The gala was perfect. Rich music filled the ornately carved chamber, the warm reflections of candles and braziers glinted off the heavy gold gilt along the walls and brought out the deep blood hues of the luxurious wood arches. Aristocrats, royalty, diplomats and a great host of other honored guests swirled in luxurious patterns on the immense dance floor or mingled laughingly with each other along the walls, their fine clothes and expensive jewels sparkling every now and then like stars in the night. A delicate incense curled through the air, adding an exotic tint to the cool evening air from the far windows before it whirled into the stir of exquisite perfumes and delectable delicacies of the great feast tables.

Saavik sighed to herself.

Ordinarily, she was not given to such high societal functions, more than willing to let Spock or Sarek tend to it with their smooth artful skills; but after the recent near endless run of battles, she thought even she might have actually have benefitted from this night.

If I was anything other than a main entrée.

"I have simply the most splendid news for you!"

Saavik lifted an eyebrow. Your cook is ill?

a'Gahl shouted for the rest of her servers to cluster around.

"What is it?" h'Mav growled. "I haven't finished the glaze!"

j'Lsah wrung her hands in worry. "We're not ready to serve yet!"

The others muttered uncertainly.

But a'Gahl grinned at the group. He straightened, his chest puffing in pride. "I have just received word from the High Table--"

Even h'Mav inhaled in sudden excitement and they pressed closer, eyes widening.

"And she is to be reserved solely for the Crowns Themselves!"

Gasps broke out through the group and almost immediately excited babbling exploded.

"Oh, is it true?"

"The Crowns!"

a'Gahl clapped his hands to get their attention again. He turned and peered anxiously down at Saavik. "Do you understand what this means?"

The others quieted and looked worriedly down at her.

Yes, thought Saavik dryly, I rather believe I do. "It is an honor."

They all heaved sighs of relief.

a'Gahl bragged, "It is exactly how I said it would be! Didn't I? Did I not overhear her ship's talking rock and the other ugly one with that disgusting thick hide discuss how she is both Vulcan and Romulan? And wasn't it I who immediately said the Crowns will want such a rare creature for their own table?"

Saavik made a stern mental note to discuss with the junior officers just what was acceptable subjects for discussion outside of ship walls.

a'Gahl preened. "And now how fortunate we are! The first Starfleet team had only humans – too close to us in resemblance to be of any treat – and a few hideous others--"

Saavik drew in a slow breath at this description of the more non-human looking members in Starfleet.

"– such as that blue one with the antennas."

He turned back to Saavik. "What did you call that?"

With strong patience, she answered, "Andorian."

"Yes!" He turned back to the others. "Such a bilious color!" They nodded vigorously. a'Gahl shook his head. "No, these. . . things. . . did not deserve the honor of becoming part of us through our consumption of them! And to tease us with images of such elegant creatures as Vulcans when they had none with them!"

He hissed. Then his face brightened again and he turned back to look fondly down at Saavik. "And here at last they send us one and she is half-Romulan as well! Yes, yes!" He clapped his hands like an excited child. "Such fortune!" He shook a finger at the others. "Have I not always told you--a worthy server always listens?"

Saavik severely hoped one of her crew had managed to display a similar effort at eavesdropping. She quirked an eyebrow at the thought. Given her crew's inordinate levels of curiosity about their first officer's personal business, perhaps one of them would notice. . . . She took a deep breath. For now, delaying her. . . tasting. . . was her only option.

She cleared her throat. "If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, perhaps I should be served on a more... suitable platter for the Crowns?"

j'Lsah gasped, "She's right! Silver will not do for the Crowns!"

h'Mav scowled. "What about the gold one in the Vault?"

a'Gahl grinned and patted Saavik's face fondly with fingers. "Superb suggestion!" He snapped his square tipped, nail-less fingers and four of the others ran for the Vault. "Any other thoughts?"

Saavik resisted the number of biting comments that came to mind. "Out of curiosity, how am I to be... served?"

a'Gahl frowned, confused. "Live, why?"

"You... jest."

j'Lsah immediately leaned forward to stroke her hair. "Oh, not to worry, dear! The Crowns have the most exquisite manners!"

a'Gahl nodded swiftly. "Oh yes! One of Them will be sure to put you down before they begin."

j'Lsah smiled gently. "See? Nothing to be concerned about."

Somehow Saavik did not find this particularly comforting.

h'Mav crossed his arms, studying her thoughtfully. "But do we spice or glaze now?"

The meal being asked how it should be cooked. "Which would allow the... natural flavor to best be retained?"

j'Lsah nodded. "Not a glaze then."

h'Mav rubbed his chin, scowling. "I could do a light spice rub." He vanished back to the store rooms for his herbs.

"Excellent!" a'Gahl saw the servers enter with the gold platter. "Prepare it!" He eyed her a moment. "Oh, and keep it warm, she chills easily."

"Your thoughtfulness is most appreciative," Saavik said dryly.

He grinned. "Let's move you back to the sinks and get you ready."

He brought two small circular devices and placed one on each of her temples. She didn't feel any sensation or sound of his activating them, but when he stepped back, she suddenly felt lethargic.

No, more like... docile.

j'Lsah smiled. At least, that was the best way to describe how her lipless mouth fell open to reveal her teeth. Her very plain, featureless face was very typical of her people, and looked quite human except for the lack of lips, nose, and the minimum size of her ears.

"So much better than giving you a tranquilizer," j'Lsah explained. "Same effect with no aftertaste affecting your flavor."

Only with Saavik so malleable did they release the holding field restraining her and helped her to stand. She had thought it would take most of her control to play at obedience, but instead, she found she could not even summon the desire to want to remove the numbing devices on her forehead.

That disturbed her as much as her potential death.

She found herself accepting their assistance and allowing them to lead her back into the great kitchen.

I must not... yield or I will not be... able to...

But her mind couldn't even form the word escape. A fine quiver ran under her skin as the two subconscious demands clashed: one to resist and the other to surrender.

Misinterpreting her reaction, her captors increased the heat level of the room and began removing her Starfleet uniform. j'Lsah took one look at Saavik's body and nearly clapped her hands as a'Gahl had earlier. "Perfect for the Crowns!"

a'Gahl inspected her carefully, his hands moving along her smooth skin, pressing into muscles, and checking every line. "I see why you are reserved so." He straightened and grinned in delight. "Your rarity alone deserves it--"

One of only four such hybrids alive, her mind automatically added and she felt a curious sense of aloneness. And mourning.

"-- but your quality is truly fine. Look," he said to the others. "As we predicted, lean muscle under the skin. Very low body fat. And just enough alien appearance to be exotic without turning the stomach! Yes, excellent! Look for yourselves!"

Two of the other servers touched her fair skin lightly in appreciation.

Saavik couldn't work up enough self-command to glare at them for violating the practice of not touching a Vulcan. "I appreciate your compliments." I think.

They helped her into the large basin sinks and washed her carefully, then took her out and dried her gently.

By the time her hair was dry and lay softly dark about her shoulders, h'Mav was back and expertly preparing his spices. The gold platter was declared heated enough and set on the great table, so its carrying poles could be inserted and locked in place. Saavik eyed it, noting that the engraving work alone qualified the piece as worthy of display in even Vulcan's cultural museum.

h'Mav hurried over, accompanied by another server with a jar of fine oil. The four of them set to work carefully rubbing the oil into her skin. Saavik's eyebrows lifted at the rather exquisite smell.

a'Gahl nodded. "Only the best for the Crowns." He grinned again. "You like it."

Saavik found herself nodding.

"Good. It will enhance your flavor splendidly."

Her stomach hardened. "Ah, excellent."

Finished with the oil, they began to lightly rub in h'Mav's spice mixture. Saavik's sharp sense of smell identified fourteen separate herbs, and her nostrils flared appreciatively at the combination. Exotic but light, warm but gently so.

"You are... good," she admitted to h'Mav.

He blinked and then sniffed proudly.

After some debate, they set to work braiding delicate strands through her dark hair, working in some of the spice mixture for effect before another server arrived with a tray of flawlessly cut jewels and perfectly formed pearl-like beads. j'Lsah wove them into Saavik's hair, admiring the way they caught the fire's light and sparkled. a'Gahl placed a jewel in one ear where once she had worn the traditional unbonded ruby, then set a single stone on a thin gold chain about her throat. A single delicate chain went about each ankle and wrist. Satisfied, they moved her to the platter and ever so carefully positioned her on it.

The gold was warm against her skin and Saavik suppressed the urge to sink into it.

a'Gahl set a curious stylized object at the foot of the platter and pressed it once with his finger. Instantly, the delicate chains about her wrists, ankles, and throat held her firmly to the platter.

She at last felt a surge of self-preservation that almost overrode the devices at her temples and made her eyes widen at being restrained.

j'Lsah patted her shoulder, "Now don't fight it, dear, I know it's natural, but presentation is everything and you're positioned perfectly."

That is not exactly reassuring.

But Saavik forced control and made herself relax. If she was finally able to fight the effects of the tranquilizing devices, she might still find a way to escape or contact her ship for a rescue. If she was to make that happen, she could not reveal that her instinct for survival, formed by Hellguard's grip, might ward off her captors' devices.

Except something gave her away.

Perhaps, j'Lsah was too experienced in serving live animals – sentient and not – and saw some nuance that made her doubt this prey was settled. Before Saavik could even fully inhale, she was moving.

"Here," she said, coming up with two more objects and inserted them into Saavik's ears.

Some subliminal message eased into her subconscious, slipping so smoothly past her dociled disciplines that she never had the chance to refuse it. Then all she knew was. . . she was safe, she was fine, all was as it should be. Defiance faded out of her.

j'Lsah looked pleased. "There, that's right." She patted Saavik again, this time sympathetically. "I know, waiting is the absolute worst."

Saavik could think of at least one thing worse.

"What about garnishing?" a'Gahl frowned.

The three of them studied Saavik thoughtfully.

"No," growled h'Mav, "I think she's exotic enough as is."

"Thank you," Saavik murmured dryly.

j'Lsah flicked a look at the ornate stuffed r'kl swan with full silver gilt wings being mounted on its plate nearby and nodded. "The other dishes will be the perfect counterpoint to her."

a'Gahl grinned at the others. "Then I'd say she's ready for serving."

It was at the same moment the ear implants whispered, Your mother loves you. She keeps you safe.

Robbed of her regular controls because of their devices, Saavik felt her heart seize in natural reaction. Saavik knew nothing about her mother, but whether that woman was Romulan and the orchestrator for what happened on Hellguard or a Vulcan who was the victim and killed soon after giving birth, Saavik felt certain that her mother did not love her.

That knowledge broke their hold on her an infinitesimal amount, enough to make her heart clench at their words. She grabbed at that defiance, rapidly planning to pull at her chains enough to reach the restraining control, to do anything to fight back. Her captors were not armed, and if she freed herself–

Her subconscious turned traitor and pulled first T'Pren's voice from memory and had her say those words: You are safe. You are my heart, I am with you.

And then Amanda's: I would never let anyone hurt you. I love you.

Those voices robbed her resistance, leaving only one last bit that caused a shiver at her failure to escape.

j'Lsah frowned abruptly and moved over to eye Saavik's skin. "Will she chill out there?"

h'Mav scowled. "We could cover her with one of the serving domes."

j'Lsah gave him a look. "She's being served live—she still has to breathe. Besides, it'll ruin the visual effect of her entrance."

Yes, we would not want to ruin that.

a'Gahl snapped his fingers. "We'll attach one of the small portable heating units to her platter. We can program it to cover just the area we need and it won't be obvious."

He yelled for one of the servers to get the unit.

It was brought and attached, Saavik's eyebrow lifted as it was turned on and adjusted. Almost immediately, she felt as if she lay curled in the sunshine on a summer day.

She clearly was supposed to find some ease in being kept comfortable until her throat was slit.

A bong sounded from outside the kitchen.

a'Gahl grinned. "The feast begins!"

j'Lsah leaned over Saavik to adjust one more jewel and then patted her cheek affectionately. "You will bring such honor to us!"

h'Mav and the other servers gathered round to touch her and bow.

a'Gahl took a deep breath and then clapped his hands. "It is time to begin the serving! Start with the first dishes!" He frowned suddenly and looked around. "Where are the servers for the High Table?"

The three servers who had been leaning against the far shadowed wall, dressed in the traditional luxurious long tunics and covered faces of the High Table, immediately straightened and bowed.

"Ah!" said a'Gahl, looking immensely relieved and more stressed at the same time. "You three, take up positions around her, one to a pole. Straighten your tunics! Did you roll on the floor? When the gong sounds three, present her directly to the High Table—be sure and go down the main aisle so all the tables can see her first." He gave them a dangerous look. "And for the love of the Crowns, go slow and don't jostle her!" He took a deep breath and smoothed his own clothes. He flashed a grin at the others. "They'll talk about her for decades, I know it. Now move, all of you!"

Servers scattered and a'Gahl dove out the kitchen doors to direct the flow of dishes. h'Mav and j'Lsah went opposite, putting the last touches on a plate here, in a bowl there. Servers began lifting and bearing the food out the doors to the Great Hall.

Cheers and murmurs of approval drifted back from the Hall and Saavik swallowed.

The second gong sounded and the three took their positions at their poles.

I have no more time. No rescue, no escape. "Damn..."

One of her servers snorted and leaned down. A pair of rather mischievous blue eyes glinted at her from behind the mask. "You know, if you were so set on being eaten, you could have saved yourself all the trouble and just stayed on Hellguard."

Very few people knew the name of that world. Even fewer had blue eyes and enough of Saavik's trust and understanding to make such a statement. "Captain Stuart?"

One of the other servers snickered and Saavik instantly recognized her as Lauren Warfield. "Commander, you are so out of uniform." She was biting back a laugh. "It's a good thing we stopped you from making that Dare before. With the way you look, walk naked trough the ship next time we play Truth or Dare, and I don't think you'd make it to the Rec area."

Stuart had picked that time to surreptitiously remove the tranquilizing devices from the Vulcan's temples and ears. Before she could regain her disciplines, Saavik blushed an incredible shade of emerald at Warfield's comment. She got her Vulcan outrage and Romulan temper over the abuse she had taken tonight under control, but its buildup recoiled on her shipmates as she gave them a terrible look.

"For the record, your rescue response time is well below the accepted time frame of Starfleet Security requirements."

The captain sighed. "Warn the crew. Their first officer is going to have us running one Security drill after another. Stop teasing her, Lauren, or you'll make it worse."

"We could just serve her to the High Table and save ourselves all the headaches," came Lynne Hoskins' formal accent from behind the other mask.

Saavik began, "When I am released--"

Warfield snickered. "Admit it, you're glad to see us."

I would not use those emotional terms... but – Yes, I am. "Only so I may have the opportunity to establish how this attempt on my life is due to Mr. Hoskins' error--"

"I knew she was going to say that."

"–as she lacked the communication skill to discern between a dinner invitation for an honored guest and a notice that they are serving that guest on the menu."

A roar of applause sounded outside the kitchen door; the second course had apparently been a great hit.

"'How To Serve Man is a cookbook'," Hoskins quoted.

"How does that answer my point?" Saavik demanded.

Hoskins smiled. "An old Terran quote on not understanding an alien language. I use it to point out that I made a mistake, but corrected it in time or we wouldn't be here, rescuing your naked--"

The third gong sounded. Stuart straightened. "Okay, people, look alive. We've got to get to the Great Hall for beam up. That dome in there is the only thing not made of whatever material is blocking our transporters. Saavik, I took those devices off your head so you won't fight coming with us, and I know you can fake the affect so people won't figure out what's going on. But since we may jostle you when we walk in, Warfield can't release the restraining field until it's time or they'd see the difference. Now let's do this and get the hell out of here. This is going to be a diplomatic incident reaching nightmare proportions, and I want to put some serious space between us and this lovely planet's fleet."

"If it gets necessary, I'm carrying an extra phaser for you," Warfield said to Saavik as she took her position.

They gripped their poles and lifted Saavik's platter smoothly off the table and began to head for the kitchen door.

"Oh hell!" whispered Warfield. "We've got a problem!"

Before Saavik could demand an explanation, Lauren suddenly winked. "Isn't Hal Dawson on duty tonight in the transporter room?"

Dawson – the one cadet in Saavik's Academy class to outrank her, only to have her pass him easily in achievement and rank in their careers. Not so long ago, Warfield warned her that Dawson was spreading ugly rumors that sprang from their Academy days.

"If he is," Saavik's eyes glinted, "I will ensure he will not create rumors about this."


Note from the author: I couldn't say this in the beginning or it would have ruined the surprise: Dannan Stuart belongs to Vonda McIntrye. Lauren Warfield, Lynne Hoskins, Hal Dawson, and the USS Rider belongs to Kerjen (Kerry). Everything else belongs to Paramount, the greedy bastards. :-D