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"Get someone else," said M'k'n'zy.
"There is no one else," Sh'nab said. "You are the one. It is the appointed time, M'k'n'zy, and your responsibility. I can't believe that you would want to shirk it."
M'k'n'zy strode back and forth apprehensively within the confines of his fairly modest hut. His long black hair was tied back, although a few stray strands dangled around the twenty-year-old's face. The scar that ran the length of his right cheek had flushed bright red, as it tended to do when there was something truly frustrating facing him.
Sh'nab couldn't quite understand what M'k'ntzy's problem was. One of the tribal elders of Calhoun, Sh'nab had seen M'k'n'zy face down entire troops of Danteri oppressors. He had seen him command troops of men, send them into battle, fight for his life. He had witnessed M'k'ntzy dealing with every sort of challenge and problem under the Xenexian sun, and therefore could not wrap himself around M'k'n'zy's current problem. After all . . .
"She's just a woman, M'k'n'zy!" Sh'nab said, for what seemed to him to be the umpteenth time. "This should not be difficult for you. You are acting as if...as if . . ." He shook his head in frustration. "I don't know how you're acting. I am frankly not certain what to make of it."
"Why can't D'ndai do it!" M'k'n'zy said, annoyed with the sound of his own voice. He sounded whining, petulant, and even -- gods help him -- scared.
"Because," Sh'nab said patiently, "D'ndai isn't here. You know that. He's on Danter at the moment, paving the way for the peace negotiations with the Federation overseeing the process. You know this."
It was true, of course. He had been there, after all, when the Federation had first shown up on Xenex in the person of Jean-Luc Picard, the man who had suggested to M'k'n'zy that he himself consider a career in Starfleet. Considering M'k'n'zy's frame of mind at that moment, perhaps the thing to do was to find out when the next shuttle was going to be available and to head straight out as soon as possible. But M'k'n'zy had not made up his mind yet as to whether Starfleet was the direction that he wanted to go with his life. Never before, though, had he regretted hesitating over a decision as much as he regretted it now.
"We can wait until he comes back, then," M'k'n'zy suggested.
Sh'nab shook his head. "The times are very proscribed for these matters, M'k'n'zy. Catrine's husband has been gone a year. She has not remarried; she has had no wish to, and that is her right by tribal law. But she maintains her husband's name, and her husband's fortunes, and she does not wish the family line to end with her. That is also her right."
"But I'm the warlord! I'm not the chief. D'ndai is the chief!"
"You are his brother. These responsibilities run along family lines. You know that?"
"Yes, yes, I know, I know," M'k'n'zy's purple eyes flickered with frustration. "Sh'nab, will you please stop telling me things I already know and reminding me that I know them? It's most irritating to me!" He paced back and forth. "Can she wait until?"
"We're going in circles, M'k'n'zy! Besides, she?" Sh'nab paused.
Sh'nab muttered something that M'k'n'zy didn't quite hear, and when asked to repeat it, said, "I said she asked for you specifically. If she wanted to be flexible, she could likely wait until D'ndai's return, but it would put her beyond her current fertile cycle and she'd have to wait three months. She said she did not wish to wait, and she made it quite clear that she found you more...desirable...than D'ndai. I would ask that you do not pass that information on to your older brother. He might be hurt."
"Fine, fine," M'k'n'zy said with an annoyed wave. "Not a word."
"M'k'n'zy," Sh'nab said, not unkindly, "I admit that I am so accustomed to seeing you handle virtually any situation, that I'm not used to seeing you act like...well, like a nervous young man. You are, after all, only twenty summers old, even though you have served to liberate your people from an oppression that has gone on for centuries. Catrine is older than you, granted, but she is a comely woman nonetheless. It's not as if the task that awaits you is unpleasant. And it is not as if you have not . . ."
And then his voice trailed off as he saw M'k'n'zy's back stiffen slightly. "M'k'n'zy," he asked, with growing suspicion in his voice, "You have been with other women, have you not?"
M'k'n'zy laughed contemptuously. "Of course I have. I have had...dalliances, if you will. Experience."
"How much experience?"
"More than enough."
"M'k'n'zy," Sh'nab said, beginning to fully comprehend the situation, "I'm not speaking now of simple pleasure-giving. Of groping beneath sheets, or stolen moments in the darkness of a tent. Have you ever actually . . ." He found the resolve of his question beginning to fail under the intense glare and scrutiny of the look that M'k'n'zy was now giving him. He cleared his throat loudly and said, "Have you ever fully...well...consummated?"
There was silence in the hut for a time, and then M'k'n'zy said slowly, "Define 'fully.'"
"Oh gods, you're a virgin," Sh'nab moaned, sinking into a large, ornately carved chair.
"Only partly," M'k'n'zy replied defensively.
"Partly! One cannot partly be a virgin, M'k'n'zy! I don't believe this!" said Sh'nab. "A twenty-year-old warlord virgin?"
"Say it a bit more loudly. I don't think they heard you on Danter," M'k'n'zy told him with undisguised annoyance.
"M'k'n'zy, I don't understand! Every time you'd walk through the village square, women's heads would turn! Do you think a village elder doesn't notice such things? I was knocked aside once by three young girls who were trying to get your attention! How can you still have no carnal knowledge of women? The average Xenexian male is sexually active by the time he has seen thirteen summers."
"It was my choice, Sh'nab."
Sh'nab was silent for so long that M'k'n'zy turned to look at him with concern on his face. "Do you?"'
"Of course I do. It saddens me, I admit. But...perhaps it's understandable. Perhaps that is why you are so able to lead troops of men into battle. You are more...comfortable...with them."
It took a moment for what Sh'nab was saying to sink in, and when he realized, M'k'n'zy wasn't sure whether to react with outrage or laughter. His voice caught somewhere in between in a sort of strangled choke. "I do not prefer to have sex with men, Sh'nab!"
"Oh," Sh'nab said mildly. "I thought that was what you were trying to say."
"If I had been trying to say that, I would have said that! Kindly do not 'help' me with a pronouncement of that magnitude, if it is all the same to you! All right?"
"Well, then I do not understand, M'k'n'zy. If you don't...I mean...if . . ."
Sh'nab was still seated in the ornately carved chair as M'k'n'zy sank onto the floor opposite him. M'k'n'zy had known Sh'nab for many years, felt a closeness to the elder who had on a number of occasions schooled him in some of the gentler arts of Xenexian life and culture. M'k'n'zy was not comfortable discussing such matters with anyone, really, but if he was going to speak of it, then at least Sh'nab was someone he considered an appropriate sounding board.
"Sh'nab, I did not expect to survive the uprising. Do you understand? I did not think that I would manage to live through the rebellion. I thought the Danteri would catch and kill me, or that I would die in battle. I faced death a thousand times, and to some degree I still cannot believe that I survived it all when so many others who were just as brave, just as resourceful, and just as skilled in battle as I wound up losing their lives. I saw the way women looked at me, Sh'nab. If it wasn't lost on you, it certainly wasn't lost on me. I'd see the lovelight in their eyes, and I...I did not desire any woman to form an attachment to me, for fear of not being there for her. I did not want any loved ones because I did not wish to leave a loved one behind. It might have hampered me in what I needed to do, and it would have been unfair to her. So now we are faced with a possible peace, and I find the prospect of...of intimacy...to be somewhat daunting. For that matter, I am suspicious of women."
"Suspicious of them?"
"Well," M'k'n'zy shrugged, "it is unfair, I suppose, to single them out. I am suspicious of everyone. But now I have a reputation as our greatest fighter, our greatest warrior. What if a woman is attracted to my title and reputation, rather than to me, for myself? For that matter, what if she expects me to be as...as skilled in the art of lovemaking as I am in the art of war? What if" -- and he lowered his head -"what if I cannot perform to her satisfaction? What if I cannot perform at all? Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the things that would be said as word spread? People calling out to me, 'So, M'k'n'zy, having problems getting your sword out of its sheath, eh?' The humiliation of the thought, the . . ." He shuddered, his voice trailing off in contemplation of such embarrassment.
"M'k'n'zy," Sh'nab said softly, "you are a strategist. That has always been your greatest strength. As such, it has been necessary for you to give a great deal of thought to whatever situation you might be faced with. In my opinion, you are treating the prospect of sex with the same gravity that you would plan a military engagement. You are trying to foresee all possibilities, plan for every possible contingency. Intimacy is not a war, M'k'n'zy."
"I know of some couples who might disagree with you, Sh'nab."
Sh'nab allowed a smile. "All right, I'll grant you that," said the elder. "But you are overthinking things here. Simply allow matters to develop naturally."
"That is not my nature, Sh'nab. I am one who feels the need to steer matters to a conclusion that I find satisfactory."
"Relationships do not work that way, M'k'n'zy. In war, you give instructions to your men and they follow orders. Women do not take to that. Except the most passive of women, and I doubt that you would be satisfied with someone ...