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"Your Federation sounds most interesting," Hwray-ain said. "However, I am still uncertain as to whether our most cherished customs would survive when exposed to the new values of your various races. I am not opposed to change, Captain, if such change is indeed beneficial; but I am not yet convinced of the innate worth of your peoples. You have quoted Federation laws - to what extent do these reflect the inner values of the vast majority of individuals in the Federation races, and to what extent are they imposed by politicians?"
"They reflect the opinion of the greater percentage of our peoples, sir," Kirk said firmly, concealing a growing exasperation with the ease of long habit. The Tharlex Elder seemed to be as wordy and vacillating as bureaucrats anywhere, and Kirk was getting a little tired of the oppressive civility of the meeting.
"My race believes in the worth of diversity, Elder Hwray-ain," Spock put in. Kirk knew a momentary flash of envy at the apparent ease with which the Vulcan pronounced the tongue-twisting first syllable - he himself had tried to say it once, then had fallen back on the easily pronounced and courteous 'sir'. "We believe in the value of difference; and we have been members of the Federation for many years. Indeed, our very presence here is an indication of how the Federation accepts our philosophy; the fact that members of two different races may work together in harmony and friendship."
Hwray-ain nodded, a little doubtfully.
"May I ask which of your customs you fear for?" Kirk inquired politely.
Hwray-ain pursed his lips. "There are many, Captain. I could not list them all... The Council of Elders will debate your words and consider your offer. Meanwhile, I will arrange a tour of the City for you; it will fill the hours of waiting until we reach a decision. You will see some of these customs as you go - if you have the vision to see them."
Their guide was a young woman whose name, Kirk was relieved to hear, was rather more pronounceable than the Chief Elder's. It took him only a few minutes to realise that they were, in fact, being taken round a recognised route; Morit-th's easy flowing lecture had the rehearsed quality of a frequently-repeated speech, and he decided that they were on a guided tour normally followed by natives visiting the City from other parts of their world, who wanted to see the historical/cultural landmarks. Well, why not?
The start of the tour was interesting, but after a while satiety began to set in; even beauty can pall if it is universal. McCoy became bored first; Kirk began to wish for an end to the tour not long after. Only Spock's tolerance seemed unlimited, but Kirk suspected that even Spock had had enough by the time they were halfway through, and was only kept going by his insatiable curiosity and the hope that somewhere they might be shown something of intellectual value, rather than aesthetic. Morit-th seemed not to realise that she had lost her audience's full attention; her professional monologue flowed cheerfully on. Perhaps she was used to it.
At last they entered a building which, even to their overwhelmed senses, was unutterably beautiful. The exterior was a mass of delicate stone tracery; inside, the same patterns which they had seen on no other building although otherwise there had been a great deal of repetition, occurred over and over in varying colours and textures. Morit-th fell silent for the first time, letting them look. Kirk gazed round appreciatively. The very delicacy of the carvings was refreshing. Behind him, he heard Spock say something to McCoy - he didn't catch what it was.
McCoy exclaimed clearly, "Spock, it's when you say things like that that I know why I don't like you!"
Morit-th gasped. "Sacrilege!" It was a horrified whisper.
She hustled them out; they went obediently, puzzled, as she took them back to the Council of Elders, and left them waiting in a reception room. Soon, a man appeared, and crossed to them. He bent politely to McCoy.
"Would you accompany me, please?" Although worded as such, it was not a request.
"Wait a minute!" Kirk exclaimed. "What's all this about?"
"Elder Hwray-ain will see you in a few minutes, Captain Kirk. He will explain. Come, please, Doctor."
McCoy shrugged philosophically and went out with the man. Kirk and Spock stared at each other, both aware of a growing unease.
In fact, it was nearly an hour before Hwray-ain joined them, his face serious. Kirk's patience was nearly exhausted, but the threatened explosion was held back by the sober expression on the Elder's face.
Instead of demanding an explanation, Kirk asked anxiously, "Is something wrong, sir?"
"I regret, Captain... Indeed, it is partly the fault of Guide Morit-th, for not informing you before you entered that the last building you were shown is the most sacred of all our placed of worship; all our people know it from illustrations - she did not realise that you, as outworlders, would not know. Your doctor uttered words which are sacrilegious - he has admitted it freely. For that, by our laws, there is only one punishment - death."
Kirk stared at Hwray-ain, shock momentarily depriving him of the ability to speak. Spock said slowly, "The Doctor is a stranger - one who does not know your laws."
"We considered that, Mr. Spock." Hwray-ain sounded genuinely regretful. "We searched for a way to reprieve him... but sacrilege, in the Hall of Love..."
Spock remembered all too clearly the words McCoy had spoken. "Elder Hwray-ain, his words were not meant as they sounded, and indeed would have remained unuttered had I not offered certain provocation."
"Meant or not, they were spoken in a place where there should be nothing but affection."
"There was affection," Kirk said firmly, "Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock are friends. It's just that they're both too proud to admit it openly. McCoy said the opposite of what he meant."
Hwray-ain shook his head sadly. "I accept that you believe your words to be the truth, Captain Kirk. We would like to believe them also, and release your doctor. Unfortunately, our laws..."
Their laws, Kirk thought bitterly. By Federation rules, he had to accept the Tharlex laws... and let Bones die.
"The fault was mine," Spock said. "Therefore I should be the one to die, not the Doctor."
Hwray-ain looked at him, an unreadable expression on his face. "You would do that for him?"
Spock nodded. "It is unjust that the innocent suffer... He is my friend, although, as Captain Kirk said, it is a matter of pride to us both not to express it to each other."
"I see... I think." Hwray-ain seemed to make up his mind. "Mr. Spock, since you were the person injured by Dr. McCoy's sacrilegious words, it is permissible that you ransom him. We did not think of it before; no-one guilty of sacrilege has been ransomed for so long. But it is permissible. What price will you offer for his life?"
"What price do you ask?"
"The degree of payment is for you to decide. If the price you offer is high enough, the Council of Elders will accept it."
"I have already offered to die in his place."
"That is not sufficient. It is an easy offer to make. The price you offer must be something you value more than that - the price of a life is high."
"Nothing is more precious than life," Kirk said harshly.
"Wrong, Captain. All men of worth have something they value more than life. I know the price we will accept from Mr. Spock - it to be seen if he will realise what it is - and pay it."
Twenty-four hours, Kirk thought in despair. Twenty-four hours for Spock, with nothing to guide his choice, to decide what price the Tharlex would accept for McCoy's life. And he had only one chance; it had been made very clear that only one offer was permitted. Hwray-ain had stretched matters when he disregarded Spock's earlier offer. Was there anything Spock valued more that life? Kirk wondered. His pride in being Vulcan, perhaps; his logical mind. But neither of these was a thing he could give in exchange for the surgeon's life.
The hours passed steadily... and too rapidly. They had been told they could return to the planet to bid McCoy farewell if Spock failed to make an acceptable offer.
With a sudden flash of inspiration Spock realised the truth. He had been given one last change to ransom the doctor; and now he knew the price the Tharlex wanted. The sacrifice of his pride; the open expression of his feelings for McCoy.
Spock thought of the occasions when McCoy had risked his life or suffered torture to save him; and without hesitation, even knowing that the Tharlex must be watching, he paid their price.
He couldn't smile - not yet. But he took the three steps that separated them and reached out to grip McCoy's arms.
The surgeon looked at him, feeling the trembling in Spock's hands, understanding the jumble of emotions warring inside the Vulcan's mind.
"You mustn't do this, Spock. Don't tear your instincts to pieces just for me," he murmured gently.
Spock smiled at that. "Don't be silly... Bones. I am not doing anything that is... disagreeable to me. I am... too relieved to find you alive..." His voice trailed off. Unused to expressing his feelings, he found himself completely unable to put his thoughts into words.
McCoy lifted his hands to grip Spock's arms. "It's good to see you, too, Spock. I thought I'd never see you - any of you - again."
McCoy also was sacrificing his pride, Spock realised. And the realisation calmed the tiny worry that had been in his mind, that the surgeon might afterwards say something inopportune about the incident. This would forever be between the two of them; a secret that not even Kirk would share, save superficially.
They remained motionless, still gripping each other's arms, smiling at each other in a strange contentment that rendered words superfluous, both suddenly aware that although Kirk had been the catalyst that brought them together - two men of such diametrically opposed natures - the catalyst was no longer needed. They had learned first to trust each other, and then liking had grown, although both had refused to accept it, acknowledge it, for so long; and now, although their acknowledgement of it was plain for watching eyes to see, both knew that their apparent feuding would continue; but now, both knew it for the shield that it was.
Kirk fidgeted restlessly, wishing that Spock would hurry up. He was anxious, now, to put as much distance as possible between himself and this beautiful, peaceful, loving hell as rapidly as possible.
What was keeping Spock? Hwray-ain said a few minutes - it had been almost an hour.
The intercom bleeped; he punched the button.
"Captain, would you come to the transporter room, please? We have... an unexpected passenger."
An unexpected passenger? And there was an odd note in Spock's voice. "On my way... Mr. Sulu, set course for Starbase 9; prepare to leave orbit as soon as I have established... who our passenger is."
There was no life in his movements as he headed for the elevator. The bridge crew buzzed sympathetically after the doors slid shut; it would take everybody time to get over losing McCoy so unexpectedly, but it was clear that the Captain was going to take longer than most.
He entered the transporter room wearily, disinclined to be courteous to any visiting dignitary, especially one of this race - and stopped deed.
Spock watched indulgently as they hugged fiercely, with a new understanding of the emotion that motivated them. They drew apart, still gripping each other's arms. "How?" Kirk asked.
McCoy glanced over the Captain's shoulder at Spock. "They never did mean to execute me. The whole thing was set up to test Federation integrity - to see if you would stick to what you said about the Federation obeying the laws of member planets. Morit-th had orders to grasp an opportunity to trap either Spock or me. I laid it on for her - couldn't have given her a better excuse if I'd tried. But they would have let you go, thinking me dead. They gave Spock the chance to ransom me - and a second chance when he failed the first time, because they didn't really want to keep me."
"What ransom did they want?" Kirk asked curiously.
McCoy hesitated. Spock said quietly, "They really wanted very little, Captain. The... statement of a fact, nothing more."
Kirk glanced at McCoy, who nodded. "That's right, Jim. He only said a dozen words, and it was such a self-evident fact that it isn't worth repeating."
The Captain looked suspiciously from one to the other, sensing a rapport between them, similar to one he had recognised once before. There was an understanding here; something they were unwilling to share even with him. He knew it; and he let it go, content that they could share something meaningful. It added depth to the friendship that he knew existed between them.
As he had done once before, he put a hand on the shoulder of each. "Come on," he said contentedly. "Let's get up to the bridge and get away from here. We'll let the diplomats deal with this place in future."
In complete accord, they headed for the door.