A Klingon prayed for a worthy enemy. That was what the men said. The women often added their sarcasm to it, pointing out that once a worthy enemy did come along, all they did was complain.

And what did Azetbur complain or pray about? She didn't even know which her father did. Peace had been his desire, peace with a rival Empire even though the endless warring had cost him half the clan, his wife, and very nearly his eyesight.

They buried him with full honors, inside a photon torpedo decorated with the sigils of the Black Fleet. The scar across his face everyone thought a combat badge; only Azetbur knew he had earned the wound clamboring through the wreckage of a ruptured warship, pulling out the survivors before the nitroxygen escaped into vacuum.

Kang took her aside after the honors. His race carried the ridges latently; the change between him a hundred years ago was astonishing to her eyes, accustomed as they had become to viewing bald-fore'd humans in the knotted vinework of diplomacy. White haired with a full beard, he was a fierce frost-godling, with a voice that rumbled like the Earthshaker himself.

"What next, Azetbur?" He growled, deep in his throat; she felt the vibrations against her sternum plate. "Will it be your father's desire? Or are you free to choose?"

And she lifted her chin up, because it was a challenge, even a subtle one from an old family friend, and best a friend dare her than an enemy. While the witnesses watched and listened, she smiled sideways, showing her teeth.

"I choose to follow my father." She shot back.

And Kang laughed, throwing his head back as his throat swelled against his high collar. "Kai, Azetbur!" His teeth gleamed snow-white and sharp. "Gorkon had no daughters, only sons!"

"Warrior" was Kang's native dialect for "son", as "daughter" was the word for "protector of livestock."* The pun was double-edged and full of meaning. Spoken in public, he had just acknowledged Azetbur as a fully accorded fighter. Now if anyone had any problems with her, they would have to face her directly, instead of a closekin warrior.

That night she went to the battleground of her own choosing, in the privacy of a soldier's quarters. He was the elder by some years, misty-sentimental over the loss of her father, and she had no faults with his performance. But afterwards, she left the way she usually did with these meetings, silently, without announcement or farewells.

***

"The problem is not with the humans themselves, but the way they labor in their Empire."

Koloth spoke wryly. His sense of humor was often unfathomable to his own people--but the humans responded well to it, and he of them all had the most experience with them personally (just fighting them didn't quite count, although that was very important.)

As Azetbur watched, the warrior got to his feet, pressing his knuckles down on the surface of the polished stone table and leaned forward. This was his particular mannerism when he had something important to say, and everyone present was keen enough to listen intently.

"Some would say we are about to commit a form of treason, deciding what we are. I say it is no treason to choose our own paths in life. Nor do I say it is treason to refuse to blindly follow an Emperor who has made no significant kills...save that of his own kin when rising to the throne. If I may, I quote an ancient Terran proverb: "I have no qualms with taking bread from the mouths of decadence."

That opening went well, Azetbur marveled at the ripple of amused admiration through the room. Koloth had always been a smooth talker--and smooth even in his silences, managing to convey much with his body language without being brusque. Even the aged and jaded could feel a response to his words.

Sitting with his arms folded, Kor was chuckling, a baritone grinding of sandstone boulders deep in the bones of his breast.

"How long have we fought the Terrans?" Koloth asked the air.

"Three hundred years." Someone replied--Azetbur glanced to the side, saw Kor's youngest son, Kirg. He was handsome, still smooth-browed, but his ridges were beginning to shadow his skull-bones. A tattoo of a black monster rested on his left cheek; an impressive mark. Just as impressive was the large adamantine plate around his neck; the Collegium's highest awards in science. Azetbur had an ear for gossip like anyone else, and wondered what had dragged the man away from his environmental laboratories long enough to accompany his father here.

"Three hundred years." Koloth agreed. "How long did we fight the Bajoran and Cardassian?"

"Fifty." Grumbled Kreb.

"We know the humans, do we not?" Koloth's voice lifted at the end of the sentence, making it a challenge.

There was a brief pause, while this was analyzed, and Kang laughed.

"Of course we know them. We know them better than the Scaled ones, or the ones who wear their ridges on their noses."

Koloth let the amusement carry itself just a bit, and nodded, sastisfied that the point had been made. "Exactly. "We KNOW the humans. We know where their honor cannot be compromised. We know where they can be. We know their strengths and weaknesses, AS THEY KNOW OURS! Why then did the Emperor choose to ally with those WE DID NOT KNOW when our home was destroyed?"

Soft, whispering breaths were drawn in through bared teeth; it was a sore point, and one that could NOT be argued against.

"I would not have joined any people responsible for the Battle of Klarr." One man muttered under his breath. "No matter what."

"Most of us feel that way." Kirg reminded the man.

Azetbur thought that was a kind, gentle way of putting it. Most of the old warriors could not mention Klarr without making the sign for vomitous nausea. The Klingon race had been psychologically vulnerable after the destruction of their homeworld, and when the Cardassians had promptly bombed one of their most suitable, long-colonized planets off the starmaps, it had increased the sickening horror. And not one month after Klarr joined the Homeworld in the Afterworld, did the Emperor sign a treaty swearing friendship with the scaled folk who had cowardly murdered twenty-five billion of their people.

"Spock of Vulcan was open to our friendship." Koloth continued. "Most of us here KNOW that Terran-Vulcan. In battle and in treaty. He learned well from Kirk, that's plain. And what Spock does, all of Vulcan follows in. I fear that when the Bajorans and Cardassians became our allies, we sealed the fate of the Terran Empire."

Koloth shot his black eyes to Azetbur. She had expected this cue, but still felt skewered. "Azetbur?"

She stood, and bowed with her head in respect to her elder before looking around the room. Any show of nerves would insult her father's memory.

"Most of the Terrans would have been against an alliance with us." She began. "But that is the surface level of their political schism. As we know, they have very brief lifespans. Their children replace them quickly. It is not a matter of the Sum-Terran being against us, but the fact that very few of these Terrans are in power. The sheer design of their goverment closely resembles that of our own people, before Kahless took control and established the Council Norms that we follow today."

There was a stir of interest at this; Kor, who was an inveterate lover of tactics, began stroking his long moustaches in thought.

"So one rises to power through family connections." Kirg commented softly. "Instead of proving in battle?"

"Exactly." Azetbur nodded. "This is a common complaint even among the Terrans; their philosophy is dependant on war, yet their very structure prevents the most useful and skilled from rising in ability, and encourages the weakness of lies and deceit. When Spock of Vulcan banned rank-assassination, he was actually making it illegal for a man to arrange for the death of another through indirect means. Now if one wants to kill, they must, in his own words, "get their hands dirty."

"Haaahhhh." Kor began laughing again. "Now I see. That explains why some humans act above killing. They've never done it before...just had other people do it for them. No wonder they irritate me the way some of our nobles do!"

"Spock of Vulcan is no longer in power." Kang pointed out. "The Caesar has re-seized control, and the once-Commander-in-Chief is in hiding."

"Hiding in a way." Koloth admitted. "More like to say, in an unapproachable position. When the Alliance encroached upon Old Empire Space, he dispersed the best of his people across the Galaxy to Kahless Knows Where."

"Some fled behind the Asteroid Belt inside the Fabrini worldship." Kor was back to stroking his moustaches. "And I've heard that Spock of Vulcan spends his time in various places in the Empire...and in the Romulan Empire."

"If I had pointed ears, I would too." Koloth joked.

"Do you see the point?" Azetbur asked. "My father did find proof that Spock of Vulcan does spend time in sanctuary with the Romulans. That is a strong and powerful Empire. This is an opportunity we should consider." As a junior warrior, she would not say that her elders should or should not go to war.

"What do you say, Azetbur?" Kang asked.

Azetbur did not take an obvious deep breath. "My father and I learned much of humans in our work. Spock of Vulcan was battling against a corrupt regime that ill-treated its people. Now that our people have joined an Alliance with Bajor and Cardassia, they feel things have only gotten nominally worse for them." She paused, letting them think about that. Bad indeed must it be among the Terran Empire to think the Cardassian thumb was not much lighter than the Caesar's.

"That'll give you nightmares." Kleg muttered.

"We have been instrumental in enslaving people we knew and understood far better than the races we have allied with. Kahless did say, 'An enemy who fights is more worthy than a pacifist friend, for which will respect you more?' And now look upon us. Corruption is seeping into the schism of our own government. Trial by combat has become few and far between. How many of our young people can test ourselves? The best we can do is paltry border skirmishes with the Romulans! What testing did we ever get out of Cardassia? Cloaked raids and death from a distance; Bajor--biochemical weapons that made our own bodies betray us!"

Azetbur knew she had to halt before a frenzy of patriotism overtook the table. Flushed, she swallowed hard, forcing her adrenaline down. Knives were being cleaned everywhere she looked; teeth gleamed in sharp points and eyes burned white-hot.

"The True Klingons will remain true. I believe this. Let the weak be swayed by bribes and tributes and hollow awards. We shall carve our own way, as we always have, even if we have to eat dirt for a hundred years! It will be OUR dirt, and no one else's!"

"Hah!" Kor bellowed. He was the smallest of the Klingon present, but the best fighter. "Gorkon never died!"

Mailed fists slammed into the stonetop table, Kor's striking white powder as the mineral caved under his blow. The room resounded with a heavy gong of full-throated, defiant Klingon praise.

It was the highest honor Azetbur had ever been given; always before, it had been Gorkon who had recieved the lauds.

***

"The Fabrini are a staunchly neutral people." Koloth commented. "They were forced to join the Terran Empire. After Spock of Vulcan came to power, he supported their autonomy. Anyone can visit their worldship, and their New World if they choose, but they must leave politics out of it."

"Probably a wise attitude, considering how small their world is." Kor shrugged. "So the Fabrini are the first place to go."

Kirg was silent, content to study the 3-D starmap that hovered above the table. Everyone could see empty space where two Klingon planets had been...and before long, the gravitational differential would damage the ones closest by their drifting planetestimals. And, depressingly close by, rested the planets the Emperor had "given" the other two races of the Alliance.

"Good fighters." Kang grunted. "They can take a Vulcan down without drawing a breath. Always liked watching them in the Arena."

"They would follow Spock of Vulcan, I think." Koloth's eyes missed nothing. "Their heirophant owes him many favors. And she consorts with his personal healer."

"The Capellans would follow as well." Kor leaned back in his chair, polishing his hooked knife. "Now THOSE folk, that's what I call entertainment in the ring! Not much sense of humor, but can't have everything. Very amusing, the way they deadpan their way through the opposition."

Azetbur let the chatter flow around her. It sounded like the council was being sidetracked, but she knew better. This was how the older men debated; forgetting no small points, returning to them in intrticate loops and knots of conversation. This was how Gorkon taught her strategy, and how to listen.

Kirg glanced up once, as a small yellow sun-image circled around a chain of mining colonies claimed by Bajor. Azetbur was almost certain of the interest she saw in his eyes.

***

Later, they broke for the evening. Kor gave her a stiffly proper nod and told her his son was feeling feisty; he would welcome the chance to accompany her to her ship in case some riffraff felt overly eager to cause rudeness (in other words, try to kill her).

Azetbur thanked him, knowing it wasn't condescension to her sex but an invitation to exchange information.

***

"Do you have enough escorts for your trip?" Kirg asked with charming candor.

"Possibly." Azetbur answered back. Their boots rang against the metal of the floors and walls.

"Hmn." He grunted. He was dying to ask for a berth on her ship, but was still searching for the right way to ask. Azetbur was quite humored by the man's sudden and uncharacteristic indecision, and chose to let him sweat it out.

If he would only come out and ask outright...

"May I ask what your plans are for this evening?" He wondered.

Hmnn....close to the mark...but hardly a kill-strike. Azetbur stopped in front of her doorway as mailed warriors tromped past on their specific duties.

"Actually, I had made no plans." She confessed. "I wasn't thinking of this evening."

"You weren't?" He was surprised. "What were you thinking of?"

"Your face-mark."

Kirg blinked, then grinned, no longer a pretty boy, but a man who had used his youth as an advantage, and taken his kills with all strengths. The tattooed monster moved with his cheek muscles.

"I like that." Azetbur nodded to it. "Is it a sigil?"

Kirg touched the black-pigmented skin with a fingertip, clearly quite proud of himself. "It is from the world of my birth." He explained. "A spider that lives in the deepest depths of the seas."

"Venomous?" She wondered.

"No need." His grin grew. "It can get over four porr in length, enough to swallow a man whole in his armor...if the jaws don't shred him into convenient little pieces first." He added conversationally: "Sometimes they like to bury a snack under the corals for later."

Azetbur was fascinated. "I like the story as much as I like the mark." Her own hand reached up and touched the skin, her eyes gleaming with the Klingon invitation: partial dare, partial opening.

"I was tired of looking milk-faced." He confessed. "I hold no fault for my sire's genes, but I often stood by the mirror and willed for my ridges to come out."

Azetbur laughed. "I did the same with my breasts."

He blinked, thrown off balance at her coup. "No." Unable to resist, he glanced downward. "You?"

"Truly." Azetbur grinned.

***

He turned out to be the lover she expected: enthusiastic, gymnastic. Azetbur was of course accustomed to trading favors with proven warriors, and that nearly always meant someone twice her age. To be with someone more her years was a new change, more of a challenge to her stamina. She enjoyed it immensely, and found she had reason to stay afterwards.

"Do you want to be a part of the delegation?" She asked.

Krig grinned. "Not much chance for fighting where I am." He shrugged young, strong shoulders, muscles and plate rippling.

"This is true." She smiled back. "And fighting there will be. Many of the Klingon will remain loyal to the Emperor no matter what."

"In peacetime, allies battle." Krig quoted philosophically. "What will be your plan?"

"Simple enough. The Daran System has a planet the Fabrini and native Darans cannot live in. We could, however. And comfortably."

"A Land treaty?" Krig's eyes lit up. "That would be interesting. Why can't they live on it?"

"Too much cyanocides in the atmosphere for their species. Hardly an inconvenience for us. If we could get their agreement on a colony-contract, it would give us ample chance to begin the forging of deeper bridges."

"We haven't had a new colony formed in years." Kirg murmured. His eyes had a faraway gleam. "Not since I was about to test at third-level weapons."

"They can't use the world. We can. Our population grows under pressure. There is enough room for millions." Azetbur let him think about that, knowing she had judged him correctly; war wasn't the only thing he thrived upon. Kirg enjoyed a testing.

"You could use a skilled enviro-technician." Kirg said knowingly.

"I could." Azetbur grinned back. Her tonguetip ran along the very points of her canines, almost thoughtfully. "For many things."

THE END...

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