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The hololimo pulled through the lavish front gates of the Shakti's palace, scattering a flock of bright turquoise and pink Tessarian peacocks that had been fanning their plumage in the shade of a palm tree. The car slowly circled around a perfectly manicured miniature Orion oasis complete with fruit trees, crystal clear pools of water, and carved stone statues before slowing to a stop at the foot of a marble staircase. The polished steps extended fifty meters up into the heart of the palace.

A tall Kressatian eunuch stepped forward, bent at his skinny waist, and pulled open the door. He extended a hand to help the ladies out of the vehicle first, but neither accepted his gesture. He bowed as Tigranian stepped out into the sunlight.

"On behalf of His Bountiful Majesty, Shakti Binrabbat Sulasmuron IV, Protector of Worlds, Shadow of the gods of heaven, Emir of all Orions, I bid you welcome to his home," the tall, skinny man chirped through his wide, toothy mouth. "Please know that you are under his merciful protection for the duration of your stay. All your thirsts will be quenched and all your hungers sated."

Tigranian remained silent, but touched his right hand to his forehead in the Orion gesture of peace. It was obvious to Stolz that he had performed the act before. Though she didn't want to admit it, it impressed her.

"I believe the Shakti should be ready for us?" she asked the Kressatian.

"Of course," he said in a high pitched voice for his size. "Please follow me. His Bountiful Majesty awaits you in the audience chambers."

The trio followed the eunuch up the stairs and through a pair of opulent, Coruscan mahogany doors encrusted with the Shakti's tribal crest cast from pure latinum. A pair of Orion honor guards armed with curved scimitars and long, ceremonial spears guarded the front entrance. Katie continued gawking at everything around her like an enraptured tourist, but Tigranian's gaze was focused like a phaser's targeting scanner. He seemed oblivious to everything going on around him. Stolz felt a strange anxiety growing inside as soon as she realized that they were stepping into the lair of Orion's most dangerous man and she still had no idea what Tigranian was going to say.

They passed through several white marble rooms, each the size of a starship's shuttlebay. Every chamber was individually decorated with a unique and eclectic mix of foreign furniture, hanging tapestries, gold trim, and latinum fixtures. Finally, they settled in front of another pair of dark, wooden doors. Two more guards stood at rigid attention on either side of the arched portal.

The Kressatian briefly cracked open the doors and stuck his head inside. After receiving confirmation from an unknown occupant, he threw them open and announced loudly:

"Captain Daniel Tigranian of Starfleet Command to see His Bountiful Majesty!"

Katie noticed that neither Stolz nor she was acknowledged. It riled her, but Stolz seemed completely unsurprised.

"Guess it's more of that ancient culture she was talking about…" Katie thought to herself.

The trio passed through the entrance into a huge chamber that bore a purposeful resemblance to an ancient temple. Its walls were polished white marble angled upwards to an open skylight in the ceiling that reflected overhead sunlight with brilliant clarity. A huge fountain bubbled in the center of the circular space and two more Tessarian peacocks dipped their bright yellow beaks into pristine waters. Two semi-circular silk couches around the periphery of the fountain were occupied by sixteen lounging lodubyaln occupying themselves by sharing long drags on the hoses of several water pipes. In the center of the room was a raised dais occupied by a padded throne. Sitting on it was the largest Orion man Katie had ever seen. He was quite fat, but the muscles on his arms and his stout neck seemed to indicate he could match his bulk with strength. He wore a pair of flowing white silk trousers large enough to comfortably two normal men. A matching cloth of silk was wrapped around his bald head. A jet black beard jutted down from his broad chin. It was adorned with golden and latinum beads. Two muscular guards stood on either side of his seat with curved swords at the ready. The eunuch silently glided over to a position against the wall at the rear of his master's dais.

"Welcome," the Shakti said in a booming basso that echoed off the stone walls around them. "It is not often that a member of Starfleet requests an audience with me. I am honored…" The way he leered his last words sent a shiver down Katie's spine. The security chief's mind immediately snapped back to her duties. She eyed the two guards and began formulating plans for getting her captain out of here if things went south. Based on what Tigranian wanted, that was a distinct possibility.

The Shakti gestured with his right palm that looked large enough to crush a human's head. Another lodubyaln appeared with a silver tray containing three glasses of steaming tea and half a dozen bowls of various types of dried herbs, flowers, and seeds. She knelt down in front of Tigranian, Katie, and Stolz and bowed in a way that showed off her nearly nude torso.

"You have to drink the tea," Stolz whispered quietly out of the side of her mouth. "It's a sign of hospitality and is an insult to the Shakti if you don't. Don't touch the bowls. That stuff is a potent mix of psyhoactives and stimulants designed to increase the relaxing effects of the tea. They also increase the potency of the Orion female pheromones. If you're not used to it, it will drive you out of your mind…"

Stolz and Katie reached down and respectfully took their glasses which were small enough to finish with only three sips. They gingerly replaced the empty cups back on the tray. Tigranian remained motionless. The lodubyaln servant began to look uncomfortable.

"Is something wrong Captain Tigranian?" the Shakti asked leaning forward so his beard dangled over his belly.

"Sir…" Stolz said nervously.

Tigranian grinned before bending down and selecting dried blossoms and herbs from four out of the six bowls. He then crushed them into a fine powder between his palms, pinched the resulting concoction between his thumb and forefinger, and then snorted it straight up his nostrils. He then violently grabbed his glass of tea and finished it one gulp.

Stolz's mouth dropped open as she watched the veins on Tigranian's neck pop out and his pupils slightly dilate. A smile slowly appeared on Tigranian's face as he gently replaced his empty glass on the tray before reaching up running his fingertips across the lodubyaln's brow in a traditional Orion gesture of caring.

"Sharkran, Habbiyun," Tigranian said softly. She smiled back at him before retreating away. He then looked straight up at the Shakti. "Attan Aku-tani Shakti Binrabbat Sulasmuron , Wali-Kiva Esha-lalu," Tigranian said in fluent Orion repeating the gesture of peace.

The Shakti's laughter filled the entire hall with deafening thunder.

"Wa-ho-lilah! Merciful Gods be praised!" he said keeping the conversation in Orion."One of Starfleet who has been civilized. Probably by touching green flesh in the past, I imagine?"

"I would be dishonoring your house with lies if I said otherwise," Tigranian replied with a hint of regret. Stolz followed the conversation between the two men with a clenched jaw. She quickly leaned over and whispered into Katie's ear again:

"It wasn't in his file that he spoke Orion! Where did he learn it?"

"I don't know," Katie replied with a shrug of her shoulders. "Probably when he was patronizing all those slave girls…"

Stolz whipped her head back forward and stifled an angry scream.

"My honorable captain," the Shakti said gesturing to the present members of his harem, "If you enjoy green flesh, what is mine is yours…"

Several of the lodubyaln shifted on their couches and began batting their eyes in Tigranian's direction. One made the especially overt gesture of leaning backward and uncrossing her legs. The captain angrily furrowed his brow and glared back at the Shakti.

"I didn't travel halfway across the galaxy for a pleasure cruise."

"Very well," the Shakti replied. "Then, might I ask, why are you here then?"

"I have a proposal to discuss with you," Tigranian said plainly.

"As you wish," the Shakti said raising his hands and clapping his massive palms together. The lodubyaln all rose in unison and departed the room through a side door. The Shakti then looked over to Stolz and Katie. "Captain, your females must leave as well. I never discuss business with women present," he said wafting his fingers beneath his flaring nostrils. "The scent of their…pleasure…clouds the senses you know?"

Stolz cringed at the vulgar euphemism referencing her anatomy. Her previous defense of Orion culture seemed to be fading before her eyes. Katie couldn't understand the conversation like her companions, but she definitely sensed that she had been insulted.

"No," Tigranian said bluntly. "They both stay and you're going to deal with it."

Stolz, the eunuch, and the Shakti all were equally shocked at Tigranian's audacity.

"What makes you think your demands have any weight?"

"Because, if you don't listen, I'll be terribly insulted," Tigranian replied.

"And why should I care about insulting a Starfleet officer in my palace?" the Shakti said leaning forward onto the edge of his throne again. Tigranian calmly cocked his head to the side.

"Because if you insult me, I'll kill everyone in this room…starting with you."

The Shakti's guards drew their scimitars and moved to lunge at Tigranian, but a guttural roar from Tigranian's throat stopped them in their tracks.

"Do I look afraid!?" Tigranian bellowed at them loud enough to deafen everyone in the room.

Katie had no idea what was going on, but was about one second from grabbing her captain and requesting emergency beam out. Stolz wasn't sure if Tigranian's behavior was the result of his Klingon nature or the drugs he just snorted. Either way she was absolutely terrified.

After a few tense moments of silence, the Shakti laughed again.

"I've met many humans in my life, but none as intriguing as this one. He seems to have the courage that most of his species lacks. If you wish for your women to stay, then they will stay."

"Sharkran, Aku-tani Shakti," Tigranian answered with a nod of his head.

"What is your proposal, Captain Tigranian?" the Shakti said leaning back into his throne.

"On my starship is a passenger. I need you to get him into the Romulan Empire."

"That's it?" the Shakti chuckled with surprise. "If this is merely about arranging passage on a ship, talk to a freighter captain, not the Emir of the planet."

"This is a very special passenger. His trip will require some special precautions," Tigranian said raising an eyebrow.

"Even more intriguing," the Shakti said. "This wouldn't have anything to do with the renegades that escaped to the Federation a few days ago, would it?"

"It would be better for all concerned if you didn't ask questions you already know the answer to, Most Bountiful Majesty…"

"The number of questions I ask is directly related to the amount of latinum the Federation is willing to exchange for his safe passage, Captain Tigranian."

"No," Tigranian said shaking his head. "No Latinum. You transport him free of charge."

"Why in the name of the holy gods would I transport a renegade slave back into the Romulan Empire without compensation? In case you haven't noticed, abolition is not a cause the Orion tribes subscribe to," the Shakti said bewildered.

"Since I won't bother appealing to sense of compassion for the cause, I'll appeal to your treasury," Tigranian said plainly. "All it takes to see that chaos breeds profit is to look out your window. If the revolt in the Romulan Empire continues, their domestic supplies of slaves will continue to dwindle and the price of slaves imported by the Orion Syndicate will rise higher than the Wardaj Kurafta. If you want latinum, there it is…" Tigranian said throwing out his arms in revulsion.

Stolz audibly gasped from behind him. Tigranian ignored her.

An evil smile crept across the Shakti's bearded face. He moved his head from side to side examining Tigranian from several angles.

"The light in this room tends to play tricks with the eyes. I'm sure your skin must be green to barter with logic like that."

"Do we have a deal?" Tigranian asked eager to end this unpleasant exchange.

"I believe we do, Captain Tigranian," the Shakti said still grinning. "I give you my word he will arrive safely, but tell your special passenger not to bother packing any bags. He won't need any where he's going."

****

The eunuch led Tigranian, Stolz, and Katie out of the palace's front doors and back towards their waiting hololimo. As they descended the steps, Stolz spoke up.

"For the record," she said not looking at the captain, "I'm absolutely disgusted with what you're doing."

"So am I," Tigranian said putting his sunglasses back on. "But I'm not doing it for me, Starfleet, or the Federation. I'm doing this because a loyal friend asked me too."

"Does this friend understand what he's getting into?" Stolz asked.

"More than you know," Tigranian replied.

"I also suppose I owe you a debt of thanks," Stolz added.

"For what?" Tigranian asked with curiosity.

"I was sure you were going to relish the opportunity to be rid of me when the Shakti ordered us out of the room Instead, you put your life on the line to keep me there. For that, I'm grateful."

Tigranian paused his walk to look at her.

"Back in the embassy when I challenged you," he began, "you stuck to your phasers knowing I'd respect you more for it. That showed me you really did your homework about who you were dealing with. Most first year officers would just copy a bunch of facts off the holonet database and cross their fingers. When I read your reports, it confirmed you knew exactly what you were talking about.

You're cocky, you're arrogant, and you dress like my great-grandmother, but you're also motivated, smart as hell, and don't take shit from anyone. With that attitude, you'll go far."

"A good report to Starfleet might be enough to get me on the embassy field staff permanently," she said raising a hopeful eyebrow.

"Consider it done," Tigranian replied, "and if it doesn't, it's not too late to put on one of these uniforms," he said pinching his black and grey jacket. "The Pershing always needs another good officer on the team."

"Not on your life," Stolz said laughing as she climbed into the car. Tigranian and Katie exchanged smiles and climbed in after her.


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