THREE: In which there are Husbands and a duel…
“Why did you soil yourself with that ts’mri?!” the lieutenant asked sharply, spitting the word out like a curse.
“Kesh!” Tom snapped, stopping him from saying anything else. “That was my fiancÚ,” he whispered. Kesh fell silent. He remembered Tom telling him about his ‘fh-ounce-see’ when they first met.
“I am sorry,” Kesh said quietly. He did not mean to upset his captain. Tom waved it away.
“You couldn’t have known.” Kesh nodded; there was nothing else he could do.
“What will you do with them?”
“I will speak to the pa’ani and do with them whatever she decides,” Tom said simply, rising from the mat. Kesh rose as well; the matter was closed and he would not ask again.
“I shall inform Homeworld of your imminent arrival,” he said, bowing as he backed out of the room. Tom turned his attention to one of the ship’s few portholes and gazed on the familiar planes of Voyager.
“Why now?” he asked the ship. “Why do you come now? Why not before?” Silent as the grave, the ship did not answer, and Tom turned away and prepared himself for sleep.
Tom secured his veil tightly before stepping out of the shuttle and onto the warm soil of Homeworld, his dusei following faithfully. Kiset was a desert planet with a single ocean that, all told, covered only a quarter of the planet. The rest of the world’s water was concentrated on the equator, a thin strip of land that was essentially a broken oasis. The People used to inhabit the land surrounding the Oasis, until the ts’mri came and pushed them further and further into the desert, claiming their lands. Tom was not on the planet when this occurred, nearly fifty years ago, but nonetheless, the very thought sent fire hurdling through his veins. He had not exaggerated when he’d said settling on the planet without integrating with the mri was a bad idea. The People would have been outraged and Tom would not be able to stop their righteous war.
Tom walked leisurely to the endun, the central dwelling place of the mri, the heat not affecting his pace in the slightest. He had learned very quickly that no one had business that was so important as to engender running. Kiset immediately sucked the moisture out of those fools who did. When he finally reached the system of caves and stone outbuildings that made up the endun, he waited patiently at the base of the stair to be challenged and admitted while his dusei wandered off to his own entrance.
“Speak,” the sentry called. They had learned quickly that because a man waited at their doorstep in the garb of a mri, didn’t mean he was mri.
“I am Kel’en Paris, of Hope,” Tom called back, his voice only loud enough to carry, which wasn’t loud since he stood in a natural courtyard that projected his voice upwards.
“Come, Kel’en, and welcome home,” the sentry called back.
“Gracious, brother, and thank you,” Tom said with a small bow. He mounted the steps and climbed, his pace as leisurely as his walk. When he reached the top the sentry waited with hand outstretched. This was a finally test; if Tom were an imposter, he would take the offered hand and allowed himself to be pulled to the landing, where he would be unveiled, and possibly thrown from the Heights to the floor below, a twenty-five span fall. As it was, Tom ignored the offered hand and grabbed a handhold in the left wall to haul himself up. The sentry backed away graciously and Tom passed him with only a short nod in greeting. The mri were a people of little speech, especially to those they were not Familiar with.
Tom walked calmly through the well-know passages, ignoring those he passed; he was Kel’en and need take notice of no one but the pa’ani and her Chosen, unless he chose to do otherwise. His feet carried him to the narrow stairwell that led to the pa’ani’s audience chamber. She would have been notified of his arrival and should be waiting for him. Though the pa’ani was the Mother of the People, and by law was above all the People, by custom, she was subject to the whims of the Kel’en, the Heaven Warriors.
When Tom reached the top of the stairwell, a small hall led to a tall door made of precious wood. Tom knocked once and then lowered himself to his knees off to one side of the door to await the pa’ani’s pleasure. The door opened a few minutes later and a gold-robed Sath’ell ushered him in with a slight hand motion. Tom lowered his forehead to the ground once, in a sign of respect, and then stood and walked past the Sath’ell into the carpeted chamber beyond. The pa’ani was the only one of the People who went regularly without a veil, veiling herself only when there were ts’mri in the endun. She was well advanced in years, and her creased face showed the marks of good breeding and nobility. She had been beautiful once, but beauty was wasted on a pa’ani, as she and her Chosen were celibate.
“Welcome home, Son,” she greeted, inclining her head elegantly. She was seated in her high-backed wooden chair, her back not touching the fine red cushions.
“Gracious, Mother. Are you well?” he asked. She inclined her head and then relaxed against her cushions. This was her treasured Son, and she had no need for formalities beyond the greeting.
“You have a request to make of me, Tom?” she asked, using the private name that she above all others had liberty to.
“Indeed, Mother. My people, whom I’ve told you of, have come across us. They are very poor condition and request sanctuary.”
“Ah. And what did you tell them?”
“I told them that life among the mri would be difficult for them.”
“And they persisted?”
“They are desperate and in need of a home.”
“We cannot supply them, repair them?”
“They are shorted drastically on personnel. Even with supplies and repairs they would not survive long.”
“We cannot supply them with personnel.”
“I understand that, Mother, and I explained that to them. They do not wish to settle with any of our neighbors, and I believe I have been successful in dissuading them from settling elsewhere on the planet.”
“That is very good. The People would not tolerate it. I will put it to the Husbands; they will decide tonight.” Tom simply nodded; the matter was closed, and Tom could not bring it up again until the Husbands had been notified and had discussed the matter. They spoke for a moment more on the state of affairs in the endun. A young Trill’ell had been drafted into the ranks of the Kel, and a female Trill’ell had been taken into the Sath’ell. A Kel elder had taken the Long Walk into the realms of Shadow, and a new Kel had risen to the rank of Husband in his place.
“Go, my Son and get some rest. The Husbands will meet here tonight; you should be here.”
“I will, Mother,” Tom promised. He touched his head to the floor and propelled himself backwards with his arms two paces before rising and backing away.
“Rest well,” the pa’ani said in parting.
“Thank you, Mother.” Tom closed the door silently behind him and turned away. The stairs led him back to the main corridor, and from there to another set of stairs that was wide and led down into the homes of the People. The chambers of the Kel’en were on the upper levels, with the Sath’ell, on the levels below were the Kel, and below them were the Trill’ell. The different castes mingled very rarely, and though the lower castes were not prohibited from entering the sleeping corridors of the upper castes, nor the upper castes of the lower, there was rarely any occasion to do so.
His chambers were made from one of the natural caverns in the cliffs. The floor had been leveled and smoothed, but otherwise the cavern was left much as it had been. A door on the far side of the main cavern opened into a smaller one that he used as a sleeping area. The main room was for guests and day-to-day activities, and housed his dusei, who was already on his gigantic stone couch, dozing lazily. He approached the animal and patted its gigantic, hunched shoulders with a rough sort of fondness. In response, the dusei, who was not named and had no definite sex, lifted its head and nudged Tom in the chest with its large flat face. Tom scratched him roughly behind the ears and then withdrew, removing his veil, turban, and gloves as he did so. Unconcerned, the dusei lowered its head back to where it had been resting between its large, clawed paws.
Tom checked the heavy woven curtain that separated his home from the hallway and began to disrobe. In one corner, a large basin had been carved into a naturally raised rock formation. On Kiset, water was precious, but beneath the endun there was a lake that was roughly a kilometer across and likely several hundred feet deep. It was one of a scattering of underground lakes, and was the main reason the endun had been founded in the middle of an extremely long stretch of desert. Therefore, those of the People who lived in the endun enjoyed the privilege of baths. Nonetheless, when Tom opened the narrow pipe, he let only enough warm water flow into the basin to allow him to wash, and was extremely careful not to let any of it get on the floor. He had never really appreciated how precious a commodity could be until it was scarce, but over the last seven years had grown accustomed to saving as much of the endun’s water as he could. Initially it had been because he felt it wasn’t his. Now, it was because he knew it wasn’t. The water belonged to the People.
After bathing and carefully drying off, Tom pulled the drain. The water would follow a system of pipes and would be purified by the purple moss that grew inside of them before being pumped back into the lake.
On board Voyager, Janeway and her senior staff sat around the now seldom used table and pondered what to do. No one was under the misconception that, even with aid from Tom, they could continue as they had. Everyone was frankly exhausted. Six months of double shifts and insufficient nourishment had left everyone sickly and depressed. They’d managed to survive this long by virtue of their tireless holographic doctor and the vitamin implants they’d all been given two months ago. Which were due for an exchange. Not that they had the stores to replace them. The situation would quickly degenerate into utter hopelessness not long after the supplement implants finally gave out.
“I don’t see that we have much of a choice,” the captain said finally. It had been very difficult when, after Tom left Voyager, they sat down to hash out a plan. It had been Tuvok, ever logical, who had suggested that they follow Tom’s example. No one wanted to admit that they had all been thinking it. No one had to.
“Have you all spoken to your departments?” They all nodded, slowly, still unwilling to admit to what they were doing. They were abandoning their journey home; a journey that may have been abandoned a hundred –a thousand- times before, but wasn’t. They were admitting defeat. “You’ve given them all the information Tom sent us?” Again, they nodded, this time grimacing a bit. The information they’d been sent had been pretty general. It involved their caste system, a basic overview of their religion, and some of the customs of the People, all of which seemed very harsh.
“We really… we haven’t much choice,” Kathryn said, trying to convince herself as much as anyone. After all, they were deserting. It was an offense punishable by death, regardless of whether they were at war or not.
“We have no choice,” Kim amended quietly. Over the last few days, the supplement implants had been releasing so little of the vital chemicals that had kept everyone healthy and nourished, that her crew was beginning to resemble ghosts.
“Then… then I guess all we can do is wait for Tom to return.” More nods, more silence. Outside, the great abyss seemed to hum.
The Husbands were five of the oldest and most decorated Kel. Here there was a strange dance as well. By law, Tom and the pa’ani both outranked these five withered old men. But by custom, Tom had to treat them as a superior and accord them all the respect he would accord an equally aged and decorated member of the Kel’en. Likewise, by custom, the pa’ani had to consult and listen to their advice on all matters that affected the People. She would have to have a very good reason not to take whatever advice the Husbands offered, yet by law she could technically ignore them completely and not even include them in discussions if she desired. Not that she would be pa’ani long if she did so. The People would be incensed and some younger, more orthodox Sath’ell would take a champion from the Kel and challenge her.
So, when Tom came into the room, the Husbands stood, recognizing his rank as defined by the silver lining on his clothing, but it was Tom who bowed, low, with his eyes turned down. Everyone was seated. Not being a Husband himself, Tom felt odd sitting in on the discussion, but they would likely need his council on the matter since Voyager had once been his home and her crew once his people. He sat on his knees by the pa’ani’s empty chair and cast his eyes down, indicating that he did not wish to be drawn into conversation. The Husbands ignored him accordingly and Tom turned his thoughts again to his old comrades. To Harry.
//“Harry, I have a present for you!” Tom sung out. Harry
came out of his sleeping quarters, dressed in soft white pants and a black tank top, showing of his arms and the muscles on his chest that he’d been working so hard on. Tom grinned.
“What is it?” Harry asked, curious.
“C’mere and see.” Harry approached the table cautiously. They had just finished a very nice, romantic dinner to celebrate their three-month anniversary. Sitting on the cleared table, was a round chocolate box, with raspberries spilling out of it, and a decorative swirl of dark red syrup around the plate.
“Mmmm…” Harry said, smiling. He loved chocolate and raspberries. Tom sat him down insistently and Harry picked up his fork, and lifted the lid. Instead of finding raspberries swimming in syrup as he’d expected, he found another box with a few of the sweet barriers around it. Lifting an eyebrow, he opened the other box. No barries this time. Sitting on a black velvet cushion was a simple gold ring. //
“Please be seated,” the pa’ani announced. It wasn’t until then that Tom realized she had entered and he had automatically stood. Brought back to the present, he sank back to his knees, his hands resting lightly on his thighs, back straight and head up, indicating that he was approachable. The Husbands removed their veils; there were no veils between them. Tom did not.
“Husbands,” the pa’ani said, starting the meeting, “Kel’en,” she acknowledged. He was the only Kel’en in the room and subsequently, he would now be addressed only by his title, as he now represented every member of his caste. His inclined his head slightly and remained silent.
“We have at our doorstep weary travelers who seek sanctuary.”
“Is that wise?” the youngest Husband, who had only recently been taken into the caste, asked, almost immediately. “Is it wise to allow ts’mri into our homes? We once welcomed ts’mri to Homeworld and showed them how to survive, and helped them survive, and they have turned us out of our homes.”
“It is my understanding that there are not enough of them to be a threat to the People,” the pa’ani said, though her tone was conversational, not to be quoted. She would not be blamed if it went badly.
“Spies,” the same Husband suggested. His tone held heat where there should have been none; this was supposed to be a logical meeting in which the choices were presented and thought through until a decision could be made. The young Husband’s brethren heard to the tone and turned to him with cool eyes. He averted his gaze in silent apology and the eyes turned from him. Tom watched the exchange with curiosity; there was much he had learned about the People, much he had been forced to learn, but there was also much he didn’t know. He had been among them for seven years –ten of Kiset’s years- and he had taken well to the culture and the religion, but he had not grown up among them. He had mastered the series of looks and gestures that were useful in battle, things he could use in a meeting with his own men. He had not learned the subtleties involved in politics. It was astoundingly intriguing.
“These travelers-” Tom was grateful that she kept calling them ‘travelers’ and did not allow ‘beggars’ to be inferred. The mri did not believe in begging. “Are brethren to one of our own,” she finished. For a moment Tom expected to be introduced to this mri who was brethren to a ts’mri, and then remembered that she was referring to him. The Husband’s turned their gazes to him, curious, and also relieved.
When Tom first arrived with Kesh, he was treated poorly. His Guardian had to draw blood –or duel- for him half a dozen times. He’d had to draw blood for himself twice that many. Children spat at his feet, mothers quickly hid their babies when he passed and no one would honor his eyes, that is, make direct contact with them. When he was induced into the ranks of the Kel, that all changed immediately. In an instant, he was no longer ts’mri. When he walked, self-conscious in his plain black robes, the children danced around his feet and tugged at his hands, wanting to be picked up, mothers grabbed their children away to keep them from annoying a Kel, and he was greeted with courteous nods. A year and a half later, the pa’ani had pulled him into the vaunted ranks of the Kel’en, recognizing that the talents of his previous life could be put to good use.
The pa’ani touched him lightly on the top of his head, and he looked up, sought her brown eyes and held them for a moment.
“Speak on behalf of your people,” she urged.
“They are not my people,” Tom stated dispassionately. He would not argue with the pa’ani, as such an act bordered on a capital offence unless he had just cause, or impunity. He had not been granted impunity –a favor bestowed on her closest confidants and her Chosen- and the point was not large enough to merit cause.
“They were once,” the pa’ani said gently. Tom held her eyes for a moment longer and then nodded slightly and turned his face so he was again looking at the Husbands. Now he did unveil, as it was unthinkable to address and congress of the Husbands veiled.
“The people of Voyager are strong,” he said. “They are honest to a fault, and trustworthy. There are many among their numbers that could defend the People-” that is, could be Kel, “and many more who would faithfully bare our children and our faith. The People would be safe with the crew of Voyager,” he concluded. Long windedness was not a trait that was favored among the mri, especially not in council.
“It is obvious to the Husbands,” Jeri, the oldest and most notable Husband said, having the ability to speak for his brethren, “that your words are honest and your advice sound. This we shall take into consideration.” Tom bowed his head, recognizing that he was being more or less dismissed, but only from the conversation, and was not expected to leave the room. He remained unveiled as they began to speak in earnest.
It might have appeared that the Husbands had promised to take his advice as a nicety only, but Tom had learned, through the few occasion in which he had sat in on councils, that if the pa’ani brought anyone not a Husband to a council of the Husbands, his advice was to be taken with the utmost gravity. They paused only briefly to allow a gold-robbed Chosen into the chamber in order to bring them refreshments.
After twelve grueling hours, the Husbands finally made their decision and passed on their advice to the pa’ani. She, in turn, took leave of the Husbands to make her own deliberations. The Husbands remained in the pa’ani’s audience chamber until, three hours later, she returned and announced her decision. Tom was given the task of carrying it back to people of Voyager.
Tom released a small sigh of relief as he stepped back onto his ship, his dusei lumbering out after him. He always felt much better when he was on board the Eternal Hope. The endun was his home, but Hope was his heart.
“Tom,” Kesh greeted, holding out a hand. Kesh had been his first –and for a very long time, his only- companion and friend among the mri, and they had grown very close. Tom took the offered hand without reservation and allowed his friend and lieutenant to pull him into an embrace.
“Good to have you back,” Kesh said with a grin that Tom couldn’t see, but knew was there. Among themselves, there were no veils, but there were others in the room they were less familiar with.
“Any problems?” Tom asked.
“Silent.” Tom nodded distractedly and headed for the wide door. All the doors on the ship were wide except those that led to delicate parts of the ship –such as engineering and the shrine- where they didn’t want their bulky dusei entering. The corridor outside was equally wide and they had no problem walking side-by-side, even with Tom’s dusei on his other side.
“Hail Voyager. Request a meeting with Captain Janeway and her senior officers. Politely, Kesh.”
“Of course, my captain,” Kesh said, again his grin dancing in the air between them.
When Janeway and her crew arrived –again, dressed in their veils- they were escorted immediately to Tom’s council chamber. Two armed mri stood at the door, but they didn’t so much as look at the ts’mri as they passed. Tom was seated at the oblong table, leaning back casually.
“Sit, captain,” Tom ordered gently. Her heart beating loudly against her ribs, the captain waved her officers to seats and took the chair directly across from her former chief pilot.
“You have been placed in my path,” Tom said once they were seated. “And so I can do nothing but aid you, or accompany you until He takes us apart,” Tom continued.
“What does that mean?” Janeway asked carefully.
“You and your crew are my Wards. I must now care for you.”
“Do you understand, that should you be offered sanctuary… it would be difficult for you. Especially for you, captain. Do you wish to withdraw your request?”
“What if we do?” Tom was silent for several long seconds.
“I would be compelled to accompany you back to Voyager, and aid you in what way I can before our paths diverge.” Janeway took a deep breath. Have Tom back at the helm? It was tempting, and for a minute, she felt that with Tom back, they would be okay. She pushed the thought aside. No; they wouldn’t be okay. One man couldn’t replace the nineteen others they had lost.
“We do not wish to withdraw our request.” Tom nodded shortly.
“Then I take you and your crew under my wing. From this moment on you are to me as children to a parent. You will be taken to Homeworld for Acceptance and Cleansing. If you are worthy, you will be taken into the arms of mri. If not, you will remain my wards. As of now, you are no longer a captain of a starship; you have no rank, no standing and no authority. The same goes for all of you. You are now wards of a Kel’en. You will follow my every instruction without hesitation; understand that when I tell you to do something, it will be for your own well-being. Voyager is now forfeit; it belongs to the People. It will be taken to su’luni for re-outfitting.
“Welcome,” he said, masterfully imitating the tones of Kesh the first time he’d set foot on a mri vessel. “To the wings of the People.”
Voyager’s officers- now Wards to a Kel’en- were silent. They hadn’t quite expected it to be so… harsh. Tom stood.
“For convenience, you will bring Voyager to su’luni under the instruction of my pilot and lieutenant and will be transported planet-side from there. Both are Kel, and my most trusted; they will understand that you do not yet know our ways, and will not take offense to anything you do. Within reason. You must not, for any reason, attempt to touch them, they will not honor your eyes, so do not attempt eye contact. You will make sure the crew is veiled at all times in the presence. So long as you follow those instructions, no one will come to any harm. If anyone disobeys, I cannot be held responsible for his fate.
“You will remain for a meal, before returning,” Tom finished, his tone leaving no room for questioning. “You may think I am harsh,” he said, much quieter, something of the tones they remembered of Tom Paris reappearing, “but I am only protecting you.” Tom made a slight gesture with both hands and, stunned, they rose. He paused only briefly, seemed as though he were about to say something, and then decided against it, and strode briskly for the door. Janeway lead her deathly silent crew –former crew, she reminded herself- after their Guardian.
The table of honor was subdued, though made an effort to revive the conversation he’d started the night before. His attempt was met with little success and finally a bell rang to signal the end of the dinner hour. All around the hall, people got up leisurely, finishing bits of food as they did and wandered out. One such wanderer stumbled as he passed their table and Harry reached out immediately to catch him. Tom shouted a warning too late and then the man was leaping back, a startled exclamation pushing harshly passed his black, unadorned veil. Before Harry could even apologize, a sword seemed to leap into the Kel’s hand. The hall had fallen deathly silent and those still left in the room, stood by and watched the exchange.
Harry held his hands up to show them empty and took an experimental step backwards. The Kel hissed and advanced, bringing his unblemished, curved blade to bear.
“Whoa,” Harry said, making a placating gesture with his hands. “I meant no offense.” He couldn’t understand the other man’s reply, but it hardly sounded complimentary.
“What did he say?” he asked Tom, turning his head slightly, but keeping his eyes on his assailant. Without replying, Tom stepped between them and placed both fists on his hips. Terse words passed between them.
“What’s going on?!” Harry demanded, not necessarily of anyone in particular.
“You are being quite thoroughly insulted. As is your Guardian,” a smooth voice answered. Harry followed it back to it’s source and recognized Tom’s lieutenant.
“Excuse me?! What for?”
“You touched him,” Kesh explained, shrugging his shoulders slightly.
“And what is it he wants?”
“He seeks blood.”
“Does he? And why is he insulting Tom?”
“Because he’s protecting you. As he should.” The last few days piled onto the last few hours piled onto the last few months and Harry suddenly snapped. All his pent up emotion curled into a tight ball in his chest and then just seemed to explode.
“You want blood?!” he demanded sharply, stepping around his protector. “Then come and take it if you think you’re able!”
“Mr. Kim! Stand down!” Janeway demanded, taking half a step forward, but Harry was already advancing on the anonymous Kel. Though the other man couldn’t understand him, he understood the body language and turned his attention away from his captain and onto his opponent.
“Harry!” Tom started sharply.
“Leave it!” Harry nearly screamed. He wasn’t armed, and his opponent had at least a kilo on him, but there was adrenalin pumping through his veins and he felt, at that moment, like he could take on a whole army of Klingons. The pale brown eyes of the Kel narrowed and then he made a jerking motion with his chin. Tom sighed and slowly pulled one of his long, tapered swords out and handed it to Harry, hilt first.
“May she serve you well,” he murmured, his eyes flashing with an emotion his voice didn’t betray. Harry accepted the weapon and tested the weight with a little bounce before settling into a crouch. It was no bat’leth, and there were no holosafeties, but damned if he cared. Boldly, the Kel advanced, his sword held up by his left ear as he prepared to bring it down in a diagonal arch. Harry bounced out of the way easily as his holo-Vulcan master taught him, and brought his elbow down on the attacker’s back, sending him sprawling forward. With a curse, the Kel picked himself back up and charged again, sword brought up in the same position, intending the same strike. Abandoning the Vulcan tactic that largely involved tiring an enemy, Harry brought one foot sharply forward and thrust upward, turning the blade sideways as though it were a bat’leth. He felt the blade sink into flesh, and then slipped under the warrior’s arm and around his back before he could retaliate. He was coming around for another strike when Tom sudden stepped between him and his prey.
“First blood!” the Kel’en declared sharply, stopping Harry in his tracks. He growled at his one-time fiancÚ. “Are you satisfied?” Tom pressed, his eyes boring into Harry’s meaningfully. It took a moment for Tom’s words to pierce Harry’s anger-induced battle haze, but he slowly nodded.
Tom turned sharply to the injured Kel, whose sleeve had been ripped open at the bicep to reveal a deep gash.
“Do you wish to press?” Tom asked him. Reluctantly, the man shook his head. “Then report to Sath’ell Ts’liu.” The man nodded once, sharply, and then, surprisingly, presented a modest bow to Harry and sheathed his weapon before turning on his heel and leaving the room. The hall cleared after that, the ship’s crew resuming their leisurely exit.
Coming down from his almost euphoric high, he flipped the sword over and pointed the hilt toward Tom. With a little shake of his head, Tom unbuckled the belt and sheath from his waist and, with an easy motion, glided it around Harry’s.
“It was my first blade,” Tom explained gently, running his sleeve along the edge to remove the blood. “She has taken good care of me.”
“You must. I’ve already given her to you. It would be offensive if you returned it to me; you’ve drawn blood with it.”
“For?” Harry gave him a puzzled look, and then realized that Tom was smiling. He couldn’t see the smile, but his eyes still squinted, just a little, around the corners. He grinned widely.
“Thank you.” Tom touched two fingers to his forehead and then brought it down to his collarbone, seeming to indicate that Harry’s was welcome.
“Now,” he said, briskly breaking the silence, you should all return to Voyager. My pilot and lieutenant will join you shortly.”
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