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Chapter 26

If the new aliens were triumphant, dare she ask for help? Jihan's injured arm ached abominably as she swung back to the overhang, then stretched out along it, peering into the maze of debris. She wondered who was winning and who in the name of the Boh these bold strangers could possibly be.

Lliant positioned himself behind her, watching back down the corridor so that they would not be surprised again.

The chamber was suddenly lit again very brightly by a flare of some sort sent up by one of the combatants. Jihan could finally see the newcomers clearly. They wore transparent helmets, similar to those employed by the Lleix, so that their heads were visible. They had no aureoles, which was unattractive, but hardly surprising. Instead, their skulls were covered with patches of fur in varying shades, mostly browns. Their eyes were large and round, white with tiny dark circles in the center like holes. To the last of them, they seemed to be shorter than Lleix. She doubted the tallest of them topped even herself. A magnificent Eldest like Sayr would have dwarfed them all.

Then a figure jetted past her, its movements more deft than the rest, and she stopped breathing. The creature's entire head was covered in dark brown fur. It had a prominent muzzle and green flecked black eyes along with those large infamous ears, which were swiveling even as it passed.

She turned to Lliant. "That—" she said, but could not find the words to finish.

Lliant pulled himself up beside her, gazing out over the platform into the battle. "Yes?"

The figure was gone, having fired at an Anj, then plunged back into the maze of debris. Blood hammered in her head. Alarm flattened her aureole so thoroughly, she thought it would never again straighten. Once again, the universe had turned itself inside out. The situation was far worse than she'd thought. "That—was a Jao."


Tully hovered above the corpse of the other Ekhat. Its legs and arms had curled like those of a dead spider after Naddo's shot had destroyed its head. "Jesus, that's ugly!" he said with a shudder, then turned to Miller. "Lieutenant, send parties to search the rest of this hulk. Go through every compartment, open every door. I think we've run into whatever survivors there were who were still in shape to fight. But I might be wrong, and there are probably some Ekhat or Anj somewhere who are immobilized by injuries."

"Yes, sir. And what should we do with any we run into who aren't dead?"

Tully hesitated. Then decided that with one Ekhat captured alive, they'd already fulfilled that mission. One was enough. More than enough, if anyone wanted his opinion.

"If they're Anj—or any other slave species you might run across—try to keep them alive. If they're Ekhat, kill 'em."

She jetted off. Mallu and Kaln motioned him over to a bit of debris.

"Despite appearances, Major, much of this tech is usable," Kaln said. "We should take care not to damage it any—" She broke off, staring up at the curving wall.

Tully followed her gaze and spotted two figures in unfamiliar design suits surveying the battle scene. They had only two arms and legs, so were not Ekhat, but neither were they short and stumpy like the Anj. A second slave species? "Kaln, Burgeson, Nam, secure those two up there!" he said, motioning.

Nancy Burgeson, who was closest, swooped in to train her weapon on the pair. Kaln, along with Nam, one of the jinau Jao of Baker Company, followed to back him up. The aliens did not flee, however. Instead, they pushed themselves up so that they were floating more or less face to face with their captors, staring back at the trio with upswept black eyes.

* * *

These were Jao. Jihan's mind reeled at encountering yet another of their ancient enemies. But . . .

Most of the ones who had fought were of another species altogether, similar in conformation to the Jao, but easily distinguished by their smaller build and paucity of fur. Their faces were flatter, their ears tiny and stationary, when she knew from the records that those of the Jao were almost always in motion. And these particular Jao seemed to be under the command of one of the newcomers, the one with bright yellow head-fur. They were clearly following its directions, taking its orders.

Understanding flooded through her. Of course! The Jao had always been a slave species, and still were. For some reason, this particular group of Jao—perhaps all Jao—had fallen under the rule of another alien culture. So they served them now, not the Ekhat.

One of their captors, not a Jao, motioned with its slim gray weapon for her to approach. She turned to Lliant, who had not moved. His black eyes stared. "Come," she said. "We must do our best to make ourselves understood."

"They will kill us," Lliant said. "There is no need to communicate that."

"If they wished us dead," she said, "we would already be so. They want something else." She gestured at two of their captors. "Do you not see? Some of them are Jao!"

He groaned. "And you find that welcome news?"

"They are obviously communicating with one another," she said, hand fumbling at her controls. "Perhaps we can find the same frequency."

The closest Jao waved at her now. She pushed off and drifted down to it, if the chamber could be said to have a "down" orientation in any meaningful sense of the word under these conditions. Hurriedly flipping through the available communication channels, she listened to each for a breath, but heard only silence, static, silence. It was hopeless, she thought. Their tech was bound to be radically different. They might not even communicate in frequencies that could be detected by Lleix ears.

At her side, Lliant jerked, then looked at her. His black eyes gleamed. Had he found it? His mouth was moving as though he were trying to tell her something.

She clicked back to their common ship frequency. "—to five-thirty-four!" he was saying. "Dial to five-thirty-four!"

Fingers shaking, she did so. "—throw away your weapons!" a growly voice was saying. In Jao.

Lliant gazed at her expectantly. He did not understand, of course. He was an Ekhatlore. Quite properly, he had only studied the sly maniac tongue of the great devils. But she was Jaolore, however short the duration of her appointment. From long days of study, she knew approximately what those words meant, although they were not pronounced in the same way as the ancient recording. But that was not surprising. Languages changed, over time. She was lucky it was still basically the same.

"We—have—none—weapons," she said slowly, the alien syllables dropping clumsily off her tongue before she could quite complete the sounds. She remembered the records, how the Jao had simply shot down that brave Wordthreader Eldest when she had pleaded for alliance, and white-hot fear seared through her. "Nothing is required here except that you die!" the Jao had said to the Lleix elder. She had watched the gruesome scene so many times, she knew the dialogue on both sides, word for word.

Then she got hold of herself. She and Lliant could die in the next few blinks, that was true. But it was also true that without aid, they were soon to perish anyway, as indeed were all their kind, scrambling even now back on Valeron to send off a few of their number to dubious safety. Nothing was more certain than the fact that the Ekhat would return to extract vengeance for their lost ships.

The three were staring at her, two of them Jao, the other, one of the unnamed aliens. She noticed, off to the side, the newcomers had rounded up a few Anj and were guarding the little serviles, rather than exterminating them. How very strange.

Even stranger was that the aliens evidently intended to keep one of the Ekhat alive, even though they'd severed all of its limbs. For what possible purpose? she wondered.

But, whatever the aliens' intent, they had not fired upon her or Lliant. So at least they were not purely murderous. With a great effort, she put aside her useless fear and then jetted toward the alien who seemed to be in charge, the one with the yellow thatch of fur on its small head. Lliant followed, she noted with approval. If they were to have any chance of surviving, she would have to find a way to appeal to this alien creature.

* * *

"Heads up, Major!" Burgeson called.

Tully turned to find the captured pair sailing through the debris field toward him.

"They do not seem to be armed," Kaln said as she trailed after them, good ear pinned, weapon ready. Nam krinnu ava Terra came too, his gun trained upon the aliens. "And, Major Tully, one of them managed to say so—in Jao."

In Jao? Tully studied the creatures. Did the Ekhat perhaps keep some of these—whatever they were—around as linguists or translators?

"Stop," he said in Jao, as the one in front neared. It complied, employing its suit jets for station-keeping. "How are you called?"

"I am Jihan," it said. He could see a strange fleshy serrated corona rippling across its head through the suit's helmet. Its skin was a dusky silver, its eyes gleaming black slits. If the two of them had stood face to face on the ground, it would have been head and shoulders taller. "You—rule Jao," it said, sweeping an arm toward Kaln and Nam, who both promptly looked affronted. "Jao—our—old enemy."

For a translator, Tully thought, the words certainly weren't coming very fluently.

Then it straightened, raising its head, seeming to tap into an inner store of words. "The Lleix have proposal," it said slowly, in heavily accented Jao, "one to set your people free to come into own."

"It must belong to the Ekhat," Burgeson said in English. "It's just as freaking nuts as they all are!"

"You already fierce warriors," Jihan continued carefully in Jao, obviously producing each syllable with a great deal of effort to get the sounds right. "No one could dispute. The Lleix believe you great people. You have to reach for the freedom Ekhat masters never allowed."

Mallu joined them, his ears wavering. "What is this?"

"I have no idea," Tully said. "Do you recognize the species?"

"No," Mallu said. "But the Melody may have many client races we have never encountered."

"Jao-slaves!" The alien, Jihan, gestured at the Krant-captain, then turned to Tully. "You rule now! You!"

Kaln's good ear twitched. "It believes we are your slaves," she said, and even with his poor ability to read postures, Tully was sure he detected a sudden intent-to-commit-mischief in her lines. The senior-tech jetted between him and the two captives. "You are correct," she said and pointed at herself, Mallu, and Nam, "we are but lowly Jao slaves." She swept her arm back toward Tully. "That, however, is Tully, master of many great ships and eater of Ekhat!"

"Now, hold on—" Tully began. Since first accepting Jao into his jinau unit, he knew full well that what passed for Jao humor was about as far removed from dry wit as you could ask for. And once they got amused by something, they almost always took it too far.

The alien stiffened all the way up to its corona. "This very one—eat—the great devils?"

"Yes—while still alive!" Kaln said, positively gleeful. She pointed to immobile body of the one surviving Ekhat. "Eat it still alive!"

Tully winced. Even if this creature were only an Ekhat servile, there wasn't any point in deceiving it. He raised his voice. "Kaln, this is not the time for—"

"We needing—help," Jihan said, its fleshy crown rippling. "All Lleix—needing help—now!"

Its companion hung back, regarding them with an inscrutable black gaze. Maybe they weren't Ekhat serviles at all, but captives. How was he supposed to figure this out? "You are Lleix?" he said, struggling to pronounce the name. The closest he could come was "Laysh."

"Yes, yes!" the alien cried.

Tully rolled his eyes. He was good at fighting, but he sure as hell wasn't trained for this. "Are there more Lleix on this ship?" he asked. If so, he thought, poor buggers, they were most likely all dead.

"No, on planet!" Jihan said, waving an arm. "Valeron! On surface!"

"But—" he began.

"Lord Tully rules twenty planets!" Kaln broke in. "He brews soup from lakes and straightens rivers with his bare hands!"

Tully turned to the Krant-captain for assistance, but Mallu was looking distinctly amused. Jao humor. Right.

"Kaln, go back to the assault craft!" he said desperately. If he understood the alien correctly, at least one of the worlds in this system was inhabited by these Lleix, which made this some sort of First Contact situation. That meant Kaln was screwing the proverbial pooch.

The tech gazed at him, eyes flickering with merry green fire. "Pool Buntyam," she said. "Tully is like Pool Buntyam!"

"Great," Tully said under his breath. Whose bright idea had it been to tell the Krants tall tales?

Well. His.

"And then there is Bab the green ox—" Kaln continued.

"Shut—up!" Tully said and glared Kaln into blessed silence. He closed his eyes for a second, trying to think. "This is way above my pay grade," he said. "We need to contact Caitlin and Wrot."

"Cat-lin and Rot?" Jihan said. "These rule—as well?"

"Yes, yes, Caitlin!" Kaln said, still clearly on a roll and enjoying herself far too much to let it go. "Queen of the Universe, ruler of all and possessor of many many fine green ox! Wrot is of course her faithfullest slave. She lives on a comet and uses stars to cook comestibles!"

"Queen?" Jihan said. Its corona fluttered.

"A queen," Kaln burbled on, "is a female ruler who—"

Tully reached over and punched Kaln's radio off. Then they all stared at one another, human, Jao, and Lleix. How in holy hell had Kaln even heard of "lords" and "queens?" He'd suggested that Caewithe Miller tell the Krants a few simple tall tales, not relate a goddamned entire fairy tale book!

He should have known better. With a name like "Caewithe," the lieutenant had to come from a family with one of those Celtic fetishes. Probably got fed ancient mythology with her mother's milk, and cut her teeth on legends as she was growing up. Could read runes by moonlight and recite the Iliad from beginning to end.

This, he thought grimly, was going to take some explaining.


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