Eight months prior...
S’Von paced restlessly before the great council chair in which Stefin lounged indolently. “A month,” the scientist muttered angrily. “An entire month lost while you indulge yourself in wine and the pleasures of your new wife. The troops grow restless for battle and soften as they spend their time with women and gambling. How much longer do you intend to wait?”
Stefin waved a limp hand at him in dismissal. “We are fine. The troops were tired and so was I. A short rest won’t hurt us. They’ve earned their time of enjoyment with those women. They worked hard enough to steal them. We’ll go back into the campaign renewed. Don’t worry.” He took a long drink from the golden goblet he held, booty from a looted holding.
“And, while we’re on the subject...” S’Von halted and pinned him with narrowed eyes. “It seems that everyone in this venture takes such pleasure except me. Am I not worthy of such a prize as well?”
Stefin peered back at him cynically and raised one eyebrow. “Take any woman that strikes your fancy. I have no interest where you spend your nights.”
Again S’Von pierced him with his strangely light eyes. “Any woman?”
The Holder’s face hardened and he sat up straight in his chair. “You know I meant any one but her.”
“Perhaps I should take her,” S’Von murmured viciously. “I would get better children on her than you.”
Furious, Stefin lunged to his feet, the golden goblet clattering to the floor, spilling wine across the stones. He started toward his sorcerer. “You treacherous bastard... I’ll hang your flayed hide from a pennon pole if I find you have so much as approached her.”
S’Von was not impressed. “Remember whom you are threatening, Stefin,” he hissed between clenched teeth. “I can do to D’Khahl what I have done to so many other holdings.”
The Holder towered above the shorter man in barely contained fury and his dagger was under S’Von’s chin instantly. “Not before I can cut your throat, wizard. Your power lies in your devices, not in your heart. Perhaps I will slice that out and mince it for stew. Then we shall see how powerful you are.”
“That would be an extraordinarily foolish thing to attempt,” S’Von muttered and Stefin felt a gouge in his ribs. He glanced down to find his sorcerer holding a hand phaser firmly against his side. “I will vaporize you before I die of blood loss. All it would take is a jerk of my finger. A death jerk, perhaps. Just a twitch and you’re dead with me.”
Stefin forced himself to rein in his anger and back off, stepping away from the other man. “Very well, have it your way.” He slid his dagger back into its sheath at his hip. “Call the captains together and we will begin planning the next phase of the campaign after mid-meal. But remember...” His dark eyes were merciless. “I meant what I said about T’Kaela. I don’t care how many other women you bed, but I won’t tolerate advances toward my wife.” He turned and stalked away.
S’Von watched him go and slowly put away the phaser. Still seething, he thought of the Telapul bride who had been the price of peace with the D’Khahli holder. She had fought her marriage to her city’s conqueror. Rumor had it that Stefin had to physically subdue her each night when he bedded her. It was like taking a le’matya to wife and word had gone round among the courtiers that Stefin had never been so happy or satisfied in his life.
For the first time S’Von pictured himself in Stefin’s place, and the idea of taking the wild T’Kaela caused a shiver of anticipation to go over him. He decided that he wouldn’t mind in the least if she fought him and he were forced to restrain her. Indeed, the thought of her bound and helpless beneath him sent a pulse of charged excitement through him. He began to plot a way to take her away from the foolish man who owned both her and her father’s lands.
* * *
As the excitement from the combat died away, the inhabitants of Shar’ram scattered to their various pursuits. Suvakh called the fortress steward to him. “Has Sai Spock’s hox been attended to?”
“Yes, Lord,” the man answered. “He has been stabled and fed and the sai’s belongings stowed there.”
“Very good. Spock, if you will go with Stenin, he will find you a sleeping place and then show you where you may find things and places here at Shar’ram.”
“Thank you, uncle,” Spock replied with a nod of appreciation.
“I would go with you, master, but first I must speak with Lord Anskar,” spoke up Ansaric, now re-dressed. “It is my duty as shi’ka’ree to attend you.”
“Take care of your business with our Lord Holder,” Spock told him. “I must see to Brax and make sure that he is well. I will see you this afternoon.”
Ansaric looked torn between his duties for a moment, then nodded. “As you wish, master.” He turned and left the stone circle.
Spock went with Stenin, the fortress steward, to find a place where Spock could sleep that night. It turned out to be a curtained alcove off the main hall. Spock was afforded this privacy as a guest, though many others simply spread their bedrolls near the fireplace in the great room. The further away from the hearth, the colder the spot. So Spock traded warmth for privacy and a straw-filled mattress in the corner of the room on which to spread his blanket.
With his sleeping accommodations identified, Spock found his way to the stables to see that Brax was being cared for properly. The Holding stable was a long, cave-like area at the rear of the great hall, a center aisle running all the way through it and opening into the back baileys of the fortress complex. Along either side of this aisle were adjoining stalls and a great number of hoxa stood or lay in them, sleeping, eating or rechewing their regurgitated cud, eyes half-closed as they dozed. Several grooms were brushing down the coats of animals tethered along the dividing aisle. Other grooms were seated on benches, repairing and oiling harness and tack. Despite the great number of animals kept there, the stable smelled clean and well-kept.
Brax had been provided with a thick bedding of straw and had been fed a meal of tikh grain and strawgrass. Again, Spock found his knowledge of hoxa to be extraordinarily full, although he had no idea how he had gained this information. He only knew that he should procure a coat brush from one of the grooms and give Brax a thorough going-over. The hox stood contentedly as his master ran the soft brush over broad sweeps of muscle and down strong legs. The animal lifted his feet obligingly as Spock brushed out the thick coat of hair feathering around the tridactyl hooves. Once done there, the Vulcan gently went over the hox’s face, taking extra care around his eyes and the short, thick horns that sprouted in front of his ears, then he went to work on getting the tangles out of Brax’s mane and tail, leaving them flowing and shining like silver.
The grooming took a couple of hours and Brax purred appreciatively throughout. He nuzzled Spock and radiated waves of happiness. Spock knew that hoxa bonded with their masters and enjoyed an empathic relationship with them, but he’d never realized how strong that empathy would be. Brax almost seemed to speak to him at times, although there were never words, just emotions that swept over him that expressed the hox’s feelings about things.
Once he had finished seeing to his hox’s needs, Spock returned the brush to its owner and went back to Brax’s stall to retrieve his saddlebags and gear, which were stowed with Brax’s tack. He didn’t inquire if they’d been opened. It would have been an unthinkable breach of conduct to do so, and he hefted them across one shoulder to carry back to the sleeping place he’d been assigned.
It was late afternoon now, the rest period when the pace in the Holding slowed until the worst of the day’s heat had passed. The day had left Spock fatigued and he was looking forward to finding something to eat for mid-meal and to meditating for a while on all that had happened since his arrival at Shar’ram that morning. Then he would decide what course he needed to take in beginning his search for S’Von.
As Spock crossed the courtyard, he was suddenly stopped by familiar music. It wasn’t that the song was familiar, although there was the hint of an old folk melody to it, but that it had the unmistakable sound of being played on a ka’athyra, a Vulcan lyre. He followed the sound and was lured by the music into a side garden, lined with flowers and trees, a small fountain dancing in the midst of a tranquil little pool.
Seated on a stone bench beside the fountain was the girl he’d seen earlier and she was softly plucking at the stringed instrument cradled in her lap. Enchanted, he watched her for a moment as her fingers moved over the strings. The lyre wasn’t quite like his. The instrument he played was a modern version, after all, with electronic enhancers and amplifiers and unbreakable strings made of manufactured polymers. This was the lyre in its purest form — hand-carved wood and carefully stretched and twisted tendon fibers comprising the strings.
She seemed to be having trouble with one particular section of the song. Each time she played it, the sequence ended off-key. At last, he asked softly, “May I?”
With a surprised gasp, she leaped to her feet and stared at him. “My lord — I didn’t see you! You startled me!”
“I’m sorry,” he said gently. “I didn’t mean to.”
For a long moment, they studied each other, unable to tear their eyes away. She was a little older than he’d originally thought, about nineteen or twenty, and her eyes were the color of deep, rich mahogany, framed by long dark lashes. Delicate upswept brows accented those eyes perfectly and her skin was flawless, its porcelain-like purity tinged with the faint glow of jade, now prominent on her cheeks. Falling nearly to her waist, her deep black hair floated free around her, held back from her face by a jeweled hairclip. Full lips parted slightly, she finally answered, “It’s all right. I just wasn’t expecting anyone.”
“I heard you playing,” he replied. “May I try...?” He gestured at the lyre she still held hugged to her.
“Oh, of course.” She held it out to him.
Spock set down the heavy saddlebags and took the ka’athyra from her, seating himself on the bench and settling the instrument into position. It was smaller than his lyre and he took a moment to experimentally touch the strings, getting the feel of it. Then he closed his eyes and concentrated on her song. Years of experience came to his bidding and he recreated the melody she had played. When he reached the place where she had faltered, he improvised his way through it, then continued, calling upon the old folk theme to finish.
When he finally raised his head and looked at her, she was staring at him in awe. A bit embarrassed, he smiled and offered the lyre back to her. “I think that’s what you were working toward, anyway,” he said.
She hugged the ka’athyra to her once more. “Sai, that was beautiful... How did you learn to play that way?”
“It is nothing. I played often in my homeland,” he responded, dismissing the subject, and rose to his feet again. “My name is Spock.”
“I know. I was in the hall when you arrived. I heard you speaking with Lord Anskar. I am T’Preve.”
“Yes, Lord Suvakh told me.”
She carefully laid the ka’athyra down on the stone bench and moved back towards the fountain. “We don’t get many strangers here. I hope you’ll tell us your story tonight after last-meal. I’m sure you have some interesting tales to tell.”
“Not really,” Spock shrugged, following her to stand beside the flowering shrubs around the pond. Water dancers darted about on the pool surface, wary of the tiny bronze-colored fish that lurked below. “Travel is really very dull unless you enjoy hearing about how many kh’eet it is from one water hole to the next.” He changed the subject. “The garden is lovely. Did you grow the flowers here?”
“Oh, no, m’lord. But I do enjoy coming here during afternoon rest. I’ve been trying to learn to play the ka’athyra and this is a good place to practice.”
“Perhaps I can help you with that sometime,” he responded.
“Would you?” Her face brightened. “Yes, I would enjoy that. I think you could teach me things I’ve never imagined.” Abruptly she blushed. “That didn’t come out quite right.”
“Not at all. Your statement was quite appropriate.” He reached down and picked a flower bud from a bush growing beside the water, its blossoms just beginning to burst into red flame. “This is an interesting species. It’s called ‘wedding flower’, is it not? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it bloom in this particular color.” On impulse, he reached out and offered it to her, but she shied away.
“What’s wrong? Do I frighten you?” he asked.
“No. You don’t, m’lord ... it’s just that ...” She looked down in embarrassment then back up at him, smiling shyly. “I really shouldn’t be alone here with you. I am pledged.”
He gazed at her in appraisal and his brows lifted quizzically. “But I am a cousin,” he insisted softly. “Surely it is not wrong to be with family members.”
She looked away again, amused and aware that he was teasing her. “I’m not sure my father would agree with you. He would say that such a distant cousin ... and such a handsome one ... would not qualify for that distinction.”
“Your father was undoubtedly a wise man,” Spock answered, his voice dropping to nearly a whisper.
T’Preve looked up at him, gauging his expression to see if she had truly understood the suggestion that she had heard in his voice. He was standing before her with his hands behind his back, still holding the flower bud lightly between his fingers. She took the opportunity to study him more closely — tall and slender, perhaps in his mid-30's, a man mature and experienced, but still young. His angular face was marked by lines that somehow told her he was familiar with battle and the burdens of commanding men, although at the moment the dark brown eyes underneath his sweeping brows sparkled with mischief and humor. A little smile played upon his lips as he raised one eyebrow questioningly.
“I think you are the wise one ... cousin,” she answered in the same soft tone with just a hint of promise in it.
He smiled at that and held out the flower to her again. “Then there is no harm in accepting this, is there?”
This time she took it, though she watched him coyly, intrigued by him but keeping her distance. “From one cousin to another,” she answered.
He bowed his head in a courtly manner and responded, “Cousin.” Still smiling, he retrieved his gear and left the garden, glancing back at her before he went through the gate. She brought the flower up to inhale its fragrance, her eyes lingering on the direction he had gone.