The Span Of Empire – Snippet 39

The Span Of Empire – Snippet 39

Chapter 19

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.

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.


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17 Responses to The Span Of Empire – Snippet 39

  1. Jeff Ehlers says:

    Did Zhao learn his manners from Japanese anime or something? -san is a Japanese honorific, not a Chinese one. I realize it’s probably being used because readers would recognize it, especially with the prevalence of anime, but it was a little jarring to read a person using a Japanese honorific while being described as speaking fluent Mandarin – even if he is from San Diego.

    I don’t know enough about Chinese honorifics to suggest an alternative, though I did look up the wiki on it:

    • sensei says:

      Maybe Master Zhao is being confused with Mr. Miyagi???

    • David says:

      Yes, this got picked up on by the e-Arc readers on Baen’s Bar as well. I think what happened was I used ‘san’ as a place holder but forgot to flag it for research and replacement and nobody caught it–not Eric, not me, not the beta-readers or the copy-editor. :-( I don’t think it got turned in with the galley proof corrections, so it’s probably going to make it into the hardback. I will flag it for correction in the next edition, though, which will probably be the paperback. Looks like Limshèng will give the feel I wanted.

    • laclongquan says:

      According to a few impressions from book1, Japan seems to rise to prominence again, might even be higher than US despite system capital set inside US. So Japanese cultural influence might be higher.

      Read the passages conscerning whale hunt~

  2. cka2nd says:

    The blocking of this scene is very confusing.

    “After a moment of observation, she chose a seat on one of the long sides of the table, facing another chair across the table”

    The only way that Lim could face a chair “across the table” while sitting on the table is if she had tucked her legs up underneath her. This is extremely unlikely given the relative sizes of Lleix bodies and human furniture. More likely, she is sitting on the table with her legs in front of her and her feet resting on the floor; she would therefore have to turn around to see a chair “across the table.”

    “…he placed a saucer and cup before Lim and the seat opposite her, when he then settled neatly into.”

    First, it should be “WHICH he then settled neatly into.” Second, unless she is squatting on the table, the tea can’t be put in front of her on the table, and it doesn’t sound as if Zhao has put the tea on one chair in front of her and then sat on another chair in front of her.

    It sounds like the chair she is looking at and which Master Zhao s is not around the table at all but across the room. Seriously, this scene needs to be gone through and the blocking completely re-thought by one of the authors.

    • David says:

      Umm, immediately before that there’s an indication there are three low chairs around the table. She took one of the chairs that was by one of the long sides. There’s another chair across the table by the other long side. To her left, the third chair is by one of the short sides. That’s the staging.

      I think you got confused when it said she took a seat on the long side. She took a seat not on the table, but a seat that was on the long side of the table. Perhaps not the clearest wording available, but your interpretation is a reading I didn’t consider and no one else has brought up.

  3. cka2nd says:

    I am really enjoying the Ekhat scenes!

  4. Positroll says:

    It would be really have been nice if the authors told us what the hell was in that “planetary outpost” and whether it was worth spending three expensive penetrators on …

    • David says:

      How would the alliance flotilla characters have known what was in the outpost? Really. Chance encounter, equivalent of a meeting engagement. How would/could they have known? And since both Eric and I normally write in limited third-person narrative form, if at least one of the characters doesn’t see, observe, or already know something at a particular point, it’s typically not going to show up in the story at that point.

      Name of the game was kill everything that moves, kill the base to leave no witnesses, and get the —— out of Dodge before more trouble shows up.

      They used three penetrators because Dannet appears to be a firm believer in the idea that there is no such thing as “overkill”. Equivalent of a shot to the head after putting two in the heart.

      • Positroll says:

        I’m talking about the two Ekhat discussing what happened. All they say is “the outpost was destroyed”. But third mordent went there for a purpose. Since she has her own ship and doesn’t talk about harvesting some planet most likely she wanted to get to the outpost. Which in my opinion makes it a very reasonable topic of discussion between the two, trying to figure out how hard their fraction has got hit. Say its a crèche – makes breeding more important. Or the only producer of something needed for spaceship construction – maybe sending ships out looking for a fight isn’t a good idea in the next months …

  5. Bibliotheca Servare says:

    So I’m guessing we’re going to get to see this young Ekhat being “molded” so to speak, into a suitable, acceptable successor to this “descant” creature she’s apparently related to. Fascinating! :-)

  6. Bibliotheca Servare says:

    I thought Lliex needed bigger seats than humans?

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