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Theft, Honor, and Family by Larry Stovall

Chapter One

The gardens were lush and well cared for, flora from a hundred different worlds mixed together and flourishing in the bright sunlight. Their scents made La'ra's nose tingle, and he resisted the urge to scratch as he and Ran'jar followed the aged servant along the well-kept trail. He wondered if he ever would have a place as beautiful as this on his meager tract of land on the homeworld. The servant stopped abruptly. He flashed La'ra and Ran'jar a crooked smile and gestured silently into the clearing ahead. La'ra nodded to him, quietly thanking the man for his time. Silence seemed the rule in these gardens; even the variety of animals that ran loose in the enclave were hushed except for the occasional bird singing. The servant left without the sound of footsteps.

A man sat in the clearing, a heavy, wrinkled, Klingon with rivers of steel grey hair falling behind a warrior's crown creased and knotted with age. Children were with him, two boys and a girl, sitting around the old fellow's garden table and listening raptly as the ancient man related some story or another.

La'ra said nothing. It was not the way one pictured a hero like Governor Br'el. But here he was, the man who defeated the Mirak at Tom'par'a, a man who was almost a myth sitting here telling stories to children. Something about it seemed right. The man who was once a general had the look of happiness about him. Few enough heroes could claim such a state. The old man's clear, blue eyes caught him for a moment then went back to the children. Several minutes passed before the Governor finished talking. Finally, he hugged each of the children in turn. All three smiled as they walked past La'ra, and he gave them his friendliest grin in return.

The Governor beckoned. The two officers came to full attention as they halted at his table. They wore honor sashes--dark green for La'ra, brown leather for Ran'jar--but without adornment, for this was not a man impressed by awards and baubles. Neither had weapons save their ever-present dk'taghs.

"Commander La'ra and Lieutenant First Ran'jar, Governor, reporting as requested." He tried to keep his tone even despite the fact he was addressing a living legend. "Apologies for not getting here with greater haste." Governor Br'el smiled amiably.

"None of that, Commander. I called you light years off your patrol route, and I thank you for coming all this way to indulge an old man with no real authority over you." The Governor gestured to the chairs around the table. "Please, sit."

"Thank you, Governor." La'ra still tried to sound formal. Br'el's reputation and whatever mysterious reason he requested the Hiv'laposh's presence had aroused his curiosity. It proved difficult to keep it out of his voice. He and Ran'jar sat. Chairs were uncomfortable when one felt one should be saluting.

The old Governor leaned forward and poured himself a drink from the bottle on the table. There was a look of pain about him when he moved. La'ra supposed the severity of his wounds at Tom'par'a had not been exaggerated if they still affected him this much. "Care for a drink, Commander? Lieutenant?" Both men nodded. He poured each a glass of bloodwine and passed it across the table. His face grew paler as he moved, but his eyes were still clear. His voice betrayed nothing as he leaned back and sipped his drink.

"I've heard about that unfortunate incident at Gor'all II, Commander. Was it as bad as some said it was?" The Governor smiled.

La’ra nodded.

"Yes, sir. We found only four survivors. They were spared from the initial attack. They were below ground when the bombardment began."

"Just like the Romulans." Br'el took a much deeper drink of his liquor. "I suppose Brigadier Jark is following Tor's footsteps and filing a 'formal protest'?"

"He is, sir, but he's taking a few other measures as well. The Kom'va escorted a new outpost ship out there, set up another station. I believe he assigned a few other ships to the area." The Kom'va was the Gas'Kovan sector command ship. She had rarely uncoupled from dry-dock during General Tor's service.

"Sending a message to our 'allies', then?" The Governor nodded in approval. "Good for him. I was afraid his friendship with the general might mean he was the same kind of man. Fortunate that I was mistaken."

"My father served with Brigadier Jark." Ran'jar broke his silence, his voice measured. "He is a good man, even if he listens to fools at times."

"Better anyone than Tor. That patach gives fat old men a bad name." The Governor's eyes danced, and he took another swig of his wine. His blue eyes were piercing as he lowered his cup, and they locked with La'ra's. "I don't believe he retired willingly. More likely someone forced him out somehow."

La'ra sat rock still, fighting the urge to fidget. He didn't know how the Governor knew, but his icy gaze made it plain that he did. No sense denying it.

"Probably so, Governor. At any rate, it's better that he's gone."

Governor Br'el smiled deeply, and something about him looked satisfied. "Indeed it is, Commander. Indeed it is." He leaned back in his chair, eyes aglow and a wry smile creasing his wrinkled face. "But I didn't ask you out here to talk about how you persuaded General Tor."

La'ra's jaw almost dropped, but he turned the expression into an incredulous grin. Ran'jar covered his mouth, and La'ra knew from experience he was stifling a belly laugh.

"I'll save that story for another time, then, Governor."

Br'el chortled. "Oh, I intend to take you up on that, Commander. He must've turned some very unique colors. But, as I said, that's not why I called upon you. I have something to ask of you and your crew. Nothing sordid, and I'd not ask you to compromise your honor." He was serious now. "What I wish to ask could put you and your ship into danger. We both know I cannot order you to do anything. And if you think I would use what I know to force you into something, I assure you I'd do nothing of the sort."

La'ra almost snorted. Thirty seconds with the man had been enough to realize that. "I know that, sir."

Br'el smiled. "Then you are a good judge of character." He paused, again becoming serious. "I wish to ask a favor, Commander." La'ra nodded. He knew simply from Br'el's title that the Governor was not an apolitical man. Victor of Tom'par'a or not, he would not involve himself in any useless games of houses. The General was highly honored by people La'ra respected, however, and at the very least he would listen to his request. The old man spoke.

"Commander, are you familiar with a human named Donovan?"

La'ra nodded. "Eric Donovan, human, but born on the Federation frontier. Starfleet officer until he was dishonorably discharged for taking payments to ignore certain smugglers. I believe he runs a smuggling operation himself now."

"He acts as a middleman, takes goods captured from our freighters for men who do the actual pirating and sells them in Federation territory for more latinum than a Klingon would spend." Ran'jar added. "Any ship known to be in his service is considered a 'target of opportunity', sir."

"Quite correct. Unfortunately, he is aware the need to protect his smuggling vessels from others like himself. He has several well-armed 'enforcement' vessels," Br'el paused, eyes angry. "It was one of those that destroyed the I'Lar about a year back. My son was in command."

La'ra's eyes narrowed. "I remember the incident, Governor. Sector Command blamed it on the Pryn Cartel. Of course, at the time Sector Command was General Tor..."

"Then I'd say that the Pryn family likely had nothing to do with it." The old man snorted. "I'm not without resources, Commander. I've found Donovan, and I know he killed my son. If I hadn't known before, I would have after my home was raided two weeks ago."

Ran'jar let out a growl. La'ra listened.

"Donovan is an arrogant man, and he's insane. He takes trophies from his victims, preferably things dear to them. The destruction of the I'Lar didn't leave much in the way of souvenirs. So, he sent a thief here to get something for him."

"He sent someone to rob your home?" Ran'jar growled even as he spoke. "I take it you want us to kill this man?" Normally, a Klingon would do such himself. Ran'jar didn't speak of the Governor's well-known injuries.

"No, Lieutenant, I don't. Or at least it's not what I'm asking of you. He is the worst kind of scum, and if the opportunity to kill him arises, I would take it, but I merely wish my property returned."

La'ra chewed the sentiment a moment. An unusual attitude for a warrior.

"What kind of property are we reclaiming, Governor?" It must have been something important, or at least treasured for it to be considered more valuable than killing the man. Having one's home entered and stolen from were grave insults...

"Various items, Commander, the most notable being my son's bat'leth. Not the one he used in battle...the family blade. I passed it to him when he was given command of the I'Lar. It's been in our family for ten generations." The Governor paused and seemed to chew his lip. "There were other, smaller items taken that I wish reclaimed. They are kept in the same place as the sword. Donovan has a room dedicated to his trophies, my source tells me."

That explained Br'el's determination. Many Klingon families kept a family blade. Most were not used in battle beyond their first wielder's lifetime, but often they were quite treasured. Having one stolen wasn't a dishonor--honor did not lay in the possession of any object--but it was embarrassing. And insulting. The insult would have been to Br'el's son, however, if he were the rightful owner. No wonder the old man wished it back.

Still, it was a sword. La'ra didn't like the idea of risking his ship and crew for a mere piece of metal.

"Governor, I appreciate your loss, but...."

"...but you wouldn't want to place your crew in harm's way for a simple blade." Br'el grinned, showing fang. "I see I was right about you, Commander. You think with your head, not with your balls."

"Most of the time." Ran'jar shot the comment out with precision, his icy mask never cracking. La'ra merely shrugged, smiled.

"Most of the time." He agreed, and Br'el chortled, choking down more bloodwine.

"Pay's to know when to think with which, doesn't it, Commander?" The Governor's face was merry, for the moment. "My wife never agreed with that, though figuratively speaking she had a far bigger pair than I! But I have something that might tempt your head as well, Commander." The old man's smile turned hyenaish, much like the one La'ra usually wore.

"Donovan's businesses are very convenient to the Orions. Without him, their profits might be halved or even quartered. As such, he is well acquainted with several cartel leaders, and being the opportunist he is, he gathers as much information about them as possible...."

La'ra’s interest was piqued, and Ran'jar leaned forward in his chair.

"My source collected most of this information. It's too risky to retrieve in any manner other than physical. I will not endanger my agent."

"If we had inside information on Orion operations..." Ran'jar was almost drooling.

" Would aid greatly in bringing Jark's sector back under firm Imperial control, wouldn't it?" The Governor was enjoying this.

"Yes, it would." La'ra restrained an enthusiastic growl. "Especially if no one knew anyone had it."

"Which no one would." The Governor went on. "I know my source, and no one would suspect this person to be collecting this kind of information. It's also likely that Donovan would be too incensed over the theft of his precious trophies to wonder if he'd lost anything else."

La'ra matched Br'el's hyenaish grin. "So in other words, we get something that would allow us to do our job more effectively, your son's insult would be avenged, and your grandson could claim the family sword when he comes of age?" Br'el bellowed with laughter.

"Correct, Commander. This fat, old man would also owe you a favor." Those ice blue eyes went cold again. "But there is one other thing you should be aware of before you accept this task."

The old man paused, looking at his guests seriously.

"Donovan's fortress is on Melana III. That's in Federation space."

"We are going to do it, are we not?"

La'ra couldn't hide his smile. Instead he looked down at his dresser and busied himself with neatly folding his honor sash and placing it in its case. The excitement in Leral's voice couldn't be hidden. The Commander shot a look at Ran'jar and L'dar, both crowded into his quarters, and both restraining an expression of amusement.

He looked up after a few long moments. Leral's eyes were wide with anticipation, her nostrils slightly flared. She was quite attractive when she was this eager.

"Well, Lieutenant, performing this favor for the Governor would be exceeding our orders. We're supposed to be on patrol."

Leral suddenly stood ramrod straight and inhaled deeply; both did pleasant things to her figure. La'ra let himself enjoy it this time. "He's the hero of Tom'par'a!" She was absolutely indignant now. "Are we just going to sit by and let his family be dishonored in this way?"

"It is not our duty to avenge the slight against his honor, Lieutenant." L'dar's voice was its usual bass growl. "It is his." His mouth twitched slightly. La'ra hadn't seen his brother so amused in years.

"He is too old and sick to enter battle and you know it, Lieutenant." She crossed her arms over her chest. Disappointing. "His son was head of his household; the sword had been passed."

Ran'jar gave a quick nod, his face icy once more. "She is right. It is now his grandson's duty." Leral actually bared her fangs at that, throwing her arms into the air in an effusive and pleasing manner. La'ra chided himself for so obviously ogling a subordinate. But then, this was not the Federation. Hiding one's appreciation for the opposite sex was not the Klingon way, and besides, she had yet to notice.

"His grandson is seven years old!" She forced her arms to her side and begun to pace, hands clenching into fists.

"A Klingon boy is a man the day he can hold a blade." Ran'jar quoted the old proverb without expression, but his eyes danced.

Leral growled.

"You know that's not meant literally...."

"Lieutenant..." La'ra spoke lightly. "I appreciate your concern for Governor Br'el and his family. But whatever sympathy we feel, it is not our place to avenge this insult. We have duties to perform."

"Yes, but..."

"No argument, Lieutenant." La'ra was close to laughter, but he kept his tone commanding. Leral did not know him well enough yet to know it was too commanding. "Our responsibilities involve our patrol area, not doing the correct thing for Governor Br'el's family, regardless of how flawlessly he may have served the Empire."

She stared at La'ra for a long moment. There was actually pain in her eyes. He'd let the joke go too far.

"Yes, sir." She said, crossing her arms.

"Fortunately..." he bit his own lip to keep from chortling, "...Governor Br'el is aware of this and gave us an excuse to do this for him while attending our duties at the same time."

She went ramrod straight again, inhaled. "You already made the decision...."

He grinned at her, trying not to chuckle.

"This is not amusing." She let out another growl, but her eyes were bright now.

"I disagree!" L'dar's statement turned into a rumbling laugh. Leral stepped forward and plunged her fist into his belly despite his far greater size. He laughed even harder. La'ra feared for his quarter's viewport with his brother laughing so.

"I apologize, Lieutenant." He smiled earnestly. "It's what you get for arriving late. You may help us tease Grimbek when he arranges a relief." Leral snorted and hit L'dar again, setting off another wave of raucous laughter.

"This is going to be dangerous." Leave it to Ran'jar to point out the nature of their task.

"So's our patrol route." Leral bared her fangs in a grin.

"True enough." The First replied.

"It is going to be dangerous." La'ra sighed and leaned against his dresser. "I’ve already looked over the data Br'el gave us. His 'source', as he calls it, gave him plenty of information on their security codes and procedures, but we must still be cautious. Starfleet has been quite alert along the border every since the High Council endorsed this 'privateering.' The Klingon High Command had ordered raids into Federation territory by ships not on purely defensive missions. It only served to antagonize the Terran's and their allies, but it was that order which allowed the Hiv'laposh to divert from her patrol. "A traditional raid is out of the question."

"With the information Br'el gave us, would a more covert retrieval be possible?" Leral was quite astute, at times.

"That is what I was thinking." He paused, scratching the gentle knobs of his warrior's crown. "Either way, we need to be moving. I don't want to be out of our patrol area longer than necessary."

L'dar stood, suddenly. "With your permission, I'll take the bridge, Commander. Stealth and thieving are more your specialty. I'll have little to add to the planning." La'ra merely nodded. That was a continual sore point between him and his brother, La'ra fondness for stealth and surprise. Klingons were hunters long before they were warriors. La'ra saw little difference between the two. L'dar's viewpoint differed.

The door churned open. Ensign Grimbek squeezed past the departing engineer. He saluted.

"Forgive my tardiness, Commander. I was required to mediate a personality conflict, and this delayed my finding relief." La'ra nodded to him and turned away when he saw Ran'jar's mouth almost twitch into a grin. He pulled on his pistol belt so he would not have to look at Ran'jar's latest victim.

The ship's gunner blinked cluelessly. "Have I missed anything important, Commander?"

"We're going to liberate something that belongs to Governor Br'el. We've also been taunting Leral by acting as though we weren't going to go out of our way for the hero of Tom'par'a and the honor of his family."

Ran'jar grinned wickedly. Leral hissed.

La'ra checked the charges on his disruptor pistols and slid them into his holsters. Still confused, Grimbek looked from Leral to Ran'jar but caught the data tape La'ra tossed. The tape contained the layout of the place they meant to raid.

"Take a look at that, Ensign. I want your professional opinion."

The IKV Hiv'laposh slid from the blue and green world that was the province of Governor Br'el. When she accelerated into warp speed, her bow pointed toward Federation territory.

 

Chapter Two

The tiny blue and white sphere that was Melana III stood in the center of the viewscreen, an occasional line of static warping the image of the distant world. Klingon warships didn't have the same quality of telescopic imaging equipment that Federation vessels did, and long range visuals often were marred by interference of various kinds. Interference or no, La'ra ordered the planet displayed on his screen. It helped to visualize one's objective.

"Preliminary scans completed, Commander." Leral's voice was a whisper.

La'ra leaned over her console. "What've you found?" His voice was hushed as well. With his ship at silent running and her bridge lights dimmed, it was hard not to speak as if any noise might carry through space and alert the enemy to their presence.

"There are two Ness-class police ships patrolling the system." Leral's eyes were intent on her panel as she whispered her report. "They seem to be staying near the freighter lanes, sir."

La'ra let out an almost inaudible growl. Ness-class patrol ships were ancient Federation designs that'd seen their last days in Starfleet service when he had been a child. They'd been built in prodigious numbers, however, and many had been sold to neutral systems or frontier colonies that wished to maintain their own defense forces. The Hiv'laposh could probably stand up to an attack by as many as a dozen of the small ships if they were still carrying their designed weapon load, though that was very doubtful.

"Are they scanning?" Police ships almost always worked in pairs, one ship scanning heavily and broadcasting its presence, the other relying on passive sensors and trying to keep a low profile.

"One is, sir." Leral pressed a button or two on her panel. Softly. "Transponder reads as the HLV Rapier. The other is running without her transponder."

Standard procedure. La'ra didn't look at the screen, but he was willing to bet that the Rapier's silent partner was farther out in the system, waiting in perfect intercept position for any smuggler or other ne'er-do-well the louder ship scared into running.

"Freighter traffic?"

"One Prellarian ore-hauler on the opposite side of the system from us, sir, headed away." She looked up from her screen. "I'm also detecting something else, sir. Near the planet, but no substantial energy emissions." Her eyes changed for a split second, looking almost furtive.

"Defense Platform?" His eyes narrowed. Br'el's source had little to say about system defenses, but an automated defense outpost would be hard for anyone not to know about. Leral shook her head.

"I don't think so, Commander. If it was a shut down gun platform, I probably wouldn't be detecting it." She was monitoring the Melana system with passive sensors only.

"Educated guess, Lieutenant."

She nodded. "The emissions seem like low-powered radio, sir."

"What you'd use to talk to the planet if your ship was in orbit and powered down to conserve fuel."

"Those were my thoughts, sir."

La'ra grinned a little at her. Maybe she had served with him long enough to learn he didn't mind a little speculation. He gave her shoulder a squeeze.

"Well done, Lieutenant. Concentrate on that. If we have another friend out there, I need to know."

"Yes, sir." She nodded.

La'ra sighed, restraining a growl. It'd taken over a week to reach the Melana system. Sneaking across the Federation border had required low speed and frequent course changes to keep away from the keen ears of Starfleet listening posts. Now his ship hovered near the edge of their destination with most of her systems inactive. His normal lack of patience didn't apply to stealth operations; he enjoyed the challenge of remaining hidden from those who looked for him. Still, after one week, two days, and five hours of silence, even his fondness for remaining unseen couldn't stave off his impetuousness.

The crew handled the silence better than he did. The nature of their mission filtered through their number, and only a cold-hearted Klingon wouldn’t savor avenging a slight to a man like Governor Br'el. The data on the Orions that Br'el promised had been successfully kept quiet, however. La'ra's heart pounded at the thought of both his tasks, and he wished they were already inside the system, closer to what they came for and closer to the end of all the damned waiting. He paced.

"Anything?" He forced himself to a halt next to Ran'jar's communications station.

"The Captain of the Prellarian freighter just sent a tearful farewell message to his woman." Ran'jar's voice was as icy as ever and as low as a whisper. "Shall I play it back?"

"No, but if it's sufficiently graphic, post the text in the crew's mess."

"I'll see to it." The Lieutenant answered calmly. La'ra grinned and managed to find his way back to his command chair. Another attack of pacing was about to seize him when Leral found what she was looking for.

"Commander..." She was still whispering, but he was at her station in an instant. "Ship in high orbit of Melana III. I believe what I'm picking up is the crew's personal and housekeeping traffic."

He nodded, leaning in to look at her readouts as Leral continued.

"I cannot tell without active sensors, but I believe she's powered down and in standby mode." Leral punched a button, and a grainy image popped onto one of her screens. It was fuzzy and vague, another by-product of poor telescopic sensors, but it was definitely a starship.

"Orion light cruiser." La'ra growled the words. Probably Donovan's ship, sitting dutifully in orbit until the next time her master needed her. According to Br'el's information, he was the head of the Melana System Defense Force. That was more than likely their flagship as well as Donovan's chief enforcement vessel. The ship that had probably destroyed the I'Lar. "Where is she, exactly?"

"Orbiting directly above our objective, sir."

La'ra had figured as much. He'd even planned for it.

"She's your sensor priority, Lieutenant. Don't take your eyes off her." Leral gave assent even as La’ra strode back toward his chair.

"Helm, bring impulse engines up and accelerate to one third impulse at your convenience." He gave the orders as he sat down, eyes fixed once again on the blue and white globe on the viewscreen. "Follow the course we discussed, but compensate for the patrol ship's sensors."

The affirmative reply came as the low rumble of the Hiv'Laposh's sublight engines began to reverberate through the deck. With the ducking behind planets and sprint and drift maneuvers he and Grimbek planned a week ago, it'd take over a day to get to Melana III.

The old battlecruiser began to creep forward.

It took less time than La'ra calculated. The sensors of the patrol ships were hardly the most modern, and avoiding their scrutiny had not been difficult. It was only when the Hiv'laposh began to approach Melana III itself that the ancient cruiser slowed to minimum speed. While Tor's source indicated that the colony had no sensors or defenses in place, it was best to maintain caution with a warship hovering near the planet.

They approached the Federation colony from the side opposite the cruiser, and the battlecruiser crept toward the Orion-built ship's position. They'd have to expose themselves to detection briefly to engage transporters. They needed a direct line of sight. With the 'system defense force' vessel powered down and mostly inactive, they probably wouldn't pick up his ship. If they did, Ran'jar would have the bridge, and he was a wily shipmaster. La'ra felt uneasy about leaving his ship while in Federation space, but his conscience allowed no other choice. He'd accepted the Governor's request; he'd take part in the theft. He finished lacing up the soft-soled leather hunting boots he wore, his blood already flowing a little faster.

Leral, Grimbek, and Woram stood in the transporter room with him. Instead of traditional armor, they opted for hunting gear of grey and brown leather, and their weapons were geared toward silence; all had their dk'taghs, Grimbek held his bat'leth, and Leral had a heavy hunting crossbow harnessed to her back. Disruptors were present but all hoped they wouldn't be necessary.

Leral gave La'ra a quick nod. Her leather was tight on her, and he found himself appreciating the fact. If this burglary went foul he might never stare lecherously at a woman again. He'd forgive himself for doing it now. Woram and Grimbek also gave him affirmative looks, the young petty officer throwing the transporter 'flare' over his back. The Hiv'laposh would likely still be on silent running when they needed to be extracted. The electronic device Woram carried could put out a signal that would be detected all the way to the edge of the system, though it could do it only once.

La'ra nodded to them, and the four officers marched onto the transporter pads. However long Ran'jar took to get the ship in position, it seemed far longer that it should've. Grimbek adjusted his grip on his bat'leth, Leral unshouldered her crossbow and loaded it with a slim quarrel. The Commander knew it to be a silent, lethal weapon.

We should have more of those on board, he thought. The weapon was Leral's own.

A garbled noise came from the transporter console. The transporter officer nodded.

"We're in position, Commander."

"Activate beam."

La'ra's vision went red as the cool disassociation of the transporter took him.

Harsh wind blasted his face even before the transporter field faded about him. Rain came with it, pelting his knobby head and stinging his eyes. He was moving already, jogging toward cover with his officers behind him.

They found cover in moments, ducking into the nooks and crannies of the mountainside. La'ra's eyes swept the area. Not a soul was to be found. At least, no adventurous hiker witnessed their arrival. Lightning flashed, and he glimpsed his objective for the first time, a tall structure of stone high above, obviously constructed to look as though it were hewn from the mountain itself. An impressive complex, though an obsolete defense against any modern force. His companions each signaled 'all clear' with a quick hand motion as they, too, surveyed their surroundings.

La'ra signaled, and the four Klingons jogged forward. One pair covered the other as they leapfrogged up the mountainside. Despite his fears, there were no shouts from the mountaintop castle, and no deadly energy beams began to rain down on them. Still, they moved carefully, skill and dark clothing making them seem ghosts.

A sheer face of rock loomed before them. It was not particularly high, but the walls of the castle-like structure were built to the edge of it. No sentry on the wall could see them as long as they remained in the rock face's shadow. They took a minute to breathe. Klingons were known for their endurance, but one took breath when he could get it , especially considering what was coming next. Grimbek pulled a weighty coil of rope from his shoulders and slung his bat'leth across his broad back. La'ra put away his own weapon--the same gnarly club he'd carried since his midshipman days--and helped the young Ensign uncoil the line.

Grimbek cinched the rope about his waist and gave a quick nod. La'ra motioned him forward, and the Hiv'laposh's primary gunner began scaling the cliff face, his spiked gloves helping him find additional purchase in the craggy wall. Grimbek had already volunteered for this part. He done this all his life, supposedly, scaling the cliffs of the Homeworld's Ma'trell province in search of Tula goats. La'ra hadn't doubted the Ensign's word, but Grimbek's rapid ascent would've changed his mind if he had. Leral and Woram crouched close by, scanning the area for any interlopers. Both their eyes flicked up toward Grimbek occasionally. La'ra crouched down and waited.

The wall atop the cliff face was the least guarded of the fortress. It bordered a garden-type enclave that at one time housed Donovan's pets. He had no animals now, according to Br'el's source, and the garden was the least guarded part of the compound.

The rope slowly snaked its way up the cliff face, following the person it was attached too. It was still for a moment then jerked suddenly, three times in a row. La'ra clicked his fangs together, and Leral and Woram crept toward him. He gripped the rope in his gloved hands. It'd been a long time since his training, but he remembered rope climbing. His booted feet walked against the mountainside, arms pulling his seven foot frame up the line. It was not as tough a climb as the slick metal walls from the Academy. Numerous footholds were available, and he progressed quickly despite the rain and wind. Another flash of lightning lit the sky, the dark fortress suddenly visible and looming above him like a monolith. The walls of the place were smooth stone. He wondered how Grimbek scaled it freehand. The rope moved a bit in his grasp; Leral had begun her ascent. He reached the top of the cliff. The courtyard wall was more difficult to ascend. He managed.

The sounds reached his ears just as his feet hit the smooth bricks. Rapid, intermittent footsteps. Heavy, excited breathing from the other side of the wall. His eyes narrowed, and he restrained a sudden growl as he launched himself up the rope as fast as he dared. He knew the sounds of a fight. He pulled himself onto the top of the wall. Grimbek was in the courtyard, bat'leth in hand, crouched in a combat stance. His face was lit with surprise. Across from him stood a white-furred simian, a single horn protruding from its ape-like head.

The creature let out a ferocious snarl and leapt toward the wide-eyed Ensign.

 

Chapter Three

Grimbek dived to muddy ground, rolling into a crouch as the white-furred simian landed where the young Klingon stood a split second before. The creature turned, letting out another horrible snarl and lunged toward the Ensign, its clawed hands slashing at its quarry but deflected by the lightning-quick motions of the Klingon's crescent-shaped bat'leth. The Hiv'laposh's gunner fell back despite his successful defense, taking a step backward with every deflected paw.

A deep growl formed in La’ra’s belly, but he managed to restrain it as he scrambled over the top of the garden wall. He jumped down, landed and rolled across the wet grass. He came up into a crouch, disruptor in hand and aimed at the creature's wide back. The trigger was halfway pulled when his brain screamed for him to stop. The creature pressed toward Grimbek as he watched, its swiping claws striking faster and faster, each still blocked by the quick motions of the young gunner's blade. Then Grimbek lunged, his bat'leth whipping around, blocks turning to ripostes, the simian's white fur suddenly bloody in at least two places. The ape-like creature fell back, but the Ensign kept with him. The creature snarled and bellowed as the tips of Grimbek's weapon found it. It lunged toward the young officer desperately. The gunner hopped to one side, turning the motion into a rough pirouette as he brought one end of his bat'leth around and buried its scythe-like tip in the back of the creature's neck.

The animal's mouth fell open into what was probably a scream, but only a low gurgle escaped its torn throat. It dropped limply to its knees and remained there for long seconds before falling face first onto the muddy ground, bat'leth still lodged in its mutilated neck. Grimbek's hands still clutched his weapon, his eyes wide as he stared at his fallen attacker.

La'ra slid his disruptor back into its holster. The garden was silent. If anyone had heard the disturbance, they hadn't raised an alarm. He stood, creeping toward Grimbek. The young ensign still held his blade, his eyes fixed on the creature’s still form. La'ra squeezed his gunner's shoulder, and the young officer seemed to snap back to reality, his eyes darting to his Commander as if surprised to find him there. La'ra smiled at him, and Grimbek's face lit up with the most self-satisfied grin La'ra witnessed from the Ensign. La'ra grinned back. The gunner had enjoyed himself.

A scraping noise from the wall drew their attention. Leral was halfway over the wall, staring at the two incredulously. La'ra beckoned her on, and she clambered down, closely followed by Woram. The petty officer collected the rope as quickly as he could. Grimbek pulled his blade from the corpse of his attacker. He and Woram were to stay in the garden to see that it remained secure. It was the closest thing they had to an extraction zone. Wordlessly, the two men collected the fallen creature and disappeared into the foliage. La'ra gave Leral an inquisitive glance, and she nodded. They crept through the gardens. It didn't take long to find the door from Br'el's map.

Leral crouched next to the entrance as La'ra crouched watchfully nearby. The door was some kind of thick, black metal, obviously treated in a manner to make it look old. The fingerprint scanner on the door frame next to it was an obvious concession to modernity, looking quite out of place on the pitted grey stone of the fortress walls. His science officer produced a tricorder from her belt. It was set to its lowest power and had been brought along only out of sheer necessity. She scanned the thick stone of wall for long moments, then carefully laid the hand sensor down, pulling some kind of slim tool off her apparently laden belt. Within seconds a hidden access panel popped open, and with a short length of cable Leral connected her tricorder to something inside it. La'ra kept watch but spared an eye for the young woman. She was quite alluring when she was puzzling over something, even without being clad in her tight hunting leathers and wetted down with rain. Her eyes were bright, and though he hadn't known her long, he knew excitement when he saw it. She was enjoying this expedition as much as Grimbek. He wondered if his eyes were shining like theirs.

She gave him a quick nod. The security codes were working. The process took a few moments, and La'ra grew more impatient with every second they spent motionless and vulnerable. His eyes flitted about. He noted the two huge windows a couple of stories above their position. If the map was accurate, those were the rooms they sought. Donovan had decided his trophy room should overlook his garden, apparently. The door emitted a dull click.

Leral quickly put away her gear, hefted her crossbow. La'ra's right hand found his club as his left tested the doorknob. It moved freely, and no alarms began to sound. He eased it open with caution, peering into the room. No one was there. The two Klingons quietly entered the fortress, closing the door behind them.

The foyer was lit dimly by lamplight, but there was enough illumination for La'ra to get a sense of the decor. Brown was the predominant color, as the walls were varnished wood of some kind. Real varnished wood if his nose was correct. They hastily crept down an adjoining hallway, their soft-soled boots making little noise on the polished floor. The stairwell was right where Br'el's floor plan suggested, and the two Klingons walked upward cautiously. If they were going to get caught, the staircase would not the best place for it to happen. The trophy room was on the second level, and they made it without seeing a soul.

La'ra peeked into the second story hallway. Two pairs of wide double-doors stood there impassively. His goal was beyond them. He could see no guards, but he did hear footsteps. He motioned to Leral, and they darted back into the stairwell. He waited until the footfalls started to fade then peered into the corridor. A pair of guards wearing navy blue and carrying rifles walked away from him. They turned an anonymous corner near the trophy room. He motioned to Leral, and the two intruders crept through the hallway, carefully stepping past the intersection the guards had taken. The double doors into one of the trophy rooms was suddenly before them, and La'ra opened it carefully, then shut it again as he and Leral hopped into the room.

The room was large. That much he could see even in the dark, and when the lightning flashed through the giant bay window, he caught a glimpse of rows of display cases lining the walls and the massive dining table that occupied most of the room. Donovan probably liked to dine with his guests here, amongst his trophies. Terran paintings hung on various walls, along with some larger trophies. Most of the artwork seemed to originate from some particularly dark and bland period of Earth's artistic history. A human would call them classical. La'ra called them boring. He motioned to Leral. They began to search.

The cases were filled with various items. Most seemed of little value to La'ra, but then Donovan preferred personal possessions as trophies. Personal things often had no real worth to anyone but their owners. The shelves were stocked with books and photographs, both paper and holographic; weapons, including an Andorian chakra, hung from the wall. A thousand other varieties of things littered the room. Klingons sometimes took trophies from skilled opponents. The purpose was to remember and to honor. He doubted Donovan meant to honor anyone but himself with this collection. La'ra's stomach boiled. He searched his side of the room quickly. He found nothing. A quick click of his teeth gained Leral's attention, and he pointed toward the only other door in the room. It led to the other trophy room. She nodded and returned to her search as he eased open the door. The room was as large as the dining hall, but this time the lightning revealed couches, comfortable chairs and a small bar. A room for sitting and relaxing while regaling guests with tales. He stepped inside. His foot was barely on the floor when the scent caught his nose. Someone was in this room.

The lightning flashed, revealing her. She was human--tall for a female of that species--and stared at him with remarkably blue eyes. He expected her to scream, or pull a weapon, or run, but she simply stood in the center of the den-like room and smiled. His eyes narrowed.

Her mouth moved, forming a single, silent word. Br'el. He nodded as he crept toward her. She seemed to stifle a giggle at his caution. She smelled of some Earth plant. Jasmine, he thought. Before he could object, his hand was in hers, and she pressed a data disk into his palm. The information on the Orions, no doubt. It was difficult to appreciate anything about Orions while standing so close to her. Her long hair was raven-colored, drawing more attention to her ivory skin and those incredible eyes. Her shapely form was barely concealed by the short silk robe she wore. It was dark blue and clung to her in a way that made it obvious nothing was underneath. She beckoned him to follow, glided toward one corner of the room. La'ra's vision dropped unerringly to her thighs, and only her giggle got his attention. A bat'leth hung on the wall in the corner where she stood, and like a museum curator, she gestured to it and the display case it hung above. He nodded to her and pulled a soft leather bag from his pack. The bat'leth came off the wall easily, and he slipped it into the case. Then she kissed him.

He almost pulled away but instead found himself kissing back, his right hand suddenly filled with her hair as she sunk her teeth into his lip. She murmured something into his mouth and slid away. He stared at her incredulously, and she giggled before placing her finger to her lips in the universal signal for 'be quiet.' His blood had heated considerably. He breathed heavily as he popped open the display case. He shoveled all the items, including a heavy leather-bound book, into his bag. The woman went through the motions of assisting him, though the regularity with which her breasts brushed against his arm told him she was teasing more than aiding. He sealed the bag and nodded to her. She smiled, standing on her tiptoes and kissing his cheek. He gave her another incredulous stare, and she walked toward the main door quickly waving before quietly slinking out the door.

Governor Br'el had interesting employees. He almost laughed. Donovan probably thought she was a trophy as well. He slung the bag over his shoulder and crept back into the dining room.

Leral's face shot up as he stepped through the door, settling back into a relaxed posture as he gave her a tight smile. Her leather clad form was as pleasing now as it had been before, but he forced his eyes away. No sense making the blood rush through his veins faster than it already was. He hefted the sack, showed her the data disk he'd yet to put away. She nodded, looking curious, but said nothing as they crept back to the door. They heard footsteps on the other side. The guards again. They waited until the sounds faded before easing the dining room door open and slinking into the hallway. Soon they were back in the stairwell.

They were halfway down when a loud pop echoed from somewhere above. Two more followed, then three, and suddenly alarms were blaring, voices filtering into the stairwell and the distant sound of footsteps suddenly surrounded them. Leral gave him a look of surprise and they raced down the stairway. They still moved quietly, but speed had suddenly became a greater priority than silence. La'ra glanced quickly down the first floor corridor. No one was in it, and he and Leral bolted toward the garden entrance. When four guards appeared in front of them at a nearby intersection, they did not slow down. La'ra's club sent one crashing to the floor as Leral's crossbow bolt whizzed by his ear and planted itself in another man's sternum. He spun around, striking another guard in the knee, a sap from the club's handle knocking the man cold as he fell. Leral had already used her crossbow stock to disable the last man. They pressed on.

The rain stung his eyes again as they emerged into the garden. The expanse of the plant-filled courtyard was now lit in sickly hues of crimson. La'ra felt a twinge of concern for his two men. It was dispelled at the sight of Grimbek waving him toward cover. He and Leral sprinted toward the gunner, dropping to their bellies amongst bushes and rocks.

La'ra's eyes flicked up to those massive windows. An angry blaze burned behind each one, shadows flickering madly inside. Whether men were fighting the blaze or it was a simple trick of light, La'ra didn't know. It must have been Br'el's source. Those pops had sounded like thermite bombs...

He glanced at Woram, nodded, and the young petty officer pulled out his 'flare'. He pressed a series of buttons on the device and nodded back. It'd still be long minutes before the Hiv'laposh could beam them aboard. He looked away from Woram to find Leral staring at him curiously. Her nose twitched. He mouthed the word 'later', and she shrugged. Voices could be heard in the distance. Angry, excited voices. Footsteps grew closer. It was only a matter of time before Woram's signal would be detected and armed men would come to investigate. He sheathed his club, pulled out both of his disruptors. Around him his party did the same.

The footsteps seemed quite near when the transporter beam took them.

An eerie howl echoed through the transporter room as La'ra materialized. He knew the sound, and he ran for the door almost before the transporter beam completely faded. Disruptors were firing. Whatever than meant, he needed to be on the bridge.

He raced down the hallways, the sack full of Br'el's property still on his back. Behind him the rest of his party followed. No one was in the halls to impede their progress, but there shouldn't have been. The harsh red lighting of a battle alert glowed; on a Klingon warship everyone had a battle station. La'ra felt the deck move slightly under his feet and heard the cry of the phasers. He ran faster. The door to the command center churned open. Ran'jar looked at him dispassionately.

"Q'apla?"

La'ra nodded hastily.

"What's going on?"

"The cruiser began to power up her weapons and shields around the same time we received your signal. Apparently there was some kind of disturbance on the surface." Ran'jar moved from the command chair, dismissed the young man at the communications station. "I decided that crippling the vessel before she powered up would be to our advantage. We are headed away from the planet at full impulse power. Both patrol ships are moving to intercept, disruptors are off-line, and I am jamming the enemy's targeting systems with auxiliary power. We have incurred no damage."

La'ra nodded to him, studying the tactical screen on the arm of his command chair as Ran'jar made his report. Donovan's vessel moved, though sluggishly, and he pondered turning about to finish her as Grimbek and Leral reclaimed their posts.

"They have issued a distress call to any nearby Federation starships." Ran'jar's voice was even.

"Continue on course." La'ra chewed his lip. Help would be showing up soon, no doubt. "And good work."

Minutes passed, stretching themselves into something longer. La'ra ordered a few minor course changes. They could neatly avoid the patrol ships. Behind them the pirate vessel pursued, but far too slow to catch them.

"New contact, sir." Leral's voice was flush with excitement as she gave bearing to the new vessel. "Just entered the system at high warp and is decelerating to sublight." She paused for a long moment. "Federation starship, sir! Miranda-class light cruiser!"

La'ra growled, eyeing his tactical display. She had warped in at an almost perfect angle to intercept him, and was howling through space at her maximum sublight speed. Miranda-class ships were well-made, tenacious vessels, armed heavily and capable of great tactical speeds. Maybe he could convince its Captain of his peaceful intentions, or something of that sort.

"Who is she?"

"The Illustrious, sir." Leral reported.

"Last known to be under the command of Cap..." The ship shook lightly, and Ran'jar cut himself off.

"Proximity torpedo, Commander." Leral's eyes fixed on her scanners. "It detonated one thousand kellicams off our port bow."

Warning shot. La'ra looked back to Ran'jar.

"Last known to be under the command of Captain Leo Bates." The First's voice was cold. "We are being hailed."

"Audio." La'ra grumbled the order, and the Hiv'laposh's bridge speakers crackled to life.

"Klingon vessel, you are in Federation space and in violation of the Organian Peace treaty. Power down your weapons and heave-to immed..." La'ra waved the cut off signal to Ran'jar. There would be no negotiating with Captain Leo Bates, it seemed.

"We can safely engage warp drive in ten minutes, sir." Leral's voice was eager. La'ra looked at his screen. He didn't want to fight the Illustrious. The tenacious Mirandas were a good match for his own vessel, but this one had friends. The ship shook again.

"Another torpedo, sir." Leral announced. "Minor damage to port side deflector screen." That one had not been a warning shot.

La'ra plopped down into his chair and snarled.

 

Chapter Four

The Hiv'laposh shuddered under La'ra's feet as another photon torpedo detonated somewhere close by. One glance at his tactical screen told him the situation he was in; four vessels were rushing to intercept him, one a Federation light cruiser, and if he turned toward the ships less capable of blowing him to fragments they'd no doubt delay him long enough for the Starfleet ship to catch him. He snarled.

"Shields holding." Leral called out the report with some nervousness in her voice.

"He didn't place that one close enough." La'ra confirmed the report, staring at his tactical screen. There was no way to avoid tangling with the USS Illustrious. He might as well concede that gracefully. "Reduce speed, and turn to port." He felt his mouth twitch, a grin beginning to form. "Bring disruptors online, normal charge and reinforce our aft shield." A sudden tension gripped his bridge crew. Fear or lust for battle, most likely.

"Aft shield, Commander?" Grimbek confirmed the order uncertainly.

"Aft shield, Gunner."

Grimbek nodded quickly. That was just the Ensign's way of asking if his Commander was up to something. La'ra glanced back at his screen. His ship now faced his pursuer.

"Halt turn." He turned to Ran'jar. "Is our transponder activated?" The Lieutenant shook his head. La'ra grinned.

"Turn it on, let them know who they're facing."

Ran'jar's mouth twisted evilly as he flipped the switch, and the Hiv'laposh's identity beacon began to transmit as the vulture-like ship rocketed toward her quarry. A spinning crimson ball sprang from the box-like launcher of the Federation vessel, blasting in towards the onrushing Klingon battlecruiser and exploding brilliantly off to one side of her.

The deck shuddered again. La'ra knew that one had scraped his shields. Leral shouted a damage report, but he didn't hear the specifics. "Distance?"

"One hundred and fifty thousand kellicams." Leral's eyes never left her scanner. "Closing rapidly. She's beginning to slow, sir." La'ra nodded to her, glancing at his screen. The Illustrious was reducing velocity, but not by much. She still raced toward him at three-quarters of her maximum sublight speed, just enough, if La'ra was right, for her photon torpedoes to begin arming again. Many captains would've cut their speed to far slower, hoping to bring their torpedoes to their deadly, overloaded potential. Captain Bates wasn't convinced the Hiv'laposh would stay and fight.

Clever man. La'ra felt a faint bit of regret. A one-on-one with Captain Leo Bates would be something to be treasured.

"Disruptor's charged, Commander." Grimbek called.

"Inform transporter rooms to be ready on mines." La'ra seldom found much use for the small antimatter bombs the fleet issued. He preferred to keep distance between himself and his enemies. He had an idea for them now.

"Seventy-five thousand kellicams."

The Illustrious's torpedoes wouldn't be armed by the time the two ships overran each other, but Starfleet ships had deadly batteries of phasers. Bates would fire them when he was as close to the Hiv'laposh as possible.

"Fifty-thousand kellicams."

The Illustrious' weapons could rip through his shields if he let them, but he had to overrun the Federation ship. Time to take steps to mitigate the damage.

"Helm, hard to port for three seconds then reverse turn back toward the target." The helmsman complied immediately, and the old battlecruiser heeled to port, then snapped back toward the Federation starship. The Illustrious began to turn, trying to bring her entire weapons array around to face the Klingon vessel.

"Fire!" La'ra barked the order and another piercing wail echoed through the hull. A flood of blue and green energy leapt from his ship, bruising the shields of the onrushing Illustrious.

"Illustrious shields are holding!" Leral shouted. La'ra had known they would. "Ten thousand kellicams!"

"Hard to port!"

The aged cruiser veered to the side, rocketing past the Starfleet ship as the enemy warship's deadly phasers whipped her side with deadly azure beams. The proud old ship's shields flared but refused to die, her sudden turn scattering the Starfleet vessel's fire over her entire port side. Angry fingers of crimson shot from her aft, pummeling the Illustrious' rear shields as she raced away from the Federation starship.

"Port side shields down to two percent, sir!" Leral shouted, voice trembling with excitement. "No damage to target!" La'ra knew he hadn't hurt the enemy vessel, knew her shields had held. Damaging her wasn't part of the plan.

"Drop bay mine! Transporters now!" As he ordered the action the ship shook as the shuttlebay vented, blasting a small mine out into space. The transporter's munitions departed without fanfare, but a quick glance at his tactical screen showed they's went where he needed them. "Disruptors offline, full impulse power!"

The old battlecruiser accelerated, her ancient frame coming back to her maximum sublight speed. Off behind her, he Illustrious turned to pursue, then veered away as her crew detected the small minefield that had appeared in front of them.

You'd plow through that field to get me, wouldn't you, Bates? If your portside shields wouldn't collapse that is. The distance between the Hiv'laposh and her pursuer opened rapidly, the Klingon ship's velocity carrying it farther away as the Starfleet ship tried to race around the impromptu minefield. La'ra knew the Illustrious couldn't catch him now. Bates could put a few proximity torpedoes close enough to hurt him, but the aft shields were reinforced, and there was no real way the Terran captain could get close before the Hiv'laposh was far enough out-system to engage her warp drive. La'ra's mouth contorted into a toothy grin.

"Thirty seconds to safe warp distance, sir." Leral grinned, too, and her expression didn't change when the ship shook under her. Another proximity torpedo. She counted off the seconds. The word zero was barely out of her mouth when the Hiv'laposh crashed through the warp barrier with a flash of light.

Captain Bates had been quite persistent. The Illustrious had engaged her warp drive not long after La'ra's ship. She'd pursued the Hiv'laposh back to the Klingon border and a little beyond it, disengaging only when she attracted then attention of a few border defense frigates. La'ra wondered for a bit why the Federation captain was so insistent on catching up to him, but he might've done the same thing in his place. He definitely would have if he'd expected his enemy’s warp capability to be less than his. D6-type battlecruisers usually couldn't outrun comparable Federation ships at warp speed. They usually didn't have an engineer like L'dar, either. The Illustrious had never gotten into firing range.

It was difficult for La'ra to put the chase out of his mind. Only an hour had passed since the Federation vessel had broken off pursuit, and the sweet thrill of matching wits with Captain Bates lingered like a pleasant smell. Still, freshly bathed and back into proper uniform, La'ra felt the thrill of battle fading. Time to inspect the spoils of victory.

The information Br'el's intriguing source had collected was, as near as he could tell, genuine. It had all the earmarks of sketchy, meticulously gathered data. Vague, (for the most part, yet interspersed with a few detailed records of various acts of piracy, slave-trading, smuggling, and graft. It was dangerous information to have, but few people knew he had it. Much could be done with this information as long as he picked his moments to strike and took steps to ensure no one suspected he had any kind of inside information. If the cartels knew he had such data, it would become worthless. Orions were paranoid and had no qualms about radically altering their operations if they suspected they'd been found out. But he would strike at them. The activities the Orions engaged in ranged from the mundane to the horrific; few could he allow to continue if his conscience and honor were to remain whole. Plans had to be made.

He leaned back onto his bed, eyes drifting closed. He would make such plans later.

La'ra lay quietly, but rest didn't come. Nor would it until the nagging curiosity in the back of his mind was satisfied. He arose gruffly and stared at the bag lying on his desk. The container held the personal effects of Governor Br'el's son. He unzipped it. Rifling through the items wouldn't be considered rude or insulting, but still it seemed like an intrusion. He looked through them anyway.

The bat'leth was old and of the finest quality, made a bit short for someone of La'ra's height but then he was tall even for a Klingon. Engravings ran across the weapon, mostly High Klingonese script detailing the valor of the sword's wielder in various battles. He placed the blade back into the case. The other items were far smaller and far simpler. An honor sash of dark gold and finely made. Probably the one Br'el's son had been married in. A threl, the short hunting javelin many Klingons held before any other weapon. It's tip was bloodstained, probably from the Governor's son's first kill. Still, there was nothing save the bat'leth that seemed worth sending a battlecruiser after. To La'ra's mind the bat'leth wasn't worth it. Then he saw the book.

He vaguely remembered scooping the tome into the bag. It was heavy, with many pages and bound beautifully. No title adorned it. La'ra loved books. He had many of them, in various languages, stacked neatly in his quarters. This particular volume didn't strike him as any work of fiction, however. Seeing the words inside wasn't required for him to know that this had to be Br'el's son's journal. He did open it, though. From the man's first kill, to his wedding, to the birth of his child, it was all in there. The book had been what the Governor wanted. The sword could have rusted away. La'ra closed the book, having read little of it. Those thoughts were for the man's family, not him. He put it away.

The gardens were just as serene as they had been before, though this time La'ra walked down the path without a servant to guide him. The sword and everything else were in the bag thrown over his shoulder. He tried to stay silent. Something about this place demanded it.

Governor Br'el sat alone in his clearing, relaxing in the warm sunlight. He seemed to sleep, but his eyes opened slowly when La'ra approached. La'ra gave the old man an honest smile and laid the bag on the old man's table.

"I believe that is what you requested, Governor." He said the words respectfully. Stood at attention. The old man's face turned to a mass of wrinkles as he smiled back.

"I thank you, Commander." Br'el leaned forward, adjusting himself in his chair. "I trust your ship and crew came through the ordeal intact?" La'ra nodded to him, and the hero of Tom'par'a let out a heavy sigh. "Testament to your skill, Commander. I think it was foolish of me to ask you this favor, but it's done now."

"It wasn't really a favor, sir. There is the other benefit, after all."

"Perhaps, Commander." The old man grinned. "The data you obtained was all you hoped it to be, then?"

"Yes, sir. It'll require some thought to put to use, but I believe we can manage." La'ra felt his mouth twitch into a grin and his blood ran a little faster. "Your source is very interesting. She's also a pyromaniac. Donovan's trophy room is no more than a tale to be told."

Br'el chortled. "She is very interesting. I have a feeling she might find you such as well." Br'el's eyes seemed to hide something. Something amusing. "And she has her own issues with Donovan. I hope her zeal where he is concerned didn't cause you any difficulty."

"Not really, sir. It did make things more interesting. Between that and the beast my gunner slew with his bat'leth, it should make an interesting story." It already had, in fact, especially with Grimbek showing off the head he'd claimed from that ape-thing.

"Oh I'm sure it will, Commander." Br'el glanced at the sack. "I trust you collected all the items that belonged to my son, correct."

La'ra nodded. "Everything, sir. I took special care of his journals." The old man's eyes seem to shift a bit, as if embarrassed.

"I...thank you, Commander." Whatever awkwardness the old man felt, he recovered quickly. "My grandchildren have little enough left of their father. His thoughts would be valuable to them."

La'ra nodded again. "I understand, sir."

The garden fell quiet. The Governor's brow furrowed, as if concentrating. La'ra said nothing.

"There have been times, Commander.." The old man's cheeks colored a bit. "...that my pride has prevented me from being as forward with my intentions as I could've been. The sword was indeed secondary, but sentimentality is not a trait people associate with a warrior." The Governor grinned, and La'ra returned it.

"I understand, sir, though my father once told me that sentimentality is simply an awareness of what is valuable."

"Was your father a poet, Commander?"

"Chief Petty Officer in the Merchant Navy, sir." La'ra straightened with pride. "They have their own brand of poetry." The Governor laughed and nodded.

"They do, at that." He paused for a moment. "I believe I've kept you from your duties long enough, Commander."

La'ra gave a slight bow. He turned to leave. He took a few steps when the Governor spoke again.

"Commander...one other thing.." La'ra turned back. The Governor was grinning like a fox.

"Yes, sir."

"Do you think you could spare a few more moments?" The old man's eyes lit with mischief. "I believe you owe me a story."

La'ra didn't quite chuckle. "I believe you're right, sir."

It was nightfall by the time he left the Governor's table.

 

- The End -

 

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