THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 26
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.