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The Course of Empire: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Friday, July 11, 2003 22:45 EDT



    Despite Banle's assertion that Oppuk couldn't even wait a minute for Caitlin to brush her hair, the two of them stood out in the hall for three hours before she was admitted into an audience she had not sought. Jao rarely misjudged temporal flow to that degree, and Caitlin suspected Banle had known they would not be needed until then. It was just one more not-so-subtle display of power on the Jao governor's part.

    It was petty, too, in that respect quite atypical for Jao. Caitlin would give Terra's rulers that much: as a rule, they were less prone than humans to the bureaucratic mindset which enjoyed rubbing inferior status into subordinates through trivial measures like keeping someone waiting. Oppuk, unfortunately, seemed to combine the worst traits of both species.

    At length, a human servant emerged through the doorfield's blue shimmer, eyes downcast, and indicated with a small motion of his hand that they should go in now. Relieved to finally be doing something, Caitlin stepped forward. But even before she touched the field, she could tell it was still set at a fairly high frequency, almost too solid to pass through. She laid her palms against its scintillating surface and felt the resonance in her bones.

    "Go!" Banle said, hanging back, determined to have the place of honor this go-round.

    "Just a minute," Caitlin said, then turned to the servant, who was waiting, silent as a shadow, by the wall. There was a bruise on the man's face, she suddenly realized. "Can you turn it down—"

    Banle seized Caitlin's shirt at the nape of her neck and shoved her through. It was like being forced through concrete that had almost solidified. Caitlin struggled to breathe, caught for a second in the middle, then staggered on through as Banle's superior strength prevailed. They both emerged into a small room, comfortably dim and cool. Evidently, she thought, trying to control her ragged breathing, Oppuk wasn't showing off his ability to tolerate sun today for the locals as he had been yesterday at the reception.

    The humid air was thick with a bitter smell akin to the stench of rotting seaweed, causing her eyes to burn. She eased out of Banle's fingers and took up a strictly neutral stance, which she hoped would not give Oppuk the opportunity to find offense. He was very fond of being offended, was Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo.

    She'd had an older brother once, lanky, flaxen-haired Brent, who had told her jokes and taken her riding on his horse, but no more. Four years after the Occupation began, Narvo had requisitioned him from her father to be trained as a translator, then hadn't approved of his accent, after having him instructed in Jao. "Simply barbarous," the Governor had been reported to say, before swinging a massive fist and crushing her brother's cervical vertebrae. She'd been six that year, but she still remembered the terrible emptiness of her house, along with her parents' grief. The body was never returned. Governor Oppuk had disposed of it for them, as a "courtesy."

    The big Jao was seated before another one of their pools, watching the water trickle in from an overflow channel. He was quite naked, though she knew no Jao ever took notice of such things.

    "They are all connected," he said in the complex tones of his own language.

    She composed her limbs into an uncomplicated neutral stance, one just short of outright indifference, and prepared to wait. Either Oppuk would make sense, or he would not, but trying to hurry him would not be wise.

    "The pools," he said finally. "I thought it would be amusing, to create an entire indoor waterway. We do not have anything that ambitious even in the biggest kochan-house back on Pratus."

    She abandoned neutrality for polite-interest, but dared nothing stronger. "The pools run from room to room throughout the palace?"

    He rose and prowled the length of the artificial stream, then stared at the wall through which it disappeared. "If you threw a dead body in at the beginning," he said, "it would float unencumbered to the opposite end, before meeting the pumps and filters. I had it designed that way, less trouble for the servants."

    "I see." Cold dread prickled along her spine. The one thing she could be certain about was that Jao cared nothing about what made more work for servants. Especially not a Jao like Oppuk, who used mainly human servants. So, what did he want? His own posture was intricate, and she was not good enough at reading formal movement to depend on her own interpretation.

    He turned back to her and, in the lay of his ears, she thought she caught a flash of... jealousy?

    "What did you think of him?" he said, as though they'd been having some other conversation altogether. His body assumed the sharp lines of bold-insistence.

    She flinched. "I regret I do not know who you mean."

    Banle, who had taken up a stance of readiness back by the wall, glanced at her. Caitlin could read her unease.

    "The Subcommandant," Oppuk said. "Young Pluthrak."

    "He was very..." She wracked her brain for something innocuous, yet complimentary. "Very gregarious. We had an interesting exchange of words."

    "So," he said, and his eyes danced with ominous green, "even a human can see that much. I should have known."

    She longed to look away, but dared not take her attention off him.

    "Your clutch-mate, Brent," he said. "Do you remember him?"

    "Brent was my brother," she said, her throat aching with tension, "and I do remember him, but humans are born singly most of the time, not in clutches as are Jao. We were not clutch-mates."

    Oppuk's head canted and his eyes were again the black of onyx, unreadable. "I was told that," he said, "when I first came to this wretched world, but never credited such foolishness."

    She waited, fingers trembling.

    "Jao offspring are whelped in clutches for convenience, but each is born of a single female." He lumbered forward to loom over her. "If humans reproduce only one child at a time, how did their numbers reach such incredible proportions?"

    "I cannot say," she said in a strangled whisper. "I only know what I am told."

    "Of course, since you have not been permitted to breed yet," he said, "you do not possess all the facts about the act and its consequences. I will interview you again after your kochan has selected your marriage-group and you have produced your first progeny."

    "Yes," she said, her eyes trained on his muzzle. The fierce whiskers gave him the aspect of a walrus; and, although he was not as large as one, Oppuk was far more dangerous. Her cheeks heated, but she took solace in the fact he would not understand the reaction indicated embarrassment in a human. "I—I would find such a conversation instructive."

    Without another word, Oppuk slipped into the small pool with only a faint splash and dove to the bottom. There, he settled on his back, watching his visitor up through the rippling water as though she were prey.

    Banle motioned at the door and then stalked through, without waiting to see if Caitlin would, or even could, follow. She launched herself at the field, arms outstretched, and managed to struggle through on her own. Though, for a minute, blood pounding in her ears, she thought she might not make it.

    Just beyond, Banle was standing still, facing the long hallway before her, arms akimbo, ears pinned back in a posture Caitlin had never encountered before. The Jao must have been in a hurry indeed to have gone first.

    "Did you understand what that was all about?" she asked.

    "You do not want to know," Banle said in English and shook herself. "Hope you never have occasion to find out."

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