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CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE The Tips of Our Claws

Tenth Great Fang of the Khan Koraaza'khiniak, Khanhaku Khiniak, CO Third Fleet, stood behind the side party in KONS Ebymiae's boat bay and watched the cutter dock. It was a Human cutter, and Lord Khiniak found that entirely fitting as he glanced about the cavernous boat bay at the officers and ratings of his new flagship. He had shifted his lights to Ebymiae only six days before, on his arrival in Telmasa, for she was the sole Orion battleship to survive Second Telmasa. She deserved her status, and he felt a pride in her which only the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee could fully have understood.

Or perhaps not, he told himself, thinking of the officer he was about to greet.

The hatch opened, and the pipes skirled. They did not offer the KON's normal honors; instead they played Suns of Splendor, the anthem of the Terran Federation.

Two officers walked forward into that music. One was a tall, russet-furred Orion; the other a shorter, battered-looking Human who leaned heavily on a cane. His uniform bore the brand-new insignia of a TFN vice admiral, but one side of his shaven head showed a freshly healed, cruel-looking scar, and his immobilized left arm hung useless. He moved slowly, in obvious pain, and the Orion at his side tried not to hover attentively over him.

"Task Force Thirty-Seven, arriving!" the intercom announced. That, too, was not usual Orion protocol, and Lord Khiniak saw surprise-and pleasure-in the Human officer's face.

The newcomers halted, and the Human looked down at his cane, then gave a crooked Human smile and braced painfully erect. He handed the cane to his companion, who took it gingerly, and saluted the son of the khan at the side party's head.

"Permission to come aboard, Sir?" he said in the Tongue of Tongues, and the son of the khan's salute would have done the Khan himself proud.

"Permission granted, Fang Pressscott!" he replied loudly, and Lord Khiniak stepped forward as Zhaarnak returned Prescott's cane. Lord Khiniak carefully did not note the Human's relief-or his small sound of pain-as he reclaimed his prop, but the great fang neither saluted Prescott nor offered his hand in the Human greeting his guest could not return while leaning upon it. Instead, he gave a much deeper Orion bow than usual.

"I am most pleased to meet you, Fang Pressscott," he said. "And to greet you once more, Great Claw." This time he did extend a hand, and Zhaarnak took it. They brought their free hands flashing to one another's faces in a warrior's salute, and Lord Khiniak smiled. "You bring great honor to us all, both of you. In the name of all the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee and of my Khan, I thank you."

Raymond Prescott watched Zhaarnak from the corner of one eye. The Tabby actually looked embarrassed, and Prescott waited for him to speak. But the cat seemed to have Zhaarnak's tongue-despite the pain of his wounds, the clich'e made Prescott smile-and so he cleared his own throat.

"Honor comes to those who act with honor, Great Fang," he said for them both, "and it was our farshatok who brought honor to us all."

"Well said, Fang Pressscott," Lord Khiniak approved, then looked up. He clicked his claws, and a gorgeously bejeweled least claw stepped forward with a small, gem-crusted casket. Lord Khiniak took it in his own hands, and for all the solid weight of its precious metals and jewels, it seemed far too light for what it held as he turned back to his guests.

"Fang Pressscott-" no Orion would ever again greet this Human by his TFN rank "-Great Claw Zhaarnak, I bring you these as token of the honor you have earned. I speak in this as hirikolus'ni'hami, with the mouth of my Khan, and my hand is his hand."

Prescott and Zhaarnak stiffened and squared their shoulders almost in unison. Technically, every member of the Orion military was hirikolus'ni'hami, oath-sworn to the Khan'a'khanaaeee, but Lord Khiniak's formal emphasis carried another, deeper meaning. It was the ancient meaning, that of a liege man and war captain who, in this moment, literally was the Khan, a physical avatar for his distant warlord and hence for every Orion who had ever been or would be born.

He opened the casket reverently, and Prescott heard air hiss between Zhaarnak's fangs as Lord Khiniak lifted out a ribbon of deepest midnight blue, the imperial color of the Khanate. A magnificent golden starburst hung from it, broad as a Terran coffee cup yet delicate, exquisitely wrought like living, dancing flame, and a huge, blood-red ruby glittered at its heart.

The great fang returned the casket to his aide, who held it on open palms while his superior turned once more to face the Terran.

"Fang Pressscott, in the name and stead of my Khan, I beg you to accept this in the name of all the Human warriors who so valiantly perished defending the Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee." Khiniak paused, then allowed a very small flicker of amusement to flaw his solemnity as he added softly. "We have consulted with your Navy and government, though we asked them not to inform you of our request and spoil our surprise, and they have approved."

"I-" Prescott paused to clear his throat. "I would be honored, Great Fang."

"Good." Lord Khiniak settled the ribbon about his neck, then slapped him gently on the cheek with his claws. "In all our history, only two warriors not of our own race have received the Ithyrra'doi'khanhaku, and both were of our Gormish farshatok. Your name will be added to the Khan's own clan fathers in honor, and you are no longer human alone, Raaaymmonnd'pressscott. By the blood you have shed and the lives you have saved, you are Zheeerlikou'valkhannaieee, as well, Khanhaku Pressscottt, and while our people endure, we shall not forget."

Prescott bowed deeply, but he said nothing. He wasn't sure he could have trusted his voice if he'd tried to, nor was it the Orion way to indulge in flowery speeches. Few words but heartfelt ones were the Orion ideal. The more profound the occasion, the less they spoke of it, and he felt Zhaarnak quivering with emotion beside him.

Lord Khiniak gazed at him for a moment. Then his hand dipped into the casket once more for a smaller, equally beautiful copy of the star about Prescott's neck. This one was sized to fit an Orion officer's harness, and the great fang turned to Zhaarnak.

"As Fang Pressscott, so you, Great Claw," he said quietly. "You are named no longer Zhaarnak'diaano in the records of our clans, but Zhaarnak'telmasa, First Father of Clan Telmasa, and our Khan has personally charged me to welcome you to his fathers in honor."

Zhaarnak gripped his defargo's hilt so hard the tips of his claws emerged as Lord Khiniak removed the golden starship which marked him as an officer of the KON and snapped the star into its place. He would never again wear that starship, for the Ithyrra'doi'khanhaku would serve in its place . . . just as it would forever answer any slur upon his honor for retreating from Kliean.

Lord Khiniak finished affixing the medal, then stood back with a bow.

"And now, war brothers, join me in my flag briefing room. I would hear our situation from your own mouths."



* * * | In Death Ground | * * *



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