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The Crucible of Empire: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Monday, November 30, 2009 20:27 EST



    “He is no longer unassigned,” Jihan said. “You will accord him the respect of a youngest!”

    Pyr looked up, refusing to flinch. “Unassigned wander the colony every day, seeking work, if no one comes to the dochaya to secure their labor,” he said. “Such — as I was — see many houses on a regular basis, while those who have their own elian mostly stay home unless they have outside tasks. I remember a small structure that may well suit your — our — needs.”

    Well, it might be no better than what she had found so far, but she might as well look. “Lead us there,” she said.

    Pyr hopped to his feet, almost wriggling with joy, and started off down the winding street. She followed the youth, with Kajin lagging behind. They passed the magnificent facades of Ekhatlore and Historykeepers, the eloquent architecture of the Distributionists. The sight of the huge houses, so very old and lovingly maintained, saddened her. The Ekhat, the great devils whose music was destruction, would sweep through and raze everything. If only the Lleix possessed the might to destroy them instead!

    And then she expanded that wish to include the Jao, who in their own way were worse, because they’d had the chance to escape the Ekhat’s control and had chosen instead to remain slaves.

    Other Lleix gave them disapproving looks as the three passed, then quickly turned aside. Admittedly, they were an odd group, she and Kajin with their blank, hastily draped robes, homely Pyr in his ragged unassigned’s shift. Word must have spread about her transgression because all elian had been represented up at the Han. Quite literally everyone knew how badly she had conducted herself.

    But Sayr had said, despite her graceless breaking of sensho, she might well be right. She held onto that, and the fact that Ekhatlore was willing to aid her. She could only go on from here, make the best of what circumstance provided.

    “This is it,” Pyr said suddenly.

    Jihan looked up from the inlaid stone road. They had stopped before a small tidy house at the western edge of the colony, surrounded by large dried-up gardens. Huge windows swept from floor to ceiling. The interior must be flooded with light at all times of the day, she thought. Most elian sought privacy. How strange.

    Faces, though not Boh, had been carved into a series of posts supporting a covered area around the front so that the membership of the former elders seemed still to be present. Each face seemed wise and knowing like the Starsifter elders Jihan had forever left behind. She felt another pang at the enormity of what her actions had cost.

    Kajin scowled. “What kind of elian lived here? There is so much wasted space!” He stalked into the empty gardens, crunching through dead weeds. “An establishment of this modest size would not require such a large garden.”

    “I have been told that this belonged to the Flowercultivators,” Pyr said softly. His skimpy aureole flattened in respect and he did not look at Kajin. “They have been gone for some generations now. I do not know how many, but the structure is still solid.”

    Flowers grew wild along with other weeds. Jihan had never known heard of an elian organized for the sole purpose of cultivating such a thing. Her thoughts whirled as she followed Kajin into the gardens. What had the flowers been for? Who made use of them? She gazed at the abandoned house with its barren gardens. There was no one left to ask. Unless they had left records behind, she would never know.

    Inside, the rooms were orderly and a fair amount of dusty furniture remained. She even found a few bolts of leftover cloth featuring fading patterns of blue, yellow, and purple flowers. Huge empty glass containers occupied each room as though waiting for something.

    The colony had lost an interesting function when this elian died, she thought. And there were many empty houses now, each marking an group which had once contributed a valued quality to the whole and now was lost forever.

    Like Jaolore. There must have been an elian devoted to the study of the Ekhat’s client species. If it had survived, now they would be so much further ahead in understanding and preparing for the menace that was surely sweeping their way.

    “This will do,” she told Kajin and Pyr, and relief swept through her. She dispatched Kajin back to Ekhatlore to retrieve their copied files and beg the loan of several viewers. Pyr, she ordered to the dochaya to select servants to clean this dusty house so that it would be fit for habitation again.

    She herself would go to the colony’s central commodities warehouse and draw food supplies to last them for a few days. Also, she would stop at the Patternmakers to request a simple pattern for Jaolore so that they could go decently clothed. The rest would have to wait. The Jao were coming and it was upon her head to do what she could to make the colony ready.

    Her head swirled with plans. First, she must study the Jao’s barbarous language. Then they would be able to conceal nothing in their transmissions.

    She would have Kajin teach Pyr how to run a viewer, then the two of them could sift records faster. At one point, there must have been a Jaolore. A great deal of that information would have been subsumed by Ekhatlore. They would have to pull it back out again.

    There was too much to do, too much! She felt twitchy with dread. So much responsibility and so little with which to work!

    A short time later, she looked out one of the huge windows and saw Pyr returning with five unassigned, ranging in height from very slight to quite tall, each individual utterly homely in his or her own way. She met them at the door. They filed into what must have once been the Application Chamber and gazed at her with expectant black eyes. All decisions fell to her now, even the assignment of their labor.

    “I know these five well, Eldest,” Pyr said with a modest sweep of one hand. “They will work hard.”

    “If they do not,” Jihan said, “we will find others who will.” She gazed at them critically. “The two largest of you shall come with me to the Commodities Warehouse, and the rest will sanitize the house while we are gone. Cast nothing aside unless it is damaged. We have limited time to replenish supplies.”

    She headed for the door, but none of them moved.

    “Mistress,” the tallest said, when Jihan turned back, “is it true that you might select more unassigned for membership in this elian?” The speaker was female, grown into respectable height, a full head taller than Jihan, but possessed of an oddly ragged brown aureole which seemed plastered to her head.

    Pyr gazed at Jihan steadily, almost hungrily. He wanted — something.

    She had broken tradition by accepting him, but he was still young, barely out of Festival. It was not beyond the bounds of reason that she put such a youth to work as a full-fledged member of her new elian in this time of extreme need.



    But these others were hardened unassigned. No one would ever take any of them. The proper way to increase Jaolore would be to wait until Festival came round, but it would not occur again until the next warm season, a very long time from now. And any helpers she begged from established elian would be at least as resentful as Kajin, perhaps even worse.

    “Perhaps,” she said. “It remains first to see how my acceptance of Pyr works out, and how hard each of you works. But Jaolore needs more members and soon, so –”

    The three designated cleaners scattered through the house without waiting for her to finish, while the two tallest stepped outside, plainly ready for the trip to the warehouse. She heard water running, cabinets being opened. Work was already in progress even as her words hung in the air.

    Well, then, that was good. She rearranged the folds of her blank robes so that she would not look unkempt, then headed out into the frost-laden air. A few flakes of snow sifted down from the leaden clouds. She curled her bare toes against the chill and then hurried on. The unassigned followed.



    Over the next few days, the house’s organization slowly came together. Under Jihan’s orders, Kajin trained Pyr to work the viewer, and then both of them passed only the interesting bits on to her. She consulted with the Patternmakers so that Jaolore could look respectable and worked out their comestibles allotment with the Distributionists.

    The five unassigned worked so diligently that she was amazed no elian had ever taken them in. Their physical appearances, though seedy and plain, would improve with a better diet, and she thought they could not have looked so bad during their Festivals of Choosing. It was generally believed that all who deserved an elian found one, but she was no longer certain that was true.

    Young Pyr worked the hardest of all even though he had now received his place. When he had finished examining Ekhatlore records for the day, he joined the five servants in restoring the house, clearing weeds from the vast overgrown gardens, fixing battered bed-platforms and cabinets, and retrieving abandoned supplies from the underground storage areas left by the Flowercultivators.

    Jihan had to order him to sleep each night and still he rose before all the rest and was already at work when she found him the next morning.

    Their meager store of information about the Jao grew. Two hundred years after the fatal meeting, when the Jao had refused assistance from the Lleix, the savages had disappeared from the recorded encounters for almost eight hundred years. There were many records of battles with the Ekhat, whole colonies exterminated, ships destroyed, but the Jao were strangely absent.

    Then, a mere thousand years ago, in the battle that had driven the Lleix to take refuge on a resource-poor world inside a nebula, the Jao had appeared again. Jao ships had destroyed the last of the fourteen Lleix worlds. Jao weapons had exterminated nine tenths of their population.

    Half of the surviving Lleix had fled to Valeron, leaving the Jao behind in a series of jumps that also had left a number of their own ships wandering forever lost.

    They had left behind the stars and hidden on this occluded world for the last thousand years. Until three hundred years ago, there had been no sign of the Ekhat. Although Valeron was not a particularly welcoming world, they had believed themselves safe.

    Jihan realized now, though, that with or without the Ekhat, the colony was slowly dying. Critical elian passed away every generation and knowledge was lost. The colony lacked the mineral deposits and ores needed to craft replacement parts for machines and ships. Elian like the Skyflyers died out for lack of support so that her people were ever more rooted to this barren plain at the foot of the mountains.

    What had the Jao been doing out there in the nebula with the Ekhat? Why had they fired upon their own masters? Were they trying to break free, as the Lleix had once counseled them, or had the Ekhat finally turned upon them too?

    So many questions and so little data with which to resolve them. It made Jihan’s head spin each time she tried.

    The only thing of which she could be certain was that it would be useless to attempt parleying with the Jao. That brave elder had tried long ago and her effort had led only to slaughter. It was clear that the Jao would interpret any hesitation as weakness. The Lleix must meet them with all possible force when the moment came.

    She consulted with the Weaponsmakers, who armed the colony’s spaceships. Under their direction, the crews had fired upon both the Ekhat and the Jao ships, destroying one and damaging another, so their tech, though ancient, was still effective.

    “We are fewer every generation and there seems to be a neverending river of Ekhat,” the Weaponsmaker Eldest, Branko, told her. He was amazingly tall, almost equal to old Grijo himself. His robe was carefully draped, the decorative pattern a simple and severe lightning bolt. “They will return in ever greater numbers and then it will finally be Last-of-Days.”

    “It will if we just give up!” She bolted to her feet, dislodging a tiny table in the Weaponsmakers Application Room. A silent servant appeared from a side corridor to right it, then retreated back into the shadows.

    “We have never just `given up,’” Branko said stiffly. “But it is understood that the Last must come — eventually.”

    “I do not understand that!” The recent facts she had absorbed and was attempting to correlate whirled through Jihan’s head: savage Jao words for which there were no Lleix equivalents, starship statistics, firing patterns, chemical signatures, population trends, death rates, records of ancient encounters. “We must work together so that the Last-of-Days will not come!”

    “You are still quite short,” the Eldest said, his tone condescending, as though she had just emerged from the Children’s Court. “Greater height will eventually grant you better perspective.”

    If she lived to achieve greater height. The Ekhat and the Jao were coming back! Jihan stared at the oh-so-proper draping of the Eldest’s robes, his carefully raised aureole, the heavy lines of vahl around his eyes and accenting the bridge of his magnificent nose. He was static, going nowhere. The whole colony was going — nowhere! They would send off a few ships with a mere fraction of their population, then just sit here and wait for the Ekhat to incinerate the rest of them! Frustration flooded through her and she had to force herself to be civil.

    “I require your records about battles with the Jao,” she said, her gaze turned to the floor. “They will be quite old, at least a thousand years old, and many older.”

    “Access will be provided,” Branko said. “Will you take refreshments with me?”

    And because it was polite, because that was what two Eldests did, even when one was half the size of the other and had nothing in the way of wisdom or experience to offer, Jihan agreed. She settled back onto a painted bench while servants offered platters of spiced mealnut cakes and newly squeezed halla pulp. The two Eldests discussed the weather, the lacking quality of cloth produced these days and the latest crop of children accepted into various elian, anything but the certain destruction waiting to pounce upon the colony out there in the black cauldron of space.

    And the whole time, Jihan seethed.




    When Jihan returned to the Jaolore elian-house that night, the building smelled quite fresh with boughs of pungent purpleleaf tacked up in strategic locations and the wooden floors polished. They still creaked when she stepped inside, but she imagined that in another day, at the present level of industriousness, even that would be remedied.

    Pyr waited for her in the Jaolore Application Chamber, his aureole newly fluffed, draped in a length of undecorated cloth. He looked quite the proper little adult, she thought, despite his inherent homeliness.

    She handed him a stack of recording-flats, then passed a weary hand back over her limp aureole, trying to think what must be done next.

    “You must rest, Eldest!” Pyr handed the flats off to one of the servants, who was now clad in a clean shift, she noticed with approval.

    “No.” Jihan stalked through the hallways into the long communal kitchen in the back. Spices filled the air. The lights were mellow. Two of the servants looked up from a low table where they were eating, but there was no one else. “I do not have time for such.” She glanced around the dimly lit room. “Where is Kajin?”

    Pyr followed her into the room, but his gaze was downcast, his demeanor subdued.

    She stopped. “Where is he?”

    “Gone, Eldest.”

    Pyr’s voice was so soft, she thought she hadn’t heard him correctly. “Gone? Where?”

    “He did not tell me, Eldest.” He inhaled deeply, still averting his face.

    She tried to think. “Did he train you on the equipment as I requested?”

    “Yes, Eldest.” Pyr’s round eyes looked up and glinted momentarily with pride. “I have been practicing and can operate the viewers quite well.”

    Then where would Kajin have gone after that? She’d given him no further instructions. “He must have thought of another elian likely to have records of the Jao,” she said finally. “No doubt he will return shortly.”

    “No doubt,” Pyr echoed dutifully, although his tone belied his words.

    There was more here than the youth was saying. “You will be honest with me,” she said sternly. “We cannot waste time on smoothing over ruffled feelings.”

    Pyr went very stiff. “Kajin said that it does not matter how much information you collect on these savages, we will never be able to fight them off.”

    There had to be more, she thought. “And?”

    “He refuses to be part of such — foolishness.” Pyr’s voice was barely more than a whisper. “You violated sensho, so he says that he owes you no respect. He would not say where he was going, but he threw off his robes and left the house in a great temper. I followed him across the city, keeping to the shadows. Kajin has removed himself — to the dochaya.”

    Obviously Kajin would rather be without an elian than under her control, she thought numbly, but he did not have the right. She had not released him, so now he was the one breaking sensho. “File these new recording-flats with the rest,” she said. Her fingers tugged at her robe, improving its drape. She must look her best.

    “I will be back soon,” she told Pyr and the servants.

    “Shall I go with you, Eldest?” Pyr asked, still hunched in misery.

    She started to say no, but young Pyr knew the dochaya as she did not. “Yes.”

    And the two of them set off through the night.



    The dochaya was crowded, filled with building after low graceless building where the unassigned kept themselves when not needed for gainful employment. Each structure they passed emanated unpleasant smells and was marred with filth. Jihan stopped at the edge, surveying the mess visible through an open door. Bowls and eating utensils were scattered about the floor, along with ripped shifts, bits of broken stools and benches. “Why do they not clean their quarters on the days they do not find work?” she asked Pyr.

    He stared at the ground, shivering with remembered distress. “They are sad, Eldest. They think only of leaving.”

    The night wind gusted, howling around the buildings. Unassigned gazed at her hungrily as the two of them passed. Why, she wondered, were they milling outside when they should have been within, sleeping, making their bodies ready for the next day’s work?

    The dochaya was large, stretching around the eastern edge of the colony, bordering the landing fields themselves. She hadn’t realized its true extent. Servants came from here and returned when they were no longer needed. Those without employment applied at the elian each morning for occupation. It was rarely necessary for anyone of her rank to enter this place.

    And Kajin was here? She would never find him among so many.

    “Wait, Eldest,” Pyr said when they had reached the center. “I will make inquiries.”

    The youth disappeared into the dark maze of ramshackle buildings. She walked up and down as a few late unassigned trickled back from the city in their ragged shifts, obviously having worked late. Jihan shuddered. This could have been her fate as well. She’d received only one offer during Festival while better favored children sometimes had twenty and thirty. She’d always been grateful to the Starsifters for accepting her, but now, seeing this desolation, she knew she had not been grateful enough.

    Wind caught a fragment of a shattered crate and sent it skittering against a building. Unassigned stared at her, but did not speak. The night was clear. She gazed up at the nebula’s crimson haze, trying to imagine the Jao and the Ekhat lurking out there, persistent down through the long years, waiting ever so patiently for the opportunity to murder them all.

    Finally, Pyr emerged from the shadows between the two closest buildings, Kajin in tow.

    “You acknowledged me as Eldest,” she said. The former Ekhatlore looked utterly dejected, naked and weary. “You have no right to be here. I have not released you.”

    Unassigned murmured as he passed, their eyes reflecting the scant diffused starlight that filtered down through the nebula’s haze. “Forgive me!” Kajin said and cast himself at her feet, making his body small.

    Then she understood. The dochaya was far more dreadful than he had expected, too. She held herself stiff and proper as she thought Sayr would have, under similar circumstances. “We will have no more of this foolishness! Jaolore has far too much work and not enough hands as it is.”

    “All my life,” Kajin said, his voice muffled against the dirt, “I wished only to be Eldest of Ekhatlore. I received forty-seven other offers during Festival, but chose them above all others. I was — distraught that they released me.”

    She could well imagine him a favored choice, the many elian courting him because of his comeliness and grace. “You have a chance now to make a difference in the colony’s future,” she said, twitching at her robe to improve a fold. “To ensure that we even have a future. We must understand these Jao in order to defeat them. I cannot waste more time chasing after you.”

    “Eldest, you will not have to,” Kajin said.


    They returned to the elian-house to spend the rest of that night, and many days and nights thereafter, analyzing and studying their implacable and terrible enemy, the Jao. The more Jihan learned, the more she was alarmed. In many ways, these Jao were worse than the Ekhat. Their minds were less impenetrable. They’d had the opportunity to be different and yet they chose to obey their vicious masters and exterminate sapient species all across space.

    They must have a weakness, she told herself over and over again. There must be a way to destroy them utterly. She would spend her life, or what was left of it, seeking it out.



    And so, under her direction, the Lleix prepared.

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