THE CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE — Snippet 34
When Jihan returned to the Jaolore elian-house that night, the building smelled quite fresh with boughs of pungent purpleleaf tacked up in strategic locations and the wooden floors polished. They still creaked when she stepped inside, but she imagined that in another day, at the present level of industriousness, even that would be remedied.
Pyr waited for her in the Jaolore Application Chamber, his aureole newly fluffed, draped in a length of undecorated cloth. He looked quite the proper little adult, she thought, despite his inherent homeliness.
She handed him a stack of recording-flats, then passed a weary hand back over her limp aureole, trying to think what must be done next.
“You must rest, Eldest!” Pyr handed the flats off to one of the servants, who was now clad in a clean shift, she noticed with approval.
“No.” Jihan stalked through the hallways into the long communal kitchen in the back. Spices filled the air. The lights were mellow. Two of the servants looked up from a low table where they were eating, but there was no one else. “I do not have time for such.” She glanced around the dimly lit room. “Where is Kajin?”
Pyr followed her into the room, but his gaze was downcast, his demeanor subdued.
She stopped. “Where is he?”
Pyr’s voice was so soft, she thought she hadn’t heard him correctly. “Gone? Where?”
“He did not tell me, Eldest.” He inhaled deeply, still averting his face.
She tried to think. “Did he train you on the equipment as I requested?”
“Yes, Eldest.” Pyr’s round eyes looked up and glinted momentarily with pride. “I have been practicing and can operate the viewers quite well.”
Then where would Kajin have gone after that? She’d given him no further instructions. “He must have thought of another elian likely to have records of the Jao,” she said finally. “No doubt he will return shortly.”
“No doubt,” Pyr echoed dutifully, although his tone belied his words.
There was more here than the youth was saying. “You will be honest with me,” she said sternly. “We cannot waste time on smoothing over ruffled feelings.”
Pyr went very stiff. “Kajin said that it does not matter how much information you collect on these savages, we will never be able to fight them off.”
There had to be more, she thought. “And?”
“He refuses to be part of such — foolishness.” Pyr’s voice was barely more than a whisper. “You violated sensho, so he says that he owes you no respect. He would not say where he was going, but he threw off his robes and left the house in a great temper. I followed him across the city, keeping to the shadows. Kajin has removed himself — to the dochaya.”
Obviously Kajin would rather be without an elian than under her control, she thought numbly, but he did not have the right. She had not released him, so now he was the one breaking sensho. “File these new recording-flats with the rest,” she said. Her fingers tugged at her robe, improving its drape. She must look her best.
“I will be back soon,” she told Pyr and the servants.
“Shall I go with you, Eldest?” Pyr asked, still hunched in misery.
She started to say no, but young Pyr knew the dochaya as she did not. “Yes.”
And the two of them set off through the night.
The dochaya was crowded, filled with building after low graceless building where the unassigned kept themselves when not needed for gainful employment. Each structure they passed emanated unpleasant smells and was marred with filth. Jihan stopped at the edge, surveying the mess visible through an open door. Bowls and eating utensils were scattered about the floor, along with ripped shifts, bits of broken stools and benches. “Why do they not clean their quarters on the days they do not find work?” she asked Pyr.
He stared at the ground, shivering with remembered distress. “They are sad, Eldest. They think only of leaving.”
The night wind gusted, howling around the buildings. Unassigned gazed at her hungrily as the two of them passed. Why, she wondered, were they milling outside when they should have been within, sleeping, making their bodies ready for the next day’s work?
The dochaya was large, stretching around the eastern edge of the colony, bordering the landing fields themselves. She hadn’t realized its true extent. Servants came from here and returned when they were no longer needed. Those without employment applied at the elian each morning for occupation. It was rarely necessary for anyone of her rank to enter this place.
And Kajin was here? She would never find him among so many.
“Wait, Eldest,” Pyr said when they had reached the center. “I will make inquiries.”
The youth disappeared into the dark maze of ramshackle buildings. She walked up and down as a few late unassigned trickled back from the city in their ragged shifts, obviously having worked late. Jihan shuddered. This could have been her fate as well. She’d received only one offer during Festival while better favored children sometimes had twenty and thirty. She’d always been grateful to the Starsifters for accepting her, but now, seeing this desolation, she knew she had not been grateful enough.
Wind caught a fragment of a shattered crate and sent it skittering against a building. Unassigned stared at her, but did not speak. The night was clear. She gazed up at the nebula’s crimson haze, trying to imagine the Jao and the Ekhat lurking out there, persistent down through the long years, waiting ever so patiently for the opportunity to murder them all.
Finally, Pyr emerged from the shadows between the two closest buildings, Kajin in tow.
“You acknowledged me as Eldest,” she said. The former Ekhatlore looked utterly dejected, naked and weary. “You have no right to be here. I have not released you.”
Unassigned murmured as he passed, their eyes reflecting the scant diffused starlight that filtered down through the nebula’s haze. “Forgive me!” Kajin said and cast himself at her feet, making his body small.
Then she understood. The dochaya was far more dreadful than he had expected, too. She held herself stiff and proper as she thought Sayr would have, under similar circumstances. “We will have no more of this foolishness! Jaolore has far too much work and not enough hands as it is.”
“All my life,” Kajin said, his voice muffled against the dirt, “I wished only to be Eldest of Ekhatlore. I received forty-seven other offers during Festival, but chose them above all others. I was — distraught that they released me.”
She could well imagine him a favored choice, the many elian courting him because of his comeliness and grace. “You have a chance now to make a difference in the colony’s future,” she said, twitching at her robe to improve a fold. “To ensure that we even have a future. We must understand these Jao in order to defeat them. I cannot waste more time chasing after you.”
“Eldest, you will not have to,” Kajin said.
They returned to the elian-house to spend the rest of that night, and many days and nights thereafter, analyzing and studying their implacable and terrible enemy, the Jao. The more Jihan learned, the more she was alarmed. In many ways, these Jao were worse than the Ekhat. Their minds were less impenetrable. They’d had the opportunity to be different and yet they chose to obey their vicious masters and exterminate sapient species all across space.
They must have a weakness, she told herself over and over again. There must be a way to destroy them utterly. She would spend her life, or what was left of it, seeking it out.
And so, under her direction, the Lleix prepared.