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Chapter 30

"I don't think I like this place," Tully said, gripping his rifle in both hands. "Let's go back to the ship before we get ourselves into real trouble."

"We came to meet the Lleix," Caitlin said, refusing to lose her composure. "And here they are." She was a diplomat now. Ronz was counting upon her. It would not do to impute human motivations to these people. They were another kind, as alien in their mind-set as Jao were to humans. The "unassigned" had not made any moves of aggression, after all.

"Yeah, great reception, isn't it?" Tully said, craning his head, apparently scanning the crowd for weapons. "Keep walking."

Jihan's small companion, Pyr, suddenly waved his arms and called out at the pressing mob. Startled, they milled, their coronas wilting, then turned away and retreated to their ugly buildings. Pyr darted after them, still shouting.

"What is he saying?" Caitlin asked Jihan.

"He say unassigned alarming Queen of Universe," Jihan said, shortening her long graceful strides to keep pace with Caitlin. "Telling them to go away."

About what it had seemed, she thought. Perhaps the cultural referents weren't that different after all. A moment later, Pyr returned. "They not meaning frighten," he said to her in mangled Jao. "Not understanding no work here."

Another speaker of the tongue of their ancient enemies. Caitlin suppressed her surprise, though she did wonder how many there actually were. "If we did request them to work for us, how would we pay them?"

"Pay?" Jihan said. "Not knowing this word."

"What—would they expect in return for working?" Caitlin said as they passed yet another long row of the dreary gray stone buildings.

"Better food," Pyr said. "Clean garments, reason to live, perhaps nice place to sleep, all that elian giving."

It sounded then like an elian was a sort of organization, perhaps even a clan, like a Jao kochan, but Jao were born into a kochan which nurtured their development and trained them for their future occupation. No matter how badly they behaved, they were never cast out, but there seemed to be an inordinate number of Lleix here with no elian.

Finally they reached the edge of the depressing dochaya, as Jihan called it, and entered a neighborhood of ornate, much more attractive multistory wooden buildings with peaked roofs and carvings, adorned with flags. At least half, though, seemed to be unoccupied and were sadly dilapidated with gaping roofs, tumbled down fences, and peeling walls. Why didn't those in the dochaya move out here, Caitlin wondered, and occupy themselves with the repairs since they craved work and there was obviously room?

She didn't ask Jihan though, saving that question, and a number of others, for later. A few of the so-called "unassigned" had slipped out and were doggedly following them again, but at a discreet distance. Tully and his jinau walked in a tight formation, keeping her at the center. All the humans' lungs labored to breathe the cold, thin air as the party attempted to match Jihan and Pyr's stiff, apparently effortless pace.

Most of the sunlight had faded now. A thin rind of a moon was rising, adding its illumination to that of the light-posts lining the pathway. The houses they passed grew larger and more magnificent, all decorated with carved faces that looked nothing like the Lleix, surrounded by lavish gardens, though this was obviously the cold season and most of the vegetation lay dormant. The streets were narrow and winding, crossing a number of ornate bridges. The streams below were studded with stone weirs so that the water frothed, rushing musically.

"Is it much farther?" Caitlin asked finally, grown weary of the sights. She'd thought she was in pretty good shape, but this trek had thoroughly winded her and it was so achingly cold! Even her nose was numb. She felt a bit dizzy and very much did not want to disgrace herself.

"Jaolore elian-house there." Jihan pointed at a one-story building.

As they neared, Caitlin could see that it had an especially large garden and huge floor-to-ceiling windows. Dim lights glowed within. Pyr opened a door carved with scowling faces and disappeared inside. Jihan followed and Tully turned to Caitlin, putting a hand out to stop her.

His face was grim in the faint moonlight. "Let us check for trouble," he said. "You wait out here."

She nodded, too chilled to answer without her teeth chattering. This had been a boneheaded idea. Ed would certainly have chided her for being impulsive. She should have waited until tomorrow, only she had wanted so badly to see something of the Lleix city and get started with her assignment. They didn't have much time before the Ekhat would return.

Tully ducked inside with two of the five jinau, weapons ready, leaving her by the door with the remaining three. He needn't have bothered, she thought, tucking her poor frozen hands under her arms. The unassigned had dropped off several bridges ago. The humans were alone outside in the silent starless darkness. Nobody cared that they were here.

She huddled into her coat, trying to stay warm. The air felt cold enough to snow, if there had been any clouds. Her ears were freezing too, despite the scarf she tied over her head, and the thought beat through her that the Lleix went quite barefoot and bare-headed in this weather.

Jao tolerated a much greater temperature range than humans, comfortable at both higher and lower readings, but she thought if they'd brought any along tonight, even they would have been glad of their boots.

Tully reappeared. "It's all right," he said in English. "One of their elders is inside, so I think it's good that we came after all."


Grijo was waiting for Jihan in the Jaolore Application Chamber to discuss the current situation when a trio of the most astonishing creatures burst into the room. They had patches of fur on their small heads and were quick, darting here, poking into there with a most unseemly haste as though they simply could not be still.

These must be the umans. Grijo eyed them critically. They certainly were not much to look at, positively slight. He could have broken their necks with very little trouble. One of them faced him and said something unintelligible in a high little voice. The tone sounded rather demanding. Grijo's aureole quivered. He was Eldest of the Han and due respect, even from such as these.

Jihan entered and cast herself to his feet. "Forgive them, Eldest! They are of another kind and know nothing of our courtesies!"

"Obviously," he said with the dry narrowing of a single eye. "Rise, little Eldest of Jaolore. Eldests never greet one another so, no matter how grievously they last parted, and we two have much to discuss."

The three humans disappeared and Grijo could hear their rigid footwear clattering across the wooden floors. He winced at the unharmonious noise. "What do they seek?"

"Danger, I believe," young Jihan said with a rueful flutter of her aureole. "My command of Jao is far from perfect and though I have told them there is nothing to fear here among us, they wish to see for themselves."

"They value their Eldest then," Grijo said. "Quite proper. One cannot fault them for that." He settled his great bulk upon a padded bench and gestured toward Kajin who was lurking in the far doorway that led to the Duty Chamber. "While waiting for your return, I have been familiarizing myself with their growly tongue through the records. It is not as difficult as I feared."

"They all speak Jao, as well another language they call 'English,' " Jihan said. "I have been acquiring some of those words as well."

The three humans reappeared with three more, including one swaddled in layers of clothing as though it were quite young. Shortest of all of them, it advanced, head down, arms wrapped around itself as if frightfully chilled, though Grijo had found the night rather moderate for the season.

"Caitlin," Jihan said, hurrying across the room.

The creature answered the Jaolore, hanging back.

"The Queen of the Universe is cold," Jihan said to Kajin, rendering the alien's title in its own language. "Bring a brazier."

The youth disappeared, his demeanor communicating unease. Grijo did not blame him. He too found it disquieting to be in the company of these aliens. They might not be Ekhat, but Lleix experience with other species had not been positive down through the long years of flight. Many of their former trading partners had also been exterminated by the Ekhat. Those who were left feared aiding the Lleix would attract Ekhat attention and had refused them sanctuary. In the end, the Lleix had been able to depend only upon their own resources, losing colony after colony, most of their numbers dying, until the remnants fled here.

A second bench was brought and placed across from Grijo with a blazing brazier between them. Caitlin splayed her fingers—ten rather than eight—before the fire and then slowly pulled off her cumbersome outer garment. For an Eldest, she was indeed unpreposessing, with small hands and small round blue eyes. Although they could not be seen due to the clumsy-looking outerwear, her feet had to be tiny. It was hard to imagine how she managed to stay erect.

Different species would have differing protocols for rank, though, Grijo reminded himself. These humans, however strange, had defeated five Ekhat ships and they were at least willing to confer with the Lleix. Their council should be received, however this turned out.

"You had a good landing, I hope," he said, signaling to Jihan that she should translate. He had as yet too few Jao words to communicate adequately himself. That would take several more days, at least. "Why have you come in our time of great troubles?"

Caitlin straightened, conveying dignity in spite of her unimpressive bulk. "To save the Lleix," she said through Jihan.

"We have never encountered humans before, so you do not know the Lleix," he said. "Why then would you come for us?"

"We knew of the Lleix," she said, "through our association with the Jao."

His aureole stiffened. "The Jao drove us from our homeworlds," he said. "At the behest of the Ekhat, they destroyed our trade, slaughtered our children, laid waste to our cities. No more than a splinter of our former number survives hidden here. Why should you believe we would trust the Jao or anyone associated with them?"

After Jihan translated, Caitlin hesitated, seeming to consider. "What you say is true," she said finally, "of the Jao long ago. They were as you describe, but they are different now."

"Because they are human slaves," Jihan said.

Caitlin's pallid face went curiously red. "Because of themselves," she said. "They understand the great wrong they once inflicted upon the Lleix, who sought only to improve their lives. They wish to make amends."

Grijo glanced sharply at Jihan after she translated that last bit. "Are you certain you really understand these words?"

Jihan bowed her head. "Most of them."

"How can we possibly put our faith in such creatures?" Grijo said.

"I do not know, Eldest," Jihan said, "but if we do not, most of us will surely face Last-of-Days, for it is a certainty that the Ekhat will come back."

Grijo levered his bulk up, rising with all the dignity to which his many years and height entitled him. "I will go now back to the Dwellingconstructors to ponder." He glanced at the tiny human Eldest. "Escort this Caitlin to the Han tomorrow and we shall see what the assembled wisdom of the colony can make of this matter."

"Yes, Eldest," Jihan said, her voice a respectful whisper.

The humans scuttled aside to make room as Grijo strode briskly toward the door. His thoughts likewise scuttled, trying without success to make sense of this encounter. There should be a pattern, a rightness, a proper way to conduct themselves, but he could find no hint of order in the situation.

These creatures, who had somehow wrested control of the unholy Jao from the great devils themselves, wished to help the Lleix? Such a proposal with its corresponding monumental commitment of resources would not occur without a reason, one that would benefit them in some way. The Han could not possibly accept the offer without understanding what motivated it.

But, he told himself, they were aliens. Perhaps the Lleix would never be able to understand them, or at least not in time, and the Ekhat were indeed coming.

He exited the Jaolore-house and walked in perplexed silence back to his own elian. Above, the empty sky kept watch. What would it be like, he wondered, pausing in the middle of an especially lovely bridge, to live under stars again?


"He was huge," Caitlin said staring at the door after the elder lumbered out of the house. "I thought Jihan and the others were tall, but . . . "

"Yes, yes," Jihan said in English. "Grijo very tall of us all."

English? When the blazes had that happened? Every human in the room turned to her as though she should be able to explain. Caitlin's heart skipped a beat. There was just too much going on here to take in all at once. "Jihan," she said in Jao, trying to control her shock, "where did you learn English?"

"On ship," Jihan said still in English. "Listen very much."

Caitlin had assumed that Jihan had been studying Jao for years, learning it painstakingly in fits and starts from ancient recordings as a human would. "And how long have you been learning Jao?"

"Not keeping count," Jihan said, settling on the vacant bench and arranging the folds of her elaborate robes so that they hung just so, making herself a half-sized replica of Grijo. She switched to Jao. "You would saying twenty days maybe."

Twenty days! There were humans who had been trying to learn Jao for twenty years who did not possess as much useful vocabulary as Jihan had already picked up. Very young children might acquire language at something approaching this rate, but not adults. Very young human children. Obviously, she told herself, Lleix brains retained the facility after maturity much better than humans or Jao.

Caitlin and Tully glanced at one another. She could see the realization dawn in his green eyes. They would have to watch what they said—in any language—around the Lleix all the time. If they could pick up vocabulary and syntax that easily, they would all speak both Jao and English very quickly.

She sighed, suddenly unutterably weary. They should go back to the ship. She stood. The room they were in was quite striking, the wood floor polished to a high sheen, the roof supported by huge exposed rafters, a bare minimum of furniture. A woven mat lay in one corner, but no pictures hung on the walls, she noted. In fact, no decorative knickknacks of any sort. The sense of order was almost—restful.

"We will go back now," she said.

"No, no, must staying!" Jihan said in badly accented English. "Caitlin go to Han very early tomorrow. Not being late or great badness!"

Tully stepped in front of Caitlin, weapon ready, as though he thought the Lleix would try to detain her physically. "Come to the ship when it is time," he said, squaring his shoulders. "Then we will go to this—Han."

Whatever that was, Caitlin thought. How strange these people were. If Earth had been under imminent threat from the Ekhat, humans would have been working through the night to ready ships and load supplies. No one would have stayed home and dusted the furniture. And if aliens had come offering help, everyone would either have thronged to see them and hear what they had to say, or run away in stark raving terror. But only one member of the Lleix government seemed the least bit concerned about all of this, and even he had just gone home to bed!

The Ekhat could come back tonight or tomorrow, or it might not be for weeks, but they would come. Even she had enough experience now to know that. The Lleix had to know it too, with even more certainty, given their history, and yet still the colony slumbered.

"Let's go," she told Tully, bundling back into her coat, and the seven of them headed out into the frigid night.


Just before dawn, Jihan presented herself at the lead assault ship. Caitlin had already risen and was as ready as she could be, given the limited sanitary facilities, to go out and make interstellar history. Combing her fingers through her short blond hair, she gazed at the viewscreen with its image of the Lleix waiting outside by the ramp. Compared to the elder, Grijo, Jihan looked almost childlike.

She sighed. Wrot should be here, or Aille, or Ronz, someone with experience who had the authority to promise these people what they needed. She felt like a little girl playing at dress-up.

"All right," she said to Tully. "I'm ready."

The temperature had dropped even lower than the night before. It was so cold outside that she could see her breath. Frost rimed the rocks scattered about the ramp. Just beyond, Lleix were emerging from the squat buildings of the dochaya, which looked even more shabby now that she'd toured the main city and seen its handsome wooden houses.

She stood at the top of the ramp, thinking. It would be best to lay all their cards on the table, so to speak. The Jao were a major factor in this situation. They could not be left out. "Bring one of the Jao," she said. "Nam, or Mallu, perhaps."

"Not Kaln?" Tully said with an upward quirk of his lips.

Kaln, who prattled incessantly these days of Pool Buntyam, Bab the Green Ox, Pay-cose Bill, ships that had jumped wrong and turned inside out, and Caitlin, Queen of the Universe? "No," she said, crossing her arms. "We've got enough problems as it is."

"Krant-Captain Mallu!" Tully called.

The Krant's dark bay face appeared in the hatch.

"Come with us to this Han, whatever that is," Tully said.

"Please make haste," Jihan said in Jao. The Lleix kept glancing toward the mountains. "We have far to go."

They set off trailing the Lleix. Caitlin's security escort numbered ten, including Tully and Mallu. She wasn't sure what the Lleix authorities would make of them bringing along a Jao, but the truth would come out, sooner or later. The Lleix might as well get accustomed to Jao faces from the start.

Unassigned, identifiable by their simple gray shifts, were already wandering the city, in search of a day's employment, Jihan explained.

The silver faces glanced at the little party, but did not speak. Their coronas were limp, suggesting a dispirited attitude. "How many of them will find work today?" Caitlin asked as they walked.

Jihan's own corona fluttered. "I do not know, Queen of the Universe," she said. "Not many, I think."

The Lleix's syntax seemed improved. "Did you work on your Jao last night?" she asked.

"Yes, yes," Jihan said. "It is important now to speak well between us, and as there are no records of English, I listened again to the Jao interviews, few though they are."

Good God, Caitlin thought. If they survived, Lleix could find employment wherever they went simply as translators.

They wove back through the city and she found the houses with their peaked roofs even more lovely in the gray morning light. Unlike the Jao, the Lleix had an artistic bent, carving elongated faces into the posts and beams of their homes, flying colorful flags, and weaving fanciful patterns into the fabric of their clothing. In some ways, humans might be able to understand them more easily than the Jao, who disdained such fancies.

From time to time, wheeled vehicles, open to the air and loaded with crates, crowded them off the narrow roadway. They all seemed to be headed toward the outskirts of the city. "Vehicles take supplies to the ships," Jihan explained when she saw Caitlin staring after them.

"What ships?" Caitlin asked.

"Ships to leave, to escape Ekhat," Jihan said.

When they reached the far edge of the city, they boarded a wheeled transport and sat on padded rows of seats with other high-ranking Lleix, every single one of them larger than Jihan. In some fashion here, size equalled rank, Caitlin realized, and wondered if her stature would lessen her authority in their eyes.

This vehicle, like the others, was also open so that the wind blasted through. The chassis creaked and shuddered, as though it might break down at any moment, creeping up the mountain ever so slowly. Caitlin huddled between Mallu, who did not seem to feel the chill bite, and Tully, trying not to shiver.

The other Lleix passengers glanced aside at her, eyes severely narrowed, then spent the rest of the short trip ignoring Caitlin, fussing instead with the hang of their robes as though the activity ordered their minds.

They all exited the transport halfway up a low mountain. The wind gusted, whining against the rocks. Leaden gray clouds boiled over the peaks above them and flakes of snow with a strange bluish cast pelted Caitlin's cheeks. Tully took her arm as the other Lleix fell into a column and trudged barefoot over the naked granite up toward an ornate building built into the mountain itself.

"Hall of Decision," Jihan said, bowing her head. "We must go there for much discuss."

Caitlin turned and looked back down the mountain. From here, she could see the sprawling city below with its ordered gardens, the squalid dochaya at the eastern edge, their own three ships, and to the south, a field of Lleix vessels, all woefully small. If they had to depend upon those to escape, she thought, their reduced numbers would threaten genetic viability. The Lleix would probably not survive as a species.

The air was so cold up here, it took her breath away. She pulled her scarf tighter, then lowered her head and joined the line of Lleix, surrounded by Mallu, Tully, and the armed jinau. Before her, the Lleix strode with their graceful flowing stride, heads up, robes arranged just so, as though they had all the time in the universe to see to this little matter of survival.

Her escort probably wasn't necessary, she thought. So far, the ethereal Lleix with their long graceful necks didn't seem to get worked up about anything, even defending themselves against certain extinction.

* * *

Jihan was painfully young, compared to the other Eldests, and, of course, they all knew full well that she had broken sensho upon her last appearance here. That she had been at least partially correct and the Jao had indeed returned was no defense for her shocking behavior. She had branded herself graceless in their eyes. No one would heed anything she had to say, no matter how important.

Even worse, the Queen of the Universe had seen fit to bring one of the hated Jao along to the Han. The furred creature was behaving itself, for the moment, and did not appear dangerous. Perhaps Caitlin was right and these Jao were different from the barbarians who had hunted them long ago. If so, humans had done a credible job of civilizing the brutes.

Grijo had already taken his ornate seat when they appeared in the open doorway. Out of respect, Jihan made herself small, which seemed hardly necessary when she was but half his magnificent size no matter how she stood. "Esteemed Eldest," she said above the reproving whispers, "may I present the leader of the humans, whose vessel destroyed the five Ekhat ships seeking to attack our colony?"


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