THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 28
She bent her head, fingers tracing the starburst pattern one last time. “Could you have this returned to the Starsifters?”
Alln bent his head too, a great gesture of respect from one so lofty. “Indeed we will.”
“And –” She inhaled, thinking hard. “Might we borrow two lengths of unadorned fabric until we can get a Patternmaker to design a motif for our new elian?”
“That would be most appropriate,” Alln said. He turned and a waiting servant scampered forward. “Bring unworked cloth for these Jaolore,” he said. “And see to their needs as long as they are researching our records.”
It was not to be borne! Kajin could not make his mind work, could not process that he had been cast out, that the only meaningful occupation he’d ever had in his entire life was at an end and seemingly on a whim. As if it were not bad enough that the Ekhat were coming back to murder them all! Now he wasn’t even going to be allowed to die with his true elian.
What could Alln have been thinking? That ran through Kajin’s mind over and over. One simply was not removed from his elian without cause! And he had given no cause. Indeed, he had worked tirelessly to learn what the ancient records said so that they could be ready when — not if — the great devils who ate the universe, the Ekhat, returned.
Now they had come back and instead of being allowed to share his observations and correlate information with the rest of the Ekhatlore, he had been discarded to start over in a lowly new elian, one without even robes or a house to call its own. He simply could not process the stunning change in fortune.
Jihan was bent over a viewer. The bones in her naked spine stood out like knobs. “Here!” she said, eagerness vibrating through her voice. “This is what they looked like!”
A servant entered the room, bearing several bolts of undecorated cloth. Kajin snatched one and wrapped it around his body before looking. Lack of clothing made him feel like an unreleased child again, playing at choosing elian in the Children’s Court.
The viewer was showing squat muscular creatures with mobile ears and snoutlike faces. Their bodies were covered in short fur of varying shades of brown. They wore leather straps on their upper bodies, stiff foot-coverings, and loose flowing garments from the waist-down in various colors.
“The Jao!” Jihan motioned him closer.
“They were a client race,” Kajin said reluctantly, dredging his memory for what little he’d encountered about them, “one engineered by the Ekhat into sentience. By all accounts, they were only bloodthirsty savages when the Ekhat first came across them.”
The servant stood patiently behind them, waiting with the other bolt of cloth. Jihan did not seem to notice, so Kajin took the cloth and pressed it into her hands. She draped it across her shoulders with a distracted air. The viewer was playing a battle scene now. Lleix and Jao were dying messily. Explosions shattered a graceful Lleix city, demolishing houses and fountains and roads.
“They fight very well,” Jihan said, her voice strained.
“Too well,” Kajin said morosely. He watched shards flying through the air, buildings blasted into slag, stumpy Jao brutes advancing on terrified weaponless children.
“Are there any records of their language?” She abandoned the viewer to scan the index again, flipping through the embossed sheets.
“Perhaps,” Kajin said, “but why would you think it matters? Surely you do not mean to stand in their shadow and reason with them?”
Jihan looked up at him, her eyes bright with purpose. “We should familiarize ourselves with their language so that, if they return, we can understand intercepted communications. After all this time, they will not expect us to possess that capability.”
“What good will that do?” He twitched at his makeshift garment so that it hung marginally better. “Those few of us selected to leave Valeron, will. The rest stranded here will have no ships. Jao or Ekhat, our enemies will destroy us utterly without even landing upon this world, and we will be able to do nothing in our defense.”
She regarded him with unnerving focus. “You really think not?”
“I know we will not,” he said. “As it has always been, it is just a matter of time. For most of us now, this is the Last-of-Days.”
“You are in error,” she said, turning again to the index. “Information is strength, and somewhere in here is the knowledge that will save us. We only have to find it.”
She was obviously younger by at least a few Festivals, yet he felt lesser in rank, as though her surety somehow advanced her past him. Had it been that way in the Han yesterday? She had broken sensho by gainsaying her Starsifters’ elders, yet Grijo had not expelled her from the gathering. Instead, he had rewarded her with the mandate to form her own elian.
In ordinary days, it was considered a great moment when a new elian was created, but there was nothing ordinary about the return of their ancient enemies. None of them here would survive long enough to make this new elian anything but a momentary curiosity.
Jihan searched the Ekhatlore records far into the night. At one point, a doddering servant clad in a gray shift arrived with steaming pots of sourgrain laced with fragrant greenberries, a great courtesy of the house as visitors were rarely fed more than ceremonial delicacies. She ate hers without tasting, her eyes trained on the fascinating records. She would have made a better Ekhatlore than Starsifter, she realized. The fierce turmoil of these long ago events drew her as the dry statistics of chemical traces and compounds never had.
Kajin remained beside her, explaining references, helping her access the old-style recordings until they had tracked down most of the information concerning the Jao.
Finally, in pursuit of a Jao-language file, she stumbled across the record of a meeting between Jao and Lleix which did not appear to be a battle. Two thousand, two hundred forty years old, it had taken place on Sankil, Last-Home, before the remnants of her species had fled to Valeron.
She turned to Kajin, who was so weary, his aureole clung to his head. “What is this?”
He peered over her shoulder. On the screen, the little figures of Jao and Lleix faced one another, speaking in foreign gibberish. “I do not know,” he said. “I have never seen it before.” He halted the recording. “It should have an embedded translation track.”
She shifted impatiently from foot to foot, unable to be still, as he fiddled with the settings, searching the file.
“Now,” Kajin said finally, “play it.”
She punched up the file name. The screen blinked, and then the figures appeared again. They stood on a blue and green world filled with sumptuous vegetation, all unfamiliar species. A huge Lleix, magnificently old, stepped forward. Her robe pattern indicated Wordthreaders, an elian which still existed to negotiate conflicts between their own kind. Her silver aureole flared. “Subcommandant Breen,” she said, “the Lleix have a proposal for you, one that will set your people free to come into their own, as they otherwise never will.”