‘So how does this work?’ said Cortez, pacing in the corridor outside the bunkroom they’d been able to commandeer on T’lhab. Thawn had reported their rescue by the Orion crew, and at the same time the King Arthur’s attackers had been driven off, Dakor had abandoned his attack of Torkath. The conflict between brothers was a problem – why it had happened, and what it meant for the House of K’Var – but she could only fret about so many things at once.
‘Simply enough,’ Lindgren said, leaning against the wall. ‘We attend on the meeting chambers with Bak’tan presiding. The Commander makes the accusations against Korta and says she’ll back them up in combat. Unless Korta can provide good reason to delay, he must choose which of the traditional blades to use and it’ll be resolved right there and then.’
‘Can he delay?’
‘Bak’tan would have to allow it. I’ve encouraged the Commander to highlight Korta’s deception and ambush. If we’re reading the situation correctly, then he’s going to see that as against the spirit, if not the letter, of his offer of protection to us. We need him to be unwilling to give Korta any procedural leeway.’
‘Assuming,’ said Cortez, ‘that he is a stand-up guy and ain’t also in the Mo’Kai pocket while Korta.’
Lindgren pursed her lips thoughtfully. ‘If that’s the case, then in my professional opinion… we’re screwed.’
Cortez considered this for a heartbeat. Then cracked up. This wasn’t a snicker, this was a full-on belly laugh which bent her double within moments.
Lindgren smiled despite herself. ‘What?’
‘It’s just -’ Cortez had to fight to breathe. ‘It ain’t that funny. But imagine we came all this way an’ this is just a nest of Mo’Kai an’ here we are tryin’ to play by their rules? “Oh, sorry Mister Terrorists, yeah we’ll totally obey your dumb honour rules that you’ll break the moment it’s useful!”’ She wiped her eyes. ‘It ain’t that funny.’
But then Lindgren laughed, and that set Cortez off again, and that was how they were found when Karana Valance stepped out of the bunkroom in the full armour of a Klingon warrior, utterly bemused.
Oh, thought Cortez as she straightened, sobering very quickly. Oh, dang.
‘What on Earth has gotten into you?’ said Valance, hands on her hips.
‘Sorry, Commander,’ sputtered Cortez, glad she could use her fit of the giggles to obscure her reaction. ‘We’re just – hysterics, y’know, at how wrong this might go.’
‘That’s deeply reassuring,’ said Valance.
Lindgren cracked up again. ‘I’m sorry!’ the ensign howled. ‘Commander. I’m sorry. You look good. You look ready.’ She cleared her throat as she regained control and straightened.
‘It was good of Torkath’s first officer to send this over,’ said Valance, adjusting the armour. ‘And I’m relieved it’s not the more old-fashioned chest armour.’
Cortez cocked her head. ‘Yeah?’
Valance visibly considered her words. ‘It offers less to protection and leaves less to the imagination.’
Valance looked away. ‘We should go.’
They had been received with reluctance when first they’d visited Bak’tan. But this time they weren’t all in Starfleet uniforms; this time they had a Klingon warrior at the front, and this opened the doors, literal and metaphorical, for them much more quickly. While they had turned heads before when entering the main chambers, they had only been received with mild curiosity. Before, they had been an oddity. Now heads turned as if they were a force to be reckoned with.
Bak’tan stood, more square of shoulder this time. ‘You return, Karana Valance.’ He looked her up and down. ‘Do I call you “Commander” on this occasion?’
‘That is still who I am,’ Valance said flatly, eyes scanning the crowd. ‘Because I come as a commander. Because there has been an attack against my people by one of yours.’
A low hush rumbled through the assembled warriors of the Brethren, shuffling to the periphery to watch. Bak’tan cocked his head. ‘Our hospitality has been broken?’
‘Korta lured my people away from the station to attack them. He attempted through duplicity to exploit a loophole in the protection you offered. And I have come for recompense or retribution; whatever I will find here.’
Cortez hadn’t spotted Korta at first, but now he shouldered through the crowd to stand at Bak’tan’s side. ‘Is every petty dispute to be brought to -’
Bak’tan lifted a hand. ‘Is this true?’
Korta hesitated, and Cortez lifted a PADD. ‘I’ve got the whole sensor records here. Ships I bet you can link to Korta attacked our runabout.’
Korta’s nostrils flared. ‘If their shuttle left our space -’
‘Following information you gave us under false pretence,’ Valance snapped, and looked at Bak’tan. ‘Or may those offered the protection of the Brethren be slaughtered should they be lured away with lies? Is this protection only in letter rather than spirit?’
‘If your people were so foolish as to wander beyond the bounds of T’lhab Station,’ sneered Korta, ‘that is none of the Brethren’s business.’
‘Our only mistake was trusting you.’
Bak’tan again lifted a hand. ‘Enough.’ He looked at Valance. ‘What happened to your people?’
‘Aid came to them in time. There is no blood price to pay. Only a blow to the honour of us all – you and your protection, Korta and his word, and me, for believing him.’ Valance looked flatly at Korta. ‘I came to this station for answers. You know of the Wild Hunt, and you will tell me. Or I can only conclude you are protecting them on behalf of the Mo’Kai.’
He scoffed. ‘Again, you must back this up -’
‘Then I will.’ She stepped forward, ascending Bak’tan’s dais towards them both. Some warriors stiffened, but nobody moved as she approached Korta and looked him in the eye. ‘I name you a dog of the Mo’Kai, a traitor to the Empire and the Brethren. An enemy of the Federation, a liar, and a coward.’ Before he could reply she turned her back to return to the centre. ‘Name your weapon.’
Lindgren leaned to Cortez and whispered, ‘What he chooses will be telling.’
But Korta bounded down, face a mask of fury. ‘So be it. I choose the warrior’s blade, the bat’leth. Let us do this correctly, mongrel.’
Valance gave a grimace of a smile. ‘You’ll find my heart Klingon enough. More than yours.’
Bak’tan clapped once. ‘So the challenge is issued. Korta must defend his word against Karana’s accusations, to be decided by the bat’leth. It will be to the death; the victor may choose to accept a yield.’ He nodded to one side. ‘Bring forth blades.’
The weapon brought for Korta was obviously his own, the symbol on the metal matching that on his armour. What was brought for Valance was a much simpler weapon, but Cortez saw no obvious difference between them in quality. But while she knew metal, she was no smith. Korta ran through some flourishes, but all Valance did was heft the blade to feel its weight and balance, and step back to give them space.
Cortez followed Lindgren to the side, voice a low hiss. ‘I thought you said Bak’tan would make sure it’s not to the death? For her, anyway?’
‘I expect that,’ Lindgren said. ‘But we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.’
Cortez stared. ‘What? It ain’t certain?’
‘Nothing is -’
Bak’tan clapped. ‘Begin!’
And Cortez turned. ‘Oh, shit,’ she breathed.
Everything about Valance she’d seen so far was deliberate and considered. She’d expected a defensive stance, a slow start. But at the clap Valance moved, lunging at Korta with a speed and aggression that shocked Cortez. By the look on Korta’s face, it shocked him, too.
His blade was knocked aside at the first blow, and he had to sidestep to avoid the second downward swipe. Barely could he bring his sword up in time to parry the next, but by the fourth he’d braced, planting his feet, and the blades locked.
‘So,’ Cortez breathed. ‘What’s this about the choice of weapons?’
Valance broke the lock and went to swipe again, but Korta went low, driving the centre of his bat’leth into her midriff to knock her back. Cortez’s heart lurched, but it was such a swift blow that the armour took all injury, a tactic by Korta to give himself space rather than do harm.
And he used it. As Valance regained her balance, he stabbed at her with the tip, forcing her to jump back again. Then he was on her, bringing his blade crashing down, and when Valance tried to meet force with force it was clear he was stronger. His next blow was deflected instead, but when Valance went to riposte he lashed out with a boot to catch her in the ankle, and when she staggered he met her jaw with the armoured back of his fist.
As she reeled back, he laughed. ‘Klingon? More like a mewling child.’
Lindgren bit her lip. ‘If he’d taken one of the smaller blades,’ she whispered to Cortez, ‘I expect he’d have tried to overwhelm her with strength and size up close. It would have probably been easier for him, or at least, if the Commander made a wrong move it’d be harder for her to recover.’
‘And the bat’leth?’ asked Cortez, not taking her eyes off Valance as she straightened and hefted her weapon.
‘There’s prestige to it. It makes this a more honourable fight, so victory bolsters his reputation and word. But that means he’s going to have to overwhelmingly win, because he’s a lifelong Klingon warrior and people here aren’t stupid, she’s a half-Klingon Starfleet officer. He’s assumed to have an advantage, but he’s also gambled because he can’t have any idea how well-trained the commander is.’
Valance moved, the two exchanging blows and parrying in a flurry of technical prowess that looked impressive. But Cortez knew she was a layperson in this. ‘And how well-trained is she?’
‘I’m not an expert,’ Lindgren said. ‘But I thought this was a good plan.’
The words were barely past her lips when Korta dropped his blade low and swept Valance’s legs out from under her. Cortez grabbed Lindgren’s shoulder. ‘Shit.’
Barely in time, Valance rolled and Korta’s next blow hit where her head had been. She was back on her feet in the blink of an eye, but she looked slower to Cortez’s eye. Bruised or rattled. And Korta could see it too, because he came at her with renewed vigour.
‘If she goes down and Bak’tan doesn’t save her,’ Cortez whispered, ‘I’m just drawing my phaser and shooting a lot. Fuck Klingon honour.’
Lindgren’s eyes widened. ‘That’ll…’ Then her lips thinned. ‘Sure. Why not.’
And Cortez found her hand drifting back to that phaser as Korta rained down heavy blow after heavy blow on Valance. Perhaps her ankle had gone in the fall, perhaps the near-miss had taken some fight out of her, but each one drove her back without counter-attack, each one wore her down that bit more. Korta laughed, and when their blades next met he twisted his bat’leth, sending her reeling back with her arms out, exposed.
‘This,’ Cortez hissed, opening the clip on her holster, ‘was such a bad plan.’ And Korta lunged.
In a flash Valance moved. His stab went wide, and now he was the one over-extended. With one hand on her blade she brought the wicked tip down on his elbow at an exposed gap in the armour, and he howled as the edge came away bloody. Her foot lashed out as he reeled, taking him down, and Cortez didn’t have time to take her hand away from her phaser before Korta was on his back, Valance’s blade at his throat.
‘Oh,’ breathed Cortez. ‘Holy shit.’
Valance’s chest was heaving, but in that final movement she’d given no sign of her ankle troubling her, or her determination rattled. ‘Yield,’ she said, voice a low growl. ‘Yield, and live.’
Korta froze for a moment, then his lip curled. ‘Kill me, and you don’t get what you want.’
She pressed the blade harder. ‘Do you want to die, publicly defeated in accusations of cowardice, deceit, and treason?’
Cortez leaned in to Lindgren. ‘Can he come back from this, socially? Does he have any reason to live except for, you know, standard survival instincts?’
‘If we were in the heart of the Empire, I’d say not,’ whispered Lindgren. ‘Here, with the Brethren? Maybe?’
‘Your life is mine right now,’ Valance pressed on as Korta hesitated. ‘Yield and tell me what I want, and I will implore Lord Bak’tan to consider giving you a chance to regain your honour, if you commit yourself to helping him uproot the corruption of Mo’Kai in his territory. And then your life is his, and his to take if you renege on your word.’ She glanced up to Bak’tan, but the old man’s face was utterly inscrutable.
‘Come on,’ Cortez hissed. ‘Give us something to work with.’
‘He might kill Korta anyway,’ mused Lindgren.
Korta let out a low growl. ‘Fine! Fine. I yield.’
Valance’s shoulders sank. ‘I will have the location of the Wild Hunt from you. And then you are Lord Bak’tan’s to do with as he sees fit.’
Bak’tan was on his feet. ‘Rise.’ Korta had to toss his weapon aside before Valance gave him space to stand, and she did not help him. ‘Korta. You have been defeated. Do you admit your misdeeds?’
He drew a sharp breath – then his shoulders sank. ‘The Mo’Kai have been the force in this region. They have left our space lanes alone when the Empire has pushed for taxes. When the Federation has demanded tariffs. The Mo’Kai keep them away so we may live and trade freely -’
‘So we may live and trade for them,’ Bak’tan snapped. ‘We pay our dues to the Empire because there exist more than ourselves between these stars. There is always a price, you foolish child. The Mo’Kai would demand theirs soon enough, and I will not have their treacherous ilk in my territory.’ He narrowed his eyes. ‘So, Korta. These are my terms. You will give the Commander all she wants. And then you will dedicate yourself to this purge of their iniquitous influence. Until that is done, you will be the lowest of the low amongst us, the dog begging at the table for scraps. But we are not the Imperial Houses. We are the Brethren, and we know even the honourable make mistakes. Commit yourself fully, and in honesty to your redemption, and you shall have it.’
Korta looked surprised. ‘Lord Bak’tan, I…’ He fell to one knee. ‘I agree. That is more than I deserve.’
‘You are treated better than you have treated us, yes.’ Bak’tan nodded. ‘But you are one of ours. We are our strength.’
A low murmur ran through the crowd, echoing. ‘We are our strength.’
Cortez squinted, and leaned in to Lindgren. ‘For Klingons, these guys are so wholesome.’
Bak’tan rose, and turned to Valance. ‘The Wild Hunt have a base in the Azure Nebula. I only know its location, nothing about it. I was instructed to help them by my contacts in the Mo’Kai, that’s all.’
‘Give me the location,’ said Valance, ‘and you have earned your life.’
‘Hey,’ said Cortez, lifting a hand. ‘How do we know he’s not shitting us? Again?’
Bak’tan looked at her like she’d sprouted a second head. ‘He has been defeated in combat. This is our way.’
‘But he was supposed to be honourable before and he totally lied to us then.’
Bak’tan frowned and nodded. ‘You are human; I do not expect you to understand. It is one thing for a warrior to act as he did. It is another entirely for him, defeated, to carry on in such a way.’
‘Yeah, but -’
‘And if you find his information is false, then you will inform me and I will rip out his throat myself.’
‘Oh.’ Cortez winced. ‘Yeah, I guess that’ll do it.’
Bak’tan nodded and looked back to Valance. ‘Are you satisfied, Karana, daughter of Jodmang?’
Valance, at last, looked tired. But she nodded. ‘I’m satisfied.’