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CHAPTER ONE Exiles' Return

"Is the zeget to your liking?"

Twenty-Sixth Least Claw of the Khan Khardanish'zarthan, Lord Talphon, combed his claws suavely through his luxuriant whiskers, and his slit-pupilled eyes glinted across the table at his liaison officer.

"Yes, thank you, Captain. And it's quite well cooked, too."

Khardanish noted Lieutenant Johansen's teeth-hidden smile with approval, for Humans often forgot that bared teeth were a challenge among his people. He knew Johansen had studied the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee carefully in preparation for this assignment, yet it was still gratifying to see such awareness of proper behavior. Not that he was quite prepared to stop teasing his guest just yet.

"I am glad," he said, "and I apologize for how long the cooks took to grasp that you would truly prefer it cooked."

"Not necessary, Captain. I console myself with the thought that a TFN chef would find it just as hard to believe you would truly prefer it raw."

Khardanish allowed himself the snarling purr of a chuckle. It was remarkable how well he and Johansen had learned to read one another's nuances, particularly since neither had the proper vocal apparatus to speak the other's language. Khardanish suspected he had drawn the Lorelei Patrol at least partly because he understood Terran Standard English. There was much talk of new translating software, but the current generation remained crude and imprecise . . . and used too much memory for a lowly destroyer, anyway.

The least claw had been less than enthusiastic when he heard about his new post. It was flattering for a least claw to serve, in effect, as a small claw with his own squadron, but the Tenth Destroyer Squadron's four old ships hardly constituted the Navy's cutting edge, nor did the Lorelei System qualify as a critical sector. It was one of the very few systems the Khanate had succeeded in wresting from the Federation in the First Interstellar War of two Orion centuries before, but the thoroughly useless star was hopelessly indefensible (as the Terrans had proved in ISW-2), which, he suspected, was probably why the Federation had permitted his people to keep it. Lorelei had no habitable planets, and only one of its six warp points led to Orion territory; four led to Terran space, and the sixth led only to death, for no survey ship had ever returned from its far terminus. His Znamae and her sisters were here purely to "show the flag," as the Terrans put it.

Yet Khardanish had come to realize his duty held an importance too few of his fellows could appreciate. Most agreed that when the Federation and Khanate allied against the Rigelians in the Third Interstellar War, the Treaty of Valkha's assignment of liaison officers to all border patrols had made sense as a means of defusing potential incidents. Far fewer would admit that the contact those liaison assignments engendered remained equally desirable as a means of nurturing the still slow-growing mutual respect of the star nations' warriors.

Khardanish himself was surprised by how genuinely fond of the lieutenant he had become. He would never find Humans attractive. Their faces were flat; their ears were small, round, and set far too low; they lacked any hint of a decent pelt; and the absence of the whiskers which were an Orion's pride made it difficult to take them seriously. Even their males had only a soft, cub-like fuzz, but it was even worse in the lieutenant's case. She was a female, and the long hair which framed her face only emphasized its total, disgusting bareness. And if the Human custom of wearing body-shrouding clothing at all times was less aesthetically objectionable-at least it hid their naked skins!-it still seemed . . . odd.

But Samantha Johansen had many qualities he admired. She was observant, intelligent, and keenly sensitive to the inevitable differences between their cultures, and her military credentials were impressive. The lieutenant was only fifty-three-twenty-eight, by her people's reckoning-but she had seen the zeget. Her mess tunic bore the ribbon of the Federation's Military Cross, the Valkhaanair's equivalent, which must have been hard to come by in the fifty Terran years of peace since ISW-3. Perhaps, he speculated idly, she had been chosen for this duty by her superiors just as carefully as he was coming to believe First Fang Lokarnah had chosen him?

"Ah, Saahmaantha!" he said now. "At times, you are too much like one of my own for comfort."

"I take that as a compliment, Captain," Johansen said, chewing another slice of zeget appreciatively. In fact, she found it overly gamy, but it was a warrior's dish. The bear-like zeget was four furry meters of raw fury, the most feared predator of the original Orion homeworld, and Least Claw Khardanish had done her great honor by ordering it served.

"Do you?" Khardanish poured more wine. The Terran vintage was overly dry for his palate, but it had been Johansen's gift, and he drank it with the pleasure she deserved of him. He tilted his glass, admiring the play of light in the ruby liquid. "Then I will tell you something, Lieutenant. Do you know what we Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee call our two wars with you?"

"Yes, Captain," Johansen said softly. " 'The Wars of Shame.' "

"Precisely." He sipped delicately. "I find that apt even though we are now allies. We had twice the systems, ten times the population, and a navy, and you had-what? A few dozen lightly-armed survey vessels? Should not any warrior feel shame for losing to an enemy so much weaker than he?"

Johansen met his eyes calmly, and the least claw approved. Even among his own people, many would have sought to hide their discomfort with some polite nothing; this Human merely waited.

"But you were not weaker where it mattered most, Saahmaantha," he said seriously. "For your people, war was a matter for planning and discipline; for mine, it was a chance to win honor by individual bravery. Your First Fang Aandersaahn lured us into traps, ambushed us, and massed his fire to burn us down as we charged against him, and to the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee those were coward's tactics. My grandsire, the first Lord Talphon, fought in both Wars of Shame. He was an intelligent officer, one of Varnik'sheerino's prot #233;g #233;s, but even he thought your people's way of war fit only for chofaki."

Johansen still said nothing, though her eyes flickered. Literally, the term meant "dirt-eaters"; figuratively, it implied beings so lost to courage and honor they could not even recognize them as concepts.

"Yet I have read his journal many times, Saahmaantha, and he learned better." Khardanish watched his guest relax. "He was not at Aklumar, but his ship was the sole survivor of the First Battle of Ophiuchi Junction, and he fought in every major engagement of the Junction Campaign. By the end, he had learned what your Federation Navy taught us so well; that the duty of a warrior must be to win, not to count coup. So if you are like one of us, perhaps that is in part because my people have grown more like yours."

"And is that a good thing, Captain?" Johansen asked.

"Yes, Saahmaantha." He refilled her empty glass and raised his own to her in the Terran manner. "We owe you much for teaching us there is no cowardice in forethought. Some might argue that point even now-they remember only the shame of defeat and prefer still to think of Humans as chofaki-but my grandsire died defending Tanama against the Rigelian First Fleet with a single Alliance task group, and his Terran units died with him. None fled, and the names of their commanders are inscribed among my clan's fathers and mothers in honor." He regarded Johansen levelly. "I believe he would approve of you."

"Your words do me honor, litter master," Johansen said quietly.

"True honor is in the heart which understands them, cubling," Khardanish returned the formality, then twitched his tufted ears in humor. "But listen to us! We grow too grave, Lieutenant."

"Perhaps." Samantha sipped her own wine, leaning back from the low table on the cushions which served Orions in lieu of chairs, then grinned wryly. "But if we're growing more like one another, we've paid enough along the way, sir. This very system's history is proof of that.

Khardanish nodded. A hundred and fifty Orion years before, a Terran fleet in Lorelei had cut off and trapped a third of the Khanate's battle-line. Forty years before that, an Orion flotilla had penetrated the Terran frontier undetected during ISW-1 and surprised an entire Human colony fleet here. There had been no survivors.

"Perhaps," he suggested dryly, "that is because we have always been alike in at least one regard, Saahmaantha." His liaison officer raised an eyebrow in the Human expression of interrogation, and he gave another chuckle. "Both of us are incredibly stubborn," he said simply.

David Weber, Steve White Crusade | Crusade | * * *