BattleTech: Hero of the Clans

By Christopher W. Blaine (darth_yoshi@yahoo.com)

DISCLAIMER: The following work of fiction uses characters and situations ©2002 by FASA Corporation/WhizKids and are used without permission for fan related, non-profit entertainment purposes only. This original story is ©2002 by Christopher W. Blaine and may not be reproduced in part or as a whole without the express permission of the author.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: This story takes place immediately after the events portrayed in the original BattleTech™ novel "Star Lord" by Donald G. Phillips. Also, I would like to extend my personal thanks to those fans of BattleTech™ who initially reviewed my story and pointed out my blatant use of Freebirth warriors. I had tried to research the Steel Vipers and their views on such matters but apparently did not look hard enough. Even the biggest fan can screw up sometimes.

Council Hall, Steel Viper Garrison

Jabuka

Steel Viper Occupation Zone

30 August, 3057

Dawn surveyed the assembled bloodnamed warriors of the Steel Viper Clan, momentarily allowing a smile to creep across her face. Every single warrior, Elemental, pilot and MechWarrior, sat with mouth agape and completely silent. The council hall was as quiet as the dead man's head that Dawn held out before them.

There was no mistaking the identity or at least the lineage of the severed head. The face of Stefan Amaris the Usurper was burned into the brain of all Clan warriors from their first day of sibko training. It was Amaris who had begun the fall of the Star League that the Successor States had finished. It was Amaris who was personified as the Devil, the Boogey-Man and the Monster-Under-The-Bed in Clan society.

Alexandr Kerensky had orchestrated the death of Amaris prior to his leading his loyal Star League Defense Forces out of the Inner Sphere. It was believed by both the Clans and the Inner Sphere that the Amaris bloodline had been severed some 300 years before Dawn had entered the council hall with the head that was tightly gripped in her hand.

Dawn's "trophy" indicated otherwise.

"Who among you, warriors of the Steel Viper Clan, will dare to stand up now and declare me a coward? Freebirth? Bandit?" She paused for effect and then added almost too silently for the large chamber. "Unworthy?"

As she watched their eyes, she looked for any dissent, any challenge to her claims. There was a cough and someone started to speak, but it was cut short by the telltale sound of fist to flesh. "Come now," she started again, "is this the pride of the Clans that is gathered before me? Are these the proud and mighty warriors who had the audacity to tear my codex from my wrist and declare me less than nothing? I ask, which of you here from Khan to solahma, have done what only the Great Kerensky has ever been able to achieve?"

Perigard Zalman, the khan of the Steel Vipers, cleared his throat. Normally, he was given to fits of yelling and there was always a tone of viciousness to his voice. When he spoke, however, his voice was calm and even. "I know what it is that I see before my eyes, but what proof do you have that you have done what you boast? Stefan Amaris was said to have no offspring."

Dawn turned and tossed the head to the khan. Perigard caught it by reflex and dropped it immediately. The thud seemed to echo through the chamber and Dawn noted that the khan looked at his hands as if he would need to sever them. So vile was Amaris in the Clan psyche that Dawn could well imagine that Perigard was thinking that the madness of that bloodline had somehow been passed to him through contact with the corpse. "Do not treat me like a child, Perigard Zalman! I am fully aware that the Scientist Caste in our enclave on Strana Mechty have access to the genetic blueprint of the Usurper!"  She turned back to the bloodnamed warriors and her face became serious. "Alexandr Kerensky, unlike the fools he was required to serve after the Fall of Amaris, did not take for granted that the galaxy was safe from Stefan's children. In order to make sure, in the event someone was ever found that was believed to have descended from Stefan, a copy of his DNA was taken with the Star League Defense Forces during the Exodus."

There were mumbles among the warriors, but many still remained transfixed on the head that lay now at their khan's feet. Dawn still held the moment and she needed to make it work to her advantage. She had originally been cast out of her Clan, banished to the Inner Sphere for the charge of cowardice. Dawn would have preferred death, and the court of the bloodnamed had known that. Being a Warden, one who believed that the role of the Clans was to guide and protect the Inner Sphere, her personal views had gone against the grain of the Crusader philosophy of the Steel Vipers and sealed her fate.

There were other reasons as well, too numerous for her to consider at this very moment. That she was even standing here to be able to have such thoughts was nothing short of a miracle. In the Inner Sphere, she had been sent to world of Galatea, a world that wanted to be like Solaris VII, the Gaming World. Instead, it was a dark reflection, a den of thieves and degenerates that were all waiting in line for their chance to burn in the Christian hell.

On Galatea, she had become a warrior for a gaming stable, taking no money, only that what she needed to survive. She wanted to say that using her skills in that manner prevented her from sinking to depths of being a mercenary, a taboo in the warrior caste, but she still felt dirty when she thought about it. A chance encounter with some members of another stable had begun her trek towards redemption.

Cornered by the other pilots, for she refused to acknowledge them as warriors, she had fought valiantly against them until they started to try to gain an unfair advantage by using weapons. Members of the mercenary group that would come to be known as Duncan's Demons happened upon the fight and joined in. It was then that she had first met Duncan Kolmar.

Dawn did not believe in fate, nor did she acknowledge a higher presence other than the ilKhan, but to say that the events that followed were something other than coincidence left her feeling uneasy. "And tell us, Dawn who is no longer of the Clans," Loremaster Stoklas said, anger dripping in his question. It was no secret that he despised her. "How is that a coward such as you could have defeated an Amaris in single combat? Are we to believe that you possess the fighting prowess and skill rivaling that of the Great Kerensky?" He made to laugh, but was cut off by a stare from the khan.

"Clan or not, it makes no difference in this matter, Loremaster," Perigard said, carefully choosing his words. He nodded to Dawn. "We shall verify the truth of your claim, Dawn, and until such time you will remain detained in quarters we shall establish for you. If your claim is true, then I cannot even begin to imagine how this will affect all of the Clans. If it is false, then I fear only that I will not be wise enough to win the bidding to kill you myself."

Dawn bowed her head. "As you command, my khan."

"No," he replied, his dark eyes smoldering. "You have no khan. You are not a Steel Viper; you would do well to remember that."

"My khan," Stoklas started, "she is not even a warrior and should not be acquitted with the honor of remaining in quarters better served for those who do not have their skills questioned." He smiled triumphantly, knowing that his demand would have to be met. Khan or not, Perigard would not dare to invoke the wraith of the bloodnamed. "She can be housed with the freebirth technicians."

Dawn laughed aloud. "At one time, I may have considered that an insult! If you desire to put me with other worthy contributors to the Steel Vipers," she stressed the word, indicating she saw no difference between trueborn and freeborn, "then so be it. I tell you though that I have killed the descendant of Stefan Amaris in honorable single combat!"

There were some excited cheers, but not nearly as many as Dawn had hoped for. Of course, what had she really expected, walking into a Clan council meeting and tossing a bodiless head at the feet of the khan? That even a few of the bloodnamed believed her was a miracle.

It was possible that the man she had killed had been lying, that he was as related to the Usurper as she was, but the family resemblance was simply too close not to worth further scrutiny. She knew if she were to be proved wrong, she would be killed, or worse, possibly sold into slavery to Inner Sphere pirates where she had no doubt of what would become of her. Dawn had many plans and being a pirate captain's whore was not one of them.

"We still have business to conclude here, Dawn," Perigard offered with a smile; she could tell that he admired her courage for coming back, though he was waiting to see of she were truly an honorable warrior or a madwoman looking for scraps of acknowledgement from the society that scorned her. As he spoke, two Elementals, dressed in full battle armor approached her from behind. Even with the dull roar that was starting to overtake the council hall as the warriors began to find their tongues, she could make out the sound of their heavy footfalls. "This matter will be resolved. Take her to the garrison barracks. The technician barracks specifically."

Stoklas nodded his approval and then turned to silence the warriors as Dawn was led away. Perigard studied her from behind with an approving eye. He saw this entire episode as nothing but a political boost for himself. If Dawn was correct, if she had killed an Amaris, the Clan Steel Viper would be elevated to a new status among the Crusader Clans. If she were lying, he would kill her himself and would be a hero within his own Clan. He would have to verify the possibilities with his advisors before he made any sudden moves.

Either way, he was confident he would profit.

In the two weeks since she had arrived back on Jabuka, Dawn had relayed her story no more than fifteen times to everyone from the khan to the greenest recruit in the garrison. She, of course, had nothing better to do, given her non-status within the Clan. As it stood, she was beneath even the Laborer Caste, worth very little as she had no skills that her Clan recognized. In fact, the only thing she did was take up space and that made her a little uncomfortable.

The Clans abhorred waste, some more than others, but there was a general consensus that everything that was done or existed must have a purpose and not bending to the divine will of that purpose was pointless. If you were a laborer who was skilled in painting, then you must perform your tasks using the minimum amount of paint. As she was berthed in a technician's barracks, she was taking a bunk meant to hold a technician. The Steel Vipers did not see her as such and therefore, that bunk was being wasted.

After she had been berthed here, Loremaster Stoklas had argued having her sleep in the dog kennel with the animals that worked with the security patrols. It was then that Perigard did exert his authority as khan and silenced the Loremaster. Still, it was difficult for her to deal with the fact that she was useless in her present state. She had even gone so far as to request to be allowed to aid the technicians in working on the BattleMechs that the garrison employed.

The Star Colonel in charge of the cluster was a trueborn warrior who had earned his bloodname shortly after Tukayyid. His youth and contempt for her were more than evident. He had proclaimed that even if she had been sired by Nicholas Kerensky himself and had personally escorted every Amaris that ever existed into the fiery pits of hell he would not let her near one of his BattleMechs. The stigma attached to her "failure" at the great battle of Tukayyid still clung, and stung, even after all of these years.

Some of the younger warriors did not hesitate to ask her about her adventures in the Inner Sphere as a play-mercenary with Duncan's Demons or about the infamous battle that forced the ComStar truce on the Clans. She spoke of Devil's Bath and how Gamma Galaxy had suffered decimating losses in that area. She watched their eyes grow wide in shock as she explained how whole 'mechs would disappear into hidden magma pools in the blink of an eye.

When she had been a Star Captain, just before the destruction of her trinary on Cumbres, she had often spoken of Tukayyid as a warrior's battle. It was there that man and 'mech fought tooth and nail, PPC and missile rack, for possession of Terra. All of the Clans had fought valiantly, but it made little difference. Those who had not been there could not understand what it had been like.

Now that she was older and wiser, she assumed, she saw the battle in a different light. Having spent time with honorable Inner Sphere warriors, such as the Knights of the Inner Sphere, she now understood that very little separated the two cultures. Certainly, through the Clan genetics program, Dawn was a superior physical specimen. But the warrior's heart, at least to her, knew no boundaries such as those the Clan philosophy tried to instill.

She paused in her thinking. The Warden factions of the Clans supported a philosophy of guided fellowship with the Inner Sphere. Yes, the Clans should be in charge if only for the fact that they would not allow the atrocities of the Succession Wars take place ever again. However, the Warden point of view did acknowledge that the Inner Sphere was inherently good and Dawn realized that now she was no longer flirting with the concept, she had accepted it.

The Steel Vipers were Crusaders, conquerors of the Inner Sphere, ready to place the "misguided and barbaric" people of the Successor States under the yoke of Kerensky's military system of government. It would never work and Dawn knew it. She had seen the skill of the Inner Sphere warriors up close, especially Duncan.

The image of the reckless, headstrong and brave warrior popped into her mind and she tried to push it away and concentrate on more important matters. It would not work, she knew, for with all of her idle time she had done nothing but think about him and his offer for her to remain in the Inner Sphere.

They had been comrades and nothing more. He had never approached her with romantic advances or had ever acted like anything other than a gentleman. He tried desperately to pass himself off as a rogue, and perhaps in his younger days he had been, but a hard life on his own for several years had chiseled the raw form he had started with into a sculpture of a true warrior.

Physically, he was attractive, but possessing of the flaws that seemed to be common among freeborns. His skill was unquestionable and were they to meet in combat, Dawn was not sure she could defeat him. The others who had made up Duncan's Demons, even the Knights, she was sure she could beat, but Duncan had raw courage, a quality that Dawn sometimes wondered if it had been bred out of her stock.

There had been a few moments when they had been alone together and more than once, she had caught him staring at her when she was supposed to not be noticing. It had occurred to her to offer him sex to see if that was what he wanted; it was common in the Clans for starmates to sleep with each other. It relieved sexual tension that could lead to poor performance on the battlefield. Many times she had told herself that she should have sex with him for the benefit of the unit. The wicked question that kept creeping into her mind was how many times would it require to ensure maximum benefit?

She sighed and shook her head. As a warrior, she was trained to never lie. Lies were what destroyed the Star League. Lies never did anything but caused people to waste time seeking the truth. Therefore, though with great reluctance, she realized that she had more than just passing admiration for Duncan.

She was falling in love.

She kicked at a footlocker, but put very little effort into it. "Is it not enough that you do not earn your keep? Must you also destroy the property of the Clan?"

Dawn turned to see Perigard, clad in his cooling mesh, sweat pouring down his face onto his well-muscled chest. She tipped her head slightly. "Khan Zalman, I am honored again by your presence." She noted that there were several other warriors outside the barracks, but refused to enter. Whether it was by the command of the khan or simply because they did not want to inhale freebirth air, she did not know or care.

Perigard waved her false courtesy away with his hand and moved over to a drinking fountain. He drank heavily, obviously not worried about catching "freeborn cooties" and then stood to face her. He wiped his mouth with his arm. "You would not believe the stir you are causing, Dawn."

She kept her face neutral. "Am I to suppose that the results of the DNA comparison have come in? Am I to be returned to warrior status?"

Perigard took in a deep breath. "Neg. Preliminary testing is still underway; you understand that we must take our time in this matter." He waited for her anticipated response and was mildly surprised when she bit her bottom lip. Whatever had happened to her in the Inner Sphere had tempered her fire. "It is not that we do not believe you," he smiled at the comment for they both knew it was a great stretch of the truth, "it is that it seems so impossible."

"As I have explained several times, Stefan the Seventh was a bastard descendant. The Knights of the Inner Sphere investigated the matter as best they could…"

Perigard shook his head and moved to sit down on one of the footlockers. "I care not about investigations carried out by genetically-inferior barbarians, regardless of the esteem you hold them in. Remember, Dawn, you are not a warrior, nor are you even a member of the Clans…yet." He inhaled deeply. "I have been advised that even if the head proves to be that of a descendant of the Usurper, you have no proof that you actually were the one to kill him."

Her composure suddenly disintegrated and the khan braced himself for the attack he expected. He had no fear of her and his eyes betrayed no panic as she launched into a tirade about her honor. He listened, but heard nothing new. To him, it all sounded like the same ranting that seemed to personify her character.

At one time, Dawn may have been a capable warrior, but her skills had degraded with age and her bravery had come into question. Her failure at Cumbres had sealed her fate. Too much honor had been sacrificed by the Clans since the horror of Tukayyid and Dawn had become the lamb to be slaughtered for appeasement. He had agreed with her being cast out of the Clans and being sent to the Inner Sphere for it served the good of the Clans overall.

He simply could not comprehend why she wouldn't just take her punishment and shut up. "Silence," he finally said. "Clan or not, you are within the domain of the Steel Vipers and you will not speak to me in such a manner if you value your life."

"What life? You took my life and burned it in a pyre to save your own honor!" Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were watering. "Why do you continue to deny me? What else must I do to prove myself?"

"Always you want to prove what you are not; always you want to show that you are worthy, when you are not. Your presence fouls the air even here, Dawn." He paused and caught himself before his temper bested him. He spoke again through clenched teeth. "I offer you heriga…"

Dawn's jaw dropped and she clenched and unclenched her fists in fury. The practice of heriga was a tradition by which the opportunity for surrender was given to an opponent without the loss of honor. In other terms, he was giving her the chance to drop the matter without consequence. "You say I am not worthy, then you offer me honorable retreat? How dare you toy with me?"

Perigard nodded and stood up, brushing something unseen from his shoulder. "Then you intend to stand by your claims? Fine, I can respect that, believe it or not. However, the bloodnamed want to know more about the circumstances surrounding the death of Amaris. You will need witnesses to testify for you…warriors only."

She spit on the ground. "The only warriors that can attest to my deeds are the Knights of the Inner Sphere and the mercenaries of Duncan's Demons." She stuck her chin out, indicating that she did not hold the freeborn warriors in contempt.

Perigard shrugged. "They may be barbarians, but they are still warriors and you are not. Very well, you may have two such warriors brought here to testify on your behalf.

"If they will come." He smiled and moved towards the door to leave. Dawn envied him because she knew he would soon be back in the cockpit of a BattleMech. "I guess you will now see what kind of honor your mercenary friends have, Dawn."

"You will follow me," the Elemental said, staring down at the two men. He dwarfed them by a half meter and easily out massed each one by double. He was clad in a simple jumpsuit with the sleeves bunched up over his massive biceps. "Do not attempt to stray or there could be…trouble." He grinned and the two men felt very uncomfortable.

"Big fella, aren't ya?" Duncan asked. He then eyed his companion. "Think you can take him if necessary?"

Force Captain Rod Trane of the Knights of the Inner Sphere raised an eyebrow at his friend. "I suspect that I couldn't annoy him very well if I had to."

They started to walk away from the DropShip and towards a waiting hovervan with heavily tinted windows. Two more of the brutish guards stood with automatic weapons at the ready next to it. The two Inner Sphere warriors looked around them, hoping to get a glimpse of the famed Clan BattleMech's but saw that they had landed somewhere away from any civilization.

After the pace of their trip from the Free World's League to the Steel Viper Occupation Zone, it was refreshing to walk along on the sunshine. The entire ordeal had begun over month before when ComStar, the quasi-religious order that handled all interplanetary communication in the Inner Sphere, had delivered a message from the khan of the Steel Vipers to Captain-General Thomas Marik. The message, a very short invitation to both Duncan and Rod, had been hand delivered to Marik by way of the Word of Blake, a splinter faction of ComStar. Duncan had been surprised at the level of cooperation, considering the scope of the schism between the two sects, so when his liege-lord began explaining the contents of the message, he knew it had to be important.

At the time, he couldn't imagine what it had to do with him until Marik had mentioned the name of Dawn, and things started to fall into place. He and Rod Trane had been requested to travel to the Steel Viper planet of Jabuka to testify in a matter concerning the warrior-prowess of their former comrade. Once he had heard Dawn's name, nothing short of a sovereign command from the Captain-General would have stopped him, and even that would have been questionable.

When he had first seen Dawn, something had clicked inside of him. He first passed it off for lust, as it had been a long, long time since he had been with a beautiful woman. When he saw how she could handle herself and a BattleMech, his heart and his loins went into overdrive. Over the course of her time with his Demons, he had learned that there was more to her than the physical and martial; she was also an intellectual. In the few times they had been alone, she had opened up his mind to new philosophies and engaged him in conversations that he thought he would only have with someone like his father.

A strong hand gripped his shoulder and Duncan winced. He looked up to see the Elemental pushing him back onto the sidewalk. "I said not to wander off."

"You're lucky there's a truce, you know that?" Duncan replied. The Elemental made a face like warming death. Duncan remembered the warnings that Rod had drilled into him while they had taken line of jumpships to Jabuka.

"The Clans abhor the use of contractions. The Clans hate the fact that there is a truce preventing them from pursuing their goal of reaching Terra." Rod had told him not ten minutes before as the DropShip had set down. "Don't talk about these things and hopefully we'll do okay."

Technically, Rod was his superior in the Knights of the Inner Sphere, seeing as that Duncan was of a lower rank and a reservist at that. However, they had been requested to come to Jabuka as members of Duncan's Demons and in that capacity, Duncan was the superior. In an effort to prevent the conflict that first defined their friendship, they were both working hard to watch out for the other. "Uh, sorry about the poor language," Duncan lamented.

The Elemental grunted a reply and they got to the hovervan without further delay. Inside the back, they were seated alone while the Elemental climbed into the driver's compartment. Duncan could not even imagine how the controls had been set up to accommodate such a large frame.

Once they started moving, Rod spoke in a quiet tone. "All kidding aside, you better watch yourself and remember that you are still a Knight of the Inner Sphere. You need to conduct yourself with more decorum as we represent the entire Free World's League. This is a unique opportunity for us as the League did not participate in the original Clan invasion."

Duncan nodded with a look that told he knew better and was sorry. "I guess this is all a little too much for me, being an ambassador and everything. Hell, it hasn't been all that long since Dawn left." He turned his head and looked out the window. He could just make out the shape of a BattleMech in the distance but it was too far away to identify. "I wish she would have told us she was coming back here."

Rod was sympathetic; he understood that Duncan had begun to develop some feelings for Dawn just before she had left. "You offered her a permanent position with the Demons; what else was there to do? She obviously felt the need to come home."

He turned towards the other Knight and checked quickly to see if the Elemental was paying attention to the road. Because the Clans valued honesty, he didn't think that there would be listening devices in the hovervan, but anything overheard in conversation was probably fair game. "I thought that once you were kicked out of the Clans, that was it. Didn't I read somewhere that they sometimes even destroy whole Clans for dishonorable conduct? From what Dawn said, it seemed to me that they pretty much thought she was pure garbage."

Rod shrugged. "Who knows? All of our information concerning the Clans comes from the Word of Blake and while they have proven to be valuable allies to our liege-lord Thomas Marik, I would have preferred to read some official military intelligence reports. The Clans do value honor, but as I understand it they also value forgiveness. The fact that they made a personal request for us to come and speak in her favor…"

"Only means that she has stirred up the pot and got their panties in an uproar," Duncan finished. "I don't like it; everything we know about the Clans says they think we're nothing but savages."

Rod regarded the days worth of growth on Duncan's face with a disapproving eye. "For some of us, they aren't far off the mark." Duncan gave him a sarcastic smile and Rod continued as the hovervan turned onto a road that led towards what appeared to be a military base. "Either way, we have been asked to come and it presents a rare opportunity for us to evaluate the military bearing of one of the main Crusader Clans. That was the only reason why the Captain-General approved this mission."

"It would be nice if they'd let us near some of those OmniMechs. Dawn said they were the greatest thing since sliced bread. Have you ever seen one?" Duncan asked. He suddenly put a finger up to the window and pointed. "There! Check it out!"

Rod leaned over and saw two Mad Cats moving along the outer fence perimeter. The knight looked around for its lancemates, or starmates as they were referred to in the Clans, but didn't see them. The Crusader military philosophy as it had been explained to him was that garrison 'mechs were generally not the best and were piloted by substandard warriors. In other words, they were much like their Inner Sphere counterparts. "I bet they have a lot of our 'mechs here that they salvaged."

They drove through the gates and the two 'mechs disappeared from their view and they saw several Elementals in their battle armor. A snake motif, obviously the actual steel viper, was adorned on all of their suits. They stopped talking and instead took in every detail that they could.

The hovervan finally stopped in front of a non-descript building. The two knights stepped out and waited as the driver unloaded their bags from the storage compartment. "These are your quarters for your stay. Warriors will be posted in order to prevent any…misunderstandings," the Elemental said as he led them inside. It looked like any other officer's quarters found on any other military installation. "You are not to leave without an escort. Understand that you may be guests, but we will not tolerate any acts of sedition, sabotage or dishonorable conduct."

"You have my word as a Knight of the Inner Sphere and representative of the Free World's League that so long as our safety is assured, we shall comply with your laws and policies," Rod said, ducking his head slightly. The Elemental was not impressed, as Duncan had suspected.

The Elemental left and Duncan waited until the hovervan was gone. He saw two armed men standing outside the door. "How'd they get there so fast? Damn! I was hoping to see Dawn…"

"Curb your libido, Duncan, and get your dress uniform ready. You read the itinerary just as I did. Dinner will be ready by 1900 hours and we need to present a good first impression to the khan." Rod began to unzip his bag and pulled out his vacuum-sealed dress uniform.

Duncan moved to his bunk and rummaged through his bag, tossing out various pieces of clothing. "You think they can get us an iron or something?" Rod grumbled and Duncan smiled. "Hey, if we're here to testify about Dawn's time with Duncan's Demons, shouldn't we be wearing my uniforms?"

"No," Rod answered flatly. "You're a Knight first, Duncan, try to remember that."

"My khan," the master-at-arms said at the entrance to the private dining room of Khan Zalman, "I present to you Sir Rodney Trane and Sir Duncan Kalama, Knights of the Inner Sphere."

Perigard noted that the announcer was barely able to keep the smirk on his face from turning into outright laughter as he announced the official titles. The two Inner Sphere warriors entered, clad in their dinner dress uniforms. Perigard was also dressed in his best uniform, while he had provided Dawn with a dress that was fashionable and revealing. As she still was not a warrior, she could not wear a uniform, but there was no sense in not making her pleasing to look at.

He noted that Dawn began to blush and play with her earrings. Perigard was slightly amused, but suddenly became annoyed as he saw that Duncan Kalama was acting the same way, except he was fidgeting with a medal on his chest. Could there actually be something between the two of them? The thought made him ill.

Dinner was soon served and the khan engaged both men in small talk, explaining that he preferred a small get together. He then commented on the Council of the Bloodnamed. "All of the formalities shall be explained to you prior to your entering the chamber."

"Would this be similar to a deposition for a military tribunal?" Rod asked as he sipped at his wine. He recognized the vintage as having come from the Federated Commonwealth.

"Yes; all that is expected of you is to speak the truth. However, be forewarned that you will be cross-examined," he smiled like a predatory animal, a true viper as far as Duncan was concerned. He soon lost track of their conversation as his attention was instinctively drawn towards Dawn, who sat directly across from him.

Ever since they had made eye contact, it had been difficult to not keep staring at each other. All attempts at conversation sounded strained and Duncan understood that the artificial politeness of the room was stifling them. All of the people in the room were warriors, more comfortable in a 'mech than at a dinner table. They were a room of enemies and allies, all trying to be politically correct.

"Your dress looks nice," Duncan finally said as he toyed with some form of meat with his fork.

"Thank you. Your uniform is…clean." She didn't know exactly how to respond to the compliment. She had received compliments in the past, but had never considered that they would have an even deeper meaning.

"I suppose for me that is quite the compliment," he replied. "Is that the standard uniform for female warriors?" When her face suddenly went pale, he realized that he had said the wrong thing.

Luckily, Perigard interrupted him before he could do any further damage. "I see you admire my taste in clothing," he said as he wiped his mouth. "Dawn, however, is not a warrior by our standards. That is the reason why you are here."

"Pardon my ignorance, Khan Zalman," Rod began, using the diplomatic tone he was more familiar with, "but why is it that we two are the ones who must testify as to Dawn's abilities and exploits? I was lead to believe that all Clan warriors maintain very exacting military records that they carry with them at all times."

"Your knowledge is correct for those that are Clan warriors; however, Dawn was abjured from the Steel Vipers and her codex…her military record…was destroyed during the process. As it stands, she did not exist before she returned."

"Bringing the head of Stefan the Seventh," Duncan smiled shaking his head. "My father's agents were curious what happened to the head. I never even considered that you might have taken it."

"I would have preferred to bring the villain here alive, but I was sure he would object," she said.  She laughed lightly and Duncan finally noticed that her hair was different than when she had been with the Demons. Most MechWarriors wore a hairstyle that was very short, especially around the temples. The neurohelmets used in the piloting of BattleMechs required close contact with the skin so hair was discouraged. As Dawn had probably not piloted a 'mech in the months since he had last seen her, it appeared that she was letting her hair was growing out.

He would have thought that in keeping with the Steel Viper warrior tradition she would have kept her hair cut short as she always had, but then it suddenly dawned on him that the hairstyle and manner of dress were indicative of something else. Dawn was being treated respectfully, but was nothing more than an Inner Sphere oddity. She had truly been ostracized by her culture.

And now he and Rod were given the task of convincing them to take her back. He looked towards the khan and thought for a moment that he saw a knowing look in the Clan warrior's eye. Was the entire purpose of having them come here was because he some indication of Duncan's feelings for Dawn, personally and professionally? Or was it something else?

The council hall had been transformed and Dawn was greatly impressed for it was no small task. An audience chamber large enough to hold all of the bloodnamed of the Steel Vipers was no easy thing to redecorate, but the Wolf Clan artisans had managed to do so in two short days.

Dawn sat in the front row of folding chairs that had been hastily put up in several rows before a makeshift stage. On her right was Duncan, who was simply in awe of the performance being put on for the benefit of, so it was said, the two Inner Sphere warriors. She had a hard time swallowing that particular notion, considering the disdain that her Clan had for anything related to what they saw as the Star League corrupted.

Rod Trane was just as entranced as the Wolf laborers, members of the actor sub-caste and dressed in uniforms that were recognizable as pre-Exodus Star League Defense Force, performed for their benefit. There were two men on the stage, singing in operatic form. The language was Russian and Dawn briefly wondered if either man could understand it. The mother language of Alexandr Kerensky was as hallowed as the man himself within the Clans; many of the common phrases and words in so-called "Clan-speak" were derived from that Terran language.

The particular opera being played out was entitled simply "Humility" and it was becoming very popular, or at least the Wolf version was, among many Clans of late. The Steel Vipers had little use for the artisan sub-caste despite the fact that many warriors enjoyed these operas and various plays that espoused the warrior values.

Dawn had thought it slightly odd, however, that the khan would schedule a production of this particular performance instead of something more martial if he were out to impress upon the Inner Sphere visitors the strength of the Steel Viper's convictions to the Crusader cause. The Wolves were notoriously Warden in their views and that was reflected in their artistic endeavors.

Perhaps Perigard was simply becoming sentimental in his old age she thought with a wry grin.

Duncan was totally engrossed in the performance, thrilled and humbled at the same time as he realized that he and Rod were probably the first people from the Inner Sphere to have ever seen anything like this. In the FWL where he had been raised, operatic theater was actually quite common, but he and his father had avoided it for at least the better part of Duncan's life.

He tossed a quick glance at Rod and could tell immediately that his friend was quite at home. No doubt the Knight attended several performances of Wagner, of particular interest to Thomas Marik, each year. Now that he was a Knight, albeit a reserve one, Duncan assumed he would have to attend such events as well from now on.

If they were anything like this, he thought, he was going to be enjoying himself.

He knew the basic story of the Clans as did anyone else who hadn't been living under a rock for the past couple of years. They were the descendants of the Star League Defense Forces that had left the Inner Sphere 300 years before and were now a society based upon the military teachings of Alexandr and Nicholas Kerensky.

Alexandr Kerensky had been the greatest tactical mind in human history, a fact acknowledged by both Clan and Inner Sphere militaries. Kerensky had liberated Terra from Stefan Amaris and tried to reform the Star League by uniting the various Houses.. The House Lords, however, battled for control of the throne and discharged Kerensky from his duties, seeing him as a political rival.

The opera, which fortunately had an electronic translator board running for the benefit of those who could not speak Russian (which Duncan was sure that only included him), was about the removal of Kerensky from his military post and his decision to lead the Exodus. The current act had General Kerensky, played by a much too young actor, discussing his current situation with his best friend, General Aaron DeChevilier.

"General, my General," DeChevilier sang, one arm outstretched to the other man. "They have stripped you of your honor! Your honor is stained by the foulness of the Successor Lords!"

Kerensky turned to the audience and spread his arms wide. "It is not my honor that is stained, loyal and true friend, but only theirs! My honor is the honor of the brave soldiers who fought to save the Star League and that cannot be taken away by petty men!"

All of the Clan warriors in the audience said in unison "Seyla" and Duncan felt as if he were sitting in the middle of Sunday Catholic Mass.

DeChevilier walked up and put a hand on Kerensky's shoulder. "Did we not fight to secure the Star League to protect the Inner Sphere? We cannot stand by as vile men battle for the chance to bring evil about! The people need a leader born of fire and blood!"

"What would you have me become, Aaron DeChevilier?" Kerensky asked, his voice rising in pitch. "The Star League needs a First Lord, not a soldier pretending to be one! I served the Cameron's and the Star League; my destiny is not to rule, but to serve."

"The people need a leader who is just! The people need a leader of sound mind! The people need a leader who is free from corruption!"

Kerensky simply smiled and walked over to a map of the Inner Sphere, circa 300 years before, and stood there with his hand rubbing his chin. "The people are lost, the cancer of Amaris runs through them. Our fellow soldiers appear are about to be besieged upon by the House Lords to be used as cannon fodder in their wars for succession."

"You can rule!"

"I will not!" Kerensky replied.

"You must rule!"

"I must not!" the general bellowed. He turned and pointed a finger at his friend. "Pride must never come before honor! To take the throne would be prideful and make me no better than the House Lords who removed me!"

"It would be just!"

"It would be unjust!"

This time it was DeChevilier that turned to the audience. "It would bring justice!"

"It would be an injustice to those who fought to restore the Star League!" Kerensky turned back to map on the wall. "Even of I wanted the throne; even if I thought I could rule and bring about the Star League, I would be putting my own interests ahead of those who have served."

Again the Clan warriors chanted the word "Seyla"; all of them accept Dawn who was busy pondering the meaning of the words. She had seen this particular reenactment once before and she had to admit that the Smoke Jaguar was a bit more crude and seemed to have more insults in the language towards the House Lords.

Kerensky began to sing about going "out there" and Dawn's attention began to drift away as she considered her own quest and the consequences of it.

The moon was high in the night sky and Duncan adjusted his collar, feeling it was far too tight. Nothing he did relieved the closeness and he began to sweat as he slowly approached Dawn from behind. Rod and the khan were still engaged in hypothetical discussions about everything from military tactics to the values of chivalry. There was every indication that the khan found the idea of the Knights of the Inner Sphere intriguing and Rod, of course, was very interested in finding out more about the Clans.

This had provided an opportunity for Dawn to slip out onto the back patio, which overlooked a parade field. There were guards moving here and there, reminding Duncan that despite the relative peacefulness of the night, this was occupied territory. In a few short years, the ComStar truce would be up and the Clans would begin their march towards Terra. From there, he had no doubt that they would radiate out to try and dominate the Inner Sphere.

In the initial invasion, the Clans had taken territory away from several of the larger Successor States and Duncan could only imagine how quickly they would overrun the Free World's League when they got started. His worries were split between concern for his homeland and concern that if he and Rod were successful tomorrow, he may end fighting against Dawn.

"I was hoping that we would have some time alone," Duncan announced as he he slid in next to her. "We really never got to say good-bye."

"I said I might return one day," she offered, but not turning towards him. "If my manner of exit offended you, I apologize."

He shook his head. "No…I didn't mean that! I meant that I really wanted to spend some more time with you… try to convince you not to come back here."

"You wouldn't understand…"

He stopped himself from putting his hand on her shoulder. Despite the dress and hairstyle, he knew that she would rip it off of him if she took offense. "Maybe a few years ago you would be right, but our little adventure made me grow up a lot. I learned that there are more important things in life than just having fun and doing what you want. Both you and Rod and the rest of the Demons showed me the value of honor.

"I just don't understand why you value the honor bestowed by a people that loathe you."

She turned and he saw that her eyes were watering. "I want them to know that they were wrong about me. My sibko is gone. I will never be nominated for a bloodname. My DNA will die with me. It is not right.

"I fought hard for my Clan before, during and after Tukayyid. I did all that I was told, followed orders without question and I survived. I am a testament to the greatness of Steel Viper warrior training. Yet, they branded me a coward and tossed me away like I was rubbish." She wiped away a tear before it could roll down her cheek. "Through you and the Demons, I discovered that honor is in the heart. My entire life, I was taught that the Inner Sphere was full of honorless, brainless freebirth barbarians…"

Duncan took on a face of hurt. "I'm not completely brainless!"

She laughed despite herself and it broke the tension. She looked at him and realized that it was only with the Demons that she had truly been happy. Since graduating her sibko, she had been fighting for the honor of Clan Steel Viper, but had not been pursuing a true goal. Tukayyid had been goal not achieved. The defeat of Stefan the Seventh had been an adventure worthy of the heroes of ancient Terra. "Perhaps you are not."

"Were you going to?" he asked, his voice soft.

She cocked her head. "What?"

He looked into her eyes. "Were you really going to come back?"

She bit her bottom lip and turned away. She made the pretense of examining one of the Elementals marching down on the parade field. "I will be named a Hero of the Clans. My name will be entered into the Remembrance for all generations of Steel Viper warriors to read about."

"That doesn't answer my question, Dawn. Look, I would be lying if I said that I would have pursued you if you hadn't returned. I think we can both agree that my coming here is something of a lucky shot, a once in a lifetime opportunity. I've got a second chance at doing something."

She turned back to him and he reached out for her hand, which she offered without protest. He pulled her in close and they hesitated for only a moment before their lips locked in a passionate embrace.

"State your name and affiliation for the record, please," Loremaster Stoklas asked Rod. The Clan warrior was doing his best to remain civil to the Knight, but his scowl betrayed his true thoughts about the Inner Sphere warrior.

"I am Force Captain Rodney Trane of the Knights of the Inner Sphere under the command of Captain-General Thomas Marik of the Free World's League."

Stoklas nodded. "And this is an Inner Sphere state, correct?"

"Yes."

Stoklas turned and eyed the assembled warriors of the Steel Vipers. Many of them were clad in the official robes that council members were expected to wear, but some were still in fatigues having come immediately from the training fields for this council meeting. "Then, for the record, it is safe to assume that you are a freeborn warrior?"

"If the question refers to my parentage, then I am proud to state that I was born naturally and both of my parents still reside in the Free World's League." There were murmurs from the warriors and Stoklas smiled.

By the time he turned back, his face was neutral. From his spot outside the council hall, Duncan could hear the questioning continue. Rod was holding up quite well, but then he had expected him to. He had guessed that the tough questions would really be reserved for him as Rod was not in charge of the mission that resulted in the death of Amaris. He was slightly disturbed by the questions about parentage, however.

Duncan's father was involved in the intelligence services, so besides being a freebirth, he was from a family of spies and the Clans abhorred such things. Behind him stood Dawn, now dressed in a pair of fatigues. They had spent the night together and each was now on edge, wondering what the other was thinking. "Can't we just hop in some 'mechs and fight it out?" he asked.

She laughed. "You have the heart of a Steel Viper, Duncan. Certainly all of the warriors assembled would prefer that we would settle this in such a manner."

He turned around to her and reached for her hand. "Are you sure that you want us to go through with this?"

"This is merely a formality to attest that I was the one who defeated Amaris. You did not actually witness what happened, but you and Rod can verify most of my story," she said, taking his offered hand and peering past him into the council chamber proper. "I am confident that it shall be enough to win me the votes I require. All of this is only to verify that I am not taking credit for another's work."

"Would it be too much to ask for a moment of your time?" a voice asked from behind them.

Duncan and Dawn separated immediately and turned to the voice. "SaKhan Andrews," Dawn said, her voice lowering. Duncan recognized the tone and understood that she did not like this man at all.

The junior khan looked at Duncan and did not even attempt to hide the contempt in his glare. Dawn had warned him that while Zalman was starting to warm to the idea of freeborn warriors, Andrews was a staunch supporter of trueborn superiority. To see Dawn and Duncan so intimate probably made him so angry he would have screamed if it weren't for where they were. "If you would excuse us?" he asked Duncan.

Dawn indicated it was fine with her eyes and Duncan wandered off out of earshot. Satisfied they were somewhat alone, Andrews cleared his throat and started speaking. "I assume that you and your freebirth lover are happy?"

"Whom I choose to sleep with Brett Andrews is my business. After all, I am not a Steel Viper warrior," she added with a smirk.

"Let us not quibble over semantics; I am not Perigard or Stoklas. I know well enough who you are and where you come from. I also know that all of this is some way to gain revenge upon our political system."

Dawn was silent and Andrews continued. "We have received confirmation of the DNA and the man was truly a descendant of the Usurper. After your lover speaks, Perigard will announce the results before the council. I have no doubt, that despite our best efforts, the bloodnamed shall vote to reinstate you to warrior status and proclaim you a Hero of the Clans."

He eyed her with an almost snake-like glare. "That is if you really want that."

"I was unfairly treated for something that was beyond my control. I was wronged and soon it will be righted." She smiled as she realized that so many things were going right for her. Revenge was indeed sweet.

"I have consulted several experts in Clan law, for you understand that an event of this nature will have to be reported to the Grand Council," Andrews said as he started to pace. The Grand Council was made up of the senior and junior khans of all of the Clans and dictated overall policy for the Clans. "Do you realize that if you are accepted back into the Steel Vipers, you will bring about the end of the Clans?"

Dawn nearly choked at the statement. "Are you insane? Because I simply show that you were wrong?"

He stopped. "Yes. The council made a decision and you lost a Trial of Refusal. Since the time of Nicholas Kerensky, the decisions of the councils have stood as the absolute rule of law for the Clans. Never has that been brought into question until now. Do you not realize that you will be the catalyst for protest upon protest upon protest? Everyone from the laborer to the warrior caste will contest everything from caste placement to sibko out-testing!"

Dawn's tone turned angry. "Perhaps that is the way it should be, quiaff? Wrong is wrong, is it not? If we do not proclaim the truth, then we are lying!"

"Not if the truth is irrelevant, and this truth is! I believe you when you say you killed Stefan the Seventh, Dawn. It alone proves your superior breeding and I confess that I am more than impressed by your actions. You are a warrior that I can only hope to be."

Dawn could not believe the confession that Andrews was making. His reputation as a hard-nosed Crusader did not leave him to be considered humble, but here he was voluntarily humiliating himself in front of her. A small part of her wanted to gloat, but she was mostly saddened by what she was hearing. "Neg, saKhan; I am simply a warrior, nothing more…nothing less."

"That I can see, now, and I personally am sorry about how you were treated. Perhaps politics have played out too much in our quest to pursue Kerensky's dream. However, if you go through with this, you can see the eventual problems."

Dawn inhaled and considered everything. She was on the verge of total victory over her oppressors, those who sought to keep her down, using her as a scapegoat for the failure of the Clan to win at Tukayyid. Her intent had been to erase the stigma of dishonor that had been placed upon her and now she was being told her actions could bring down the very culture she wanted to return to.

"I do not know…" she started.

Andrews stared hard at her. "Take a few minutes to discuss it with your lover, as I can see you value his opinion more than that of a worthy warrior."

"Won't they get a little pissed off when I'm not there to speak?" Duncan asked as they walked between rows upon rows of OmniMechs. Any other time, Duncan would have been all over the massive machines, trying to find a way to break into a cockpit.

"They will question Rod for a very long time; he is experienced in political battlefields and Stoklas will spend much time trying get him to make a mistake. Besides, if you keep using contractions like that, you will upset them no matter what." Dawn stopped in front of a large, humanoid machine with arms that ended in weapons pods. "This is a Crossbow, the last 'mech I piloted as a true warrior."

Duncan looked the machine over and saw it was badly in need of a paint job. He could make out a symbol painted on the left leg; it appeared to be a green bird carrying a sword. He had heard that the Jade Falcons and the Steel Vipers were biting at each other's heels and this must have been isorla, or the spoils of war. "It's a nice one, but the 'mech doesn't make the warrior. You keep living in the past, Dawn, just like the rest of them and I can tell it rubs you the wrong way. Yes, you are a great warrior, but face it, you suck as a Steel Viper."

"Such eloquence, you really must charm the ladies of Marik's court with your tongue," she replied sarcastically. She smiled to alleviate his fears. "I never was the Viper I wanted to be, always thought I would be a better Wolf." She sighed. "I have to ask you something and I want you to answer truthfully." He indicated that he would and she pulled him into the shadow of the BattleMech and whispered into his ear.

"Now, Mercenary Captain Duncan Kalama," Stoklas said, venom dripping with each word. The Clans abhorred mercenaries. "Would you please describe the events that you witnessed in the case of the death of Stefan Amaris the Seventh."

Duncan gave his best cocksure look and leaned back. His top two buttons were undone and he had a large medallion hanging around his neck. He thought about putting his feet up, just to get a rise out of the warriors who were looking at him like he was pure filth. Though he couldn't see him, he was sure Rod was having a coronary. "Well, it's like this: we were trying to steal some of the 'mechs that Amaris had accumulated when…"

Stoklas whirled. "Excuse me? Force Captain Trane indicated that you were actually engaged in an undercover mission to infiltrate Amaris' forces."

"Yeah, Rod looks at things in a different light, if you know what I mean. He's a damn Knight of the Inner Sphere and thinks that he has to maintain a certain image."

"Are you not also a reserve officer in the Knights?"

"Not exactly…"

"So, you lied your ass off and made me look like a damn fool!" Rod screamed. He pounded his fist on his bunk. "We have to leave immediately because they don't know which one of us to trust!"

Duncan shrugged. "Do you really care what a bunch of freaking Clanners think? We got a look around, you got to see Clan politics up close, hell, I even got to see some OmniMechs. I'd consider it a complete success."

Rod smiled at his friend, unable to keep a straight face. He had also found the Steel Vipers insufferable and the looks on their faces after Duncan's testimony would cause much laughter in Thomas Marik's court. "I suppose if you look at it that way, you're right. Do you know what's going to happen to Dawn now?"

"Well, when I left the council chamber amid the cries for my immediate execution from one faction and shouts for my adoption from another, I saw two Elementals escorting her away to meet with the khans." He zipped up his bag and heaved it onto his shoulder. "She'll be okay, trust me."

"I'm not exactly worried about it," Rod replied as he finished his packing. "Dawn is your problem; getting we two Knights back to the Captain-General is mine." He walked over to the window and peered out. "Our escort is here; I'll wager our journey back home will take far longer than it took to get here."

"Uh, about that…" Duncan said sheepishly. "I won't be heading back immediately. I can't tell you where I'm going."

"Really? Now that the testimony is over with, I believe I'm the senior officer here and you, Sir Duncan, are not to leave my sight." Rod put his hands on his hips. "Thomas Marik expects us back on Atreus and that is where we are going."

Duncan rolled his eyes. "As if you could stop me. Believe me, Thomas will get his report and much more if things go right."

The door opened before the senior Knight could reply and their Elemental driver stood in the doorway. "Freebirths! Let us be on our way so that your taint is removed from hallowed Steel Viper ground!"

"Seems like you made us a lot of friends," Rod said to Duncan, who shrugged.

Perigard Zalman regarded the warrior (that was the proper term) that sat before him. His gamble had paid off finally and now he was ready to end this once and for all. At first, he had been content to allow everything to run its course and see if he could use it to his advantage.

That had changed after several heated discussions with Brett Andrews who had looked a little further into the entire matter and pointed out the potential problems. At best, it would taint the ability of the Steel Vipers to make decisions and at worst it really could have meant the destruction of Clan society. Either way, Perigard Zalman's name would be attached to it and he could very well find himself being ejected into the Inner Sphere!

He had tried to end it quickly by offering heriga, but Dawn had been too proud to accept that. His advisors had hinted that they felt Dawn had developed true feelings for the freebirth warrior Duncan and that maybe he could convince her to drop her claim. He had turned out to be an honorable man who would do what Dawn wanted to ensure her happiness.

Finally, it took an impassioned plea from Andrews himself to convince her to halt her protest and once again bring order to the Clan. Clan unity, above everything else, was more important than the honor of a single warrior. Dawn was being asked to make the same sacrifice that Alexandr Kerensky had decided to make, to put aside personal honor in favor of the greater good. There was no doubting that Dawn had been wronged and Perigard was going to rectify the situation.

"I will not bore you with telling you how appreciative I am of the course of action you have decided upon, Dawn. You have shown true dedication to Kerensky's vision by ensuring that the Clans continue on. Our martial society shall survive." He sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers. Next to him sat Brett Andrews, while Loremaster Stoklas stood as guard at the door. The meeting would officially never exist.

"My honor is restored; that is all I wanted to begin with," she replied. "Now, let us discuss my…ransom." It was within the power of the senior khan of any Clan to grant to any member who showed exceptional ability a gift, which was referred to as a ransom. The gift could be anything from a medal to a command posting.

Perigard leaned forward, putting his elbows on his desk. "We will provide you with transport to anywhere you want in the Inner Sphere, plus a new OmniMech…any one that you want."

"I want two, one for me and one for my lover. He was instrumental in my dropping my claim," she replied. Because she had simply stopped the process and not lied, she had not caused any hint of dishonor. The fact that Duncan had lied meant nothing since the Steel Vipers did not consider him truly a warrior. A skilled combatant perhaps, maybe even a worthy adversary, but never a warrior as defined by the Clans. That they had even agreed to listen to her two Inner Sphere friends still amazed her.

Perhaps it was that glimmer of hope for her Clan that she had longed to see.

"Pfah!" Andrews exclaimed. "You can not expect us to give one of them one of our 'mechs…"

Dawn raised an eyebrow. "I am giving up my rightful place in our history and you complain about trivial matters." She turned back to the khan. "I want a Crossbow for myself and a Timber Wolf for Duncan, plus transport for the both of us to the Free World's League."

"Anything else?" Perigard asked.

Dawn stood up. "No. I will take my leave of you now, gentlemen."

As she turned to the door, the two khans stood up. Perigard cleared his throat. "I speak for all of the Steel Vipers when I state that I hope to never meet you in combat."

Dawn stopped and smiled. She threw back her lengthening blond hair. "It is unfortunate that I do not share the same dream. Unfortunate for you." With that, she brushed by the ever silent but fuming Stoklas and put the Clans behind her forever.

Duncan and Dawn slowly walked hand in hand along a path on the Kalama Estate. They had taken the long way back from Jabuka, skirting along the Federated Commonwealth so he could show her some of the sights of the Inner Sphere. Their BattleMechs had been shipped ahead of them and were even now being painted in the crimson colors of the Knights of the Inner Sphere.

During the trip, they had begun to discover each other on even more levels than before. Dawn still believed that most of the Successor States would benefit from being ruled by the Clans, but she was satisfied with the way that Thomas Marik provided leadership and she had petitioned for citizenship as soon as they had arrived.

"And could I also interest you in a position in my Knights? Perhaps as a reservist like young Duncan here?" Thomas had asked.

Dawn had considered her answer for a moment. "I would be honored, providing one condition can be met."

The Captain-General waved for her to continue. "If it is within my power, I would certainly consider granting your request."

Duncan turned to her and pulled on her hand, drawing her out of her memories. "You know, when I was offered my reserve commission, I didn't try to bargain with Thomas."

She shrugged and stopped to look at some flowers. "Bargaining is a part of Clan culture. Maybe I have decided to leave the Steel Vipers behind, but I still believe in Kerensky's vision of a new Star League. I truly believe that the Clans can set the example for the Inner Sphere to follow."

"I think you should have consulted with me first, just like with getting me an OmniMech." He put an arm around her and they laughed.

"As I have no parents, I felt it would be proper to have the Steel Vipers provide my dowry." She placed her left hand in front of them and they admired the large diamond ring and the thick gold band with it. "It is very pretty, Duncan; are you sure it is appropriate for a warrior to wear such a thing?"

"You practically drag me in front of Thomas to get married…"

"You did not protest; I assumed that you would be pleased." There was a hurt tone to her voice.

"Oh, I'm more than happy, baby; I just never expected a woman from the Clans to want to get married." He scratched his head as he considered his recent good fortune. His father had even been happy about the entire turn of events.

"Marriage was common among the original members of Exodus Fleet, and love, while discouraged within the warrior caste, was not forbidden. Marriage between trueborn and freeborn…that is something else entirely." They started walking again, embracing each other tightly. "I only hope that I prove worthwhile in this venture."

"Well, considering your age…" Duncan started to say.

Dawn reacted immediately, breaking their embrace and grabbing him by the upper arm. He gave a yelp as she swung him around and tossed him into the grass next to the path. "Perhaps you would like to meet me in a Circle of Equals so that I can prove that with experience and age comes perfection."

Duncan rolled onto his back and propped himself onto his arms. "Do you really have to beat me up? And what about youth and vigor?"

Dawn jumped on top of him and pushed him down before giving him a long kiss. They then locked into a passionate embrace that did not break for many hours.