IT WAS A lovely day.
Trip stood quietly in the shade, the hood of the robes T'Les had provided him drawn up to protect his head from the fierce sun. He watched silently as Koss' marriage party approached, schooling his body into stillness even though his every instinct was screaming to run to T'Pol, to snatch her away from here and to never stop running. No, there would be time for action very soon and he needed to conserve his energy.
At his side, Ambassador Soval stirred slightly, once more glancing in Trip's direction and frowning very tightly. His presence on Vulcan had been something of a surprise, but over the last four days, the ambassador had been invaluable.
"Professor T'Les has requested that I inquire about your intentions, Commander." The ambassador's voice was calm, measured, but tinged with worry. Trip wondered if Soval knew how much like a dad he sounded in this moment. But then, with how close the ambassador had seemed to be with T'Les recently, maybe that was the wrong question to ask. Maybe Trip should have been asking – for T'Pol's sake, of course – what Soval's intentions were with T'Les.
The thought almost made him smile.
"Offworlders are rarely allowed to witness our ceremonies and we can ill afford an … incident," Soval continued. The wedding ceremony was almost here.
"I will do what is necessary," Trip said cautiously. When Soval frowned very slightly, Trip forced his body to relax even more. "I will do what T'Pol requires of me." That certainly drew notice. Soval turned his head to openly look at him.
"She will choose the Challenge?" Both of Soval's eyebrows climbed. "Commander, are you aware of what this entails?"
"When was the last time," Trip asked softly, "that Koss has touched a lirpa?" He could see the man in question and took a moment to evaluate him. Thick but not fat. Heavy with mass, he would be strong but likely not fast, not with the way he plodded forward. He favored his right leg but none of T'Pol's observational techniques hinted at an old injury. This was doable.
"That question is not-"
"Because in the last year," Trip interrupted the ambassador, "I've killed three Klingons with one." A slight exaggeration – he had defeated them with the lirpa, though only one would have actually died of her wounds – but the point was relevant. From the shift in Soval's expression, he was considering the implications. Finally, he quirked an eyebrow.
"Then I will simply wish you good fortune, Commander." The ambassador stared at him for a moment longer. "T'Pol has chosen well, it seems," he mused softly.
Trip could not possibly imagine a greater compliment than that.
And then, nothing more could be said. The wedding party had arrived, arraying themselves in their proper places. Trip eyed the ceremonial guards carrying the lirpas, noting how all of them appeared bored. This was simply one more onerous duty to carry out. He found former Minister Kolak a moment later – there was enough of a resemblance to his son to recognize their blood relation but where Koss had nothing to make him stand out, the former minister somehow managed to look ferret-like, although Trip knew it might simply be his opinion. Anger started pulsing through him but Trip swallowed it, recognizing the flavor of T'Pol. She too had looked upon Kolak and the tightly controlled fury swimming in her belly required considerable effort to suppress. It still burned that, despite being cured, she still struggled with some emotions thanks to some permanent damage. When their moods matched, it was even worse as his anger would bounce off hers, intensifying with each moment, and when she was really furious, like right now, it was all he could do to keep from passing out…
There was a moment of confusion – the priest (if that was the proper term) had to respond to Kolak's question regarding Trip's presence and backed T'Pol's right to invite anyone she desired, and then the former minister complained about the extent of the ceremony; Trip bit back a smile the moment he realized that Kolak was uncomfortable with the lirpas present. According to T'Les, it was rare these days for a bride to demand the full trappings, principally because it hinted that she was either what Trip would call high maintenance or intended to call the Challenge. Not surprisingly, many would-be grooms canceled their planned marriages the moment they learned of the trappings necessary.
"What ye are about to witness," the priest began to intone. T'Pol had not budged from where she stood in front of the almost diamond-shaped gong, her face imperious. She watched Koss as if he were a bug or something she would scrape off her shoe. A moment later, her eyes flickered to Trip and he felt her flash of fear and worry and hope.
"Kal-if-fee!" T'Pol snapped, her voice hard and fierce. There was the expected reaction to that – the priest almost recoiled in shock though he might have just been upset at being interrupted – but she did not budge. Trip could not help but to notice how the guards suddenly perked up, truly interested in the goings-on for the first time. Koss appeared startled himself but Kolak was furious.
"T'Pol, thee has chosen the Kal-if-fee, the challenge," the priest intoned. "Thee are prepared to become the property of the victory?" The very notion of someone being owned caused Trip to frown, but he shoved it aside, tried to focus on the now. T'Pol spoke, not even bothering to wait for Koss to accept the Challenge.
"As it was in the dawn of her days," she said, stepping away from the gong, "as it is today, as it will be for all tomorrows, I make my choice." She stopped in front of Trip and their eyes met. "This one."
There were the expected reactions to her selection, but Trip paid it no mind, concentrating instead on preparing mentally for what to come. He stared at Koss, his face as expressionless as he could manage, noting how the other man refused to make eye contact. When the guards approached, bearing the lirpas, Trip accepted the weapon without hesitation. He tested its balance, frowning at its weight before readying himself. The guard raised an eyebrow in surprise at his clear competency before exchanging a look with the other who had brought the lirpa to Koss.
"Point of order," Trip called out, turning slightly to address the priest. "I am wearing a body glove underneath these robes." The priest lifted an eyebrow. "A high-efficiency filter and heat-exchange system. Your environment is a harsh one."
"I see no reason he should be required to remove it," Koss said, more than a little hint of arrogance dripping off his words. He was holding the lirpa awkwardly, as if trying to remember old lessons.
"Then it shall be allowed, Charles, son of Tucker." Trip almost smirked at the improper naming but held it back. Instead, he side-stepped into position and prepared himself. There were so many factors here that needed to be handled delicately. He was confident that his skill and speed were superior, but one solid blow from Koss could shatter bone if properly struck. The heat and atmosphere was even more of a threat – he'd dosed himself with triox the moment he saw the marriage party approach, but it would only last for so long. Already, he could feel sweat trickling down his face from the heat of the merciless sun. Time was his greatest enemy. He would need to strike quickly and aggressively.
"I will regret killing you," Koss said as he lumbered toward his own position. This time, Trip did not make any effort to hide the contemptuous smile he gave the Vulcan.
"May thy knife chip and shatter," Trip retorted, knowing Koss would not recognize the reference.
"Begin," the priest said.
Trip was already in motion.
He threw himself forward, covering the distance in three leaping steps even as Koss was bringing his lirpa to a ready position. At the last moment, just as Koss committed to a wide, decapitating swing, Trip dove to the ground, rolling across the burning sand. His unexpected movement carried him behind Koss and he swung his lirpa, not at a killing height but at his opponent's ankles. The blade sliced through boot and skin and tendon almost as if there was nothing there, and Koss bellowed a startled cry of pain. Lamed, he staggered away, losing his balance and toppling when he misstepped and applied too much weight to his crippled ankle, but by then, Trip was on his feet again. He caught Koss' awkward thrust with his own lirpa and batted it aside, throwing the Vulcan out of position before spinning in place. His grip on his weapon slid – intentionally so – as he allowed inertia and momentum to add power to his strike and Koss was unable to duck out of the way before the blunt end of Trip's lirpa caught him squarely in the head. The sharp crack of the metallic club connecting with flesh echoed loudly.
And silence descended upon the courtyard.
Trip fast-stepped back away from Koss' unmoving form in case he was feigning unconsciousness and fell into a ready stance. His breath was already coming faster than it should and his body glove was slick with sweat. God, this planet was a furnace. He waited for another long heartbeat, side-stepping around the courtyard until he could see Koss' face. Emerald blood seeped into the sand – it looked as though Trip's blow had broken the Vulcan's jaw as well as his nose – and he could tell that Koss was struggling just to hold onto consciousness. The fight was certainly gone from him though and Trip glanced around.
To his utter lack of surprise, T'Pol was very nearly beaming with pride over the quick, decisive victory of her chosen champion, but what did catch him unprepared was the visible approval he could see on T'Les' face as she stood beside her daughter. Soval also looked to be satisfied and every single one of the guards – even those that had accompanied Kolak – were eying him with at least a modicum of grudging respect. The priest still seemed bored. But the former minister and the other members of his party looked … horrified. No doubt they had expected to see something very, very different.
"You must finish this, Charles, son of Tucker," the priest intoned. "The Challenge was made and accepted. It must be to the death."
"Not according to the Kir'shara," Trip retorted. He watched with amusement as the priest rocked back – if he'd been bored before, the old man certainly wasn't now. "The wording is clear: the challenge shall continue until one has fallen."
"In this context, fallen has always meant death." The priest was warming to him and Trip fought down another smile. It was just like back home when he intentionally picked arguments with his pastor – every religious leader worth their salt wanted to be challenged so they could convince you how completely wrong you were. Only those that truly lacked the courage of their convictions wished to silence anyone who questioned faith.
"Fallen can mean many things," Trip said. "My opponent has fallen. He cannot continue. Killing him now would be murder." He paused to let that sink in before continuing. "As far as possible, do not kill." Quoting Surak to a Vulcan priest … could this day get any better? "As I cannot return life to those I kill, I wish to be slow in taking life." For a moment, the priest seemed poised to argue. He tilted his head.
"Change is the essential process of all existence," he quoted. "Fascinating." He gestured with one hand and two of the guards – the same ones who had carried the lirpas – advanced upon Koss. They examined him before looking up with bland expressions. "Koss, son of Kolak, is judged fallen. Charles, son of Tucker, thee are considered the victor."
Without a word, without even looking at his son, former Minister Kolak strode away, rage in his eyes even if his face was mostly impassive. Trip watched him depart before holding out the lirpa to the nearest guardsman. The Vulcan glanced at it, then at him.
"As victor," the man said, "this lirpa belongs to you." His eyes flickered to the left, to where T'Pol still stood. "Wield it in defense of your … mate."
"There is a matter of propriety," T'Les stated as she stepped closer to the priest. "My daughter issued the challenge. This male stands victorious." Once again, the priest seemed poised to argue. "The law is clear," T'Les said.
"It is." The old man glanced around, looking at the silent Vulcans who watched and waited. Trip suddenly felt a surge of empathy for the man. He would be setting precedent here.
"Hear me," Trip called out, hoping against hope that he had chosen the correct form. "I have made the ancient claim," he said. T'Pol's eyebrows shot up – the surge of surprise he felt through their magical connection almost made him smile – and even Soval looked stunned that he would dare this so openly. Only T'Les seemed unmoved … but then, she had subtly pointed him in this direction in the first place so that wasn't a big surprise. "The woman T'Pol I claim as my mate. Any who oppose this may face me in combat." God, he hoped everyone 'held their peace.' The sun glared down at him, baking him and burning away any semblance of sanity he might have still possessed.
"The claim is made," the old priest rumbled. He glanced around again. "None contest your claim, Charles, son of Tucker." He turned to T'Pol and waited. She met Trip's eyes and then, without a word, knelt. It as the required act of submission on the part of a Vulcan female which was yet another one of the bizarre elements about this strange alien culture that Trip doubted he would ever fully understand, but it showed to the world that she was accepting his claim on her. He swallowed and approached, shifting the heavy lirpa to his left hand before taking up an identical position in front of her. She extended her hand to him and, with no hesitation at all, Trip followed suit, touching their fingers in the ozh'esta. The bond between them hummed.
"What ye are about to witness comes down from the time of the beginning without change," the priest began, his voice deeper and more expressive than before. But Trip barely heard him.
His eyes were upon his wife.