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.