As luck would have it, he encountered Yaut in the hallway. The bullnecked old Jao looked mulish as ever. “Vaish,” Tully said, halting prudently out of reach. I see you. He was well aware that, as far as Yaut was concerned, opportunities for further instruction never ceased. The Jao was a great believer in wrem-fa, “body-learning,” where you simply thrashed an offender repeatedly without explanation until he figured the infraction out on his own. Whenever the weather changed, Tully could swear he still felt the bruises.

The grizzled fraghta flicked a careless ear. As always, his harness gleamed with polish, his traditional trousers, now the blue of the Terran taif, were immaculate. His nap looked well brushed. “Vaist,” he said sourly, as though Tully’s quite proper courtesy had been lacking.

Several clerks, one human and the other Jao, ducked their heads and hurried past in the dim passageway. “Have you been assigned to the Lexington?” Tully asked.

“The governor has too many matters which require his attention here,” the old Jao said. And, of course, Yaut went nowhere that Aille didn’t. A fraghta was never separated from his or her charge. Their devotion was legendary.

But Yaut wanted to go, thought Tully, analyzing the cant of the Jao’s ears, the angle of his spine. He looked — regretful. “Too bad,” he said casually. “What little the Preceptor let slip sounds interesting.”

“It does not matter if the expedition is interesting.” Yaut’s whiskers bristled. “It is expected, above all else, that you will make yourself of use and do Terra Taif honor. As a member of Aille’s service, what you do reflects upon him!”

Tully sighed. “You can’t fault me for being human. We like novelty.”

“I have noticed,” Yaut said, his shoulders stiff. “I believe that appropriate human expression is — ‘you have the attention span of an annoying small flying insect!'”

“Close enough.” Tully kept even the slightest hint of a smile from reaching his face. Yaut was adept at reading human facial expression these days.

“Aille wishes to speak with you,” Yaut said.

All amusement drained out of him. Tully nodded and edged around the fraghta into Aille’s office. It was spacious, with a gleaming oak desk on one side. A floor to ceiling wall of glass looked out over the work floor on the other side. Below, workmen swarmed over the subs being refitted, as well as a number of small Jao spacecraft, the pace frantic. The Ekhat would be coming back and everyone knew it, human and Jao alike. There was no time to be spared anywhere on this world.

Aille looked up from his com. He had a bold vai camiti slanting across his eyes like a mask, a mark of Jao comeliness, and his nap was lustrous with frequent swims. He radiated confidence and purpose. “I wished to confer before you leave on the Bond’s mission.”

“Will it be that soon?” Tully stood before the desk, his body as attentive in Jao terms as he could manage.

“Yes,” Aille said. “As a human would reckon such things, I think only a few days, perhaps even as little as two.”

“I still have a lot to do then,” Tully said, “and not much time in which to do it.” His mind leaped ahead, calculating.

“You will listen to Wrot in all things,” Aille said. “I say this, because I believe it would not be apparent to a human, but Wrot evidently has the Preceptor’s confidence. He is being given oudh in this situation.”

Wrot had the top authority? Tully’s eyebrows rose. “Not the captain of the ship?”

“The captain is in charge of taking you and the rest of the crew where you need to go, as the driver of a ground vehicle might pilot you around the base,” Aille said. “Wrot will decide what should be done once you arrive.”

Wrot wasn’t a bad sort, Tully thought, as Jao went, not nearly as stiff-necked and full of pride as your average scion of one of the great kochan. He’d even been a fellow member of Aille’s service before resigning to be one of Terra Taif’s first elders. “I see,” he said carefully, mindful of Yaut glowering behind him.

“You are the commander of an accomplished unit,” Aille said. “I was very pleased with its performance in the last maneuvers. You should know that a number of them are listed for possible advancement.”

That was news. Of course, Tully hadn’t seen the evaluations since before he’d taken off for the Rockies. “That’s great.”

“We have many more deserving humans than we can promote at the moment,” Aille said. “The number of officers in both the human and Jao taifs must be balanced as much as possible, so that neither one nor the other has the advantage.”

The new taif didn’t mean the same to a human as it did to a Jao. To them, taif — and the kochan that it would eventually become — were tied up in a sense of personal worth. If one’s kochan was not well regarded, then neither were you. Many of the Jao who had flocked to the new taif were of lowly ranked kochan, or, like Caitlin’s current bodyguard, Tamt, had been all but abandoned by theirs, having in some measure not lived up to what had been expected of them.

It appealed to Tully also, feeding into his desire to belong somewhere, anywhere. He’d had no home since he was almost too young to remember. Here was a group that needed him, filled with people, both human and Jao, who thought that he, Gabriel Tully, actually had something worthwhile to offer. It was the only place he had ever really felt he belonged. And he found that commitment and regard making him a better man.

“Then we need more Jao,” he said.

Green fire danced in Aille’s enigmatic black gaze. “`Easier said than done,’ as the saying goes,” the young governor of Earth said. “This mission may well be a way to achieve that, though. Once Jao and human are seen to work well together under difficult circumstances, to accomplish much and then return home safely, that may lure the more skeptical of my species to make the same commitment.”

“Accomplish much?” Tully echoed. “So far, no one will say exactly what the hell it is that we’re supposed to do besides fly into the heart of some nebula, where at least one Ekhat ship was recently destroyed, and see what, or who, is there.”

“The Preceptor has his own reasons to withhold information.” Aille rose and stalked around the desk, each step a different posture, his body easily flowing from one into another, as though it took no thought at all.

Tully couldn’t read ordinary Jao bodyspeak very well, and hardly at all at that speed, but he knew out and out agitation when he saw it, human or Jao. He waited, shoulders back, arms straight, body at attention, communicating respect in the human fashion. “What do you think is out there that’s worth risking the Bond’s shiny new ship?”

“Not the Ekhat,” Aille said. “The Preceptor has already said that much.”

“Other than the Ekhat, humans, and the Jao,” Tully said, “who else is there?”

“Sapience is more common than you might think,” Aille said. His gaze turned to the wall of glass and the workers busily refitting the ships below. “And, due to the mad persecution of the Ekhat, who only wish to be alone in the universe, little of it is willing to be contacted.”

Even if it was the Jao who found you instead of the Ekhat, Tully thought, they came with lasers, raining death from the sky, hell-bent on ruling what was left after the fires died down. If someone was hiding in that nebula, most likely the last thing they wanted to see was a Jao ship — like the one he was scheduled to ride on.

“Then we will have to be careful,” he said.

“Your unit may be of great use out there,” Aille said. “I chose it because of all the jinau under my command, Baker Company has demonstrated the highest capacity for innovation in the field. See that you are prepared for all possibilities.”

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