The Span Of Empire – Snippet 40
“I have family in Nanjing,” Zhao said, “who sent me quite a bit of premium Oolong tea just before I shipped out.” He smiled. “For some reason, many of the Chinese and Japanese among the jinau wish to be my friends.”
Zhao took a sip of the tea, then returned his cup to its saucer. Lim did likewise, finding the flavor of the tea matching the excellence of its scent. She set it cup down, unfortunately not as gently as Zhao had. It made a noticeable “clunk” as it encountered the saucer. She tilted her head and looked at Zhao, her aureole rising.
He smiled again. “Cast iron,” he said. “All of it; pot, cups, saucers. Japanese make, but very nice. I inherited them from my mother when she died.”
“Is this part of the tea ceremony, then?” Lim asked aureole now extended fully.
“No, not part of the ritual.” Zhao shook his head. “I’m actually not very good at the ceremony,” he said with a note of chagrin. “My mother used to tell me I wasn’t patient enough. I did not bring the utensils with me. But,” a gleaming smile appeared, “when we return to Earth, I will invite you to our home and my sister will welcome you with the full ceremony.”
They drank their tea slowly and quietly. When Lim had emptied her cup, she held it up at eye-level to examine the creature molded into the side of it. “Dragon?” She looked at Zhao. He nodded with another smile, and lifted the pot to refill their cups.
Aille followed Yaut into the workspace of Lieutenant General Ed Kralik. His flotilla’s jump to Ares system had been uneventful. He suspected the next few moments might provide sufficient storminess to balance that out.
“Governor,” Kralik said from where he stood before his desk. “I was surprised to hear that you had traveled all the way out here.”
“Ed Kralik,” Aille replied. “One is of use wherever one is needed.”
“So what use is the governor of Terra going to be put to in Ares Base?”
The general sounded a little skeptical, Aille thought. That was probably to be expected; Kralik had a lot of experience with Jao. “Business of Terra taif,” he responded.
Kralik’s eyes narrowed. “The only business the taif has out here is Ares Base or . . . Caitlin!” The human clasped his hands behind his back. “If it was something to do with the base, I’d have already heard about it. So what is it about Caitlin that has you abandoning your post and jumping to the middle of nowhere? Are you demoting her?”
Aille’s angles slipped into calmness-in-turbulence in the face of Kralik’s human version of pure unalloyed stubbornness that even a Jao could recognize. “No,” he said. “She will retain oudh.”
Kralik’s human face took on an expression that could only be called a glower. Aille was one of the best Jao around at reading human postures, but that one wasn’t hard to understand.
“Have you seen something? Is she–the fleet–in danger?”
Aille shrugged, using the human gesture to attempt to calm the general. “No, nothing is foreseen.”
“Then you’d better have your navigators talk to the Starsifters here.” Kralik’s mouth quirked. “That first step into the long dark is a doozy, from the word the fleet sent back.”
That led to a short discussion as to what a ‘doozy’ was, followed by a short discussion about the nature of the ‘doozy’ in this context, which in turn led to Yaut stepping to one side to send orders via his com pad.
Kralik looked back to Aille. “You still haven’t told me why you are personally leading this trip.”
“Ronz believes that Caitlin might find my presence of benefit,” Aille said. “And the ships I bring, of course.”
Kralik’s face went to an expression that could have passed for neutral. He said nothing for a long moment, then licked his lips and said, “The Preceptor ordered this?”
“Preceptor Ronz suggested that I could be of great use if I joined Caitlin in the search for allies,” Aille responded.
“And you’re not just joining her, are you? You’re taking reinforcements to her.” The glower returned to Kralik’s face as he crossed his arms across his chest. “So he suspects something, doesn’t he?”
“I have told you what he told me,” Aille said.
Yaut returned to Aille’s side, which drew Kralik’s eye. Aille knew that the fraghta, despite his years of association with humans, was still somewhat more brusque and fond of wrem-fa methods than was perhaps of maximum use in dealing with them. He turned and looked at Yaut, the tilt of his head and the angle of his ears giving what Caitlin might have called a shorthand version of my-responsibility. Yaut’s whiskers twitched back and forth in irritation, but he said nothing.
Aille returned his attention to the human. Kralik was staring him in the eye, which, tall though he was for a Terran, still required him to look up at the governor.
“I’m going with you,” Kralik said, once he realized he had Aille’s focus again.
“You will stay at Ares Base,” Aille said. “You are not required for this.”
Kralik’s face paled. “I really don’t care if I am required,” he bit the words out. “You’ve sent my wife in harm’s way, such that you’re giving her the strongest combat fleet in this region of our alliance. The Bond is sending you to join her. I will not sit here on my butt and wait for God knows what.”
Aille tilted his head. He said nothing, waiting on the human to conclude.
Kralik’s nostrils flared. He turned to his desk and took from its stand the bau that Aille had awarded him for exemplary service early in their relationship. The carvings on that rod of shell began with the siege and destruction of Salem during the last days of the governorship of Oppuk, but they had been added to and augmented in the years since then. The service it denoted would have made any Jao proud.
“You gave me this,” the human said, looking to where his hands almost cradled the bau. “You took me into your service, and you gave me this. I’ve taken your orders, I’ve done your work, I’ve been ‘of service’ wherever you sent me, including sitting here at Ares Base when Caitlin was out jumping from star to star not knowing what she was going to find.”
Kralik looked back up and locked eyes with Aille again. “And now you are going to join her, crossing the void to the Sagittarius Arm, going where no Jao or human has gone before, and Ronz is concerned enough about it to send you to join her. Caitlin is out there,” he pointed above his head with the bau, “Wrot is out there, Tully is out there, and now you, and Yaut, and even Rafe Aguilera for God’s sake, are going out to join her. Whatever it is that has Ronz so concerned ought to ‘require’ that you have your A team with you. All the rest of your service will be out there with you, and you’re going to leave me behind? I don’t think so.”
The bau lowered and Kralik said quietly, “You need your service with you, and I’m part of that service. I have military and jinau expertise that no one else in that fleet has. Whatever the Bond thinks you’re going to encounter, you need me.” He held the bau up between them, in front of Aille’s eyes. “You still don’t understand humans as well as you think you do. If you leave me here, you will have told the universe that you don’t value or trust me. You will have broken everything this represents between us.”
Aille reached out and took the bau from Kralik. The human released it readily. Aille turned it over and over in his hands, feeling the carvings with his fingers.
Kralik argued well, Aille decided. It was true that he was expert; far more so than Gabe Tully. That alone was perhaps not sufficient to bring him. But his other point was also valid, and perhaps was even the stronger one in this era of Jao/human relations.
Aille handed the bau back to the human and felt the flow of time sense. “You have until we finish on-loading supplies to give your orders. If you are not on board when we seal the hatches, you will be left behind.”
He turned without another word and headed for the door, Yaut preceding him. As the door closed behind him he heard Kralik speak to a com pad, “Get me Mrat krinnu ava Terra.”
“Impudent human,” Yaut muttered as they walked down the hall, angles stiff with offended-sensibilities.
“What would you have done in his place, Yaut?” Aille asked.
The fraghta snorted. “I would have ordered myself aboard your ship, and made sure that you didn’t see or hear of me until after the ship jumped.
“No so very different, then,” Aille murmured.
Yaut said nothing as he continued to stalk ahead of him.