Chapter 11

“He is no longer unassigned,” Jihan said. “You will accord him the respect of a youngest!”

Pyr looked up, refusing to flinch. “Unassigned wander the colony every day, seeking work, if no one comes to the dochaya to secure their labor,” he said. “Such — as I was — see many houses on a regular basis, while those who have their own elian mostly stay home unless they have outside tasks. I remember a small structure that may well suit your — our — needs.”

Well, it might be no better than what she had found so far, but she might as well look. “Lead us there,” she said.

Pyr hopped to his feet, almost wriggling with joy, and started off down the winding street. She followed the youth, with Kajin lagging behind. They passed the magnificent facades of Ekhatlore and Historykeepers, the eloquent architecture of the Distributionists. The sight of the huge houses, so very old and lovingly maintained, saddened her. The Ekhat, the great devils whose music was destruction, would sweep through and raze everything. If only the Lleix possessed the might to destroy them instead!

And then she expanded that wish to include the Jao, who in their own way were worse, because they’d had the chance to escape the Ekhat’s control and had chosen instead to remain slaves.

Other Lleix gave them disapproving looks as the three passed, then quickly turned aside. Admittedly, they were an odd group, she and Kajin with their blank, hastily draped robes, homely Pyr in his ragged unassigned’s shift. Word must have spread about her transgression because all elian had been represented up at the Han. Quite literally everyone knew how badly she had conducted herself.

But Sayr had said, despite her graceless breaking of sensho, she might well be right. She held onto that, and the fact that Ekhatlore was willing to aid her. She could only go on from here, make the best of what circumstance provided.

“This is it,” Pyr said suddenly.

Jihan looked up from the inlaid stone road. They had stopped before a small tidy house at the western edge of the colony, surrounded by large dried-up gardens. Huge windows swept from floor to ceiling. The interior must be flooded with light at all times of the day, she thought. Most elian sought privacy. How strange.

Faces, though not Boh, had been carved into a series of posts supporting a covered area around the front so that the membership of the former elders seemed still to be present. Each face seemed wise and knowing like the Starsifter elders Jihan had forever left behind. She felt another pang at the enormity of what her actions had cost.

Kajin scowled. “What kind of elian lived here? There is so much wasted space!” He stalked into the empty gardens, crunching through dead weeds. “An establishment of this modest size would not require such a large garden.”

“I have been told that this belonged to the Flowercultivators,” Pyr said softly. His skimpy aureole flattened in respect and he did not look at Kajin. “They have been gone for some generations now. I do not know how many, but the structure is still solid.”

Flowers grew wild along with other weeds. Jihan had never known heard of an elian organized for the sole purpose of cultivating such a thing. Her thoughts whirled as she followed Kajin into the gardens. What had the flowers been for? Who made use of them? She gazed at the abandoned house with its barren gardens. There was no one left to ask. Unless they had left records behind, she would never know.

Inside, the rooms were orderly and a fair amount of dusty furniture remained. She even found a few bolts of leftover cloth featuring fading patterns of blue, yellow, and purple flowers. Huge empty glass containers occupied each room as though waiting for something.

The colony had lost an interesting function when this elian died, she thought. And there were many empty houses now, each marking an group which had once contributed a valued quality to the whole and now was lost forever.

Like Jaolore. There must have been an elian devoted to the study of the Ekhat’s client species. If it had survived, now they would be so much further ahead in understanding and preparing for the menace that was surely sweeping their way.

“This will do,” she told Kajin and Pyr, and relief swept through her. She dispatched Kajin back to Ekhatlore to retrieve their copied files and beg the loan of several viewers. Pyr, she ordered to the dochaya to select servants to clean this dusty house so that it would be fit for habitation again.

She herself would go to the colony’s central commodities warehouse and draw food supplies to last them for a few days. Also, she would stop at the Patternmakers to request a simple pattern for Jaolore so that they could go decently clothed. The rest would have to wait. The Jao were coming and it was upon her head to do what she could to make the colony ready.

Her head swirled with plans. First, she must study the Jao’s barbarous language. Then they would be able to conceal nothing in their transmissions.

She would have Kajin teach Pyr how to run a viewer, then the two of them could sift records faster. At one point, there must have been a Jaolore. A great deal of that information would have been subsumed by Ekhatlore. They would have to pull it back out again.

There was too much to do, too much! She felt twitchy with dread. So much responsibility and so little with which to work!

A short time later, she looked out one of the huge windows and saw Pyr returning with five unassigned, ranging in height from very slight to quite tall, each individual utterly homely in his or her own way. She met them at the door. They filed into what must have once been the Application Chamber and gazed at her with expectant black eyes. All decisions fell to her now, even the assignment of their labor.

“I know these five well, Eldest,” Pyr said with a modest sweep of one hand. “They will work hard.”

“If they do not,” Jihan said, “we will find others who will.” She gazed at them critically. “The two largest of you shall come with me to the Commodities Warehouse, and the rest will sanitize the house while we are gone. Cast nothing aside unless it is damaged. We have limited time to replenish supplies.”

She headed for the door, but none of them moved.

“Mistress,” the tallest said, when Jihan turned back, “is it true that you might select more unassigned for membership in this elian?” The speaker was female, grown into respectable height, a full head taller than Jihan, but possessed of an oddly ragged brown aureole which seemed plastered to her head.

Pyr gazed at Jihan steadily, almost hungrily. He wanted — something.

She had broken tradition by accepting him, but he was still young, barely out of Festival. It was not beyond the bounds of reason that she put such a youth to work as a full-fledged member of her new elian in this time of extreme need.