One day of the three-day trip to Cardassia was done, and Eden sighed as she stepped into her quarters. There was less work to do aboard a civilian ship than a Starfleet one – even the precision-tuned warp core of Healer’s Hope was less maintenance-intensive than the core on an Arrow-class runabout. That had left her plenty of time to watch the bridge, and the tension between the Starfleet crew and the Betazoids. It was an effort not to think of the first as her people and the second as her grandmother’s, but that just reminded her that they would soon enough all be her people. That, however difficult Ka and the others found her, she was born destined to hold their loyalty unless she proved herself unworthy of it. To avoid focusing on that, she’d started reading classified briefing books, but those were worse than the tension around her, all Omega and the end of civilization.
There were reasons she’d avoided Betazed. She might have been born to the nobility, but she was not built for it. She wasn’t really built for Starfleet either, at least not the one her parents had served in, focusing on peaceful exploration. She was, by her nature, a spy and a soldier.
Sometimes she hated how badly the Federation needed those things from her. Everything since Mars…
The room was another problem. It rested directly above the bridge at the front of the ship, under a dome of transparent aluminum that opened into the infinite void – now the mass of streaking stars and azure swirls that came with warp travel – keeping it separated from the vacuum of space. It stood alone on the deck, only a small antechamber whose door was watched by a Betazoid guard standing between it and the turbolift. It was shaped like a long oval, tapered to the forward and aft, and if she stood at the aft end she could just see the neck that connected the bridge and her room with the rest of the ship. There was a huge bed, a large table, a personal hologrid and holocom… it was quite simply too comfortable for her to be comfortable in it.
She moved to the replicator. “Raktijino au lait, Starfleet pattern, cow’s milk.”
The computer beeped. “Pattern not recognized,” it said in the Betazoid language. “Would you like the T’Shar pattern, the Quo’nos pattern, the Cestus pattern…”
Eden bristled. “Never mind.” After a moment to convince herself that she’d cut the computer off there because the offerings would all be too sweet rather than to avoid it saying anything more about the system where she was born, she spoke again, choosing one of the human foods she knew her grandmother had taken a liking to. “Strawberry shortcake, extra whipped cream, extra whipped cream.”
The computer beeped then produced her dessert. A small piece of cake with slices of strawberry, topped with a veritable mountain of whipped cream and strawberry syrup. If she was going to have something sweet, she would have something meant to be sweet. She took it to the desk and started to eat.
“Lady Starling, you have a visitor. Sir Luvrodo Ka wishes to speak with you,” the computer said.
Eden checked her mental barriers before closing her eyes a moment and letting herself feel her frustration. “Come in.”
The door slid open, and Ka entered. “Lady Starling.”
Eden opened her eyes. “I know the formalities, but… it’s going to take me a while to get used to that.”
Ka smiled a frustratingly charming smile. “I could go with Princess Starling, but my first read of you said you would hate that more.”
Eden shuddered. “I really, really do. I usually prefer Commander.”
Ka shook his head. “Word gets back to your grandmother that I called you that, she’ll have me hung up by my toes in the courtyard of your home. What if, in private, we just use given names?”
Eden considered that. “I think that might be best, Luvrodo.”
Luvrudo smiled, pulling a seat from the table over to sit comfortably just outside her personal space. “I’m usually in command when the ship’s taken out… your grandmother largely wants to rest up here and watch the stars go by. Having someone who understands a starship to answer to is… novel.”
“I’m a little surprised you’re so willing to move out of the chair,” Eden said. There was something… easier… about talking to him now, the formalities out of the way.
“Part of being a vassal. We don’t place the kind of near-holy value Starfleet does on ship command… for me, making sure you and your family are safe and Betazed is secure is the highest value. My father fought in the resistance against the Dominion… that’s how we earned our title, and found your grandmother’s attention.”
Eden blinked. “I didn’t know my grandmother was involved in the resistance.”
“All the Old Houses were, all but a couple, and the ones that weren’t have seen their status decline. There’s not much patience with collaborators, and those who used and built their wealth supporting the Founders are especially hated. House Starling funded at least four major cells, and smuggled in retired Klingon and Bajoran operatives to help us learn to fight.” Luvrodo made a face. “We’re not made for it. After my father passed, his journals were given to me. ‘I was seated in the tree, and we felt the Jem’hadar patrol. Revin caught sight of them first, climbed a few branches higher, took aim at the Second. Only time they seemed to feel fear was the moment they felt the blast that would kill them. Revin preferred a Bajoran phaser, and the horrible gold of it was the last thing the Second thought.’ I almost can’t imagine it.”
Eden shuddered. “I don’t have to. Every kill I’ve ever made, apart from Breen… I feel them die. They’re all terrified, Luvrudo. Every one of them. And then I move to the next target, then the next…”
Luvrudo’s hand covered hers. “How do you do it? My father had nightmares the rest of his life after the occupation…”
Eden offered him a small, grateful smile, made moreso by the warmth he projected, though she was sure he could feel the pain that pressed against her barriers. “I’m not sure. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m half human… humans are amazingly emotionally resilient. Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with me. But… I worry that it’s because so far, no matter what fear I feel from the people I have to kill, what terror and pain, I’ve felt worse.” I shouldn’t share this. “My mother was a Starfleet doctor. A brilliant, capable one, who loved and laughed so easily and was always open with me. The place we were stationed was attacked… even in the shelter, I could feel her. I could always feel her…” Eden closed her eyes, clenched her hand under Luvrudo’s into a fist. “There was a hull breach in the infirmary. It vented to space. My mother…”
His hand tightened around hers. “That must have been horrifying.”
“It was later. At the moment… it was empty. I’d always had her there, her emotions resting in my mind, reminding me I was safe and I was loved. Then pain and fear and cold and regret for all she would never see, all at once, in an instant. Then… nothing. For weeks, all my grief fell into that hole where she’d once been.”
He brushed her thumb, and her hand started, slowly, to relax. “Your grandmother talks about your mother a lot. From what you two have said, and felt, about her… she must have been exceptional.”
“Nearly everyone who knew her adored her,” Eden said. “My parents attended a state dinner of Quo’nos once, just after the war… Emperor Kahless himself gifted her a golden pin and declared that if all healers had a fraction of her ability and grace, there would be no scars in the Empire, for no warrior would leave the healers’ tents until all was healed and they were forced away.”
Luvrudo laughed. “Starfleet lives a very different life.”
Eden sighed. “We do. And… for all the pain and trouble it brings, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Luvrudo gave her a long look. “She told you, right? Meshanna, I mean.”
Eden looked up, through the dome above her, watched the stars streak by. “Yes. I promised her I would return to Betazed after this mission… start the formalities of inheritance.”
“There will be trouble from some of the other High Houses,” Luvrudo said. “Someone of mixed descent inheriting isn’t unheard of, but they were all raised on Betazed. You being from Earth…”
“I usually think of myself as being from space,” Eden said. “But I understand. People in a position to make trouble for me will make trouble for me. But that’s been the way of things my entire life. On Earth, it was people trying to get me to be more human or more Betazoid, to be more open about myself, all for my own good even if every attempt hurt more than the one before. Then I made it to Starfleet and they became more powerful. Thots Thanget and Varprem. Borhov Son of None.” She met his eyes. “I have my duty, and I know what it is. No noble will keep me from doing it, any more than anyone before them has.”
He shook his head. “The ones worth your time will see that in you. The others don’t matter.” He rose to his feet. “Eden… for what it’s worth, you have had my loyalty since I learned what fealty is, but tonight, you’ve earned my trust.”
Eden found her cheeks coloring, the sincere affection that rose to the surface of his mind drawing a stammer from her. “That… means a lot. Thank you.”
“I need to get to my bunk,” he said. “Sleep well, Lady Starling.”
He was gone before she could talk herself out of inviting him to stay.