came to mind, long gone, yet instantly familiar and loved beyond all logic. We have here all we need: the hope of Vulcan's safety and of a better life at journey's end. And our integrity, he told himself.
You protest overmuch.
Streon and T'Via tilted their heads, listening to the communications links inset in their helms. Their shoulders stiffened.
"I agree. We face quite the sendoff," T'Partha remarked.
Streon awarded her a nod, tribute to the logic of her conclusion, if not her irony -- although Surak too had been a master of the ironic reply. Karatek had taken more than one blow from it.
"Brace yourself," Solor told his sister. With a composure that had more to do with familiarity than with any control he had learned from Surak, he disregarded her hiss of rebuke.
Even though Solor had legally been an adult for decades, his elder sister still sometimes tried to correct him. The results would have frustrated her profoundly if her control -- and her courtesy -- had not become so strong.
"How is it out there?" Karatek asked Streon.
"Crowded," he replied.
In a Vulcan ship! In a ship intended only to wage peace and find a new home! Karatek felt his eyes heat.
He had already disgraced himself once today; he would not do so again. And when he returned from the council, he promised himself he would spend more time in meditation and less time recording events of what had already become a most painful Fifth of Tasmeen indeed.
The lift door hissed open. The cries of the crowd pushed at him like heavy gravity. Government on board Shavokh was more personal and therefore noisier than on Vulcan.
Karatek and T'Partha had expected to be met by people protesting various policies, people pleading for a chance to rejoin families, for lab space, for permission to demonstrate a new technique to the council. They had even expected protests such as had confronted them in the corridor outside Karatek's quarters.
What they did not expect was what they saw blocking their access to the shuttle, which had withdrawn its long boarding ramp: a party of male te-Vikram, all but snarling at the security that, thus far, held them in check. They wore the gemmed regalia that Karetek knew they brought out only for the most solemn occasions. At their hips, they wore the triangular ceremonial blades of te-Vikram warrior-priests. They each held a long bundle, wrapped in green, glittering fabric that they unwrapped to produce a lirpa, one end bladed, the other a blunt, deadly war-hammer. When they presented arms, three additional te-Vikram stepped forward. Two carried systras. As they jangled the metal frames, the hundreds of bells strung on the instruments produced a painfully shrill chime that carried the message: Pay attention. Here is danger.
And there stood danger itself, unarmed, but potentially explosive.
The systra bearers flanked a man whose too-taut posture and blazing eyes were explained by the sash wound round his waist.
"How did they get in here?" T'Partha asked T'Via.
The guard murmured into the com built into her helm.
"Subterfuge," she replied. "They claimed to have reserved a cargo hold for a religious rite. Under the circumstances" -- she gestured at the sashed man, clearly in the grips of the Blood Fires -- "that would only have been logical. A bonding ceremony would gain them access as well as the right to bring religious articles into the area. Once inside, they rushed the shuttlebay."
"If there was to be a bonding," Solor asked, "where is this man's mate?"
It was a logical enough question. He edged his way out of the lift, moving toward his father.
"Observe the cloak on the deck," said Solor. "The color of pure water, running over silvery stone. A poor enough attempt at seclusion of the bondmate before the ceremony. Deceit is not quite honorable in the strictest tradition, but it allowed them to smuggle in one more warrior."
"Get back!" Streon's voice, raised to a most illogical pitch, echoed in the shuttlebay. After all, Pon farr was only an aspect of Vulcan biology, not a plague. As disciples of Surak, whose disciplines prescribed regular meditation, Solor and Streon were actually less likely to suffer from the deadliest aspects of the Fires.
That relative immunity to the Fires had also created some resentment on both sides: Surak's disciples considered the te-Vikram weak-willed, a judgment that the te-Vikram, understandably enough, resented, considering they deemed the people of the cities soft. And the question of mates had never been resolved to anyone's satisfaction.
T'Via's presence might be provocation, although she was a bonded woman. But the sight of Sarissa, unbonded and not even pledged, represented oil, ready to be poured upon a fire.
T'Partha directed a warning glance at Karatek. Seeing that no priestess or matriarch of the te-Vikram kin was present to conduct the rites -- and no intended bride present -- Karatek stepped forward.
"May one ask," he raised his voice, "what the problem is? Aside, of course, from the obvious," he added, with a glance toward the man in the grips of the Fires.
A cloaked te-Vikram pushed his way forward but was brought up short against Streon, who halted him. The cloaked man's hood fell back as he attempted to push past three more guards, who came up fast. Restrained, he stood there and simply glared. He was a man in late middle life, and though it had been many years since he, like the others of his clan, had walked the desert, his hair was still sun-reddened, his skin weathered.
"N'Keth!" Solor said. "Do you countenance this intrusion on my father's duties?"
The situation had just improved minutely, Karatek decided. N'Keth and Solor had a long history, since the time during Solor's rite of passage into legal adulthood when N'Keth had tried to kidnap the boy and take him back to his clan. Solor's counterattack, his escape, and their subsequent reunion on board the shuttle taking them all to the Shavokh, had made for a grudging, ironic respect over the years of the journey. And it hadn't hurt that Solor had interceded just when Rovalat, Solor's teacher for the kahs-wan ordeal, had been trying to pound N'Keth's head into a paste against a bulkhead.
"N'Veyan requires that shuttle," the te-Vikram elder told Solor. "His intended mate awaits him."
Karatek glanced quickly back at T'Partha. "The rule restricting travel was created to protect resources, not to cause madness and loss of life," he murmured. They could afford one shuttle trip if it would save N'Veyan's life and perhaps that of his intended mate. Many women could withstand the Fires without a mate, but there were always some who died.
T'Partha inclined her head. Her eyes were remote. "The law is the law. It is no respecter of persons."
"It is only a rule!" Sarissa said. "Surely, in this case, the needs of the one..."
Drawing a deep breath, T'Partha cast aside her cloak. She had aged during the journey, Karatek saw. There was a chance she might be considered a matriarch, venerable enough to mediate the ceremony of bonding, even one that still lacked a bride.
N'Veyan looked toward T'Partha like a pilgrim, lost in the desert, sighting water. He lurched forward as if he were going to attack, or fall. At the last moment, he steadied himself sufficiently to kneel at her feet.
T'Partha reached out with joined fingers to touch his temple. Her hand scarcely shook at all. Karatek revised upward his opinion of her yet again.
"My eyes are flame," N'Veyan whispered. "My blood is flame."
T'Partha's eyes filled with a cool pity. Perhaps this day of memory would not be marked by the loss of yet another life.
"The law was not intended to cause loss of life." T'Partha nodded as she spoke to Karatek, then turned back to N'Keth.
"Who is this man's intended mate?" she asked him.
Wrong question, Karatek realized as Solor stepped forward.
N'Keth's face went remote, and N'Veyan gathered himself as if to spring at T'Partha.
"You've just violated their customs," he hissed at T'Partha. "Te-Vikram seclude their mates before the ceremony and never mention women's names before strangers. Ask who her family is, instead." Louder, he cried, "Wait! If you tell me who her family is, I will bring her back to you."
"Unattended?" asked N'Keth. "Or would you send attendant males to guard her?"
He turned his back on T'Partha.
"I am the father of a family," Karatek said. "What use have I for another man's mate?"
N'Veyan looked wildly around. Night and day, Karatek thought. The madness of blood fever makes him think I've challenged, and he is looking for a way of invoking Kal-if-fee.
He touched T'Partha's shoulder.
"Kal-if-farr," she intoned.
"Where is the bride?" demanded N'Keth. The systra shook wildly. "The law is that if a bonding is forestalled, another bride must be provided."
N'Keth looked over at Sarissa. "You are my former captor's sister. You are unbonded, though not of the order of unbonded. Need N'Veyan call challenge on your father and brother to win you? Or shall I add your bloodline to my family peacefully?"
T'Vysse stepped in front of her daughter.
Solor leapt between his old adversary and his elder sister. "When I was a child, I defeated you," he began.
"Which is why I rejoice at the opportunity to form a family relationship with you through N'Veyan," N'Keth replied. He glanced appreciatively at Sarissa. "She is fit to be the mother of heroes."
Sarissa looked down, in brief, obligatory modesty -- and to hide the fact that her eyes were flame -- the fire of pure rage, a loss of control for which she would not readily forgive herself. Then, she turned on her heel and walked back into the lift, escorted by T'Vysse.
"Come on," said Solor. "What are you going to do? Fight me again? Or will you have N'Veyan do it? He is younger than I, true, but he is weakened by the blood fever. Even in the Plak-tow, he is no match for me, or for Security here."
Karatek stepped forward, waving aside the attempts of Streon and three other members of his team to push him and T'Partha toward the lift. They were all one people: scientists, adepts, te-Vikram, even politicians. And if they were all one people, if they were all going to survive, he needed to attempt to resolve this problem.
"What do you think you are doing to our sacred customs? We have offered you a solution that will preserve life, and you spurn it. I submit that it is not logical to die and forget all you are."
"Some things are more important than life," N'Keth said.
"So they are, but this is about furthering life, carrying it to a next generation. So this, logically, is not one of those 'some things.'"
He strode forward. "Let me go and bring N'Veyan's betrothed back. Let us leave challenges behind as one more remnant of the Mother World that we left on her sands. Please."
"Let him challenge, Karatek," came a voice that still carried remnants of its former strength. It was old Rovalat, who had lost so many of his kahs-wan class the year the te-Vikram raided. "T'Kehr Karatek suggests we work together, and I concur. You do not? Well enough. Space yourself. Walk out those gates into the desert of stars as you would return to the Womb of Fire at your life's end. We can use the additional food and water. And we will make sure your names are forgotten."
N'Keth stepped forward, his eyes flashing.
"Look at him," Solor said again. "I have refused N'Veyan's challenge. My sister, who is not of the order of unbonded, has left this place. So, N'Veyan's only hope lies in finding his true mate. Give these elders her family's name, and they will bring her back. Refuse, and lose another member of your kin. Reject as you may the teachings of Surak, even you must logically conclude that you have lost enough kinsmen already."
N'Keth looked over at N'Veyan, who was trembling visibly. One of his attendants set down his systra with a final discordant chime of bells to kneel beside him and help him stay on his feet.
"Come," urged Karatek. "Let us help you!"
N'Keth's shoulders slumped, but only for an instant. "Seeing that she stands as matriarch here, I will tell her." He pointed with a stubborn chin at T'Partha.
"See you bring her back swiftly. Truly, I do not think he can last long," N'Keth added.
"My word on it," said Karatek.
Pulling his dagger, N'Keth drew its tip across his arm, letting three drops of blood fall onto the deck. Reversing the blade, he passed it to Karatek while Streon restrained himself from leaping forward to confiscate it.
Karatek drew his own blood, a sacrifice of life and water to match N'Keth's.
At Karatek's gesture, T'Partha came forward. N'Keth knelt. As T'Partha bent over him, he raised his head to whisper the name and clan of N'Veyan's promised mate. Karatek could not hear them.
"They will meet at the appointed place," T'Partha proclaimed.
She turned and swept forward toward the shuttle. Its crew, clearly, had been observing because, as she advanced, its boarding ramp slid forward. As Karatek followed, the systras sounded, impossibly shrill, until he and T'Partha were safely in the shuttle, its ramp retracted, and its doors sealed against the noise.
"Is the bay empty now?" asked the pilot.
"All personnel have withdrawn to safety."
"Prepare for takeoff." The pilot bent over the controls. The great hatch opened to space. A few stray canisters that had not been lashed down were sucked out into the dark.
"I require access to communications," said T'Partha as the great hatch opened.
True to her word, she would not betray the lady's name to males not related to her.
Karatek settled back in his chair as the shuttle left the Shavokh and set course for the nearest of the ships. He glanced out the viewport. The ships had drawn together in a formation like a spearhead. The gods grant they would hit their target.
It was the Fifth of Tasmeen. Karatek had much to remember -- and much more to survive before he would be allowed to rest.
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