THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 24
Grijo arrived early, but the Hall of Decision was already close-crowded. The Hallkeepers, a tiny elian of only three, had done their duty, lighting the space brightly so that the colored woods with their attendant carvings showed well. The silent Boh faces gazed down within, a reminder of what they had lost. Everyone was painfully aware that the ancestral spirits could not find the Lleix in this alien place. As had been true since their initial diaspora, they were alone.
All the elian were represented, Childtenders, Waterdirectors, Groundtillers, Stonesculpters, the most plentiful, down to the more obscure, such as the Gameconductors and Scentcrafters. Tall and well filled out with age, they still trickled in, one delegate each, always the most senior, who would take back the decision here rendered and disseminate it to the rest of the colony. Each assumed his or her place according to sensho, proper rank sorted out by age, the youngest and least experienced seated in the back.
Representing the Dwellingconstructors, Grijo climbed laboriously up to sit in the raised immense ornate chair in the center of the vast hall and then waited. As eldest of all, it fell to him to conduct the assembly. His bones were old, though his sight was still quite good, and he possessed the experience of many such sessions to help him maintain order.
Soon the Starsifters’ representative, venerable Sayr, who was nearly his match in seniority, would present their findings and the assembled elian would be called upon to decide how next to proceed. As if there were any sort of real choice, he reflected. He feared there was not.
He gazed out at the assembled elian. The Lleix were a graceful silver-skinned people with varying shades of aureoles framing their concerned faces, gold, silver, black, and even the occasional startling russet. Only the comeliest were allowed to produce the next generation, so that the Lleix physical aspect was uniformly pleasing. One and all, their black eyes were properly upswept at the corners, which some vain individuals accented with sticks of black vahl. Down to the last individual, their robes fell in properly draped folds, the styling unchanged in over two thousand years.
The great doors stood open so that the morning sun streamed in from the east, red and angry. It was the leading edge of winter, and even colder up here on the side of the mountain than down on the plains below. Grijo settled his blue and silver brocaded robe more closely around his age-thickened body. Propriety must be served, even if this turned out to be the long-feared Last-of-Days.
Several more representatives scurried in and took their place in the assembled ranks, Treebinder and Enginetuner by their robe patterns. Their aureoles fanned out about their faces, carefully dressed for this significant occasion. Dread seethed through the room, along with fear and loathing, so palpable Grijo could taste the emotions.
The Ekhat had found them. The impact of that knowledge was much like being told one was going to die before the next breath could be drawn. The incursion thirty-two years ago, though the Ekhat had seemed to take no notice at the time, had probably marked their location for later action. Thirty years was but a gust of breeze to an Ekhat, the tumble of one leaf to the ground. No one knew exactly the length of a single Ekhat’s life-span, but it was apparent the devils measured their plans in thousands of years.
A solitary figure appeared in the doorway and stood, awaiting recognition, its face in shadow. Grijo stood, his sinews paining him, and the great hall went silent but for the whisper of heavy robes and shuffling bare feet. “Have the Starsifters arrived at a conclusion?” he asked, holding his head high, his back straight.
“We have,” the figure said, and Grijo recognized the voice of Sayr, an old and highly respected authority on the esoteric flotsam of space.
“Present your findings.” Grijo settled back carefully in the ornate chair, which was noteworthy for its size and carvings, not its comfort. The Lleix did not intend their leadership to find itself too eager to sit here.
“It was most certainly the Ekhat,” Sayr said, taking the center of the room, gazing at the circles of benches filled with his fellow Lleix, all well grown. His aureole, limp with age and long ago darkened to pewter, drooped around his wise face. “We cannot yet say which faction, though in the end, it will not matter. The Interdict is no better than the Harmony, the Harmony no better than the Melody. All seek our extermination.”
A ripple of anguish ran through the assembled representatives. Many heads turned away, as though they could not gaze upon this bearer of such unwelcome news.
“What shall we do?” one youngster with an uncommonly red aureole cried, a head shorter than all the rest.
Grijo saw by the patterns on her robes that she came of the Foodsculptors, an impoverished elian of the arts who obviously had no one older and more experienced to send. “Hush, daughter,” he said. “That is what we have assembled here to decide.”
Hakt of the Shipservicers made his way through the ranks of benches and stood beside Sayr. He was good-sized for his age, sturdy and of pleasing demeanor, every fold of his robe in place. His pale-silver aureole fanned his face. “We have made what repairs we can,” he said. “Two of our ships were lost in the engagement and cannot be replaced. We have stripped them of all that could be salvaged.”
“What of our numbers could be transported to another system with the ships still in service?” Grijo asked.
“Less than a hundredth,” Hakt said. He glanced up at the unseeing Boh faces.
So few. Grijo had suspected it might be so. He closed his old eyes, filled with grief. That would not save even a tenth of the elian, who held in trust all of Lleix wisdom and culture, and of course there was no question that the dochaya would have to be left behind.
“I would also speak to the Han!” someone cried.
“Jihan!” Sayr’s cracked old voice was filled with reproach.
Grijo opened his eyes again, saw a restless young figure in the great doorway, outlined in the early red sunlight, shifting from foot to foot. She darted forward with unseemly haste to stand beside Sayr, looking sorely out of place, her head not even reaching his shoulder. “What is this?” Grijo said.
“Jihan is the junior-most member of our elian,” Sayr said, “with a dissenting opinion on the analysis of the recovered debris. She should not be here and she knows it.” He turned to the youth with great dignity. “Return to the elian-house, youngest,” he said. “We will speak of this later.”
“The Han needs all of the information to make an informed decision,” the youthful Starsifter said. “It was not just the Ekhat stalking us this time. It was also the Jao!”
The odd name echoed through the vast hall, different on each tongue. Grijo could feel the radiated puzzlement. He himself did not recognize the designation, though he could see the youngster expected otherwise. He leaned forward, taking care to keep the folds of his robe properly arranged. “What does that mean?”