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Shedao Shai spun on his heel before the harsh, hoarse scream had a chance to echo down the street. A ragged human slave, flesh coated with dust, beard patchy and unkempt, broke form the work detail and rushed at him. The slave's eyes blazed past the nubbins of the coral growths on his cheeks, and he raised a piece of duracrete debris to smash the Yuuzhan Vong leader down.
Two younger warriors belatedly moved to intercept the assassin, but Shedao's sharply barked warning held them back. Clad in vonduun crab armor, with his rank baton, the tsaisi, coiled about his right forearm, the Yuuzhan Vong leader had little fear of injury. He flowed forward, keeping his center of gravity low, then came up, catching the slave's throat in his right hand. He lifted the man effortlessly, then battered the debris aside with his left hand.
The slave grabbed Shedao's right wrist. His eyes widened as the tsaisi hissed and rose up, ready to strike. The human's lips peeled back in a feral snarl, then he looked into Shedao's eyes defiantly. Unable to speak because of the hand crushing his throat, the man nodded, once, sharply, as if to demand death from the Yuuzhan Vong leader.
Shedao's thumb pressed up along the man's jaw, slipping past the curve of the bone, touching the skull right behind his ear. The two combatants watched each other, both knowing that with a simple increase of pressure Shedao Shai would pop the man's skull free of his spine, killing him. The man, with spittle flecking his lips and beginning to ooze down into the Yuuzhan Vong's gauntlet, nodded again, daring Shedao to kill him.
The Yuuzhan Vong commander shook his head once, then cast the man forward the twowarriors who were overseeing the work group. "Take this one to the priests. Have them prepare him. If he survives, he will be of use."
The two warriors each grabbed an arm and bowed respectfully, tugging the man back down the street.
Shedao Shai allowed them to get ten paces away, then added, "And while there, ask the priests for a regimen of contemplation for warriors who are slothful."
The warriors bowed again and set off, but at a pace noticeably quicker than before.
Deign Lian, his direct subordinate, resumed his place a half pace behind Shedao, at his left hand. "Was that wise, my leader?"
"Easily as wise as your questioning my judgment, here, in the streets." Shedao Shai was pleased that his face mask hid the crooked smile born of Deign's flinching at that remark. "The warriors will return chastened, enlightened, and more dedicated to their duty."
"It was not that, Commander, but sending the man off with them. He attempted to murder you. The other slaves will see his survival and exaltation as a license to try to kill you again."
Shedao Shai continued his tour down the broad Drubrillion street in silence, knowing his lack of an answer would weigh more heavily on his aide than any rebuke. The destruction caused by the conquest of Dubrillion had not been overwhelming. Much of the cityscape was recognizable, and the work details were making much headway in clearing debris. Soon the slaves would be trained in how to use gricha to repair minor damage, and gragricha would be brought in to produce proper Yuuzhan Vong buildings.
"I believe, Deign Domain Lian, you are looking past the obvious to explore a realm we may never approach. Your question presumes the slave will survive inculcation. We do not know this. Yes, I chose him because he had spirit. He didn't shy from pain. More importantly, he wanted me to kill him. He had embraced his insignificance, which means our inculcation can give him new significance. He is a vessel ready to be filled with the truth of the universe. If he can contain what he learns, he will be of great use to us."
"This I understand, Commander Shedao Domain Shai." Deign bowed his head as he spoke.
His using Shedao's full, formal titleaping Shedao's formalityacknowledged his subordinate status. Shedao knew this acknowledgment was halfhearted at best. Domain Lian wished for a return to its former days of glory, and Deign was its best chance for such a return. In his aide Shedao had a feral amphistaff clutched to his breast, and he knew he would feel the sting of its bite when he could least afford it.
"Perhaps then what you do not understand is that despite the work of our agents like Nom Anor, we do not know our foe well at all. This New Republic is curious in how it approaches warfare."
"They are cowards at heart, my leader."
"To make that judgment so coldly, Deign Lian, is to deny that we have much to learn." Shedao glanced left, catching a spark of hatred in his aide's eyes. "Enlightenment is always useful, and we need more, much more, concerning these people."
Shedao Shai ignored Deign's fatuous mouthings about his wisdom. The New Republic and its response to the Yuuzhan Vong invasion had him puzzled. Nom Anor had provided a succinct political analysis of the situation within the New Republic, which is why they had chosen the invasion corridor they did. They hit the New Republic at a point where it was weakest, along a line joining it to the Imperial Remnant. That was pure military strategy: any force is weakest where two commands meet. The Remnant had not reacted and attacked the flank, which freed up units Shedao had held against that possibility.
The New Republic still had not struck back, and this puzzled Shedao Shai. He did know of the galactic civil war, and it did strike him as possible that some peoples would not want to see a return to a conflict. Still, the actions of the slave showed that these people were capable of martial conduct. A total acquiescence to the invasion did not seem to be a rational response, which led him to suspect deception.
He was willing to admit, as well, that of the worlds taken, only Dubrillion had true significance. The others had been sparsely populated and largely undeveloped, so their losses would be insignificant to the galaxy. Garqi, to which he had sent Krag Val to oversee occupation and transformation, did produce a lot of foodstuffs, but its loss could easily be compensated for since many of its products were geared for consumption by the elite, not the masses.
In their military engagement, the New Republic forces had fought a series of rearguard actions. Shedao Shai refused to acknowledge their destruction of the Yuuzhan Vong base at Helska 4, because that had been a Praetorite Vong operation. When politicians seek to play at being warriors, one must anticipate disaster. He glanced again at Deign. The reverse can also be very bad.
Shedao Shai found his foes admirable, after a fashion. That they were corrupt and weak was not in doubt. Their reliance on abominable mechanicals pointed out their moral decay, but the facility with which they employed their tools did impress hi. The military response to initial encounters with Yuuzhan Vong biotechnology had neutralized the invaders' advantages, leaving their starfighters on even terms.
The land battle on Dantooine had likewise shown how formidable the New Republic's personnel could be. When Shedao Shai reviewed a report listing the casualties among two training cadres of warriors in pursuit of a pair of refugees, he felt his belly begin to tighten. Given that the two being chased were jeedai, some casualties were to be expected, but the escape of the quarry was not. Domain Lian lost four warrior in that escapade, which only partially dulled the sting of Domain Shai's losing two warriors to a jeedai on Bimmiel.
In his grudging admiration for the enemy, Shedao Shai wondered if their reluctance to attack centered around the same problem he was having: that the New Republic did not know enough about the Yuuzhan Vong to be able to formulate a solid strategy. If they need more intelligence, we will have insertions of forces on conquered worlds. They investigated Belkadan and likely know we have been producing coralskippers there. What else they gleaned from there I cannot imagine, but I shall have to assume they know all.
Shedao Shai mounted the steps to the building in which he had situated his office. The building both irritated and soothed him. The irritation came from the predominance of straight lines, hard edges, and exposed piping, all of which had been described to him with the vulgarity industrial. The building was no more elegant than a big stone box, and the uniform shade of gray it had been painted did little to enhance it.
The reason he chose it as his headquarters, however, was because of the purpose to which it had been put. The building had been the Dubrillion Aquarium and was filled with scores of transparisteel tanks teeming with sea life from Dubrillion and other worlds. A central column filled with water dominated the building's heart, and through it swam a rainbow riot of fish, including huge emerald sharks.
Shedao Shai did not acknowledge the guards at the doors as he swept into the building. He mounted the stairs to the right, then cut back to the left, to the central chamber. Fish swirled in a lazy cyclone through the column and eclipsed three figures whose outlines were distorted by the water. The two taller figures were his own people, but the golden pyramid between them intrigued him.
He circled through the chamber to the right and saw seated on the floor a long-limbed creature covered in golden down. The creature's long legs were crossed, his hands folded into his lap and his spine straight along the duracrete wall at his back. Purple striping flowed back from the corners of his eyes and over his shoulders. He wore a simple purple loincloth, gathered with a gold cord.
When Shedao Shai moved into view, the individual rose to his feet without touching his hands to the ground. The guards were a heartbeat late in restraining him, clearly not having anticipated his action. He has lulled them into carelessness, which marks the placidity with which he allowed himself to be borne here. By the same token, the supple strength in his body and the ease with which he slipped his shoulders from beneath the guards' hands marked him a s a potentially dangerous enemy.
The Yuuzhan Vong commander halved the distance between them with two long strides. "I am Commander Shedao Domain Shai." He spoke first in his own tongue, then repeated his introduction in the halting, clicky tongue native to the galaxy.
The creature blinked his big violet eyes. He spoke slowly but strongly, allowing Shedao to capture his words easily. "I am Senator Elegos A'Kla of the new Republic." He bowed his head for a moment. "I apologize for not having mastered your tongue."
Shedao looked at the two guards flanking Elegos. "You are dismissed."
Deign looked at him. "Commander?"
Shedao spoke in the New Republic's tongue. "I have nothing to fear from you, Elegos?"
The Caamasi opened his three-fingered hands and displayed them as empty. "My mission here is not one of violence."
The Yuuzahan Vong leader nodded slowly. He does not say that I should not fear him, but just should not fear violence at his hands. It is a difference that Deign has missed entirely. "You see, Deign?"
"Yes, my leader." The subordinate bowed. "I shall leave you."
"Wait." Shedao reached up and stroked the vonduun crab making up his helmet and face mask. The creature relaxed, allowing him to slip the helmet off, baring his head and face. Shedao shook his head, freeing his black mane and spraying sweat onto Deign's armor.
He handed his aide his helmet. Even though Deign's face lay hiding behind a mask, there was no disguising his shock at seeing his leader show his naked face to the enemy. "You will take this to my contemplation chamber, then return with refreshments. You will hurry."
"Yes, Commander." Disbelief and disgust threaded through his words. Deign bowed deeply, then backed away until the fish-filled cylinder shielded him from Shedao's gaze.
The Yuuzhan Vong leader returned his attention to Elegos. He watched him for a moment, slowly organizing the words of his enemy's tongue. "I was told you appeared in a small ship at the edge of this system. You used a villip to request transport here on one of our ships. Why?"
Elegos blinked once. "It is believed you see machines as abominations. I wished to offer no offense."
"Your respect of our sensibilities is appreciated." Shedao Shai stepped toward the cylinder. He stripped off his left gauntlet and pressed his hand to the transparisteel. The warmth of the water slowly filtered into his flesh. "Your mission here is?"
"One to promote understanding. One to see if the course our peoples are on now is the only course possible, or if we might plot another one, together." The Caamasi pressed his hands together. "I was at Dantooine. I would not see that happen again."
"And I reviewed the aftermath of Dantooine. I was also at the place known to you as Bimmiel." Shedao's dark eyes hardened. "There is much that separates our people. Much that would speak against any peace between us."
"Perhaps our ignorance of each other's nature and ways is what makes it appear that we are falling into a black hole of conflict." Elegos lifted his chin, exposing his slender throat. "I would enlighten you and learn from you."
Shedao smiled and caught the reflection of his twisted visage in the transparisteel. "Do you know what you ask, what you suggest?"
"In your mind, apparently not."
The Yuuzhan Vong gestured toward Elegos with his right hand. The tsaisi slithered down into his grasp, then stiffened into a blade the length of Shedao's forearm. "You know that I could kill you at my whim. Praise would be heaped upon me for slaying you, for you traffic in abominations. To some of us, there is no redemption for your kind."
Elegos bowed his head. "Already I learn. And, yes, I knew my life could be forfeit in coming here. This did not deter me."
"A commitment to mission above the preservation of selfthis I understand. This I respect." Shedao spun the baton in his hand, then flicked it back so it slapped against his forearm. The tsaisi flexed, then coiled around his vonduun bracer. "What you are willing to teach me will contain no tactical information that would be of use."
"I am not a tactician, nor am I privy to their counsels." Elegos regarded him closely. "What I would learn from you would likewise be useless."
"No, and this is another place we agree."
Shedao Shai nodded slowly. "I will place you under my protection. I will teach you. I will learn from you. We will understand each other."
"And find a new path to bring our people together?"
"Perhaps. You will know if this is possible when you know us better."
Elegos clasped his hands together at the small of his back. "I am prepared to learn."
"Good." Shedao Shai nodded once. "Your lessons will begin now. Follow me. To understand us, there is but one place to start. I will introduce you to the Embrace of Pain."