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The Course of Empire: Chapter Twelve

       Last updated: Thursday, June 19, 2003 12:47 EDT



    "Miss Stockwell," a gravelly Jao voice said as a pair of immense oak doors swung open and Caitlin's party entered the palace.

    How strange, she thought, glancing back over her shoulder at the surprising wooden panels. Jao ordinarily preferred doorfields to crude physical barriers such as these.

    "I am pleased," the voice continued, "that you and Dr. Kinsey accepted my invitation."

    The "invitation," of course, had been a command. She ran fingers back through her short wind-blown hair as an excuse to hide her expression. The entrance hall, constructed of cool gray stone and a ceiling that loomed far overhead, was dim, as Jao quarters so often were, but also unexpectedly primitive. It had actual corners and huge pillars framing the doorway carved in the likeness of ceremonial bau. Like the flowers outside, they were a form of human decoration, adapted to Jao sensibilities. Jao just didn't do that, in her experience.

    "Governor Oppuk," she said with a feeling of dread as she waited for her eyes to adjust.

    Kinsey stepped forward, a smile on his face. "This is an extraordinary opportunity, being allowed to put together a history of the Jao! I can't thank you enough for giving me permission to do so!"

    Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo, the Governor of Terra, was dressed in customary Jao dark-blue trousers with the halfcape draped over one shoulder so many of the conquerors affected. Its insignia, meaningless squiggles to human eyes, had been worked in a bright, fierce scarlet.

    "It is perhaps time Terrans knew more of the Jao," he said in accented English. One of his ears swiveled lazily. "They are like ignorant children, understanding nothing of the dangers awaiting them beyond this solar system, dangers which require us, your protectors, to expend great amounts of resources and energy."

    "To be sure," Kinsey said, "but my book should remedy that. I'm eager to get started."

    Narvo turned to Caitlin. "It has been long since flow brought us together," he said. "Are you now considered emerged?"

    Her father had struggled to keep his family sequestered from his job as much as possible, not wanting them to come to the attention of their powerful overlords. This one, in particular.

    "Yes," she said, though she had no idea what "emerged" actually meant. Jao were notoriously close-mouthed on the subject of their biology and development.

    The Governor was massive, even for a Jao, the velvety nap covering his skin a rich red-gold. His vai camiti was composed of three uneven stripes slanted at forty-five degree angles across nose and eyes, rather like a zebra. He occupied the middle of the spacious foyer as though he were an ornamental statue and regarded them in a perfect attitude of amused-disdain.

    Caitlin had known Jao as far back as she could remember. There had even been times—thankfully long past—when Banle had remained in her bedroom when she slept. She'd begun learning bodyspeech at the age of four, almost as soon as she'd started to learn English. The Governor apparently wished to appear magnanimous and accepting, coming to meet them personally like this, but his body betrayed his inner thoughts: he was far from respecting humans and their ways.

    She glanced at Dr. Kinsey who was radiating pleasure. Without thinking, she curved her arms and let her fingers fall into amused-acceptance. "It was kind of you to invite us," she said, knowing full well no Jao in Oppuk's position would ever wish to appear "kind." The Jao understood kindness, in their own way—they had several terms for it, in fact—but it was closely associated with their complicated clan relations and bound up with their notions of proper relations between individuals of different status. Applied to subject people, the closest equivalent in their language connoted "weak" or "foolish."

    It was a stupidly imprudent thing to say, of course, but she was finding it harder than she'd expected to contain her hatred for the creature who had murdered her brother. Her remark was a petty way to strike back, but she felt better for it. And, in any event, she'd spoken in English, where the same insult was not implied.

    He blinked at her posture, then shifted into a rather stiff version of standard welcome, apparently startled into an uncustomarily coarse singleness of expression. "My castellan will see you to your quarters," he continued in English. "You should find them adequate."

    Dr. Kinsey turned and threw his arms wide. His face beamed. "I am certain we will find them nothing less than splendid!"

    The burly Narvo canted his head, his ears hovering on the edge of insult.

    Caitlin sighed. The Governor, it seemed, was not a subtle individual, and Kinsey had so little experience with Jao, he was confounding him with his exuberance. Humans were not supposed to be happy in the presence of Jao; impressed, yes, perhaps even awed, but not wild with delight. It was not the business of Jao to please humans.

    "Jao taste in design is noted across the world as being eminently preferable," she said, her bearing now shaped to quiet-reverence. "My father has sought to emulate it in our own residence, though never so perfectly as it deserved."

    "As well he might," Kinsey said. "I hope to see the President's official residence at some point too."

    At that moment, mercifully, a human woman dressed in black palace livery padded forward out of the shadows. "Shall you go to your rooms now, Miss Stockwell, Dr. Kinsey?"

    "Yes," Caitlin said hastily before Kinsey could speak again and worsen the situation. "Please."

    Governor Narvo held his ground and watched as they were forced to detour around him as though he were a pillar. Caitlin could feel the weight of his green gaze even after he was out of sight.



    Aille piloted his own Pluthrak courier to the Governor's private field at his residence, having been assured that berthing facilities capable of servicing it were available. Tamt krinnu Kannu vau Hij, his newly acknowledged bodyguard, went along in the second seat. Though there was room for all of them, Yaut remained behind to shepherd the rest of his party via less elegant transport. Let Oppuk meet him accompanied by only his Jao bodyguard, rather than a fraghta or several humans, he had counseled. It would make a better impression.

    It was the first time the two had been separated, since his current assignment, and Aille was understandably nervous about being without Yaut's sage advice.

    The green and tan landscape, as the ship descended, was startling in its aridity. A few small ponds shimmered in the metropolitan area below, along with some thready rivers, more sand than water in this season, it seemed. But there was no ocean and only a single insignificant lake, not even good-sized by Jao standards. Why was the Governor's residence located here, of all places, when this continent possessed so much inviting seacoast?

    As in Mississippi, evidence of past devastation still lay everywhere, even after twenty orbital cycles. Collapsed buildings sprawled like decaying bodies, rusted girders exposed and shattered glass bright beneath the sky. Smashed vehicles were scattered like broken toys and few of the bridges had been restored. Aille was surprised that so few repairs seemed to have been done since the conquest.

    When he and Tamt popped the hatch and emerged from the ship, the air that met them was hot, though not nearly as moist as that of Mississippi. His ears waggled as a small vehicle rushed toward them and stopped just short of the ramp.

    A pair of Jao stepped out. "Vaish, honored guest," the foremost, a sturdy male, said. His body was all respectful-attention with just the hint of implied awe. "Governor Oppuk sends greetings."

    The other, also male, actually mirrored his fellow servitor's stance, to Aille's surprise. Tripartite postures were extremely difficult. He himself had mastered only a few very formal ones. These two had been well trained, Aille thought, feeling strangely naked without Yaut at his side. Tamt hastily took her place in front, ceding him what little honor there was to be had in this situation.

    "I am delighted to be present," Aille said, holding himself in a safe rendition of appreciation-of-service, a posture learned very early by all Jao crechelings and one he was confident he could perform perfectly. How he comported himself here would reflect upon Pluthrak and would be reported to the Governor. He must be aware of that at all times.

    Aille realized with a start the two were identical, matched down to the pale-russet of their nap and the slant of their vai camiti. Clutch-brothers, certainly, but also genetically identical, a rarity among his species. They gestured at the cart which had four seats, two in front, two behind, unfortunately all seemingly fabricated for human proportions. "We shall escort you to the official residence."

    Aille allowed Tamt, her whiskers bristling and looking suitably efficient, to precede him down the ramp. Pride was apparent in her bearing, as well as respect—but the two were not properly combined so that, at points, they clashed and cancelled each other out. He must have Yaut coach her further upon their return to Mississippi.

    The drier heat was pleasant as he walked, playing across his back and shoulders like a deep massage. This climate, he supposed, might have its compensations despite the dearth of decent bodies of water.

    He did not ask the names of his escort, nor did they offer such. It was not their place, as underlings, nor had they performed any unusual service worthy of his notice. Still, he found himself thinking of his human workers, how they freely offered and inquired after names, almost as though no worthwhile exchange of information were possible without first knowing to whom you were speaking.

    The seats were indeed small, human-sized at best, and most likely intended for smaller specimens of the species at that. Tamt looked unhappy, despite her efforts to disguise it, but wedged herself into the back. He sat next to her and affected not to notice the disparity in the seat's meager proportions compared to his own. The vehicle, like most of those at the base in Mississippi, was of human manufacture and refitted with Jao maglev drive. But, by now, Aille was perfectly aware that a more spacious vehicle could have been found for this purpose. Here was a small, sly, studied insult—and not, he was sure, the last one he was going to encounter.



    The Governor's palace, though traditionally constructed of poured quantum crystal, lay at the end of a long avenue of tall native trees and was surrounded by various other kinds of native vegetation. These, although obviously tended and regulated, performed no useful function he could discern. Beds of colorful foliage spread out in every direction, dominated by a strange washed-out shade of red, along with true reds and whites. In the name of good manners, he stifled his bewilderment at the display and assumed instead an air of overall-approval.

    As they drove, the pair of servitors observed him from time to time over their shoulders, and he thought he detected, even in the well trained cant of their ears, a trace of hostility.

    He forced his mind to focus on representing Pluthrak honorably. The Governor might have some valid reason for this garish spectacle, after all.

    The cart stopped before massive doors in the center of the palace. The doors had been constructed in the human fashion out of a solid opaque substance, rather than an energy field. Beside him, Tamt squeezed out of the too-small seat, her eyes vigilant, and took up a protective stance. He followed, his whiskers aquiver with an intense rush of curiosity he could not quite subdue.

    "Governor Oppuk awaits you within," the first servitor said. Then, to Aille's barely-suppressed astonishment, a human servitor in Narvo colors appeared and opened one of the doors.

    Tamt stalked through, and then Aille. The two servitors followed, so that they all stood in a cavernous, cool dimness made of rectangular gray stones piled one atop another. Despite the traditional Jao-styled exterior of the palace, the interior was distressingly human. "Look at these corners," she said and reached out to touch them with the ends of her fingers. "They are so—abrupt."

    The servitors glanced at one another and their eyes flashed bright-green before they took command of themselves. "Governor Narvo has adopted aspects of the native style of building," one said. "Local materials and craftsmen are readily available and thereby less costly, and it impresses the natives, who need to constantly be reminded of their place."

    "Of course," Aille said, but it all rang false to him. He knew enough about humans, by now, to be sure that they would not be impressed by seeing their conquerors adopt native styles. Pleased, perhaps—if the adoption was accompanied by other forms of association. But otherwise it meant nothing. What "impressed" them, taken by itself, was simply Jao superiority in battle.

    "Governor Oppuk is in the solarium," the second servitor said. The last word was an English term, spoken somewhat awkwardly. "Will you come this way?"

    He cocked his head in assent and then allowed Tamt to again precede him, this time through a series of hallways and large echoing rooms, none of which possessed flow, in the classic Jao sense. Instead, the building had an odd cut-up feeling to it, as though it started and stopped in fits and no one ever quite got to where he was going. How did the Narvo live like this?

    The "solarium" turned out to be a vast room with glass panels set into the ceiling, so that the sun cascaded through and made the walls vibrate with light. Trees in tubs lined its straight edges, their branches filled with the small colorful avians called "birds." Aille blinked and realized most of the room had been dug out for a deep pool. It was most natural looking, outlined with slabs of black rock and a steady pattern of artificially generated waves lapping its sides.

    Out in the middle, someone was swimming. Aille stopped as a dark, wet head popped up out of the water and regarded him with glittering eyes that had gone mostly green. The face's vai camiti was very bold, but a trifle unbalanced, three black stripes slashed at varying angles. "Ah, Aille krinnu ava Pluthrak."

    Aille stood at the water's edge, the briny scent of this microcosm sea washing over him, and let intense-interest wash through him. "I am honored to answer your summons, Governor."

    "Of course you are." Oppuk swam over in one sinuous motion and heaved out onto the rocks. "And I am honored by the generosity of Pluthrak—to waste one of its illustrious progeny on this chaotic world."

    For far too long, Narvo had refused to ally itself with Pluthrak in even the smallest of matters. Such association would have been powerful, and mingling their potent bloodlines through a marriage-group would have spawned offspring who would make their mark on the galaxy. But Narvo had spurned all Pluthrak advances, and now the two were at odds almost at every turn. Aille had heard much of this rivalry, since he was a crecheling, but had never before been in the presence of a Narvo. His whiskers tingled with warning, though he held his body to intense-interest through fierce concentration.

    Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo shook himself, then gestured at a silent human servant, who appeared out of the shadows, eyes downcast. "What do you think of this room?" he asked nonchalantly, though his shoulders hinted at outright-challenge.

    "It is quite bright," Aille said, trying not to blink, "but otherwise reminiscent of my birthworld." Whatever he thought of the light level, the room had an exquisite scent. "Marit An's seas smell very much like this."

    "I had an odor expert brought in from Narvo's Pratus." Oppuk thrust his arms out as though he were a child, and the servant hastily slipped a standard weapons harness over his shoulders. "Expensive, of course, but as ruler of these creatures, I have to maintain a standard they will respect. And then, such a room makes living in this landlocked region more bearable."

    The sweep of the waves, modest as they were, touched that part of him which ached for home. Aille longed to leap into the water and swim until the grime of his trip was gone. Intense-interest, he told himself, not intense-longing, and though his whiskers twitched, his body held form. "I was wondering why you located the palace here, when this continent possesses so much seacoast."

    "Convenience. It is centrally located in this continent, which is where we met the greatest resistance." Oppuk stepped into a pair of flowing trousers. "And ready access to resources. We were forced to destroy much of this polity's infrastructure before they would yield. Lackluster as it is, this was the best location, though I often travel to one of the coasts for respite."

    He was an impressive specimen, Aille thought, mature and fit, though his nap looked a bit patchy with age.

    "Perhaps you will have the opportunity to swim in here," Oppuk said, "before you return to duty."

    "That would be most welcome," Aille said, his jaw tight with the effort of retaining a posture that did not arise from his thoughts.

    "Yes," Oppuk said, "I am sure it would." The human servant cinched the trousers around his waist, taking care not to actually touch him. "Feel free now to examine your quarters. All guests will attend your reception later in the current solar cycle."

    Aille lowered his eyes, then turned to the two servitors who had conducted him, question now seeping into his bearing.

    "There will be a number of natives present," Oppuk said offhandedly, before either could speak. "That, however, will most likely not trouble you, since you have actually taken several into your personal service." Refined-distaste flattened his ears, wrinkled his nose, made his brow rise.

    "I command jinau troops," Aille said. "I seek to understand the way their minds work so they may be made of more use."

    "Humans, when properly trained, make barely adequate servants," Oppuk said. "They breed in such quantities that we may secure some benefit out of them on the battlefield through sheer numbers. But I assure you that little of what you and I would recognize as true 'thought' occurs in their savage little minds. They are, according to one of their deceased elders by the name of Kipling, 'half-devil and half-child.'"

    Flow surged and Aille's hearts raced. What would Yaut counsel, if the fraghta were present this very moment? However he responded, he must not bring shame upon Pluthrak.

    He took a deep breath and assumed an air of chastened-enlightenment. "Thank you, Governor," he said. "I look forward to being further instructed through your observations."

    "Perhaps," Oppuk said. "If I am in the mood." He glanced at the two Jao servitors and they hastened to the far exit, one fitted this time with an ordinary doorfield. "This way," said the nearest.



    Upon arriving in landlocked Oklahoma City, Yaut found Aille had been relegated to an insufferably primitive annex, one full of angles and lines, with no sense of flow, while light was allowed to flood in through a veritable wall of windows. He directed Tully and Aguilera to stow their small parcels, then surveyed the site. "Unacceptable!"

    Tully retreated to a corner—his favorite move, predictable as the sunrise—and watched warily. Rafe Aguilera scratched his head, which probably indicated some sort of emotional state, but communicated nothing to a Jao.

    Yaut prowled the rest of the space, finding a sanitary facility, two small storage bays, and five sleeping platforms. But no pool, not even a small one. "Intolerable!" he said, coming back into the common area. "I do not understand! Is this Narvo deliberately trying to convey offense? A few petty insults are to be expected, naturally. That idiot tiny vehicle they sent to fetch me!—and Aille too, I am sure—but this is excessive."

    The doorfield shimmered off, admitting Tamt and Aille. Yaut glared at his charge as though these miserable quarters were all his fault.

    Aille wrinkled his nose, though his posture was carefully neutral. "I see you have become acquainted with our accommodations."

    "Did you insult the Governor even before you arrived?" Yaut felt righteous-indignation sweep over him. "It must have taken a great deal of preparation to craft something this unsuitable!"

    "It does not matter," Aille said. "Soldiers on the battlefield endure whatever conditions present themselves. We have far more important things to concern us at this point."

    "He is testing you," Yaut said.

    Aille's gaze flickered around the appallingly crude surroundings. "This sort of thing is beneath my notice. I do not choose to see these corners."

    "How can you miss them in this flood of light!" Yaut glared at the windows. "Can we not do something?"

    Tamt stepped forward, her shoulders all eager-to-serve. "Let me," she said. "I can go to the staff and secure coverings."

    "Coverings?" Yaut regarded her blankly.

    "Human dwellings have such things," the bodyguard said. "I have seen them. They call them 'curtains,' or sometimes 'drapes.'"

    "When were you ever in a human habitation?" Yaut said.

    Tamt hesitated, her posture dissolving into meaningless unassociated elements. She did not speak for a moment. When she did, her voice was low. "Now and then," was all she said.

    Yaut's ears lay flat with disapproval. "You too? What is this fascination with the natives? You will be ruined, if you are not careful, by the time you return to your kochan for reassignment."

    "That will not happen," she said, her voice even lower. Just for an instant, her eyes flashed the shocking bright green of intense-shame. "Some time ago, I sent in my request to stay permanently. I have not heard the answer yet, but I am sure it will be granted."

    "Why did you make the request?" Yaut stepped closer, studying every angle of her body, the tilt of her ears, the twitch of whisker, the angle of shoulder and arm, leg and torso. In his experience, admittedly brief, this particular female was not able to think one thing while performing another. She should be able to keep nothing back.

    Tamt gazed out the intolerably glaring windows, as though she could perceive something after all in that annoying blaze of light. "I am low status," she said finally, "little wanted in the kochan-house, or anywhere else, for that matter. But, here, on Terra, humans will always speak to you, despite all unworthiness. I... am comfortable among them."

    "But they are uncouth!" Yaut could not contain his outrage. "You prefer such to your own kochan?"

    She flinched, but did not meet his eyes. "You are valued," she said. "Or else you would not be fraghta to our young Subcommandant. You do not know what it is like to be never seen, never called, never selected or even noticed." She flattened her ears. "They dispatched me to Terra, to this subjugation which has no end, and never inquired after my successful placement or continued survival. In all the time I have been here, I have heard nothing from them. So, in the end, I decided to stay." She turned away from the light, blinking. "I am sure they will not object."

    She must have been most unpromising when newly emerged, Yaut thought, to have been distanced so thoroughly from her kochan. Perhaps they had planned for her to die in struggle here, bringing honor to her own in at least that small measure, and she had even failed to achieve that.

    "I will bring honor to the Subcommandant," she said suddenly, as though he'd spoken his thoughts aloud. "I will make them all see him, in every way possible! No one shall overlook him, I promise!" She hastened to the door, keyed the field off, then on again behind her.

    Aille stared after her, thoughtfulness written across his youthful face. "Interesting," he said. "You seem to have grazed a nerve."

    "'Interesting,'" Yaut said dourly, "hardly covers it."

    "I do not understand."

    "If this one has found a reason to stay, so must have many others." He turned his back on the garish spill of light and considered. "There is a thing which happens sometimes to Jao under extreme stress who have been too long from home, especially those of low status. They lose their sense of identity and lapse into slovenliness. When that happens, their kochan is shamed before all."

    "Really," Aille said, "such a thing can hardly be common?"

    "More common than anyone would like to admit," Yaut said, "and you have already taken three humans into your service. Make certain no one has further reason to suspect it of you."

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