Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Monday, November 16, 2009 01:10 EST



    Jihan knew the Starsifters would learn of her disgrace from Sayr. So, after leaving the Han, she descended the mountain and then wandered the city’s river promenade with its sculpted waterfalls and elegantly pruned trees, trying to order her thoughts before confronting their rightful anger. Wind-borne spray from the falls soaked her face and robe as she passed, but, already numb with the shock of what she had done, she did not heed the chill.

    The moment when she had broken sensho played endlessly in her mind, the stunned expressions on the eldest’s faces, the heavy silence that had hung like a shroud afterward. Now she feared what the elders of her elian would say when she faced them. Quite simply, she had committed the unthinkable. Had anyone ever behaved as badly in the entire history of the colony? She had made herself infamous. Why had Grijo not simply remanded her graceless self to the dochaya the moment she dared contradict her elders? Even the sharp wind blasting down off the mountain could not clear her whirling head.

    It was less than six years since she’d been released from the Children’s Court. She was so junior, it was amazing the Han had listened to even a word of her prattling. Now she’d been assigned this immense responsibility and she knew full well that she was inadequate. Form a new elian? It was obvious that she hardly knew how to function in the one that had already accepted her.

    Finally, hungry and exhausted, she headed for home, following the winding path even as the promenade’s evening lights blinked on. The temperature had dropped with the setting of the sun and now each breath seemed laced with ice crystals. The air crackled with cold. Few individuals were out, evidently preferring to remain in-house with their elian and contemplate the devastating return of their ancient enemies in private.

    She turned up the path leading to the structure where she had dwelled since being accepted. It was modest, only a single story constructed of giln-wood with a few carved finials above the eaves, a sharply pitched roof, and a garden for day-to-day nutritional needs, mostly bluebeans and bushes of pavafruit. The remaining stalks were now dried and brittle with the arrival of cold weather.

    The Starsifters’ single spacecraft was not here, of course, but kept out on the colony’s landing field. It had been called into use only rarely down through the years since the Lleix had fled to this world in the nebula. Long range data and the analysis of debris from space were largely irrelevant in times of peace.

    But this was no longer a time of peace. She opened the doors and stepped inside, pausing to inhale the familiar homey smells of evening-meal, evidently roasted sourgrain and spiced mealnut tonight. A servant clad in a gray shift glanced at her, then looked down as though Jihan were a rudely intruding stranger. Passing through the deserted Application Chamber, she found two of the elders, Sayr and Kash, seated in the house’s communal kitchen, finishing small mealnut cakes.

    Sayr looked up from his privileged place closest to the radiant heat-source. His entire body drooped with weariness. “Young Jihan, come in,” he said, dark-pewter aureole flaring. “We have been discussing your reassignment.”

    Miserable, she threw herself at his feet, arms clutching her head, making her body as small as possible. “Forgive me!” she cried into the gleaming wooden floor. “I did not mean to disgrace the elian. I was just so — worried!”

    “Gently, child, gently,” Sayr said from above, then took her arms and pulled her up to face him. “Strong emotion clouds the intellect, and you will need all of your reason now.”

    She sat back on her heels, hands clutched to her chest, rocking with distress, unwilling to rise. “I do not — know — what to do!” she said brokenly. “The responsibility is too great!”

    “Evidently it is not,” Kash said, coming up to stand beside Sayr. Her bulk was not as magnificent as Sayr’s as she was only of middling age. Still, she was far taller than Jihan. “They would not have assigned such a task to you, otherwise. The Han is never wrong. You must seek within yourself for strength and plan how best to accomplish your task. Anything else will only shame the Starsifters even further.”

    Jihan gazed at the two of them, her mind whirling. Think, she told herself. What would Sayr do in her place? “I need the records,” she said finally. “The ones dealing with the Jao.”

    “You have already reviewed ours,” Kash said, “but you should copy them for your new elian.” Her black aureole stiffened as she considered. “Next you must go to the Ekhatlore, then the Historykeepers.” She set a steaming bowl of roasted sourgrain on the communal table next to Jihan. “Whether you are right or wrong — and I do believe that you are in youthful error — it will be beneficial to the colony to have all the relevant information in one location.”

    But Jihan was not wrong. The chemical signatures of the debris recovered danced in her head: weapons’ traces, DNA data, even the wiring and metallic composition of the blasted hull. The hated Jao were back. She would not let them succeed this time. Somehow, the Lleix would survive and force the wretched Jao to perish instead.



    None of the other Starsifters would speak with Jihan the next morning beyond a grudging response to her inquiries after records. This elian had taken her when they accepted almost no one these days, and then she had shamed them, not only by breaking sensho, but also disputing their analyses before the Han itself.

    The remaining eight resident Starsifters had now assumed classic oyas-to, the disciplinary mode dreaded by all youth where one’s elders simply refused to acknowledge someone so inharmonious and disruptive to their inner peace. She had experienced that form of correction from time to time, especially right after she had first entered the elian, in response to minor infractions, but this was far worse. She knew from the subtle shifting of eyes that no one saw her from the moment she entered the Morning Room, with the exception of Sayr and Kash, and even they only responded with the briefest of words, then turned away.

    Chastened, Jihan went to the Duty Chamber, rummaged through the archives, copied and copied. It had all been so long ago, almost a thousand years since the last Jao sighting, more than two thousand since the Ekhat had set their savage handservants upon them and thereby driven the Lleix from their array of jewel-like worlds. The Starsifters had only records of chemical traces, genetic markers, metallic compounds, engine signatures, and weapon patterns. Nowhere did she find an actual image of these hated warmongers. For that, she would have to go to the Ekhatlore or the Historykeepers.

    The three unskilled servants from the general labor pool who were repairing an outside wall for the Starsifters moved aside as she left the elian-house, but even they did not look at her. Jihan clutched the case with her copied records close to her robed chest. It was not to borne! she told herself. Even the unassigned disapproved of her actions!

    She lowered her head and stalked past them. They were great clumsy things, well along in years and yet without status because no elian had ever recruited them. She did not have to heed their disapproval, yet it rankled that news of her wantonness had spread even into the dochaya where the unassigned lived at the far edge of the city.

    Jihan decided that she would not-see, too, and adopted oyas-to with all she passed as she made her way from the modest district of the Starsifters to the rarified quarter which housed the great elian like Dwellingconstructors, Childtenders, and Ekhatlore.



    The Ekhatlore elian-house was massive, rising three stories with fanciful embellishments on the eaves and along the roof’s peak. Gaily colored flags fluttered, one for each venerated member in residence. Ekhatlore attracted hundreds of youths each year at the Festival of Choosing and took five or six, never more, and occasionally no one at all. Jihan had always been leery of them, feeling as though stretching their minds to understand the Ekhat made them a bit like the great devils themselves.

    Would the same happen to her now if she comprehended the Jao too well? She shuddered, then presented herself at the public doors which were half-again as tall as those of the Starsifters. A youth in an elegantly brocaded robe opened them. His folds fell perfectly as though sewn into correctness. His aureole, an impressively deep black, stiffened. His silver skin gleamed as though freshly oiled, while his upswept eyes regarded her with the chilliest of courtesy. “Yes?”

    “I am Jihan, formerly of the Starsifters,” she said, hastily twitching her own robe into a more pleasing configuration. Really, she thought with chagrin, she was presenting herself with no more sophistication than if she were wandering the streets in her children’s shift. “I have been charged by the Han to form a new Jaolore elian and so must consult the Ekhatlore records on that species.”

    “Ah, yes,” the youth said. “After the Han adjourned yesterday, it was said someone of little consequence and even less dignity had broken sensho. Our elders could speak of nothing else the whole evening.” He stepped aside so that she could enter, holding back his robe so that she would not brush against him.

    Within, the Application Chamber, an architectural element present in all elian-houses, was anything but standard. The exposed rafters were a bright blue, the furnishings richly carved, with sumptuous woven mats and padded leather benches. Stern Boh-faces had been carved into the walls so that the traditional guardian spirits seemed almost present within the house itself, a reminder of what had been lost. The subtle astringencies of steeped herbs filled the air.

    She stared around the impressive room, clasping her case with its precious cargo, so nervous, her aureole only fluttered about her face.

    “We have been expecting you,” a deep voice said from the shadows. The youth who had conducted her inside glanced over his shoulder, then, head down, backed gracefully out of the room.

    She turned as an elder entered, Alln, himself, resplendent in his robe of bloody scenes as he had been the day before. He was taller even than Sayr, almost as tall as old Grijo, Eldest-of-All. She inhaled deeply to steady herself, feeling the blood thrum in her ears. He was so massive, so magnificently old. “Do I have your permission to search Ekhatlore’s records for mention of the Jao?”

    “You do.” Alln settled on a padded bench, then regarded her steadily, which in its own way was as disturbing as the determined not-seeing of oyas-to inflicted upon her back at the Starsifters.

    He had the classic Lleix upswept eyes that compressed to gleaming black slits when his attention was focused, a mark of comeliness. His oiled skin was very bright, shining in the vast room’s dimness. She felt a child again, newly released, wandering the gaudy, loud Festival in desperate hope of attracting favorable notice and an offer of occupation.

    “You have sacrificed your future for this, shortest,” Alln said. “Therefore, by the worth of what you have given up, I feel you must be sincere.”

    “Do you believe that I am correct about the return of the Jao, then?” Her aureole stirred with hope.

    “I cannot say,” Alln said. “I am not a Starsifter, so those recovered bits of this and minute traces of that mean little to me. I do see that you believe, though, and in light of what you have sacrificed, that is a powerful statement in your favor.”

    She bent her head, overwhelmed.

    “You cannot explore this possibility alone, though,” Alln said. “Our records are extensive, far greater than one could sift alone in any reasonable amount of time, and there is reason to believe that we do not have a great deal of time to deal with this issue.”

    “But I am only an elian of one,” she said softly. “I have no others to assist. Even if the Festival of Choosing were tomorrow, it would take time to train any that I accepted.”

    “Ekhatlore understands that,” he said. “Grijo said up at the Han that you might recruit from other elian, so we have decided to release one of our number to you.”

    She raised her head, startled.

    “We assign you young Kajin,” Alln said. “He is quite –”

    “No!” a voice cried behind her, belonging to the youth who had met her at the outer doors. “You cannot expel me! Such things are never done except for cause! I have given no cause!” The elegantly clad youth darted into the Application Chamber with unseemly haste, his aureole standing on end. Evidently, Jihan mused, he had been listening in the passageway beyond, hardly the behavior of one who wished to be thought exemplary.

    “This is not expulsion,” Alln said with great gravity, “it is reassignment in a time of great need. You should be honored that we believe you can assist in this momentous task.” The elder sat back on his bench and regarded them both impassively.

    “No one is ever reassigned!” Kajin glared at the Ekhatlore elder with a shocking lack of respect. “I have never heard of such a thing!”

    “Your years are still very few,” Alln said. “Just because you have never heard of a practice does not mean it never occurs.” He gestured at Jihan. “All elian must work together in this time of trouble, each fulfilling its function. Have you forgotten that this may well be the Last-of-Days?”

    Kajin’s hand went to the front of his richly brocaded robe as though its folds were in disarray, which they were not. Even in his distress, he had preserved his dignity. “But this — creature — does not represent a real elian. That was just an excuse for the Starsifters to rid themselves of someone who could not behave properly! Everyone is talking about it across the city! She contradicted her elders and broke sensho before the entire Han!”

    “She has put aside personal ambition,” Alln said, rising to stand straight and tall, using his impressive height to its best advantage. “This child has traded her Starsifter future for what she believes is in the Lleix’s best interests. How can you look upon her and do less?”

    “I do not believe in her fantasies!” Kajin said. “I can serve best by performing my duties here!”

    “You have no more duties with us,” Alln said and stepped closer. “Your robe.”

    Kajin stared at him dumbly, his aureole limp. Then, finally, with trembling hands, the youth stripped out of his lavish Ekhatlore robe, folded the heavy material with reverence, then laid the bundle across Alln’s waiting arms. Naked, he was slight, slighter even than Jihan, though, because of his height, she was certain he was senior to her by at least a few Festivals. She realized then that she still wore her Starsifter robe.

    Kajin would not look at her. She suddenly felt indecent, standing there in her false clothing while he had none. She shrugged out of the beautiful gray cloth with its silver brocaded starbursts. She had no right to wear it now. Alln had been speaking to her too. She was just too dull-witted to grasp his words’ relevance at first.



    She bent her head, fingers tracing the starburst pattern one last time. “Could you have this returned to the Starsifters?”

    Alln bent his head too, a great gesture of respect from one so lofty. “Indeed we will.”

    “And –” She inhaled, thinking hard. “Might we borrow two lengths of unadorned fabric until we can get a Patternmaker to design a motif for our new elian?”

    “That would be most appropriate,” Alln said. He turned and a waiting servant scampered forward. “Bring unworked cloth for these Jaolore,” he said. “And see to their needs as long as they are researching our records.”



    It was not to be borne! Kajin could not make his mind work, could not process that he had been cast out, that the only meaningful occupation he’d ever had in his entire life was at an end and seemingly on a whim. As if it were not bad enough that the Ekhat were coming back to murder them all! Now he wasn’t even going to be allowed to die with his true elian.

    What could Alln have been thinking? That ran through Kajin’s mind over and over. One simply was not removed from his elian without cause! And he had given no cause. Indeed, he had worked tirelessly to learn what the ancient records said so that they could be ready when — not if — the great devils who ate the universe, the Ekhat, returned.

    Now they had come back and instead of being allowed to share his observations and correlate information with the rest of the Ekhatlore, he had been discarded to start over in a lowly new elian, one without even robes or a house to call its own. He simply could not process the stunning change in fortune.

    Jihan was bent over a viewer. The bones in her naked spine stood out like knobs. “Here!” she said, eagerness vibrating through her voice. “This is what they looked like!”

    A servant entered the room, bearing several bolts of undecorated cloth. Kajin snatched one and wrapped it around his body before looking. Lack of clothing made him feel like an unreleased child again, playing at choosing elian in the Children’s Court.

    The viewer was showing squat muscular creatures with mobile ears and snoutlike faces. Their bodies were covered in short fur of varying shades of brown. They wore leather straps on their upper bodies, stiff foot-coverings, and loose flowing garments from the waist-down in various colors.

    “The Jao!” Jihan motioned him closer.

    “They were a client race,” Kajin said reluctantly, dredging his memory for what little he’d encountered about them, “one engineered by the Ekhat into sentience. By all accounts, they were only bloodthirsty savages when the Ekhat first came across them.”

    The servant stood patiently behind them, waiting with the other bolt of cloth. Jihan did not seem to notice, so Kajin took the cloth and pressed it into her hands. She draped it across her shoulders with a distracted air. The viewer was playing a battle scene now. Lleix and Jao were dying messily. Explosions shattered a graceful Lleix city, demolishing houses and fountains and roads.

    “They fight very well,” Jihan said, her voice strained.

    “Too well,” Kajin said morosely. He watched shards flying through the air, buildings blasted into slag, stumpy Jao brutes advancing on terrified weaponless children.

    “Are there any records of their language?” She abandoned the viewer to scan the index again, flipping through the embossed sheets.

    “Perhaps,” Kajin said, “but why would you think it matters? Surely you do not mean to stand in their shadow and reason with them?”

    Jihan looked up at him, her eyes bright with purpose. “We should familiarize ourselves with their language so that, if they return, we can understand intercepted communications. After all this time, they will not expect us to possess that capability.”

    “What good will that do?” He twitched at his makeshift garment so that it hung marginally better. “Those few of us selected to leave Valeron, will. The rest stranded here will have no ships. Jao or Ekhat, our enemies will destroy us utterly without even landing upon this world, and we will be able to do nothing in our defense.”

    She regarded him with unnerving focus. “You really think not?”

    “I know we will not,” he said. “As it has always been, it is just a matter of time. For most of us now, this is the Last-of-Days.”

    “You are in error,” she said, turning again to the index. “Information is strength, and somewhere in here is the knowledge that will save us. We only have to find it.”

    She was obviously younger by at least a few Festivals, yet he felt lesser in rank, as though her surety somehow advanced her past him. Had it been that way in the Han yesterday? She had broken sensho by gainsaying her Starsifters’ elders, yet Grijo had not expelled her from the gathering. Instead, he had rewarded her with the mandate to form her own elian.

    In ordinary days, it was considered a great moment when a new elian was created, but there was nothing ordinary about the return of their ancient enemies. None of them here would survive long enough to make this new elian anything but a momentary curiosity.



    Jihan searched the Ekhatlore records far into the night. At one point, a doddering servant clad in a gray shift arrived with steaming pots of sourgrain laced with fragrant greenberries, a great courtesy of the house as visitors were rarely fed more than ceremonial delicacies. She ate hers without tasting, her eyes trained on the fascinating records. She would have made a better Ekhatlore than Starsifter, she realized. The fierce turmoil of these long ago events drew her as the dry statistics of chemical traces and compounds never had.

    Kajin remained beside her, explaining references, helping her access the old-style recordings until they had tracked down most of the information concerning the Jao.

    Finally, in pursuit of a Jao-language file, she stumbled across the record of a meeting between Jao and Lleix which did not appear to be a battle. Two thousand, two hundred forty years old, it had taken place on Sankil, Last-Home, before the remnants of her species had fled to Valeron.

    She turned to Kajin, who was so weary, his aureole clung to his head. “What is this?”

    He peered over her shoulder. On the screen, the little figures of Jao and Lleix faced one another, speaking in foreign gibberish. “I do not know,” he said. “I have never seen it before.” He halted the recording. “It should have an embedded translation track.”

    She shifted impatiently from foot to foot, unable to be still, as he fiddled with the settings, searching the file.

    “Now,” Kajin said finally, “play it.”

    She punched up the file name. The screen blinked, and then the figures appeared again. They stood on a blue and green world filled with sumptuous vegetation, all unfamiliar species. A huge Lleix, magnificently old, stepped forward. Her robe pattern indicated Wordthreaders, an elian which still existed to negotiate conflicts between their own kind. Her silver aureole flared. “Subcommandant Breen,” she said, “the Lleix have a proposal for you, one that will set your people free to come into their own, as they otherwise never will.”

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image