Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hyms at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembere'd such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Beverly rolled over in bed, still asleep but trying to wake.

The rustle of paper under her elbow brought her to a slightly more alert state. She squinted her eyes open. Jean-Luc's side of the bed was empty, and cold. She picked up the paper that had been propped on his pillow, pushed her hair out of her eyes and read the message he had left.

A soft smile lit her face, the one thing that thirteen years of turbulent marriage had taught her was that Jean-Luc Picard loved her. He never let her forget it.

She scanned his message again and sighed. He was a hard man to stay angry with. Shakespeare at this hour of the morning for heaven's sake. He wouldn't even have had to look it up. This was the man who insisted he could not understand where his eldest daughter got her hopelessly romantic tendencies from.

Beverly tucked the note into a drawer on her bedside table and tried to gather her thoughts to face the day, and the battles it would bring.

Her whole body felt heavy as she swung her legs over the side of the bed. She paused, wishing for the strength that had evolved with the race that had colonized the twin planets Romulus and Romii, and made them the heart of a great Empire.

The room was airy and austere. Cool cream marble walls and floor, the window arches carved with wreaths of twining flowers. Early rays of sun burnished the blues and golds of the long hand woven floor rug that rippled over to the door of the room.

Beverly let her feet slide into the rich pile and stretched up, shaking her hair back off her shoulders. At times like these her body reminded her of the three pregnancies in five years she had inflicted onto her lower back. Now, despite exercise and care, the song that ran through her head in the morning tended to be 'The old grey mare she Ain't what she used to be'.

That thought spurred her into action and she spent the next twenty minutes completing a strenuous stretching and exercise program, a regime that left her sweaty and ready for the shower.

She had just started luxuriating in the pleasure of the warm water when the sounds of loud discord, that she had been ignoring for the last few minutes, arrived outside the bathroom door. With a sigh she turned the unit to sonics and came clean and dry in seconds rather than minutes, wrapped a robe about her, and strode out to confront the disputing parties.

Marie-Claire stood on the threshold, twelve years old and not looking at all romantic at the moment. With her hands fisted on her hips, her jaw mulishly set and her cloud of golden curls scragged back as usual into the tightest bun she could make, she looked so like her father that Beverly felt her lip twitch at the picture she made.

She was peering defiantly up at Julia, who, languid and tall, was leaning out one of the windows pretending to ignore her older but smaller sister.

As a ploy it could hardly have been better designed to infuriate Marie-Claire.

At ten Julia, although easily the most even tempered of the Picard family despite her red hair, had her sister's measure, and enjoyed her ability to rile her.

Beverly looked between the two temporarily silenced girls and then raised an eyebrow at her son Robert.

Sitting cross legged on the bed, he had the intent expression of someone trying to pass any blame on to the warring parties.

Beverly, not fooled by his innocent look, would lay money on him being the root of whatever dispute was being aired.

She supposed it was inevitable that she would compare him to Wesley at the same age. At eight he was shaping up to be Wesley's equal in intellect and uniqueness.

Last year, when she had held the post of head of Starfleet Medical for the seventh year, and Jean-Luc had just resigned from his position as C.I.C. of the Academy so that he could prepare for this diplomatic mission, Robert had written in a school assignment that his mother was a part time doctor and his father was currently unemployed.

Wesley, on his infrequent visits to his step family, found Robert hilarious.

Beverly could do with him in smaller doses.

"Good morning ."

Beverly stooped to brush her lips through Robert's hair on the way to her dressing table.

"Have any of you seen your father this morning?"

 She watched them in the mirror as her inquiry sent a quick look between the children.

Her they may plague until she could happily strangle them, but Jean-Luc was another story. Only Marie-Clare was starting to question his absolute authority to his face, the others were still in awe of his mind and his discipline. Robert jogged her memory.

"The 'T'ank Ri' ceremony. Didn't they say they were going to view the grounds before they were overwhelmed with spectators? What's so special about a lot of old ruins anyway Mom? Old Splot was nearly foaming at the mouth when they found out yesterday they had been opened to outworlders."

Beverly squeezed her eyes shut, and Marie-Claire and Julia groaned in unison at Robert's denigration of one of the family's closest friends and advisors, Ambassador Spock. Marie-Claire threw a pillow at him, and followed it up with a verbal assault.

"You are such a worm Bob. The first time outworlders have been allowed to view one of Romii's most sacred ceremonies and all you can do is make fun of Spock. People are going to be giving up their lives tomorrow on that arena floor. Giving their very being to the spirit of their ancestors. How could you mock that?"

Robert poked his tongue out at her and she abandoned her soulful stance to jump on top of him. Julia pushed herself away from the window sill and sauntered over to her mother. Beverly accepted a kiss and ignored the continued combat on the bed behind her.


Julia picked up Beverly's hair brush and started to brush her mother's still thick but now grey peppered hair.

"Papa doesn't really want us to watch people getting killed tomorrow does he? I don't think I would like that."

Beverly winced at the mention of the subject of the argument that had raged between Jean-Luc and herself last night.

Julia assumed it was because she had pulled her hair and concentrated on her brushing for a moment, giving Beverly a chance to review some of the positive messages Jean-Luc had used to convince her last night.

 "Julia love, the ceremony is very beautiful, and rarely leads to any kind of violence or death. The challenge of the ancestors is only taken on by those deemed worthy, after a long preparation... Mari let him breath."

Behind her the combatants separated and retreated to opposite sides of the bed.

Julia met her mother's identical eyes in the mirror. They smiled at each other and Julia returned to her brushing.

Her mother continued with her explanation. "This is real breakthrough for your father. Our hosts are inviting us as a family. You can hardly conceive of the honor they are doing us. The extended family is the basis of all power in this culture, at last they are acknowledging us as worthy of consideration. We will all need to be on our best behavior."

Beverly swung round and shot a piercing glance at Marie-Clare and Robert, who looked back at her with twin innocent expressions.

Beverly stood and gathered the children into a brief hug.

"Breakfast mes enfants."

Making shooing motions she swept her brood before her, and left her misgivings on her dressing table, for the nonce.

The two Federation Ambassadors sat in companionable silence contemplating the ancient, crumbling structure in front of them.

Jean-Luc tried to absorb the curved walls that embraced the checkerboard arena in front of them, and the mystery of the air effect that formed a shimmering veil above the stone bowl behind the board.

In contrast to the decrepit masonry, the floor of the arena looked as if it had been laid yesterday and the bowl shone with the metallic glow of the recently polished.

"You say that this was all constructed at the same time?"

He turned towards Spock, who tilted his eyebrow and head in affirmation before standing up. His white robes made him both tall and mysterious.

Picard scrambled to his feet also, feeling a sudden frisson of alienness, a displacement of place that he, a human should be standing in this place of another race and culture's soul.

Spock continued his explanation

"It is a place of great antiquity. Possibly even predating Romii's settlement. The records of the time of settlement are fragmentary at best, but this arena is mentioned very early. As is the ceremony."

Picard glanced again at Spock's Vulcan profile, then concentrated on the path as they left the site and started back towards the immense building that housed both his family, the Vulcan delegation and the clan currently in power on Romii.

The sun had crested the walls behind them and they walked on their shadows down the arrow straight way that led to the imposing front gate of the palace.

Romii's twin planet Romulus was visible as a vast ghostly arch framing their destination, Picard wondered idly if any natives of Romii ever felt oppressed by the imposing presence in their sky. He shook off the thought as unlikely and turned his mind to more mundane matters.
" Would you join us for breakfast, Spock ?

I doubt whether Robert has finished with his impertinent questions and the other children would love to see you."

Spock looked at Picard again and allowed a slight smile to grace his lips.

"Thank you, but I wonder if I might ask an impertinent question of my own, Jean-Luc ?"

Startled Picard stared at Spock, then raising both eyebrows waved the question on.

Spock looked down at his hands, as if it was difficult for him to stray into the personal, despite the long association he had had with Picard.

 "In my experience humans are rarely successful when they try to change established life patterns. They illogically cling to outmoded behaviors even when they no longer meet their needs."

He glanced again at Picard who was patiently waiting for him to get to the point.

"But you are an exception. Following the loss of your ship fourteen years ago, you have turned your life on its head, changed all your priorities and established behaviors, forged a different path. I am curious, Ambassador, to know how it is that you have been successful when so many others have failed ?"

Picard had felt a smile growing as his friend relayed his puzzlement, and a surge of affection that he knew would have been echoed by that other Captain of the Enterprise. Spock's first human friend Jim Kirk.

"Spock, I..."

 He paused, how could he explain his visit to the Nexus, his encounter with Kirk, the impact of his brother and nephew's death. Even that may not have been enough to change him in isolation, but he had had the path he had been following to his future shown to him in graphic and horrific detail by his personal nemesis and salvation, the omnipotent entity known as Q. In the end changing his behavior had been the easy choice.

" I saw the light Spock. I simply can't explain it, not unless you have about a week to listen. I'm sorry it is just too complex."

 Spock raised both his eyebrows and grunted in serene affirmation, he really hadn't expected to find out, he was just curious. He wondered if he would go to his grave feeling curious about human's and their motivations

The dining room provided for visitors and guests had a row of doors opening on to a flagged terrace.

Beverly and the children were just seating themselves at one of the stone outdoor tables when they spotted Jean-Luc and Spock wending their way across the courtyard towards them.

Beverly enjoyed the chance to look at Jean-Luc unobserved. Picard, who liked clothes that he could forget about as soon as he put them on, was wearing a dark blue and silver jumpsuit she had chosen for him last year.

She wondered if he was aware of the way the dark color set off his slim athletic body.

As if he felt her eyes upon him, Picard broke off whatever earnest discussion he was having with Spock, looked up and smiled at the sight of his family waiting for him.

Pride swelled his heart at the picture they made, highlighted by the morning sun, he glanced at Spock.

"I have been so lucky Ambassador, I have been given no cause to regret my decisions."

He flinched as Robert, spotting the two of them, yelled and waved wildly to attract their attention.

"Although decorum appears to have deserted my son this morning."

Robert, impatient at the two men's unhurried approach, wriggled out of his seat and ran up to them.

"Papa, was it awesome? Was it worth getting up so early to see? Did you see the guardian of the ancients? Was there blood on the stones?"

Spock raised an eyebrow at the voluble boy. "Blood on the stones ?"

Picard grasped Robert firmly by the shoulders and turned him back towards the table.

 "Robert has a vivid imagination, I am afraid, and I suspect Mari has been filling his head with nonsense, as usual."

The three of them joined Beverly and the girls on the terrace. Robert was protesting his father's description of his imagination, but was ignored as Picard walked round the table to greet his other.

"Good morning my lark " she said, then smiled demurely as Picard brushed a kiss across her cheek and slid into the seat beside her.

She inclined her head to the family's guest.

"Spock. Join us."

Nodding Spock sat between Marie-Clare and Julia and the six of them applied themselves to the fruits and cereals arrayed on the table for a space.

Eventually Julia broke the silence.

"Papa, tell us about it, about the arena."

Picard opened his mouth to start explaining to them, but then seemed to be struck by a better idea.

"Why don't the three of you go and look for yourselves after breakfast. I am sure I can trust you to behave yourselves as representatives of our family, and the Federation." He turned his intent gaze upon his son, who grinned back cheerfully at him, managing to look as if mischief was something other boys got into.

"I know our hosts are going to be busy today in preparation for the ceremonies, so Seri and Tarl will not be around to play with."

Mari groaned mentally at her father's assumptions about the nature of relationship she and Julia had managed to build with the prickly Romulan children over the last two months. However she kept her expression serene, this opportunity was to good to miss. It seemed that Papa had let the fact that today was supposed to be the first formal schooling day slip his mind for an instant.

 Mari glanced surreptitiously at Julia then at her mother. Her mother had a little frown gathering between her eyes, but she would not disagree with Papa in front of Spock. Time to 'Seize the Day' as Papa was fond of telling them.

She pushed her plate away and sprang to her feet. "Oh Papa, could we?"

She yanked Julia out of her seat, and secretly kicked Robert on the ankle to get his attention. The other two caught on with commendable speed, and fell in behind her as she swiftly bent to kiss her father's cheek, then ran off into the courtyard.

Jean-Luc gazed after them in amazement. He couldn't remember the last time a suggestion of his had been met with such enthusiasm.

He looked at his wife, who was trying to disguise a chagrined expression by tracing the carving on the edge of the table with her fingernail.

"Did I miss something ?"

Beverly tilted her head so she could see him. "Does the first day of school ring any bells ?" Picard sank his head in his hands. "The little monkeys. After all the trouble you went to the get the programs and the holosuite installed. I'm sorry, I simply forgot."

Beverly smiled. " The holosuite will still be there when they get back. We only chose this date because our hosts were going to be busy with the 'T'ank Ri' for several days and we thought we would be excluded."

She reached across and squeezed his hand reassuringly, "it is probably for the best now. I'll get them started next week instead. What are your plans for today ?'

Picard thought for a minute. "Spock and I had planned to spend these three days polishing the final draft of the zone treaty." He seemed to look inward, already reviewing the complex document that was to end the state of cold war between the Federation and the Romulan Empire. The fruit of Spock's long efforts and his own diplomatic endeavors over the last six months. "The ceremonies will probably cut into that somewhat." He looked at his wife, her hand under his on the table felt as delicate as a bird, belying the strength and skill she carried in her hands.

"Why don't you use the holosuite instead, finish that surgical review I pulled you away from. I don't want Starfleet Medical any more annoyed with me than they have to be. I am not sure that they consider a treaty with the Romulans reason enough for you to take a sabbatical."

Beverly looked at him considering her options. "Will you be responsible for the children then, Jean-Luc? I will need an uninterrupted four or five hours or it will be a waste of time starting."

Jean-Luc glanced at Spock who shrugged, indicating that it was not a problem for him.

The erstwhile Captain sighed.

 " Of course," he muttered with minimal enthusiasm.

 He was rewarded by the relieved expression that flitted across her face, and then felt guilty that he had taken so little time recently to share the parenting he had so desperately wanted to experience.

Despite his years of command and experience with successive classes of Starfleet cadets, his own children seemed to get the better of him more often than not. Some of his old habits responded better than others to change.

The three of them rose from the table, Spock made his apologies and left them, striding off like some biblical prophet into the Romulan sunrise.

Picard watched him out of view then felt his waist being encircled by his wife's arms. She bent forward and kissed him softly, on the ear.

"Thank you. Call me when the ceremony is ready to begin, huh."

Jean-Luc turned and pulled her into a brief hug, before leaning away from her to speak. He brushed an errant red hair off her brow.

"Count on it, Mrs. Picard. Go and do some work."

The memory of her smile seemed to hang in the air as he sat again, poured another cup of tea, and made some plans for the day.

The tall walls of the arena cast shadows that concealed the intricate weathered carvings that twined up the gate posts.

Marie-Claire ran her fingers over the lowest, most sharply incised characters. She was grateful for the direct interface learning package that she had been allowed to take for the first time. Romulan script and language now felt as natural as standard.

 She never missed a chance to show off her new skill to Julia, who was limited by the contraints of the universal translator to understanding spoken Romulan only .

"T'prill daughter of the sixth house of Romii, daughter of S'vhar, son of the fifth house of Romii son of....."

Julia paused to look back at her older sister, Marie-Claire had that misty look about her again. " Mari, it's just a genealogy. Don't go all gooey on us."

Mari snapped back to the day, bristling with indignation.

 " A record of the heroic fallen it said out there," She waved a hand vaguely at the lintel. "Rejoined with the spirit of the ancestor. Remembered forever."

 "Or until the rain gets at the record. "

Julia stated pragmatically, looking at the weathered top of the wall. The curving script faded to indecipherability and as they watched a small shower of dust presaged a fall of stone that carried away more of the writing. As they looked up in dismay the face of their errant brother could be seen peering over the edge of the gateway.


 "Robert, you worm, get down here." Marie-Clare looked as if she would jump the entire distance on pure outrage.

"Carefully." Chimed in Julia as another shower of loose debris heralded his arrival at her feet.

 He held up his hands and spoke quickly to defuse his sister who was bearing down on him with murder in her eyes.

"Mari, you can see it, over there in the arena, the guardian, it flickers."

He dodged around his suddenly distracted nemesis and ran towards the inner ring.

" Bob, Mari, wait for me. "

 Julia took to her heels after the other two, muttering under her breath. "Papa said act like ambassadors, not vandals. Gods he'll kill us if he ever finds out..."

She skidded out from under the arch guarding the arena floor and cannoned into the back of her sister, who put her arms out to save herself and pushed Robert, stumbling, onto the bright checkerboard. Robert sat heavily on his backside, and howled with outrage.

 He stopped at the sound of an ironic slow handclap that rang out from somewhere in the ranks of seats arrayed round the board.

 Blushing furiously he scrambled back to join his sisters at the edge of the marked area, and they all looked up to identify the source of the mocking sound.

 "And thus the hu-man outworlders make their respectful entrance, conscious of the great honor done to their primitive species. For your next trick I suppose you will use our bowl of enlightenment as a spittoon."

The voice was one they knew well.

 "Tarl. We're sorry, it was an accident."

Mari frowned at the two younger Picards and stepped forward, hands outstretched.

 "It's the gravity, we always move faster than..."

Her lame explanation petered out into silence at the expression on his face as he made his graceful way down to the floor level of the arena.

The contempt on his aristocratic Romulan face was complete. The three children moved closer together instinctively. This was not the distant but polite companion of their two month stay, but altogether a more alien being, at home in this heart of his people, and outraged by their inadvertent sacrilege.

Tarl walked up until he towered over the diminutive but upright Mari. She lifted her chin and met his eye, feeling the comfort of her sister and brother at her back.

"I. We, apologize Tarl." She spoke as formally as she could, unconsciously copying the diplomatic skills of her father. " We meant no disrespect, and will make what reparations we can if offense has been given."

She stopped her mouth suddenly dry. What she read in Tarl's eye was not, nor ever could be, forgiveness.

Relief came from an unexpected quarter.

 " Oh, stop bullying them Tarl, you could see they didn't mean it. They're just human kids. What would they know of the hall of the ancestors and the challenge? Leave them alone."

Tarl's twin, Sari, stepped down from the seats behind the human's and placed a casual arm around Julia's shoulder.

Julia bristled internally at the implied slight, but knew when to keep her mouth shut. She watched Marie-Clare visibly swallow the retort that sprang to her mind and force a smile on to her face. She turned to face Sari. Sari had turned to look at Robert who was surreptitiously rubbing his bruised tail bone. It didn't pay to fall in this higher gravity.

Mari felt a pang at the lovely clear line of the Romulan girl's jaw and upswept ear. In comparison Robert's bluff round features did look primitive, even ape-like.

The twins were four years older than Marie- Clare but were considered as children amongst their long lived race.

 " Are you injured little one?" Sari bent her solicitous gaze upon Robert's rear end and his humiliation was obvious.

Even Mari felt sorry for him and she thought quickly to try to divert attention away from his flaming face.

" Can you tell us Sari, about all........this."

She waved her arm around in a vain attempt to encompass the ancient site and all the contradictions it enclosed.

"What does it mean?"

Tarl snorted contemptuously and stalked away to sit on one of the side seats. He turned his head so that he could be seen to be contemplating the mysterious shimmering veil that was hovering over the bowl of enlightenment.

 "What would you like to know ?" Sari looked indulgently at the three chastened Picards and led them around the arena until they were a quarter removed from her simmering brother.

"What happens, Sari? No one outside of Romii has ever seen the T'ank Ri ceremony. All we know is that not every participant survives."

Julia shuddered and tried to drag her eyes away from the shifting air above the stone bowl. Mari's questions were giving her the creeps. She suddenly wished with all her might that she could be back in the school room. Where she was supposed to be.

Robert was sitting beside her holding her hand. She couldn't remember the last time he had done that.

Sari settled back in her seat, pushed her black straight hair off her face and started to recite in a sing song voice. At first she recited in archaic Romulan, a dialect that even Marie-Claire's learning program did not help her with. Then she paused and smiling at the children translated the words to Standard

"At the conjunction of the stars, when the twin is high.

Bring forward the young to be judged worthy.

Consider the game, and pattern.

Life is dependent

On the length of the chain."

The Picard children looked at her open mouthed.

The cadence she gave the simple words made the incantation seem very alien.

 "We stand there," she pointed at four raised plinths, positioned on the corners of the board. " One after another we recite our lineage. If the Guardian finds the offering satisfactory the game board activates. The game is T'ank. We are all tested for aptitude at three, the ones with ability train for it, huge books are written on strategy. If they manage a winning pattern they join the Guardian. Some return. The rest is window dressing and tradition. It goes on for three days. "

She dropped her gaze and seemed to study the toe of her dusty boot. " I wish it was not our turn this year."

Marie-Claire stood and walked slowly to the edge of the marked area. She turned and scanned the arena, drinking in the mystery and history of the ancient site. Then jumped as Tarl moved up, cat footed, beside her.

 " We can trace our ancestors through twenty seven generations. Every generation has had one return from the Guardian to bring glory and success to the Family." He looked down at her, his eyes ancient. "And you defile the arena with your 'play' hu-man. Your race does not even know the achievements of its grandparents."

Robert lost his temper, this was one slight too many. Shaking off Julia's restraining hand he marched up to the imposing Romulan youth, looked him straight in the eye and declared.

 "Do too."

Tarl curled his lip at the angry child. "Any one can make up a history, apeling. Only the Guardian can verify a true lineage."

"Well I can recite the Picard family for thirty one generations, with what each person did. That is better than twenty seven, Tarl. Show me your stinky Guardian and I'll prove it."

Marie-Claire understood that things were getting out of hand. She felt like applauding Robert's defiance, having swallowed enough humble pie for one morning, but knew that this should finish now.

" Robert." She hissed making swatting movements with her hands. Sari and Julia also stood up and Julia took a step towards the three standing on the edge of the board.

" Robert, Mari, come on we ought to go, " she called out and turned to make her way out of the arena. Defeated she turned back when it was obvious that no-one was following.

Tarl had turned his back on the bristling small boy and started to walk away.

It was too much for Robert. With a frustrated yell he turned on his heel and ran for the nearest plinth. He scrambled up on to the platform, took a deep breath and started to recite. Tarl kept stalking away around the perimeter of the board, but even he stopped as it became clear that Robert had made no idle boast. He was already back to the settlement of Mars and showed no sign of faltering.

Julia came up behind Marie-Claire and Sari, who were standing open mouthed at the base of the plinth, listening to the long record of Picards.

Julia said plaintively." When on earth did he learn all that?"

Marie-Claire shrugged and reached up to tug at Robert's ankle. She was ignored, so she turned to Sari.

Sari looked up at Robert, a strange expression, half amused half awed flitted across her face. With no further comment she turned from the two girls and walked after her brother. Robert recited on, in some kind of memory trance. Julia burst into tears and Marie-Claire had had enough.

"Robert!" She leapt up on to the plinth and pushed him off with main force. The small boy hit the dirt hard and stayed crouched on the ground shaking his head until Marie-Claire climbed down and pulled him into standing.

She glared at Julia who was walking through the arch nearest the plinth, sniffling. Tugged at Robert's arm and hauled him after her, out of the arena.

 "What the hell did you think you were doing worm? When Papa hears about this he will be furious, and who will be blamed? Me of course, you useless lump of protoplasm. Tarl and Sari will never speak to us again, and how are we going to explain that? Why couldn't you keep your mouth shut?"

Furious she pulled him in little jerks out of the arena and through the outer wall. Collecting Julia in her wake she lead the forlorn procession down the same road her father had trod so hopefully that morning.

 Back in the arena Sari turned to take a last look at the game board before she followed her brother out of the opposite arch. She was the only witness to the green scanning lines that spread up to the plinth Robert had been standing on. They faded away after a moment and she turned away, her mind in turmoil.

 If the Guardian acknowledged the Picard lineage the uniqueness of the three ruling Romulan families was moot.

That was not something she felt like telling either her brother or her mother. Hopefully after tomorrow what she had seen and heard would be irrelevant.

Jean-Luc was having a frustrating day.

No sooner had he finished his breakfast than he had received a polite summons over his com badge asking him to attend his hosts in the council chamber, a cavernous internal room that was the apparent seat of power for this Romulan civilian administration.

Apparent because little was really decided in the Senate chamber.

This was a culture that relied on a complex mixture of loyalty, nepotism, and the influence of spiritual advisors backed up by the mysticism of the guardians of the T'ank Ri.

The military government on Romulus had provided the structure and challenge that allowed the Romulans to expand the Empire. Domestic politics and spiritual matters were mediated by the rulers of Romii and remained impenetrable to outsiders.

Until now.

Now owing to the depredations of the Borg horde that had completely undermined the military power base, and the growing urban ground swell that was demanding more say in the running of the worlds, the ruling elite of both worlds were bending enough to negotiate with the Federation.

 The firming of the Klingon/Federation alliance was a factor, as was the success of the Cardassian detente.

Jean-Luc had all this and more in mind as he entered the chamber. He paused at the top of the tiered seating and let his eyes grow used to the dim light. Finally he made out a small group of Romulans clustered round the three chairs of state that were placed on the platform that faced the amphitheater. As he walked down the steps towards the group he was able to make out that the five or six people in attendance included two in the uniforms of the Romulan military.

His primary contact and official host turned to greet him as he reached the bottom of the room.

Sau'Venin, matriarch of the first house of Romii, was an unassuming looking person to be so powerful. She had the unruffled serenity of a gold Buddha, and an instinctive grasp of the whorls and eddies of Romulan politics.

It was rumored that she was the chosen of her generation. 'The one who Returned' was part of her official title.

Her consort, the official leader of the First House of Romii, Trel var Phett, sat in his chair of state reading a report off the screen incorporated into the arm of the chair.

The two military personal were leaning over pointing out the salient points. The other person present was Sau'Venin's oldest daughter, Renan, as cold as her mother was warm and xenophobic to a fault.

She moved away as Picard neared her mother looking as if a bad smell had just invaded her personal space.

Picard ignored her as usual, as did her mother who greeted Picard with open hands.

"Ambassador, thank you for coming at such short notice, how are your family ?"

It was on Sau'Venin's advice that he had brought his family on this extended visit.

She had suggested that it would add weight to his arguments, show that there were more parallels than differences between their two species. Picard had swallowed his misgivings and organized the visit.

Sau'Venin inquired after their progress at every opportunity and had organized her own twins to look after the children.

"They are well Sau'Venin, and looking forward to the ceremonies tonight."

Renan audibly hissed at this, Sau'Venin turned on her heel and barked some intense Romulan at her. Renan flushed and hurried out of the chamber.

Unruffled Sau' Venin turned back to Picard. " We have a matter that we need to discuss with you Ambassador. It seems there is an unidentified ship orbiting Romii. Is this some Federation matter that may have slipped your mind?"

Picard's astonishment was genuine.

"Not that I know of, may I see it's registration?"

 The senior military advisor took this as his cue to look up from briefing Trel Var Pett. He strode over to where Picard was facing Sau' Venin, thrust his face close to Picard's and hissed

" It is cloaked, Ambassador."

The naked aggression made Picard snap instantly into a command mode he thought he had left behind fourteen years ago. A distant part of him was appalled at how good it felt.

 "That, I would have thought, Commander, was more the signature of your forces than mine."

The Romulan commander sneered.

"Do you not think, Mr. Federation Ambassador, that we can tell the difference between our own cloaking residues and others. It is not a Romulan ship. Is it yours?"

Picard leaned even closer. " No, commander, it is not."

Sau'Venin, who had been watching the exchange narrowly, now stepped in again.

"Then we need detain you no longer. Thank you for your time Mr. Ambassador. If you will excuse us?"

She waved a regal hand at the entrance above them. "Until tonight then."

 And Picard had to be content with that. He managed a polite smile and exited with all the decorum he could manage. This was one of the times when he could happily swap diplomacy for the bridge of a fully armed Galaxy class starship.

That fantasy kept him upright and civil until he was well away from the council chamber.

 Then, as he was crossing the courtyard on the way to his office, he was treated to the sight of his children trailing in to the palace as if the end of the world had come. Robert was limping, Julia audibly sniffing and Marie-Clare had a grim expression on her face which boded no good for anyone.

Picard watched them as they vanished into the family's quarters and had to stifle a ignoble impulse to turn and walk the other way.

As if UFO's and aggressive Romulan's were not enough now he had to cope with his children.

Something told him that the former would cause him less trouble than the latter. Never a coward he strode forward and caught up with them just as they were entering the front door.

He waited until the four of them were inside before enquiring as to what had happened.

Marie-Claire towed Robert over to the bathroom sink and started washing the grazes on his hands and knees.

" Robert fell over."

She glanced quickly at her father and then concentrated on her first aid.

Julia blew her nose on a tissue then tried to edge out of the door that lead to her room. She was stopped in that endeavor by a look that brooked no nonsense from her father. She sat in one of the easy chairs in the living area then became very interested in one of the Romulan ornaments on the coffee table.

Picard started to have his sinking feeling confirmed.

Marie-Claire left Robert and went to get the Med kit from the wall cupboard. Jean- Luc held his hand out to Robert, who took a damp look at his father's face then ran over to him. Still maintaining his uncharacteristic silence he clung to his father's neck, and allowed himself to be carried over to sit on his father's knee on the other easy chair.

Marie-Claire brought the low level protoplasic healer over and started to run it over the grazes on his knees.

 Picard decided to try again.

"Robert, would you like to tell me what happened?"

Robert, his face invisible against his father's shoulder, shook his head, then shot a look at Marie-Clare and declared passionately.

"She pushed me."

Picard raised his eyebrow at Marie-Claire, who visibly pulled her bottom lip in, and met his eye.

 "I did, Papa. I've said I'm sorry. You know what he's like. Where's Mom?"

Picard sighed, he knew when he was being stonewalled but could think of no way to winkle the truth out of his children.

 " She is working in the holosuite and will be busy for most of the day."

He looked over at Julia, who had let her thick red hair fall forward over her face, a ploy she appeared to have learned from her mother.

 "And what is your problem Julia ?"

Julia looked over at him, her eyes huge in her pale face, she glanced quickly at Mari and Bob, then darted her eyes back to his face.

" I just got scared, Papa. It's kind of creepy in that arena. That's all."

Jean-Luc could almost hear them closing ranks.

He sighed, then looked at Marie-Claire again. She had finished with Robert's grazed knees and hand and was about to go back the bathroom.

He snagged her arm as she walked past and held her, not unkindly.

 " Mari, I am going to be working in the office for the rest of the day. Feel free to interrupt me if I need to know something will you?"

Marie- Claire looked searchingly at him, realized that she really ought to tell him what had happened, but found herself lacking the words. Dumbly she nodded, Picard squeezed her arm then let her go.

Julia slipped out of the room after her, and Robert sat up on his lap, itching at his newly healed palm.

Before Jean-Luc could muster a question for him, he turned his urchin grin on his father and said in a bright voice that belied the drama of minutes before.

"I'm starving Papa, what shall we have for lunch ?"

Picard sighed, everything was back to what passed for normal. Robert was always starving. "Shall we see what the replicator has in its programs then?" He tipped Robert off his lap and followed his eager feet into the kitchen.

" And what did they do all afternoon ?" Beverly's voice became a little muffled as she pulled her favorite midnight and gold silkform evening dress over her head.

She emerged to meet Jean-Luc's gaze in the mirror, his frank appreciation of her body caused a slight blush to warm her cheek. He could still do that to her, even after all this time.

Picard rose gracefully from the bedroom chair and moved up close behind her to fasten the minute stud that closed the back of her gown.

He nuzzled her ear "I'd rather be taking this off you know?"

"Stop it."

She turned and pushed him away, first kissing the end of his nose.

 "You'll get me all mussed up. Answer my question. What did they do all afternoon if the morning was a disaster."

She grinned at him as he subsided back onto the spindly chair. Then returned to her preparations for the evening's ceremony.

 " They stayed quietly in their rooms, and I didn't have to mediate an argument all afternoon. If that is normal behavior then you have worked a miracle over the last six months."

Beverly shook her head, understanding his concern.

He continued "I really felt that Marie-Claire had something to tell me, but she never came."

 Suddenly serious he caught her eye in the mirror, a look of profound disturbance crossing his face. "

 Beverly, the children aren't frightened of me are they? I couldn't bear that."

Shaken by the vunerability in his voice, she went to his side.

"Don't be silly, Jean-Luc. You are nothing like your own father. They respect you, and would do anything to earn your approval. But I can't imagine them scared of you."

Although they could be scared of disappointing you, she thought privately, Jean-Luc set some high standards.

Mystified she finished getting ready, then fiddled with Jean-Luc's formal jacket a little before she let him out of the bedroom.

They were met by a chorus of appreciative hoots from the children, who were sitting looking unnaturally clean and scrubbed in the living area waiting for them.

Marie- Claire had even consented to leave her hair out for the event, the cloud of golden curls lifted her regular features into something close to beauty.

Beverly held her hand out to Robert, who managed a courtly bow before dissolving into a fit of the giggles, and the Picard family swept out into the Romulan night on a tide of laughter.

Somehow Marie-Claire had imagined the arena and its approaches would be arrayed in the medieval gloom of burning cressets and primitive drums.

The reality was closer to a fully hyped media event in the Paris they had left two months ago. The approaches to the arena were lined with banks of hovering spotlights that broke ranks randomly to swoop and bob above the glittering crowds. Waving silver trees arched over the entrances and flickering red and orange floor guides led the invited to the inner ring.

As they passed under the ancient masonry, Marie-Claire exchanged a look with Julia, the honor roll she had run her fingers over that morning was laser illuminated, so that the names appeared engraved in liquid gold.

As they approached the arena floor subtle music could be heard above the murmur of the crowd, and, as their parents followed the guide light to their seats, the children stared entranced at the gravity defying curtains of light and sound that were weaving complex patterns over the game board.

Competing with the arena lights was the immense bulk of Romulus, nearly full and seemingly hanging directly above the game board, its light and that of the arena washing all the stars from the sky.

At the area set aside for visitors they were met by Spock, who with the other two members of the Vulcan delegation, had arrived some time before the Picards.

 Jean-Luc used the momentary confusion caused by the two parties greeting each other, and finding seats, to ask Spock if he had found out anything more about the mystery ship he had been questioned about earlier in the day.

Spock could add nothing and Picard squeezed Beverly's hand reassuringly rather than try to explain his hurried consultation to her enquiring look. Shortly afterwards the ceremonies began.

 There were dances, and processions of the Chosen, and long and involved poems, acted and declared, that celebrated the achievements and tragedies of those gone before.

Demonstrations of three of the most famous winning patterns were laid out in silver dusted light and dark lozenges on the still inactive game board.

Marie-Claire felt a sort of tickle in her brain as she watched the formation of the animated patterns. She felt as if she could almost grasp the logic that dictated the changes, a complex evolution that depended for its final form on the color of the square that lay along side three sides of any other.

She gasped as the final pattern moved like an arrow across the surface to fragment against the glittering sides of the Bowl of Enlightenment.

Eventually the arena was plunged into blackness, a drum started throbbing into the night.. The beat accelerated and rose in volume until Marie-Claire felt she would scream with the tension of it.

At last she became aware of a gold light that shone over the heads of four minimally clad Romulan youths, poised in concentration on the plinths that flanked the game board. Robert leaned across Julia and tugged at Mari's sleeve.

"Look." He hissed in what he fondly supposed was a quiet voice. " There's Tarl and Sari. Ouch." The last was in response to the tap on the head he had received from the long arm of his father, who caught his eye and placed an admonishing finger over his lips.

He subsided back into his seat and Marie- Claire squinted into the golden glow.

Standing on the two plinths nearest the seating she could see the twins. They looked both taller and older in the soft light of the golden glow. Sari's face appeared transfigured as she picked up the recitation from the first challenger. Her soft voice chimed with Tarl's deeper tones as their lineage was broadcast to the crowd. Eventually they finished and the final challenger took up the chant.

As the final cadences of the genealogies finished, a breathless hush fell over the stadium, followed by a spontaneous burst of cheering as the game board activated.

Green scanning lines swept in waves across the sparking surface, lapped up the plinths and engulfed the four in a web of writhing lines.

There was a smell of ozone as a humming force field leapt up to protect the flickering edge of the fast coloring playing surface.

The crowd quieted, and once again seemed to hold it's breath as the starting edge pattern was displayed. Some started to call out, and arguments briefly swept the knowledgeable as the final configuration was displayed.

The outworlders were in the dark, but the gist appeared to be that it was an unconventional pattern. The spectators muttered on for a minute or two until the humming of the force field changed its tone, when silence fell again. The field pulsed through four color shifts then blazed brightly for a second, dazzling the spectators. As their night vision returned it became obvious that only one challenger was left in the game space.

"Tarl." Marie-Claire whispered, squeezing Julia's hand. "Tarl has been chosen."

The arena lights slowly came up and the three other candidates could be seen sprawled on the dirt beside their respective plinths.

 "Oh no." Julia looked along the row at her mother. " Are they OK."

 Beverly was glancing anxiously between her children, and the arena, a frown of concern pulling her eyebrows together.

Officials could be seen converging on the prostrate forms. She looked at Jean-Luc but apart from a look that acknowledged her concern he remained silent.

Finally a line of officials could be seen advancing on the fallen contenders, they had started to move.

Sari could be seen to be struggling up into a sitting position, and, as she was helped out of the arena, Mari could see the oval of her face straining back to look at Tarl, who stood still spotlighted on his plinth.

The next morning Spock joined the family again at breakfast.

The children were hollow eyed and subdued, suffering from the late night and the excitements of the day before.


Beverly smiled at Spock. " What happens today? It is unusual for only one challenger to be chosen, isn't it ?"

Spock inclined his head. "Very. Apparently there is only one previous time that a single challenger was admitted."

He looked over the courtyard to where some activity appeared to be taking place outside the doors of the Romulan living quarters.

 " Sau' Venin is puzzled as to why they both were not chosen."

The three children glanced furtively at each other. Sari had been standing on the plinth Robert had made his protest on. No one said anything.

Spock continued with his explanation.

" Today is dedicated to helping the challengers sort out the best strategy for allowing safe passage over the board."

Spock looked over to the Romulan side again, then nodded.

 "It appears that Tarl and his advisors are making for the arena now."

 Amongst the Romulan delegation some of the eyes that rested on the Federation party on the other side of the courtyard were narrowed in speculation. Renan stood in the doorway and glared at the aliens. She had the feeling that they had had something to do with the disaster that had befallen last night. It was a Romulan canard that to solve any T'Ank puzzle two heads were necessary and three were better. And Tarl had been doubly hamstrung by the loss of his sister from the pattern grid. Sari drooped against the door jamb, and Renan looked away from her, disturbed by her depression and conscious of her shame. Her younger brother and sister had always had a special place in this twin besotted culture. Renan's sympathy for her sister's distress was leavened by a large dollop of satisfaction at this belated comeuppance.

The crowd was moving away towards the arena armed with books and advice. Renan thought they looked more like a traveling circus than a respectful group of savants. And there was her mother, until recently Renan's hero and role model breaking away from the group to speak to those who were not worthy to stand on Romii's soil.

Renan could not understand her mother any more. Always she had tried to live up to her position as the daughter of the chosen.

She had studied and loved the ancient codes of her ancestors and thought she had understood the politics that had allowed her family to remain in its prime position for twenty five years. Second only to the Emperor on Romulus in status. Now she was watching her heritage thrown away, ancient truths about blood and purity were being trampled under the dust of outworlders boots.

Tarl would not survive the challenge, and it burned her heart that not even her family's shame and loss of power would be concealed from the aliens.

Renan heard marching sounds coming from the corridor behind her, and turned to see the Commander, escorted by his honor guard, approaching her vantage point.

Sari cast a venomous glance in his direction and slipped out of the door.

Renan drew herself up, here was the embodiment of Romulan pride, the warrior, since her family had failed her perhaps her future lay here.

The Commander stopped beside her and spent some time silently observing her mother talking to the Federation party on the other side of the courtyard.

Finally Renan could contain herself no longer.

 " It is not fit !" She exclaimed.

He turned an amused face on her passion.

 " Do not fear, my child. Evidence is being gathered. Soon all will be as it was." Clicking his heels he saluted her with a curt bow then strode off towards the council chambers, leaving Renan staring after him. Hope springing in her heart.

It was evening again, but early this time, the great arc of Romulus was just showing above the ancient walls.

The day had been spent joining the casual groups of Romulans who had drifted in and out of the stadium, the children had sat at the back of the seating, trying to make sense of the patterns that flowed over the game board as the initial sequence was studied and altered again and again by Tarl and his group of advisors.

Tarl was the only person allowed through the force field generated by the game board. His advisors would stand outside observing the effect of whichever change had been tried and by the end of the day it became obvious that no one was happy about the sequences they had tried.

Mari had become more and more involved as the day had worn on. She could see what they were trying to achieve, she was starting to think that she could see what was going wrong. Why the patterns were not flowing.

Trying to explain this to Bob and Julia was beyond her, but there was a rightness to some of the starting patterns that she felt in her gut.

These were not the patterns that were being favored by Tarl or his advisors.

The sky above the great bowl was flaming extravagant oranges and reds as the day was dying, and without an obvious signal being given the arena started to empty.

The voluble groups of knowledgeable Romulans trailed out of the public seating, followed shortly after by Tarl and his official group.

The children had been accompanied throughout the day by first their parents and then by Ammbassador Spock.

The adults, however, had left a little earlier, leaving the children to follow in their own time. The three of them sat for the moment in the gathering shadows, watching as the last of the changes flickered aimlessly across the board, the air filled with the chirp of invisible insects, and the almost subliminal hum from the force field.

Robert stood up and started down the steps to the arena floor.

He was hungry.

Mari put her hand on top of Julia's arm to hold her back for a minute.

 " Do you think it had something to do with us?" She stared round the glooming arena." The way its turning out I mean."

Julia shook her arm off and worked her way out of the seats.

 "Na, why would it, all we did was be here before the board was activated. How could that make any difference to anything ?"

She started down the arena stairs, she could see Robert waiting at the bottom, alternately glancing at the flickering game board and then back at them.

Mari watched her retreating back then moved to join them.

" I guess."

 She reached the bottom at the same time as Julia, but then realized that Robert had moved closer to the edge of the game board, seemingly fascinated by a recurring pattern that was swirling near the side. She walked over to stand beside him.

 " Come on worm, we had better be getting back or Mom will be sending out the guards."

Robert didn't seem to hear her. He leaned into the game board as if he could absorb it through his skin.

" Look Mari," He took another step towards the humming force field with his hand outstretched. "Look, you were right."

He squatted down and Mari sat down beside him. "If you just changed that one to...Oh."

Caught up in his explanation he had moved his hand to touch the squares he meant, and his hand had passed through the force field.

Mari leaned forward to grab him and her hand met no resistance either.

Startled they pulled each other back so that they ended up sitting in a heap at Julia's feet.

The two of them looked up at Julia's open mouthed expression, then, as one, the three of them scanned the empty arena to see if they had been observed.

The blackness that now enclosed the stands remained unbroken, and no Romulan voice was raised against their inadvertent sacrilege.

Mari summed up their feelings in one word. "Out!"

They scrambled to their feet and fled as if all the devils in Romii were after them.

Jean-Luc and Beverly were sitting in the living room of their quarters when the children burst in.

 Beverly looked up and was about to talk about dinner and washing and other trivia when Mari stopped her with a flood of words that seemed to tumble over one another making little or no sense at first.

 "Mom, Papa. We have to talk to you. We've done something and we don't know what to do. Could we go away. Just leave and go back home. Nothing happens at home. We know all the rules and now this thing is at us and....."

 Beverly cast a bewildered glance at Jean-Luc, who obviously knew no more than she did.

She stood up and Mari-Claire and Julia gave up talking for a desperate hug.

Robert prevented Jean-Luc from rising by sitting precipitously on his lap.

"Mari, slow down. Sit and tell us what has happened."

Beverly managed to calm her distraught family and the story of their activities in the arena slowly came out. Eventually the children trailed to a halt and as one turned their gaze on their father. Jean-Luc seemed lost in thought for a moment and Mari felt her heart sink.

 Then he seemed to come to a decision and back to the room at the same time.

"We must go and see Sau' Venin. Only she will be able to tell us if there is any significance to all this."

 He removed Robert from his lap and stood up, jerking his top into place in a typical gesture the children had heard Wesley describe as the ' Picard Manoeuvre.'

 He met Beverly's eye and seemed to ask for an opinion.

 " After dinner. Make an appointment Jean-Luc. We will all go, after dinner."

Jean-Luc nodded once and left the room.

Beverly looked around her much subdued family and wondered what the evening would bring.

Sau' Venin clicked off the viewer and returned to sit at the left hand of her husband.

The family dining room was intimate by palace standards but the lofty ceiling and carved walls imposed a standard of behavior that was not relieved by the various preoccupations that had kept her family quiet throughout the meal.

 Briefly Sau' Venin wished for the more rustic setting of the family's country estate, the formality imposed by the palace was interfering with her ability to sense the currents surrounding the disposition of the T'ank Ri.

The feeling she had most strongly was that of events spiralling out of either control or prediction. She had known that there would be resistance to the reforms that she had sponsored.

The deep suspicion and enmity that her people had harbored of outsiders, and specifically humans, had its roots in the rift that had sundered her people from their Vulcan ancestors millennia ago.

Romulan philosophy was to cleave to the family and build power out of the cohesion dynasties brought to history.

 The military had absorbed those who chafed under family bonds, and provided a meritocracy to balance the strength of aristocracy. But times and the universe had changed. The Borg had brutally proved that the Romulan Empire could not stand alone. Armed expansion was limited by the strength of the Klingon/ Federation alliance. And the Cardassian Empire merely stood as an example of how her people could sink into barbarism.

Vulcan philosophy was taking strong root amongst the people, a fact that was neither surprising nor at all accepted by those in power. The treaty with the human dominated Federation had to be signed and accepted by her people, change would have to be made acceptable.

That was her ideal, and the reason behind her sponsorship of the human ambassador and his family. Now however, she looked at her own family and wondered why the Guardian had sent her back.

She seemed unable to influence or convince even those closest to her, and may have thrown away the preeminence of her clan as well.

Sitting beside her husband she placed a hand on his arm and answered his unspoken query.

 " The human ambassador requests a family discussion with us. He seemed agitated. Would you permit a meeting here ? He implied that it was a matter of family honor."

Predictably it was Renan who reacted.

" What would humans know of honor. They are outsiders. Is it not enough that they are defiling our heritage in the arena. Do we need to have them in our sanctuary ?"

Trel raised a bristling eyebrow at Renan who subsided, scowling .

" My wife, I have been patient with your protection of these outworld guests." He put a strong emphasis on the word guests, Renan fixed her gaze on the table.

"But it seems excessively indulgent to have them here. The chamber would be more apt."

 Sau' Venin dropped her hand from his arm, then was surprised when it was the wan Sari who spoke next.

Hardly a word had been heard from her since her rejection by the Guardian. The whole family paid attention.

 " Did he say that his business had something to do with the ceremony, mother?"

 Tarl shot a startled glance at his sister and seemed about to protest, his father caught his eye and he sat back in his chair, scowling mightily.

Sau' Venin narrowed her eyes at her youngest daughter.

Sari didn't seem to care, her mother's intense regard flowed off the armor of her depression without making any impression.

" Should we know something about the human's and the ceremony ? Sari, or Tarl ?"

 With a flash of inspiration she turned her gaze on her son and was rewarded by the blush that flamed his features before he could get his face under control.

Trel also picked up the undercurrents and crashed his fist onto the table. The dishes bounced drawing all eyes.

" By the Sacred bowl of Enlightenment, you will tell me what is going on. Now !'

Sari was the only family member not silenced by her father's sudden outburst.

" Tarl and I showed the arena to the human children yesterday. The Guardian acknowledged them." Sari's bald statement dropped like a stone into the sudden silence.

 Tarl and Renan started to their feet.

 "You lie !" Tarl grabbed Sari's tunic and pulled her to her feet. " The Guardian was not activated."

Renan leaned over her eyes blazing. " They defiled the arena, "  She turned to her father . "They must be deported. Sent away."

Sari hang limply in Tarl's grip.

The children looked as one to their parents.

 Trel var Phett was glaring at their mother, her attention seemed to be caught by the flame of the candle that burned in the middle of the table.

 " Wife ?"

" I have no explanation, Trel. Shall we receive the Picard's ?"

Trel surged to his feet and strode over to one of the windows.

"I have supported you, despite the misgivings of our advisors, despite the anger of the military. You told me this was the only way to the future. Now I am to give up the very heart of our people. "

His shoulders heaved as he breathed in the night smells, wafting in the open window. " You ask much Sau'Venin. Are you so sure ?"

Sau' Venin seemed lost in the candle flame, seeing depths and meanings lost on the others.

Trel stalked back to the table and with a glance settled the other three children. They sat and waited on their mother.

"I am sure of nothing my lord. The Guardian sent me back for a reason, I have always believed that reason was to lead my people to a higher level of civilization. It gave me no map, perhaps it is waiting for Tarl here before it gives out a map. Perhaps it is waiting for someone else. Shall we receive the Picards ?"

Trel peered at her, his eyes obsidian beneath his brows.

" Do we have a choice ?"

Sau'Venin held his eyes and he was the first to look down.

 " Do what you think is right, wife."

Sau' Venin reached out and squeezed his arm, then turned on her children. "All of you will need to be present." She waited for Renan's indrawn breath of outrage.

" Even you eldest. You have things to learn."

 Renan turned an interesting shade of puce as she tried to think of an answer. Sau'Venin ignored her and left the table to make the call to the human Ambassador.

Beverly had sat through the polite greetings, sipped a cold drink for form's sake, and kept quiet as Sari and Marie-Claire picked their way through the minefield of the story they had to tell.

 She could not in all honesty understand why the impulsiveness of children should be causing what seemed to be a full scale diplomatic incident. Sau'Venin summed up the tale so far.

" And the force field did not bar either you or your brother. What about your other sister ?"

Julia squeezed her mother's hand but remained mute. Hiding as usual behind her hair, Jean-Luc prompted her.

" Julia, do the patterns make sense to you too. Did you pass the edge of the board ?"

Julia shook her head, and in a voice that quavered said. " I didn't try, Papa. The board scares me."

 Sau' Venan looked at the cowed child then at her own children.

Tarl and Sari sat as they always did, close together, joined even when apart. Renan had retreated to the far side of the room.

She had her back to the visitors, and Sau' Venan's lips thinned a little as she looked at her, so stubborn.

"So it should my child. It is a fearsome thing to be Chosen. "

Her inflection gave the description the force of a title, and Jean-Luc's head came up. He exchanged a look with Beverly.

"If the children's influence is what is causing the disturbance to the patterns perhaps we should leave Romii until after the T'ank Ri. All should be as before."

Trel var Phett barked a short laugh at that. " I think things have progressed beyond mending so simply, Ambassador. We still face the problem of Tarl. He has to face the Guardian tomorrow on a contaminated board. I do not wish to lose my son."

Jean-Luc did not like the turn the conversation was taking. " I don't understand, what alternative do we have?"

Sari suddenly spoke up. " Robert and Mari must take the challenge, and play the game. Tarl had no other chance to win through to the Guardian. They have been chosen. Mother it is destiny, they must play."

" No."

 Beverly found herself on her feet, nearly eye to eye with the Romulan matriarch.

 " Not my children, that gme is fatal. Only half the contestants survive the challenge. Jean-Luc it's ridiculous."

Jean-Luc could see all his diplomatic efforts crumbling before the basic instincts of parenthood. Another denial came from the side of the room. Renan strode over to face her parents, her face aflame.

 " You must not allow it. They have defiled our heritage, you must shame us no more with your reformations Mother, you will destroy everything we have. The humans are primitive, they cannot be worthy of the Game, let alone the Guardian. No."

 Sau' Venan turned her back on them all. She walked over to a alcove near the end of the room and sank to her knees on the velvet pad in front of a bowl lit by a candle.

Nonplussed the humans and the Romulans stared at her back for a moment then turned to Trel Var Phett. He shook his head at his wife then led the way to the door of their quarters.

 " Tomorrow, early Picard. We will meet in the council chamber and discuss what is to be done. Please, consider letting the children take part."

Sari caught at Marie-Claire's sleeve and held her back for a moment from the general exodus. She said nothing but her look was vulnerable, and pleading.

Marie-Claire shrugged, matters seemed out of her hands, but she squeezed Sari's arm and smiled. Beverly turned and gathered her in with a look.

 Marie-Claire gave Sari a final hopeless glance, and caught Renan's caustic gaze instead. Blushing she hurried after her parents, wishing herself home on Earth with all the strength of her will.

The children asked to all sleep in one room.

Their insecurity at the strange events made them clingy and difficult to settle. Eventually Beverly left them, Marie-Claire was reading to the other two from some low key, horse meets girl adventure set on a frontier planet.

Stretching her arms above her head to ease her tight shoulders, Beverly wandered into the living room and met Jean- Luc's eyes.

" I guess they'll go to sleep some time." She noticed his slightly questioning look." I've promised them, Jean-Luc. They are not going near that arena again. I don't care what problems that may cause you, they are not taking any part in that game."

 She crossed her arms and gave him her best no nonsense look.

Jean-Luc stood up and went over to the window, pushing back the heavy drapes he looked into the Romulan night. " Do you really think I want them involved, Beverly ?"

He ran his hand over his head and turned back to the room, letting the tapestry curtains swing back over the window. " I wish we were home, but we are not, and we are going to have to have a better reason than fear to avoid the children taking part. "

 "They are not....." Beverly shouted.

Jean-Luc strode up to her and gripped her arms, he looked into her eyes.

 "We may not have a choice."

Beverly tore herself out of his grip, and backed away shaking her head.

 " You can't make them, Jean-Luc. They are children, not Starfleet cadets ." She glared at him, passion coloring her cheeks. "What sort of father are you for God's sake"

Picard's face became masklike. " One who is also a Federation Ambassador. "

He turned and walked stiffly out of the room.

Beverly's hand came up to cover her mouth, tears blurred the room and she flung herself into one of the chairs.

" You can't. You mustn't......" she whispered into the upholstery, and then just sat, tears running down her face and despair settling in her stomach.

Marie-Claire dreamed.

 She ran across a vast field scattering colored tiles onto the ground.

Each time one hit the ground she could hear her name called.

She felt compelled to follow even though there was no end to the plain she was travelling over. The feeling of being summoned grew uncomfortable, the landscape started pouring over an edge like a waterfall, the ground rumbled and shook and called her name. Suddenly she snapped awake.

A hand was over her mouth and her shoulder was being shaken. She blinked into the night and made out a dark shape beside her bed.

 " Hush ! Please Mari, don't scream. Its me, Sari."

Marie-Claire sat up and grabbed the Romulan girl.

 "What're you doing ? What time is it ?" she looked round the dark bedroom, the curtain was blowing in the open window. " How did you get in ? We're upstairs."

Her sleep fogged brain cleared and she remembered the fire escape.

Sari hissed at her again, "Hush, do you want to wake the others ?"

 Marie- Claire looked round the moon illuminated room. The dark humps of her brother and sister lay inert under their covers, Julie snorted and turned over. Then silence.

"What do you want ?" She whispered. She had a tight feeling in her stomach that made her not at all surprised by Sari's answer.

" You have to come, to the board. Tarl is going to try by himself, he feels so shamed."

Suddenly the Romulan girl had to stifle a sob. " He'll die Mari, he can't do it alone. Please, won't you come?"

 " Do your parents....... ?" Sari shot her look full of scorn.

Mari swallowed. And got out of bed, She could hear her mother in her head, and her father. They were not urging her on. But her dreams called, and a feeling of destiny she could not have explained to anyone.

The game patterns danced in her head. She had to work them out and she wasn't going to be able to do it with permission.

"How do we get out ? "

She pulled pants and a dark top on over her nightclothes.

Sari waved at the window and slipped out first. Marie-Clare took a last look round the room and shivered. She would not think about not coming back.

"I'm sorry. " She said to her ghosts, then followed Sari out of the window.

 Robert waited until he was sure she was gone, then scrambled out of bed, pulled on a jumpsuit, and made for the window. On the threshold he looked back, and muttered a curse under his breath.

He climbed back into the room and remade the two empty beds to look as if someone was in them.

Julia snorted again in her sleep, turned and muttered a incomprehensible string of words into the night before subsiding again. Robert's heart made a spirited effort to get out of his chest, but she didn't wake, and after another short pause he climbed out of the window and followed Marie-Clare and Sari to the arena.

Sari was a half seen shape flitting into the darkness ahead. Marie-Claire followed in a sort of trance. She felt cast adrift, alone without past or a future that she cared to consider.

 A night bird called and she jumped and stumbled, a stone clattered away and Sari appeared at her side.

" Hush. Tarl will hear us. If he knows we are coming he will start, and everything will be lost." Marie-Claire sighed and walked at the girl's shoulder under the arch of the arena.

Suddenly Sari whirled and pulled her into the deeper shadow cast by the walls.

Straining Mari heard the thud of blood in her ears, then the sound of another foot kicking a pebble. Sari's grip on her arm became painful.

Then a dark shadow cleared the arch. Marie-Claire felt simultaneous relief and familiar anger. She leapt forward and jumped on Robert. "Worm !" She hissed. They fell to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. She was surprised when it was Robert who grabbed at her and put his hand over her mouth. He shook his head violently at her and she was so taken aback that she paused to listen.

" Can't you feel it, Mari ?" He climbed to his feet and took a couple of uncertain steps towards the inner arena.

 " It's pulling me, I can feel it " he put his hands over his eyes, then tugged at her hand." I'm scared Mari, we have to go. I don't think we have a choice any more."

The light of Romulus glinted on tears as he turned away to start down the path. Marie-Claire felt her annoyance disappear and a vast fear take its place.

She kept hold of his hand and followed him, casting a glance back at Sari. She remained with her back to the wall, a dark shadow in the gloom. Marie-Claire turned her face forward to the flickering light that could be seen through the inner doorway. And followed her little brother.

On a cloaked ship in parking orbit, Wesley Crusher opened his eyes. He felt his awareness of the great strings of probability that were concentrated in this area of space time resonate, as if a cosmic harp string had been plucked.

He became conscious again of his own mortality, of the dances of life and death that were continuing in his body despite the choices he had made, the path he was following in the company of the Traveller.

His companion sat on the opposite bunk, as serene as a desert boulder. Opaque to any probing that Wesley could send his way but, as always, intimately connected to the foundations of the universe.

" I had better go to her." He knew his companion would hear." This will be too difficult for her, she won't understand and it will hurt."

 " And is hurt your concern ?" The Traveller did not open his eyes, but Wesley felt the weight of his regard, like the sun behind closed eyes.

" She's my mother, of course it is my concern."

The Traveller switched off and returned to his contemplation of the infinite.

Wesley sighed. He often felt that the path he had taken was more like a cattle race than a route to understanding. But family was family, and cosmic truths would have to wait on his sense of duty for a while.

The Traveller opened his eyes and considered his protege.

 " Remember this is a node, Wesley. All choices may have repercussions beyond the obvious. Once you enter the matrix you will no longer be able to be aware of it. Be careful."

Wesley swallowed and nodded. " I will try to be a good butterfly Traveller."

He closed his own eyes, concentrated. And vanished off the deck of the ship, to appear moments later in the courtyard outside the Federation quarters of the Romulan palace.

Morning flooded the stones with brilliant light, and conflict hummed in the air like a heat haze. Jean-Luc and Beverly stood braced in the doorway of their quarters, Julia could be seen in their shadow, stretching to see around the crowd.

In a loose semicircle facing the humans were a diverse and noisy group of Romulans, at first a confused mass but yeilding on further investigation into accusers and defenders.

All of the shouting was happening between these two groups.

On the right hand side of the door there were four people, Renan stood at the forfront, her face flushed her hand raised . At her shoulder, his face impassive but his bearing threatening , stood a man in the uniform of a Commander of the Romulan army. At his back two armed guards scanned the doorway, the party opposite and the courtyard with professional impassivity.

Wesley saw them note his presence, the one standing nearest to him swung her disruptor so that he would be covered by a field of fire.

The guard nearest the Commander took a step forward and brought his arrival to his superior's notice.

The Commander's head snapped round to see the intruder, then he turned his attention back to the angry confrontation.

Facing Renan and her group was the frail looking figure of Sau'Venin and flanking her the more imposing figure of the Federation's other ambassador, Spock. Another Vulcan aide stood at Spock's shoulder and two young Romulans in SauVenin's house colours managed to convey an attitude of watchfull defense that somehow made them look just as dangerous as the guards facing them.

For Picard the morning had started like the continuation of an old nightmare.

 Startled from sleep by an abrupt knocking on the door he knuckled his eyes as he tried to struggle into a robe, and an alert frame of mind, at the same time.

He shared a look with Beverly, she was sitting up clutching the bedcovers to her chest, her face a study in smudged shadows. She saw him heading for the door and swung her own legs out of bed.

She met Picard's precautionary glare.

 " I had better go to the children." Jean-Luc nodded understanding, and they parted.

Through the smoked glass beside the front door he could see several shapes. He called out as the thunderous knocking resumed.

 " I'm coming. A moment please." He opened the door in the hostile face of the Romulan military and blocked the almost automatic advance of the people standing on the doorstep

"You will desist. This is Federation territory for the duration of our stay. Your business...."

He was distracted by a startled shout that came from the back of the apartment, followed by Beverly calling to him urgently.

" Jean-Luc, the children........"

With a warning glance at the lowering guards he turned and sprinted to the bedroom.

Beverly was just coming out with Julia.

 " Mari-Claire and Robert," Beverly pressed the back of her hand against her bottom lip as if to contain the scream that was aching to emerge." They're not here. Gods Jean- Luc, they've gone," she looked over his head at the sullen tableaux on the doorstep. " Whatever have they done ?"

 The three of them made their way to the front door, Jean-Luc could see Sau' Venin approaching with Spock in tow.

And then to complete the general sense of unreality that was beginning to overwhelm the rational part of his mind, they were treated to the sight of Wesley Crusher materializing in the courtyard behind.

Marie-Claire paused, panting, on a temporarily safe green square. Wiping the sweat out of her eyes with the back of her hand, she looked around to see if she could spot Robert and Tarl. Although the children were working as a team she had to use all of her concentration to maintain her own safety.

A swirl of red approached her position, changing all the colors before it.

She jumped over to a yellow that was due to turn green and let the amber pass harmlessly behind her. Amber gave only a slight shock, red gave a lethal jolt.

When Robert had led Mari into the activated bowl last night they had found Tarl leaning against the force field. The turned as they came close, his face full of shadowed angles.

"I cannot pass. I am the Chosen and I cannot pass. It keeps showing me your picture and, " he turned towards them. " Surprise, here you are."

 He stepped close and leaned over the two children.

 " How are we going to do this, human?"

Sari's soft voice came from the darkness behind.

 "Together Tarl, as we have always been together. The guardian has chosen you because you know how to be together. It chose them also. I think we are all out of choices. Tell them the rules."

So Tarl had explained the rules that already seemed to make internal sense, thanks to the link Mari and Bob had developed with the Guardian. And the three of them had stepped through the force field, just as Renan's voice could be heard calling for them to stop.

Yellow flowed toward her, Robert hopping from square to square behind the tide to change the colors ahead.

The green oasis shifted and Tarl and Mari stepped four squares nearer to the Bowl of Enlightenment. Mari called out.

 "Are you all right Bob ?"

The small boy did not answer, the guardian seemed to be speaking loudly in his ear. Robert had said that he heard the Guardian as a voice, Tarl had sneered and insisted that it communicated by sending visions. All Marie- Clare had to go on was a gut felt hunch, so far following it had kept the game moving and all the players safe.

Peripherally Marie-Claire was aware of the sky lightening above the game board, an audience had gathered, glimpsed in passing as they played.

A jolt from an unanticipated amber brought her concentration back into focus.

As they approached the end game she became immersed so totally in the puzzle of the flickering squares that the outside world simply ceased to exist.

Beverly felt, as she tried to follow the events of the morning, as if she was in a hell designed by a demon assigned to torment mothers.

It had been a secret and constant surprise to her that the love and attachment she felt for her second husband and family should be as all involving and deeply felt as the emotion she had lavished on Jack and Wesley.

Living that commitment had been a joy and a torment, but nothing had prepared her for this level of worry.

Fear gripped her head and chest in a vice as she watched Marie-Claire and Robert moving gracefully and incomprehensibly about the shifting game board.

A part of her felt the weight and strength of Jean-Luc's arm around her shoulder as she sat hunched forward in the seats found for them in the front row.

On her left she could feel Wesley's simmering presence, the grip of his hand in hers was warm and strong. A seat removed from Wesley sat Julia holding Sari's hand. Next to them Sau'Venin and Trel Var Phett sat, impassive and alien, ignoring the armed guards directed by the Commander to watch them all.

Whatever the result of this game, politics on Romii were likely to be in for an interesting time.

 The arena had quickly filled as morning brought news of the unusual game being attempted. The crowd remained silent, no calls or advice shouted now, the atmosphere was churchlike in its reverence for the judgement of the Guardian.

The three players could be seen approaching the stone bowl, a tide of green lapped under their feet and gave clear passage for at least three heartbeats.

Robert moved up beside Mari-Claire and Beverly saw the children link hands.

Tarl, a pace ahead, leapt for the edge of the bowl. As his feet touched the edge the shimmer that had disturbed the air throughout the competition became active.

With a roar like a jet engine the essence of the Guardian flared into the daylight.

The audience shaded their faces with their arms as they tried to peer into the arc like brightness, for a second the players could be seen silhouetted against the glare then, as the intensity increased, all were forced to turn away, still seeing the brightness in after image.

The roaring reached a crescendo, then the light and noise snapped off.

The board was empty and the crowd surged to its feet yelling in jubilation.

Picard, on his feet also, was yelling in disbelief and dismay. "NO!"

Wesley looked at his mother, her face blank, stunned by the sudden removal of the children, at his stepfather at the jubilant crowd.

The whole arena was taut with emotion, overlaid by his special perception of the significance of the moment. As he watched the Guardian flared again and Tarl could be seen walking back to the edge of the board. His face was transfigured with joy.

The children were not with him. Jean-Luc turned and met Beverly as she stood up out of her chair.

As one they walked past Wesley and advanced on Sau'Venin and her party.

Jean-Luc started to speak, his voice came out as a hoarse whisper and he impatiently cleared his throat to try again. "Where are they?"

Sau'Venin raised her head to see the two of them.

" I grieve for you in my joy Ambassador. I didn't mean this to happen. They are with the Guardian, the sacrifice honors your race and yourselves."

She paused for a second to watch Trel embrace his son at the edge of the board. She turned back to the Picard's and reached for Jean-Luc's hand.

" You do realize, Ambassador, that your family's sacrifice means the treaty becomes a formality. From this day we are one people."

 Beverly looked in disbelief from Sau'Venin's obvious sincerity to the painfully held mask of Jean-Luc's expression.

" Bring them back. They are just children. Bring them back."

She heard her voice becoming shrill as the enormity of the word sacrifice filtered into the cotton wool world she found herself living in. She turned to Jean-Luc, the terror starting to show in her face.

 "Get them back!"

Wesley could stand her distress no longer, with a mental shrug he pulled himself away from the time surrounding the gathering and vanished from view. Important node or not he would not stand by and do nothing while his mother's world crumbled around her. To his perception the human and Romulan crowd suddenly froze. He turned and walked towards the flickering Guardian, and was absorbed into the light the same way the children had been minutes before.

Julia drifted through the next half day as if the events were happening to someone else.

Mom cried, quietly or noisily depending on the amount of privacy the moment afforded.

Papa organized things, packed their bags and arranged a driver to take them to the spaceport. He was like an imitation of the father she knew. A stranger using his body to give directions and issue orders, he was giving nothing away at all, his control was so total. Through the whole interminable afternoon she did not see her mother and father address one word to each other. They seemed unable to even look at each other.

Beverly numbly went where she was told, and Julia followed. Julia hoped that she would wake up soon but pinching herself only gave her sore arms and Mari and Bob stayed gone. Julia also could not work out where Wesley had gone. He had popped up out of nowhere, and no one seemed to have any energy to spare to think about him or where he had gone. Julia found herself sitting in a Federation shuttle looking at a bulkhead, waiting for her father to be finished signing the suddenly less important treaty so that he could fly his family home.

What was left of it.

Julia twisted round in her seat and rested her head against the cool metal of the viewport and watched the buildings dissolve into mist as her feeling of abandonment reached a peak, the hole in her middle that had been wrenched out by her brother and sister threatened to take her over completely.


She felt her mother's presence as she sat down beside her.

 " Julia. How about a cuddle, perhaps it will make us both feel better ?"

 Julia slid over into her mother's arms and snuggled into her familiar warmth, but felt that nothing would ever fill the emptiness that claimed her.

 Her mother's desperate grip seemed to confirm her fears rather than lessen them. After a while she felt her mother stiffen slightly, she looked up and saw Papa coming aboard, his face inscrutable , his movements controlled and sure as he dogged shut the door.

Julia looked up to see her mother's face. Beverly was watching him perform the routine movements, she seemed to be studying him, trying to glean some clue from his outward behavior of his internal state.

He turned towards the front of the shuttle, and it was like watching a figure of wax melting in the heat of an oven. The stern man of steel turned before their eyes into a vulnerable parent who was enduring a hurt that was not bearable. By the time he had reached them tears could be seen streaking his cheeks and he turned a look of desperation on his wife and daughter.

"Help me. I can't do this any more and I have to fly us home."

Beverly could do nothing else, she opened her arms to him and the three of them took what comfort they could from each other.

Julia felt the underpinnings of her universe tremble again. As she gave what she could to her parents her father shrank from godlike to human and her mother became a friend in need. She could almost hear Mari's voice " Welcome to the grown up world kid." And when they had gathered up what shreds of composure was to be found, they strapped themselves in and started back home.

In the arms of the Guardian Wesley walked through diminishing fractal bays, each beach the echo of the bay, each bay the perfect echo of each beach. Size time and space obeyed the dictates of chaos and reality was molded by the perception of the observer.

Wesley tuned himself, found himself strumming the strings of probability, whistling the wind of the being he was communing with.

Curious like a cat, or an android, or a baby, the Guardian turned its attention upon him and found him interesting.

The two pebbles it held in its pudgy hand dropped to the sand, Wesley stooped and picked them up turned and found himself eye to yellow eye with intelligence.

" Black dog for a white monkey?"

" A safety chain this, a sideshoot of the chain. A net?"

 " Fair exchange is no robbery."




And Wesley threw the pebbles as far as he could into the sky. Then walked off hand in hand with the Guardian as they explored the sands of time.

The Traveller opened his eyes as the children shimmered into being on the bridge of his small ship.

" Be welcome."

He led the children to the front of the ship and sat Mari in one of the co-pilot's seats.

" Would you like to sit here?" He sat Robert behind her at the navigation position and then seemed to check something on the com' console. Mari-Claire and Robert, bewildered, sat obediently.

The Traveller moved to command position and started to pull up a course.

Mari looked at Robert and then around the cabin of the small ship.

Romii and Romulus twirled in their graceful dance on the viewscreen in front of the children. Mari tried to make some sense of the situation they found themselves in.

 "Sir. Our parents, could we contact them. I think they may be worried."

The Traveller turned slightly to look at her, he smiled. The children felt soothed and the frantic what's happening, where am I questions that were tumbling around in their heads became less important.

The Traveller turned back to his console and laid in the course that would intercept the Picard's shuttle when it was out of the Romulan twin system. Sometimes it was his lot to spread a little happiness. Later he would return to collect his pupil, but for the moment harmony was being served and the node was undisturbed.

He hailed the Picard's shuttle and spoke gently to the fragile looking man that answered his call.

 " I have someone here you may be interested in talking to Ambassador, please hold for a moment."

Then he sat back and enjoyed as he watched Jean-Luc's face as his daughter's face came up on the viewscreen.

 "Papa." Mari leaned forward as if to touch him through the viewscreen." Where are you? I'm sorry we didn't mean to .... "

Jean-Luc interrupted urgently. " Mari is Robert with you?"

Mari looked surprised and glanced back at her brother who moved into the pickup. Picard seemed to take a few moments to find a voice, but he suddenly looked a lot happier than he had when she had first seem him.

" Are you safe?" He asked somewhat brusquely. She nodded. " Let me talk to the Traveller Mari.... and Mari." Mari turned back to the viewscreen waiting for some of the retribution she was sure was coming her way. " I am very pleased to have you both back. We missed you."

Mari nodded vigorously at the viewscreen, amazed at the reprieve. She shared an eyebrow raised comment with her brother and listened as the Traveller arranged a rendezvous with her parents .

On Romii Sau'Venin turned from her meditation of the flame and rested her hand on the head of her transformed and returned son.

Tarl was still incandescent, incoherent, trying to sort out the understanding of cosmic relationships that the Guardian had gifted him with. Sari knelt just outside the circle of candle flame, her eyes on her brother.

Sau'Venin knew Tarl would come to understanding, would be supported by Sari, would be able to lead the council in this time of changes. The Federation was already arranging for permanent diplomatic positions to be filled in the next few days.

She felt a pang of sympathy for the Ambassador they had lost. His sacrifice had been great. Sau'Venin' left the meditation chamber and walked over to the entrance gate of the arena. Already Mari-Claire and Robert Picard's names had been engraved deeply into the wall of remembrance.

She stooped and ran her fingers over the carving, then became aware of a presence behind her. "Renan, my child. Have you returned to us then?"

She looked over her shoulder at her oldest child. Renan was dressed in the uniform of the military she had sworn to join. A decision she had kept to despite the political changes that had changed traditional foe to friend a matter of days.

 " I have to earn my honor Mother. It seems I was wrong on many counts, but I still believe that our ways have value. It seems so does the Federation or they would not have signed the treaty." She moved up so that she was standing close to her Mother. " I would learn from them."

Sau'Venan looked at her. "It is all we can do Daughter, learn and then learn some more. Eventually we may even come to some understanding."

 Sau'Venin held her daughter's head in her hands, looked deep into her eyes.

 " The Vulcan's say 'Live long and prosper.' I wish thee luck for your choices Renan. Never forget the lessons we have learnt during this T'ank Ri. Perhaps all life is joined at some level, all we have to do is find some way to live it."

Renan nodded and walked off down the road that lead to the spaceport. Sau'Venin watched her out of sight then turned and faced the palace. The future beckoned her forward into the light of Romulus.

A future more complex than the past, as it should be.

 [1] Shakespeare Sonnet 21