‘I think,’ said Cortez, looking up at the hallway leading to the heart of T’lhab Station, ‘we’re back to you doing the talking, Commander.’
‘I know.’ Valance’s jaw was tight. ‘This is what I was afraid of.’
Cortez and Lindgren exchanged glances. ‘You’re a good diplomat,’ Lindgren started to say.
‘I’m a Starfleet officer, and this is a Starfleet mission,’ said Valance. ‘That’s not how they’ll try to negotiate with me.’
‘Maybe,’ said Cortez before she could think, ‘we could get you a really big hat -’
Thankfully, a tall Klingon warrior opened the double doors ahead before Valance could rip into her for that. His armour was more mismatched than that of the crew of the Vor’nak, more battered and piecemeal. He gave a half-bow. ‘Bak’tan will see you.’
They followed. Cortez had never seen the chambers of a Klingon house before, but she knew how ship design worked. This station had been built with this grand, circular hub at its heart, lowered edges stepping up to a great chair upon a dais. The round room was shrouded in shadows, but Klingons sat on low stools or crates on the levels below the central dais. Banners hung from the rafters, battered cloth boasting a half-dozen sigils. In the centre, above the chair, hung the largest and widest boasting the sigil of the Jajvam Brethren.
She had seen Bak’tan on the screen when they’d arrived at T’lhab, but he was a wider man than she’d expected, in the gut as well as the shoulder; a stooped, grey-haired and bearded figure well past his prime. The doors slammed shut behind them, and she managed to not jump at that, or at Bak’tan’s booming voice. ‘You are granted an audience.’
Cortez went to advance, but Lindgren stopped her with a light touch at the arm. Two younger Klingons approached, one holding a tray of ivory beakers, the other a wooden bowl it took her a moment to realise held gagh. Valance didn’t bat an eyelid, drinking from a beaker and eating only a pinch of the gagh, then Cortez and Lindgren followed suit.
‘Advance,’ came Bak’tan’s voice.
‘We’ve had food and drink under his hospitality,’ Lindgren whispered to Cortez as they walked. ‘That gives us guest right, and his protection.’
‘Oh; Torkath did something similar but that was the actual meal. I thought he was being polite -’
‘Commander Valance of Starfleet.’ Bak’tan looked them up and down. ‘Your companions?’
Valance gestured to the others. ‘Lieutenant Cortez, my engineer, and Ensign Lindgren, my communications officer.’
Bak’tan gave them both a nod. ‘Welcome to my chambers. Some of my fellow warriors have joined us in curiosity. It is not every day Starfleet comes to our doors.’ His eyes fixed on Valance. ‘But is that all I call you? Commander?’
‘I am the first officer of -’
‘You stand not in the halls of a Great House, Commander, with warriors set to sneer down at you. We are all of us here outcasts of one sort or another.’ He leaned forward. ‘Simply put, Commander: Are you a warrior who knows of our ways? Are you a champion of the Federation and newcomer to the Empire? I judge neither. But I will give you the honour you are due.’
Valance hesitated. ‘I am Commander Karana Valance, daughter of Jodmang, of the House of A’trok. First officer of the USS Endeavour. Once executive officer of the IKS qa’chaQ.’
Bak’tan regarded her a moment, then nodded again. ‘I understand, daughter of Jodmang. Great Houses will tell you how to walk the single path of the warrior they understand. But we are the Jajvam Brethren. There are paths of honour that are wide and straight and paved by those who came before, clear and easy save the risk of being stampeded by those who think there are prizes for being fastest or first. And then there are paths of honour less well-trodden, that wander through wild and adventurous and unknown places; these are harder. They run alongside other paths for some journeys. They go the places the Great Houses cannot, or will not see.’ He sat back in his chair. ‘So I welcome you to this station as officer and as warrior.’
If Cortez had thought Valance was always tense, she could see her now coiled like a spring as she stood before the great seat. ‘I thank you for your hospitality. And for making the time to see us.’ She hesitated. ‘This station technically lies within the territory of the House of K’Var, but you do not swear them fealty?’
‘K’Var and I have an agreement,’ huffed Bak’tan. ‘Long ago, the scum of this border scurried from hole to hole, chased by K’Var’s forebears, never fully eradicated. The last of them built this station and became a thorn in the side of K’Var’s father. As a young man, I slew the builder and claimed the station alongside my fellow warriors, and we formed the Jajvam Brethren. The worst of the dogs continue to work from here, but they cannot be united, and if they overstep the bounds of honour in operations from this station then the Brethren will eradicate them. The scum are like the tides; you cannot change them, but you may build fortifications against the flood. We are that fortification. In exchange for keeping this equilibrium, K’Var does not challenge our autonomy.’
‘In which case, Lord Bak’tan, I come to you on a matter of that equilibrium. My officers and I pursue pirates who have raided and murdered civilians, attacked Starfleet ships and killed our officers, and abducted children for leverage. The Wild Hunt have run to T’lhab lately and in the past, using your resources to recover their strength before going to their lair. Human pirates, flying Blackbird-class ships.’
Bak’tan’s great brow furrowed, and he extended a hand for a nearby Klingon to pass him a PADD. He read for a moment. ‘They are not here now.’
‘No. I am not asking you to apprehend them. I’m asking you to help me hunt them.’ Valance straightened, and Cortez thought she saw even a quiver in her shoulders, so taut was she stood. ‘I want the location of their base. Endeavour will do the rest.’
Bak’tan shook his head. ‘I wish I could help you. I do not know their location.’
Valance hesitated. ‘Reports suggest they have worked with one of your number, Korta.’
Cortez did not need to know Klingons to see Bak’tan’s reluctance. He looked to the shrouded warriors, and waved a hand. ‘Korta?’
Korta stepped forth. He was tall, as tall as Torkath and broader still, as fit and strong as any Klingon warrior she’d ever seen. ‘This is it?’ said the warrior, maybe half Bak’tan’s age. ‘I am called to answer on reports?’
‘I do not judge you for those you work with,’ Valance told him. ‘I only say you may have the answers I seek.’
Korta looked her up and down, and shrugged. ‘I may. I do not know why I should surrender them to you.’
Valance tilted her head a half-inch. ‘How shall I answer you, Korta? Do I say these people are dishonourable pirates who threaten children and kill the helpless? Or do I say that they are trouble on your own door, who will darken your reputation and threaten your tidal fortifications? I already have the assistance of the House of K’Var in chasing the Wild Hunt. What will it do to your agreement if you shelter them?’
‘I do not shelter them,’ Korta sneered. ‘There are many criminals who come through this place. They do not operate from this station. They receive the same support as many criminals.’
‘Most of those criminals,’ Valance pressed, ‘are not enemies of the Federation. Not on this scale.
‘No, they are enemies of the Empire. I do not surrender those people to the House of K’Var, either.’ Korta gave Bak’tan a dismissive look. ‘Must I stand here and have this whelp demand answers of me?’
Valance only shifted her weight, and to Cortez’s shock it was Lindgren who stepped forward. ‘You address Commander Valance of the USS Endeavour, Korta,’ said Lindgren, and Cortez realised she was speaking in Klingon, the Universal Translator adapting. ‘That is her title; not “whelp”.’
Korta rounded on the officers. ‘You are intruders onto our station -’
‘We are guests, granted guest-right and protection by Lord Bak’tan,’ pressed Lindgren, chin tilting up a defiant half-inch. ‘We have made a request and you have turned it to insult with swiftness that suggests guilt.’
He glared at her, then up at Valance. ‘You let your lackey do the speaking -’
‘I am Ensign Lindgren, not a lackey,’ Lindgren continued in the same firm voice. ‘And it is my role to champion the Commander with words as you try to fight with them.’
Bak’tan lifted a hand. ‘Enough. Korta, give our guests the courtesy they deserve. Commander, Ensign; you have made your request of Korta. I cannot compel him to answer; nor would I compel him to surrender his allies to you.’
Lindgren slumped, but Valance remained straight and tense. Cortez watched as her eyes fixed on the floor, then Korta, then back to Bak’tan. And at length Valance said, ‘What of the reports that Korta protects the Wild Hunt because it suits the interest of the House of Mo’Kai?’
In a flash, Korta had crossed the distance. Valance was quick enough to push Lindgren aside, and then the two were nearly nose-to-nose. Cortez reached for her phaser on instinct, but then saw the warriors about the room tense, and she froze.
‘Lies,’ hissed Korta. ‘More whisperings from your “reports”, Commander? You have claimed to come here as a warrior as well as an officer, but all I have heard are the Federation’s weak words and mewling. If you are to stand by this slight against my honour, I will have honour’s response.’
Valance’s lip curled. ‘A convenient excuse. Where you demand steel instead of refuting arguments? Are you a warrior, or a brute?’
‘It is my right to defend my name when you associate it with the likes of Mo’Kai,’ snapped Korta, stepping back but standing tall. ‘And you had best be ready to fight if the likes of your words pass your lips again. You question if I am the warrior, and yet you demand the honour of a daughter of the House of A’trok and fight instead with words and underlings -’
Bak’tan stood, and now Cortez could see his knees were weak, his great frame not as mighty as it had once been. ‘Enough,’ he said again. ‘Unless you are to challenge, this matter is resolved. The request has been made, and Korta has refused it.’
Valance’s jaw was tight as she watched Korta withdraw. ‘Indeed,’ she said through gritted teeth, before looking at Bak’tan. ‘I thank you for your time, Lord Bak’tan, and your hospitality. We will not be departing yet.’
‘You have the rights of any guest,’ Bak’tan said, hands lifted generously. ‘Cause no trouble, and none shall befall you under the hospitality of the Jajvam Brethren.’
They left, the heavy doors shut behind them, and then were ushered from the inner halls of the station back into the market square. ‘Come on,’ Valance said roughly once they were in the crowd, and none of them spoke until they had made it to the quieter corridors of the docking section.
‘I’m sorry I spoke up,’ said Lindgren, though Cortez didn’t think she was apologising so much as politely bringing the matter up.
‘You antagonised him,’ Valance said sharply.
‘He was insulting you, and by not responding to the insults, he was seeing you as weak,’ Lindgren said. ‘It’s a textbook example of how Klingons aggressively deal with the Federation; diplomacy guidelines stress being firm -’
Valance whirled around on the young officer, face like ice rather than furious fire. ‘I do not need to be told by you, Ensign Lindgren, how one handles Klingons.’
‘Okay!’ said Cortez in a slightly higher pitched voice than she’d have liked. ‘So how do we handle this now? If we can’t make Korta talk?’
‘We can make Korta talk,’ said Lindgren, not looking away from Valance. ‘But it’ll take the Commander challenging him with claims he’s been a puppet of the Mo’Kai.’
‘Not just challenging,’ Cortez said. ‘Also kinda needs her to win. He’s a big guy.’
‘We are Starfleet officers,’ Valance snapped to them both. ‘We didn’t come here to get into a brawl. That is hardly our way.’
‘Our way is being flexible to local customs, rather than waiting for other cultures to adhere to our norms,’ said Lindgren. ‘You don’t have to kill him.’
‘Okay, but again, he might kill her -’
‘That’s not the issue,’ Valance said sharply to Cortez. ‘The issue is that we are not resolving this like Klingons.’ She turned her back on Lindgren, who’d looked like she was going to argue again. ‘Let’s get back to the King Arthur. We need to regroup.’
She stalked off, and Cortez was left reeling. She looked at Lindgren. ‘What the hell was that about?’
Lindgren shook her head, lips thin. ‘I don’t know why I’m here,’ grumbled the usually good-natured communications officer, but she gave no more reply before heading off, and so all Cortez could do was follow in their wake, bewildered.