DISCLAIMER: The Star Trek characters are the property of Paramount Studios, Inc. The story contents are the creation and property of KarraCaz and is copyright (c) 2003 by KarraCaz. This story is Rated PG.



One Thousand Steps to Koon-ut-katr-la

KarraCaz



Spock slept as the twin suns blazed in the flinty orange skies above his grandmother T'Phra's house in old DhiKune. Accompanied by his father, and Tarok, foster-brother to Sarek, they had arrived late that morning after journeying through the previous night from their home in the border city of ShiKahr. As Tradition demanded, the three of them had trekked the Sas-a-Shar desert through the chill of night, accompanied by other parents with their seven-year-old offspring, both male and female, who had successfully completed the kahs-wan maturity rites.

Every year, as the month of Hefei ended, the ceremonial crossing took place, not only by the families from ShiKahrii borders but also tribal members from every administrative district on Vulkhanir. Those who traveled from furthest away, the Dahkumulchan from Cheleb'Kuhr province, or the dark-skinned, blue-eyed Tavishiauru beyond the Vorath Sea, found their way to ShiKahr, and the other boundary settlements, by various modern means but, as all previous betrothal parties for centuries, they crossed the arid plains of Vulcan's Forge on foot. Later that evening, the paired seven-year-olds would climb the steps of Mount Seleya to the sprawling temple at the summit, and before the venerated matriarchs of their individual Clans, seal the bond that would eventually draw them back together again to mate at the appropriate time.

Tired from the long journey, Spock now curled upon the wide sleeping platform that had once belonged to his father while still a boy, enclosed in the richly fragrant scents of white shmaru and sapphire p'anori blooms that twined about the decorative, fret-work-screened window-arch on the wall opposite. The borrowed apartments were cool, shaded from the late afternoon heat by the terracotta tiles of a symmetrical roof that arched gracefully away from ancient, four-foot thick, sand-tinted walls. Even so, despite fatigue, and the Spartan comfort of pleasant chambers, he stirred fitfully on the rigid dais.

Short, silken lashes fluttered upon the mushroom-colored skin of his sallow cheeks as his agitated breathing checked for an instant before rushing on. His heart jumped unevenly beneath the pale skin of his abdomen, jerking against his left lower ribs in a rapid, arrhythmic beat.

Spock stretched out onto his back, trampled the single linen sheet down until it lay in a tangled lump about slight ankles. Apart from a thin loincloth about slender hips, he lay naked, his juvenile frame sparse and gangling.

A moment later, he shuddered, flopped abruptly over onto his stomach, and tugged the sheet up around hunched shoulders. A soft whimper escaped his tautened lips while anxious fingers tousled already sleep-disheveled hair, pushing the cap of lustrous black strands away from clammy temples.

Restively, Spock twisted once more towards the safety of the wall, stomach twirling in a strange and ethereal way as deep inside him built the urge to run, run, run away, but the vivid dream held him captive. His unfocused eyes, covered by the translucent nictitating membrane that protected his sight from the harsh desert conditions common on Vulkhanir, darted back and forth, pupils flared wide, engrossed by the drama unfolding within his slumberous mind--

* * *

The narrow passageway he traversed was dim, the roof low. It smelled pungently of loamy earth and unnamed secrets, alien territory, opposed to the world above ground, the radiant ochre daylight, and spicy heat of desert sands. He understood with a child's instinctive awareness that his faltering step trod the hidden and mysterious subterranean tunnels beneath the high, black granite peaks of Seleya's mountain fastness. Although he had yet to climb the thousand steps, or enter the temple's precincts, he realized that he now followed the fal-lan-tral, the hallowed Path of All Mysteries.

Light was an interloper in that primeval place, time had little meaning, and neither night nor day, or the unending seasons, brought any change to the profound chill that pervaded the ancient rock walls.

The dream had him clothed in the elaborate, layered, betrothal robes he would wear in the forthcoming koon-ut-katr-la bonding ceremony, the beveled, crystalline gems that symbolized rank, heavy on his breast. Nevertheless, despite the warm swathe of kibr, shintiyan, and sirwal, topped by the enfolding alhjabr, his thick night cloak, he continued to shiver -- painfully aware that the tremors sprang more from fear than the unfamiliar chill. For someone else accompanied him in that ageless gloom.

An anonymous figure, robed and hooded in darkness, stood waiting at a bend in the indistinct reaches of the corridor. A slender finger bent in summons, Tel-alep, the Watcher, a member of the Inner Chorus, beckoned in silent deliberation, a command that Spock had little power to decline as he was led further beneath the mountain. Tall and lean, the shadowy form carried a huge tome under one arm, chained to a jeweled belt cinched about a narrow waist. Fascinated, Spock read the flickering hieroglyphs decorating the red-lacquered cover, experiencing only an icy dread as he haltingly managed to translate the flowing antique script. For writ large and bold upon the book was his Family name: Spokhq s'kahri ansh'oine t'sarekhq au ShiKahr.

* * *

Still profoundly asleep, Spock sighed and shifted agitatedly upon the solid dais, soft, moist, boy's lips pursed, his panting breath hurried and erratic.

* * *

As he followed close in the Watcher's footsteps, Spock recalled the sacred texts Master Shaanak, his teacher, had tried so rigorously to impress upon him. How, at Surak's reformation, Vulkhanir philosophers, and celebrants of the temples and holy places proclaimed their loyalty to logic instead of mysticism. Unlike psychically deaf humanity, the Vulkhanir possessed innate paranormal abilities. Even two thousand years before, the power of the katra, the Vulkhanir soul was well researched and for many arriving at a compromise between reason and faith had proved an often-disconcerting challenge.

Prohibited by the Great Awakening from seeking confirmation of the old gods in the natural world, many Vulkhanir of that era turned inward as an alternative. The terrible, destructive emotional force within themselves became a symbol for the wrathful supernatural beings of ancient times, what they named the Kah'ta'pakhq, or Inner Chorus, a fundamental need that even Surakian rationale failed to eliminate absolutely.

That earlier age in which his people had reveled in their emotions had always entranced Spock. Even Master Shaanak's dry, historical account had little power to smother his imagination. However, it was the highly inappropriate stories of his father's boyhood companion Tarok that really fired his curiosity.

In Human terms, Tarok was Spock's godparent, his en'ahr'at, a sponsor appointed by his father as an alternative guardian or advisor, should such a need ever arise. Unlike Sarek, however, in company now with only a very small minority, he followed the teachings of Jharok, the one-time pupil and rival of Surak. Those few remaining students of Jharok's scriptures believed that the untamed force within every Vulcan, represented by the Inner Chorus, could only be mastered if it were fully explored. Only then could the ferocious passions that fought to gain control over the individual be finally disciplined.

Many of the anecdotes Tarok relayed originated from before the Reformation and involved the acquisitiveness, distrust, and violent conflicts among the differing clan lords of that time. Further accounts of passionate romances, cruel betrayals, and kingdoms lost to forbidden bondings, poured into Spock's fascinated ears as manna from heaven. The legends regarding the ancient duality of the Gods, however, resonated in the deepest regions of his hybrid psyche. His m'aih to Spock's unending astonishment supported the story sessions while, characteristically, A'nirih expressed displeasure. Sarek protested in his own distinct way that it was he and Amanda, not Tarok, who must address Spock's disturbed dreams thereafter. However, much to Spock's silent satisfaction, even in the face of Sarek's misgivings, his mother had continued to encourage Tarok's activities. He paid a high price for his pleasure all the same, much as Sarek had predicted, when the characters of the Inner Chorus haunted his sleep. Vanquished by day, they reappeared whenever Spock's buried anxieties and youthful apprehensions overcame his immature mind, transposing his natural fears into the beings and scenes from Tarok's terrifying stories.

The book held by Tel-alep, he realized with a sinking heart, had to be a record of his existence, a chronicle of his achievements -- and all his failures. Called now by the workings of his conscience to confront this, his private Kah'ta'pakhq, he must account for both honorable and reprehensible conduct before the bonding ceremony could proceed.

He knew that T'Pring was his betrothed. Their psyche profiles and genetic maps had proved eminently compatible. Her family also had estates in DhiKune adjacent to his grandmother's lands. The match would further consolidate the two dynasties. Both children were witness to the succinct negotiations between the paternal grandmothers, T'Phra and T'Palanqhar.

On first meeting T'Pring, at the initial discussions, he could scarcely bear to look at her, sitting with her father Haronn in T'Phra's spacious reception rooms. But he could not bear to look away, either. Her waist-length hair, twisted in elaborate braids on top of her noble head, her dark and mysterious eyes, the shapely line of her brows, so graceful, similar to the delicate upswept wing-tips of a shavokh soaring on desert winds; her pointed, shell-like ears, all enchanted him.

He tried not to stare, intrigued by her youthful self-possession, sullen allure, and the certainty that she possessed all the qualities he lacked. It seemed almost miraculous to him that he was soon to be joined with such a wondrous creature.

Although the same age and equivalent lineage, she regarded him in her turn with an aristocratic poise and scarcely concealed scorn that made her appear far older than her seven years. Those compelling eyes beheld him with a priestess' clearness of sight, saw all that he was, and apparently found him offensive. Her contempt for him materialized so intensely, so palpably clear, that it became contagious, a malady Spock could not entirely shrug off. The awareness of his inferiority was nothing new. Inwardly, almost from infancy, certainly from the time he could talk, he had harbored a profound appreciation of his difference to those around him. The lone offspring of the first Human/Vulcan marriage, he among all of them was unique. The oblique, yet consistent, prejudice from both his peer group and those with more seniority had stimulated a sense of inequality that had increased over the years with every fresh disgrace, reprimand, and imposed vigil.

On a world where emotion was subjugated, he had no word for the sensations that stirred so often within him. Humiliation, anger, affront, grief, were all intimately known but had no name. Certainly, this most recent impertinence of T'Pring's was no greater than the slights he constantly endured from the boys at school. Yet his triumphant achievement of the kahs-wan had encouraged the belief that he might be viewed with less bias in the future. Sight of his prospective mate's insolent stare completely dashed that cherished expectation. Her silent rebuff produced a physical hurt so grievous that shameful tears actually sprang to his eyes. T'Pring did not fail to notice his weakness, nor did she try to disguise her disdain. Within his mind, whether real or imagined, her dainty voice chimed eloquent and haughty, a gibe that had grown progressively more familiar -- uncivilized oaf -- savage -- emotional Earther--

As if mirrored in T'Pring's remote gaze, he perceived an image of himself as she evidently saw him, an undersized, sallow faced, fine-boned child with silky, overlong, brown-black hair, narrow eyes, and large protruding ears. Outwardly completely Vulcan, there was a marked incongruity about his manner, a lack of restraint that became immediately discernable. In comparison with T'Pring's imperturbable serenity, he appeared overwrought, irrefutably histrionic. He observed through her eyes, and with all her aversion, the damning tears and spasmodically trembling lower lip of this boy whose supposed control was merely a cunning performance. Does A'nirih perceive me this way? He wondered, the shock and dismay striking him like a hammer blow, all his old fears and uncertainties, aroused. Is this what T'Phra'm'aihra and Skon'a'nirrhan see when they gaze at me so intently?

If so, it was no wonder that neither had yet offered to mind-meld with him as their clan custom decreed; or, indeed, why A'nirih had not, so far, mentioned the ritual joining of father and son. Spock's throat constricted even more as something knotted inside his abdomen, that consistent, inexorable, cold tightness that had been with him so long it had grown part of his being. Suddenly, he understood all too clearly the incomprehension and embarrassment he perpetually sensed from those around him. Not only were the students and instructors from school bewildered by the conundrum he posed, but also his Family -- father and grandparents included. All at once he realized fully how transparent a fraud he appeared, how disgracefully vulgar and impolite, pretending he was something he was not, eager to gain access to a world that barely tolerated such duplicity.

* * *

Lying amidst the tumbled linen on the dais in his father's old chambers, Spock muttered inaudibly. He drew up his knees, tucked his chin on his chest, pulling the sheet over his head, a protection from the confused memory fragments that troubled his sleep. But he could not hide, could not break out of the dream. It continued to hold him tightly, binding him with the strength of any metal fetter or shackle.

* * *

Faint music, the chanting of voices, teased at the limits of his hearing as he trotted after Tel-alep's fast receding form, the far-off booming of a solitary drum pounding like the abrupt beat of blood through his veins. He recalled en'ahr'at Tarok's stories of this place, remembered hearing that the inner hallways and galleries of Mount Seleya's Temple of Ancient Thought, incised deep into bedrock, looped back upon themselves, and never reached an end. Within his mind, Tarok's calm voice again repeated the reminder that one could wander through the passageways for a lifetime and never walk the same path twice; that many of the corridors went so deep that no one had visited them in centuries. And despite his aching legs tired from the long march through the desert, Spock scurried to keep up with his silent companion striding swiftly ahead. If he lost sight of Tel-alep, he knew that he would never find his way back to the surface, that he would be destined to walk the hidden depths until he died from dehydration or exhaustion, and his small, abandoned bones would lie undisturbed amidst the thick, red dust that covered the corridor floor until the end of eternity.

The chanting voices and the music, having grown steadily louder, fell abruptly silent as he entered a circular cavern, hot foot on the heels of his guide. Tel-alep waited for him there, face hidden by the folds of his hood, the book he carried clasped before him, silhouetted in the light of an unidentified, fiery radiance. The shadowy form neither moved nor spoke as Spock hesitantly crossed the threshold only to pause again, uncertain; then a hidden, stone door at the far side of the chamber beyond Tel-alep swung back on silent hinges.

A young girl stood in the massive entryway revealed there, with indistinct, unknown, reaches at her back. Clothed in betrothal robes similar to Spock's own, her dark braids coiled sleekly about her head, the strands intertwined with glowing moonflowers, she appeared to shimmer in the incandescent luminescence. Spock's heart jumped in nervous trepidation as he recognized T'Pring. Eyes coolly imperial, sharp as a lirpa's blade, she stared at him attentively before asking in the same chiming tones he recalled so well.

"Who enters into Seleya's secret places? Why come thee here, boy?"

He answered the ritual question in the traditional manner, surprised at the continued steadiness of his voice, shoulders straight and chin up, backbone stiffly erect as he met her calm gaze, unwilling to exacerbate his previous humiliation. "It is I, Spock, child of Sarek, child of Skon, come to honor the summons of my Kah'ta'pakhq--"

"Then enter at thy peril, child of Sarek, child of Skon." Without another word, she turned upon her heel and disappeared into the inner chamber behind her. Spock passed Tel-alep, aware of the Watcher's soft, animal tread falling in behind his own as he tentatively followed T'Pring.

He found the inner room spherical as before, with lamps burning mutedly in niches cut deep into the rock walls. The floor was flat and perfectly even, crafted from fine vermilion stone. Matched copper colored braziers burned all along a raised half circular dais opposite the doorway and as their flames sputtered, half seen figures, and mythological animals, painted in a life-size frieze, seemed to leap and dance among the flickering shadows. The air in the room smelled warm and fragrant, amidst a heavy silence that reigned supreme.

Out of the nine high-backed canopied chairs on the dais, only one remained empty, Tel-alep's seat. The Watcher with a steady, purposeful gait stepped up onto the dais to take his place while T'Pring knelt on a cushioned floor stool at his feet. All eyes turned on Spock, as he remained alone in the center of the chamber. Slowly, Tel-alep opened the huge book upon his knees before sweeping back the capacious hood to reveal his features for the first time. Spock could not restrain a quick gasp of recognition as he stared into Tel-alep's keen, all-embracing eyes. For this guardian of his doom, this manifestation of the Ancient God bore the face of Sarek, his own father.

Stunned by the revelation, he bowed deeply before them all and with head bent and eyes downcast, awaited his fate. The powerful voice of his a'nirih, smooth as lak'ral, the nourishing milky sap of the sha'amii plant, broke the silence. "We greet thee, child. Come forward now if thee are prepared to open thy thoughts and be truly known to us."

Spock did so with very stiff legs, his heart pounding hard, and heavy against his lower ribs as his knees knocked painfully one against the other. Yet, he inclined his head to Tel-alep, incapable of refusing the decree. "I am prepared, Tela'at."

He knelt, unsure what to expect, knowing only what he had learned from Master Shaanak and more recently from T'Rhal, ShiKahr's temple priestess. He trembled as the Watcher reached out, touched light fingers to the katra points along brow and jaw. It was as if Tel-alep's slender, compelling hands reached straight into his mind. Then, without any conscious volition, his psyche opened much as the corolla of the shmaru opens at sunset, each luminous petal uncurling slowly until the nectary within is completely revealed to the nocturnal arthropod that seeks admission.

A low, intense, murmur of sound escaped his softly parted lips as his eyelids drifted closed. Spock succumbed to the intimate contact, yielding to the giving and receiving that united two into one, his thoughts dimming as they started to merge with those of Tel-alep. On entering his mind, the Watcher became part of his consciousness. None of his thoughts stayed hidden. Spock found it impossible to conceal anything. He was recognized and understood, even that outlandish Human part which caused him so much anguish.

It seemed only an instant before Tel-alep released him once again and he stumbled to his feet, shaken and befuddled, unable to sort out the confusing images that raced unbidden through his mind. The austere voice of Tej'bahadur, the wrathful dual aspect of Tel-alep, forced Spock to concentrate once more on the testing. Robed in mystery, as were they all, Tej'bahadur leaned forward in his high-backed chair and pushed back his hood. Dark eyes glittered in a face embittered by centuries of disillusion.

"What shall we do with this one, my kindred, this half-caste son of ansh'oine t'sarekhq kah T'Phra? It is time that we decide on his true course. Seven years has he lived among our kith and kin, but he is not one of us. Shall we then have him enter into kah with our blood daughter T'Pring and mate with her in the time-honored way?"

Kir-alep, the elemental Vulkhanir god of peace and acceptance, who now bore the face of Spock's sponsor, Tarok, spoke up quietly from Tel-alep's other side. "Is he not one of us in all things but for his mixed ancestry?"

An answer came from the Sullen One, Lar'bahadur, the orange fire from a brazier behind him playing about his handsome face, the light glinting on his long braided hair, a style from a thousand years before, worn in modern times by only a few S'kanderai tribesmen. The reflected glow threw the Sullen One's jaw and aristocratic pointed ear into sharp relief. "Is that not enough to condemn him? Do we wish the lineage of our species further contaminated by the watery blood of an off-worlder, a Tehr'n?"

Kir-alep, opposite to Lar'bahadur in almost every way, would not allow that to pass unchallenged. His compassionate features hardened, grey eyes glittering with hoarfrost like the Plains of Gol after sunset. "Is our own lineage so pure, my t'hy'la? We who remain uncertain of our beginnings?"

"There is no uncertainty, mnekhru. Even this half-blood child knows well enough that we began with the Ancient Ones, the Vhorani. Is that not so, boy?"

Apprehensively, Spock cleared his throat, floundering before the steely-eyed gaze of his interrogator. "Indeed, honored Tela'at, it is still believed by some that the Vhorani were our precursors and came, aeons ago, from Sha'kha'ree, the wellspring of creation, to seed this world."

Lar'bahadur withered him with a falcon's gimlet-eyed stare. "Unlike the stripling who stands before us now, this mummer, who thinks to hide his true nature beneath a play-actor's guile. We should return him to his own people before he contaminates ours."

Spock stood very still in the Kah'ta'pakhq's midst, eyes wide, a sick fear churning inside his belly. Yet, he met Lar'bahadur's inscrutable gaze, a wild sehlat cub ready to defend itself against mortal attack.

"It is certain that my mother is Tehr'n, Elder, but I am not," he stated, his mouth like the dry and dusty Sand Sea, the huge desert wastes. He ached with physical pain at this betrayal of his m'aih, yet neither could he forget Sarek's palpable disappointment in him, a regret that arose from Spock's continued inability to preserve the ideals, and respected lifestyle of the Vulkhanir people. "I chose the Vulcan Way. I completed the kahs-wan with honor. This is truly my world. Beyond doubt, the Vulkhanir are my kin. I claim the right to bond with T'Pring and take my rightful place among them."

His voice wavered and threatened to crack but he refused to let it. He fought for calm, took a deep breath followed by a second. And whether he had learned something from his mind-meld with Tel-alep or put into practice a technique he already knew but had not fully understood until then, he managed to quiet the blood hammering in his temples and will his heart into a steadier beat. For the first time in his life, instead of just simulating a clever awareness, he achieved an actual control. With grim determination, he hung onto that tremulous, uncertain balance, girding himself with resolve.

His Kah'ta'pakhq watched the metamorphosis, some in appraisal, others in scorn. "Oh my Elders, tell me what have I to do with the Humans, or they with me, that I should forfeit my life on this world and go to them?"

His question was answered only with silence for what seemed a very long time. Then two of the Inner Chorus broke that ominous immobility.

The first of them was Der'aval. As Tel-alep reminded him of Sarek and Kir-alep, looked much like Tarok, Der'aval's aged features bore a startling resemblance to his great-grandmother, T'Pau. Her dark eyes seemed very deep, very wide as she gazed at him in apparent coolness. "Thee is too outspoken, child. Keep thy place."

Tersely, Spock bowed his head and then bravely met her gaze once more, maintaining that inner stillness, imposing his will, keeping the traitorous emotions in check. He apologized to her, his tone even, conciliatory. "I ask forgiveness, Lady."

Again, her eyes beheld him, just as dark, just as deep but within the cool depths, there also appeared a measure of approval. Der'aval rose and came to stand behind Spock, hands laid lightly upon his shoulders, as if in reassurance or blessing. She faced her companions, those same dark eyes sweeping without haste over each one in turn. "Unlike our sibling, Lar'bahadur, I dost look at this child, and see only a courageous spirit. In truth, his control is flawed; he dost not wholly embrace the Vulcan Way. His countenance betrays each thought, each notion. He trembles beneath my hands. Yet, even in terror, he dost remain steadfast. What matter who his people dost be, when the blood runs constant and true? He is young; he hast much yet to learn. Where better should he find guidance than among our kind? He must hast his chance. I would allow the bonding."

"Our sister speaks for me also," Shen'ava, his second advocate spoke up. The voice vivacious and feminine, fairly danced upon the firelit air. This also was Der'aval but in her youthful manifestation as opposed to her dual guise of age and wisdom. Lady of creativity and resourcefulness, in her eyes shone the glory of discovery. Every time a child tasted a new experience, or a scientist found the link to curing a terrible disease, when a couple found contentment in their bonding, her light glowed in their eyes. "The Tehr'ns, though a warrior race, hast assuaged their aggression. They hast an enquiring temperament, and pursue knowledge for its own sake. They seek to study the All and understand their part within it. This one is gifted with a noble imagination. The offspring he begets can only enhance the bloodline of our descendants, not hamper it."

The discussion for and against his bonding with T'Pring seethed back and forth amongst the Inner Chorus, some arguing for him, some against. And when the Kah'ta'Pakhq reached a stalemate from time to time on some specific point, they consulted the great book upon Tel-alep's knee, considering a fresh virtue or imperfection written in iridescent light upon the translucent pages.

The conflagration raged unabated for some considerable while. Spock, grown increasingly weary, found that he could, with determination, curb his apprehension and fatigue, while he followed the exchange. It appeared that Kir-alep, Der'aval, and her younger sister Shen'ava, were all on his side. Surprisingly, so also was Kal'apton, a tall, gaunt, and pale adolescent colorless in the garb of mourning. The embodiment of grief, he carried a pouch of tears at his waist. Not in favor were Tej'bahadur, Lar'bahadur, and Ket'cheleb, the representation of anger. Fiercest and most powerful of all the Inner Chorus, his name meant Destroyer and Blood-drinker. He had killed his joyful aspect in centuries past and hung him on the great stone Tree of Wonders in the center of the world.

With his imperfect control, Spock dared not even look on that impassioned, demonic face, or listen to Ket'cheleb's dark sonorous words. Instead, he centered his attention on the last of the Chorus, Tyr'al'tep. Named the unforgiver, the whisperer, Spock knew from Tarok's stories that when Kal'apton allowed grief into the world, Tyr'al'tep took mastery. He made the Vulkhanir forget about what is and brood only on what might have been.

His Kah'ta'pakhq debated him back and forth, to and fro, all except Tel-alep who bore Sarek's hawk-like features and held the book of Spock's activities, both virtuous and unworthy, upon his knees. Well-named the Watcher, his inexplicable gaze never wavered from Spock's face. He waited imperturbable, questing for the signs that would indicate Spock had fallen back into his former habits and merely pretended supremacy over his rampant emotions.

Quite aware of Tel-alep's purpose, Spock stood with his spine straight, his hands clasped behind him, face expressionless, in the traditional attitude of youthful respect. He stared back into those enigmatic eyes without flinching, sheepishly confident in his newfound aptitude, awaiting his extraordinary judges final verdict. Lar'bahadur's harsh, resentful voice held sway for a time, but Kir-alep's concern and Der'aval's astuteness were not easily set aside, or the influence of Shen'ava, though she was youngest among the Inner Chorus. Soon, the Kah'ta'pakhq were divided evenly and it was to Tel-alep that they turned to cast the deciding vote.

Spock's self-possession slipped for an instant as the Watcher silently closed the great book and beckoned him forward again with that one slim finger. They faced each other with only a hand's breadth between them.

"Spokhq, son of Sarekhq, son of Skon, there is only one way of settling this matter, it seems," the detached, imperturbable voice Spock had known all his life sternly pronounced. Tel-alep's austere gaze settled on the girl still sitting awake and attentive at his feet.

As if she had anticipated just such a moment during all the long debate T'Pring pushed herself gracefully upright and beheld him once again, her expression unfathomable. And Spock caught his breath, his heart abruptly plummeting, as Tel-alep asked, "What say thee, Daughter, having heard all that has been discussed both in defense and prosecution? The choice is thine to make. Will thee take this half-blood child born of Sarekhq of Vulkhanir and Amanda Grayson of Earth as thy one true mate?"

* * *

"Spock, it is time. Are thee awake, child?"

Spock groaned softly as a hand, gentle but relentless shook him by the shoulder.

Ever since babyhood, he had always found the borderline between sleeping and waking a challenging frontier to cross. Now, still bound by the nightmare that haunted his sleep, he refused to hear the voice that reverberated in his ears. The hand shook him again a little more forcefully.

"Spock--"

Reluctantly, he opened his eyes. Sarek, silhouetted in the dim red light of sunset, leaned over him. For an instant Sarek and Tel-alep fused into one and with a quick gasp of apprehensive alarm, Spock shrank back against the dais, his heart knocking against his ribs. Sarek straightened immediately, dark eyes hooded by heavy lids, studying him with a curious intensity.

As with the Watcher, Spock could not penetrate beyond his father's enduring mystique, nor had he acquired anything but a basic knowledge in the art of vhoshanta, that body reading skill where the barest flicker of an eyelid, the tightening of a nostril, or a tautened lip might convey something of the thoughts of even the most impassive Vulkhanir. However, Sarek did not need to rely on the limitations of his youngest son to impart his desire. With just a single raised eyebrow, he had the power to communicate whatever he so wished. It rose in a distinctive fashion as Spock continued to huddle amongst the disheveled linen on the sleeping dais.

"Thee is still weary from our journey, I realize that, child," Sarek murmured in a neutral tone that Spock, nevertheless, perceived as an additional sign of reproof. "However, thy en'ahr'at and I must prepare thee for koon-ut-katr-la. Come, get up now so that we may begin."

With a lassitude that came from the spirit and not from the flesh, Spock did as his father bade. He had not eaten since the morning of the day before, nor would he eat again until after the bonding. To blunt his hunger and enhance his sensitivity to what was to come Tarok, with all due ceremony, handed him a shallow dish of fermented su'aasal, instructing him to swallow it slowly.

Spock swirled the clear rufescent liquor in the bottom of the porcelain bowl cupped between his hands. Consumed exclusively on the eve of bonding, su'aasal came rare as dragon's teeth. It took a d'lechu, the broad leaved, spiny, desert succulent, thirty years to ripen enough to produce its honey-water. An ambrosial lure to the wild lematya, ecaroya, and chmiel, those species, among many others including the Vulkhanir, returned the plant's favor by carrying the fertile, barbed seeds in every direction from Vhet'bahadur across the desert plains to Chin'ohr in the southern hills, to Shesh'ava and Palau in the north. Known for its psychotropic properties for more than a thousand years, the Vulkhanir cultivated the giant d'lechu worldwide and collected the precious su'aasal for this most important of rites. Once the seeds had dispersed, the d'lechu died but none of it went to waste, for the prudent Vulkhanir used every part of the remaining plant to produce over a hundred different natural products.

A hot, spicy aroma tantalized Spock's nostrils as he raised the dish and inhaled the rich scent deep into his lungs. He had never smelled anything so astoundingly redolent. The fragrance curled around him like the p'anori vine curled about the room's screened window arch. The need to taste the d'lechu's liquid gift became too great to resist. Dimly, through the intoxicating fumes, he heard his father repeat Tarok's admonition. "Slowly, Spock. Thee must do as thy en'ahr'at instructs. Sip just a little at a time--"

But it proved impossible to obey Sarek's command. Hurriedly, before either could restrain him, he consumed the su'aasal in two swift gulps. He did not notice the almost ironic look his two pelhe-ut-la, these guardians of his soul, exchanged between themselves, perhaps in recollection of their own youthful experience of the d'lechu's potent incentive. Instead, Spock inhaled sharply as the heady fumes flamed against his palate and seared a burning trail down the back of his throat. A moment later, the fermented liquid hit his stomach setting off an explosion behind his eyes that rocked him back on his heels.

Nimbly, Tarok captured the ceremonial dish just before it slipped from Spock's limp fingers. Sarek, meanwhile, placed an adroit arm around his son's shoulders, another under his knees, and lifted him up, preventing his collapse upon the stone tiled floor. Sarek's subtle grip, firm yet infinitely considerate, held him lightly. Nestled inertly against his father's sturdy chest, Spock was, nevertheless, keenly aware of their brief journey along the passageway outside his apartment to the nearby cleansing room where he must undergo ritual purification before his bonding.

Luxuriating in his father's rare embrace, he found a bemused comfort in the wiry but powerful arms. The su'aasal had robbed him of strength but dramatically sharpened his senses; every nerve ending seemed twice as sensitive, twice as responsive. The pressure of Sarek's hands, the silken fibers of his father's voluminous night sirwal against his exposed torso and cheek, the slight, yet characteristic cinnamon scent of skin and hair, now assumed a fresh clarity.

He breathed Sarek in, experiencing an unexpected intimacy, a familiarity he had shared often with Amanda -- though only when much younger -- but hardly ever with his father -- and the suppressed yearning to mind meld with this man who continued an enigma to him, abruptly intensified. That profound desire along with the su'aasal's intoxicating effect, overcame his usual caution, his intuitive knowledge of meticulous Vulkhanir propriety. In the same way that he had linked with the Watcher in his dream, he made a tentative, clumsy attempt to unite his mind with that of his father.

Unlike the effortless fusion with Tel-alep, however, he found himself unable to pierce the unyielding barrier that surrounded Sarek's mind. His consciousness thrust against his father's mental shields as weightless and insubstantial as sirshos'im, the fabled, will-o'-the-wisp soul-eaters that preyed on hapless desert travelers -- but his father resolutely refused him entry.

With childish, wilful determination, he battered with all his strength against that awesome barricade, unable to make the slightest dent in Sarek's armor. Finally, conquered and overcome, he retreated into his own skull, though his heart railed against such a cruel denial. If A'nirih can refuse me right of entry, then what of T'Pring who has less reason to wish me well? Will she use koon-ut-katr-la to denounce me? The notion scorched a blazing path through his anxious thoughts much as the su'aasal had scorched his oesophagus.

Lying in his father's arms, he drew a rasping breath that quickly threatened to turn into a sob. If she brands me a deceitful alien upstart, will A'nirih abandon me? Will he send me away to live on Tehr'a -- as Tela'at Lar'bahadur counseled in my dream? To cover his distress he twisted weakly in Sarek's still kind but distant hold, faltering words thick and indistinct upon his tongue.

"I -- would stand, A'nirih, if -- thee will put me down."

"As thee wishes, child." Sarek inclined his head, stern features immovable, an unreadable mask that Spock found abruptly ambiguous, as if this man he had known all his life had become a total stranger.

A silence fell then, so loud a silence, it almost deafened him. At the door to the cleansing chamber, he stumbled shakily over the threshold, his sight blinded by more than the stifling, steamy air that already filled the room. He swayed, balance still precarious, until Tarok braced him with a considerate hand under one elbow, assisting him to reach the large, octagonal, marbled slab that stood near the wall one meter above the smooth tiled floor.

While Sarek strode across the round chamber to dash aromatic water into the central pit of red-hot granite, Tarok helped Spock onto the slab, covered now by a thin, absorbent pad. The platform, hotter even than the sweltering air, soon caused him to break out into a fine sweat, a reaction that his wretched understanding of Vulkhanir bio-control could not prevent.

Tarok slipped off his own billowing robe, folded it neatly, and placed it alongside the scrapers, unguents, and shears on the wide stone bench that encircled the chamber. Clad now, like his protege, only in a narrow linen loincloth about lean hips, he rejoined Spock.

The cleansing ritual was meant for self-contemplation and evaluation, not for discussion. Nor did Vulkhanir normally intrude upon the relationship between other family members. To come between father and son was a serious breach of etiquette. Yet, not even a lematya crazed by its mating cycle could miss the abrupt tension in the room. Head tilted to one side, an old habit when something unusual caught his attention, Tarok observed Spock, vibrant grey eyes serene and gentle.

"Did I not caution thee to sip the su'aasal slowly, Spock'kham? It is renowned for amplifying the perceptions. Perhaps thee should take a moment to recover inner harmony, thy cho'wa--"

Stretched on his back full length upon the marbled crimson platform, a sacrificial lamb ready for the slaughter, Spock encountered that calm gaze powerless to disguise the appalling hurt his father's rejection had caused. However, instead of the further censure he feared to see, his sponsor's clear eyes only revealed a benevolent concern.

"I -- should not have disregarded thy instructions, honored en'ahr'at. My lack of patience has offended thee, no doubt." He glanced uncertainly over at his father kneeling by the shallow fire pit.

By talking in that place, at that time, Spock knew he contravened the sanctity of the purification rites. A'nirih, always a strict disciplinarian, would not be best pleased if he flouted the old traditions so openly. Sarek, however, appeared oblivious of the muted exchange. His hawk-like face, viewed in profile, expressed restrained power and a quiet strength. Now disrobed, wreathed in billowing steam, his bare skin glistened with moisture, an imposing presence even semi-naked. A glimmer of puzzling amusement shone in Tarok's narrow, tapered eyes as he followed Spock's anxious gaze.

"Thy -- response -- was not unexpected. Many initiates act so when they first encounter fermented su'aasal. Yet, I believe something more than thy reaction to the d'lechu's liquor troubles thee: the coming ceremony, perhaps. Will thee speak of it?"

Spock exhaled softly, recalling his dream of the Kah'ta'pakhq, his Inner Chorus. Had not Kir-alep, that renowned God of peace and friendship, supported him there also? If he spoke of Sarek's denial, of his fear of denouncement, would Tarok hear him? Overwhelmed by the sizzling temperature, the powerful stimulant he had imbibed, and the heady fragrance circulating the chamber, Spock wavered, sorely tempted by Tarok's invitation. Yet, he found it impossible to speak openly of his apprehension.

The grown-up world held many unknowns, many mysteries. No matter how it appeared, he could not believe that his father had denied him the mind-meld from malice. Perhaps A'nirih has other reasons he will not meld with me, reasons I have yet to understand.

His conviction in that belief came from somewhere beyond logic, a point nearer his heart than his head. Once again, he met Tarok's quicksilver gaze. "Indeed, en'ahr'at, the Koon-ut-katr-la is -- of some concern. Was -- it not the same for thee?"

Tarok inclined his head, "Without doubt, Spock'kham. These are important ceremonies. But thee should not fear what is to come. Be assured thee will prevail -- as did I, and thy father also. T'Pring is an excellent match. Thy m'aihra T'Phra chose well."

"Indeed?" But he kept his embryonic uncertainties to himself. Soon after, Sarek joined them and Spock gave himself up to the ritual purging, the five-step sequence that ensured both mind and body free of moral or spiritual imperfection before he joined with his potential aduna. The first stage -- the seasoning with heat -- had begun. Now that his limbs were sufficiently supple and elastic, his two chaperons started on the second phase, a vigorous massage. He could do no other than surrender completely as they commenced pulling, twisting, kneading, and pummeling him like a lump of his m'aih's feted Tehr'n style bread dough. Their powerful hands, uncompromising yet strangely agreeable, compelled his cracking joints and stretched muscles to the point of excruciating agony before releasing him again, aware, it seemed, just when the desire to scream became unendurable. Their merciless handling generated a cascade of electric tingles down his spine, followed by a surge of endorphin-linked rapture where the pain had previously blazed. And all the while that Sarek and Tarok, manipulated his flesh in the ancient tradition, he knew that T'Pring and the terrible, dark, shining ceremony of koon-ut-katr-la awaited his coming.

The massage finally ended and he was left to rest for a short time. Once more, Sarek threw water upon the glowing rock pile. Again, his father retreated from the fiery heat to join Tarok on the nearby dressed stone ledge, soaking up the damp air; head bowed and eyes closed.

Enervated, Spock reclined on his back, the blood, and su'aasal coursing like the hot vaporous steam through his veins. Engulfed by a strange detachment, he surveyed the room, his companions, and his own self as if from some vantage point near the domed ceiling. While his body slowly recovered from the demanding massage, his accelerated perceptions returned once again to his perplexing dream.

What did it mean, he silently asked himself? He had, for some time, concluded, mistakenly perhaps, that his human blood prevented his attainment of those mind skills that would have made him a creditable Vulkhanir. Instead, he pretended a proficiency in abilities that he did not possess. Was his subconscious now refuting that belief? Like the strange adage M'aih' quoted when she suddenly located some object that had previously eluded her. I can't see the desert for the sand, she would declare, shaking her head when the item turned up unexpectedly in a place she had already looked.

He closed his eyes; breathed deeply in the way Master Shaanak had taught him, seeking the calm, still center of his being. Supine on the massage table, he focused his mind on that moment when Tel-alep reached out to touch his thoughts. The mind-meld had appeared natural, undemanding. Though he could remember very little of what had passed between the Watcher and himself, only following that contact had he managed to control his emotions, to find the balance that had so long eluded him.

Arie'mnu, the mastery of passion and emotion, was a cultural development and not a natural one. Long years before, Vulkhanir not only had emotions in full measure, those feelings were so strong and violent that they threatened the very survival of the species. It was Surak, Father of Logic, who, centuries in the past, saved them all from widespread conflict by teaching them how to curb their passionate natures. For thousands of years, the people of Vulkhanir had followed his philosophical credo, continuing to learn methods of restraint in order to govern their inner compulsions. Since it was infinitely more difficult to undertake the killing of a friend than an enemy, one of the disciplines he first taught his students was the mind-meld, where everything could be seen and known, where nothing could remain hidden. To meld with another's mind was to mutually relinquish one's deepest, most private thoughts. A profoundly spiritual undertaking, it was a responsibility not lightly assumed.

Is that where the answer lies? Must I link my mind with someone else before I can learn the way?

He blinked, startled by the thought -- and the one that followed swiftly on from it. Surely, A'nirih is not ignorant of this information -- or en'ahr'at Tarok?

The conclusion appeared so significant that it seemed hardly logical that he should deduce it prior to his father, his teacher Master Shaanak, or sponsor Tarok. The truth remained, however, that he was the only one among his peer group who had yet to link mind to mind with another. His m'aih's alien heritage had even denied him that principal bond mothers first shared with their children even before birth.

Lost in contemplation, Spock was hardly aware when Sarek and Tarok took up their positions beside the stone platform once more. The time had arrived for ti'valka-ain, the scouring, third phase in the purification ritual. He stirred abruptly when Tarok doused him with hot, scented oil from the tas, the dedicated cup reserved only for that specific purpose. Sarek, meanwhile, donned the course d'lechu-fiber mitten, and rubbed down his back with long sweeps from shoulders to waist. An accumulation of dead skin and grime soon curled into the rough strands of the glove. Sarek repeated the procedure until Spock's body glowed all over, the old skin sloughed completely away.

Invigorated by the process, Spock allowed his pelhe-ut-la to deliver him from the massage table over to the kmun'vhet, the private nook where Tarok applied the thick sh'rr herb paste that would remove any remaining body hair. Although Spock had yet to develop pubic and axillary growth, the ancient practice -- born originally out of the need for cleanliness in a hot, dry climate where water did not exist for bathing -- had become an initiation custom on the eve of koon-ut-katr-la. While the paste did its work, Tarok also cut his hair and nails.

He emerged from the kmun'vhet niche as if newborn, skin shining and smooth, hair sleek as Tehr'n seal-hide, his clipped nails clean and buffed. Tarok pulled on his own robe, wrapped Spock in decorous linen towels about hips and shoulders, while Sarek disappeared to ready their betrothal finery. Together, sponsor and protege retired to the serene precincts of the maslakan where a small fountain played and large propeller fans slowly turned, freshening the air. Sagging onto the wide, cushioned ledge, they rested next to each other, permitting their blood to cool, pores to close and skin to relax.

However, Spock found it difficult to enjoy the pleasant silence as his thoughts centered once more on the dilemma that shrouded him with ominous foreboding. Surreptitiously, he inhaled a deep, calming breath. The air smelled strongly of water from the fountain, the gushing fall creating a cool vibration of sound as it rained into the plain stone bowl below. He looked up to find Tarok studying him, head tilted on one side, eyebrow raised.

"Thee has something to ask, Spock'kham?"

Spock's heart jumped and into the listening silence, he heard his own youthful voice unexpectedly impose. With the reserve and solemnity of someone much older he said, "I must have thy thoughts, en'ahr'at. Will thee attempt a mind meld with me?"

* * *

His father returned to the maslakan, arms full of neatly folded attire to find son and foster-brother lounging upon the cushions either side of the fountain. Spock came to stand before the fount's plinth as Sarek laid the clothing down and shook out the folds of the first piece. Tarok removed the towels and, in silence, his pelhe-ut-la dressed him. Though plain, the garments were fashioned from only the most expensive fabrics, created for that special occasion.

Spock raised his arms as his chaperone fitted him with the separate layers: first, the transparent pale saffron gauze tunic wrapped left side over right and tied at shoulder and hip with silken cord. Matching under-drawers also in pale saffron were drawn on next followed by the sand-colored, waist-length kibr, with wide flowing sleeves that fell five full inches beyond his finger tips. Tarok helped him on with a second kibr, the neckband, and sleeves precisely aligned to show off the toning colors. Immediately, Sarek fastened a narrow sash about Spock's waist, tied it with a traditional knot, and twisted the band round so the bond lay against his spine. A full-length robe, in an even deeper sand hue, went on after.

Instead of another sash, the overlapping sides of the square-sleeved tunic were kept in place by the waistband of the shintiyan, an outer garment worn over the kibr, that could either be split between the legs like wide pants or non-split like a skirt. Both shintiyan styles looked the same from front and back though the split pants were used most for ease of movement. However for ceremonies and formal procedures like koon-ut-katr-la, the skirt was always worn, allowing the full-length kibr underneath to hang gracefully.

As he stood patiently and in silence, Spock felt layer after layer of rich, heavy cloth weigh upon his arms and shoulders, wrapping him about in warmth and dignity. A pair of supple calf length boots were put on his feet, and a tightly wound scroll of T'lala's Way tucked into the hidden pocket in his full sleeve. Then, at last Sarek brought forth an antique casket worked in sher'skah, bound with li'pon the old, polished wood, softly glimmering with a patina of age and centuries of gentle care. From within, nestled in a bed of plush, scarlet cloth, Sarek extracted the finely wrought jeweled harness that had passed down from father to son since the creation of Surak's line. Also, in silence, his pelhe-ut-la buckled the harness in place over his collarbones and around his waist now thickened by the bulky clothing he wore.

It was almost time for him to depart. He squared his shoulders, reminded again of his sojourn beneath Seleya's Mountain where he had first experienced the burden of his betrothal finery. All of them now clothed in stately robes, with Sarek on one side and Tarok on the other, they left the maslakan. Amid all due ceremony, his grandmother T'Phra and all her extended household of adun, children, bonded younger siblings, nieces and nephews, cousins and fosterlings, gathered in the sheltered portico to see him off on his journey. Even his mother, Amanda had conspired to be there, he saw concealing his pride and affection as she smiled warmly at him. He knelt and bowed his head before T'Phra and as tradition required, she placed her fingertips lightly upon his katra points, sharp eyes narrowing a little as she dexterously touched his thoughts. Her usual remote, matriarchal manner appeared to soften just a little -- or so it seemed to Spock -- as she pronounced, "Thee goes forth a boy but will return a man. Live long and prosper, Spock son of Sarek, son of Skon."

His mother stepped forward, hand raised, and fingers spread in the ta'al, speaking those same words, forbearing to kiss him as she might have done once, when he was still regarded as a child. Grateful for her consideration, he inclined his head in deference, laying his hand on the arm she proffered, allowing her to lead him to the boundary of his m'aihra's gardens. He donned the thick night cloak Amanda handed him and with his pelhe-ut-la guarding his honor, T'Phra sent him through the gate with a light blow between the shoulder blades.

With Sarek and Tarok in the lead, fingers clasped about the hilts of their hereditary and now symbolic short swords, ready on the instant to defend him from any danger, they joined -- at a suitable distance -- the throng of other male initiates and chaperones. Together and yet apart, walking one behind another, very proud and with heads erect, the little knots of silent men and boys threaded their way through the quiet streets and pedestrian walk ways heading as one toward the Kurat Temple complex and the waiting k'hat'n'dlawa, their as yet unbonded soul-mates.

With the su'aasal still working in him, the time spent on the last part of their journey to the temple appeared peculiarly to Spock both to race by and drag unendurably slowly. A cold breeze gusted from the desert, typical at that season, enchanting him with the sudden beauty of paving stones shimmering with a night frost that seemed to mirror the teeming stars of the heavens above. Larger than any moon, T'Khut, named Nevas'ashar by its inhabitants, and Charis by Tehr'n astronomers, glowered impressively on the brink between earth and sky.

She, too, was designated the Watcher: T'khut'hemai, the Eye, one that opened and closed, but always saw -- more than ever in the shadowy dark. And Spock felt Her orb upon him, observing him closely, as her brother, sah'kai Tel-alep had considered him, in the tunnels beneath Mount Seleya. To his disconcerted gaze, that night above all others, She appeared impossibly close, looming over him, as if waiting for the first sign of duplicity to drop out of the sky and crush him beneath Her awesome weight. In truth, he knew that could never happen, for T'Khut and Her faithful adun Ti-Valka'ain were bonded by gravity, linked together in a perpetual dance. Yet, despite that knowledge, the fancy persisted until the twin granite towers of their eventual destination, which slowly grew on the horizon, caught his reluctant consideration and would not be ignored. He watched in trepidation as the unusual outline increased, focusing on the double cones as they materialized on the skyline, the shape instantly recognizable, the basis for the customary split-fingered ta'al, the hand salute used by Vulkhanir in greeting and parting.

Spock fixed his eyes on that still far off symbol of Vulcan spirituality, repeating the words of T'lala's Way silently to himself as he sought to contain his mounting anxiety. And much too soon the red sands turned to rocky hardscrabble beneath his feet, muted by T'Khut's cool green glow, as, with his companions, he trod the hem of Seleya's wide spread stone skirts.

As they entered a sacred grove of tall, spiny Parok trees, torches blazed abruptly, illuminating the darkness with flickering orange incandescence. The tawny brightness highlighted the sand-scoured pillars and columns defining a circular arena, the craggy rocks around the periphery giving it a natural feel as if the power of the elements alone had carved it from the mountain. In the center of the circle, built on a low dais, two high arches of rough stone over an open fire pit formed an embryonic temple. Large, triangulate slabs of green crystal hung together from the overhanging arch, ponderous bass chimes turning in the chill breeze. A far off bell sounded as the boys and their chaperones spread out into strictly assigned positions round one half of the circle. It pealed out into the waiting quiet, matched harmoniously with the deeper notes of the gently undulating crystal. For a second time, the bell rang out pure and clear. And, as if summoned by the sound, a tall, muscular, and distinctly handsome male Vulcan, stripped to the waist, stepped up to the huge wind chimes. Releasing a stone mallet from its hook, he struck the jade crystal. The solemn masculine boom reverberated through the open space.

From out of the dark on the opposite side of the arena six of Seleya's young priestesses appeared. Despite the cold, they were clothed only in diaphanous white linen robes, their waist length floating hair bound only about the brow by a band of silver. Set with twin shaped, rectangular, gemstones, the pale opalescent jewels again mimicked the ta'al salute. All six acolytes carried haifan'kusvakh, the ornate frames affixed with dozens of tiny jingling bells, the ancient symbol of fecund womankind.

The muted embers in the fire pit unexpectedly blazed up as all at once a half-moon of torches on the far side of the arena flared into bright ochreous life. The crystal boomed again, met by the chiming bells. Dazzled by the sudden light, Spock impatiently blinked aside the nictitating membrane that swept across his eyesight. Then, the fine, short hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and his blood chilled abruptly -- for where before there had been only darkness and shadows, T'Pring appeared, directly opposite him on the other side of the arena.

Vaguely, Spock was aware of other young girls and their accompanying female chaperones spaced out along the far boundary, but they faded into insignificance, as T'Pring's glittering dark gaze met his own. For an instant, the roar of his heart pounded in his ears, hammering against his lower ribs as the familiar dread overcame him. Bemused, he heard the tinkling bells summon him forward and the bass chimes urge him on, and without his conscious intent his feet took the first faltering steps towards T'Pring. The circle shrank rapidly until they all stood shoulder-to-shoulder, youths and maidens arranged about the stone edge of the fire pit, their pelhe-ut-la left behind. Seven times Spock encircled the flames aware only of T'Pring -- and the rapid beat of his own heart. Then she took her place beside him, at the base of the precipitous stair that wound up the side of Mount Seleya's steep thigh, her gaze no less contemptuous than the last time they had met.

Somehow, T'Pring's disdain gave him the power to meet her stare. Relying on his earlier playacting skills, he enigmatically returned her imperious scrutiny. But as her eyes narrowed in speculation, he soon realized he fooled no one; she saw through his pretense the same as before. Just as the fear of denunciation threatened to overwhelm him, amazingly somewhere deep within his mind, he heard a voice speak his name.

Quiet and distant, Tarok murmured softly to him just as his en'ahr'at had in that former mind-meld, Spock'kham, my mind to thy mind, my thoughts to thy thoughts...

And it came to him that his sponsor had been there all along, waiting to aid him in his need. Patiently, he listened to the calm voice that he knew so well, following Tarok's instructions. And like all things, it seemed so straightforward once he understood the way of it. Within seconds, he had constructed a simple mind shield and placed his abruptly jubilant thoughts behind it. He extended his arm to escort T'Pring up the stairway, eyes upon her all the while, his features a mask of imperturbable stone, daring her to shame him. Briefly, she continued to regard him, before she inclined her head at last in comprehension, a faint trace of color staining her pale cheeks. The next instant, her fingers rested almost indiscernibly along the back of his hand and together yet still apart, touching and touched, they climbed the very first step on their way to the ceremony of koon-ut-katr-la.

THE END

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