He was leaving.
The young captain of the U.S.S. Challenger motioned to McCoy from across the meticulously landscaped lawn where he stood with her uncle, Don Alfredo. The physician nodded sadly. "Your Highness, it's time to go." His voice was hoarse with barely controlled emotion.
Teresa's eyes were dry as she gazed up into his bright, blue ones. "I know. I can't hold you any longer."
He seemed to gather his courage to speak. McCoy clasped her hands. "Oh, no. You'll always hold me. I think you know that."
She smiled for the first time in days, and with a trace of mischief. "I'm glad." She stood on tip-toe so she could kiss him. She kissed him softly, but firmly, and felt time itself stop. She could hear his heart pounding.
After a long, ecstatic moment, Teresa reluctantly pulled away. "Please come back whenever you can," she whispered.
McCoy nodded. He couldn't speak, and he moved mechanically toward Captain Garrovick, never once taking his eyes off her. Then the Challenger's transporter beam enveloped the two Starfleet officers, and McCoy was gone.
Teresa stood, unmoving, staring at the spot where he had dematerialized. You'll always hold me, he had said. And you will always hold me, Teresa thought.
Her uncle Alfredo slowly walked toward her. He frowned at her stony stare, her rigid stance. The past year and a half had been a living Hell for the young princess. Most people would have cracked under the strain of the ordeals Teresa had suffered, himself included. Somehow, she had borne up, calling on an uncanny reserve of inner fortitude and determination.
But everyone had a limit. He would have to watch her closely. Her duties as the sovereign ruler of an entire planet would be taxing enough under normal circumstances, but now, in the devastating aftermath of the Klingon invasion, it was imperative that she operate as efficiently as she could.
"Are you all right, Teresita?"
"I'll miss him, Uncle," she replied, still gazing at the spot where McCoy had beamed up.
"Do you love him?"
She didn't answer. She didn't know.
Alfredo put his arm around Teresa, and felt her sag gratefully against him. Alfredo did not know what to think of his niece's attraction to the Starfleet physician. She had been through so much. The memorial service for Carlos would not take place until this afternoon. He had been dead only a few days. It was too soon.
Teresa sensed her uncle's thoughts. "I don't understand what I feel about him, Tio. He has been so kind to me. He delivered my...son. Most of all, he is a gentleman and a gentle man."
"And what of Carlos?" Alfredo asked gently. "Have you no tears for him?"
"I mourn him," Teresa said, and, for a moment, she did not speak. "He was my husband. I loved him, but I know in my heart that it would never have been the same between us again had he lived."
"It wasn't his fault, Teresita."
Dark, liquid eyes gazed up into Alfredo's face. "I know, but I can't help wondering why he couldn't fight off the Klingons' influence, as I did." She sighed. "He finally did in the end, and he saved my life. But it was too late for him."
A choked sob broke from Teresa. Days of holding back her grief, of bottling up her emotions, finally took their toll. Don Alfredo folded her in his arms, and she wept bitterly, burying her face in his chest as her small body shook with wretched sobs. Alfredo stroked her hair.
Gradually she calmed down and pulled away, managing a smile. "I'll be all right," she quavered. "We'd better get going. I've got to feed the baby and get cleaned up before Carlos' service. It's time I put Serenidad back together again."
Alfredo returned her smile. "Good! You've got a lot to do. Don't forget, we have a council meeting with the newly-appointed ministers later this afternoon, after the service."
"Tio, I am no longer a child. I called the meeting, and I'll be there," Teresa said. She stretched up to give Alfredo a quick kiss on the cheek. Then she turned and hurried into the palace.
Starfleet security guards were everywhere. Clad in body armor and black helmets, armed with heavy phaser rifles, they stood like statues in the corridors, at the top and bottom of the great marble staircase inside the main entrance. Most of them were strapping young men who seemed to have been chosen for their exceptional musculature. McCoy had told her once that Security sustained the highest rate of casualties of any branch of the service. "Redshirts" and "cannon fodder." These were some of the more complimentary nicknames other members of the 'fleet had bestowed upon Security.
Yet Teresa found their presence somehow comforting and reassuring. Even if it was in hindsight, she reflected bitterly.
The Federation Council had a knack for hindsight. Once the Enterprise and Challenger had broken the back of the Klingon invasion of Serenidad, the Council had decided to assign the U.S.S. Hornet, a Constitution II-class starship like the Enterprise, to patrol the Serenidad system 'until further notice.'
The Starfleet Corps of Engineers was already at work rebuilding the crumbled ruins of the great audience hall, destroyed by the fusion grenades that had wiped out most of the Klingon ground forces. Working from the original plans, the Corps would reconstruct the hall in one-tenth the time it would have taken local contractors. The engineers had their work cut out for them. While most of the main palace buildings had remained relatively intact (although many of the fine, old, lead glass windows had been blown out by the blast), the wings closest to the audience hall had been virtually destroyed. In addition, the engineers were installing force fences both inside and outside the high stone wall that surrounded the entire vast acreage of the palace grounds. It was a classic example of closing the barn door after the horse had run away.
The engineers were also surveying what was left of San Marcos, the only other major city on Serenidad. Located on another continent, apparently the Klingons had decided to eliminate any possible resistance by eliminating the entire city. There were no survivors to be found. The Kh'myr had used neutron bombs to eradicate the populace, leaving the city itself relatively intact. Starfleet had requested permission to construct a starbase on that site, a matter to be discussed further in Serenidad's council meeting today.
Teresa bounded up the marble staircase and found herself slightly winded. She was a little out of shape, even though she was as trim as ever after Doctor Charles Zeiss' post-partum treatment. Gotta work on that, she thought as she boarded an elevator to whisk her to the top floor and the royal residential quarters.
The security guard outside the door to her suite saluted her and stepped aside. She returned the gesture and went in.
Rosa Villa-Lobos heard the princess come in, and met her in the sitting room adjoining Teresa's boudoir. The plump, pleasant middle-aged woman had been hired to look after Teresa's infant son, to give the princess the time she needed to attend to the tangled affairs of state.
"How is the little one, Rosa?"
"He is stirring," the woman answered. "It's almost time for him to eat."
"I know; I got back as soon as I could. I was saying goodbye to a friend." She patted Rosa on the shoulder. "Why don't you get some rest?"
"I think I will. I'll be back in time for you to go to the ceremony."
"Thank you, Senora." Teresa hurried into her bedroom, where her new son slept in his crib.
Once Teresa was out of sight, Rosa shuddered. Oh, why did the princess insist on raising that...creature as her son? True, he looked just like a beautiful, newborn baby boy--right now. But Rosa had seen what those alien demons looked like during the Klingon occupation. What would the princess do if that child grew into one of those? They would find her murdered in her bed one morning!
Rosa made the Sign of the Cross. She would not interfere. She would care for the child for as long as she could stand it, out of respect for the princess. She threw her shawl around her shoulders and made a hasty exit.
The baby was waking up. His eyes opened and closed, and he rooted, turning his head from side to side as his little mouth yawned for food. Teresa picked up her infant son, then sat down in a comfortable rocking chair and offered him his bottle. He began to nurse enthusiastically.
The rocker creaked softly, and Teresa's gaze wandered around her bed chamber. A wave of sadness broke over her. This room held too many memories. She and Carlos had spent many a passionate night here, their naked, interlocked bodies writhing on her great canopied bed.
There were bad memories, too--the terrible nightmares she could not recall after she became pregnant by the Klingon Commander Kral, Carlos moving into the adjoining suite after they began to quarrel. Teresa gazed out the window. The glass was still intact, but shattered, imparting a crazy, kaleidoscopic quality to the view beyond.
Teresa had already decided to move out of the palace. A small, comfortable bungalow was being prepared for her on the grounds, just a stone's throw from the main building. She couldn't stay in this suite much longer. Once things calmed down, she would have her furniture moved out.
She studied the infant's tiny round face. The dark eyes were closed. He slept a lot, and would definitely sleep after gorging himself. She wished fervently that he could remain the way he was now. He was so beautiful--so normal looking! He looked so much like her it was uncanny.
Teresa sighed. She knew it was wishful thinking. She absently stroked the top of his head and froze. Just as she had on that night he was born, she felt the nascent, as yet invisible crest of bone growing just beneath the smooth skin.
No! He didn't have to grow up to be a monster, no matter what he looked like! She would love him and teach him right from wrong. His father might have been a Kh'myr demon, but he was her son now.
"Miguel." It came to her in a flash. Miguel--yes. She had always liked the name. If the child had a traditional name, maybe that too would help him grow up to be a normal little boy.
"Miguel," she whispered. "That's a pretty name, little one. Don't you think?"
Miguel was not overly impressed. He had finished nursing now and was nearly asleep. His little face was smeared with milk, his mouth pursed into a tiny O. He loosed a loud, full-bodied burp, which drew a delighted giggle from Teresa.
"Piggy!" she laughed. "I'll say one thing for you, Miguelito--you sure know how to eat!"
She carried him over to the changing table, and cleaned him up, putting him in a clean diaper and a fresh sleeper. Then she kissed him and put him back to bed.
She would have loved to cuddle him a while longer, but time was a luxury she did not have in abundance. Carlos' memorial service would take place in the palace chapel in an hour. Teresa sighed. She was not looking forward to the service. Poor Carlitos!
Grief threatened to consume her. Keep busy, she thought. Think about nice things. She stepped into the large, well-appointed bathroom adjoining her bed chamber, stripped and got into the shower.
The hot water and hypersonics relaxed her. Teresa lathered up, soaking her shoulders and breasts and her flat--flat!--tummy. The night Miguel had been born, she had been as big as a house, her belly bloated and enormous. She never thought she'd have a prayer of ever regaining her youthful figure, but she had. Of course, on that night, her main concern had been merely staying alive.
She deactivated the shower. Warm air and infrared dried her body, and a somber, charcoal-gray softsuit and cape formed over her as she stepped from the stall. Teresa ran a quick comb through her thick mane of hair and strode back into the bedroom.
Teresa opened a bureau drawer. There it was, still in its holster. She had taken off her phaser after being raped and tortured by the Klingons all those months ago, and she had not worn it since. She had always believed her skill with weapons and her combat training would protect her from harm.
The Klingons had demonstrated to her just how naive that belief was.
Now the weapon terrified her. She could hardly bear to look at it, much less strap it on. It was a symbol of her failure, a reminder of just how easily she had been taken against her will and violated.
But she was expected to wear it. Custom dictated that the ruler of Serenidad carry arms; a throwback to the days on old Earth when Spanish knights wore swords and scabbards--even in church. It was symbolic; the ruler carried a weapon to protect his--or her--subjects.
Teresa reached for the belt, her hand trembling, and buckled it on. The weapon hung low on her right hip. Its weight was surprisingly reassuring. But she still couldn't bring herself to touch the handgun.
Anger surged through her. How could she be so weak? She fancied she could hear the derisive laughter of her dead enemies, the Klingons who had brought so much sorrow to her and her people. And she could see them in her mind's eye. Kral, his leering face mere centimeters from her own as he raped her, contorting in a grimace of lust as he pumped his demon seed into her. The faces of his three underlings over his shoulder as they impatiently waited for their master to finish so they could have their turn with this soft little Human be'SIj.
And then she saw Korak.
The Kh'myr commander's visage was a horrifying, twisted mask of hate and rage. He stood over the stunned Carlos in the amphitheater. He blasted Carlos into atoms with one burst of his disruptor.
Without conscious thought, Teresa's hand blazed to her side. In the space of a heartbeat, she smoothly drew her phaser and aimed it, instinctively dropping into a combat crouch as old reflexes took over.
She caught herself before she squeezed the trigger and blew out a wall of her suite.
Teresa stared in wonder at the phaser in her steady hand. She had done it! She had overcome her paralyzing fear of the weapon. Elated, she dropped the pistol lightly into its holster. Then she drew again, even more smoothly and fluidly than before.
Confidence flowed through her again for the first time in months. It was as if a part of her that had been lost was returning, being made whole again.
Teresa holstered the weapon. She strode into the bedroom and gazed down into Miguel's crib. He slept peacefully. His lips quirked from time to time in a tasting curl. The surge of love Teresa felt threatened to smother her. Just let anyone try to make her give him up! Miguel was her son. She knew she could overcome the Klingon half of his heritage. She had no illusions; it would not be easy. She was already getting pressure from all sides to "get rid of the little half-breed monster."
Doctor McCoy was right. This little baby deserved a chance to become his own person.
Teresa scooted the rocker close to the crib and sat down. Rosa would be coming back soon. She had intended to wait for her in the sitting room, but had changed her mind. She would stay here in the bedroom.
She wanted to be with her son.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust..."
Father Diego Anaya intoned the service for the dead. The grim irony of his words was not lost on him. His eyes were apologetic as they found Princess Teresa's.
Ashes to ashes, yes. The coffin resting on the bier at the foot of the altar was empty, a symbol only--just like Papa's had been. For like her father Don Fernando, Teresa's husband Carlos Ruiz-Mendoza had died violently. His body had been instantaneously converted from matter into energy with one quick blast of a Klingon disruptor, leaving only a few twists of black ash to swirl about in the dust of the amphitheater.
The funeral service dragged on. Teresa's eyes wandered about the palace chapel, The Chapel of Our Lady. Security was tight. There were more Starfleet redshirts here than mourners. Besides her uncle Alfredo, some friends, members of the new Council, and Carlos' family, the only other people in the congregation were a handful of cloistered monks scattered throughout the pews. In their hooded brown robes which totally hid their faces, the silent clerics were mysterious, almost threatening figures. For some inexplicable reason, they made Teresa shudder.
At last, the ceremony was over. A sad procession wended its way out of the chapel and down to the palace crypts. In these vaults were entombed the remains of members of the royal family who had died in the two standard centuries since the colonization of Serenidad. Huge armored doors had already been opened, so the ceremonial pallbearers carried the empty casket into the chamber, to its final resting place. They lowered it reverently onto a black-draped trestle, then stepped back to follow Father Diego to complete his final prayers.
A shiny new bronze plaque had been fastened to the faceplate of one of the burial compartments. It read:
2252 - 2275
Another new plaque caught Teresa's eye, and the legend inscribed upon it sent an icy shiver down Teresa's spine.
Teresa Morales de la Vega
This was where she would rest one day. She had nearly ended up here several times in the past year and a half. Teresa was unnerved; it was like reading her own obituary and she really could have done without that experience.
A movement at the edge of her vision drew her attention from Father Diego's mumbling. A Starfleet security guard spoke urgently with Don Alejandro Santana, one of the new council members. Santana's face suddenly drained of color. He swayed unsteadily, as if he might fall, but recovered and hurried off with the guard without a word to anyone.
Puzzled, Teresa turned back to Father Diego, who had finally finished his prayers. He sprinkled holy water on the coffin. "May he rest in peace. Amen."
"Amen," Teresa murmured, in unison with the others. She was glad this sham ceremony--for that was the only way she could think of it--was almost over. She had said her goodbyes to Carlos days ago, seconds after he had been murdered in the amphitheater. He had already returned to the earth, and she wondered, just as she had when Papa died, if anyone really derived any comfort from holding a ceremony over an empty box.
Diego stepped aside. The pallbearers lifted the casket and set it down inside the open compartment. Then the drawer was rolled shut, closing with a sepulchral 'clang.'
"Go in peace," Father Diego intoned.
"Thank you, Father," Teresa answered fervently, meaning every word of it. She hurried briskly from the tomb.
Alfredo rushed after her. "Going to a fire?" he asked.
"No," she answered. "I've just had enough of this for a while. Did you see Don Alejandro leave?"
"Yes. What was that all about?"
"Don't know. He looked like he had seen the devil himself and took off with that redshirt. I guess we'll find out at the Council meeting."
She led her uncle outside, out of the gloom. Teresa turned her face to the sun, gratefully drinking in its warmth and light. She was, she realized, very glad to be alive, and somehow, the fresh air and sunshine were so life-affirming she couldn't help smiling.
"Let's have the Council meeting down in the garden on the gazebo," Teresa said to Alfredo. "It's so beautiful outside!"
He laughed and nodded in agreement. "These sessions could stand a little fresh air anyway."
Alfredo noticed the change in Teresa. It was as if regaining the memory of her terrible ordeal at Klingon hands had allowed her to come to grips with her terror and piece together her shattered self. And she was wearing her sidearm again. She seemed to have regained some of her old confidence, but without the arrogance she once possessed, the arrogance that was an almost unavoidable by-product of a pampered, royal upbringing. She was more like her old self again.
The rest of the mourners had finally caught up with them. Some went their separate ways, following the path to the main gate. The monks left together, hands folded. Slowly, they passed through the entrance and headed back into the city.
All but one.
No one noticed a solitary brown-robed figure who held back from the group. The monk waited until the others were out of sight, then plunged into the forest beyond the palace walls.
On the palace lawn, Teresa and Alfredo accepted the condolences of well-wishers and friends. A sandy-haired young woman approached Teresa. Her grief-ravaged features were stricken and taut. Dona Antonia Ruiz-Mendoza Corazon, Carlos' sister, thrust an accusing finger at the princess. "You! You shame the memory of my brother, and dishonor the de la Vega name, by treating that half-breed creature as your son!"
"Dona Antonia!" Alfredo protested. "That is no way to address the princess of Serenidad!"
"It's all right, Tio." Teresa stepped forward. "Dona Antonia, I am truly sorry for what happened to Carlos. But the child is here, and he's alive. It's not his fault that he was born through an act of violence. He deserves the same chance for life as any other newborn infant."
"No! The people despise Carlos!" Antonia sobbed. "They blame him for the Klingon invasion. And you deride him further by flaunting that monster!"
"Carlos was not at fault," Alfredo said. "The Klingons twisted his mind, but he gave his life to save Teresa and Serenidad. He was a hero in the end."
"It doesn't matter! As long as the princess' demon-spawn lives, he will be an affront to my brother's memory." She turned to Teresa. "Kill that thing now, before it's too late--or someone else will!"
Dona Antonia stormed away, furious. Teresa watched the woman go and shook her head sadly. "By now, everybody on this planet must know Miguel is half-Klingon."
"Her grief has poisoned her," Alfredo said.
"I'm more concerned about little Miguel," Teresa said. "I've been urged from all sides to give him up or send him off-world. Now they want to kill him." Her eyes were defiant. "He's my son, Tio Alfredo. I will not give him up, nor will I allow him to become a monster like his father!"
"The pressure to rid yourself of the child will only get worse, Teresita," Alfredo said. "Perhaps we should increase the security around your quarters."
"I refuse to be coddled, Tio. The guards are not required." She glanced up at the old clock tower in the courtyard. "It's almost one o'clock. The Council meeting convenes in half an hour. I've got the agenda and some computer cassettes in my room. I'll go pick them up and meet you at the gazebo."
Teresa kissed Alfredo on the cheek and then turned to run back to the palace. Alfredo watched her go. He sighed; he could see some rough water ahead for her, and he hoped her newly-regained strength and confidence would not flag.
She was going to need every bit of it.
High upon a wooded hillside overlooking the royal palace of Serenidad, a brown-robed figure stood silently in the evening shadows. She had been somewhat hesitant to slay the holy man, the monk, but she had needed a disguise to get into the palace and around the city. She had taken his robes at gunpoint, then blasted him into dust.
Her dangerous foray told her little she didn't already know. The palace was secure; it was swarming with Starfleet security personnel. Commander Korak and all his men were dead and the battlecruisers Targa and Zoden had been destroyed with all hands lost.
Lord High Admiral Khalian's latest ploy to secure Serenidad for the Klingon Empire had been an abject failure.
She threw back the hood, revealing to the empty, darkening forest that she was a Kh'myr Klingon. Most who knew her said she was beautiful. All who knew her agreed she was dangerous.
She was a q'laI assassin, a killer without equal.
Her name was Valkris.
Admiral Kusan, her latest employer, would be delighted to hear Khalian had failed again. By the time she arrived on Serenidad, Starfleet security forces from the Challenger had the situation well in hand. Lord Korak and his men were dead.
In the guise of a monk, Valkris had watched with fists clenched in helpless rage as earth-moving machines shoved heaps of Klingon bodies into a deep pit at the edge of the forest. An angry mob of weak, pathetic Humans stood by, jeering and heaving rocks at the warriors' corpses. While it was true the bodies were empty shells without the spirit of the warriors within, Valkris had wanted to kill, then. But she had been sent merely to observe. She had turned away before the urge to kill overwhelmed her, and led to her undoing.
She had wanted to kill, too, in the holy place where the mock funeral for Serenidad's Prince-Consort took place. Valkris had sat in a pew behind Princess Teresa, and had been sorely tempted to slay the little female. It would have been so easy; she carried a needle gun under the monk's brown robe, in addition to her disruptor and battle dagger. The smaller weapon fired tiny, silent, hypodermic projectiles laced with a lethal, untraceable poison, and the dart itself dissolved in the bloodstream. The princess would have died within seconds of an apparent heart attack. And only the most astute nada would be able to find the tiny puncture wound--and ascertain its meaning.
But Valkris, again, had refrained from succumbing to her urges. Admiral Kusan had strictly forbidden her to kill the princess. He wanted her dead, of course, but on his terms and in his own good time. Were she to die now, he argued, her death would be considered a triumph for Khalian, even if it seemed she died of natural causes.
It was only later, when she saw a newsfax holotape, that Valkris learned how L'yan had died. Uncharacteristic tears welled up in her eyes, and she snarled a curse as she fought them back. L'yan had been a ferocious fighter, perhaps the best among them. She was also the most gentle lover Valkris had ever known, male or female. Now she was gone.
"Daqawlu'taH, be'nI'wI'. You will always be remembered, my sister," Valkris whispered. "May you find rest in the Netherworld of Kh'eloz."
Desperately striving to purge the grief from her mind, Valkris scrambled up the hillside until she came to a clearing. She pulled a squat, box-like communicator from the folds of her robe and punched an alpha-numeric code on the touch-sensor pad. Thin air seemed to open outward as the hatch and boarding ramp of a sleek, one-man Klingon fighter appeared out of nowhere. Valkris strode up the ramp and was swallowed by nothingness as the hatch cycled shut behind her.
She strapped herself into the pilot's seat. She did a quick systems check, then activated her engines.
As the small graf pods warmed up, Valkris pondered this latest defeat. The Empire badly needed Serenidad and its vast stores of dilithium. Three times now they had failed to annex the planet. And yet the Admiralty seemed more concerned with fighting amongst themselves for control of the Emperor's crown. Admiral Kusan would be delighted that Admiral Khalian had lost face again with this failure. Did Kusan not understand that a defeat for Khalian, even though it gave him personal gratification, was a defeat for the Empire?
Valkris shook her head. She was glad she was only affiliated with the military and not a member of it. Perhaps there were other ways to acquire Serenidad and its treasures. Princess Teresa's new son was half-Klingon; later, he might be used as a tool to seize power. When that time came, perhaps she, Valkris, would be given the honor of executing the princess in the bloody HoHtaj ritual as L'yan had wanted to do. Her upper lip curled in hatred. If so, she would flay the flesh from the little be'SIj's body and avenge all the grief and death Teresa Morales de la Vega had caused the Empire.
But Valkris also had a personal score to settle. L'yan was dead because of that little woman-child. True, Teresa had not pulled the trigger. But L'yan's last, personal, taped message told Valkris all she needed to know. Her sister-lover, in an inexcusable lapse of q'laI discipline, had apparently succumbed to jealousy, charging the princess with stealing the affections of her commander, Lord Korak, from her. It was absurd, irrational, but L'yan convinced herself of its truth, and it led to her downfall.
Teresa Morales de la Vega would pay for L'yan's destruction either with her life, or with a living death as a prisoner of the Klingon Empire.
A green light pulsed on her board. Valkris ignited the thrusters. Slowly, the fighter rose above the trees--still cloaked--until it cleared the top branches. She brought the ship's nose up. Free of the encumbrances of ground clutter, the vessel climbed rapidly until the sky turned to a star-sprinkled black. Serenidad fell rapidly behind.
Valkris arced the ship over. Ahead orbited the gleaming alabaster sculpture that was the U.S.S. Hornet, the Federation heavy cruiser that had been assigned to patrol the Serenidad system. She skimmed the fighter over the starship's saucer hull so that the registry numbers--NCC-1714--loomed large on her viewscreen. She smiled. She knew all the weak points of a Bonhomme Richard II-class cruiser. The element of surprise was hers; had she enough firepower, she could have easily destroyed the vessel.
Perhaps another day.
"I will return for you one day, little princess, and soon," Valkris spat. "Rest assured, you will not escape my wrath."
Valkris waited until her ship left Serenidad's solar system. The she engaged graf drive. Her ship screamed through the void on its long journey to the homeworld, Kazh.
"This meeting will now come to order."
Teresa rapped her gavel down on the table that had been set up on the garden gazebo. She surveyed the ring of faces gazing expectantly--and, she thought, disapprovingly--back at her. The new Council--Don Rodolfo Garcia, Dona Lucia Rodrigo, Don Tomaso Pena, and the missing Don Alejandro Santana did not know what to expect from her. She would have to earn their respect and confidence, which would not be easy. But she had to try.
She turned to Alfredo. "I have appointed Don Alfredo to serve as the Prime Minister of Serenidad. He will work in conjunction with you and report directly to me. Our primary concern is the recovery of the areas of Serenidad that were damaged or destroyed by the Klingon invasion, and the reconstitution of a stable government. To that end, the Starfleet Corps of Engineers has graciously donated its services to rebuild the areas of the palace and the city that were destroyed. They have proposed a salvage operation in San Marcos. They have also attended to the burial of the Klingon warriors who took their own lives in the amphitheater, interring them in an unmarked, mass grave."
"They were not buried in consecrated ground, I trust?" Don Rodolfo asked.
"No. It was in a tract near the city, up in the forest. They will also remove any Klingon corpses found in the rubble of the audience hall and bury them in the same place," Teresa explained.
"The Corps of Engineers is dismantling the perimeter pitfall traps in and around the palace, before anyone else is killed in one," Alfredo added.
Teresa briefly thought of Angelita Martinez and the grisly death the young woman had met after freeing her and Doctor McCoy from their cell.
"What of civilian casualties?" Dona Lucia addressed her question to Alfredo, pointedly ignoring the princess. Disapproval was etched upon her aristocratic features. It was obvious that she did not consider Teresa capable of discharging her duties.
Don Alfredo glanced uneasily at his niece.
Teresa didn't allow Lucia's disdain to unsettle her. Before Alfredo could begin to formulate a response, she answered. "The Corps has deployed burial details to remove the bodies of any citizen they find to a temporary morgue in the Plaza del Sol, where family members can make identification. We don't know exactly how many prisoners were taken during the Klingon occupation. We have found fifteen thus far. All were young women who were brought here for the warriors'...amusement." She paused and bowed her head slightly. "Unfortunately, all of them had been horribly slain. U.S.S. Hornet security personnel are still searching the lower levels of the palace. We can only pray to God that their efforts yield no more victims."
Don Tomaso settled back in his chair, a sardonic smile on his bearded face. "My, my, my!" he said. "I am touched by the Federation's concern, truly I am. They are highly skilled at coming in and mopping up after the damage has been done, are they not? But where were they when the Klingons invaded us and made our entire planet a virtual prison? And where were they when our daughters were being violated and murdered?" He leaned forward, pounding his fist on the table. "Serenidad is a Federation protectorate, is it not? Hah! I have never heard of a more tragic joke! Now we have a mighty starship in orbit above our planet, and there are Federation security personnel on every street corner. But that will not restore life to those who were slain."
"I agree, Don Tomaso," Teresa said. "I intend to petition the Federation Council for full member status immediately."
"An admirable idea, my lady, but it is not likely to succeed," Tomaso said. "We have been a protectorate for little more than a standard year. The Federation rarely grants full member status to a planetary system that has been a protectorate for less than five years."
"They'll make an exception in our case."
"And why is that?"
Teresa smiled, but her tone was bitter. "Because we have something they want. Dilithium--more than any other single source in the galaxy. That mineral has caused nothing but trouble since its discovery here. Now it's going to buy us into a full membership in the Federation. It will give me all the leverage I need when I present my petition."
"Is that wise?" Don Rodolfo asked. "I for one was less than impressed with the Federation Council's sluggish response to the Klingon emergency."
"That's the whole point," Teresa persisted. "The Federation might be able to drag its feet when a protectorate is involved, but would never take that risk when a full member was concerned. If other members saw that one of their fellows was neglected, they might lose confidence in the organization, and the whole fabric would start to unravel. The Council just can't take that chance. Furthermore, Starfleet is proposing the construction of a starbase on the site where the remnants of San Marcos are located. This would provide us with all the protection we would require."
Rodolfo was dubious. "I don't know, my lady. The mood of the people...they are less that happy--no, downright angry--with the Federation right now. I don't know if they want to join the Federation after what happened, let alone how they would feel about having a Federation military base on Serenidad, thereby increasing the chance hostile forces would see this planet as a strategic military post, one that must be eliminated."
Teresa sighed. "The Federation, even with all its faults, is still our best hope, Don Rodolfo. I don't have to tell you what the Klingons are like. The Romulans are no better. They are even hungrier for energy sources than the Klingons. Add in the Orions and the Barrier Alliance, the Tholians, even the Kzinti. We can't protect ourselves; we aren't powerful enough. We need to ally ourselves with the Federation and we need the starbase."
Teresa noticed that Don Rodolfo was no longer paying any attention to her. He was staring past her with a shocked expression on his face. No one was paying attention to her any more, she suddenly realized with annoyance. She whirled around to see just what was so fascinating.
Don Alejandro Santana shambled across the lawn toward them like a sleepwalker trapped in a nightmare. He stumbled into the gazebo and sat down heavily in an empty chair. He was ashen-faced; his eyes were red-rimmed and blood-shot. Silence settled like a shroud over the Council meeting for several long moments. Then Santana finally spoke. "I have been to see my daughter Lucinda," he mumbled.
Don Tomaso cleared his throat. "With all due respect, Santana, there is a Council meeting in progress--our first one, I might add. What was so important that it could not wait?"
"She's dead!" Santana snapped. "They called me away to identify her." He kept on talking, as if it somehow gave him comfort. "I didn't know she was missing. She had been attending Alcalá University, and even though it's just outside the city, she insisted upon living on campus."
"Don Alejandro..." Alfredo gently began.
"They found her in a dirty little cell on the dungeon level," Santana continued, as if he hadn't heard. "The...the...smell is what led them to her. The Klingons dragged her down there. A Starfleet physician from the Hornet said she was...raped by at least a dozen of them. Then they killed her..."
Teresa closed her eyes and shuddered. Suddenly the sun no longer felt warm.
"Don Alejandro, please stop," Alfredo begged.
"They left her there for dead, naked and bleeding and alone. The medicos said it took Lucinda almost a day to die. She was wearing a bracelet I gave her for her eighteenth birthday last year with her name engraved on it. That's why they called me..."
Teresa turned to Alfredo. "Go find Doctor Zeiss," she whispered sotto voce. "He's in shock."
Don Alfredo nodded and hurried off.
"Don Alejandro, you are excused from this meeting," Teresa said.
"Oh, but I want to stay," Santana said, his eyes wild. "I want to make sure that this sort of thing never happens here again. Lucinda was such a beautiful little flower. To see her lying there like that, with those malditos from security making jokes while I identified her, as if she wasn't even there..."
He's falling apart, Teresa thought. And why not? She noted the other Council members staring at Santana with mixed horror and sympathy. I've got to keep him calm until Tio Alfredo gets back.
"Go to your home, Don Alejandro," Teresa urged. "You're needed there. I'm getting someone now who'll take you home."
"I can't." Tears rolled down Santana's face. "Don't you see? If I go home, there will be so many things to remind me of my little Lucinda. I can't go home!"
Alfredo returned with Doctor Charles Zeiss in tow. Princess Teresa breathed a sigh of relief. She had just appointed Zeiss as the new court physician. Santana would be in good hands.
Zeiss knelt next to Santana's chair. He scanned the anguished councilman with his med-tricorder, then coded a hypospray and administered the injection. "Mild sedative," the physician explained. "Some attendants are bringing a groundcar around to take him home."
Zeiss sighed. "I'll go with him. Someone should tell Senora Santana that her daughter is dead."
"Thank you, Doctor," Teresa said.
Zeiss bowed fractionally to the princess. He assisted Santana to his feet and started to lead him away. But the councilman turned to address his fellows.
"My friends, we must do what is necessary to see that those Klingon diablos never threaten us again," he quavered. "We cannot do it alone."
Zeiss gently but firmly steered Don Alejandro away from the gazebo. The council members watched them leave in silence.
Teresa turned back to face the assembly. "Does anyone still wish to debate whether or not we should petition the Federation for full membership, or that we should accept a starbase on Serenidad's soil?"
There was no dissent, even from the vocal Don Tomaso.
"I'll finalize the petition today."
Don Alfredo rose again. "The question of joining the Federation as a full member has been resolved, and the reconstruction process is proceeding on schedule. In view of the tragedy that has taken place, I move that we adjourn until a later date to cover less important topics."
"I second the motion," Don Rodolfo chimed in.
Dona Lucia stood up, her expression positively glacial. She finally chose to address Teresa directly. "There is a matter not on the agenda, my lady--the matter of your...son." She said the last word as if it had a foul taste.
"I must agree with Dona Lucia," Rodolfo said. "The general consensus is that you should give up the child, my lady. Because of his...questionable heritage, he may prove to be a political embarrassment."
"Indeed," Dona Lucia said. "I feel it's inappropriate for you to raise that...child as your son. Suppose as he matures he reverts to the ways of the Klingons? Or worse still, what if the Klingons use him to claim Serenidad?"
"Agreed," Rodolfo said. "It is not proper; you should give him up."
"Then we have a problem, don't we?" Teresa asked coldly. "My relationship with my son is my personal business. It will not be raised again in Council. Is that understood?"
"We are only trying to give you some advice," Tomaso said.
"Fine. You can all tell me a hundred times a day that I should give up my son, but it will not be discussed in an official capacity. We have more important topics to deal with."
Teresa leaned forward across the table. "Let's clear the air right here and now. No matter what you may think of my abilities--or lack thereof--I am the Crown Princess of Serenidad. I don't claim to have all the answers. That's why I have Don Alfredo and you. You were chosen for your abilities, not because your views are politically compatible with mine. But give me a little credit. You'll find that I am my father's daughter, and like him, I have a very low tolerance for bullshit. So if any of you feel that you can't work with me, now's the time to leave."
They all stared at her in stunned silence. She took a sip from a glass of water. Then Don Tomaso loosed a booming laugh. "Now that's my kind of princess!" he chortled. He bowed, then shook Teresa's hand. "I am with you, Your Highness."
His praise made Teresa suspicious. Obviously, Tomaso was brown-nosing. Perhaps she had made a bad decision regarding his appointment to the Council.
"So am I," Rodolfo said after a moment of consideration.
Lucia didn't reply immediately. Finally, she said, "I'm willing to give it a try."
"Good!" Teresa banged her gavel down. "Meeting adjourned. You'll all be notified as to when we'll reconvene."
Don Alfredo waited until the others were out of earshot. Then he whistled softly. "Whew! I know I'd been after you to be more assertive at the Council meetings, but..."
"Do you think I was too rough on them?" Teresa asked softly.
Alfredo smiled. "I'll tell you what I think. I think you've finally become the ruler of Serenidad in your own right."
"You really think so?"
"I know so. You don't need me to be your regent anymore."
"Maybe not, but I need a good prime minister."
"That I'll concede; I'm flattered by your choice," Alfredo said, laughing. "I think we ought to go inside. Unless I'm mistaken, you've got a baby who's going to need feeding very shortly."
Teresa glanced at the clock tower. "You're right. I've got to go. Walk me back to the palace?"
"My pleasure," Alfredo replied, offering his arm to her. Teresa linked her own with his, and they strolled up the lawn toward the palace. He had forgotten how tough Teresa was under her soft, pretty exterior. She had to be, to have survived the hell of the past year and a half. She had comported herself like a trooper with the Council today. He would still be there to help her but with luck, she wouldn't need it.
Alfredo smiled. The future of Serenidad was in good hands.
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