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The Course of Empire: Chapter Twenty Seven

       Last updated: Friday, August 22, 2003 23:09 EDT



    Oppuk lounged in his hant and watched the visual link, fuming, his shoulders and the line of his spine stiff with outrage. The fighting had progressed far better than he had expected, once the campaign had been turned over to the jinau troops. It was affront enough that Pluthrak had assigned someone with no experience, as though this world were so easy to handle even a crecheling could do it. Now the young upstart and his natives had increased the insult by seeming to prove it so.

    He would grind their bones into powder before he was finished here, would hack their young to pieces and sear this land with cleansing flame. He—

    Forcefully, he broke off the moment of reverie. The situation was growing perilous, with the Pluthrak challenging him ever more openly. This was no time for Oppuk to be wallowing in fury, much as he wanted to.

    What he wanted even more was to be back at his palace, swimming in his specially formulated pool instead of the miserable little substitute he had available in this hant. The wild water on this planet was subtly off, the salts too high in mineral content, too full of impurities. He longed to immerse himself in the scents and tactile sensations of his kochan-world, even if they were only simulated, so that he could regain his equilibrium.

    A Jao servitor approached. "Kaul krinnu ava Dano has arrived, and wishes to speak with you."

    No doubt he does, Oppuk thought sourly. The Commandant, ever watchful of Dano's interests, would be probing to find advantage.

    "Send him to me." Oppuk rose, doing his best to squelch the smoldering anger. It was very difficult. He could remember a time, long gone, when he had enjoyed the endless maneuvers and tactics of kochan rivalry—and been very good at it. But his time on Terra had caused that pleasure to fade, along with so many others. Now, he simply found it tedious and irksome at best.



    Dano, as always, was blunt. "Pluthrak swells. This victory, coming so quickly and by using his methods, will swell him further. Do not compound the situation by confronting him immediately. Allow him the time to stumble. He is talented, but very young and impulsive. Such is my advice."

    Oppuk felt his temper rising again, and struggled to restrain it. He could not afford to offend Dano. Pluthrak and Narvo might be preeminent among them, but Dano was still one of the great kochan. Since his arrival, several orbital cycles earlier, Kaul had generally allied himself with Oppuk. With the Subcommandant grown so large, in such a short time, Oppuk needed to retain the confidence of the system's top military officer.

    But, try as he might, he could not force himself to do more than issue a grunt. It might have been agreement . . . or might not.

    Dano studied him for a moment, then assumed the posture of duty-fulfilled—with a trace of skepticism in the slant of his ears—and withdrew.

    Testily, Oppuk summoned his servitor and began putting on his harness. He would follow the Dano's advice, at least to the extent of receiving the young Pluthrak's formal announcement of victory.



    "And?" asked Kaul's fraghta, Jutre krinnu Kio vau Dano.

    Kaul, now that he was out of the Governor's sight, allowed his posture to lapse into a harsh and crude version of folly-observed. "He may have once been namth camiti, but it is hard to imagine. The flow of time carries Oppuk further and further into folly. He reacts to everything now like a maddened lurret."

    Jutre glanced at the entrance to the Governor's hant. A lurret was one of the great herbivores that roamed the Dano world of Hadiru. An old rogue male, to be precise, notorious for their insane furies. They had been known to charge headlong against combat vehicles.

    "If the Pluthrak has taken his measure—which he will, by now, with that fraghta to advise him—he will advance-by-oscillation. I think he is doing so already."

    "Risky," Kaul murmured. "Very risky. Admittedly, a dazzling tactic that would appeal to a youngster, especially one full of himself. He too, it is said, is namth camiti. But . . . would he be that incautious?"

    Kaul considered his fraghta's assessment further. Advance-by-oscillation was a tactic often mentioned in kochan rivalry, but rarely used in actual practice—precisely because of the risk involved. One attempted to force another kochan into association by steadily increasing the dissociation, matching move to move by swinging ever outward. Each measure, ever more extreme, forcing extreme measures from the other—until one or the other violated custom irreparably.

    Dazzling, indeed, if it succeeded. But the chances were far greater that the aggressor, being the one required to initiate each stage of the dance, would misstep first and plunge into the abyss.

    "And we should do what?"

    "For the moment, nothing but observe." The sound of an approaching vehicle could be heard. Jutre's ears rose, his whiskers twitched. "The Pluthrak is arriving."

    When the vehicle came into view, Kaul could see it was a jinau vehicle. Not just any such, either, but the vehicle that bore the insignia of the Pacific Division's commander. Indeed, he could see Kralik riding alongside Aille.

    The significance was obvious, and Jutre put it into words.

    "I was right," he said. "Advance-by-oscillation, it is. He is deliberately provoking the Narvo."

    A movement from the Governor's hant drew Kaul's attention. Oppuk was emerging. One glance at the Narvo's posture was enough.

    "He will succeed," said the Dano gloomily.



    It did not take him long, either. Kaul and Jutre observed it all from the side. Before Aille could do more than begin his report, Oppuk interrupted him brusquely.

    "You may submit those inconsequential items later, in a written report. For now, I wish only to know the extent of the punishment."

    "The city is being razed, Governor, and—"

    "How many of the creatures are dead?" The Governor practically snarled the words.

    His stance mild, Aille looked to the jinau general standing by his side.

    Kralik cleared his throat. "We counted one hundred and seventy-two of the rebels dead. There are undoubtedly more who perished in some of the demolished buildings, whose bodies will not be recovered. I estimate a total of perhaps three hundred. Along with another forty or so captured, most of them wounded."

    "Three hundred? In a population center of this size?"

    Kralik stared straight ahead, not meeting Oppuk's furious green-filled gaze. "Yes, Governor."

    "Why were there not more? There should have been thousands—no, tens of thousands!"

    "I believe most of the townspeople evacuated soon after it became apparent our forces would attack," Kralik said. His posture was rigid and formal. The bau tucked under his arm was absolutely still.

    Oppuk whirled on Aille, whiskers stiff with outrage. "And you did not prevent it?"

    "You ordered the town destroyed," Aille said. "You said nothing about its population."

    "You had your orders!"

    "And I followed them," Aille said. The young Pluthrak's posture was a superb rendition of calm-assurance, perfect for the situation. His tone of voice, also, was appropriate. Mild, but firm. "I admired your wisdom in punishing the locals through destruction of their property while not agitating them any more than necessary through excessive loss of life."

    "You mock me!" Oppuk loomed in his face, every line of his body screaming challenge. The Narvo was older, and not as tall, but massively built. Watching, Kaul thought Jutre's analogy to an enraged lurret more appropriate than ever.

    The Pluthrak seemed completely unfazed, his calm-assurance never wavering, his voice steady. "How so? I wish only to serve, Governor, as do all here, Jao and jinau alike. We have all learned a great deal today."

    "Yes," Oppuk said, "we have, and do not make the mistake of thinking I will forget it!" He turned away, ready to stalk off.

    Kaul began to exhale with relief. This had been bad, but not as bad as it could have been. Then, seeing that his fraghta's posture was still tense, he grew tense himself.

    What more could the Pluthrak do?

    The jinau general stepped forward. The human's face and posture were unreadable, as Kralik generally was, but there was something tense in the set of his shoulders. Before he even reached for the bau under his arm and drew it out, Kaul knew exactly what Pluthrak had planned.

    "One moment, Governor," said Aille, still in that mild-but-firm voice. "A carving for Salem needs to be added to Kralik's bau. Pluthrak can do it, of course, but the honor is properly Narvo's."

    The Governor froze in mid-turn, staring down at the bau extended toward him in Kralik's hand. With an exclamation of fury, Oppuk seized the bau from Kralik, broke it in two and cast the pieces at Aille's feet. Then, lunged back toward his hant, scattering humans and Jao alike from his path.

    Aille gazed down at the broken bau at his feet, then lifted his eyes to stare at Dano.

    There was no way for Kaul to pretend he had not observed. Nor would Jutre have allowed him to, in any event. Dano was traditionally allied with Narvo, yes. But Dano was a great kochan because it had its own honor. The vithrik of a fraghta, more than anything, was bound up with protecting that honor.

    "Yes, I saw. I will so report the incident to the Naukra." He decided that honor allowed him a bit of leeway. "If this matter reaches their ears at all."

    "It will," said the Pluthrak's fraghta. "Be sure of it." Grimly, Yaut said aloud what was now obvious to all: "Battle is joined, between Pluthrak and Narvo. It is in the open now, and can have but one end."



    Kaul and Jutre did not speak further until they had entered their own aircraft and were heading back to Pascagoula.

    "In the open, indeed," said Kaul. "We must look to Dano, now. Dano alone."

    "Yes," agreed Jutre.



    Once Oppuk and the Dano were gone, Aille allowed his posture to reflect justified-wrath. The posture deepened as he contemplated the broken bau on the ground.

    "That was dangerous," said Yaut, though his tone had no reproof in it. "He could have demanded your life."

    "He would need a better reason than this," Aille said softly. "I would have refused, and, if Oppuk was foolish enough to take the matter before the Naukra, they would sustain me. If the Naukra hesitated, the Bond of Ebezon would intervene on their own. Breaking a bau!"

    He made a small gesture toward the pieces on the ground. Oppuk's action had been a gross offense against custom. The giving of bau was a kochan matter. Oppuk could have refused the carving, to be sure. But he had no right to question Pluthrak's giving of the bau, much less proffer outright insult. It was precisely to keep kochan antagonism from crossing such bounds that the Naukra existed in the first place—and had its fearsome military arm, the Bond of Ebezon, to enforce their authority. A military arm that had wide powers, moreover, which it was not reluctant to use. More than once in the past, the Bond's Harriers had enforced custom directly, not even waiting for the Naukra to assemble and deliberate. And this was a clearcut issue, not ambiguous in the least. Narvo's intemperate arrogance was obvious to all. Not even Dano would try to argue the matter.

    Aille gazed toward the town. Even in the rain, the glow of burning Salem could be easily seen. "If I am to be of use, truly of use, then I must do as I feel necessary and deal with the consequences of my actions. Whatever else, I am Pluthrak—and Pluthrak is not to be bullied by Narvo. Certainly not such a specimen as Oppuk. It is a mystery to me, now that I have assessed the Governor, why Narvo ever sent him here."

    Kralik bent to pick up the pieces of the bau. "I'm sorry, sir."

    Aille stared at him. The jinau officer had done as Aille had directed, but Aille had given him no reasons. The human would have only the vaguest sense, if any at all, of what was involved.

    "There is no reason to be," Aille said. "You have done nothing dishonorable, Ed Kralik. The dishonor was Oppuk's. I will have another bau made for you, one whose carvings reflect your victory at Salem. The Governor had no right to break this one. This is an old posture between Pluthrak and Narvo, begun long before any of us here today were born. In the end, it will play itself out."

    "Yes, sir," Kralik said, but Aille could read worry in the human's eyes.

    Worry was appropriate, he thought. Oppuk was quite right, of course. Aille had defied him by subtly reinterpreting his orders, but he could not have acted otherwise. The needs of vithrik even more than the logic of advance-by-oscillation guided him here. The governing of humans required a light hand, if association was to proceed. Exactly how and in what way that was to be done, remained unclear. But to continue on in the old way would be against vithrik. Pluthrak's understanding of vithrik, if not Narvo's.

    Looking back over the events that had occurred recently, much was now clear to Aille. Whether or not to hunt the whale was a minor issue; in and of itself, simply a flap about local custom and religious practice. Even humans could not agree about its propriety. Oppuk could easily have sought a different activity, or simply changed the locale, avoiding the entire confrontation altogether.

    Instead the Governor had let himself be drawn into the squabble and made them all a target in the process. Punishing this entire town had only compounded the mistake. It would have been enough to demand the surrender of the rebels who had taken refuge there.

    Instead, now they had a number of Jao casualties in addition to the human loss of life. Kralik was right—this had been a well-laid ambush. Those who prepared it had obviously done so with Oppuk's not-sane temper in mind, knowing that he would strike here. Had Aille not withdrawn the Jao troops and let the jinau handle the matter, the Jao casualties would have been much worse. In the end, of course, they would have crushed the enemy—but Aille was quite sure the Resistance would have used their ferocious battle and the casualties they inflicted to rally further support among the native populace.

    He studied the broken bau, and came to a deep resolve. That was Narvo's method, which was clearly failing. Pluthrak would follow its own course.

    As Yaut had truly said, battle was openly joined. And could have but one end.

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