THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 48
Pyr approached Jihan as she was working early that morning in the Jaolore Duty Chamber where the main tasks of the elian were carried out. Thin gray sunlight, half obscured by clouds, slanted in through the old house’s tall glass windows. The heat-source was blazing comfortably, though the day was quite chill without. Wind coming off the mountains blasted along the eaves overhead. She should acquire flags to signify the number of residents, she thought, looking up at her young subordinate. One by one, she was seeing after the proprieties.
“Eldest!” Pyr said, when he’d caught her eye. His hands were dithering in agitation. “Come quickly!”
The former unassigned was filling out, his aureole brightening, his dull skin gaining a bit of luster. Whether the improvements came of a better diet or his pleasure in finally being accepted by an elian, she thought he looked almost presentable these days. She straightened, then turned away from the viewer where she’d been going through yet another cache of fragile ancient records, this lot from the Historykeepers. “Yes?”
“A representative of the Starwarders is here to see you!” Pyr’s meager gray aureole stood on end. “She says there is reason for haste!”
Jihan adjusted her new robes with their simple but tasteful design, the outline of a Jao ship. Jaolore might be only a small elian, but she would conduct their affairs with decorum. Satisfied that she would not shame her associates, few though they were, she followed Pyr into the Application Chamber.
The spacious room had been swept clean, the wooden floor polished by industrious servants acquired from the dochaya. It smelled pleasantly of herb-scented oils, though as yet there were only two scavenged benches for seating. A female of middle height looked up from contemplating the barren gardens through the window. Outside, a few flakes of snow drifted out of increasingly leaden clouds. The sunlight was rapidly being occluded.
“Greetings… Eldest,” the visitor said, as though the honorific passed her lips with difficulty, and settled on one of their battered benches with exaggerated care.
“You honor us,” Jihan said, taking the seat across from her and wondering what could be so important as to bring a Starwarder to Jaolore. Surely they had enough responsibility patrolling the system during these troubled times to keep them busy. “Shall I call for sustenance?”
“I am Hadata,” the newcomer said with indecent haste, then glanced at Pyr whose mouth gaped at the breach of protocol. She glanced at him. “Do not presume to judge me, child!” Her expression darkened as she turned back to Jihan. “However did you come to accept such an unpromising creature? His skin is positively gray! Surely even the dochaya could provide better.” She waved a hand when Jihan opened her mouth to protest. “No, no, it does not matter, and the situation is far too dire to be remediated by having him scrounge up a bit of biscuit.”
Off to one side, Pyr had gone stiff with shame. Anger suffused her, but no matter what had happened among the Starsifters, Sayr had never once given way to crudely raising his voice, much less to graceless shouting. She would conduct herself with the same propriety.
“We do not require service,” Jihan told the youth when she was sure of her voice. “You may go.” Pyr lowered his head and bolted from the room.
“That was badly done,” Jihan said as soon as he was gone. “We are a new elian, but I have never heard it said that outsiders may criticize the choices of an Eldest.”
“You wish to speak of proprieties?” Hadata’s magnificently upswept black eyes regarded the Jaolore shrewdly, and in them, Jihan saw again how badly she had behaved up on the mountain, her disgraceful breaking of sensho. By now, everyone in the entire colony knew what she had done. That brash moment would shadow all of her days. She might be an Eldest now, at least in name, but her achievement of the rank was tainted. Shame tingled up through her face, dried her mouth, flattened her aureole.
“Never mind,” the Starwarder said abruptly, gazing out the window again, plainly seeking to alter the course of the conversation. “Such matters pale in light of current troubles.”
Her visitor’s manner stilled. She closed her eyes, then opened them again, and it was as though another, more practical, Starwarder had entered the chamber and now gazed out at her. “As a former Starsifter, you have ship training. Therefore, we petition Jaolore to grant us your service in this crisis.” The Starwarder’s fingers twitched an errant fold in her robes back into place. Her expression was bleak. “We have been maintaining a presence in orbit around Valeron since the battle. Yesterday, we detected an incursion into our space, vessels entering our system through a point locus in the outer layers of the sun, as is necessary when journeying between star systems.”
Framepoint travel. Jihan had read of such, both in the course of her recent research and during her Starsifter training, though it had been many generations since the Lleix had dared to travel in such a bold manner. “Is it the Jao?” Her aureole stood on end.
“Child, no one believes that nonsense you were spouting up on the mountain.” The Starwarder rose, arranging her robes into proper folds with great care. Her hands were shaking. “It is the great devils, themselves, the Ekhat!”
Jihan found it suddenly difficult to breathe. Her mind struggled to think and she felt ill. This was too soon! The colony was not yet ready to protect itself or flee. “Then — it is Ekhatlore that you want, and Weaponscrafters.”
“They have been alerted, but several Starsifters have already come forward to help crew Starwarder ships, and Sayr suggested that you be recruited,” Hadata said. “You have been trained to operate the Starsifters’ vessel and data stations, and we have grown too few. We cannot adequately staff our remaining ships, so our Eldest asks that you help crew the next ship to be launched.”
The Starsifters’ vessel had been ancient and small, meant only for the gathering of data and retrieval of minute portions of debris for analysis. Piloting it had been one thing, traveling upon one of the Starwarders’ ships was bound to be quite another. Jihan found herself trembling. “Is it your intention to attack these ships?” If so, they would die even sooner than their fellows upon the planet.
“The Ekhat have not assumed orbit around our world yet,” Hadata said. “Thus far we are only observing their actions so that we can relay information back to the Hall of Decision. It is possible that they might pass by, as they did once before, though not probable.”
“I see,” Jihan said, trying to gather the shreds of her disarrayed thoughts. So much needed to be done! How would she ever fulfill so many responsibilities?
“The few remaining mass transports are being readied,” Hadata said. “Representatives of each elian will be sent on them to another system, if the Ekhat allow us enough time. You should choose one among you for that honor.”
It would have to be Kajin, she thought numbly. Poor untutored Pyr would perish from embarrassment to be thrust so amongst his betters, and Kajin possessed skills from his Ekhatlore training which should be preserved. “When will he need to report?”
“Word will be sent,” Hadata said, turning back to the windows and the worsening snow outside. The pale flakes were beginning to accumulate and obscure the abandoned gardens. “For now, you and I must make haste.”
Jihan excused herself and went to find Pyr, who turned up in the communal kitchen, abjectly scrubbing the floor. “You must dispatch me back to the dochaya,” he said without looking up, when she entered the homey room with its smells of herbs and simmering blueleaf stew. “I have no wish to shame Jaolore further.”
One of the servants, modestly clad in a gray shift, glanced at the two of them from the larder, then slipped out of the room.
“You do not shame us,” Jihan said when they were alone. “I forbid you to take any notice of what was said back there. Her remarks were based solely upon your appearance, which has no bearing upon the quality of your work here.”
He sat back on his heels, still not raising his eyes. His fingers clutched the damp rag to his scrawny chest.
“Tell Kajin that he has been chosen to represent Jaolore in the exodus and he is to ready himself for departure,” Jihan said to Pyr, “then keep up your studies until I return.”
If she ever returned, she thought, then went back to accompany Hadata out of the Application Chamber into the morning’s frost-ridden air. That was by no means certain.
Fortunately, her meager piloting skills were not required on the Starwarders’ patched ship. Hadata took the pilot’s seat and Jihan found herself relegated to one of four unoccupied data stations. She was surprised to find the vessel little bigger than the Starsifters’ only functioning vehicle and in no better operating condition. Every aspect of the ship was worn and cobbled-together. The first data station she tried to activate no longer worked at all.
And the Starwarders had not exaggerated when they said they lacked trained crew. Only two other Starwarders were on board, so that less than half the ship’s functioning consoles were manned, even with the addition of Jihan and Lliant, a sturdy male recruited from Ekhatlore to employ his expertise. Even in this crisis, he had taken the time to groom himself, his eyes heavily outlined in vahl, his robes freshly scented with herbs and carefully draped, his silver skin gleaming, obviously just oiled.