THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 33
But these others were hardened unassigned. No one would ever take any of them. The proper way to increase Jaolore would be to wait until Festival came round, but it would not occur again until the next warm season, a very long time from now. And any helpers she begged from established elian would be at least as resentful as Kajin, perhaps even worse.
“Perhaps,” she said. “It remains first to see how my acceptance of Pyr works out, and how hard each of you works. But Jaolore needs more members and soon, so –”
The three designated cleaners scattered through the house without waiting for her to finish, while the two tallest stepped outside, plainly ready for the trip to the warehouse. She heard water running, cabinets being opened. Work was already in progress even as her words hung in the air.
Well, then, that was good. She rearranged the folds of her blank robes so that she would not look unkempt, then headed out into the frost-laden air. A few flakes of snow sifted down from the leaden clouds. She curled her bare toes against the chill and then hurried on. The unassigned followed.
Over the next few days, the house’s organization slowly came together. Under Jihan’s orders, Kajin trained Pyr to work the viewer, and then both of them passed only the interesting bits on to her. She consulted with the Patternmakers so that Jaolore could look respectable and worked out their comestibles allotment with the Distributionists.
The five unassigned worked so diligently that she was amazed no elian had ever taken them in. Their physical appearances, though seedy and plain, would improve with a better diet, and she thought they could not have looked so bad during their Festivals of Choosing. It was generally believed that all who deserved an elian found one, but she was no longer certain that was true.
Young Pyr worked the hardest of all even though he had now received his place. When he had finished examining Ekhatlore records for the day, he joined the five servants in restoring the house, clearing weeds from the vast overgrown gardens, fixing battered bed-platforms and cabinets, and retrieving abandoned supplies from the underground storage areas left by the Flowercultivators.
Jihan had to order him to sleep each night and still he rose before all the rest and was already at work when she found him the next morning.
Their meager store of information about the Jao grew. Two hundred years after the fatal meeting, when the Jao had refused assistance from the Lleix, the savages had disappeared from the recorded encounters for almost eight hundred years. There were many records of battles with the Ekhat, whole colonies exterminated, ships destroyed, but the Jao were strangely absent.
Then, a mere thousand years ago, in the battle that had driven the Lleix to take refuge on a resource-poor world inside a nebula, the Jao had appeared again. Jao ships had destroyed the last of the fourteen Lleix worlds. Jao weapons had exterminated nine tenths of their population.
Half of the surviving Lleix had fled to Valeron, leaving the Jao behind in a series of jumps that also had left a number of their own ships wandering forever lost.
They had left behind the stars and hidden on this occluded world for the last thousand years. Until three hundred years ago, there had been no sign of the Ekhat. Although Valeron was not a particularly welcoming world, they had believed themselves safe.
Jihan realized now, though, that with or without the Ekhat, the colony was slowly dying. Critical elian passed away every generation and knowledge was lost. The colony lacked the mineral deposits and ores needed to craft replacement parts for machines and ships. Elian like the Skyflyers died out for lack of support so that her people were ever more rooted to this barren plain at the foot of the mountains.
What had the Jao been doing out there in the nebula with the Ekhat? Why had they fired upon their own masters? Were they trying to break free, as the Lleix had once counseled them, or had the Ekhat finally turned upon them too?
So many questions and so little data with which to resolve them. It made Jihan’s head spin each time she tried.
The only thing of which she could be certain was that it would be useless to attempt parleying with the Jao. That brave elder had tried long ago and her effort had led only to slaughter. It was clear that the Jao would interpret any hesitation as weakness. The Lleix must meet them with all possible force when the moment came.
She consulted with the Weaponsmakers, who armed the colony’s spaceships. Under their direction, the crews had fired upon both the Ekhat and the Jao ships, destroying one and damaging another, so their tech, though ancient, was still effective.
“We are fewer every generation and there seems to be a neverending river of Ekhat,” the Weaponsmaker Eldest, Branko, told her. He was amazingly tall, almost equal to old Grijo himself. His robe was carefully draped, the decorative pattern a simple and severe lightning bolt. “They will return in ever greater numbers and then it will finally be Last-of-Days.”
“It will if we just give up!” She bolted to her feet, dislodging a tiny table in the Weaponsmakers Application Room. A silent servant appeared from a side corridor to right it, then retreated back into the shadows.
“We have never just `given up,'” Branko said stiffly. “But it is understood that the Last must come — eventually.”
“I do not understand that!” The recent facts she had absorbed and was attempting to correlate whirled through Jihan’s head: savage Jao words for which there were no Lleix equivalents, starship statistics, firing patterns, chemical signatures, population trends, death rates, records of ancient encounters. “We must work together so that the Last-of-Days will not come!”
“You are still quite short,” the Eldest said, his tone condescending, as though she had just emerged from the Children’s Court. “Greater height will eventually grant you better perspective.”
If she lived to achieve greater height. The Ekhat and the Jao were coming back! Jihan stared at the oh-so-proper draping of the Eldest’s robes, his carefully raised aureole, the heavy lines of vahl around his eyes and accenting the bridge of his magnificent nose. He was static, going nowhere. The whole colony was going — nowhere! They would send off a few ships with a mere fraction of their population, then just sit here and wait for the Ekhat to incinerate the rest of them! Frustration flooded through her and she had to force herself to be civil.
“I require your records about battles with the Jao,” she said, her gaze turned to the floor. “They will be quite old, at least a thousand years old, and many older.”
“Access will be provided,” Branko said. “Will you take refreshments with me?”
And because it was polite, because that was what two Eldests did, even when one was half the size of the other and had nothing in the way of wisdom or experience to offer, Jihan agreed. She settled back onto a painted bench while servants offered platters of spiced mealnut cakes and newly squeezed halla pulp. The two Eldests discussed the weather, the lacking quality of cloth produced these days and the latest crop of children accepted into various elian, anything but the certain destruction waiting to pounce upon the colony out there in the black cauldron of space.
And the whole time, Jihan seethed.