The HoS slowly circled Earth above San Francisco. The same two Defiant class ships that brought the Pershing to spacedock now kept a close eye on the unexpected diplomatic mission from Qo'nos. Other Klingon commanders would see them as a threat, but Torlek merely regarded them with the same annoyance as a pair of buzzing glob flies.
The Klingon ambassador to the Federation graciously offered the Governor use of his guest suites at the embassy, but Torlek had sternly refused. Instead, he ordered several cases of Klingon delicacies and a barrel of vintage bloodwine transported aboard his own ship and charged to a personal account.
While his chef in the galley prepared a celebratory feast, Torlek had spoken directly with Chancellor Martok. Thought the leader of the Empire was not thrilled to hear that his partners were keeping secrets from him, he was very intrigued with the prospect of adding over twelve systems to the Empire without having to fire a shot.
While Martok convened his privy council on Qo'nos to contemplate a response, Torlek received the Pershing's senior staff in his private on ship dining room. Tigranian requested that the invitation be extended to Admiral Murphy. Torlek reluctantly agreed.
T'yveth, now in command of the HoS with the rank of full HoD, joined them all at Torlek's table. A Pheban jeghpu'wI' steward in full dress livery laid out platter after platter of Klingon fare in front of the assembled Starfleet officers: gagh, krada legs, pipius claws, and blood pies. His multiple tentacles expertly reached out and ensured the place settings were precisely correct. A second, older steward carried a metal pitcher of bloodwine and kept the guests' goblets charged. His three eyes on muscular stalks rising from his head constantly scanned the table for those in need of a refill.
Torlek sat at the head of the table with Tigranian and Laria to his left. Murphy sat across from them with Captain T'yveth. It was obvious the Starfleet Admiral was uncomfortable being served by a Klingon servant race, no matter how professional they were.
"Something wrong, Admiral?" T'yveth said noticing Murphy's hesitance to receive a serving a gagh from the first steward. "Do you not have waiters in the Federation?"
"We do," Murphy said clearing his throat, "but not ones that we have conquered by force."
"Akros," Torlek said turning to the older steward, "Were you conquered by force?" The Governor spoke in tlhIngan Hol as the Phebans did not understand Federation Basic. The Federation officers' universal translators allowed them to understand the query.
"Of course not, My Lord," the Pheban responded, almost insulted by the idea.
"Well, of course, he is not going to say that to your face," Scharr said from the other end of the table.
"Forgive my companions, Akros," Tigranian interjected in tlhIngan Hol. "They seem convinced that you are doing this against your will." He then held up his goblet. As the Pheban slithered over with his pitcher, he shivered at the suggestion.
"Please assure them that is not the case," Akros said with chuckle. "Also, Lord Daniel, may I say that it so good to see you again? My wife and I are so proud of you: gaining command of your own ship, marrying such an honorable woman. It brings this old man joy to see you bringing honor to the House of Torlek."
"Thank you, Akros," she said beaming. "We don't get to visit your half of the galaxy as much as we'd like." The Pheban reached out a long tentacle and placed it lovingly on her shoulder.
"You both know him?" Alex said in shock.
"Akros has been my batman for almost twenty turns," Torlek said to the length of the table. "Daniel grew to know him on the Sk'oh, Lady Laria first met him when she came to the estate last autumn."
"And I met Akros during that wonderful evening on Qo'nos when Torlek and Dan walked out of the High Council chamber with their lives," Annabeth said raising an eyebrow to her captain.
"Three generations of my family have proudly served the Noble Houses of the Empire," Akros said puffing out his chest. "But The House of Torlek has cared for me and my family more than I could imagine. I have my own home on Governor Torlek's estate, my own hovercar, and a salary twice that of the one I would have on Pheban V."
"We are conquerors, Admiral," T'yveth said. "But we are not Romulan petaQpu. If jeghpu'wI' treat us honorably, we treat them honorably. It is our obligation as warriors."
Murphy turned red with embarrassment.
"Mr. Akros, please accept my deepest apologies. I did not mean for my ignorance to insult you."
"There is no need for an apology, Admiral Murphy," Akros replied through the translator. "But if it makes you feel better, than it is most accepted. I can understand why it would be difficult for you to understand our ways. Would you care for more bloodwine?"
"Oh no, Mr. Akros," Murphy said putting his hand over his goblet. "I'm going to have trouble finishing this one."
"Also, with great respect, Admiral," Akros said bowing his head. "Please refer to me only as 'Akros.' Only other servants call me 'Mister."
"You can see why he is the best," Torlek said with a laugh. "Akros is a master of Klingon etiquette and enforces it with the ruthlessness of any great warrior."
"Qapla', Akros, Son of Enoth," Tigranian said raising his goblet.
"Qapla', Daniel, Son of Tigranian, but you certainly know better than to toast a servant at the dinner table! Lord Torlek was correct when he said that you had been away from Klingons too long…" Akros grinned as he slithered back towards the barrel of bloodwine to refill the pitcher.
Torlek, T'yveth, and Laria all laughed.
"Excuse me, Akros," Annabeth said, "but could I have some water?"
"Captain Geist," Akros said dismayed, "if you do not like bloodwine, might I get you something else? Warnog?Raktajino, perhaps? Klingons generally do not allow water at the table. Since it is only used for cleaning, they find it repulsive," he said nervously moving one of his eyestalks towards Torlek.
"Human PaH, Ka DiJaQ?" T'yveth chuckled.
"Please fetch some for her, Akros. You have my permission," Torlek said kindly.
"Right away, My Lord," Akros said with another bow before commanding his assistant to fetch some from the galley.
Torlek took note of the fact that the woman who had polished off three goblets of wine at his table on Qo'nos suddenly refused to touch anything besides water. He would be sure to ask Daniel about his suspicions later.
"All this talk about etiquette," Katie said reaching for a fingerfull of gagh. "And we're eating live worms out of a bowl with our hands." She crammed the wriggling mass into her mouth and swallowed. Her eyes opened wide. "Wow, they really do wiggle all the way down."
"That is how you know it is good gagh, Lieutenant," Torlek said raising his tankard to her.
Phil's face turned a slight shade of green.
"You look a little woozy there, Lexington," Scharr taking a bite out of a piece of Rokeg Blood Pie. "You've never had Klingon food before?"
"Not very often, Sir," Phil taking a deep breath. "I think I'll stick with the krada legs. At least they're cooked…" Phil broke open a piece of red crustacean exoskeleton that resembled an Earth Snow Crab.
"What is it, Sir?"
"Do you know how those are steamed?" Tigranian said grabbing a handful of raw pipius claw marinated in las'kach juice.
"No…" Phil replied very nervously.
"Probably best then, but remember that Klingons don't like water…" Tigranian replied while shoving the claw meat into his mouth. The pilot looked down and then slowly placed the broken krada leg on his plate. He then cautiously sniffed his fingers before recoiling when he detected a very faint hint of ammonia and saltpeter.
Just a Phil was reaching for something to wipe his hands off, an alarm echoed through the compartment.
"Alert Status One. Security teams to readiness stations."
Torlek looked at T'yveth with concern. The captain hit the comm badge on his right sleeve.
"This is T'yveth HoD. Report."
"HoD, we have a captured a Federation intruder in the aft cargo bay. She was attempting to access our internal sensors."
"What?" Tigranian said in shock.
"This is Governor Torlek. Was she armed?"
"Negative, Governor. We surprised her before she could resist."
"Stand down from Alert Status. Bring her to us now."
"Why would the Federation send an agent onto a Klingon ship? We're allies!" Alex said looking at Admiral Murphy.
"That's a good question, Pete," Tigranian added.
"Governor," Murphy replied. "I assure you, I have no idea what is going on. Starfleet Command did not order this."
"We'll find out soon enough," Torlek said pushing back from the table.
A few minutes later, the doors parted with a metallic hiss. Two bekks dragged a uniformed Starfleet officer between them with a black bag over her head. They forced her to her knees and saluted. Torlek, T'yveth, Murphy, and Tigranian all walked forward and stared down at the prisoner. Torlek reached down and snatched the bag away from the officer's head.
"Qu'vatlh, you have got to be kidding me…" Tigranian muttered when he saw the intruder's identity. Murphy stifled an expletive of his own.
"What are you doing on my flagship?" Torlek growled.
"Answer the man's question Captain Quan," Admiral Murphy ordered.
"Sir, I can explain," she said looking up at the bekks. "But it would be a lot easier if these two fine gentlemen would release me."
"Right now I'm considering telling them to throw you in their brig!" Murphy replied.
"Gentlemen," Tigranian said to Torlek and Murphy. "I think we can handle her. If she gets rowdy, I'll knock her out myself."
"Thanks, Dan…" Quan muttered.
"Release her and leave us," Torlek commanded. The bekks saluted again before departing.
Murphy took a step backward and leaned on the table.
"We're waiting, Captain," Murphy said holding up his hands.
Quan rubbed her arms to restore feeling where the Klingon guards manhandled her.
"I escorted the Pershing all the way back to Earth for Dan's court martial only to be told to stay outside the solar system and await orders," she began. "I was hoping to be called to testify as a character witness for Captain Tigranian…"
"I appreciate the sentiment, Shu Yin," Tigranian said rolling his eyes.
"Then," she continued, "we detected a fully armed Klingon warship decloaking directly above Starfleet Headquarters. I was preparing to warp in to assist when I was again told to standby. Finally, after two more hours of being ignored, I was told that Dan and the rest of his crew were being turned over to the Klingons for interrogation! What was I supposed to do?"
At that moment, Akros appeared from behind a partition and placed a glass of water in front of Annabeth.
"How about mind your own damn business?" Tigranian's first officer said taking a haughty sip of her long awaited beverage.
"I wasn't going to put my crew or anyone else at risk, Captain Geist," Quan replied angrily, "but I wanted to make sure that Starfleet wasn't throwing your ungrateful hides to the wolves!"
"Obviously, Ma'am," Scharr said as his antennae straightened, "we're being well treated," he said before taking a bite of gladst salad.
"Then, I find you all here having a banquet? What the hell is going on?" Shu Yin asked.
"If you needed to know what was going on, you would have been told! Now, I have to explain to Starfleet Command why you trying to sabotage the Klingon Chief of Staff's flagship!" Murphy spit back. "I should have your command for this!"
"And I should have your head on that table…" Torlek growled again. "This ship is my personal property."
"My Lord, Admiral Murhpy," Tigranian said. "Her actions were stupid, but her heart was in the right place. I think we can just pretend this never happened. I also recommend we tell her the truth before rumors start flying on the Nelson. After that, it's only a matter of time before they spread to the Nevsky, Shran, and every other ship in the fleet."
"If you and your crew hadn't risked your lives for this operation, Dan," Murphy grumbled, "I would wipe my ass with that suggestion. She hasn't earned a damn thing yet."
"She's the commander of the ship that helped get us home, Pete. I think that's worth something."
"Captain Quan, is it?" Torlek said leaning his shoulders back. "If my brother says you cared for him, then you are welcome at my table." He gestured towards the food. "Akros, please set another place for our new guest."
"HIja', My Lord," the Pheban said slithering towards a sideboard to grab another metal platter.
"Are you serious?" Quan asked. "You put a black bag over my head and then expect me to eat worms and make small talk?"
"I am deathly serious, Captain," Torlek said returning to his place at the head of the table.
"And so am I," Murphy said sitting down. "If you want to avoid a court martial of your own, you will graciously accept the Governor's invitation."
"I guess its worms and small talk then…" Quan said with a forced smile.
Akros held out a chair for her and gestured with one of his free tentacles. Quan took a seat while he filled a tankard of bloodwine for her. She took a sip and held her lips closed as she forced the potent spirit down her throat.
"That is…" she paused as she gulped for air. "…quite unique."
"For some people," Tigranian said taking a deep draught of his own metal cup. "I've got to hand it to you, Shu Yin, I didn't think you cared enough to risk arrest for me and my crew."
"At the time, I didn't think the security on a Klingon ship would be tight enough to call it a risk…" she muttered.
T'yveth drew his d'k tahg and clicked open the blades. Torlek immediately reached out and grabbed his wrist. Quan's eyes grew wide as the dim red light glinted off the polished baakonite.
"Everything on this ship is Captain T'yveth's responsibility, to include its security. First rule of being on a Klingon vessel, Captain Quan," Torlek said bearing his fangs. "Never insult your hosts if you don't want to die horribly. First social blunder is free because you are a human. The next one will cost you your life," he spoke as T'yveth slowly sheathed his dagger.
"And me without my mek'leths…" Laria said taking a sip of her own wine. The other Starfleet personnel looked down at their laps awkwardly. Tigranian groaned.
"What the hell did you say, Lieutenant!" Quan spit back at her. Torlek banged his fist on the table.
"Second rule of being on a Klingon vessel!" he roared loud enough to shake the bulkheads. "While on the HoS, she is not Lieutenant Tigranian of Starfleet. She is Lady Laria, Daughter of Amira, of the House of Torlek: a noblewoman and warrior of the Empire. In case you can't figure that out, it means she is YOUR superior and will be treated as such. Otherwise, I will personally help her rip your beating heart from your chest!"
"He means it…Ma'am…" Laria said playfully raising her eyebrows in Quan's direction.
"Lady Laria…" Murphy grumbled at her lack of Starfleet protocol while looking back and forth to her captain. Daniel meanly shrugged his shoulders. Quan finally had enough.
"Ok, Dan, what is going on? First you tell me back on the Neutral Zone that you found the Soldiers of Akarath, and now this insanity?"
"You told her about the Soldiers of Akarath?" Torlek growled while turning to Tigranian.
"Yes…" he replied cautiously.
"You told her before me?!" Torlek shouted as he shifted his displeasure back to his brother.
"She found us coming back across the Neutral Zone," Tigranian said defensively. "I had to tell her something."
"Maybe I should order Laria to kill you after all!" he growled.
"Starfleet ordered Captain Tigranian and the Pershing across the Neutral Zone to find the Soldiers of Akarath and offer them a deal so they would help us against the Romulans," Murphy said to clear the air. "We knew the Tal Shiar would hunt them so we had to keep things quiet. We faked the story about the court martial to make it look like Dan did it all on his own, but we're rigging it so that it looks like he found something to clear himself. There, Captain Quan, it's that simple."
"This could lead to war, Admiral," Quan said turning to him.
"Why is the Federation always so afraid of battle?" T'yveth said taking a drink.
"Not all of the Federation. Andoria is always ready," Scharr said taking another handful of gagh from his plate. "This stuff really grows on you after a while," he said as his antennae straightened.
"Yes it could lead to war," Murphy said cutting back in. "Which is why you and the other Pershing class captains have to keep your mouths shut and go with the official talking points."
"And the Klingons?" Quan asked next.
"If Rellas and his followers are serious about joining the Empire, we need to be involved, don't we?" Torlek replied, his eyes burning a hole in both Tigranian and Murphy.
"Yes, My Lord, you do…" Tigranian said penitently.
"Bridge to Governor Torlek…" a voice cut in over the intercom.
"HIja'," he replied with another growl.
"We're receiving a message from the Homeworld. Chancellor Martok commands you to make contact with him immediately. He also wants to speak with the Son of Tigranian."
Tigranian immediately got a very nervous look on his face.
"jIyaj," Torlek replied pushing back from the table. "Daniel, Admiral Murphy, accompany me to my quarters. Akros, please see to our other guests until we return."
The Pheban bowed respectfully.
"Governor, are you sure it is appropriate for me to be there?" Murphy asked. "I'm sure Dan can accurately represent Starfleet."
"But Daniel is also a Klingon warrior. In a fit of anger, the Chancellor can order his death. He cannot order yours. If he is unhappy with the Federation's duplicity, you may very well save my brother's life tonight."
Laria looked at her husband. He glanced back at her before standing.
"Well," Murphy said with a deep breath. "We better not keep him waiting then."
The three men disappeared down the corridor.
"If everyone has had their fill of dinner," Akros said politely through the UT. "We have raktajino, zilm'kach, and candied racht for the dessert course."
"That sounds delicious, Akros," Laria said taking over the role of hostess. "You may clear the table then serve."
"Very good, My Lady," he said with a bow.
Quan looked around like the world had gone upside down. The others at the table barely seemed to acknowledge what had just happened.
"Your captain might die in the next few minutes and you're just sitting here like everything's just fine!?"
"It's the price you pay for falling in love with a Klingon Warrior," Laria said rubbing her eyes.
"Calm down, Shu Yin," Annabeth said rolling her eyes. "Martok is already very familiar with Daniel Tigranian. He knows that killing him would do more harm than good and Torlek already smacked him around a little. That'll probably be all. Maybe another painstick or two, but Dan will probably like that."
"What?" Quan said as if Annabeth was speaking a foreign language.
"Don't worry, Ma'am," Phil said leaning forward. "It seems crazy now, but you'll get used to it."
"Might take a few months though," Katie added. Alex and Scharr nodded in agreement.
"These people are completely out of their minds," Quan thought as she shook her head. She then jumped as a pair of tentacles circled around from behind her. The second Pheban steward said something completely unintelligible.
"What do you want?' she said looking into his three glassy eyes.
"The UT sometimes has trouble with their pronunciation," Alex said kindly.
"Put it in scan mode, Ma'am," Scharr added. "That should help."
Quan awkwardly fiddled with her comm badge for a second before the words became clear.
"I said, 'would you like some sugar in your rakatajino?' Ma'am," the steward repeated.
"Umm, yes, thank you," Quan replied.
The Pheban's four tentacles picked up a ceramic mug, a bowl of sugar, a spoon, and a pot of coffee simultaneously and had her beverage fixed in a manner of seconds. He placed it in front of her with a flourish before moving on to the next guest.
"They're better than a replicator," Katie said with admiration. The others laughed.
Quan nervously picked up her mug. She downed half of it in one gulp hoping to clear her spinning head.