THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 25
A Historykeeper rose from her bench, her robe encrusted with scenes of events that had taken place so long ago, no one remembered. “She names the architects of our destruction,” she said, “from two thousand years ago. They drove us from system after system until finally, what was left of us fled here into the nebula to Valeron.”
“They are the handservants of the Ekhat,” Jihan said. She gazed about the hall, her aureole quivering with indignation. “They must have come to finish the task they left incomplete so long ago.”
There had been something about a servant species . . . savage and relentless . . . Grijo cudgeled his mind, seeking to remember long ago lessons in the Children’s Court.
“I have researched the records. Our last contact with them was a little more than a thousand years ago,” Jihan said, her fingers quivering as she belatedly twitched her robe into an almost acceptable configuration. “They were the ones who drove us from our Last-Home, Sankil.”
Once the Lleix had held fourteen systems, traded with all manner of species on faraway worlds, built ships so vast and swift that other species commissioned them to build their own fleets. The markets in Lleix cities had been rich with fine scents, exotic fabrics, and imported woods. The tales of that long ago abundance were still told, so fancifully embellished, though, even Grijo, who wished to believe, had trouble crediting them. His people had prospered under the benevolent spiritual guidance of the Boh and never known war — until the Ekhat came and harried them, system after system, from the lush favored worlds they had once called home.
Now they had taken refuge on this one resource-poor planet, concealed within the nebula, so isolated, they had thought — hoped — obviously deluded themselves — that the Ekhat would not detect them here. Nor had they, until now.
“There is very little physical evidence for the presence of the Jao,” Sayr said, “only a few scraps of organic tissue that survived the explosion of the smaller ship. What we do know is that the remaining Ekhat vessel fought a second battle sometime after our ships withdrew. If it had been the Jao, surely they would not have attacked their masters. They would have fought for the Ekhat, not against them.”
Alln of that dreaded elian, Ekhatlore, rose, robe garish with bloody scenes of their ancient enemy. His aureole was so faded with age that Grijo could no longer make out its color. The elder gazed about the assembled representatives, gathering their attention until the hall quieted. “The Ekhat fight one another just as avidly as they seek to exterminate extraneous species. If they fought someone else, it must have been a second Ekhat ship.”
Jihan turned back to Grijo. “If I am right,” she said, “and these Jao do come after us here, we will not be prepared!”
“Child,” Alln said, “since we left the Boh behind, we have been prepared for two thousand years to die at the hands of one or the other of these barbarians. What more would you have of us?”
She looked up at him, indeed at all of them, for she was the youngest, and therefore smallest, present. In spite of her brashness, she was a promising child, he thought, with her classic silver aureole, though her robe-draping was positively haphazard.
“I think we should find a way to live, not die,” she said. “And to do that, we first have to understand the Jao.”
“No one understands them these days,” Alln said. “There must have been a Jaolore elian once, but it obviously died out when there was no longer any necessity for it.”
“Then we need a new one,” she said. Her black eyes glittered as she faced the array of elders.
A new elian. That happened but once in a lifetime for most Lleix, Grijo thought, sometimes not even then.
“There is little evidence for the presence of the Jao in that battle,” Sayr said. “And if we could not defeat the Ekhat, how would we do any better against the Jao, even if it was them? Would not our efforts be better spent readying our ships to take a portion of our population to new safety?”
The assembled representatives muttered and turned to one another, arguing in low, intense voices. Grijo, his thoughts whirling, sat back, the prickly chair creaking under his weight, and tried to come to some conclusion himself.
Then speakers rose and one by one made their points, to be replaced by those of opposite views. Voices, though never raised, were fiercely eloquent. Ekhatlore thought perhaps young Jihan was right, while many other elders believed she was unused to the rigors of logical thought and merely sought to make herself important beyond her height. It was pointed out repeatedly that even the Starsifters themselves did not support her.
Outside, the morning light gradually transformed from its fierce red into a thin gold that did not warm at this elevation. Stiff and uncomfortable, Grijo watched it change, creeping through the day until the shadows had gone long and purple and yet nothing was resolved.
Finally, he heaved onto his feet again and the hall fell silent. “We have reached no accord,” he said, “which in itself is a measure of the direness of this turn of events. Therefore, we must accommodate both views.” He motioned to Hakt of the Shipservicers. The elder rose. “You will ready our ships to transport what portion of our population they can to another world,” he said. “Consult the ancient charts for a possible destination. Requisition whatever you need of the other elian.”
Then he turned to Jihan. “And you, outspoken child, will form a new elian, Jaolore,” he said. “All of the colony’s records are to be at your disposal. You may recruit any who are willing from the other elian, especially Ekhatlore.”
Her silver aureole wilted with amazement. “Me?”
“You have put yourself most unbecomingly forward for one of your tender age and girth,” Grijo said, “and you have boldly gainsaid the elders of your own elian, who have far more experience to make sense of the situation in which we find ourselves. This is a chance for you to redeem yourself. Make what you can of it. I doubt you will ever get another.”
Jihan made herself respectfully small, lowering her head, averting her eyes, flattening her aureole. “I regret the necessity of what I did,” she said, “but I felt I had no choice.”
“Many times down through the ages the Lleix have had no choice,” Grijo said, heaving back onto his feet. “And the sum of all those have led us to this, which may well be the Last-of-Days.” He waved a hand in dismissal. “Go and form your new elian while you can, daughter.”
“It is not the Last-of-Days!” the youth said with all the audacity of her inadequate years and experience. “I will not let it be!”
And she turned with inelegant recklessness so that her robes actually fell open and headed back down the mountain.