Jihan was wakened by Kash entering her quarters the next morning. She rolled over and saw the elder standing in her doorway, hands thrust beneath her robe. “You must find your own house today,” Kash said. “It is not proper that you dwell here any longer.”

For a moment, Jihan could not think why Kash wanted her to go, then it all came rushing back to her, the Hall of Decision, her very different results from the space debris analysis, the new elian — her new elian.

“Yes,” she said humbly. “The Starsifters have been more than generous in allowing me to stay this long.”

Kash turned away, already not-seeing. Three bowls of steaming sourgrain stood on the table. Gratitude filled Jihan. These elders had taken her in, taught her their craft and nurtured her development, expecting that she would do so for future Starsifters in turn. Now, all that time and careful teaching was lost to them. They would have to wait for Festival and choose again.

But she did not know what she could have done otherwise. She was right. It had been the Jao out there in that battle, along with the Ekhat. Not-seeing them would not make it any less true. They had to be ready, had to be as prepared as they could make themselves with the limited resources available.

On the floor, young Pyr stared up at the hot food. “Eat,” she said, gesturing. “We have much to do today.”

Seen in the daylight, Pyr’s aureole was definitely more gray than silver and his skin dusky, a shade that was almost pewter. No wonder he had not been selected by any of the elian. Compared to Kajin’s beauty, he was like a lump of granite beside a silver nugget.

But such things were no longer important, she told herself firmly. All that mattered now was that she organize her new elian and learn all she could about the Jao before they came back.

After they had eaten, she carried the bowls back through the just-stirring house to the communal kitchen. Early morning sunlight slanted in through the row of tiny windows below the rafters. Sayr was there, conferring with several other elders. All fell silent as she entered the homey room where she had spent so much time. She dropped to the polished wooden floor at his feet, wondering if he would acknowledge her. He was the one she had most offended against before the Han.

“You are leaving,” he said.

She looked up. He was so very tall and wise. Immanent loss overwhelmed her. “Yes.”

“This is a good thing,” he said. “New elian bring the colony additional services.”

“I did not chose this,” she said, trying not to tremble.

“Your intellect chose,” he said, “and your training. Never turn away from knowledge, no matter how unwelcome it might appear to be. Truth is always to be preferred to delusion.” He rocked back on his heels, gazing down at her with those handsome narrow eyes she knew so very well. “You may be correct in your conclusions, but be aware that you went about this thing badly. Achievements are always judged by the methods used to accomplish them. Poor form makes it harder to gain others’ understanding, even though, at the center of things you may be right. Now, go and solve the conundrum of these Jao.”

She rose, head still bowed, unable to speak.

“Walk with grace, Eldest,” he said, then turned away.

She led Kajin and Pyr out of the house, knowing she would never return. There was nothing for her here now and so very much to do.

Outside, the day was quite chill, with leaden clouds blowing in from the mountains to the west. A scavenging flock of tiny blue hoppers with their dished faces scattered through the kitchen garden as the three of them exited the Starsifters’ house. Jihan did not look back. Regret would not solve any of her many problems now.

They wandered the colony, taking note of abandoned houses. There were more than Jihan had realized. Most were very large, belonging to defunct elian such as the Shipbuilders, who had long ago known how to construct spacefaring vessels, the Watercrafters, who had once constructed fountains and ornamental waterfalls, and the Skyflyers, who had maintained a small fleet of personal aeronautical machines for the colony’s use. The majority of the deserted structures were in bad repair with gaping holes in the walls, missing windows and doors, crumbled stonework, or collapsed roofs. Such would require large amounts of time to be made habitable. Even though her new elian was authorized to draw workers from the dochaya, that would take too long. They needed a space in which to live and work now with a minimum amount of restoration.

The Shipservicers were frantically busy over on the vast landing field beyond the edge of the colony to the east where the land flattened out into a vast plain. They were repairing the ships damaged in the recent battle, refitting others long unused so that they might carry away at least a tiny portion of the Lleix to relative safety.

So that this would not be the long forecast Last-of-Days.

But even if a hundredth of their numbers survived by fleeing, the Ekhat and/or the Jao would just hunt them down and kill them somewhere else. It was a never ending cycle and the end would surely come sometime, if not now.

And it would certainly be Last-of-Days for those stranded behind here on Valeron.

Finally, she sat down to think on a bench before the Waterdirectors’ sprawling house. One of the largest in the entire colony, they were an industrious elian, responsible for the colony’s clean water supply, as well as sewage and flood control. Long ago, those functions might have belonged to three separate elian, she thought wearily. Now they were combined.

Kajin settled beside her, but only on the bench’s edge as though avoiding closer contact. His moody silence bore the flavor of recrimination. If she had not broken sensho up on the mountain, neither of them would be in this predicament. What if they never found the right house, she asked herself. What if they just wandered the colony day after day until the Ekhat and Jao came back to slaughter them all? Her aureole clung to her head in misery.

“Eldest?” Pyr said meekly, crouching at her feet.

She turned her attention to him. He was still wearing his unassigned’s gray shift. She must apply to the Patternmakers for actual robes, just one more task as yet left undone. “Yes?”

The youth’s meager aureole flared to its best advantage. “I know of a structure that might do.”

“You!” Kajin jerked his unadorned garment back as though contact with the youth might contaminate it. “You would not even know how a decent elian is run, much less what one looks like from the inside!” His fine face was scornful as he drew back a hand to cuff the youth into silence.

“No!” Jihan bolted to her feet. “Let him speak!”