Sirak exchanged formal compliments with the manager of the house of assignation. He was a stocky older man with smooth round face and a hint of a curl to his cropped gray hair. Spock hovered in the middle distance, miserably ill at ease. The house consisted of a two story main building separated from the street by a paved court, a second inner gate and a fine flower garden. The manager's office was in a low wing on the eastern side of the garden and furnished in a far richer and more sensual style than Spock was accustomed to. It made him uncomfortable.

"Spock," Sirak said sharply, demanding his attention.

Reluctantly obedient he took one of the low, deeply cushioned chairs at the marble topped table. The manager and Sirak continued to trade courteous nothings over the ritual tea. Spock ignored them, distracted by the physical responses aroused by the softly rounded shapes of chairs, tables and couch. The warm, silken tactility of the cushions, the sensual blues of brocaded draperies and deep, soft carpet, the musky odor of the smoke spiraling lazily from the curvaceous porcelain incense burner. He swallowed and struggled for control. (1)

"You didn't hear a word we said, did you?" Sirak asked wryly as they passed out the street gate. Spock blushed green. His cousin sighed. "You are in a state aren't you? Do try to be coherent when we talk to the adepts."

Spock's eyes widened in something like horror. "Talk to them?"

"Yes, Spock, talk. Velinahru chose their partners you know, and very few are attracted by inane babbling or glazed silence!"

-----

A glittering column of light turned into a wiry, mature man in Starfleet blue. T'Jess descended the veranda steps to offer her hand Terran fashion. "How do you do, Doctor?"

He recovered from his surprise and shook it. "Very well thank you. You're Spock's sister?"

She didn't exactly smile. "By Vulcan law yes, by blood not quite. Your eyes do not deceive you, Doctor, I am biologically human."

One eyebrow went up, an expression T'Jess suspected he'd gotten from Spock. "Only biologically?"

She nodded. "I have been raised as a Vulcan." She led the way to the pavilion waving McCoy to the seat opposite. He hesitated, and remembering Terran etiquette, she sat first. He followed suit a little awkwardly. "The birthmother of my sister and myself was twin sister to Spock's," she continued. "And his parents our guardians under Terran law. When our Human parents died we were adopted into House and Clan."

"So you're actually Spock's first cousin on the Human side," Dr. McCoy said, trying to get it straight.

T'Jess made another of her not-quite smiles. "I am Spock's sister," she corrected. "But our biological kinship is that of cousins germain, to use Human terminology." She poured the lou'ti liquor and took a delicate sip. McCoy cautiously followed suit and his eyes widened in appreciation.

"Not to sweet?" T'Jess asked. He shook his head and took a hearty second gulp. "The Vulcan palate prefers sour and bitter flavors," she continued. "Sugar is a pleasant stimulant, not unlike caffeine. Alcohol is an aphrodisiac and we avoid it, except under very specific circumstances."

"It can have that effect on Humans too," Doctor McCoy said, blotting his mouth with a napkin. "Speaking of which -"

"Yes," T'Jess agreed. "Time to get down to business. I regret the lack of authoritative information on Vulcan sexuality in Federation archives but it is a sensitive subject with us. Other species tend to find it humorous but to us it is no laughing matter."

McCoy nodded grimly. "Spock damn near died of it - begging your pardon for my language, miss." She nodded her forgiveness. "He said something about a seven year mating cycle?"

T'Jess shook her head. "A considerable oversimplification, but then he wasn't in any condition to give accurate information. The Vulcan sex drive is urgent and demanding, and responsible for much of the violence of our early history. There are various techniques for keeping it in check, the best of them being regular sexual congress with a bondmate. Celibacy is most emphatically not an option."

"But Spock -" McCoy broke off, eyebrows rising. "Oh. I see."

"Spock has been a damned fool!" T'Jess not quite smiled. "Pardon my language, doctor. There is indeed a seven year cycle of sorts; fertility and desire both peak at that time. If the mating urge has been frustrated for several such cycles it can indeed lead to 'pon farr' but a Vulcan employing suitable disciplines and enjoying regular sexual intercourse will not go mad. Indeed our civilization would not be possible if they did."

McCoy nodded. "Spock's version didn't make a whole lot of biological sense at that."

"Nothing Spock's done in this matter has made any kind of sense," T'Jess said grimly. "Vulcans have an unusually long latency period that ends in 'shi farr', the awakening madness, at approximately eighteen standard years. Spock and T'Pring should have consummated their bond at that time but he was in Starfleet Academy on Earth. He has since used his service as an excuse to avoid fulfilling his duty to his mate."

McCoy raised a hand. "Wait a minute. Are you saying that that poor girl has been waiting twenty odd years for her wedding night?"

This time T'Jess did smile, grimly. "That is exactly what I am saying."

McCoy winced. "No wonder she wanted Spock dead! But why drag Jim into it?"

T'Jess sighed. "That was not very honorable, or logical, and T'Pring now regrets it deeply. Her original intent was that Stonn should fight for her in the traditional fashion - but when the moment came she found could not face the possibility of losing him."

McCoy's face softened. "He must mean a lot to her."

"Yes. My brother may have played the fool but T'Pring didn't. When it became clear that Spock was not going to return in anything like a reasonable time she took a companion - a lover in Earth terms."

"Since celibacy is not an option."

"Not if one values one's sanity," T'Jess agreed. "Her action was irregular but quite logical and brought no shame to her nor to Stonn. It began as a mere arrangement of convenience but as the years passed they formed an informal bond 'fell in love' as you would say."

McCoy gave her a quizzical look. "Love?"

She smiled again. "A true bondmating is defined as a spiritual as well as physical union and a mutual need for the other's company and presence. If that's not love, doctor, what is?" The smile vanished. "Spock and T'Pring's bonding was troubled from the beginning. Despite sincere efforts on both their parts there was never any true sharing of mind and spirit between them. It is highly regrettable that the arrangement was not quietly dissolved long before this crisis but Spock and our elders lacked the necessary moral courage and T'Pring's only option was the one she took."

-----

Spock looked down at the pale green liquid in his cup as if it was cyanide rather than wine watered down to the merest flavor. The last thing he required was an aphrodisiac. The decor of the wine parlor, very similar to that of the house manager's office, already had him on edge - as did the presence of the women.

There were five of them, clad in gauzy robes, and the curves of bare napes beneath heavy coils of hair and occasional glimpse of a small, bare foot had Spock quivering in response. It was all extremely unsettling and unpleasant. He looked desperately at Sirak.

His cousin sat across the room, sharing couch and cup with an attractive Velinahru, easily capping her verses in a light play of double meanings and sly innuendo. He returned Spock's silent plea with a sharp look that was little short of a glare.

Spock touched the cup to his lips in courteous pretense before turning to the adept, patient and silent at his side, and blurted out the first thing that came into his addled head; "I see both table harp and drum chimes, are you the musician?"

The Velinahru's lips curved slightly, no doubt in relief. "It is part of our training. Do you play, S'chn T'gai? (2)."

"The lyre, though with small skill."

His companion accepted that as the polite lie that it was. "I will send for a lyre and we shall try each other's skill."

Glancing again at Sirak Spock could not understand why his cousin was holding one thumb up.

----

"- after engaging apartments at a House of Assignation Spock and our cousin will proceed to a Velinahru retreat to select and be selected by a temporary companion."

McCoy blinked. "That sounds uncommonly like prostitution, Miss T'Jess."

She shrugged. "Technically it is so, but without the connotations of immorality that taint the Human practice. Celibacy is not an option, doctor, and not all Vulcans are bondmated or contracted to consort or companion."

"Making cat-houses only logical." McCoy nodded, then started to correct himself, "I mean to say -"

"I understand you, doctor."

He gave her another quizzical look. "May I say, miss, that you seem to have a much better grasp of terranglish vernacular than your brother does."

"You may," she answered dryly. "Spock had the same opportunities to learn as I but was too proper to take them. He has always been too proper."

McCoy looked interested. "So, our Spock's a bit rigid even by Vulcan standards?"

"More than a bit," she said.

----

"Well that didn't go too badly," Sirak said judiciously to his cousin as they began the walk home. "For a while there I was afraid no one was going to offer for you. Music indeed has charms."

"I am unaccustomed to such occasions," Spock said defensively.

"True, but your social manner has always left something to be desired," Sirak shook his head. "And with a mother famed over all Vulcan for her charm too."

Spock blinked. "She is?"

That got him a look of disbelief. "My dear Spock! Can you possibly believe that any but a woman of uncommon charm and social ability could captivate your father, not to mention wind our elders securely around her little finger? Sarek owes much of his diplomatic success to his wife but you have obviously failed to profit by her instruction."

"So it would seem," was all Spock could find to say in reply.

----

1. In Vulcan aesthetics the cool colors have the connotations of passion, sensuality and violence that hot ones have for Humans. Reds and oranges on the other hand are regarded as peaceful and restful.

2. The style and form of courteous address appropriate for a Vulcan male of Spock's age and caste. T'sai, usually translated as 'my lady', is the female equivalent.