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The Way Without Choice

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 Religious Caste parable:

To serve an order is to obey. To answer the calling of one's heart is a choice. To answer the calling of the universe is the natural, the ultimate gift.
As the Religious Caste chooses, so the Warrior Caste obeys. When an apprentice chooses the Warrior Caste, it is the last real act of thought. When an apprentice chooses the Religious Caste, it is the first real act of thought. To devote oneself to the practice, study, and application of thought is to be one with the portion of the universe placed within oneself. It is to be the purest soul. It is the embracement of the part of the consciousness of the universe that was caused to be within the vessel of flesh.
To cause -- to effect.
When the Worker Caste apprentice creates a Worker, it is an act of thinking.
When the Warrior Caste apprentice follows an order, it is not.
The order is thought made manifest by another, but the order itself is not.
The making of a worker is thought made manifest by another, but the created worker is not.
Lest the Universe plant a soul within the created worker.
Lest the Universe subvert the order and its carrying out.
Through these means only is thought inserted.
But a creation does not think, only the creator.
And to think more is to be less a Warrior.

Warrior Caste parable:

A member of the Worker Caste makes a doll. The Worker Caste works, and works, and works, and through this endeavour, the doll comes to life. The doll, says the Worker Caste member - delighted with this masterpiece - has a soul. The Worker Caste has made it so. The Religious Caste says you cannot make a soul. You can make a vessel and hope that the universe will choose to implant a soul inside. But you cannot do that. The Warrior Caste says if the doll serves, then it serves. If it has duties, and it executes them, how is it any different than any of us? It has orders. We have orders. It serves. We serve.

The Worker says the doll has a soul. The Religious says it does not. The Warrior asks, does it matter? If you can serve, does it matter?

Worker Caste parable:

If ever you create something of glory and worth, first reflect deeply about sharing it with the other two castes, for they build their own ideas about the work that we accomplish, and they rarely understand outside the frameworks of their own castes.

--

"Am I really going to be okay on that ship?" Alisa asked. Understanding between their people was one thing. There was little that needed understanding here: the Sharlin war cruiser was domineering and dangerous, and it was obvious about it, too. It began to impress upon her that she was going to go live - forever - with aliens.

"They will transport you to Minbar, nothing more," said the ambassador Delenn. She smiled kindly and Alisa took what comfort she could in it, as the ambassador clearly intended to be comforting. But the ship was so large and monstrous, and the Warriors who manned it equally large and equally monstrous. Alien. The ambassador's bonecrest was smooth and round like a crown; theirs were spiky and gnarled like horns. The ambassador's eyes were warm, and her lips smiled wide; theirs were cold and cruel and sneered. It might be rude to stare, but Alisa felt she should start getting used to looking at people's heads.

"It will not be a long journey," added the ambassador. "Three or four of your days."

"That's long enough," said Alisa. "The Warrior Caste... They don't like humans, do they?"

"I would not venture to make such a statement about them all," she replied, "they are not one mass mind."

"That's a very fancy way of saying that there are at least some of them that hate me already," said Alisa.

"You could try not to steal from them!" said the ambassador Delenn. It was an attempt at a joke. It fell flat. "You are not the only one booking passage on their ship. All commercial transits are always handled with honour among the Warrior Caste. Yes, even non-Minbari. You are, however, the only human on this particular voyage. If you have great concern, I will talk to the Alyt - that is the one who commands the ship - to see to it personally that you are not mistreated along the voyage."

Alisa smiled, but it was more for the ambassador than for her. Three to four days all alone? Or three to four days with people who hated her kind? Which was better?

"What if all I find on Minbar are Minbari who hate me?" she said.

"We do get tourists," explained the ambassador. "Not many. But enough. You will not lack for company. My home is most welcoming to those who seek. We are not so close-minded. Nor should you be."

"Oh, I didn't mean," began Alisa.

"But you will soon be busy with your training," the ambassador continued. "It will be intensive - you have much to catch up on. Minbari telepaths begin their training much younger than you are. You will be too busy to pay attention to those who insist on hate. And in any case, you should pity them."

The ambassador took Alisa by the shoulders in a gentle grasp. "You must remember," she said. "You are no longer just a human. And not just a telepath. You have a wondrous gift, an exceedingly strong talent. On Minbar, this has some power in it, for telepaths of such strength among our kind are very rare. On the Ingata, this has much power in it, for a Minbari telepath serves on Minbar, not on a military caste vessel. If you wish it, I shall arrange it that they do not disturb you. At all."

Alisa thought a moment and made her decision. "Okay," she said. And maybe it would be nice to have some silence. Some peace and quiet from the voices.

--

"I am glad you agreed to speak to me," said Delenn over the Babcom connection from her quarters.

"I had a choice?" asked Neroon, already on the Ingata.

"We had finished all the business that needed finishing. Perhaps you were too busy to entertain the whims of the Religious Caste," said Delenn. "I only have one more request."

"Oh, only the one," he replied, acerbic. Delenn feigned momentary deafness.

"The human girl who is on your passenger list - you must ensure she makes it to Minbar untroubled. I understand the Warrior Caste has its ...beliefs, about the Earthers." Beliefs that Delenn herself could no longer share, as Ambassador on Babylon 5, and as Satai for the Religious Caste. The Warrior Caste had beliefs. The Religious Caste had truths.

"The Warrior Caste sees the truth," retorted Neroon, "it is the Religious Caste that robbed the honour of a natural end from the warrior caste by terminating a war without just cause."

"The cause was just," Delenn reminded him. "A cause beyond your comprehension."

"If you are trying to ask a favour of me," said Neroon, "after ordering me against speaking out to defend the honour and duty that you obliterated in your ... handling of Shai'Alyt Branmer of the Star Riders' death, then patronising me first is an ill way to go about it."

"You misunderstand my words," said Delenn.

"Then you should speak with plainer ones," snapped Neroon.

"I do so!" she protested.

"No, you speak simpler, not plainer," Neroon grumbled. "I am a Warrior, not a child. And you are not a Vorlon. What do you want?"

Delenn let a moment of terse silence speak for her first. Then she said, quiet and firm, "Do not ask me that."

"Very well," said Neroon, dismissive of any rebuke. He shifted into a higher register, a heavily-accented Adronato (though Delenn knew he had perfect command of it) with all of the syntactic formalities and none of the warmth or pleasantry. This was how Delenn knew Neroon was truly annoyed, far beyond his baseline of ordinary-annoyed. "Pray, speak, O honoured Satai, Your wish that You would bid of this one Your servant."

Delenn was unmoved. "This will be difficult for the human," she explained. "She will be alone. She has never been in a place where there are so few of her kind. And she is powerful. Minbar would be stronger for her with us. Our trained telepaths are feebler than her untrained latency."

And there was more, for Alisa had seen a secret about why the war ceased, a secret about what was to come. Chrysalis. Alisa Beldon must remain on Minbar, Delenn knew. And she must not know she was a prisoner there.

"I highly doubt a human -"

"You know little of telepaths," interrupted Delenn.

Cryptically, Neroon remained silent.

"You command the Ingata. Then, you have the seniority to see to it that her voyage aboard your ship is comfortable. You will ensure your Warriors and their beliefs do not distress her. Keep her from them, if you must. I have found that discussion and understanding works particularly well with the humans. Exercise the skills in diplomacy I know you must possess, for to have made Alyt at so young an age."

"So claims the youngest Satai in generations. You patronise me once again," protested Neroon.

"I did not say you did not deserve your position," said Delenn. "Will you find in your heart a little compassion for someone who is still so small a child, human though she may be?"

Neroon sighed. "Yes, Satai," he said.

--

The aide who met Alisa at the docking bay, on the Ingata side of the gangplank, was very young for someone working on a Sharlin cruiser. Not much older than Alisa herself after adjusting for the different lengths of time between an Earth year and a Minbari cycle - her bonecrest was still shaping in places, held fixed by little crystal pieces and black bindings. And she was female, gregarious for a Minbari, and smiled readily. Endearing similarities. Alisa couldn't help liking her. I wonder if she thinks my humanity is ugly, she wondered, feeling self-conscious. If her humanity were a shirt she were wearing, Alisa would be fidgeting with the cuffs of its sleeves.

Well, Nurhat didn't seem too xenophobic, for a Warrior Caste member. But neither did she get too close, either. Maybe she was briefed about Alisa's telepathy. Maybe that was why she was keeping her distance.

"Down that hall is the way to hangar nine, that is where the stealth heavy fighters are parked. Of course you will not be able to access it without security clearance. And over there is a quick lift to tactical bridge - ah, but you will not be able to access that without security clearance, and turn right there and there is the operational crew quarters -"

"Which I can't get into if I don't have security clearance, right?" joked Alisa.

Nurhat smiled. "Precisely. So ... you'll be staying in the alternate bridge area. The lift is right this way, across here." She led them onto a narrow bridge, suspended a few floors' height above a large atrium below. "It has its own quarters and there's a kitchen wing you'll be sharing with the other passengers. All these class fighters have one, but it's rarely used if not for civilian transport. The Grey Council uses it when they need to, but they rarely leave their own ship."

They passed another Warrior Caste member - bigger, older, and male. This one hissed something at Nurhat in their language. Nurhat glared back, but made no reply.

Alisa did not have to guess at the rough meaning behind his words. "The Grey Council ship isn't a secret," she snapped. "It's not like she's giving away the homeworld or something."

"Don't pay any attention to Shalhan," said Nurhat. Then, louder, she said, "If he keeps sneering like that, his face will remain in that position and he'll never find anyone to court him." Shalhan stormed off with a whirl of his robes that looked at the same time impressive and childish.

"He seems mean," said Alisa.

Nurhat shrugged. "One doesn't grow up in the Star Riders without some measure of impudence," she said. "His and mine. It was rude what he said to you. I'm not translating it."

Then something small, handheld, and cylindrical clattered to the metal bridge beneath Alisa's feet. It rolled a few inches further and fell off the edge of their bridge to the atrium below. She looked up.

Above her, there was the same bridge but suspended a floor up, where two men in military uniform were in silent confrontation with a third in healer robes. Their gazes held fast for a moment. None moved. Then finally the one with the dark eyes and the massive spiked bonecrest inclined his head, a slight but firm nod. His companion - a younger aide - remained silent, though he demonstrated by facial expression alone what he thought of the disruption by the healer. Their healer adversary at last returned the nod - a fidgety jerk - and pushed past them to continue walking to the other side of the ship, having forgotten that he'd dropped his pen - but -

    - suddenly   -

        - like     the     pen -

            sh e     f e   l   l         t  o     o -

                     

Venak (a common name on Minbar among the Worker Caste, he knows of two other Venaks in his chosen guild alone) does not have his own laboratory yet, but some day he will, and that day will be a prize of a day. He will truly make a name for himself, he with this common name. Until then, he has to cajole bright-eyed youngsters, innocent and unknowing, into his makeshift lab (his father's basement workroom when his guardians are at work) to try out new things. Enticed with promises of treats, or secret-keeping with a cooler, older clan brother of a clan cousin of a friend. Venak of the Moon Shields is twelve cycles. Neroon of the Star Riders boasts of seven but really is six.

"I thought you said you got wounded sparring," says Venak.

"No... I only said that because of Hedronn," confesses Neroon sulkily. "He is always talking about the things he does now in the Moon Shields. He gashed his shoulder because of Moon Shields. He sprained his wrist because of Moon Shields. Moon Shields, Moon Shields! It isn't fair! Just because he is three months older he gets to do interesting things with the rest of the older-cycles. If I had been three months older and if I had been in Moon Shields where they permit young duelists -"

"But you are neither of these," snaps Venak. Well, this will be more difficult. "The gokling I tried this on was already wounded on the tail," he says. "But you are not this, either. So I will have to wound you, just a bit."

At the sight of the knife Neroon's eyes go wide. "But -"

"Ah ah - no protesting," says Venak, "you're the one who lied to me."

Neroon falls silent. He presents to Venak his forearm.

First Venak slices him with the blade - a fraction of a cut, hardly enough to well blood - and Neroon doesn't cry but he flinches and the wound grows a bit deeper for his movements. His own fault. Then Venak takes a neutral crystal and turns to the setup he is working with, from the tower of crystals on the workdesk - fracturing and refracturing and focusing and refocusing beams to the right wavelengths. He directs a single beam from the tower onto Neroon's skin by angling the pieces this way and that, until the beams converge. "Hold still," Venak says, and drops a final crystal into place in the tower at top.

At first nothing happens but a second later there is a hiss and a sizzle and it doesn't react quite the way it should, doesn't react how it did on the wounded gokling. The gokling did not scratch at all, did not appear to notice, but Neroon is twisting in his grip and breathing fast, trying frantically to pull his forearm out of Venak's stronger grasp. From where he stands, Venak can hear Neroon's tiny heart thudding in his rib cage, a fluttering temsha'wi, pinned and panicking. Venak ignores it and continues his work. Neroon begins to moan in pain, and the flesh continues to blister.

"There, see?" says Venak. At last, he lets Neroon go. "Now it's all gone. Like magic."

"It's not gone! There's a mark," says Neroon. He pokes it. "And it feels strange. It feels numb."

Oh. So there is. Now Venak begins to panic. "You mustn't tell anyone," he says. "You understand, don't you, Neroon?"

"You hurt me," Neroon says, pouting and rubbing his forearm. "It still burns."

It can't have hurt that much or Neroon would have been wailing. Venak has an idea of what must have happened, what should be changed. "But Warriors get hurt!" protests Venak. "All the time! And you want to be a big brave Warrior like Hedronn, don't you?"

"He's not big or brave!" says Neroon. "He's just. Three months older. That's all!"

"I want to fix this so it doesn't hurt anymore," explains Venak. "The salves and flesh-knitters we use are no good for the Religious Caste, they're made of ground taalor bone. And Religious Caste doesn't consume flesh. So little cuts and scrapes like this, they don't seal them. A deep cut would be even worse for them."

"For deep cuts they do use our salves and flesh-knitters," says Neroon, "I have seen them."

"And then they pray for half a cycle. If they had something that only uses their own skin, by over-activating its own healing mechanism at the expense of the nerve clusters, then they can get back to what they do." Venak hopes that Neroon - young as he is - will understand better if given a logical explanation, and it seems to work because his dark eyes narrow and his small mouth twists as he thinks. "Right? They pray. You fight."

"And you build," supplies Neroon.

"So I have to keep building," adds Venak. He gestures to the crystal tower. "This rudimentary configuration - this is my key insight. If you don't tell anybody, then I can keep building. And then everything is well." He grips Neroon's forearm again, over the wound, and Neroon whimpers. "So don't tell anyone."

"But Venak," says Neroon. He tries to tug his arm back but it is a futile gesture.

"It's not a lie if nobody asks you directly," reasons Venak.

"My guardians may find out," says Neroon.

"You were sparring," says Venak. "As you told me. And you were a very brave boy who hardly even felt a thing, that's why you said nothing. And now you have a cool spar-wound. I bet Hedronn does not have a spar-wound."

"You think I'm brave?" says Neroon. He stops fidgeting, and a hopeful glitter has returned to his big brown eyes.

"Very," says Venak. "You are very bravely helping me. And I needed the help. Now," he says, and his voice grows sinister, and he tightens his grasp around Neroon. "Don't ever tell anyone the truth. You'll give me the honour of your word on that, Star Rider."

Neroon shrinks and poorly pretends not to. But he murmurs, "I promise. I will not tell."

 

              "A lis a-"

      "-n-"      "-swer me -"

    I command it!

Alisa snapped out of it with a force, like she'd been slapped or thrown back into her body. "Sorry," she gasped, "I - I saw something."

She looked up. Nervous, fretful Venak had already reached the other side of the ship. Neroon, cool and unperturbed, swiftly strode off in the other direction, with his unnamed aide trailing behind and walking double-time to keep pace.

Nurhat followed her eye. "The Alyt, you mean," she said. "He is ... a character. Don't worry, he is not so bad. Really! I have served here nine cycles and met him many times. I think it amuses him to be so intimidating but he can be understanding, even kind, where it counts most -"

"No - it wasn't him," said Alisa. "It was the other guy. The hela'mer."

"Was it dangerous, what you saw?"

"No, it was a memory. Long ago. Why he doesn't like the Alyt."

This appeared to puzzle Nurhat. "They have... a history, you mean?" Alisa shrugged. "But Venak is Moon Shields, and I do not recall Venak having ever been in Tinarel... I don't think they grew up together." She thought a bit longer. "Hela'mer Venak was demoted, not so very long ago," she added, remembering. "He is brilliant, it is undeniable, but sometimes... we Warriors have a saying. He is a blow that cannot be pulled, he must follow through. You know?"

Although Alisa - not a Warrior herself - had little surface understanding what that phrase meant, something about the words registered as a fleeting thread of thought connection, foreign to her own - Venak's memory? but how, he wasn't a Warrior - and a semantic shift took place in her mind. "Yes," she exclaimed, "yes, that's exactly what he is."

--

Alisa soon forgot about the incident. Nurhat had not been back to see her. This came as no surprise, she said as much herself that she was busy and had duties of her own. Duties that did not include being a go-between for their sole human passenger. And there were enough Religious Caste members who had sought passage on the Ingata and who had a good enough grasp of English that if Alisa really needed anything, she could always go and ask them.

But she didn't know any of them, and it felt strange and rude to introduce herself for the sake of a favour. And they were always meditating, or praying. And they always seemed satisfied with the food - they always left a little bit behind - so how could she tell them she felt only gnawing hunger after breakfast, lunch, and dinner of the same thing (egg custard, porridge and fruit juice)? It appealed to a monk, probably.

So Alisa stuck to her small room in the Alternate Bridge wing, where her meals were delivered, with only occasional trips to the communal washrooms. Late on the second night of her travel, she sat alone on a long bench, in the Alternate Bridge's small, private atrium, staring at the stars and waiting for everybody else to filter out, one by one. Guess Minbari observe a bedtime roughly the same as we do, she thought.

It was almost time for her to pack it in herself - though, what did she have to look forward to in her chambers? Not much besides a book on how to meditate (a generous but practical and boring gift from the Ambassador Delenn, who advised her to read up before going to Minbar) and a two-day old copy of Universe Today, which she should probably recycle if she wanted the most recent copy. What was the bother? She wasn't good at the crosswords. The Eye on Minbar section was interesting, but in a grown-up political science way, so she didn't get much out of it. The Drazi comic strips were kind of funny.

She was so busy feeling lonely that it took her awhile to realise she was not, in fact, alone.

"Miss Beldon," said a voice behind her.

A man's voice, a low quiet rumble, making no attempt to hide the potential it had for power.

"You're the captain," she said.

"Alyt is the term," he replied. "More than your captains, less than your commanders, is my specific rank. Now that the Shai'Alyt in my clan has ... passed beyond the veil, I may have something of a promotion in the cards."

Alisa turned around to face him at last. Behind her stood Neroon: a cloaked, forbidding figure in full armour, weapons she didn't recognise at his belt, one in a holster strapped around his thigh. He was not as tall as she thought he looked on the bridge above her, but he was stocky and his thick black gauntlets, gloves, and boots made it difficult to tell exactly how much muscle he possessed. He stood with his posture ramrod straight and shoulders stiff.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

The Alyt Neroon leaned in and said unctuously, staring at her down the bridge of his nose, "It's my ship. I can go wherever I like."

He's trying to frighten me into shutting up, thought Alisa, or into confessing. Or both. She stood her ground as best she could, and did not shrink. But the only way she managed it was the memory. What happened to you between six years old and now, she began to wonder, you were a child, you were an imp, you were even cute. Oh, that's right, we fought a war.

After a moment, the Alyt seemed satisfied. He straightened. "Good," he said. "Good night." He whirled on his heel - his robes flared - and stepped away.

"I thought Minbari weren't supposed to scar," she blurted.

The Alyt stopped walking.

"N-nothing," she mumbled.

In two steps he had crossed to her side and towered over her where she sat. "What. Did you see," he hissed.

"Nothing, I, I said, it wasn't, it was nothing."

"You're to apprentice with our telepaths, correct?" Alisa nodded. "They give their words of honour of confidentiality where it is needed as part of their service. For a Minbari, this is understood to be binding. For a human," the Alyt continued, sneering the word, "given your species' duplicitous ways, perhaps we will need to find... other ways to guarantee confidentiality."

"Is this a threat?" Alisa whispered. It was hard to tell. Everything he said sounded like a threat.

"Or you might feel like disclosing what you saw. This will form part of your training," said the Alyt. "Either you learn this now, or you learn it later. But you cannot speak of what you see, except to those involved." He glared. "Now is your chance, Miss Beldon. I will not ask a second time."

"You probably already know what I saw," said Alisa. "If I saw something."

"I require confirmation," said the Alyt.

"He hurt you. Back then."

"So! You did see. With some pressure, the truth outs in your species." The Alyt looked smug. "He did not intend harm," he added.

"He wasn't very sorry about it."

"It is simply his way," said the Alyt. "Not all Minbari are like that."

"Not all Minbari, but all healers?"

"Hela'merae have developed something of an affect to efficiently process patients. That is understood among Minbari."

"I wouldn't heal very well if someone treated me like that," Alisa said.

"Then see to it you don't find yourself in great need of healing," added the Alyt. He frowned. "I will have to ask you some more questions about what you saw. Alternatively, one of our telepaths could ... encourage your silence."

"So you want me to shut up about it," said Alisa crossly. "Well, don't tell me 'not all Minbari' again. So far, every Minbari wants me to shut up about what I've seen."

The Alyt did not react to that outside of a raised eyebrow, or where the eyebrow would be if Minbari had hair. "When we give our word for silence, that is binding," he said. "Is it not fair to expect the same? I am as honour-bound not to speak of it as you. As you should be."

"Why?" she asked. "What he was doing was hurting you. You were younger. You trusted him!"

"You do not understand, the way Workers operate," he explained, "it is more than just a craft. More than tinkering. Without needing to promise anything, for the sake of his honour alone, I would never have made any mention of... the technology he tried to make. And eventually made, and perfected. The modified - painless, scarless - version is used in all our medical facilities, including that on this ship. Hela'mer Venak has always had a gift, but directing it is a master's role, should he have such opportunities. I understood that, then, as I do now. So too must you understand. He had excellent intentions, merely poor execution. This would have ..."

The Alyt trailed off, trying to find a suitable way to explain it to a human without giving away too much, and Alisa couldn't help it - she peeked.

"He wouldn't have had any apprenticeships at all," she realised. "If you had said anything."

The Alyt growled, "Stop peering into my mind. I gave him my word to silence and you are abusing your talents to willfully flout that, with no guarantee of confidentiality on your part."

"And if he didn't have those apprenticeships, I guess he wouldn't be where he is now," Alisa said.

"We have a mutually beneficial relationship," he explained. "We need a certain amount of hela'merae to sail, and we lacked enough of our own in the Star Riders. That one would assist us from Moon Shields without the usual exorbitant clan-loan fees is -"

"- the reason you became second-in-command on this ship," she realised. "Wasn't it? There must have been others waiting for a position like this."

"I said to stop peering into my mind!" he said, more sternly. "You are not permitted free access to anyone's secrets, they must request your services!"

"I didn't even have to sneak all that much, it was obvious enough what you meant," Alisa replied. "So... you keep him here because you want to keep an eye on him? Make sure he doesn't do anything like he did with you?"

"No," said the Alyt. "That was ... cycles ago. It is forgotten."

"Well, not by him, it's not. Nurhat said he got demoted."

"Did she," murmured the Alyt. He pursed his lips in disdain, but admitted, "Before he began service on the Ingata he was, yes. He is brilliant. He should continue to do what he does. He has vision, he has ambition. We praise these, in the Star Riders. He has a creativity that - to stifle it would be criminal. Therefore I supported his application here. It was, to my knowledge, the last available option for him. There were other experiments gone awry."

A punch that cannot be pulled. "He still thinks you'll turn him in for that first one," Alisa said.

The Alyt waved his hand, dismissive. "He does not."

"The first thing he thought of when you knocked into him was that memory. That fear. You terrify him."

"I terrify many," said the Alyt. "Part of the profession."

"Well, I'm not afraid of you," said Alisa, defiant. The Alyt glared. "After all," she continued, "I've seen you six years old and scared of a pile of crystals."

"Which is precisely why," he said, "you are expected, as a telepathy trainee, to have signed very limiting confidentiality agreements. And to abide by them with honour." The Alyt snorted. "Whatever honour a human might give them. You have not done this yet."

"We're not on Minbar yet," she argued.

"And yet you've seen someone's private secrets." The Alyt folded his arms over his chest. He looked even more forbidding this way. "Now that I have told you all this, do you understand better? Or do you need more convincing?"

"I won't say a word until I get to Minbar and sign your papers," she said, "on one condition."

The Alyt chuckled, but coldly. "You are in no position to make such conditions," he said.

"I'm more powerful than most of your telepaths," said Alisa. "Delenn said so."

"Just because Satai and Ambassador Delenn says things does not give you the right to bargain on them," he replied.

"My condition is food," she said. "Look, I-I'm starving. This porridge, thing - it's - alright, it's very tasty, and I don't mean to complain! But I'm starting to think we eat more than you do. And they take two hours to eat what I eat in maybe five minutes. There's no way you run a ship like this. And they don't even finish their plate! They always leave something!"

There was a moment of silence. And then the Alyt smiled, the quirk up of his lips so quick she thought she might have imagined it. "Religious Caste rituals," he said. "We do not observe them."

"Well, do you observe different food?" Alisa could not help it - she sat straight up at the thought of it, and her stomach growled loudly.

"It is nearly midway through the sleep cycle, the kitchen for this area is closed," said the Alyt.

"Satai and Ambassador Delenn said you would take care of me," added Alisa.

"She did not say that," said the Alyt.

"Satai and Ambassador Delenn said she was going to call you personally," said Alisa. "She did, didn't she?"

The Alyt's lips twisted as he thought, and for a moment Alisa could almost recognise the impish six-year-old again. "Follow me," he said.

--

"What is this place?" asked Miss Beldon.

"Crew central kitchens," Neroon explained. He gestured to the tables nearest the food preparation area and she sat. Then he unlaced his gauntlets and removed his gloves, setting these beside the cooling unit.

"They're deserted," she replied, stating the obvious.

"Worker Caste on our ships do not work through the night. The food is prepared beforehand and stored in the cooling units." Neroon approached one and checked inside. There was exactly enough preportioned rations for those that were working at night. Technically, what he was doing now counted as working at night. But he could not bring himself to take from the limited supply of reheatable finished food for a human when, unlike the remainder of the Warrior Caste crew still on duty, he knew how to cook. Besides, he was Alyt, this human was at least for the next two days his responsibility.

It would not kill him, he supposed, to cook for her. Behind the preportioned rations, there was a leftover bowl of raw raalon meat, cubed and dusted with tansha powder. This, he took. "Did you think to obtain from the Ambassador Delenn a list of food items that you could eat?" he asked.

"No," she replied. "She said that whatever the Religious Caste ate, I could eat."

"That is the problem that has led us to this very moment," drawled Neroon. He peeled back the organic sealant on the bowl. "Put your nose near this. If it smells rancid to you, I will not cook it." Surely, humans were advanced enough to have evolved that as a reliable test?

Miss Beldon was clever about it, which both impressed and irked Neroon. She first cupped her hands and directed the scent of the air towards her; when this did not harm her, she approached and dipped her head to smell more deeply. "Kinda like lamb," she said. "Smells familiar. That's something I can eat."

"We will tread carefully," said Neroon. He extricated a small pot from the cupboard left of the cooling unit and activated the switch to bring up the heating elements from beneath the crystal counter. To this he added water and a cupful of the khon'ai grain that they were feeding her in the porridge. If she had been eating that for a day it must not be toxic, even in such quantities, and the raalon milk dressing in the porridge suggested strongly that the meat would also present no issue.

The spices, however. Neroon peered at the bottles - unlabelled, the Worker Caste did not need them - but neither did he. He took those he would want and handed her the bottles. "Test these," he commanded.

"This one's nice," said Miss Beldon of the minced gal'sha seed. Of the dried slenn and pil'sha, she said, "These are smelly. Not poisonous, but maybe not a lot. The rest don't smell like anything to me."

"They should not be poisonous," said Neroon, "only animal proteins have to be checked so carefully. If you can consume the Religious Caste food then all their spices should serve. They are in the end only plant matter. If there were significant deviations, the Ambassador would have informed you. But our food is not like theirs." He added gal'sha to the porridge and set the heat on high.

"You do a lot of cooking?" Miss Beldon asked. "You seem to know where everything already is."

"It is my ship," snapped Neroon.

Then he tutted to himself. Speaking like a Religious Caste member in half-truths. No, that would not do. Not even to a human.

"Yes," he replied, "I do." There, he thought, was that so hard?

The water began to boil, and he added the raalon and a pinch each of the more fragrant spices. Then he lidded the pot, turned the heat down, and let it steam. "A Worker Caste member should be doing this," he added, folding his arms across his chest.

"Because you're above this whole cooking thing?" Miss Beldon asked.

"Because it isn't my job," said Neroon pointedly. "But these are such curious times we live in. Religious Caste talk of joining the Anla'shok. Why not, then, a Warrior chef."

"What are the Anla'shok?" she asked.

"An old society, something like a separate clan with its own allegiances, open to any of the Warrior Caste," said Neroon. "Their function is to watch for the activities of the ancient enemy." And they would be watching some time yet. This talk that Delenn had of their return, it was clearly nonsense. If it weren't, the Vorlons would have said something by now. "Mostly they go around planet to planet ferreting information and have additional training opportunities."

"That sounds like fun," she said. "I wish I could join. But I can't, can I?"

"No," said Neroon. "You have other duties."

Miss Beldon sighed and looked at her hands. "I wouldn't have thought any of it - training, fighting, being a soldier - it wasn't all that interesting, until I met Nurhat," she replied.

Funny that she should mention her in specific. Neroon said nothing.

"But she made it seem so interesting. Obviously, she loves it, she's so happy here," Miss Beldon continued. "She was even nice to me."

Neroon, again, said nothing.

"I never really had a lot of friends," Miss Beldon added.

Oh, by Valen. Neroon didn't roll his eyes but the temptation was strong. What part of his body language was it that told tiny children they should confide in him?

"I guess you don't care," said Miss Beldon bitterly.

Whatever in the stars could have given you that impression, thought Neroon acidly. But he did not say it. The likelihood was strong that she heard it anyway. He turned around for a moment to check the raalon - no, still some liquid left to steam out. Blast. Then he would have to think of something to say to the human child. Something comforting.

"You are likely to have as many problems on Minbar," he said.

"What, Minbari don't have friends?" she said.

"Minbari do not have human friends."

Miss Beldon remained silent. She looked at her nails, picked at the dirt or detritus or whatever it was beneath the nailbed, littered it on the surface of the table at which she sat, then scratched at her wrist.

Well.

Harsh truth, perhaps. Better she hear it now. Wasn't it?

Neroon was not very good at comforting.

Surely the raalon was finished.

Neroon busied himself with getting a bowl and avoiding Miss Beldon's eyes. She was a human. But more importantly, she was a child. And she did not yet understand, but she would soon; and that there was no point in telling her anything as forewarning because at this age no advice would be accepted. As much as it pained Neroon to admit it, human and Minbari were alike in this: the young are compelled beyond reason to make their own mistakes. He had been the same himself. Once.

"There," he said, presenting her the bowl. "Smell first. Can you eat this? Be very sure."

She sniffed it. "Reminds me of something I've had," she said. "Maybe... rosemary ginger lamb? And something else."

"Is that an Earth dish?"

"I think so. I don't know how to cook. But I've had this before, this smells familiar." She inhaled again, deeply. "It also smells amazing, by the way."

It was a well-known preparation method for Minbari meats. But the spice blend was unique to the Warrior Caste. Why would she have encountered it on the station, where only Religious Caste members stayed for long enough term? "I was not aware there were enough Warrior Caste members passing through Babylon 5 to warrant adequate Minbari meal preparation."

"They have an ambassador," she said, matter-of-factly.

"The ambassador for the Religious Caste. The Religious Caste does not consume flesh."

"Why doesn't the Warrior Caste have its own ambassador?"

Because we have better things to do, Neroon thought. "It is not the job of a Warrior to be a diplomat. That is the job of a Religious Caste member. Everyone in their own job."

"But everyone here isn't in their own job, are they," said Miss Beldon.

Neroon watched her, careful. "I do not know what you mean by that," he said. Then he changed the topic. "I ask again, where did you find this on Babylon 5? I daresay it would not have been on Earth. Are you certain you've eaten it before?"

Miss Beldon looked furtively to the side. "It... was garbage from a ship that came through," she admitted. "I was - I was so hungry, and it smelled good, and I just ate. I didn't realise until after I began eating that it ... it wasn't anything like beef, or pork, or chicken... but it didn't hurt me. I got real sick sometimes when I was Downbelow. But not off that."

Neroon frowned. "Does Earth not feed its telepaths?"

"They feed them," she said. "As long as ... as long as you submit. But I was - I wasn't a telepath then. Only poor, and homeless."

"So Earth does not feed its homeless," said Neroon gently.

"You know, for a guy who doesn't care about Earth and Earthers too much, you're pretty nosy," Miss Beldon replied.

Neroon sneered. "Human child, do you want the sustenance or not," he snapped.

"Yes, please," she said. "I am very hungry." With some further reluctance and an arch look, he handed her the spoon. It had been a minute; if there were to have been any reaction to the smell, surely it would have taken place already.

"The more you eat, the less you will talk," Neroon supposed. He folded his arms across his chest, leaning back on the counter.

"Then you should talk," said Miss Beldon, and promptly dug in. Neroon continued to watch her, looking for signs of anaphylaxis. "Oh, this is actually pretty good!" she exclaimed. *Actually?* thought Neroon, affronted. "I've definitely had this before. Somewhere. I forget where. Yours is much better."

"It is a poor imitation of my father's raalon spice blend," admitted Neroon. "You are merely hungry, this wakes the tastebuds. And it is warm, and not from a trash bin." But he took the compliment anyway and guarded it close, secretly satisfied. Father would have been proud. No son of mine shall go through life not knowing how to feed himself, Worker or not, he had said. Besides, this is how I got your mother's attention for courting. Maybe someday it will help you in that regard.

No. Unlikely.

"Your dad was a cook?" Miss Beldon was not talking while she was chewing, but she was nigh on inhaling the food. As much as Neroon did not want to be disturbed at a late hour when he was already overcome with his own work, he was pleased she had said something. Else Delenn would doubtless hear of it and accuse the Warrior Caste of starving humanity.

"One of the better ones. Our clan gained a great gift when my mother came courting. What the Starship Crafters did not seem to appreciate, the Star Riders did." A cook among cooks is nothing special; a cook among hungry soldiers is a hero.

"Starship Crafters? I've never heard of them."

"Fi'irilmer," Neroon said.

"Oh," she replied. "That sounds more familiar. I've heard that, somewhere. They don't go offworld?"

"Not so, they go offworld all the time. About 30 percent of the crew on this ship is Starship Crafters, if not they themselves, then their families. They are invaluable," Neroon added. "We could do nothing, we could go nowhere, if not for them. Some of the other Warrior Caste clans would do to remember that, sometimes." Fire Wings, for one. Wind Swords for another.

"So your dad was Worker?"

"Worker, then Warrior. Like many in the Star Riders, he heard the call during the Hol- the Earth-Minbari War, and converted. His real skills went underappreciated in that time, because his training had been rudimentary for a Warrior Caste member who married into a Warrior Caste clan. But he served."

"And then he died," supplied Miss Beldon.

"You really must stop doing that," warned Neroon. Though part of him rebelled at the thought of a human prying Warrior Caste secrets so easily from him, there was little heat behind his words, and for a number of reasons.

She was untrained and needed assistance, or in the absence of assistance, practice. She was a gifted telepath and therefore worthy of respect, no matter what species. She was a child. She was innocent. She had once known hunger. She had no one. She would learn soon enough what not to do and how to serve dutifully the way Minbari knew service and duty: the way without choice.

And it was difficult to hate anyone, even humans, after sharing a certain threshold amount of words. This was why Neroon ordinarily kept his distance - blast that Delenn for having meddled.

Because if you talk to enough of them, you'll make the only rational conclusion that someone of your intelligence can make: that there is little reason to cling to your hatred.

"It was at the forefront of your mind," said Miss Beldon. "You don't exactly make it too hard."

"That doesn't mean it is an invitation. You do not know what you will find. It would be better to train yourself out of such a habit," Neroon reminded her.

"That's what Minbar's going to do," she argued.

"Indeed," said Neroon. "He died during the war, serving aboard one of our ships," he added, returning to their previous conversation.

"Your mother must have been upset," she said. "Dad went ... strange, after Mom died, too."

Instead of saying it, this time, Neroon allowed the image to float to what he imagined was the forefront of his mind.

There was a pause. Miss Beldon's spoon hit the rim of the metal bowl.

"Oh," she said.

"She is well cared for," said Neroon.

"You- you don't see her often," said Miss Beldon.

"Once a cycle. No more. She no longer recognises me," said Neroon, with a shrug. "And it is pointless for me to reopen old wounds."

"And - and when will it happen for you?"

"Now, you are reopening an old wound," said Neroon.

"I-I'm sorry," said Miss Beldon. "I shouldn't - I shouldn't pry. It was. I'm sorry I looked. You were right."

Neroon said nothing. After a moment wallowing in shame, Miss Beldon's hunger returned, and she continued to eat in blessed silence.

--

It was early morning, and the sun rose with a heaviness, when they approached Minbar, on the Tuzanor side. Nurhat's duties were to prepare the shuttle and then escort the human telepath to the shuttle. This she did, and then immediately left to see Alyt Neroon.

He was in a meeting with two other aides, both officers. Outranked, she waited silently outside until he had finished, which took more than an hour. During this hour, she thought much, and her heart grew heavier.

At last, she was ushered in, and one officer left. The other remained, but upon recognising her, the Alyt said to him, "Thank you, Arvall, you are dismissed."

"But Alyt," protested the officer.

"In an hour," said Neroon. The officer, having been told, left.

"Thank you for agreeing to see me, Alyt," said Nurhat.

He nodded, then swiftly stepped past her and closed the door.

"How did you know it was about - that?" she asked.

"You have been distracted at your post for the past three days. Three days ago you met the human telepath. It was not exactly applied crystal mechanics," Neroon replied. "Is everything well?"

"Yes. Well - I wondered if I should approach Hela'mer Venak, in regards to - what the human telepath saw," Nurhat replied.

"If anyone should, it is I. But it is no longer my belief that the human telepath will speak of what she saw before she begins training - I have seen to this," said Neroon. "And after she begins training she will be bound to silence of what she sees."

"Of course," said Nurhat. She was silent a moment, then took a deep breath.

"There is more," realised Neroon.

"Yes," she admitted. "My - my heart is troubled."

He peered at her. "Your heart or your mind?"

"I was - I could," Nurhat stammered, incomprehensible, "her thoughts - I cannot explain it."

"Do not try," said Neroon. "I would not understand."

"I didn't know it was like that!" she exclaimed. "If I had known when it first began - but I touched her, and - and then again, just now, as we were walking, she could not help it -"

"You engaged with her," said Neroon.

"I did not mean to," confessed Nurhat, terrified of Neroon's reaction. "She was - listening! To Hela'mer Venak, and I couldn't get her attention any other way. Believe me, I tried!"

"I do believe you," said Neroon. "I merely have my concerns that such connection has precipitated this."

"This - what?" Nurhat asked, her voice a whisper.

Neroon heaved a sigh. "That you are thinking of changing the calling of your heart - ever so subtly," he said.

"You're disappointed in me," said Nurhat. Neroon said nothing, but continued watching and waiting. He knew, as did Nurhat, that silence would pull the real answer from her in a matter of moments. There was no purpose in hiding. "You - you think I want to go because I want to follow her?" asked Nurhat. "No, Alyt. It was - it was not like that!"

"It was guilt," saw Neroon.

"She's prepared to serve," said Nurhat. "For nine cycles I haven't been. How can a human have more honour than I?"

"Service can take many forms," reminded Neroon. "A tool indeed serves best when it is used for the right job, but tools and their use change. And you are not a tool!"

But we are tools, thought Nurhat, every Warrior Caste Minbari learns that and the importance of duty by their fifth cycle. This was not the first time that Neroon said something that bordered on heresy, and though he with his rank was entitled to his opinions, it did remind her of the injustice of her being here at all. Her, with her talents. "What I want," Nurhat began.

"Should not have no bearing upon your decision," argued Neroon.

No. It could not be. Every part of her that was Minbari rebelled against the idea. What she wanted was secondary. Always. To fail where a human would succeed! No. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "I cannot take the guilt of it. That a human would be more dutiful than I could be. A-and. And. Wouldn't it be easier? If I didn't have to hide? And that it should be easier, isn't that in and of itself meaning gleaned from the universe?"

At this, Neroon glared. "Perhaps, if you ask the Religious Caste," he said. "I myself reserve judgement. Well, go. If you're going to talk like them, then act like them."

That stung. "I am not some foolish priest acolyte who got his scrolls confused," she protested, "do not dismiss me like one."

"That is ... not," Neroon said. "I did not mean." He sighed. "I am not very good at comforting," he admitted.

"Yes, I have noticed this in my time aboard this ship," said Nurhat tightly.

"I spoke in haste. But if you would move, then now would be the time," Neroon continued, as though she had not spoken. "Now is the time that it could be arranged without repercussions." He drew nearer and took her by the shoulders. "Only if you wanted," he stressed. "This is important. Do you understand me? Follow your heart, and trust your instincts - only that. Whatever you decide and wherever you serve - know that you will have the fullest support of the Star Riders, and that as Clan Elder I would be proud to lend my voice for your support."

"I know," said Nurhat. With great difficulty, she kept her face neutral, but her lip gave her away, trembling with worry.

"But you should never be less than proud of what you chose," said Neroon, with a kind smile, "for you served well."

This was what broke her. As the tears spilled down her cheeks she did not touch them but ignored them stoically. She said instead, "Thank you. For everything." And then she blurted, "For sheltering me for nine cycles - it's - I could not possibly repay -!"

"No," said Neroon firmly, "it is not to be repaid. That is not how this works. That is not how any of this works."

"I'm sorry," she said again, sobbing.

"I do not accept the apology, because there is no need for it," said Neroon. "Now dry your eyes, and pack your bags."

--

The port of entry at Tuzanor was busy by number of people, but the order remained remarkable - lines of Minbari waiting patiently (in the case of the black-uniformed Warriors, mostly patiently).

This didn't seem to have any effect on how long it took to process people. Two hours later, Alisa had finally given her identicard to Minbari security (all Warrior Caste, all not-so-friendly, but some friendlier than others), who gave her the required temporary pass and an appointment in three months to check back in.

Waiting for her on the other side of the customs gate was a tall hooded Minbari in a white cloak with golden buttons. When Alisa came through, she stepped forward. She held no sign, but being the lone human amid a sea of Minbari had made Alisa easy to spot.

"You must be Miss Alisa of Babylon 5," she said. She bowed, then removed the hood. Her face was angular with high cheekbones and she had almond-shaped green eyes. "I am Shakaal of Ret, of the Tenth Fane of Elleya. Satai Delenn has sent me to assist you in your new home and development as a gifted soul. May I have the touch of your true mind in greeting?"

"Ah, sure, I guess," said Alisa, and then there was a presence, like a cloud inside her. This is me, said Shakaal. This is my consciousness, meeting yours. Now we have seen each other, and I may greet you, holy gifted soul.

Yeah, ditto, thought Alisa. Shakaal laughed merrily in her mind, having at once understood a term she had never before heard.

The cloud receded and faded, and she was alone again. "If you do not mind," said Shakaal with her voice, "we will wait another moment, for another trainee, who will accompany us shortly. The voyage to the mountains where our temple lies is too long to return."

"I didn't know there would be another," said Alisa.

"Neither did we," said Shakaal. She smiled, beatific, and said, "A happy surprise. I understand, humans often ask - how was your trip?"

They waited for over an hour, during which Alisa saw more Minbari than she'd ever before seen in her life, leaving through customs. There were also three Centauri, and a single human, a gentleman in a dark suit and glossy, slick dark hair.

"Hello, little girl," he said. He smiled, and he was human, the first human Alisa had seen in days, so she smiled back.

Shakaal, next to her, had frozen. "Walk on," she warned. Undeterred, the man gave Shakaal a stiff but polite bow and a smile. She made no movement until he had passed out of sight.

"So you don't like humans either," muttered Alisa. "Great."

"He was different," spat Shakaal. "There is a darkness around him. I do not like that he is here at all. It is not at the request of the Religious Caste."

Alisa watched him as he walked away. What could be so strange about such a man? A darkness around him?

Somewhere, far and distant, she thought she heard what might have been a scream -

A sudden hand reached for her shoulder and gripped it hard. "Don't," said Shakaal.

"I wasn't," protested Alisa.

"You do not yet realise what you were about to do," said Shakaal, "but you were about to do it. I knew. Not him. Do you understand me?"

"Sorry," said Alisa, with a sheepish shrug. "I guess I still can't help it. But I wouldn't have told what I saw, if I saw anything. I know that now."

"It was not a question of telling," said Shakaal, "but one of seeing. To see would be dangerous."

Alisa scoffed. "More dangerous than the Alyt?" she said, glib.

But the response was immediate. "Infinitely," said Shakaal. "May he never return."

This ended what sparse and brief conversation there had been between Alisa and Shakaal, and they waited instead in silence for another few hours.

At last, a single Warrior Caste Minbari came down the gangplank and stopped at customs. They exchanged words with the customs agent, then hauled the bag off their shoulders and let the customs agent peek inside. When the agent nodded, they saluted to each other - a strange salute, the left hand in a fist, touching the knuckles to the palm of a flat right hand - and the Warrior Caste Minbari continued past the gate, where Alisa at last recognised her.

"What, did I leave something behind?" asked Alisa.

"Yes," said Nurhat, "me."

Alisa blinked. Then she looked to Shakaal, who had gotten to her feet and was bowing to their new trainee, the same way she had with Alisa. A moment of silence passed between them, in which Alisa suspected she knew whose mind flowed where. "It was you," said Alisa. "You pulled me out of the memory, it was - it was you."

Nurhat at last turned to her. Yes, she said again, this time wordlessly. Me.

But it made sense, because how else would Alisa have tasted what she did and felt like she recognised it, known what a hela'mer is, had heard of the Starship Crafters by the name Fi'irilmer? How she could have known about punches that couldn't be pulled? No, it was Nurhat, who had helped herself to Alisa's mind and pulled out of it incompletely, leaving traces behind.

The realisation of it gave a sour taste. No wonder people don't like it when I eavesdrop, she thought. Better to get some training.

"That was the idea," said Nurhat.

Alisa frowned. "Well, then what are you doing here?" she asked. "Clearly you don't need any training!"

Nurhat pressed her lips together, looking sheepish. "That is not exactly true. I guess... I guess I'm following the true calling of my heart, as they say," she said.

"Oh," said Alisa, blushing. "That's - uh."

"I didn't mean it like that!" But now Nurhat was blushing. Minbari flushed pink too, Alisa saw, on their cheeks and as far up as the blue pattern around the ridges of their bonecrests, which turned cerulean. "It is a perfectly valid Minbari expression! I didn't mean you!"

"Okay," said Alisa. "Sure."

Shakaal laid a hand on each of their shoulders. "You are lucky," she said, interrupting them both. Alisa and Nurhat exchanged looks, then looked at her. "It will be nice," she continued sternly, "to have a friend, in these very trying times. For you both." Nurhat, still blushing, would not meet Alisa's eyes.

--

When Neroon returned to his quarters on the Ingata, he found a call waiting for him, again from Delenn.

"Neroon," she said. "I have spoken already to the people who have received the human telepath into their custody."

"Satisfied?" said Neroon.

"I wanted to thank you for seeing that she arrived well," Delenn said, with some courtesy. "She spoke highly of you."

"Hm," said Neroon. "I do not think you would call from Babylon 5 for only this."

Delenn's gracious smile disappeared. "I additionally find it coincidental that you lost one of your crew members," she said.

"A calling of the heart," said Neroon. "It happens."

"It is awfully belated. How this could have happened, it is strange, for the people who are caring for the human girl tell me that this Star Rider girl is not a new telepath, and that it appears she has had these skills for some time. And that she is strong for a Minbari."

"Is that so," said Neroon.

Now, Delenn frowned. "I would be interested to see how many more possible telepaths may be staffing the fleet of the Warrior Caste when they could and should be serving their people nobly in the ranks of telepaths under the Religious Caste."

"I am sure you would indeed be most interested," said Neroon neutrally.

"The Grey Council may need to get involved. This sounds like a caste matter, Neroon," said Delenn, stern and admonishing, the way Religious Caste usually spoke down to Warriors who were the same age.

"No, this is a Star Riders matter," Neroon said. "The Council of Caste Elders will handle it."

"Which of course is you, as Star Riders representative," said Delenn. "I am certain you will handle it."

"After a fashion, yes," said Neroon.

"I did not think I would have to remind one of the Warrior Caste about the obligations and responsibilities of duty. Telepaths have a calling," protested Delenn.

"They certainly do," snapped Neroon, his feeble hold on his patience already slipping, "and as I understand they are following it as they see fit. That is why they are where they are. If they felt differently, they would be with you. Since they are not, do you not have your answer? How do you justify allowing some to follow the calling of their hearts and others to be withheld? You are, as always, welcome to encourage, but do we not serve best if we serve as we wish?"

"This conscription, this poaching, of telepaths," began Delenn.

"Encouragement," insisted Neroon, "and the presentation of choice, nothing more. If there is only one choice, there is no choice at all. There is no need at the moment to be greedy for telepaths. I am prepared to defend this in the Grey Council if you require it of me."

Delenn did not reply.

"Well?" Neroon asked.

"How many more telepaths are hiding in Star Rider ranks?" said Delenn.

"That, I will not say," said Neroon.

"You will encourage them towards their true service, instead of withholding from their people the honoured gift they were given," said Delenn. "I ask your word as Star Rider, Alyt Neroon."

"I will do no more than present the choice," said Neroon. "Both choices. As I have always done. You have my word - on that."

This did not please Delenn. "I am not surprised that you do this, given your selfish ambitions," she snapped.

On Minbar, with its cultural importance on servitude, ambition was an ugly thing indeed. Really, there was more than one reason nobody had come to court for Neroon in a very long time. "My ambitions are to serve Minbar," said Neroon.

"Are they truly?" said Delenn. "You wanted Branmer shown! You wanted to be appointed to the Council of Caste Elders! I should not be surprised if you insist on being appointed Shai'Alyt! Well, I can tell you that you will be disappointed there. All three of the Warrior Caste serving on the Grey Council intend on promoting Shakiri of the Wind Swords, not you."

Not Neroon. She did not say - but did not have to - not Neroon, who was young (for Delenn also was). Not Neroon, who was hot-headed (for Delenn also was). Not Neroon, who was not without a reputation for pride and passion (for Delenn also was!).

But where Delenn had had Dukhat's support, Neroon had had Branmer's, and that had always been a thing more Religious-influenced than Warrior. It had suited Neroon personally, but ill-fit him politically, in a time where the Wind Swords and Fire Wings had grown vocal about their resentment of the Religious Caste. That Neroon was not now leaping to dismantle everything Branmer - raised Religious, forged a Warrior - had brought, made the Star Riders look feeble. Neroon would have to improve his performance.

"You promote your own desires and goals above that of our people," continued Delenn with seething words. "Every tool has its own job. We are all of us but tools wielded by the universe. Are you so arrogant as to think you know better than the universe?"

"A tool indeed serves best when it is used for an appropriate job," said Neroon, "but what determines appropriate may change as tools and their use change." These words were well-known to him. By now, he had figured out where to carefully inject feeling into them, so that they did not sound like rote memorisation - which they were. "If I am the right person for such a job," he added, "it is my duty to claim it."

In the case of being appointed to the Council of Caste Elders, he was the right person for the job. Neroon had always been interested in law and politics, had always been able to see three steps ahead. Showing Branmer had been part of that. So would have becoming Shai'Alyt. Well, what was a pebble to a river?

"Wanting a calling and following through," Neroon concluded, "is merely my soul swimming with the current of the universe instead of against it."

"Such conviction in your words," said Delenn, unmoved. "Such strength in your beliefs in our faith. This surprises me. It is the first time I have ever heard you speak thus of our faith, and I have known you long, Neroon."

Damn. Too far. Neroon held his tongue.

Delenn's disdain and disbelief could be felt from the distance on the link, but she could not openly accuse him of dishonesty or heresy. Even if it were so. "That will be all. For now," she said.

"Good day, Satai," he said, and saluted. "Feel free to call again if you have any more requests or concerns. I shall be, as I always am, your humble servant."

Delenn said nothing and disconnected, and for the first time, Neroon felt like he'd gone up against a Satai and, rather than lost, drawn.

Well. It was a beginning.