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Chapter 38

Grijo departed the Dwellingconstructors' elian-house for the Hall of Decision as soon as the humans requested the meeting. The wind was fierce that morning up on the mountain, running hard before an incoming storm, and the deep chill cleared his head. That day, for the first time in his long life, he had traveled out into the solar system on one of the Lleix's increasingly few ships. Now, his feet had hardly touched the ground of home again before the aliens were clamoring to speak before the Han. It was a disquieting request. Supposedly all matters between their species had already been settled.

Everything was disarrayed. No one was behaving as she or he ought. In the Children's Courts, younglings were not being taught. The elian had put aside their crafts and services to instead prepare for abandoning this world. Some of the unassigned still sought employment, but most had fallen into unmitigated sloth, lounging about in the dochaya to whisper among themselves.

Was this what it was like each time the Lleix fled a colony world just ahead of the Ekhat? If so, it was a wonder his kind had not simply lain down and surrendered their lives. The constant physical and emotional turmoil exhausted his old mind.

After exiting the transport, he trudged up the stony path, step by careful step, and found the Hall's immense doors thrown open in readiness. Both of the resident Hallkeepers waited at the entrance, making themselves respectfully small as Grijo passed. His bones felt brittle and his aureole could barely stir. This day, with all its attendant problems, had fallen to him. If the crisis had waited just a few more seasons, he would have been safely dead and the weight of all this would have been someone else's to bear.

He settled his bulk into the ornate seat with its traditional discomfort and then watched as the rest of the colony's Eldests filed in after him and arrayed themselves in orderly ranked rows, the most aged closest to him, comparative youths in the back.

Finally, Jihan entered with several humans and two Jao. The young Jaolore crossed the hall to stand at the foot of his raised chair and gaze up at him.

Was she going to misbehave yet again? "Take your seat, little Eldest," he said. His hands gripped the carved armrests of the chair, seeking for a comfortable position when he well knew there was not one.

"I will stand with these," the Jaolore said, sweeping an arm back toward the aliens. "I deserve nothing more."

That did not sound promising. "What have you done or left undone, littlest," he said, "to say such a thing?"

Jihan's aureole stilled. Her eyes glittered. "I stood aside and said nothing when untruth was presented to the Han," she said. "Only hear what these have to say and then you will know."

The slightest of the four, the one called "Caitlin," a tiny human with golden fluff on her head, stepped forward and spoke. Jihan translated.

"Eldest-of-All," the human said, huddling into her heavy outer garment as though she found the day's pleasant chill oppressive, "a mistake has been made, one which we regret. When Jihan, Lliant, and Hadata were rescued from the Ekhat ship, one of our Jao crew told them an untruth." The creature gazed around at the assembly. "She said that Jao were human slaves. This is not true and indeed has never been true."

Grijo blinked. All around him, aureoles stiffened. Murmurs of shock ran through the assembled Eldests. A deep dread suffused him.

"The Jao who said this thing thought she was being funny," the human said. "I do not think she ever considered that her words would actually be believed."

Jihan had rendered the human word without translating it. "What is this term funny?" Grijo said.

"I do not know, Eldest," Jihan said, bowing her head. "I have learned a great deal of English in the time the humans have been among us, but I have not grasped that particular word."

Grijo studied the two Jao who had accompanied this small human. They did not seem to feel the chill as deeply, though they did wear foot covers and swathe themselves in blue cloth. "If the Jao did not think we would believe," he said, trying to make his startled brain think, "then why did she say this untrue thing?"

"Humans and Jao find the construction of humorous tales relaxing," Caitlin said. "It is a form of recreation. To explain further now would take too long, and we must make haste. As we discussed before, we have brought ships to transport your people to Terra. We need to make plans with you to evacuate the colony."

Grijo sat back, considering. Throughout the great hall, Eldests craned their heads for a better look and murmured to one another. Fear dried his eyes so that they ached, made his old hands tremble. They were not safe after all. This breach of an already fragile trust was yet another sorrow heaped upon their many past sorrows. It seemed to be their fate. The Lleix found nothing but obstruction and loss whichever way they turned. The Boh had indeed deserted them.

He leaned back in the seat as though he could distance himself from this unwelcome news. "Did the Jao compel you to let them tell this untruth?"

"No," the lithe little creature said through Jihan's translation. "But we knew the Lleix feared the Jao with good reason. When the untruth was presented, it seemed a way our three species could become acquainted without the Lleix worrying that the Jao would attack as they did so long ago."

"They drove us from our homes over and over again," Grijo said. "They rained death down upon the elian and most of what we once were is now lost. Because of the Jao, we are but a sliver of our former selves."

"They did all of those things," the human said, "but that was long ago under the direction of the Ekhat and no one present here today took part in the atrocities. Now, as you can see, they have committed a huge amount of time and resources to transport the Lleix to safety and in some measure atone for what their ancestors did."

"Present the truth," Grijo said. His mind was spinning with contradictions. "Now, in this sacred place, all of it." They must know the worst before they could decide what to do.

Caitlin bowed her head, seeming to compose herself, then told a startling tale, translated by Jihan, of the Jao coming to Terra and using their mighty ships to conquer an already divided blue and green world. It was a terrible war, she said, involving many ships and lasting several orbital cycles. Much of Terra's roads, factories, domestic habitations, and agricultural concerns were destroyed before humans yielded. Even then, she said, some pockets of resistance continued fighting whenever they had the opportunity. In the time that followed, it was never more than an uneasy conquest until the Ekhat attacked Terra itself, forcing Jao and human to learn to fight together.

"Now, we have taif status among them," Caitlin said. "We are considered equals by the Jao kochan."

Again, Jihan did not translate several of the alien terms. Grijo assumed the young Jaolore did not understand them.

The human gripped her small hands together in what seemed a gesture of strain or distress. "They recognize human culture as having strengths of its own, which when combined with those of the Jao, make us stronger together than either would be struggling against the Ekhat alone."

The strange tale chased itself round and round inside Grijo's old head. The Eldests shifted in their orderly rows, gazing up at him, waiting for him with all his accumulated experience to make sense of this bizarre situation. "They conquered your world and not even that long ago," he said finally. "The havoc they created sounds much like the savage persecution of our people. You would have us believe they have changed, but I see no reason why we should trust that they will not destroy the Lleix yet again."

"They regret what they long ago did to the Lleix," Caitlin said. "You must trust in their good will and let us evacuate your population to Terra, or once the Ekhat return, they will certainly murder you—"

The Starsifter Eldest, Sayr, rose from his bench. "They gave untruth at the moment of first meeting when the truth would have better served," he said, aureole rippling. "This apparent rescue is most likely also untruth. They mean to either enslave or do away with us at their own leisure, trusting that we will walk aboard their ships calmly and lend our own wills to our destruction."

"It is all untruth!" Alln of Ekhatlore cried, also jerking up from his bench. "By this, they prove themselves as duplicitous as ever were the Ekhat! Better that we should take our own ships and seek sanctuary as we have always done. Then the Jao will not know where we have gone. Otherwise, we put ourselves at their nonexistent mercy."

One after the other Eldests rose, speaking their objections, presenting their only too logical fears. Patternmakers, Wordthreaders, Waterdirectors, Groundtillers, all spoke eloquently against the offered assistance. The human gazed about the echoing hall with her round little eyes, then retreated to the doorway with her human and Jao companions, dwarfed by the building's vastness.

Some of the Eldests had remained seated, though, and left their voices silent, Grijo noticed. Not very many, but some of them were notable—including Childtenders and Weaponsmakers, who were very important elian.

He turned to Caitlin. "Most of the elian, as you can see, are against accepting this offer." His sonorous voice carried enough even in this immense space to quiet the others. "Please take your ships and go while we make preparations to do as we must."

"You will all die," Caitlin said, once Jihan had translated. "If we leave, as you request, we abandon your people and culture to their deaths."

"It may well be Last-of-Days," Grijo said, "but we have thought that before and survived."

The wind gusted, howling around the hall. Then another one of the humans spoke, in its high fluting little voice. Oddly, it was accompanied by a Lleix clad in the gray shift of an unassigned.

"This is Tully," the young unassigned female said, planting her legs in a bold stance. "He says—you speak of the colony leaving. What of the dochaya?"

Grijo blinked. The question had no meaning. All through the great hall, aureoles flattened in confusion.

The one named Tully spoke again and the unassigned translated. "What will happen to the dochaya when the Lleix flee this world?"

"What always happens," Grijo said. "There is not room in our ships for all to leave. Even the elian will have to select among their membership for passage, each sending only a representative to carry on their skills and crafts. Unassigned have no such knowledge. Those of the dochaya must remain behind."

The Tully human spoke again, very briefly. The translation came immediately. "He says that is completely unacceptable."


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