THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 30
Perhaps the Starsifters would allow them to sleep in her old quarters for just one more night. She lifted her head and gazed out the window. Blackness reigned. It was very late so they would not be there long.
“Leave the receptacles,” she told Kajin as she tottered onto her weary legs. “We will appropriate an unused elian-house tomorrow and come back for them.”
He went to the door, but then waited for her, as though she were the elder of the two.
Too tired to argue sensho, she went through, passing all the wonderfully appointed rooms of this residence without a glance, when normally she would have loved to explore. Opportunities to visit the private interior of another elian-house beyond the Application Chamber almost never came, and certainly not for one of her meager age.
They exited through the Application Chamber, which was now silent and clean, ready for the next day’s business. She opened the huge doors and stood on the threshold to get her bearings. Chill night air rushed against her face. She could hear water rushing over stone in the stream just beyond the road.
To her surprise, the space outside the residence was filled with unassigned. They stood in rows, clad only in the brief gray shifts of unskilled workers, their black eyes reflecting the starlight, waiting clearly for — something.
She was afraid. This was so out of order. Unassigned did not wander the city by night. They went back to the dochaya which was their proper place. “Why are you here?” she said as Kajin emerged to stand beside her in the Ekhatlore doorway.
One stepped forward, a male so small, he must have been released from the Children’s Court only a Festival or two ago. “We heard there was to be a new elian.”
His aureole was skimpy, his bone structure unpleasing, his eyes large and utterly round. There had been any number of such homely children in her year. None of them had found elian. “Yes,” she said. “It will be called Jaolore. We are amassing information concerning an ancient enemy who may well have returned to plague us again.”
“Mistress, you are only one,” the youth said. He glanced back at his fellows. “You will need many more hands and eyes. Choose from among us. We will work hard to make the new elian a success.”
“No!” Kajin burst out. “These are drudges, fit for nothing but the most menial of tasks! You might select one or two for house servants, once we are more organized, but not to serve in the elian itself!”
Jihan gazed out over the unpromising group. The enormity of the task ahead daunted her. So much to do and so very little time in which to accomplish it. She had barely started, and yet any moment, the Jao might sweep back through the nebula to finish the task they had left uncompleted so long ago.
Kajin seethed beside her, his aureole stiff with rage, but Jihan found herself intrigued. She could go to other elian and request the release of more adults to work with her, but they would all be as insulted and reluctant as Kajin, having long ago made their choices of occupation.
These unassigned workers, though, they wished with all their might to be accepted — anywhere, even by an elian with no resources, headed by a shortest like herself.
“How are you called?” she asked the slight youth.
He cast himself to the frosty ground, making his body even smaller. Starlight gleamed on his gray skin. “I am Pyr.”
“Then, Pyr, come with us,” she said.
The rest cried out and surged forward. Jihan waved them back with both fists. “I will not select anyone else tonight,” she said, “but I will evaluate our needs and then perhaps come to the dochaya.”
“You cannot mean that!” Forgetting himself, Kajin seized her arm in the manner of a thoughtless child who understood nothing of propriety, then dropped it as soon as he realized what he had done. “They are less than the sand beneath your feet! They are nothing!”
She remembered being a dazed child, sent away from the only home she’d ever known to wander the colony during Festival with no surety that she would ever achieve a place. Those accepted by an elian looked back upon that moment with great nostalgia, but what of the ones never selected?
“They are no different than you and me,” she said firmly. “They wish to live a good life, to follow propriety in all things, and to offer their abilities to a good elian. They only have to be allowed the opportunity.”
Pyr scrambled to his feet, his body pitifully thin. “You are wise, Mistress!”
“The honorific used by Accepteds is Eldest,” Kajin said sourly.
“But you are surely senior to me,” Jihan said, eying the difference in their heights.
“Pah!” Kajin stalked away into the chill night and the formerly unassigned Pyr hastily cleared his path. “Now and for always, I waive my sensho rights in this elian. I have no wish to lead a pack of fools!”
Pyr followed the new Eldest to the house of the Starsifters. He was unfamiliar with that elian. It was small, maintaining a modest but nicely kept establishment, and evidently did not often come to the dochaya seeking temporary laborers. Apparently, he had either not wandered past here during Festival or had not noted it.
Jihan, so tall and silver, so elegant, even in her unadorned robe, led the two of them through the silent house, past room after room, until she reached a small space containing only a sleeping platform and a small table and stool.
“I am youngest in this house,” she said, “so I sleep here.”
Youngests rarely had sleeping partners. That honor was reserved for the higher ranked. Even Pyr knew that. He dropped to the floor and stretched out, weary from a day’s labors for the Childtenders in the Children’s Court. The very young were so — energetic. He would not be sorry to leave such duties behind.
The room was small and cold without a window or electric brazier to make things more cozy. Tattered charts of elements and compounds covered the wall space, overlapping one another, and a crate of electronic modules had been shoved into the corner. Pyr turned on his back and gazed about the chamber. So this was what life outside the dochaya looked like. He’d never thought to see such wonders for himself.
“Surely you are not going to allow that –” The elder she had referred to as “Kajin” kicked Pyr in the side. “– to sleep here with real adults?”
Air whooshed out of Pyr’s lungs. Black spots shivered in his vision. He curled around the shock and pain as though he could contain them.
“Desist!” The elegant Jihan darted between them, looming marvelously tall. “If you cannot behave properly, I will return you to Ekhatlore! I would rather recruit only from unassigned than deal with such crudeness!”
Kajin stared at her, his aureole stiff with outrage. “But Alln released me! If you send me back, Ekhatlore will not readmit me.”
“You can always go to the dochaya,” she said grimly.
Silence prevailed then. Pyr heard the ragged breathing of both as he pressed against the bottom of the sleeping platform. Misery overwhelmed him — to be the cause of so much strife between such notable adults! The shame was worse than the throb in his chest.
Jihan crawled onto the sleeping platform and turned away. Kajin paced the small room for some time before finally slipping up beside her.
Pyr huddled on the floor, aching, but wildly happy. He would suffer a thousand beatings if they led to this moment. I have an elian! he thought over and over, far too excited to surrender to sleep. An elian has selected me! I have a place! I am no longer nothing!