The Span Of Empire – Snippet 39
Ninth-Minor-Sustained spun to face Third-Mordent after they entered the room. Third-Mordent had no idea where they were, but her reflexes dropped her into predator mode in reaction to the harmony master’s sudden movement. The thought was still in her mind that, despite the harmony master’s approval of her motif, she still might exact a price from Third-Mordent for bringing word of what she had seen.
“Descant-at-the-Fourth was the longest surviving of my descendants,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained fluted. “Fourth generation removed.” She flicked open a forehand blade and carved a line in her own tegument.
Third-Mordent’s body had tensed and her vision had narrowed when the harmony master had opened the sheath of the forehand blade. The sight of the white ichor oozing from the gash Ninth-Minor-Sustained had opened sent a quiver through her body. Only the sight of the open forehand blade kept her from assaulting the harmony master.
They stood thus in a tableau for what seemed an endless period of time to Third-Mordent. Gradually she became aware that Ninth-Minor-Sustained was staring at her, steady gaze over the intervening forehand blade. It took great effort, great self-control, to put away the predator’s mind and ease the tension in her own pose, raise her manipulators, and return the harmony master’s gaze.
“I had hopes for Descant-at-the-Fourth and her line,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained dirged. “Was her system truly dissonant?”
“Six ships missing altogether,” Third-Mordent keened softly, “yet unusual traces in the solar corona indicated where they died. Seven ships dead in fragments dancing aimlessly around the star with the shattered corpse of Descant-at-the-Fourth’s world harvester. Nothing but ruin and broken rubble at the planetary post.” She stopped for a moment, then sang in descending quarter-tones, “All trace of the Melody in the system gone. Gone as if it had never been.”
Ninth-Minor-Sustained lowered her head, still staring at Third-Mordent. “Then she is gone, and all her surviving direct progeny.”
To that Third-Mordent could only assent.
The harmony master folded her forehand blade back into its sheath. She turned and walked over to face what Third-Mordent first assumed was a view screen displaying a field of stars. It was a moment before the younger Ekhat realized that it was really a transparent window. That surprised her, as very few Ekhat liked to be reminded of the near presence of the emptiness of space.
“You are of the line of Descant-at-the-Fourth.” The harmony master was not asking a question with that bit of melody.
“Yes,” Third-Mordent responded with a glissando.
“Not of the most direct line,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained intoned.
“Yet still of her progeny,” Third-Mordent responded in kind, “fifth generation removed in a collateral line.”
Ninth-Minor-Sustained stood silently, still, gazing out the window. Third-Mordent said nothing; she knew nothing to say that hadn’t been said. Whatever the harmony master’s purpose, it was opaque to the younger Ekhat, who was just now coming to grips with the thought that she herself was in the line of Ninth-Minor-Sustained. She had not known. Few Ekhat could trace their lineage very far back. Mortality among young Ekhat was very high, between the fratricide among their peers and the casual violence of their elders. The odds of one’s direct progenitors surviving long enough to communicate with sapient offspring were very low.
Yet Third-Mordent could now count her line back ten generations to no less than Ninth-Minor-Sustained, preeminent harmony master, one of the leaders of the Complete Harmony faction, wickedly adept at combat, survivor of the longest odds. Her mind could just barely begin to grapple with the implications of that knowledge.
All thoughts fled Third-Mordent’s mind as Ninth-Minor-Sustained spun and leapt on her, smashing her to the floor and pinning her under the harmony master’s great weight. One forehand blade hung poised before her eyes, and she felt the edge of the other kiss her throat ever so slightly.
Third-Mordent clamped down on her instincts, hard. She knew that even the slightest movement on her part would bring her death. The struggle she fought in her own mind was every bit as fierce as the struggle she would have attempted against the harmony master; every bit as desperate; every bit as ruthless. And almost as fruitless; but not quite.
Every muscle tensed, and her tegument rippled. But Third-Mordent, by the barest of margins, did not struggle. She could sense the great head of Ninth-Minor-Sustained lowering above her, mandibles and maw approaching the back of her neck. Her tegument rippled again, but still she did not move.
The exhaled breath of the harmony master touched the tegument just behind her head. It took the last bit of control Third-Mordent had to remain still.
“You cannot defeat me,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained . . . crooned. “You can never defeat me.”
Third-Mordent made no response; she focused on controlling herself. A long moment passed.
The forehand blade at her neck was removed so deftly Third-Mordent was not aware of its absence for long moments. She felt the pressure of the harmony master’s weight shift the barest of instances before massive pain in three different locations sheeted through her system, paralyzing her for what seemed almost eternity.
The pains faded; the one at the base of the skull lingered longest.
“Get up,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained fluted in a monotone. She said nothing else, but Third-Mordent understood what was not said, and struggled to her feet.
The younger Ekhat stood facing her very distant ancestor, manipulators raised as high as she could raise them in the lingering pain, forehand blades still sheathed but trembling.
“Control,” the harmony master uttered in a whisper of an aria. “You think you have it. You are wrong. But I will teach it to you.”
Third-Mordent shivered at the solid, austere harmony in Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s voice.
Lim stood before the door of Zhao Jiguang’s quarters, and raised her hand to the signal plate. The door opened just before her finger touched. Zhao stood before her, dressed much as he was the previous day in loose trousers and long loose tunic of a light gray color.
“Ah, Lim-san,” Zhao said in Mandarin. “Please come in.”
He gave a slight bow, which Lim returned before she stepped through the doorway. Zhao pointed to the small seating area in his quarters. “Please, choose a place to sit. I will return with the tea momentarily.”
Lim examined the three low chairs–barely more than stools–that were grouped around an equally low rectangular table. After a moment of observation, she chose a seat on one of the long sides of the table, facing another chair across the table, with the third chair to her left. She was still not certain why she had come. This human did not look to her to be as dangerous as Gabe Tully had insisted he was.
She refolded her robes, then locked her hands together in her lap and looked around the room. It was small, as most spaces were in the ship. Indeed, Lim’s own quarters was barely larger in total than the room in which she sat.
Her eye was caught by a low box lying on the table opposite the third chair at the open end of the table. It was black, perhaps five of the human centimeters high, and it contained fine white sand. The sand had been brushed into patterns by some sort of tool, and there were three small stones placed within the patterns; one smooth and shining black, one smooth and gleaming white, and one coarse and dull red.
She was still looking at the box when Zhao arrived with the tea. He set a black wooden tray before the third seat. On the tray was a black teapot, low and round, rough surfaced, with golden highlights limning the outlines of a long beast.
Flanking the teapot were two round handleless cups of a matching finish and pattern, each sitting upon saucers shaped like Terran leaves, with gold traces outlining the veins of the leaves.
Zhao lifted the teapot and poured steaming tea into each of the cups. Setting the teapot down, he placed a saucer and cup before Lim and the seat opposite her, when he then settled neatly into.
“It is good of you to come, Lim-san,” Zhao said with a slight forward bow, still speaking Mandarin.
“It was good of you to invite me, Master Zhao,” Lim replied in the same language.
Zhao cupped his hands before him, then spread them to the sides in a smooth gesture. “Please, call me Joe. I am not so pretentious as to require being addressed as ‘Master’, especially not by one of your people.”
Lim repeated the gesture. “Then call me Lim, for I am no master, either among my people or yours.”
Zhao smiled, bringing his hands together around the cup before him. “Then we are two friends of a common friend, Gabe Tully, who are met to become friends of each other over shared tea.” He lifted the cup and smelled of the vapor arising from it.
Lim followed suit. She found the cup surprisingly heavy for its size, but lifted it to sniff of it. “It smells excellent,” she exclaimed in surprise.