Bra'tac was in his third decade when he noticed it for the first time. Old enough to have experience; young enough to still be under a master's care, responsible only for his own actions and with no greater cares than survival to distract him. Old enough to understand what was happening beyond his own small corner of the battle, and young enough to be idealistic about it.
That delicate state did not last long, and he later came to realize it was as well he had seen it then, for he could not have earlier and would almost certainly not have later. But when he had seen thirty-four summers, he saw it, and it was the beginning of many things no one could have foreseen.
His lord and God Apophis was attacking Sokar's domain, in retaliation for a battle lost and in hopes of gaining control of the planet which was the main source of a certain rare type of fabric that was very valuable. Bra'tac did not know what the fabric was called, for it was too expensive for Jaffa or for slaves, and besides, it was enough that Apophis wanted it.
There were no ha'tak in orbit, though there were many Jaffa on the surface guarding Sokar's planet and the slaves who produced the fabric. Ha'tak were expensive; Jaffa were not. Apophis' Ha'tak arrived unheralded, surprising Sokar's Jaffa. It landed on a mountain near the main city (where Sokar's own ships no doubt landed) and disgorged its horde of Jaffa, Bra'tac among them.
In full armor, staff in hand, Bra'tac jogged towards the city, where he could see Sokar's Jaffa gathering against them. Above his head, death gliders wheeled and fought, but he paid them no mind. Awe-inspiring they might be—and his master had promised that he would learn how to fly them some day—but they were only a distraction in battle.
Bra'tac knew how the battle would go, for it would be like every other he had fought in, every other he had heard of. Apophis had landed his Jaffa. Sokar's Jaffa came out to meet them, and the two great armies would meet on a field. The stronger army would win.
This was all Bra'tac knew of war, and all his Master had ever said of it. Yet, as he ran towards the enemy Jaffa as he had done many times before, it occurred to Bra'tac that perhaps there might be some better way to fight. After all, he knew well that in a battle between individuals, skill and cunning could be more decisive than size and strength—surely, the same held true in battle between armies? He shook his head. A battle was no time for thinking, not if one wished to survive.
After the battle, when his friends had set his leg and bound his wounds—for he had been grievously injured—the thought came to him again. He tried to ignore it, for if there was some better way Apophis would know it and would already use it. The very idea that Apophis might have missed something was blasphemy! Besides, while Bra'tac knew much of skirmishes, he knew little of large battles besides his own role in them. So he could not imagine what better way there might be, and comforted himself that he could not imagine it because it did not exist, and Apophis knew it.
If he had not been injured, that might have been the end of it. But it took him almost two weeks to be fully healed, and to resume his place fighting and training with his master and his comrades, and in those two weeks he had much time to think. Even after he was up and about again, a pervasive gloom filled the barracks. They had lost, and were in disgrace for failing Apophis.
The masters chivvied them through their practice fights, pressing them to greater skill, that they might regain their honor. Bra'tac was given some small authority in training, for though he was small and young he was a cunning warrior, for his age, and could defeat warriors much larger than he. His brothers in arms scoffed at his tactics as unbecoming for a Jaffa warrior, but Bra'tac knew the truth. His skill lay not in trickery, but in precision and speed. His blows landed exactly where he meant them to, at all times. Bra'tac did not waste energy with unnecessary flourishes or posturing, nor did he simply charge in like a mindless beast. Thus he used the power he had to its greatest effect, and did not tire himself out unnecessarily, which gave him greater stamina. Precision and perfection were his allies.
It occurred to him that Apophis' army—and the other armies it had faced—showed little precision and less perfection. Regardless of each individual warrior's skill, the army as a whole was crude and wasteful. Apophis hurled his Jaffa at his enemies as a small boy might hurl rocks at his tormentors. No, not even that, for even the smallest child tried to aim his rocks where they might do the most damage. Apophis simply pointed in the general direction.
But Apophis could not be wrong, Bra'tac told himself. Perhaps it was a test. Perhaps Apophis wished for his Jaffa to learn this for themselves. This comforted him greatly, for of course it was impossible for a mere Jaffa—who had only seen thirty-four summers!—to see something that a god did not. Very well, then, if this was a test, Bra'tac would set himself to pass it.
It was then that he began seriously working towards the goal of becoming First Prime. He focused on his own practicing, and on guiding the Jaffa around him, gaining a reputation for both skill and for training that skill into others. He watched his commanders, and learned from them. His diligence was rewarded, and he began to climb the ranks with speed.
He found that his new-found habit of thinking could not be turned off. Attention was good for a Jaffa when it was turned towards the pursuits the gods required, such as battle; in all other cases, it was a distraction. Yet Bra'tac found himself pondering many things.
Their staff weapons, for example. The slaves who crafted them were highly skilled! Each one was carved and assembled by hand, yet each was virtually identical no matter which world it was made on. Bra'tac did not know the secrets of the staff weapon, of course, for that was a secret of the gods and forbidden to a Jaffa, but he could see that in their own way the craftsmen possessed as much precision and perfection as Bra'tac himself did. In fact, Bra'tac found examples of such dedication and care in many places all around him: it was in the way some slaves swung sickles when his company walked past fields. It was in the way the minstrels honed their craft and their stories.
It was an attitude, a way of life in which through practice, skill, and attention, the most difficult things could be done with apparent ease and grace. There was not a word for it, but Bra'tac strove to apply it to all aspects of his life. In so doing, his vague ideas of what a god must be were honed and focused. It seemed to Bra'tac that there should be a word for what he was looking for, a word to describe the precise swing of the sickle and the exactness of the armorer's art, the perfection of Bra'tac's aim. Perhaps he would learn it when he met his god. Of course the Goa'uld were powerful; that went without saying. But Bra'tac had taught himself that the management of power was more important than the mere possession of it.
His first meeting with Apophis, therefore, was a great shock.
Apophis did not look directly at him; Bra'tac had not expected so great an honor. He and several Jaffa were being presented to Apophis as superior warriors, whose prowess and skill were worthy of Apophis' attention and (perhaps) promotion into the Serpent Guards who were Apophis' bodyguards and from whom his First Prime was drawn.
"Yes, I am sure they are fine," Apophis said with a dismissive hand, barely glancing up from the slave he was having tortured. He was dressed in finery, cloth of gold, an elaborate headpiece, and looked every inch a god. Or, he would, if he were not also in a room with gold walls and floor. In truth, despite his finery, he almost disappeared into the background. "Well?" Apophis said, frowning at them. "Can't you see I'm busy?"
With many apologies, Bra'tac and his fellows backed out of Apophis' presence and were shown to the barracks they would occupy as Serpent Guards. Bra'tac's gear had already been placed there, and he lay down on his bunk for kel'no'reem, rather than joining he comrades in a game of hounds and jackals.
But kel'no'reem would not come. Bra'tac ran the encounter over and over in his mind. Every detail of it was unsatisfactory. Though he knew he must be wrong, Bra'tac felt there had been something lacking. He tried to tell himself that it was disappointment that Apophis had not looked at them more closely.
Each day, Bra'tac guarded Apophis' palace or fought Apophis' battles; sometimes he was even fortunate enough to be in the presence of the god himself. But each encounter felt more lacking than the last.
Apophis possessed riches and wealth enough for a god, it was true, and for the first few years of Bra'tac's service as a Serpent Guard he saw more of them than he did of Apophis himself. But such riches were carelessly used. Instead of somehow arranging and using them for maximum impact, Apophis' possessions were crammed carelessly together. Being in Apophis' own chambers was very like being in the nest of a large bird with a taste for shiny objects. Although each item might be beautiful and useful in its own right, when taken together they all were lost in the clutter. Apophis' clothing was the same. At first, being newly promoted to the Serpent Guard, that was most of what he saw of his lord. But over time, he came to see more.
The crudeness of Apophis' tactics was not a test, to see if his Jaffa could figure out better ways and rise to implement them, for Apophis ignored most of his First Prime's suggestions. Instead, it was a primary part of Apophis' behavior. Everything about him was crude, from his mind to his tactics to his clothing. Apophis knew nothing of subtlety, nothing of precision. Apophis swung the hammer of his army with far less precision than a blacksmith at his anvil, and if that did not work his only response was to get a bigger hammer. And if that did not work, he would throw a tantrum like a very small child.
This being was not higher than Bra'tac, nor better in any way. And close exposure also taught Bra'tac that Apophis' power came from his devices, and not from himself.
Though he struggled mightily to convince himself that he must be wrong and the god right, it was the beginning of Bra'tac's apostasy. He still had no word to describe what he was looking for.
He found it while working with Teal'c's human friends. Not at first; and he had not expected to find anything of it in them. They were children, even gray-haired O'Neill, flailing around the training yard. Luck they had in abundance, and a determination that spoke well of them, but their irreverence and inexperience hampered them sorely.
He was guarding Major Carter while she examined a piece of technology which Apophis was seeking. If Apophis wanted it, that was reason enough for Bra'tac to keep it from him; and as it was not a standard part of the Goa'uld arsenal and did not come with an instruction manual, the SGC had a better chance of determining if it was useful than Bra'tac did.
"Oh, now, that's interesting," Major Carter murmured from within the device's interior. "Wow, okay, no matter what's on the outside, no Goa'uld made this."
"How can you tell?" Bra'tac asked. From the outside, it did look fairly typical for Goa'uld technology: gold, and covered in hieroglyphs.
"Well, besides the fact that the crystals are pretty distinct, it's just too elegantly made," she said.
"Elegant?" Bra'tac asked. "What does that mean?" The chapa'ai translated languages, but Bra'tac had long experience in it and knew that not everything translated such as the word the woman had just used … and sometimes the explanations given were more confusing than useful. Particularly with technical terms.
"It's, okay. How do I explain this," Major Carter said, extracting herself from the machine. She bit her lip as she thought; perhaps she, too, had experience in the miscommunications the chapa'ai could cause. Or perhaps it was simply experience with O'Neill. "It's when you do something the best it can be done—nothing wasted, nothing excessive, everything exactly as it should be. Perfect. Graceful. Tasteful, not extravagant. It can be a style of dress or movement, it can be a person's general demeanor. With technology, it's something that does something important in a simple and concise way, with a minimum of effort. It's the opposite of crude."
Bra'tac nodded in understanding. "And the Goa'uld are nothing if not crude."
"Exactly," she said with a smile. "The only Goa'uld I've ever heard of who could do elegant if his life depended on it is Ba'al, and even then, his sartorial sense and plotting doesn't really carry over into his technology, from the little I've seen."
"Thank you," Bra'tac said. For more than she knew.
Major Carter nodded and got back to work.
Bra'tac turned back to his guard duties with a smile on his face. Elegant.
After all these years, he finally had the right word.