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Chapter 32

Jihan waited. Caitlin was so short, the human made Jihan think of her last season in the Children's Court when she had been assigned to instruct the youngers. She gazed down at the round little head with some of the tenderness it was appropriate to feel for youthful creatures weak and small.

"We never conquered the Jao," Caitlin said. The words were spoken slowly with apparent reluctance. The human's tiny fingers were interlaced, one hand gripping the other. "They are not our slaves. They discovered our solar system and then conquered Terra."

Conquered? Perhaps, Jihan thought, she was not understanding the words correctly. After all, she was still learning Jao. Perplexed, she shifted her weight on the stool so that it creaked. "But you are Queen of the Universe."

"No," Caitlin said softly, "I am not." Her strangely colored eyes looked aside as though she were ashamed. "My father is a leader among the humans, but though I work for the government of Terra, I have no actual rank."

The words piled up, creating a terrible picture, if Jihan truly comprehended what Caitlin was saying. Certainly, she had no idea what the term "father" meant. Her aureole wilted against her skull and the elian-house seemed unnaturally hushed. A cold frisson of dread shivered through her. "I—do not understand."

"Over twenty orbital periods ago," Caitlin said, still not meeting her gaze, "heavily armed Jao ships entered Terra's solar system. Humans fought a great war against them, but the Jao won."

Jihan's mind reeled. She could not breathe. "Then humans are Jao slaves?"

"No." Caitlin bowed her head. "Not slaves, but for a very long time they did rule us. It was—an unpleasant situation."

"But the Jao said this thing-that-is-not-true to me," Jihan said. "It said you are 'Queen of the Universe'—why would it do that?"

"That particular Jao suffered a head injury in the recent battle inside this star system against the Ekhat," Caitlin said. "Her behavior has been erratic ever since. I believe she genuinely thought she was being funny."

"I do not know that word—funny." Jihan's mind continued to spin. She felt utterly lost. Such a great error! How could she have ever let herself be so misled? "It is not in the records."

"No, it would not be." Caitlin appeared to think, staring down at the burnished wooden floor, tapping her booted foot. "I do not know how to explain it," she said finally. "Both Jao and humans think some situations are amusing, but usually not the same things. Whatever seems funny to the Lleix probably would not to us either."

"The Jao rule humans now?" Jihan said. A great trembling seized her, and she remembered the face of the brave Eldest who had faced the Jao so long ago and been brutally cut down. The Jao had not changed over the years into beneficent rescuers. They were simply more duplicitous than Jihan had ever realized.

"Not—exactly," Caitlin said. "We have come to an understanding which makes us equal. We work with one another now."

Another word she did not understand—"equal." This was bad. The situation was spinning out of control like a damaged ship whose controls no longer answered the helm. Jihan could not begin to think how such a crucial misunderstanding was to be explained to the Han, who could not even make up their collective minds to accept help from humans they believed to be conquerors of their old enemy. That Jao, back at the Ekhat derelict, had lied to her for its own sly reasons, and the humans, including Caitlin, had allowed it to do so.

"If the Jao who told this untruth was injured, why did you let it continue?" Jihan said, turning her head away.

"I did not want to," Caitlin said. "I thought it was a mistake, a great discourtesy, but the Lleix have long feared the Jao, with good reason. Wrot, the Jao who is senior to me, thought you would not be afraid to accept our help if we let you go on believing Jao were human slaves, at least until you knew them better."

Jihan felt her tension ease somewhat. It was true that all the Jao who had accompanied them back to Valeron had behaved well, even the crazy one with the droopy ear who had set this unfortunate situation into motion. So far she had not seen the least sign of aggression from any of them. The great ship Lexington could have obliterated their colony between one breath and the next, had this strange Jao-human coalition so desired. She had not the slightest doubt about that.

"I believe the only way for the Lleix to survive is to flee this world and come to Earth, at least for a while," Caitlin said. "I cannot promise this will be done until the Lexington returns after seeking the counsel of our rulers, both human and Jao. But if they agree with me, the Lleix must be ready to go."

And to do that, they would have to trust these aliens, who had just revealed they could not be trusted. In her distress, Jihan's arm accidently knocked a stack of recording flats to the floor. She stared down at the chaos, unable in her woeful shortness to think what to do.


Tully appropriated the second house and placed the third under the command of Lieutenant Miller. Mallu was left in charge of the jinau and Krants posted at Jaolore. Both abandoned residences were filthy, with gaping holes in the roofs and infested with several species of vermin. The creatures resembling tiny blue mouse-hoppers were particularly destructive, chewing on wood, fabric, and leather, and even a substance that reminded him of plastic, apparently able to digest everything but stone.

At dawn the next day, he set his troops to repair and clean the premises. The wind was still blasting down from the mountains and the skies were lowering gray lead. The work would both warm his soldiers up and keep them busy, and he thought their industriousness would look good to the locals too. Just sitting around, waiting for the Lexington to return, cleaning their guns and looking menacing, might convey the wrong message. The Jao had already torn their pants, so to speak, with these folks. No point in making the situation even worse.

The slender Jaolore, Pyr, arrived just after sunrise followed by twelve Lleix of varying heights, all wearing the gray shifts of unassigned. They bunched outside the front doors, breath frosting in the air, gazing at the dilapidated house with what Tully interpreted as something akin to hunger.

"These being servants," Pyr said in mangled Jao when Tully poked his nose out the door to see what the Lleix wanted. "Work very hard. Tell me what you wish, they do."

"Thanks, but we can take care of things ourselves," Tully said, edging beyond the door while shoving his hands into his pockets for warmth. His ears immediately went numb and he shivered. Damn, but it was cold!

"No, no, letting servants do!" Pyr seemed distressed, hopping from one foot to the other. His robe, brocaded with the figures of snarling Jao, fell open, and he hastily pulled it closed. "No let, making them most sad!"

Tully remembered the dochaya with its hopeless sea of silver faces. They wanted to work. Employment meant something to them, far more than it would have to a human under similar circumstances. "All right," he said. "They can at least help. We need to clean the house, get rid of the little hopper-things that are chewing the place down, repair the roof, and see what we can do about some furniture."

Pyr turned back to the waiting servants and warbled a string of apparent instructions. Without a word in answer, half of them sidled around Tully and disappeared into the house.

"Taking these now to other human house," Pyr said. "Back soon." He set off down the path to the street with that great reaching stride humans found it difficult to match. The remaining six trailed after him single-file like obedient ducklings.

Tully darted back inside, shivering, his nose already half-frozen. The chamber just beyond the entrance was large and roomy—and utterly frigid. Lleix didn't seem to have developed the concept of central heating, which wasn't a big surprise since they all went about lightly clad as well as barefoot. Upon searching the house, the jinau had found a few small braziers scattered through the various rooms, but they were empty of fuel. Even though the Lleix were going to flee this world, the old fuss-budgets that ruled this place would probably object to his troops chopping down a few of the elaborately pruned trees that studded the gardens.

The temperature would rise some, now that it was day, but from the look of those clouds, it could very well snow. He sighed. Having grown up in the Resistance camps in the Rockies, he knew only too well what it was like to be cold all the time.

The door opened and Caitlin hurried inside, followed by Sergeant Debra Fligor and Mallu. Her cheeks were pink with wind-burn, her blond hair jumbled. "How's it going?" she asked, huddling into her coat and watching as a servant swept the room.

"Not bad, if you like living inside a freezer," Tully said. "I think it's colder in here than outside!"

"I wouldn't be surprised." She looked around the debris-cluttered chamber. "Have you got anywhere we can sit and talk?"

"There's some beat-up benches in the back in what I think might have been a kitchen." He led Caitlin through a series of rooms, some littered with dried blue leaves that had blown in through the holes in the roof, others dusty and choked with the detritus of some past Lleix life.

She followed, leaving Mallu and Fligor behind. "I told Jihan last night," she said quietly, settling on one of the benches when they got to the silent kitchen area. She shrugged out of her coat and laid it across her lap.

"You told her what?" He sat across from her. She combed her wind-tossed hair with her fingers. Her clothes were rumpled and she looked tired, he thought, like she hadn't slept well in days.

"Everything," she said, "or at least as much of it as I thought she could understand."

The back of his neck prickled. "You told her about the Jao?"

She nodded.

"Jesus!" he said. "You might at least have given me some warning so I could tighten up our security! What if they'd all decided to slaughter us in our sleep after that?"

"I'm sorry," she said. "It was a judgment call and the moment seemed right. I just blurted it all out." She rubbed her eyes. "It wasn't easy, Gabe. Jihan was really shocked and the lie makes us look bad. I think the truth would have been easier to handle from the beginning."

"Caitlin, Queen of the Universe," he said. "Well, it was nice while it lasted."

"No," she said, "there was nothing 'nice' about it. I lived a lie for most of my life, masquerading as the supposedly pampered daughter of the President of the United States to those around me, when I was really a battered political hostage under constant guard. I'd hoped to have put such deception behind me forever."

"Yeah, sometimes I forget about that," he said. "Sorry."

"It's not your fault," she said. "Wrot made this decision, however it turns out, all on his own. Let's just hope we haven't completely blown our credibility with these people." She hesitated.

"There's more?" he said.

"After I explained the situation to Jihan, we stayed up late and discussed logistics for getting her people off this world." Caitlin rose and prowled the bare kitchen, opening doors, peeking into dusty cabinets filled with gnawed shreds. "You know about the dochaya, right?"

He grimaced. "The slum? Yeah, we got a damned good look at it when we landed. I can't say I'm impressed by their social arrangements."

"It's huge," Caitlin said. "At least half the population lives out there, maybe three quarters." Her eyes were haunted.

"That many?" He shook his head. "I hadn't realized."

"Whenever they have to flee a world," Caitlin said, "they only take the elian, the elite, the ones who live in these elegant houses, wear beautiful robes, and make all the decisions." She was trembling. "They always leave everyone in the dochaya behind."


Jihan was summoned back to the Han early that morning. Caitlin had already left the elian-house, which was just as well. Jihan did not want the little human present when she revealed the deception perpetrated by the humans and Jao.

She boarded the transport at the foot of the mountain and rode up into the windy heights in silence. The other Eldests also traveling to the Han spoke with one another in low measured tones, but none turned to her, and that was quite proper. She was the most youthful of all their number. What counsel could such as she provide, even if she hadn't been so graceless as to break sensho?

The wind blasted through the open windows. Flakes of snow pelted her face. She breathed deeply of the aromatic freshness of high altitude lir-trees that clung to the rocks and wondered if this Terra, of which Caitlin had spoken, possessed such lovely scents.

Then she sighed. It did not matter. Terra might be a terrible place with no beauty at all, but still the Lleix would have to go with the humans or it would be Last-of-Days. The next time the Ekhat returned, the great devils would come with ten or twenty or thirty ships. All that would be left of Valeron in their wake was ashes. Of that, she was certain.

With a rush, she suddenly realized that revealing the truth of this situation between humans and the Jao would serve no purpose. If telling would save her people, she would readily come forward and admit her grievous error, but after talking with Caitlin through the night, she saw that it would just frighten the Han into turning away from the only help they had ever been offered.

Then they would launch their few remaining rickety ships containing only a fraction of the population, leaving most behind to die when the Ekhat came. Those ships that escaped might not find another suitable world in time to establish a new colony, or indeed even manage to make the jump out of this star system. Many generations had passed since Lleix had attempted such travel. The ships might well malfunction.

And if they did find another suitable planet, they might very well be too small in numbers to form a large enough gene pool. Without intervention, the Lleix were probably doomed under any circumstances.

Her aureole stiffened, standing against the fierce mountain winds. The Lleix needed these humans, even with all their duplicity. They needed their ancient enemy, the Jao. They even needed Jihan, in all her shortness, to make them listen.

The transport halted at the curving steps carved into the naked striated gray stone. She hung back to let the others who outranked her disembark. Her mind raced as they edged off, slowly, carefully, as though the Lleix had eons to decide this matter. Then she trudged up the mountainside after them, ordering her mind as one ordered her robes, seeking the precise approach that would both follow sensho and gain their understanding.

Her superiors would all have to speak before she was allowed to come forward, as was their right, and she would have to sit there and listen through the long morning well into the afternoon, knowing with every breath they were wrong, that they had not seen what she had seen, did not know what she knew, that not one of them possessed the correct information upon which to base such a momentous decision.

She strode in through the great doors, crossing the old flagstones, worn with steps of many generations, laid down when they had first fled to this world. Thoughts rattled around inside her head like pebbles in a jar. How could so many venerable Eldests be wrong? Lleix society said they could not, that assembled wisdom, such as the Han represented, always achieved the right decision, however long it took. But the Lleix did not have time for pointless posturing and rehashing of one another's words, for statement and restatement of the obvious, for every single voice to be heard.

Jihan crossed the hall's open square, which was bordered on all four sides by benches, headed for Jaolore's place tucked into a corner at the very back, hidden among the shortests, then stopped, unable to make herself take another step toward proper obscurity when so very much was at stake.

Grijo looked down at her from his great carved chair in the center and the room stilled. Carefully dressed aureoles of every color fluttered. The Eldests were all waiting for her to make a graceless fool of herself again, to break sensho, to reinforce the poor opinions they had already formed about her.

But what did it matter? She could not be any more shamed than she already was. She looked up, surrounded on all sides by the gleaming black gaze of her betters, feeling their disdain.

Grijo blinked down at her, so grand in his immensity. "Shortest," he said in his booming voice. "Little Jaolore, take your seat. We have much to debate."

She started to obey, but then stopped. There must be words, there must! But she did not know what they were. "Eldest," she said and her voice was only a hoarse whisper. Her fingers twitched the hang of her robe a bit, adjusting that which needed no adjustment. If only she could adjust their minds so easily! "Time runs away from us. I believe that we must be ready to leave this world when the humans come back. We should be preparing the elian, not spending yet another day in endless discussion of the obvious. They are willing to help, as we once tried to help the Jao. Should we turn away now as the Jao did, refusing the offering of wise advice?"

The Eldests stiffened with disapproval at her brashness. More than a few looked away, exercising oyas-to, refusing to see the repetition of such disgraceful behavior.

Grijo's aureole rippled, but the Eldest of all of them did not turn away. "You have taken these humans and their Jao into your elian-house."

Jihan bowed her head, making herself even smaller. "Yes, Eldest."


Why, indeed? Because the humans were small and needed shelter? Because the Jao should be watched? Because she wanted to hear more of this Terra and their possible salvation from death at Ekhat hands? Because, by doing so, she had learned the frightening truth at last? There were many reasons, shading into one another, all valid, yet none that would make the Han listen.

She raised her head. "Because," she said, not gazing into anyone's eyes, "if they are going to save us, I wished to know the full breadth of their minds before we subjected ourselves to their judgment."

Voices whispered through the immense hall like wind through ripening grain. Aureoles rose, fell, rose again. Knowing the humans' minds—this was a new idea, hard to take in. The Eldests tried it out upon one another, saying it in their own voices so it seemed more like something they had thought for themselves.

It was all so brainless, Jihan lost patience and forgot to be ashamed of her audacity. "Unending discussion of this matter is of no benefit!" She turned, meeting the startled eyes of her superiors as they sat, spines stiff, in their carefully ranked rows, tallests in front, shortests in the rear. "In fact, endless discussion has brought us to this day, which is Last-of-Days, unless we take action! We can no longer afford to cower in this out-of-the-way corner of the galaxy, hoping the Ekhat will not find us. They have found us, twice, and will be back." She could feel her aureole standing on end. "I have boarded one of their ships and seen the great devils eye to eye, and I tell you that they are even more terrible than you can imagine! They will never stop coming! They will never leave us alone, no matter how far we flee! We need this alliance!"

Silence fell as all eyes turned again to her, graceless Jihan, who it seemed could not keep quiet even when propriety absolutely demanded. They weighed her, those fathomless black eyes. They took her measure and found her still so very short.

Old Sayr of the Starsifters, her former mentor, rose, levering his bulk onto his feet ponderously. The Eldests turned to him. Though he was not quite as old as Grijo, he did not lack much in being his match. "Despite her youth, Jihan is speaking truth," he said. "It is time to do things a new way. Old ways have led us here and, unaided, there is no path out. We have to give over our minds to something unexperienced. We must tell the humans yes when they return." He hesitated, gazing steadily at Jihan. "If they return in time."

"They must," she said, humbled by his generosity in considering the ideas of one so short. "It cannot all have been for nothing. We must make a new home somewhere safe."

Grijo gazed over the rows of heads as the Eldests in their gaily brocaded robes gazed numbly at one another. "Will any here say no?"

Pont of the Stonesculptors rose, her aureole flat on one side, quivering on the other. "You cannot be serious," she said. "You think that we should trust these humans with the future of our entire species?"

"What I think," Grijo said, rising, "is that any who do not wish to go with the humans should remain behind and greet the Ekhat in our stead, once we have gone. Will that please you?"

The Stonesculptor sat again, hard, as though her legs had given way.

"Young Jihan has only said what has been in my mind these past few days," Grijo said. "I have been remiss in remaining silent." He gazed pointedly down at Jihan, who was staring up at him in amazement. "It is time for us to leave this world."


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