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fan fiction

Blackbriar sniffed. ‘I can’t smell anything,’ she said mournfully.

‘I’m pleased to meet you, Blackbriar’ said Josie. ‘Well, I have met you, but I’m pleased to meet you in this shape and learn your name. You will catch your death of cold sitting on the floor like that – can you come with us to the rooms we were in before?’

Blackbriar sniffed again. ‘I don’t like this,’ she said.

Tash stepped towards Blackbriar to help her off the floor, and she shuffled away from him in alarm. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Josie. ‘Tash can help you.’

‘I can,’ said Tash, helpfully.

‘Do you think you can you get up and walk?’ asked Josie.

‘I will try,’ said Blackbriar, and before Josie could get close enough to be of any help Blackbriar had thrust herself up to her feet and was teetering precariously.

‘Hard,’ she said, in what was almost a bark, keeping her balance with a great deal of effort.

‘Here, let me help,’ said Josie, taking the woman’s arm. Tash in turn hovered at her side, anxious to catch Josie if Blackbriar fell and pulled her down.

‘Tricky,’ said Blackbriar, taking her first tentative steps. By the time they had covered the short distance to the magician’s old rooms she was walking about as well as a newly-weaned thalarka. They sat her down on some cushions in a more or less human manner, where she sat with her mouth open staring at everything curiously with her new human eyes. Josie fetched her a dress, which she managed to put on with considerable difficulty.

‘This is very strange,’ said Blackbriar.

‘We are starting to get used to things that are very strange,’ said Josie. ‘Tash is trying to hand you a cup of water; you should take it.’

Blackbriar took the cup warily and awkwardly, not used to having hands, and Tash backed away to crouch by where Josie was sitting.

‘We have done this magic so I can tell you my story,’ said Blackbriar. ‘So I should do that.’ She shook her head like she was trying to get something out of her ear. ‘I sound so very strange.’

‘Please,’ said Josie.

‘Well,’ said Blackbriar, rearranging herself on the cushion so she was curled-up on top of it in a more doglike fashion. ‘My ancestors were wicked, so they were cursed by the Lion and turned into dogs and pigs. This was in my mother’s mother’s mother’s time. They deserved their punishment, because they were wicked, but now we are not wicked, I don’t think. We dogs don’t have much to do with the pigs. We have always lived in this valley where we were first made, both us dogs and the pigs. The wicked magician and his ifrits have always been cruel to us, for as long as we can remember. Maybe he hated our ancestors who were like him. Most of us are stupid because our ancestors bred with dumb animals, but enough of us are clever enough that we still remember where we came from. I always knew I was cleverer than the others – I could think more clearly and connect things that the others could not connect. But I did not know how different I was until you came here. You human girl and you creature were things that were different from anything I had smelled before. Even as we ate the flesh of the wicked magician who had been our enemy for so many years, I was thinking of you. For I remembered a story that everyone else has forgotten, a story told by one of the oldest who is dead now, an oldest who was clever like me. This one told me that we stay in this valley, even though there is little food and the wicked magician is cruel to us- was cruel to us- because one day the Lion will have pity on us and make us talking beasts, if we stay in this place where he can find us. And this one told me that even as when we were turned into beasts, there were two humans from far away who came with the Lion, there will be two humans from far away who will come here when the Lion comes, or maybe before, and their coming will be the sign that we will be delivered. So I went to the leader of the pack, and said to him, even though one of these ones who has come is a creature, it seems like he might be a kind of human, so might it be that these two are the ones who are foretold? But he said no, we are not meant to be talking beasts, that is just a tale for pups. And I would not have quarrelled with my pack, but accepted all that the leader of the pack said, except that I met a wild cat in the forest. It was in a tree when I came by it in the easternmost part of the valley, and it spoke to me, not like a talking beast, but in the way of speaking without words that we dogs have with each other, as if it were a dog rather than a cat. It said, you are right, Blackbriar, the Lion is coming to deliver your people and make new what he made before, and these two are the ones who were foretold, and they can help you to speak and walk among the talking animals of the world and not slink in the shadows. And I said, how do you know these things? But it would not tell me. And I said, how do you know my name, and what is your name? And it said, I know everyone’s name, and you already know my name, and then I was sure that it was the Lion in the guise of a cat. But it went away before I could ask any more questions. Then I did quarrel with the others of my pack, because then it was not just my thinking that you two were the ones foretold, but the words of the cat who was actually the Lion saying you were the ones foretold. So I drew nearer to you when I could, Josie, and tried to tell you of my trouble.’

Blackbriar’s story did not come across in quite the same way as it is written here as it was told by Blackbriar, for she had an itchy spot, and having been a dog very recently she tried from time to time to chew at it, but she could not reach, so instead would twist about so as to rub it against the cushion.

Blackbriar went on. ‘Now I have listened to all that you have said near me, and I do not understand. Is the Lion coming back to make us into talking animals? What am I meant to do, and what are you human girl – Josie – and you creature – Tash – meant to do?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Josie. Truthfully, but not entirely so. ‘His plans are hidden from us.’

‘I know he has been here again,’ said Blackbriar, in her mournful doggy way. ‘But he did not stay. After the earth shook I followed him and the beasts who were with him across the land for four days, but he did not stop. I gave up when I came to a river that I could not cross. With your help, I could cross it.’

‘We thought this food would help you,’ said Tash. ‘We could feed the magic food to the rest of your people, and then they would be changed into men, too.’

‘I do not mean to sound ungrateful,’ said Blackbriar. ‘But I would much rather be a talking dog. This is a very awkward shape. I am sure my people would not like to be men. The story I was told was that we were to be talking animals.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Josie. ‘I do not think it such a bad shape; but then I guess I wouldn’t. You will quite like it when you have figured out how to use your hands properly, and walk properly.’

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar, lowering her head as a dog would do to show Josie was the boss.

‘Which way is this river?’ asked Josie.

‘It is to the south,’ said Blackbriar. ‘The stream that flows through this valley joins a greater water, then a greater, then reaches it. I went back and forth it for a day but it was big with snowmelt and I could find no place to cross. But the Lion and the great creatures who were with him crossed it easily. Why did he not stop to talk with me again? Why did he not make my people new, like he said he would? Do you think we should be punished longer?’

‘I don’t think you should be punished at all for what your ancestors did,’ said Josie. ‘I know- I know Aslan wants us to go to the lands of the men that lie to the south, and take you with us. I expect there is something that we are supposed to do there, before your people can be changed into talking animals.’

‘That is what I thought,’ said Blackbriar. ‘But that is what I do not understand from listening to your talk. Why did you not take me and go after the Lion?’

This is the question that is the problem at the heart of Josie’s story, and is one form of a question that is as old as God and created beings. I will explain as well as I can here what Josie could have said, even though she did not say it. Why did she set out so readily at the say so of the gazelles on a quest to meet Prince Margis, and not return to this same quest once she was free of the magician Yustus? The first reason was just that it was much more difficult to do so. She would be travelling no longer with four companions through a friendly country that they knew well, following their directions, but would have to find her own way through a wild and unknown land with companions little less ignorant than herself. The second was that she had become more fearful of what the men of this world might be like, both on her own account and on that of Tash, since she had spoken with Yustus and Zardeenah, and lived so long at the whims of the evil magician. The third, and a very great reason, was that she had fallen into a strange love with Tash, and that she knew very well without having to have it prophesied that if she left this place and went to the human lands this love would be impossible and they would be separated. And the fourth was what Miss Miles had muttered as she closed the door at the very beginning of this story, which was that she was a wilful girl, and having found her feet in this new world was overproud and no longer content to be ordered about. But Josie could not very well say any of these things to Blackbriar.

‘We need to keep the secrets of this place out of the hands of wicked men,’ said Josie. To her own ears she did not sound as if she really believed it.

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar, bowing her head.

‘We will still do what we can to help you,’ Josie promised.

They showed Blackbriar how to pick up food with her hands and eat it, and she admitted that hands would be very useful once she got the hang of them. ‘These are a very poor sort of teeth, though,’ she said. Josie helped Blackbriar to bathe, and to comb her hair after a fashion. ‘It is a mess, I am afraid,’ said Josie. ‘You may have to cut it short and start again.’

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar.

Blackbriar did not want to sleep in the magician’s rooms, so they made her a bed in the empty chamber where she had slept the night before as a dog.

***

‘I don’t see how we can keep eating the pigs here anymore, if they used to be people,’ said Josie to Tash, when they were curled up together that night. ‘Ugh’.

‘If you say so,’ said Tash mournfully.

‘You sound like Blackbriar,’ said Josie. ‘Of course we can’t eat them, if they are descended from people. We will just have to find something else to eat.’

‘There are not so many deer, and they are harder to catch,’ said Tash.

‘We will just have to get by,’ said Josie firmly. ‘It makes me feel sick, thinking I have been eating pigs whose great-great-grandmothers were people.’

Tash said something like ‘if you say so’ in a small muttering voice.

Josie decided to change the subject. ‘I never imagined that the magic food would turn Blackbriar into a woman like that. I have never known such magic – well, not since you were turned back from stone.’

‘I am so glad that you turned me back from stone, and I did not stay stone another thousand years, and miss you,’ said Tash.

Josie snuggled up against him and kissed the soft skin at his throat. ‘Me too, dear Tash, me too.’

‘What are we to do with Blackbriar?’ she mused, after a moment. She shifted, rearranging herself against Tash’s chest. ‘I don’t see how we can’t help her. But we don’t have to go all the way to the human lands; we can see that she is kitted out properly, and help her across the river, and stop before we get to the places where men are.’

‘She can go herself now that she is a woman,’ said Tash. He sounded nervous to Josie. She was nervous herself. It was not just a matter of deciding one way or another, once and for all: there would be one decision, and then another, and then another, and maybe they would all be like they seemed to be in recent days, complicated decisions with no easy or comfortable answers.

‘But she doesn’t know anything about being a human,’ said Josie. ‘She will need help. At least at the beginning. And maybe, maybe that will be enough.’

‘Maybe,’ said Tash. But Josie did not think he believed it. She thought he did not believe there was anything he could do to escape the words of Aslan, telling him that they were destined to be separated.

‘We don’t know that there is really destiny,’ said Josie. ‘It seems to me it is just the Lion deciding one way or another, and if you do something different, he can always decide a different way again.’

‘That’s not what he said,’ Tash said gruffly.

Josie decided to change the subject again. She ran her hand over Tash’s chest. ‘You feel dry,’ she said. ‘Does it itch?’

‘Not as much as it used to,’ he said. ‘It is better now that the weather is warmer and I do not spend so much time by the fire. But I did not have a bath today.’

‘We could go and have a bath now,’ said Josie, turning so that her body was pressed against Tash’s side and throwing one leg over him.

‘That would be good,’ said Tash.

‘Or, in a few minutes,’ said Josie, kissing his neck again. She slid her foot back and forth, and Tash began to hiss softly and hold her tightly to his chest, and she gave herself up to being a female creature.

***

When they awoke Blackbriar had turned back into a dog, and when Josie put another piece of pickled turnip in front of her she only turned her head aside.

‘I suppose she said all she wanted to say,’ said Josie. ‘And she really did not like being a woman.’ She petted Blackbriar. ‘And I suppose too, this means it is more complicated to turn them back than we thought.’ She found that she was crying.

‘Don’t cry, Josie,’ said Tash, picking up the unresisting girl. ‘You will figure out what to do.’ He held his hand against her tears, and once again felt that strange tingle through the whole of his body.

‘We will figure out what to do,’ said Josie, and kissed him. ‘Together.’

‘Yes,’ said Tash. ‘Together.’

In the morning Tash and Josie went out to survey the damage from the earthquake. In some places they walked hand in hand, and in others Tash carried Josie. Anyone watching would have seen what they would not have seen the day before, that they were two people entangled beyond any hope of disentanglement. Josie reached out to touch Tash more often than she had before, without any hesitation, and her touches lingered longer, while Tash kept one of his hands always on Josie’s arm or leg.

There were new cracks and fallen masonry everywhere they went, but the place that had been struck the worst seemed to be the hidden garden where they had first met.

‘The whole of the outside wall is down,’ Tash said excitedly. He edged close and described to Josie how its foundations had given way. The cliff that they had climbed down had fallen to the base of the hill, leaving a new precipice that was crumbling and impassable.

‘There are still rocks and earth falling down, and the roots of one of the big trees are hanging out over nothing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it fell over.’ Josie could hear the insidious unsettling sounds of the cliff edge crumbling away as they stood near it.

Tash turned to the middle of the garden. ‘The statue of the woman in the middle of the garden has fallen over and she has broken in half- here, you should feel the jewels she has around her neck, Josie, and – the other statues-‘ Tash fell silent.

‘They are broken too?’ ventured Josie. She had been sure that they were not true statues, but beasts turned to stone even as Tash had been turned to stone. It would be a tragedy if they were broken now, beyond any hope of magical rescue. And she had not even tried to turn them back, she felt, with a pang of guilt.

‘No – they are gone,’ said Tash. ‘There is nothing left.’

As her momentary worry about neglecting the statues lifted, it seemed suddenly to Josie as it had the night before that anything was possible. She felt like she had it in her power to do great and wonderful and audacious things. She was afraid, but exultant at the same time.

‘Could it be that the enchantment wore off? Or the earthquake broke it somehow?’

‘It could be,’ Tash agreed without any great conviction.

Josie knelt down and felt at the hoofprints of polished earth that the stag statue had left behind. There seemed to be other hoofprints, newly pressed into the living grass, heading away across the garden to the fallen outer wall. ‘Or maybe-‘ she forced herself to say the name, using her newfelt sense of power. ‘The lion – Aslan- is here.’

‘It could be,’ said Tash, turning away from Josie.

‘Did you see anything unusual last night, before the earthquake?’ Josie asked Tash.

Through the hand she held she felt Tash stiffen, like someone who has just noticed that they are about to step on a poisonous snake. ‘Tash?’ she asked, with a hint of sharpness in her voice.

‘I saw him,’ Tash admitted in a gravelly mumble that made his voice sound even more unmusical than usual. ‘Over there, in a part of the ruins that fell down when the earthquake started.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’ asked Josie.

‘I was distracted by other things,’ Tash mumbled.

At this Josie could not help laughing. She folded herself around one of Tash’s legs and kissed his thigh. ‘Of course you were, dear Tash. Husband Tash. Did he- Aslan – say anything to you?’

‘A little,’ Tash admitted. ‘He said- he said- that you were meant to go away from here, back to the place the ifrits took you from, and do something with the humans there. He said you had to take someone – the dog, I think -and then all the animals here who used to be men would be changed back ’

‘He didn’t want to tell me this himself?’ Josie asked.

‘He said that you wouldn’t listen to him, so I had to persuade you. I didn’t want- don’t want- to persuade you. I am sure there is another way.’

‘Another way?’

‘He said that we could not be together,’ Tash said. ‘He said that we were only going to be in each other’s stories a short time, and then go in different directions. He said you had to do this thing, and then go back to your own world. He said that I couldn’t come with you.’

A disorienting rush of feelings had swept over Josie. She felt guilty again, and she felt indignant at the same time that she was being made to feel guilty. She felt she was being herded, told what to do, as she had been (for her own good, always for her own good) all her life. She was not nobody, not anymore, poor little blind Josie Furness: she was Josie, Mistress of Telmar. She felt that she ought to obey, and she felt she should take a furious pride in not obeying.

‘Just because the lion says so doesn’t mean that’s the way things have to be,’ said Josie hotly.

‘I said that there had to be another way,’ said Tash.

‘We will find another way,’ said Josie, and squeezed Tash’s leg again. Then she said again ‘We will find another way,’ because it sounded more true the more times she said it. ‘It is convenient, isn’t it, an earthquake coming just as the Lion’ – she forced herself to say the name, she would not be frightened or bossed around, not anymore- ‘just as Aslan comes here?’

‘It is not very convenient,’ said Tash, puzzled.

‘I mean, he comes along and tells us we have to go, and at the same time he makes an earthquake to make us think the whole place is going to fall down on our heads. Obviously he is powerful enough to do whatever he likes – kill us or drag us off quick as spit if he wanted to – but he wants us to obey him. I don’t see why we should.’

Josie had not intended to get quite so angry. She had raised her voice and balled her hands into fists. Only a little bit of her anger was truly anger at Aslan, the lion whom she had never met, and who the beasts of this world credited with godlike powers, such as snatching girls out of the ocean and into other worlds. No, she was angry at the God of her own world, the one who had made her blind, who had taken her mother from her, taken her sister from her, taken her out of her home and sent her to the other side of the world to live with a man who had deserted and betrayed her family. She knew in her heart that Aslan was good, but she knew too that he was good in that terrible bloodless way that she had felt in the secret chamber, a good that she did not want pushing her around like she was a piece on a chessboard, part of some grand plan in which her feelings did not matter. Then there was the guilt she felt for what she and Tash had done, guilt stirred up by this talk of duty; for the rules that she had rejected with her conscious mind held her subconscious in an iron prison.

‘So we will not leave for the land of humans?’ said Tash.

‘Maybe one day,’ Josie said with determination. ‘Not now. Not on the say so of Aslan.’ She quashed her misgivings as best she could. ‘There was a time when I would have given a great deal to have Aslan show up and tell me what to do. But I don’t feel that way anymore.’

***

‘Good,’ said Tash. ‘I was supposed to persuade you. But I am happy not to.’ He ran his hands through her hair, relieved.

From the night of the earthquake onwards Tash could never again be as happy as he had been before, even though he was now betrothed to Josie. Hanging over him were the words of the Books of Tash and the words of the Lion, the prophecies that condemned him to be separate from Josie. He had said he would find another way, and Josie had promised that she would find another way, but the two of them were very small compared to all the worlds.

As spring came on with reckless haste, Josie and Tash turned the whole of the castle upside down, looking for anything that could help them. There was precious little that they could be sure would be of use. There were rings and amulets of the evil magician’s that were clearly magical, but they were not sure exactly what they were meant to do, and reluctant to experiment. Tash had tried to read the books the magician had left behind, but the strange symbols in them stubbornly refused to rearrange themselves into comprehensible ones. The whole of his time beneath Telmar had taken on a dreamlike quality, so that it blurred in his memory. Sometimes it could almost be forgotten, and was only there as a looming grey uneasiness: then the memory of a phrase read, or the face of the Lion, or a cruel image made of hundreds of pieces of stones, would come back to Tash with the force of a blow.

Then there was the dog. It had not returned for almost two weeks after the earthquake, and Josie had begun to worry that something had happened to it. Then one sunny day Tash went out hunting, and Josie came with him as far as the flat stone overlooking the fishing pool, and when he returned with a rabbit he had caught the dog was with her.

‘You were right, Tash,’ she said in a melancholy way. ’I have been getting her story out of her by this game of twenty questions, and it is filled with Aslan.’

The dog lay with her- head in Josie’s lap, looking soulfully up at Tash. It was a scruffy sort of animal, and had gotten a fair bit of mud on it with the change in the weather, but Josie did not seem to mind.

‘I am not sure what her name is. She is the only one who is like her; the others are not as smart. They have stories about how Aslan made them the way they are, and the pack leader says they should be content with their lot. But Aslan – I think – told her that we could help her. I am not sure if it was a dream she had or not. She finds you very frightening. It is very slow working it out,’ she sighed. ‘I don’t know, Tash, can helping her really mean that we have to be parted? What did Aslan say, exactly?’

Tash had been admiring the way the sun shone on Josie’s face as she spoke, and had to admit that he had not quite followed what he was saying.

‘Dear Tash, you are sometimes useless at listening,’ she chided him, and repeated herself. He looked so miserable after this that she had to shoo the dog off her lap and reach over to give him a hug.

Tash explained what the Lion said again. ‘He said I had to choose one of two paths, and neither of them had you in it, and that I had to persuade you to go back to the human lands, to a place called Balan, to make things right between the humans and the talking animals, and the sooner we went the better. And that the men of Telmar had been bad so he had punished them, but it was time for their descendants to be unpunished, and he had picked someone – maybe it is this dog – to be the one to help with them being able to talk again.’

Josie held on to Tash’s ankle in a proprietary way. ‘I don’t see how it can be true that we have to be parted, and that our only choice is to do exactly what Aslan says. It seems to me that we should be able to do the best we can to help on our own, without Aslan. There must be things we can do to help her without going off on a long quest to the human lands. I don’t know – Tash – that it would be easy for you in the human lands of this world, from what I have heard of them. Will you come into the castle with us, dog?’

The talking dog that could not talk swished her tail to-and-fro, three times. Josie reached out to scratch her behind her ears but did not let go of Tash’s ankle.

‘You will think of something, Josie,’ said Tash. Josie had a concentrated look on her face: she had remembered the gazelle Alabitha saying much the same thing, and thinking of that meeting reminded her again of Alice in Wonderland, and then she thought of the cake labelled ‘Eat Me’.

‘Maybe the food in the secret room would help the dog to talk?’ she suggested.

‘We know it is magic,’ said Tash. ‘You said not to eat it before.’

‘I know,’ said Josie. ‘It does seem rash. But I very much doubt the food is deadly poison. It might be worth trying. What do you think, friend dog?’

The dog had drawn back out of reach of Josie, and her claws skittered on the stone as she danced back and forth uncertainly.

‘I guess we should go,’ said Josie, holding up her arms so Tash could help her up. He scooped her up in three of his arms, holding on the rabbit with the other, and started off.

‘Come along, then,’ Josie called to the dog.

Tash carried Josie over the uneven ground along the edge of the stream back toward the castle, the dog following behind.

***

Tash peered at the almost-round balls of sweet-smelling pinkish fruit in the box, nestled in a bed of straw. ‘So those are apples,’ he thought. It was curious that something so simple and natural looking could be so dreadfully magical. There were only three of them, though it looked as if there had once been many more. Josie had shown him the box and then gone poking about the other things on the dais. She looked very much like the Mistress of Telmar, Tash thought , as she moved about in the reddish light of his lamp –she had tied her hair back with a bit of cloth of gold, and had put on when she awoke that morning a necklace of gold with dozens of red stones that he had found for her. She drew his attention irresistibly, inexorably. He would give everything to stay with her forever, to protect her and help her and feel her skin against his own.

‘I think this armour would fit me,’ she said. ‘It seems like there is one for a man and one for a woman, and it seems to be exactly the right size.’

‘It would look very nice on you,’ said Tash.

‘I still don’t know what to do,’ said Josie. She traced the embossed pattern of the lion on the chestpiece of the armour. ‘I remember being here before, saying that in these stories Aslan shows up to tell people what they have to do, so we should just wait until then, and now he has, and I don’t want to do what he said. I can’t do what he said.’

The dog had been reluctant to come any closer than the top of the stairs, and Josie had made no effort to encourage her to come closer. ‘She will come in her own time,’ she had said, and quoted. ‘Patience is a virtue.’ The dog had been very timid about accompanying them into the castle at all, and in the end what made her mind up more than anything else was it starting to pour with rain.

Josie set the armour back down and went to examine the table where the food was laid out as if for a banquet, gently sniffing and prodding at each dish. ‘This pie seems like something dogs would like,’ said Josie, selecting a meat-filled pastry about the size of her hand. Tash agreed. Dogs did not seem like very particular animals, from what he had seen of their habits; they had certainly been eager enough to devour the corpse of the magician.

“Maybe it would be better to have something dogs don’t like,’ he suggested. ‘Then, if the dog eats it, we will know it is because she understands us saying it is magic that could make her talk, and not just because she is hungry.’

‘That’s not a bad idea,’ said Josie. She put the pie back down and picked up a bowl of pickled turnips, getting purple stains on her hands. ‘I don’t suppose dogs are very fond of these.’

‘They are like grith, but nicer,’ said Tash. He was rather fond of them, and had eaten almost all of the magician’s stores of non-magical pickled turnip.

‘I know Tashes are fond of these, already,’ said Josie cheerfully.

The dog was wary of the rooms where Tash and Josie lived – they had the smell of Tash to them, who the dog was afraid of, and doubtless the smell of the magician, who generations of the dogs ancestors had probably been afraid of- so they had brought the food back upstairs to one of the unused rooms of the castle, a hall lined with empty bookcases with a big new crack running down one wall from floor to ceiling.

Josie addressed the dog, looking to Tash very much like a great queen or sorceress in her silks and jewels. ‘As you know, we don’t know if this will work; but there is magic food preserved for some reason in the hidden chamber of this castle, left there – we think- by Aslan when he turned your ancestors into beasts. One reason this might be so would be to turn your people back from being beasts. It might be dangerous, but if you want to try, here it is.’ She set a piece of pickled turnip in front of the dog.

Without hesitation, the dog snapped it up. She came forward and nuzzled Josie’s foot, and Josie gave her a pat. ‘Good girl,’ she said. ‘I hope that will do some good. Or, at least doesn’t do any harm.’

The dog let Josie pat her for a while, then gave an enormous yawn, walked over to a pool of sunlight in the doorway, and curled up on the tiles.

‘She is going to sleep,’ said Tash. ‘She seems to be quite asleep already.’

‘Well, maybe it wasn’t quite as magic pickled turnip as we hoped,’ said Josie. And then she said ‘what?’ For Tash had made a sudden startled movement.

‘She- she-‘ said Tash. It was not any less surprising than a statue turning into a living thing; but he had not seen that, just lived it. ‘She has changed into a human.’ She was darker-skinned than Josie, like the men and women of Telmar had been, and had a wild mane of black hair that came halfway down her back. The hair on her legs was much thicker than Josie’s, and she was curled up asleep in the same position she had been as a dog, which looked uncomfortable to Tash.

‘Hello? Miss?’ Josie stepped forward, bent down, and gently shook the shoulder of the sleeping woman who had been a dog. She woke with a yelp of surprise and scrambled to all fours, then fell into a heap; it appeared she had not expected her hind legs to be so long. She lay where she had fallen, gazing around the room with rapt attention.

‘Are you alright? Can you understand me?’ asked Josie.

‘Yes,’ said the woman, and her eyes widened as she heard the sound of her own voice for the first time. It was a voice that sounded human enough, but much deeper than Josie’s, and had the woody quality of notes struck on a xylophone.

‘What is your name?’ asked Josie.

‘Blackbriar,’ said the woman who had been a dog.

Josie had dreamed that she was back on the liner, and was trying to get to her stateroom, but the hallways kept shaking from side to side and tilting further and further back, so that she couldn’t get where she wanted to go. Then she had woken with a start to the sound of breaking glass and books falling to the floor, and more distant crashes, and a floor that moved like the floor of the liner.

‘Tash!’ she had called, getting to her feet, and while the castle convulsed around her she felt her way over to his bed. It was empty and cold.

She had fallen to her hands and knees there, because it was hard to stand, and she had tried to pray like she had tried to pray when she fell overboard, but she had failed as she had before to get much further than ‘dear God, please don’t let me die.’ The castle had shook, and shook, and the sound of falling masonry grew into a thunderous roar then, a roar that seemed mixed with the roar of a wild beast. The sound had sent a thrill of terror through her, a thrill that was also crazy kind of joy, and she had screamed. When she had finished the room was no longer shaking.

‘My God,’ she had said, shakily rising and throwing back the shutters on the window . The air that flooded in was little warmer than freezing, but she had given it no mind. ‘Tash!’ Josie had called again, and listened for a response. There had been a few isolated sounds of stonework falling on the castle grounds, and in the distance the wild dogs had begun a melancholy caterwauling. She had prayed another desperate prayer, ‘dear God, please don’t let Tash die.’

What would she do if Tash was gone? She listened for every little sound, and after a while was certain that mixed among them were footsteps running across the pavement, but she did not call out again, because it would be too terrible if the voice that called back was not Tash.

Then Tash had returned to her, safe and strong, but trembling like she had never felt him trembling before; like herself he must have been terribly upset by the earthquake. She had realised then how cold she had become, standing by the open window, and it felt so good to be gathered up in Tash’s arms and warmed by the warmth of his body. The hammering of her heart had begun to slow, and then Tash had said ‘I am more glad that you are alright than I am glad about anything,’ in a voice that had set it hammering again. The terror and the crazy joy she had felt during the earthquake had not gone away, but was changing inside her into something different now that Tash had returned to her.

‘Tash,’ said Josie. He held her snugly with three arms, while his other hand smoothed back her hair. She could smell the anxiety on him, an acrid tang to his jasmine scent, but this only made her love him more.

‘I love you, Tash,’ Josie said. She had not planned to say it; she just suddenly found that she had said it.

‘I love you, Josie,’ said Tash, his massive head bent down close to hers.

She trembled with joy and fear. ‘You are still cold,’ said Tash. ‘I will put you back in your bed.’

‘Is it safe inside, do you think?’ she asked him. ‘I would not like the roof to fall on us.’

‘This part of the castle is strong, I think.’ He passed his hand softly over her forehead again, brushing the hair away from her face.

‘Will you stay with me tonight and keep me warm?’ she asked.

Josie felt the familiar tightness in her breath, the warmth going to her face and other places, but she did not care. She had taken back the decision she had made before. Tash did not say anything in reply, but gently put her down and arranged her blankets over her, then crawled in alongside her. Carefully, like he was putting dishes away – a thing he had to do very carefully, for he was wont to drop and break them- he lay one inhumanly long arm across Josie’s chest, and another across her feet. He lay his head alongside hers so she could feel his breath. All along her side she could feel the downy warmth of his chest and belly through her nightdress. Tash still seemed strangely trembly; or not so strangely trembly; for it was not every night they had an earthquake. One of his hands coiled around her shoulder; the lower hand on that side began to rub her ankle, back and forth. It was only a gentle touch, but she could instantly feel herself swelling inside like she had so often before when she had lain next to Tash. The unbearable feeling seemed stronger than it ever had before, stirred up by the earthquake and mingled with the fear and the wild reckless joy that had possessed her at its height.

‘I am thinking, Tash,’ said Josie slowly. ‘That this world is not my world, and it is not your world, and there seem to be quite different rules here about a lot of things. So the rules that we were supposed to obey on our own worlds are not the same rules that we need to obey here. So,’ she went on even more slowly, each word like something strange and wonderful she was taking out of a chest in a hidden room. ‘I love you, and you love me, and perhaps there is no reason that we cannot be betrothed here, even though we are different kinds.’

‘I only want to be near you, Josie,’ said Tash. There was a persistence in his touch that had not been there the times before, when they had lain together before in comparative innocence. While Josie spoke he had not stopped stroking her, his upper arm moving to the bare skin of her forearm, while the lower had moved upward, sliding back and forth along the inside of her calf. His hands moved with a ceaselessness as if he wanted to make sure that she was still there, that she was still real. That all of her was still there.

‘I know you want to be near me,’ she said, breathing hard. She reached out and rubbed the soft skin of Tash’s throat. The feathers there were tiny, and the feel of it put her in mind of a chicken at the age when they were little balls of fluff. Tash’s lower hand rubbed the skin behind her knee, while the other played with her hair. She kissed his beak then, and because he could not kiss back she let out her tongue and gave his warm ivory beak a tiny lick. It had a very faint bitter flavour that was not unpleasant. She licked it again. Tash smelled stronger to her than he ever had before, and she could smell herself, an improper animal stink.

‘Are we betrothed now?’ Tash asked uncertainly.

‘I think we should say something,’ she said.

‘Yes?’ asked Tash, raising his head to look at her face.

‘I think,’ she said slowly, ‘That it would be enough to say that we will never leave each other.’ She had made this rash promise before, but had never felt what it might mean to her. Now she did, with a force like she had run at full tilt into a wall, and it took her breath away.

‘I will never leave you, Josie,’ said Tash.

‘We should not rush,’ said Josie, wanting very much to rush. ‘We should have some sort of ceremony. And we cannot really be betrothed unless-‘

‘I will never leave you, Josie,’ said Tash again, with a burning intensity in his voice, as if he thought they were going to be torn apart at any moment.

‘I will never leave you, Tash,’ said Josie after a moment in which she seemed to hang in midair, like she was leaping into a pool from a high place. Her heart sang with a strange exultation. It was a crazy thing to do. By all the rules she had known before, it was not only crazy, but wicked: but this was not her world. In some far corner of the castle precariously balanced blocks of stone fell with a crash. She found that her hands were clutching him too tightly, like she was holding on for dear life, and she forced them to relax.

‘Now we are supposed to kiss,’ said Josie, and kissed Tash’s beak with her mouth open, holding her lips to it for a long minute and tasting the bitterness of it. She could feel herself starting to tremble, and Tash opened his beak a tiny bit; Josie darted her tongue in and tasted the wet sharpness inside, then sat up.

‘Is it done?’ asked Tash.

Josie rubbed Tash’s shoulder firmly in a sign of affirmation. ‘It is done. So we can sleep together, and bathe together, and we will know it is not wrong.’ Tash’s arms wrapped Josie gently. ‘I am glad you will never leave me. I am glad that we can do those things.’

‘Me too,’ said Josie. She was unable to stop trembling, so after a minute of being held to Tash’s chest and stroked with his free hand she pulled a little away from him and sat up.

‘My Josie?’ asked Tash, a little uncertainly.

Josie pulled her nightdress off over her head, then burrowed back under the blankets and pressed herself against Tash’s chest. It felt so good to feel skin next to skin, flesh next to flesh. It was something she had wanted all her life, she realised: to touch someone. She held her hands against his chest and buried her face in it, drinking in the scent of him. She wanted to drink him in, to be drunk herself, to be touched all over and to touch him all over. One of Tash’s giant almost-human hands rubbed Josie’s shoulderblades, while another cradled her from underneath, and from his hands something like an electric current sang through her body, the same exultation of being poised in midair as at the instant she made her rash promise.

***

How like a proper Mistess of Telmar she looks, Tash thought with pride, when Josie pulled her nightdress off and he saw the ruby key lying on the white skin of her chest. How splendid a thing it was to serve her, and love her, and be hers.

As Tash had touched Josie, and as she touched him, he had felt the same sense of exhilaration he had felt when he first touched her tear-streaked face. It grew and grew, and he felt spun and tumbled about inside, as if he was a pool of water being tossed about by the thrashings of some great mire-beast. She had promised that they would be together – whatever the lion said, they would be together, he vowed – but he needed to hold on tight to the reality of Josie, to feel her warm flesh, her long hair the colour of new grith stalks, her wet lips, the hot comforting moistness of her breath. The more Tash touched Josie the more he wanted to keep on touching her. He touched with a particular fervour the parts of Josie that she had not let him touch before, the parts that were not allowed before they were betrothed. It was good to run his hand up from thigh to neck along her back without running into cloth, to feel the soft lumps of flesh on her chest with the hard lumps at the ends, the curious puckering of her navel, the damp valley between her buttocks, this fringe of hair at the bottom of her belly that was so curiously unlike the hair on her head. And she smelled so very good. It was good to have so much of her smell so close to him, to have her rub it over his skin.

Josie kissed Tash’s chest, and darted out her tongue to taste it, and as she did it sent little shocks of wild joy through him, as if the mire beast that was tossing about the pool that was Tash had thrashed its tail. Something strange was happening to him. He could feel blood flowing to places in his body in ways it had not before, things swelling and moving within him without him willing them to do so.

‘I should still like to know if you were really a boy,’ Josie murmured to Tash, kissing his chest again.

‘How can you tell?’ he asked.

‘Between your legs,’ she told him. ‘Are you like me, or different?’

‘I think we must be the same,’ he said. ‘I always thought we looked the same, when I saw you without your clothes.’

‘Oh?’ said Josie.

Tash abruptly took a hand away from Josie’s thigh and felt between his legs. He felt different than he usually did. ‘I feel strange.’

***

Josie inched down Tash’s body to check for herself. Her hands slid from his chest to his belly, then to the thicker feathers above the junction of his legs, then to what he had between them. ‘I think you are right,’ she said, feeling a little of the same bewilderment she had felt when she had fallen from one world into another. ‘You are a girl after all, and not a boy.’ She could not help being disappointed and a little stupid, yet still felt more excited than she had ever been before. A small part of Josie outside herself laughed at herself.

‘That feels strange,’ Tash said, in a voice full of wonder and confusion. ‘Please do not stop.’

Feeling very strange herself, Josie gave Tash a cautious rub, then another, and then it was suddenly very clear that Tash was, indeed, a boy and not a girl. Tash suddenly threw his limbs about in a way quite unlike his usual gentle manner, making an unearthly hissing sound, and Josie had to roll away from him to avoid being struck.

‘You are a boy, after all,’ she said, and could not help herself from laughing. She kissed Tash’s chest.

‘Please do not stop,’ asked Tash.

Josie did not stop. Tash tried to avoid throwing his limbs about, but was unable to keep them quite still, so Josie grabbed tightly onto Tash’s thigh with both legs so she would not be knocked over.

‘Gentle, Tash, gentle,’ said Josie. ‘Dear Tash, gentle.’

She clung to Tash with her hands and with her legs, skin against feathered skin, and she kept on clinging to Tash. She felt like she was being carried along by a great wave, further and further out to sea.

The words of the first song Josie had heard the gazelles sing ran through her head.

In the tale of Love there are times

Other than the past, the present and the future;

Times for which no names have yet been coined.

Love is the light of life.

Love is the fire of life.

More, more, more: the waves were pounding at her, drawing her down, throwing her up, tumbling her head over heels. Josie loosened her grip on the still shuddering Tash and slipped off of him onto the blankets, her mind and body filled with a delicious sensation of warmth.

Abruptly, her eyes filled with tears. ‘Well, that’s torn it,’ she said to herself. It was wrong by the rules of her own world, she told herself fiercely, but not here in this new world. Here the humans married young. And there was no one else here in Telmar, just her and Tash, Tash and Josie.

‘That was very strange,’ said Tash, putting his arms around her. He touched a hand gently to her damp face. ‘You feel like everything that is good. Are you alright?’

Josie could not bring herself to talk, not then, but just buried her face in Tash’s shoulder and kissed it, taking deep breaths of the familiar smell of him. This seemed to reassure him that she was indeed alright.

‘I do love you,’ she said after a little while, when the tears had stopped flowing. ‘You feel like everything that is good, too.’

She lay there on Tash’s shoulder for what could have been a few seconds or half an hour, the thoughts in her head stubbornly resisting to form words.

‘Come, dear Tash,’ she said at last. ‘We should have a wash.’

It was a few weeks later, and while Tash went further afield hunting, Josie was by the stream making an effort to befriend the dog who behaved so curiously unlike the other wild dogs of Telmar. It had at last come close enough for her to pet it. It was not a well-groomed animal, like the house dogs at home, and it had the coarse long hair of an outside dog at the end of a cold winter, but it did not seem to be ill-fed or ill, nor like the wild beasts in the fables that come up to young ladies to have thorns removed from their paws. No, it seemed to be genuinely seeking out Josie’s company, and as if it had something to say. It was nervous even after coming up to Josie, perking to attention at every little sound in the forest and once or twice darting away from Josie and needing to be coaxed back. After she had sat for a time talking to the dog and stroking it, and her feet were starting to feel the chill, Josie hit upon an idea.

‘I think you can understand what I say, dog,’ she told the dog. ‘If you can understand what I say, lick my hand.’

The dog licked her hand.

‘Do you think you could you lick my hand to mean ‘yes’, and not lick my hand to mean ‘no’?’

The dog licked Josie’s hand again.

‘Oh, good dog,’ she said. Though dogs do just lick people’s hands out of friendliness, I suppose, she thought. She asked the dog a few questions to test it. ‘Am I a gazelle?’ The dog left her hand alone.

‘Am I a dog?’ No.

‘Am I a human?’ Yes.

Josie scratched the dog behind the ears, and began to ask it questions in earnest.

‘Do you need our help?’ Yes. ‘Do you need us to help change you into a person?’ No. ‘Do you- do you need us to help you find something?’ A long pause, and then a yes. ‘Do you need us to help you find something- somewhere else?’ Another long pause and finally a yes. Josie wondered what made these uncertain questions, and thought for a while. The sound of the stream was a calming one, but somehow made it hard to think. ‘Do you need us to find someone outside the valley?’ A very definite lick. ‘Will you come into the castle with us? We have roast pork.’ The dog hesitated.

There was a crackling of branches, and the dog darted away from Josie. She could hear Tash’s heavy footsteps, and as he drew nearer smell the heady stink of newly gutted boar. The dog slunk further away, and she could no longer hear its footsteps clearly.

‘Hush, Tash, you’re scaring the dog away,’ she said, in a tone of mild reproach. She could tell that Tash was suspicious of the dog- it was hardly surprising, from Tash’s story, that he should be suspicious of most everything- but she wished he would be a little more friendly towards it. Dogs could tell when people didn’t like them, she knew.

‘I am very sorry,’ said Tash. ‘Would it like a bit of pig?’ Josie heard Tash rend a gobbet of flesh from the boar’s inside and toss it into the bush where the dog was lurking.

‘It doesn’t seem to be coming back,’ said Josie, after they had stood listening to the bush expectantly for quite some time. ‘Oh well. I expect it will be back later. I am quite certain it is a talking dog that doesn’t talk, Tash. It answered my questions, and I figured out that it wants us to help it meet someone somewhere.’

‘That is a beginning,’ said Tash. ‘Do you want me to carry you back?’

‘No, thank you,’ said Josie. ‘You carry the pig, and I will follow. I do sort of know the way.’

She stood up and wiggled her cold toes to try and get the feeling back into them, then walked with Tash back to the hidden door in the cliff and the shadowed stairs that led onto the grounds of the castle, telling him as they walked of what the dog had told her.

‘There are bad dogs, and there are good dogs, Tash,’ she told him. ‘I am quite sure that this one is a good dog, whatever else it may be.’

***

That night the moon was full, and Tash was restless. He did not like sleeping alone, and found it more difficult to avoid unpleasant thoughts. He had seen something that day, while he was out hunting, that troubled him, and that he had not wanted to speak of to Josie. He had seen its tracks in the earth, first: great paw prints, many times larger than the paws of the dogs. Then he had seen the beast itself, on the other side of the stream from him, atop a boulder so that its feet were higher than Tash’s head. It had not made any sound that could be heard above the chattering of the stream: but it had looked at Tash, and he had known it was a talking beast, and a creature of power. He was sure it was the sort of creature called a lion, the sort whose stone head the statue of the Queen held, and he was sure it had wanted to speak to him: but he had turned and walked quickly away in the other direction before it could say anything.

Eventually Tash gave up and went quietly out of the rooms he shared with Josie to go exploring. He prowled about the inside hallways for a time, but he knew them all well, and found nothing new to explore, so he then ventured outside. He went from one garden courtyard to another, feeling just as restless as he had lying on the floor trying to sleep, and then further afield, to one of the ruined parts of the castle of Telmar he had had not gotten around to exploring before. Most of the walls there were only piles of rubble, covered with masses of dead thistles left over from the summer before. It smelled, Tash realised, a very little like the world of the thalarka – which was probably another reason he had not explored it before. Unlike Josie, he had not yet been homesick in the slightest.

Beyond one of the shapeless mounds of rubble, Tash was surprised to find a ring of reasonably intact walls, and in one of these walls he found a door that was even less ruined by time. It hung true, and was not cracked or weathered, and seemed to Tash almost as well-preserved as the things in the hidden room beneath the evil magician’s bedroom. ‘There are probably more useful magic things behind it,’ he said, finding the thought cheering. With an effort, he reminded himself that there could well be dangers behind it as well.

The door was of wood, but wood that was so dark and fine-grained and obviously heavy that it might as well have been iron. Tash pushed it without really expecting it to open; but it swung open readily. Beyond the door was a roofless gallery. At one side tall windows let in more moonlight, while the other was cut into the side of the hill, with a great archway leading into it like a hungry mouth. It was wide enough and tall enough to accommodate a giant many times Tash’s height.

Tash had taken a lamp with him in case he found anything he wanted to look at more closely, and though he had not yet had great luck either at lighting them or at keeping them lit, this time a tiny flicker of yellow fire had survived while he carried the lamp about the ruins, and it sprang helpfully into full brightness when he fiddled with it. ‘I will just have a look, and if there is anything interesting, I can come back with Josie in the morning,’ Tash said to himself.

Tash had not taken very many steps down the tunnel before he had the oddest feeling that it was a thing that went on forever, with no beginning and no end. The air smelt strange and felt thin, as if it was missing something important that air was supposed to have. Tash found himself labouring over each breath as if he had been running. An odd whispering sound echoed around him, a sound like people hiding in darkened corners telling each other secrets in a language he did not understand.

The light of the lamp went only a short way into the darkness. Like the darkness below the Procurator’s Tower, it seemed not so much the absence of light as the active exclusion of light. Thus when Tash came to the door in the side of the tunnel, he did not see it until it was unexpectedly and uncomfortably close. This door was different from the other doors in the castle of Telmar, disappearing into the darkness above Tash, but its handle was only a little higher than would be convenient for someone Josie’s size. It was of some polished wood that still gleamed even after standing underground for who knows how many years, and on it someone had made a complicated picture out of countless little pieces of stone.

The picture was of a tall, white figure which was either wearing a floor-length robe or had no legs. Tash was not sure which. He also could not tell if the long drooping protuberances on its head were part of it, or meant to be some sort of hat.  It was the figure’s expression that made him feel most uneasy: feet or not, and hat or not, it looked like the sort of person who would consider Tash even less than useless; who would not notice him, even if Tash brought it splendid gifts, or fought fearful enemies for it. Tash shivered under the pressure of the arrogant eyes of the picture, and hastily moved on without trying the handle.

Each doorway Tash passed – and he passed many of them, until he lost count – had a picture like this with a different figure displayed in it. Though they varied a great deal, none of them seemed to be the sort of people who would pay the slightest bit of attention to Tash. Tash decided that the things on their heads had to be hats. He moved uneasily past these unpleasant figures, accompanied only by the echoed shufflings of his own feet.

His lamp seemed to be more effectively piercing the gloom, and Tash caught sight of a door a little way ahead that stood partly open. Without meaning to, Tash began to walk more slowly. He had been hurried along by the unpleasant pictures on the doors, and only just realised how far he had come underground and how much trouble he could be in if things went wrong. ‘I hope there isn’t one of those legless hat-wearing people inside,’ Tash told himself.

When he came to the open door, Tash saw at once that it was different from all the others that he had passed thus far. The front was blank, with no picture, and Tash had the impression that this room was waiting for someone. The long hallway with the doors coming off it had very much the feel of an immense tomb, like the ones the Procurators of the Overlord were supposed to be buried in, so maybe it was that a hat-wearing figure was meant to be buried here, and had not yet died when Telmar came to end. ‘Though they do not look very much like the men of Telmar,’ he said to himself.

Cautiously, Tash peered around the door, and was relieved to see that the room inside was empty. It was not large, and was furnished with a table and chair made in the same way as the furniture in the intact parts of the castle. Though very large compared to the furniture elsewhere in the castle, the table and chair were only a little too high to be comfortable for Tash. On the table lay two immense books.

There were grand symbols in gold on the cover of the first book, like strange insects that had crawled on it and been squashed there. As Tash looked at them, they seemed to writhe around like the geometric theorems he had seen carved in stone in the world of the almost-thalarka. Suddenly, with a wrenching sensation inside a little like the feeling of falling between worlds, he found that he could read them.

He froze still in astonishment.

‘The Book of Tash,’ said Tash aloud in wonder, and his words echoed about the chamber like his footsteps had in the hallway outside, repeating over and over. ‘Tash…ash….ash…ash….shh….sh…’

He craned his neck over to look at the cover of the other book. This one had symbols like astrological diagrams worked on it in red and black gems, and as he looked at them they too twisted in his mind to become words he could understand. They read the same: The Book of Tash.

It had to be some other Tash, Tash thought, for it was impossible that someone had written not one, but two books about him. Perhaps Tash was a name the men of Telmar had used. Then it struck him that these might be magical books, and therefore very dangerous, like most magical things. It could surely do no good at all to open the covers to see what was written inside. ‘I should go back to Josie, and we can come back together and have a look if she thinks it is a good idea,’ Tash told himself. ‘Yes.’ But he stayed standing by the table, and did not go back out the open door.

The problem was that Tash very much wanted to see what was in the book, so he could assure himself that it really was not written about him. So he did what Josie or I would have done if we were in his position – and which you would probably not have done, being in all likelihood more level-headed. Tash reached out with both hands to turn back the front cover of the first book to see what was written inside. Like the words on the cover, the words within began as a chaos of fragmented shapes, but as Tash watched them they writhed into forms that Tash could understand.

‘Know then, O seeker after enlightenment, that Tash was told always that his uselessness was of a kind utter and complete,’ read Tash. ‘In a voice enlightened and gleaming with accuracy, the father of Tash would pronounce his uselessness perfect in its completeness, and to this assertion his brothers and sisters and mothers would voice agreement after the manner of their kind. Then lowly Tash would bow his head, and accede humbly to the pronouncement of his betters.’

 

A chill crept over Tash, and his skin itched with the dryness of the air. This was a strange and a strong magic indeed.

‘I should go back to Josie,’ he told himself. But despite this, he read to the end of the page, and then the next, and the next. He had seen strange and strong magic before: magic that had thrown him from world to world, and turned him to stone, and this book did not seem like it could possibly be as dreadful as those magics. Besides, it was very interesting to read his story all written out in words. It somehow seemed grander and more exciting, and Tash himself more heroic and clever than he had felt while he was actually doing all those things.

Tash had expected that when he got up to the part in the story where he was sitting and reading the magical book, it would stop and he would not learn anything about what happened next. The other possibility that had occurred to him was that it might repeat over and over, a book within a book, and then another book within that one, so that unless he was careful he would be trapped reading his own story forever. Neither of these things happened. The story went on. Page after page after page, relentlessly recounting all the things that would happen to Tash after he had read this book.

‘No!’ Tash cried aloud, and the word echoed in the long darkness of the hallway.

This could not be his story. He achieved things in the book that were worthy of recording in a book, good things, even heroic things that saved thousands of people, but his great deeds were forgotten and ignored, the credit for them taken by others. The life of Tash in the book was a bleak and long one, in which nothing was ever again as easy or pleasant as it was now, and where he spent his old age lonely, sick, and useless.

‘This is a stupid book,’ Tash said. Impatient and uneasy, he climbed up on the chair and examined the next book of Tash. This book, too, told his story, in the same grand style as the first one. He did not bother to read it all, but flipped quickly through the pages of this one to see how it ended. In this book he also did great things, but also terrible things, awful things he could not imagine himself doing. He was feared. He was powerful, as great as an Overlord. But still he was alone.

He recoiled from the hateful books, stepping down from the chair so hastily that it fell over, and backed away from the table.

‘You have to choose,’ said a voice from behind him. It was a voice like gold and honey and wine and stone. It did not echo in the emptiness like Tash’s voice had echoed. It did not seem like it could have been made by any ordinary living thing, but only by a god. Tash turned and stared. In the flickering light of the lamp the great lion seemed almost to glow with his own light. He was bigger than the statue Josie had said was of a creature that was like a lion; much bigger. And his head did not have an expression of idiot malice, but something far more terrifying. It was love as Josie had felt it in the chamber of the ruby key: a love that was a love for uncountable billions of billions, ready to sacrifice itself for the good of the many, ready to sacrifice Tash – sadly, lovingly, but without an instant’s hesitation – for the good of the many.

‘Those are both horrible,’ said Tash, heedless of the fact that he was speaking in rather an insolent way to a god. ‘Neither of them have Josie in them.’

‘Josie only comes into your story for a little while,’ said the lion in a voice that was heavy with sorrow, as if he was in some way as sorry as Tash was that this was so.

‘Why?’ asked Tash.

‘No one is ever told any stories but their own, Tash,’ said Aslan. ‘You do not belong in this world. You have come into it by an accident. Good can still come of your being here, if you chose it so. But you are not of this place, and can never be.’

‘Josie doesn’t belong here either,’ Tash protested. ‘Why can’t she be in my story?’

‘Josie will be sent back to her own world when her time has come.’

‘But why? Why does Josie have to go? Why can’t I go with her?’ Tash’s pleas grew less like a human voice, more unearthly, a shrieking almost-wail that you or I would find terrifying to hear on a dark night.

‘You are only free to choose these two things,’ said Aslan. ‘Other men and beasts, and powers greater than men or beasts, have used their freedom to make choices that have bound the choices of others: and this has created the world in which you must choose one of two paths.’ The voice of the lion god was the voice of someone who understood Tash’s pain, who felt it as he did himself.

Tash was silent, but his eyes burned with hurt. He did not understand. It was not fair. He did not want someone else to feel his pain. He did not want someone else to feel his pain and make him suffer it regardless. He had always disliked prophecies and riddles and arguments about the meaning of life, and what the lion god was saying seemed to be all three at once.

‘You need to lead Josie from this place,’ said Aslan. ‘The girl is the only one who can restore the trust that has been broken between men and beasts in these lands, and restore the evil that was done in this place by the Men of Telmar. The sooner she begins, the greater her success will be.’

Tash remembered this from the story he had read in the book with the golden letters on the cover, but dimly, as if it was a story that he had been told many years before. All the details of the stories in the two books were fading from his mind, with only the stark choice presented to him of two grim futures without Josie remaining vivid.

‘If you want her to go, why don’t you tell her yourself?’ Tash asked Aslan.

‘She is not willing to hear me yet,’ said Aslan. ‘But she will hear you. She will follow you, if you take her on this path. But it is not in her nature to choose of her own will to take this path, not yet. Long ago the Men of Telmar did great evil here, sacrificing their own children to seek to prolong their own lives by magic. I turned them into mute beasts then. It is time for their descendants to take their places as speaking beasts: but to do this they will need your help. You have already met the one I have chosen to bring them back. You must lead her, and Josie, to the land of men, to the city of Balan. They will work together with companions they will find there, and then the beasts of Telmar will speak. What is greater, the trust that has been lost between beasts and men in these lands will be remade anew. It will be as it was meant to be in the beginning, and the stain of many evils will be washed away at last.’

The words of the quest Aslan described echoed things Tash dimly remembered reading, sacrifices the Tash of the books would make, deeds he would do that would be remembered as the deeds of others.

‘But I will not be with Josie,’ said Tash.

‘You will not be with Josie.’ The Lion shook his great maned head. ‘Your story is a long one, and Josie only comes into it for a little time.’

Tash bowed his head. He let his arms droop. He felt the unbearable golden presence of the lion like the noon sun in the sky above Telmar, blinding him, parching his skin. He took a long breath, choking back the desire to sob and throw himself on the ground. Then, slowly, he raised his head, straightened his arms, and spoke in a voice that was as calm and human-sounding as he could make it.

‘I will find another way,’ said Tash.

‘There is a little time to change your mind,’ said Aslan. ‘But soon the choice will be made, one way or another. Lead Josie from this place, and set your course toward Balan.’

‘I will find another way,’ said Tash, with determination.

‘We will meet again,’ said Aslan, and bowed his head slightly at Tash, a curiously humble gesture for the lion-god to make to someone so unimportant as Tash. It seemed to Tash as he did so that his eyes were glistening, as if they were brimming with tears.

Tash stood still, letting his eyes focus on nothing. He was happy here. Why did it have to end? Why did his story need to have dropped him in the middle of some vast tangled prophecy?

‘You must go now,’ said Aslan. ‘Josie will be frightened.’

‘Of what?’ asked Tash.

As if in reply, there was a low, deep-throated rumble that Tash thought at first was the lion growling, but which soon seemed to come from all directions. The stone beneath Tash’s feet began to tremble, and dust ran in little streams from cracks in the ceiling.

‘We must go,’ said Aslan. ‘Follow me.’

The lion began to walk down the great hallway, unhurriedly but swiftly, and Tash ran along behind.

The floor shook beneath him like it was a wooden floor hanging from ropes, instead of a stone floor carved into the side of a mountain, and he found it hard to stay upright. The lion kept pace just ahead of him, too vast and too golden and too god-like.

Tash shook the lamp too much, and it went out, but far ahead Tash could see a half-moon of light, and he broke into a full run. He came out into the roofless gallery, and no more than a few seconds later the hillside above the arched entrance to the tunnel gave way, burying it beneath thousands of tonnes of stone and earth and trees with a tremendous crash. When the noise of the landslide had died away, Tash realised that the earth was still again. There was no trace of the lion.

Blocks of masonry had fallen from the walls of the gallery, and the heavy door of wood like iron that he had come through had been twisted off its hinges and lay covered in broken fragments of stone.

Tash ran back to the rooms he shared with Josie and found her standing listening by a window which she had thrown open, filling the room with cold winter air. A bookcase had fallen over, and in another place a pitcher of water was broken on the floor, but the walls and ceilings seemed undamaged.

‘Tash!’ Josie turned to him and threw her arms around his legs, and he could feel the fear drain away from her as she clung to him. ‘I was worried something had happened to you.’ Josie held Tash tight, and the wonderful Josie smell of her hair the colour of new grith stalks drifted up to him. ‘Tash, you are shaking.’

He bent down and gently picked her up. ‘I-‘ he said, finding it hard to speak. ‘I worried about you, too.’

‘It must have been an earthquake,’ Josie said, nestling in Tash’s arms. She felt cold; she must have been waiting here for him with the window open since the earth stopped shaking.

‘You are cold,’ Tash said. ‘I shouldn’t have left you.’ He shut the window, then carried Josie back to a spot in front of the fire.

‘I was worried when I woke up and you weren’t here,’ said Josie. ‘I could hear walls collapsing. It felt like the whole castle was going to fall down. ’

‘This part of the castle seems strong,’ said Tash, drawing a hand across her smooth, cool forehead, smoothing back her hair. She did not protest.

‘I screamed a little,’ said Josie, laughing at herself, and rubbing Tash under his beak. ‘Where were you?’

‘I couldn’t sleep,’ said Tash. ‘So I went exploring.’ He opened his mouth to say more, and closed it. He opened it again, and once again closed it. He could not think of what to tell Josie about the Books of Tash and his meeting with Aslan, things which were already growing dim and dreamlike in his memory.

‘I am so glad you are alright,’ said Josie.

‘I am more glad that you are alright than I am glad about anything,’ said Tash, surprising himself with how much the words were true.

Aronoke strode along the hallways of the Jedi Temple, his bag slung over one shoulder and his new lightsaber clipped at his side. He had taken care to choose a weapon similar to the one he had lost, but it was more slender and a paler shade of yellow. Aronoke wondered what colour the blade of his own lightsaber would be, if he ever finally travelled to Ilum to craft it. Blue like Master Altus’s he hoped, but he knew that the choice was not merely aesthetic, nor entirely left to chance. The colour bore a relation to a Jedi’s skills and his role within the order. Jedi like Master Altus and Master Caaldor, who were active agents in the field, wielded blue blades. Jedi whose roles were scholarly or diplomatic, like Master An-ku and Master Insa-tolsa, had green lightsabers. Yellow lightsabers, like the one he carried now, were typically the weapons of Jedi who were highly trained in combat and tactics. These were only guidelines, Aronoke knew. Any Jedi might be called upon to act in any capacity.

The quartermaster who had assigned the weapon had also told Aronoke its history. It had belonged to a hapless padawan who had fallen to his death in an elevator shaft.

“Tochar would be pleased that you chose his weapon, Padawan,” Master Gondramon had said. “He would not have wanted it to remain unused and forgotten in the vaults of the Temple. Be certain that you take time to meditate on the crystal before you use it – it is important to establish a strong connection through the Force. Tochar would not wish you to suffer a mishap due to your unfamiliarity with his lightsaber.”

Aronoke nodded and assured the quartermaster that he would take due care. Within himself he was confident – this was the second lightsaber he would wield that was not of his own creation. Master Caaldor had overseen his attunement to the previous weapon, and he was certain he would have no difficulties with this one.

Aronoke reached the elevator banks that led up to the landing bays maintained especially for the Jedi Temple’s use and thumbed the controls. Only the most important vessels, ships on missions of extreme importance to and from the Temple, docked up there. The Triphonese Griffon was awaiting the departure of the expedition to Zynaboon, and Aronoke was on his way to board it. Master Caaldor would be along later, having been detained by last minute discussions with the Jedi Council. Aronoke had to smile, thinking of the sour expression on his Master’s face as he told Aronoke to go ahead without him. Poor Master Caaldor had gone through a great deal of both danger and bureaucracy on his difficult padawan’s behalf, but it was the bureaucracy that seemed to irk him most.

“I assume I would be correct in addressing Padawan Aronoke,” said a voice, interrupting Aronoke’s stream of thought and making him jump. These days Aronoke was usually well aware of everyone in the immediate vicinity, a result of his sensitive Force senses, but he hadn’t noticed the stranger’s approach, distracted by the peaceful lull of the Jedi Temple and his own thoughts.

The person who addressed him was a Jedi Master of a race Aronoke had seen infrequently. He was very tall and slender with long arms and legs, although much of his unusual height could be accounted for by his extremely long and fragile neck. The pale hairless face seemed to be fixed in a permanent and somewhat inane smile.

“Excuse me, Master, I did not notice you there,” Aronoke said. “Yes, I am Padawan Aronoke.”

“Excellent, excellent indeed,” said the Jedi Master. “I have wished the opportunity to meet with you for quite some time, and my greatest desire has been to involve you in my research program – but unfortunately my requests were overlooked by the Jedi Council due to more important demands upon your time.”

Aronoke could not help but feel uneasy at the strange Master’s manner. He was not at all familiar with quermians – he thought that’s what the long-necked alien was – but this alien’s mood was unusually transparent. It was obvious he was annoyed with the Jedi Council. Aronoke was not sure what he should say, but was saved from deciding by the elevator’s arrival.

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke, “but I don’t have time for discussion right now. I’m about to leave on a mission, and expected on board ship immediately.”

“There is no need for delay or apprehension,” said the quermian comfortably, as they both stepped into the elevator. He had to duck his long neck to fit through the doorway. “I am also departing for Zynaboon. My name is Master Quor.”

Aronoke smiled frozenly.

“We shall have plenty of time for discussion during the voyage,” continued Master Quor cheerfully. “I was hoping there may even be time for me to undertake a little research along the way. Most of my experimental equipment is too bulky to bring on a journey of this nature, but I have brought several of the more portable pieces, certainly enough to make a studied preliminary examination of you.”

“Ah,” said Aronoke, feeling acutely uncomfortable. During his early days in the Temple, he had found the speed of the elevators disconcerting. Now he found himself wishing that this one would hurry up. “What sort of research?”

“You are a unique and valuable bioengineered specimen,” said Master Quor enthusiastically. “Really it is almost criminal of the Jedi Council, and certainly most repressive of my genetic studies, to withhold you in this way. I am an expert in the study of the biocron and suspected your relationship to it ever since the scans of your interesting tattoos were placed in my hands. Unfortunately the Jedi Council considered your removal from the Jedi Temple to be of greater importance than the uninterrupted continuation of my research.”

“I’m sorry, Master Quor,” said Aronoke. “There were more reasons than just my training that led to me being sent into the field early.”

“Yes, yes,” said Master Quor. “The attempts to manipulate you and so forth, but had you been made my Padawan, as I requested, you would have been kept safely free from harm in the scientific annexe where the majority of my work takes place. It is on Coruscant, but removed from the Temple and quite autonomous.”

“I see,” said Aronoke, swallowing firmly. He found himself very glad that the Jedi Council had not chosen Master Quor as his master.

“Do you?” said Master Quor. “I think you underestimate your own importance, Padawan Aronoke. As a bioengineered force-sensitive – a being created for a very specific purpose – your genetics doubtlessly hold major insight into the nature of the biocron. You may well be capable of manipulating that artefact in ways that no one else could. Dissecting these mysteries is the centrepiece of my research, and you are key to its success!”

Aronoke stood staring at him. His mouth had dropped open slightly. “Dissecting?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t believe a dissection of yourself to be necessary, though doubtlessly it would prove very interesting,” said Master Quor lightly. “The Jedi Council would certainly not condone it, and besides, you have far more potential as a living specimen. No, the most profitable approach would be an evaluation of your abilities and physical nature through sampling and experimentation.”

The skin on Aronoke’s back crawled.

“I don’t know if I can help you, Master Quor,” he said hastily. “My time is not my own. Master Caaldor has his own duties, and as his padawan it is my place to assist him.”

“Of course,” said Master Quor. “But a contribution need not take up much of your time.”

Just then the elevator reached its destination and the door slid open. Aronoke took refuge in exiting and strode off quickly towards the Griffon’s dock, but Master Quor matched his pace, keeping up easily with his long legs, continuing speaking without pausing to draw breath.

“A reproductive program, for example, would be very valuable indeed, and need not remove you from other duties! I’m certain that if you stated your willingness, that the Jedi Council would agree to an exception to the ridiculous exemption on reproduction insisted upon within the Order. You are physically a fine Chiss specimen, young, certainly, but mature enough to be capable of sexual reproduction – a virile and healthy adult.”

“I don’t think the exemption is ridiculous,” stammered Aronoke, stopping to stare at him, shocked. “It follows the precepts laid down by the Jedi Code.”

“Oh, it certainly can be recommended in regard to the vast majority of individuals,” said Master Quor heartily, his voice booming loudly along the hallway. “But in special cases such as yours, the scientific benefit of obtaining multiple genetic offshoots in the form of your offspring, preferably with a varied assortment of suitable force-sensitive partners, far outweighs the personal benefits of celibacy.”

Aronoke’s face burned. Despite his efforts to control his embarrassment, he was quite sure it had turned deep purple. He started again along the hallway, head down, attempting to hide his confusion.

“I believe there is even a force-sensitive Chiss female within the Order,” said Master Quor brightly. “Perhaps her assistance might be obtained.”

That could only be Master Bel’dor’ruch, Aronoke realised, nearly choking at the thought.

“What do you know about the biocron?” he asked hurriedly, hoping to distract Master Quor away from the topic of reproduction.

“I am willing to share what little technical data I have obtained,” said Master Quor eagerly, “although I imagine one of your limited education would have difficulty understanding it, due to its necessarily complex nature. In truth, although I have gathered what information I can, both through research and the reports of Masters such as Master Altus and Master Skeirim, the biocron inherently remains a mystery. What is obvious is that it is no ordinary artefact. It is immense! Powerful! Ancient! So ancient we have no idea who created it. Galaxy-spanning! Properly I should say “they”, since the biocron is plural – there are potentially dozens of biocrons spread across the galaxy, separate, but connected in a complex network that holds invaluable insight into the nature of all living things and their connection to the Force!”

Aronoke nodded. The boarding hatch of the ship was not far ahead of them, and with it, he hoped, there would come release from Master Quor’s solitary company and this extremely uncomfortable conversation.

“Your help could make all the difference to our understanding,” said Master Quor earnestly. “You, Padawan, have the power to change everything – to forge knowledge from ignorance – merely through your willingness to assist.”

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “I don’t like the idea of experiments.”

“Very few of them need be painful,” Master Quor hurried to assure him.

“I doubt there will be time on board the ship,” said Aronoke evasively. “I have a new lightsaber and it’s important that I spend spend considerable time attuning to it.”

“It need not take up much of your time.” Master Quor’s tone was almost wheedling. “For a beginning, I merely wish to speak with you, to ask you a few questions.”

Aronoke took a deep breath. He desperately wanted to say no. Master Quor made him acutely uncomfortable, with his open discussion of experiments, bioengineering and reproduction, but he knew that if he did so, he would be allowing his fear to control him.

“I suppose a few questions would be alright,” he forced himself to say.

“Excellent! Excellent!” chortled Master Quor. “I shall prepare my interrogation immediately!”

They had reached the hatch, and Aronoke and Master Quor were greeted by a member of the Jedi Corps who welcomed them both aboard. Aronoke was worried that Master Quor would follow him about the ship, in order to continue their conversation, but fortunately another Jedi, a tall wiry zabrak with a mottled face and stumpy horns, arrived just then.

“Master Quor and Padawan Aronoke,” he said smoothly. “I am Padawan Tolos, Master Temon’s padawan. Master Temon would like to speak with you on the bridge, Master Quor, at your earliest convenience.”

“Then I shall attend him at once,” said Master Quor, and he glided off, much to Aronoke’s relief.

“We haven’t met before,” said Tolos to Aronoke. “I hear you’ve had a rather interesting time of it. Shall I show you to your cabin?”

“Yes, thank you,” said Aronoke. At least he could hide from Master Quor in there.

“Let me take your bag,” said Tolos, picking it up from where Aronoke had set it down.

The Triphonese Griffon was a larger ship than any Aronoke had previously travelled on. It was easily ten times the size of the XL-327 and looked very new. It was crewed by Jedi Corps members, who seemed cheerful and competent in the execution of their duties. Tolos pointed out some of the features as they passed, and Aronoke was pleased to see that there was both a meditation chamber and a training room for practicing lightsaber combat.

“I’ve heard Master Quor takes some getting used to,” said Tolos sympathetically, as they walked along. “He’s not a typical Jedi, but supposedly very brilliant in his own way. Master Temon says the Jedi Council tolerates his eccentricities in light of his impressive research results.”

“He’s certainly rather direct,” said Aronoke. “He wants me to be part of his research program, and I really would rather not.”

“I can see that would be unsettling,” said Tolos, “but Master Quor is not your master, is he? You have no requirement to agree to his requests, unless your master says you should. I would not consider complying with the requests of another master without first consulting Master Temon.”

“That’s true,” said Aronoke, relaxing a little. “It’s just that his research does sound important.”

Tolos shrugged, unconvinced. “If it was that important, surely the Jedi Council would have sent you to him already,” he said easily. “But you should ask your Master’s opinion. If he thinks Master Quor’s work has merit, than perhaps going along with some of his suggestions will cause you no harm. Master Temon told me that although Master Quor’s manner is abrasive and peculiar, he’s still a Jedi. He said Master Quor’s actions are dictated by the path of the Jedi Code, even if his opinions are somewhat extreme.”

“I suppose so,” said Aronoke. He wondered what Master Altus thought of Master Quor – surely they knew each other, since they were both interested in the biocron. He had already noted Master Caaldor’s opinion of him.

“You seem to think a lot of Master Temon,” he ventured.

“Oh yes,” said Tolos rapturously. “He’s such a marvellous Jedi. He’s so in tune with the Force and he has an exemplary mission record, so we always get sent to interesting places, like Zynaboon. And then there’s this ship.”

“This is Master Temon’s ship?” asked Aronoke, impressed.

“Well it belongs to the Jedi Order of course,” said Tolos primly. “Jedi don’t have personal possessions – but it’s assigned to Master Temon, yes.”

Aronoke could not help but compare the Griffon to the XL-327. Master Caaldor’s ship had been small, old and dingy compared to this one. It did have its advantages though, Aronoke thought. It was more comfortable and private somehow, than this pristine new one, and would attract a good deal less attention. Also, the Jedi Council would keep very careful track of an asset like the Griffon, with its considerable crew.

“Where’s your master?” asked Tolos when they reached the door of Aronoke’s cabin.

“He’ll be arriving soon,” said Aronoke. “He was called away at the last minute by the Jedi Council.”

“Ouch,” said Tolos. “That will make his embarkation somewhat hurried, if we’re to keep to our departure window. I’ve never met Master Caaldor – he’s rather old isn’t he?” he asked.

“He’s not that old,” said Aronoke, defensively.

“Oh don’t get me wrong. Older Jedi Masters have a very important role to play in the Order. Who else would impart the most valuable wisdom to us? It’s just I’ve always felt glad that Master Temon is younger than most of the Jedi Masters who take new padawans,” said Tolos airily. “It’s nice to have a Master who spends a lot of time in the field and is so active in his habits.”

Aronoke was left with the impression that Tolos imagined Master Caaldor would limp in at the last moment before take off, out of breath and wheezing with the support of two walking sticks.

 

When Master Caaldor did arrive, it was very shortly before take-off, and he was immediately spirited away to the bridge to consult with the other Jedi Masters. Aronoke did not see him for several hours, by which time they were well on their way out of Coruscant, heading to the jump-off point that would lead them towards Zynaboon. Their course had been the subject of some debate, Aronoke found out later. Since Zynaboon was an Imperial world, approaching it in the most direct manner was best avoided. Aronoke didn’t fully understand the complexities of the spaceways yet – most probably he never would – but as far as he could tell, the Jedi had planned a sneaky back way in, which would be less likely to be detected. Once again, they were posing as Free Traders, although Aronoke had not been issued any disguise as yet, since he had been instructed to remain on board the ship.

“Do you think we’ll find him?” Hespenara asked, leaning on the table of the common room where the padawans had gathered, leaving their masters to their planning.

Aronoke nodded. “I think so,” he said confidently. In truth, he felt certain it was going to happen. He had not tried to locate Master Altus – he was awaiting their arrival on Zynaboon and Master Temon’s say so – but the connection between them felt like a blazing conduit in the Force, just waiting to be opened.

“I can understand that you’re concerned,” said Tolos. “I know how I would feel if anything happened to Master Temon. I’m glad he’s so competent at dealing with dangerous situations, so I’ve never had to worry.”

“What concerns me,” said Hespenara quietly, “is what they’ve done to him. I’m certain he’s alive. I think I’d know if he were not, but what if he’s not himself anymore? What if he’s… changed?”

“What do you mean?” asked Tolos. “Changed in what way?”

“We can expect him to have changed physically – to be held prisoner for such a long time would have ill effects on anyone,” said Hespenara. “But what worries me more is if he’s changed mentally. I mean… what if he’s not really himself any more?”

“Not Master Altus,” said Aronoke firmly. “He’s stronger than that. When I saw him in my vision, he was still himself. I was certain of that. He was in pain and battling with negative emotions, but I know he was winning.”

“You have visions?” asked Tolos, looking impressed.

Aronoke shrugged awkwardly. “That’s why I’m here – I saw where Master Altus was being held prisoner during a vision I had during my padawan exams.”

“That was quite some time ago,” said Hespenara.

“Try not to worry, Hespenara,” said Tolos kindly. “These fears can only lead to darkness of the spirit. Master Temon always says that we can not change what has already come to pass. The best we can do is to forge boldly ahead and do our best to help now. As Aronoke has said, Master Altus is powerful, both in the Force and in his faith, and he will have done his best not to fail either us or himself by succumbing to his enemies.”

“You’re right of course,” sighed Hespenara. “I know I shouldn’t let him down by letting my fears affect me. I just hate all this waiting.”

“There are things we can do to help pass the time,” suggested Aronoke. “I, for one, need to practice with my lightsaber, and so do you, Hespenara, since yours is new too. Maybe you would like to spar with me.”

“We can take turns,” said Tolos agreeably. “There’s also an advanced drone system on this ship that I’m sure you’d like to try out. Master Temon says it’s the best one he’s encountered.”

Hespenara did not seem particularly enthusiastic, but she allowed herself to be persuaded. Aronoke did his best to push aside his own fears – about Master Altus, about Master Quor, and about the biocron – and allowed himself to be distracted by the task of distracting Hespenara.

 

Tolos had been right about one thing – talking to the Jedi Council had worn Master Caaldor out. It had also not improved his mood. When asked about the meeting he grunted and said that Aronoke need not worry himself about it – it was only bureaucracy and more bureaucracy, layers upon layers, like frosting on a particularly unhealthy cake.

“They merely wished to be certain that their instructions will be obeyed to the letter,” he added grumpily. “If they wished me to act so inflexibly, they might as well have assigned a droid in my place.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke, dismayed. He remembered what Tolos had implied about older Jedi, and thought that Master Caaldor did seem particularly tired. Perhaps having a padawan as difficult as Aronoke was especially trying for someone of Master Caaldor’s advanced years. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“If there is, I’ll do it myself,” snapped Master Caaldor, giving Aronoke a shrewd look. “Is there something you specifically wish to discuss, Padawan? If not, I’m certain you can find something to keep yourself occupied with on a ship as well-equipped as this one.”

“It’s Master Quor.”

“Oh? Met him, have you? I thought he would have made himself known by now. And what did you think of him?”

Aronoke shuffled his feet. “He’s rather alarming,” he admitted, “and he seems very determined that I should be part of his experiments.”

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” asked Master Caaldor.

“I’d really rather not,” said Aronoke. “He seems completely obsessed with his research and not very Jedi-like in some ways. But he is obviously very clever, and his work does seem important, and it could possibly reveal something useful about the biocron or about me.”

“So what are you going to do?” asked Master Caaldor, regarding Aronoke astutely as he propped his feet up on his desk and leant back in his chair.

“I agreed to answer some of his questions, but nothing else as yet,” Aronoke said. “I wanted to ask your opinion of him before I decided anything else.”

“I concur with your opinion as you expressed it,” said Master Caaldor. “I think you are capable of handling Master Quor on your own, Padawan. If he harasses you beyond your capability to cope, then you may come to me again. Otherwise, proceed as you see fit. The matter is entirely in your hands.”

“Yes, Master.”

Aronoke found himself wishing that Master Caaldor would take control, rather than allow him responsibility for himself, yet he also felt glad that his Master allowed him such freedom. He knew that deciding for himself was important, that Master Altus would have asked the same sorts of questions. But sometimes being told what to do was more comfortable, because you didn’t have to take the blame if everything went wrong. Because it was easier to be convinced that you were doing the right thing.

Aronoke couldn’t help but wonder what Master Temon’s response would have been if Tolos asked him a similar question.

 

“Zynaboon!”

Master Temon’s gesture was grand, his arm flung wide to encompass the enormous viewscreen that curved seamlessly around the walls and ceiling of the bridge. The screen was filled with a clouded planet painted in myriad shades of blue. The three padawans were clumped together directly under the display, staring up at it in wonder.

“Is there any land at all?” Tolos asked, while Aronoke stood in awed silence. This world was the complete opposite of Kasthir. Knowing it was a water world, even seeing pictures, had not prepared him for the reality of seeing it splayed above him.

“No,” said Master Temon. “There are settlements built on platforms, but those only float on the surface. The planet consists almost entirely of water. Even the ocean floor is largely composed of ice, formed by immense pressure, tens of miles beneath the surface.”

Aronoke suppressed a shudder. From his vision he knew that Master Altus was being held prisoner somewhere right down on the ocean floor. The thought of travelling down there was alarming.

“You come from a desert planet, don’t you?” asked Master Temon kindly. “A place like Zynaboon must be very strange to you.”

“I didn’t even know such places existed before I came to the Jedi Temple,” Aronoke admitted, feeling beads of sweat break out upon his forehead.

“Well, there is no need to concern yourself,” said Master Temon. “We have brought equipment that can withstand the greatest pressure, including a submersible vehicle that can carry us down as far as we need to go. It will not seem very different from being in space.”

“Don’t worry, Aronoke, Master Temon is never wrong about these things,” added Tolos. “I’m sure we will be fine.”

Aronoke noticed Master Temon’s face tighten slightly, the first hint of any displeasure he had seen him display.

“Have you finished that laundry yet, Tolos?” he asked his padawan abruptly.

“Ah, no, not yet, Master.”

“Well you had best go and do that now,” said Master Tolos smartly, and Tolos made a respectful gesture and hurried from the room, looking chastened.

Master Temon turned smoothly back to Aronoke and Hespenara as if there had been no interruption. “You must excuse Tolos,” he said gently. “His confidence has always been somewhat lacking. He still has a lot to learn.”

“As we all do, Master Temon,” said Hespenara.

Aronoke could see why Tolos idolised his Master. Master Temon was difficult to fault. A dark-haired, handsome human, he was as tall as Aronoke himself. He seemed to be everything a Jedi should aspire to be: calm, competent, wise, a natural leader and strong in the Force. Aronoke had seen him practicing with his lightsaber, and knew that no matter how long he trained, he would never be as good as Master Temon.

“Did you train under Master Squegwash?” Master Temon had asked, when Aronoke took his turn in the practice chamber. “I think I recognise that technique.”

Aronoke blushed. “Not because I was an advanced student,” he said at once. “I never got past Level Five. Master Squegwash helped bring my skills up to scratch, because I was being sent out into the field early.”

“You’ve done very well to learn so much so quickly,” Master Temon said, “and at such an advanced age. I also trained under Master Squegwash and found him to be a very exacting teacher. I’m afraid I got on the wrong side of him more than once, but the training he gave me has always proven invaluable.”

Aronoke smiled. Master Temon was also likeable. Despite all his accomplishments, he was neither arrogant nor a show-off, which was just as well, since he had Tolos to do that for him. Aronoke knew Tolos’s bragging was a failing. The zabrak would need to overcome it if he were ever to become a fully fledged Jedi. Since Tolos was older than Hespenara and had been a padawan for many years already, he was running out of time. Aronoke recognised too, that Tolos’s hero-worship of his master was not so different from how he himself felt about Master Altus. Except he didn’t blab about it all the time.

“What happens next, Master Temon?” Hespenara asked now.

“We will choose a place to land,” said Master Temon. He turned to Aronoke. “Your senses may prove helpful in choosing our destination, Aronoke. Do you think you can sense anything of Master Altus’s location from here?”

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke, disconcerted. He had imagined being on the planet’s surface before making any attempt. “But I’m willing to try.”

“You must not overdo things,” said Master Temon firmly. “It is enough even if you only can tell that he is still on Zynaboon. If you are unable to locate him more precisely, or even at all, we will simply land and see what information we can find out from the Kroobnak. You will be able to try again later, so it is important that you do not overtax yourself at this early stage. I am under strict instructions from Master An-ku to bring you back safely.”

“Yes, Master Temon,” said Aronoke.

“Is there anything you require to make the attempt?”

“No,” said Aronoke. “Just a quiet place to sit. And someone to sit with me and watch over me.” He looked over at the green girl. “Will you do that, Hespenara?”

“Of course,” said Hespenara.

“Master Quor has some equipment that measures how Force-users connect to the Force, which has proven useful in assisting seers in the past,” said Master Temon. “I suggest, if it doesn’t bother you too much, that you allow him to run his scanners in the background. It will give him some data on your sensing abilities and allow us to detect if you are in danger of becoming overextended.”

“As long as Master Quor isn’t in the room,” said Aronoke. “I’m afraid I find him very distracting.” Despite his agreement to answer the quermian’s questions, Aronoke had found every excuse to avoid Master Quor thus far.

“I’m sure he can operate his equipment from the chamber next door,” assured Master Temon, smiling. “There need only be a few sensors placed upon your head.”

“Then I would be foolish to refuse,” said Aronoke, trying hard to smile back.

“You’re very young for such a responsibility,” said Master Temon understandingly. “Not in terms of your physical maturity, but in your experience as a Jedi. You need not worry, Aronoke. You are doing very well. Everything becomes easier in time, and given more practice you will find all those things that seem of such great concern now will become more bearable as you progress.”

“Even Master Quor?” asked Aronoke, smiling more convincingly.

“Master Quor makes many people feel uncomfortable, Padawan. But yes, even Master Quor.”

“Master Altus met regularly with Master Quor,” said Hespenara, smiling too. “But he always seemed glad when the meetings were over.”

Aronoke smiled properly, thinking of the green man, but sobered abruptly, remembering anew the purpose of their mission.

“I’m ready to try whenever you wish, Master Temon,” he said resolutely. “I expect the sooner I do it, the better for our mission.”

“I will have the chamber prepared,” replied Master Temon. “It should not take long.”

 

Aronoke felt very pretentious sitting in the centre of the chamber preparing for his attempt. He sat in a fancy reclining chair, a loose strap looped around him so there was no chance of falling out. Hespenara sat in a plainer chair, a comfortable distance away. Did all seers use special chairs, Aronoke wondered. It was strange to be acting in the official capacity of one. He suddenly felt helplessly out of his depth, unequal to the task ahead of him. I’ve never been trained, he thought nervously. What if I do it all completely wrong, and everyone can tell, because of Master Quor’s machines?

How does that matter, he chided himself in turn. No, I haven’t been trained, so it’s hardly my fault if I make mistakes.

This was for Master Altus. This was what he had wanted to do for so long, ever since he had been an initiate and first reached out to find his missing mentor. Distance means nothing, he reminded himself. Trust in the Force.

The Jedi Corps technician finished sticking the last sensor on Aronoke’s head and stepped back.

“All ready to go, Padawan,” he said cheerfully.

“Thank you, Baltus.”

“You’re comfortable with this, Aronoke?” asked Master Caaldor, stepping into view. “If you’re not, we can easily go about things another way.”

“I’m fine,” said Aronoke. “If I succeed, it will be quicker and safer than trying to find out the information by other means. If I fail, I can try again later.”

“Very well then,” said Master Caaldor. “But take your time and be careful. Remember you can stop any time you feel you need to.” He fixed Aronoke’s eyes sternly with his own for a moment, and Aronoke knew that his master was reminding him of the last time he had tried to sense a Jedi, and the near disastrous result.

“I will, Master,” said Aronoke. “I have all of you to watch over me this time. I’ll be fine.”

Master Caaldor nodded and left the room, closing the door behind him.

“Good luck,” said Hespenara.

Then everything was still and quiet. Hespenara’s eyes gently shut and her breathing slowed. Aronoke was grateful for the reassurance of her presence as he began his own meditative routine, struggling for calmness amidst all the excitement. He made himself relax, using the simple techniques he had been taught. Deep slow breaths. He visualised a peaceful safe place, where his mind could wander freely, and began a repetitive slow recital of the Jedi Code. He felt tension draining from his muscles like fluid. All his uncertainty left him, blowing away like loose sand in the wind. He was good at this. It was easy.

When Aronoke felt completely balanced, he fixed Master Altus in his mind. Not just the green man’s image, but the sound of his laugh, the shape of his smile, the tone of his voice. The puzzled expression in his eyes when Aronoke had first encountered him. His effortless use of the Force to enhance his speed and strength, to move objects with a casual gesture. His patience in teaching Aronoke the earliest Jedi principles. His sadness when he first saw Aronoke’s back. His kindness in bringing sweets for Aronoke’s clan mates. His willingness to eat strange tentacular food. His loyalty in keeping Aronoke’s secrets. And most importantly, those steady blue eyes boring into Aronoke’s own, demanding his surrender that day on the Kasthir sand.

With those things predominant in his mind, a cohesive memory of all the things that made Master Altus who he was, Aronoke reached out towards the great blue bulk of the planet, searching down in the deep dark water.

And was immediately drawn into a gentle green vortex.

It was not like he was sucked forcefully away. It was not especially frightening or overwhelming, but it was completely unlike anything Aronoke had ever experienced before. If anything, it was most like Kthoth Neesh’s overly familiar caress, imposing herself upon him in such a way that he did not care to resist.

That was not a very Jedi-like sensation. It was all wrong.

He made himself resist, but the vortex did not react. It was merely there, flowing inexorably around him, drawing him down to the surface with persistent gentle fingers, like Kthoth Neesh might, were they back in the Quebwoz jungle, alone and free from obligations…

Aronoke felt his body react, somewhat to his embarrassment. He lost focus, lost concentration, and was left sitting in his chair, uncertain of how much time had passed.

“Is everything well, Aronoke?” Master Temon’s voice spoke over the communications system.

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “I’m fine. I just lost focus. It’s…stranger than I expected.”

“Do you wish to stop now?”

“No, I’m just getting started. I would like to continue,” said Aronoke, glad that his robes were so concealing.

A pause.

“Very well, we accept your judgement.”

He closed his eyes, reaching for calmness, and was pleased to find it returned with little effort. His body relaxed, relinquishing itself to his control. Once again he fixed Master Altus in his mind and reached towards the ocean, more determinedly this time, attempting to ignore any outward influence.

Green tongues ran across his skin. Kthoth Neesh, Ashquash.One demandingly sought out his ear. Green hands ran their fingers through his hair and across his face, probing his mouth. Skin touched his skin, in forbidden places. Being flayed as a child, strapped to a bench naked. The Kasthir biocron from his vision. His lightsaber burning through a pirate’s body. The smell of burning flesh. All these sensations and memories weaved in and out of his mind, but Aronoke endeavoured to ignore them, seeking only one thing.

Master Altus? Master Altus, where are you?

He seemed to call, to search, for ages, confounded always by the backdrop of the surging green montage, so unJedi-like in nature.

Then finally a thready certainty came to him. It was not like his visions, not crisp and clear, but more like a static-blurred communications’ signal, faint but recognisable. Master Altus was there, very far away, very deep beneath the Zynaboon sea, and he was still alive.

But his exact location was impossible to discern, hopelessly buried by the green images and sensations that assaulted Aronoke’s mind.

Aronoke opened his eyes and pushed himself upright. His body felt stiff and cold, like he had been sitting still for a long time.

Nearby Hespenara stirred and looked over at him.

“Aronoke?”

“He’s still there, Hespenara, and he’s still alive!”

Hespenara looked profoundly relieved. “I knew he was,” she said.

Then the doors opened and the Jedi Corps technician hurried forward to free him from his chair.

 

“He was in some sort of hibernation trance,” Aronoke explained to the group of Jedi afterwards. They had insisted that he refresh himself first, which was just as well, since he had needed to visit the hygiene facilities rather desperately. “I couldn’t tell where he was, I’m afraid, not even what hemisphere of the planet. Only that he’s deep below the ocean somewhere, and that he’s still alive, but not conscious.”

There were more questions then. Master Quor had a plethora of them – how had the trance felt? Was it different than usual? In what way was it different? Aronoke tried to answer his questions calmly, but felt himself growing more tense with each one.

“I’m sure Aronoke can answer the remainder of your questions once he has had a chance to rest, Master Quor,” said Master Temon firmly.

“Of course, of course. But-”

“Besides, I am interested to see the results of your scans,” continued Master Temon smoothly. “Surely you have gathered enough data to begin a preliminary analysis?”

Master Quor was instantly distracted. “I will begin at once, Master Temon,” he said, and abruptly left the room.

“Get some rest, Padawan,” said Master Temon. “We will proceed to the planet’s surface and begin our investigations there. I daresay we will have need of your services again shortly.”

“Well done, Aronoke,” said Master Caaldor, and Aronoke knew he was not only talking about the information about Master Altus.

Then he was also gone, and Hespenara and Aronoke were left alone in the conference room. Aronoke felt uninclined to move immediately. He was exhausted, which was strange, since he had done nothing besides sit in a chair for the past twelve hours.

“It’s good news,” said Hespenara, still sounding nervous. “Jedi can hibernate to withstand situations that are too difficult to otherwise survive. To put themselves beyond the reach of their enemies. Master Altus spoke of such things to me once, but I have not learned enough to attempt it.”

“He will be alright,” said Aronoke firmly.

“Yes,” agreed Hespenara, but she did not sound convinced. She was sitting very stiffly, but then suddenly seemed to take stock of herself and rather forcibly relaxed.

“Thank you, Aronoke,” she said, smiling and taking his hand. “I know seeing isn’t easy – it comes at a price. Thank you for trying to help Master Altus.”

“How could I do anything else?”

 

The Triphonese Griffon made a hasty descent to the Zynaboon surface shortly after Aronoke’s revelation, spending as little time in the atmosphere as was safe. Aronoke did not pay much attention to the details, but there was much talk aboard ship of the Griffon’s shielding capabilities allowing it to make a faster than usual landfall. Or waterfall, in this case. Everyone was required to assume crash landing positions for the final impact, and Aronoke was glad that he was lying down in bed, for it was rather rough. Then there came a very odd sensation indeed – a swaying and rolling – and he realised that the ship was being moved about by water. Aronoke was glad that he didn’t suffer from any kind of travel-sickeness, because if he had, he was certain that the swaying motion would have made him very ill indeed. He wondered how awkward it would be to move about the ship, but his apprehension was needless. After a few minutes, the ship steadied as it sank deeper in the water where the motion was gentler and the ship’s stabilisers could control the movement more efficiently.

He turned over and went back to sleep.

He had slept perhaps a total of eight hours before he was awoken by a chime at his door.

“Yes?” he answered sleepily, thumbing the communicator.

“Padawan Aronoke?” came Master Quor’s resonant, enthusiastic voice. “If you have rested enough, I would like to meet with you in my laboratory. Some of the results from my scans are complete, and would benefit greatly if you could explain your experience from your own perspective.”

He sounded tentative, almost apologetic, and Aronoke felt almost sorry for him.

“Of course, Master,” he made himself say politely. “I will be there as soon as I’ve had breakfast.”

Master Quor’s laboratory was a small room, next to the chamber Aronoke had used for his sensing attempt. It was very clean and white, and there were many interesting machines mounted on the walls and on benches. Aronoke could detect more than one interesting source of Force power amongst them. It made sense, of course, that machines that measured fluctuations in the Force would have to be Force artefacts themselves.

“I’m very pleased you have come, Padawan,” said Master Quor, waving Aronoke to the only other chair in the room, a high, long-legged stool obviously designed for quermian use. “As you can see, these are the readings we took yesterday of your attempt to locate Master Altus.”

He gestured to a nigh incomprensible list of numbers displayed on a viewscreen. “If we examine the alpha and beta-wave components of your midi-chlorian activity- ” he gestured, and the mass of numbers was replaced by a bouncing, incomprehensible line, “-there is nothing unusual, but if we examine the remainder of the emission components, which we would usually consider background noise – a different picture emerges!”

Triumphantly Master Quor pushed some more buttons, and another graph appeared below the first. It was also a squiggly incomprehensible line. Aronoke could make nothing of it, save that it seemed very different from the first, a dense zigzag with occasional dramatic peaks of activity.

Master Quor waited expectantly.

“I’m sorry, Master Quor,” said Aronoke, “but I have had very little education in science. Perhaps you could explain what these graphs mean?”

Master Quor seemed pleased to be asked and launched into a convoluted explanation of the various units displayed on the axes and how they related to Aronoke’s use of the Force, but Aronoke was quickly lost in the complicated terminology. Master Quor came to the end of his explanation without Aronoke feeling he understood any better.

He shook his head. “But what do the graphs tell us?” he asked, bewildered.

“But it’s obvious, Padawan!” said Master Quor, looking as pained as he could with his perpetual grin. “This top graph demonstrates your use of the Force to achieve your desired goal – in this case to find Master Altus. You can see that the pattern of your Force usage is very similar to the blue line, which may be considered to be the standard, which suggests that you use the Force to sense things in a manner very like other Jedi do.”

“Okay.”

“There are two main things that are interesting about the second graph,” said Master Quor, staring at Aronoke with his round eyes and speaking slowly and carefully.

He must think me a particularly dull student, Aronoke thought.

“Firstly, this component of a Jedi’s Force use would typically be virtually non-existant. It is usually excluded because it is not significant and doing so reduces statistical error.”

“But this time it is significant?” Aronoke hazarded.

“Correct. The standard measurement is again the blue line in the background. As you can see, your line is far higher. Secondly, this line would usually be straight. If it showed any activity at all, it would follow the pattern of the first graph, although greatly smoothed. As you can see, your graph shows continuous rapid oscillation with occasional irregular event peaks. These rival the alpha and beta components in magnitude, and in some instances, exceed them. It demonstrates a completely different pattern.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke weakly, feeling lost again.

“This means you were involved in another, completely different interaction using the Force while you attempted to find Master Altus,” said Master Quor, solemnly. “It is not only separate – it is performed in an entirely different way. I believe this interaction originates from a source other than yourself, and this graph displays your reaction to it. Of course, the most obvious assumption is that it is the Zynaboon biocron, indicating that you most likely have a capacity to interact with all biocrons, not merely the one on Kasthir.”

The green montage, the strange sensations – Aronoke had assumed that they could only be a side-effect of his proximity to the biocron. Master Quor needed all these machines and graphs to determine that?

“Does it affect everyone that way, or only me?” he asked.

“A good question,” said Master Quor approvingly. His hands rattled over the controls, bringing up other, different graphs. “These are the results of scans I performed upon myself and Padawan Tolos this morning, while we performed simple sensing tasks. As you can see, neither of us demonstrate the peculiar effect you do. With your permission, Padawan, I would like to replicate these simple tests upon you. If you continue to demonstrate the same unusual patterns, we can assume it is most likely your unusual connection to the biocron that is responsible. Of course, to be absolutely certain, we would have to perform the same tests on you again in complete isolation of the biocron, if such a thing is even possible.”

“It would be the same sort of thing as yesterday?”

“Some sensors and a simple guessing game. It need not take long,” said Master Quor hopefully.

“Very well then,” said Aronoke, thinking that Master Quor wasn’t so bad when he wasn’t talking about reproduction or bioengineering. He didn’t completely understand the graphs or Master Quor’s explanations, but they did seem very interesting.

“Excellent! I’ll have the test chamber prepared at once! While the technicians make everything ready, perhaps you can relate, Padawan Aronoke, exactly how you felt and what physical sensations you experienced just before you woke up the first time, when you lost focus.”

He pointed to a particularly dramatic peak on the second graph.

Aronoke blushed fiercely, remembering what else had dramatically peaked just then.

‘We might not have to worry about being tempted to turn people into stone,’ said Josie. She held up the two halves of finely-made ivory wand that she had found in a drawer in the magician’s bedchamber. It had been a hidden drawer with a very cunningly hidden catch, and she felt very pleased that she had managed to find it. ‘Is this the one that turned you to stone, Tash?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash, looming up behind her in a comforting warm way. As she handed him the fragments, she could tell how nervous he was. ‘It could be,’ he said dubiously. ‘Or it could be another one. I did not get a very good look at it.’

‘Don’t worry, Tash,’ she said gently. ‘Nobody’s going to turn you back to stone.’

‘I know,’ said Tash.

How melancholy he sounds, Josie thought. She had become quite good at telling the moods of his strange unmusical voice. She supposed he must be thinking of the past, and all the horrid things that had happened to him. ‘I expect it is the one. If he could have turned me to stone and back again easily, I expect he would have, to save himself the trouble. This must have been important, to have been kept in such a well-hidden place, and we have not found any other wands.’

‘But we haven’t found the apples, either,’ Tash said. ‘So the most secret places of the magician are still secret. From us.’

Josie almost told him about the apples then, since he was so clearly ill at ease. But she paused too long thinking of what to say, and Tash turned away. ‘I am itching. I’m going to bathe.’

‘I wonder how it was broken,’ said Josie softly, putting the pieces of the wand back in the drawer.

 

Another improper habit Josie and Tash had gotten into was the habit of sitting at the side of each other’s baths and chatting. Josie had not complained the first time Tash had walked in on her bathing – after all, he was naked all the time, and did not seem to think anything of it – and it was another of those liberties which, once taken, cannot be easily taken back. So when Tash went to the great tiled pool that was heated by some artifice of the ifrits to soften his itchy thalarka skin, Josie followed, and sat on the edge of it dabbling her feet.

‘Are you thinking about Nera?’ she asked softly, after they had sat their silently together for a few minutes.

‘No. Yes. I don’t know,’ said Tash. There were splashings as he immersed himself further.

When Josie thought of it, it seemed that Tash had been out of sorts for a few days. Some sadness had gotten hold of him. God knew their future was uncertain enough that it was easy to get stuck in gloomy thoughts. Or maybe he was getting ill. He had been indoors a lot since winter began, with the air too dry from the fire making his skin itch, and there might well be any number of things in this world that disagreed with him.

‘Do you feel well?’ she asked him.

He sat up with a great sloshing of water. ‘I think so.’

Josie decided to change the subject. ‘It was good to get out yesterday. That dog was peculiar though, wasn’t it? If I didn’t know better, I would almost believe it was a talking dog.’

‘It didn’t talk,’ Tash observed.

‘Yes,’ said Josie, splashing a little water at Tash with her foot. ‘I know that. But it didn’t behave at all like the dogs usually do. It seemed like it wanted to tell us something. I thought for a moment it was going to lick my hand. It was close enough that I could feel its breath.’

They had gone outside the castle that day for the first time in a few weeks. It had been a day that was warm enough to give them hope that winter was turning to spring, and the stones along the river were entirely free of snow, while the rest of the forest had a slushy dishevelled appearance. Even though Tash had not caught a pig, and there had been little in the way of nuts to gather, they had been glad to get outside for a time. Then there had been the dog.

‘I just had the peculiar feeling it was trying to tell me something, but it didn’t know how,’ said Josie. ‘Maybe it isn’t from around here, and came into the valley from somewhere else.’

‘It looked like the other dogs,’ said Tash.

Josie supposed Tash was right, even as she splashed him again. Except for acting in such a strange way it had been exactly like all the other wild dogs in the valley, the ones that Zardeenah had said were descended from the men of Telmar who had been transformed by Aslan.

‘Do you think maybe it can think, like a regular talking animal, and is trapped without being able to talk? That would be terrible.’ She shuddered a little at the thought. ‘Maybe next time it will be there again, and we could figure out what it wants.’

Tash was vaguely drifting off again, Josie could tell, not paying any attention to what she was saying. It was probably just as well, she thought, since the dog was not turning out to be a cheering thing to talk about either.

‘Tash?’

He did not say anything in return, so she splashed him once again. This time, he responded by grabbing her ankle and pulling her irresistibly into the water.

‘Hey!’ she said, spluttering. ‘Why did you that?’ Beneath her feet she could feel Tash’s powerful legs, and her blouse floated up around her armpits.

‘I’m sorry, Josie’ said Tash meekly. ‘I don’t know.’

‘I was just trying to distract you,’ said Josie. ‘You seemed sad.’

‘I’m better now,’ promised Tash, unconvincingly. Josie began to clamber out of the bath.

‘Why don’t you bathe with me?’ asked Tash. ‘There is plenty of room.’

‘It wouldn’t be right,’ said Josie, sitting herself back on the edge.

‘Why?’ asked Tash.

‘Because, you are a boy, and I am a girl.’ She felt her cheeks warming.

‘It is strange for me to think of you as a girl, because you do not speak women’s language,’ said Tash. ‘You are simply Josie. You are not like the girls of the thalarka.’

‘You are not like the boys of my people, either,’ said Josie, truthfully.

‘Do you wonder,’ said Tash after a moment, in what seemed to Josie a plaintive way. ‘That maybe the speaking magic has got it wrong? All we know is that the word I say as ‘girl’ in my language does not fit me, but fits you, but maybe it is the other way around. Maybe we are both the same kind, or two of four kinds that are completely different, and the magic language has gotten confused.’

‘That-‘ said Josie, and paused. She did not know for sure that Tash had any of the particular attributes that she knew men to have. He did not seem to have any of the attributes that women had. Maybe he was right, and they were just two completely different sorts of creature, and it was ridiculous for her to feel the way she had been feeling. But short of asking Tash to describe himself, which she could not bring herself to do, she had no way of knowing. She pulled her knees up to her chest, since it was cold sitting around in soaking wet clothes. ‘Maybe you are right.’

‘I do not know, but it could be,’ said Tash. ‘You look cold. You should come in the water.’

Jose laughed. ‘My dunking seems to have cheered you up, anyways. No, I will go and get dry, and see about making tea.’

‘Yes, Josie,’ said Tash.

***

Tash watched Josie go, casting long distorted Josie shadows on the tiled floor. He wanted to be with her all the time, to see her and smell her and touch her, but he did not think it wise to tell her this. He hoped his friend was not displeased with him. He had not meant to be bothersome, and had told the truth when he said he did not know why he had been out of sorts. Things just seemed more irksome than they usually were. He found it hard to sit still, and the castle seemed close and stuffy: the trip outside the day before should have made this better, but it had only made it seem more like a cage when they were back in. If he had been you or me he would have thought that all the horrible things that had been done in the castle of Telmar, and all the foul magics, had seeped into the stone of the place and poisoned its sprit, and he would have been right: but Tash did not think this. For every acre of the world of the thalarka, where he had come from, had been filled with cruelty and evil magic for thousands of years.

‘Don’t be foolish, Tash,’ he told himself. ‘This is the best place you have ever been in, and there is no reason for it to change, so you should be happy.’

But there were other people on this world, he recalled, and this castle was a splendid thing to have. They needed to be ready to defend this place if anyone came to take it from them. To take it from Josie, Mistress of Telmar. He would feel better if they had found the wand for turning people into stone. Or something else that was powerful and magic. He did not like the dog that he had pretended not to be interested in. It was something new, coming when they had everything sorted out, and might be the first of other new things that would upset everything. If he saw the dog when Josie wasn’t looking, he would chase it away, he promised himself.

‘Maybe it is more foolish not to worry about things changing,’ Tash said to himself, letting himself sink back into the water, resolved to hold on to what he had with all that was in his power.

***

That night Tash held Josie close, and played with her hair with one hand, and rubbed her arm with another hand, sometimes up to the shoulder, and rubbed her leg with yet another hand, sometimes up to the top of her thigh. His hands did not do these things as if he were making love to her, but only every now and again, because he wanted to feel the Josieness of her and keep her close to him. But Josie felt herself warming all over, and swell in hidden places that she could not name, and she let herself be patted by Tash’s almost-human thalarka hands until she started to tremble, and then she suddenly twisted out of Tash’s embrace.

‘This won’t do, Tash,’ she said.

‘What?’ said Tash, not so very puzzled.

‘We should not be doing this.’

‘Because you are a girl and I am a boy?’ said Tash.

‘I don’t know if it would matter what we were,’ Josie sat up and smoothed out her nightdress. ‘We should not be doing this sort of thing at all, unless we were betrothed.’

‘Could we be that?’ asked Tash, hopefully.

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘You would have to be human, and I would have to be a good deal older.’

‘Oh,’ said Tash. This did not seem fair; but then, very little in the universe ever had.

‘I ought to sleep at a distance from you. There are enough blankets to keep us warm in this place.’

‘I will help you,’ said Tash, submitting to his fate. He got up uncomplainingly and began to help Josie set up another bed of blankets on the other side of the fireplace.

‘I will do what you say,’ said Tash, when a cosy bed of blankets had been made for Josie at the other side of the room. ‘But it is only because we are not that thing, and not because you wish me to go?’

‘Of course I don’t wish you to go,’ said Josie. ‘You are my true friend.’

‘Thank you,’ said Tash. ‘You are my true friend also.’

When they had said goodnight to each other again Tash settled back down, feeling reassured by Josie’s promise. He would go out the next day and try hunting again, he told himself, and bring back a pig for Josie, and they have as much roast pork as they could eat. He felt the warmth that Josie had left in the blankets and drew comfort from the animal smell of her, the smell that had once been so strange and was now so familiar.

Josie lay uneasily in her still cool new bed, feeling bad for pushing Tash away. The way he had accepted his rejection made her feel worse. She did not want to lord over him as Mistress of Telmar, but be his friend and companion on whatever strange adventures they were to have in this world.

‘Tash?’

‘Yes, Josie?’

‘There is something I have to tell you.’ She sat up again.

‘The apples – I know where they are,’ she said. ‘They are in the hidden chamber, preserved by the same magic that preserves the other things there. I saw them when we went down there.’

‘Oh,’ said Tash.

‘I hope you will forgive me, dear Tash. I was worried about telling, because, well, I suppose if I tell the truth I did not yet trust you entirely. But now I trust you entirely.’ And as she said these words she knew they were true.

‘It is good,’ said Tash. ‘The more secrets of this place we know, the stronger we will be.’

‘I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,’ said Josie.

‘It was right of you not to tell me until you were sure,’ said Tash.

‘Thank you, dear Tash,’ said Josie. She felt uncomfortably that Tash was just accepting whatever she did because she was Josie, Mistress of Telmar. And she still felt just as breathless and excited as she had when she had wriggled out of Tash’s arms. She lay as still as she could and tried to think of calming things that were not warm and strong and scented of jasmine.

‘Josie?’

‘Yes, Tash?’

‘I am glad that we will be together.’

‘Me too,’ said Josie.

‘I would not like ever to be apart from you.’

‘I would not like ever to be apart from you, either,’ said Josie, turning over.

I suppose this means that Tash and I are betrothed after a fashion, she thought, when she considered what they had just said to one another. It was a very awkward thought, but not an entirely unpleasant one. Holding it in her mind and considering it from different directions she eventually drifted off to sleep.

The next morning Josie’s foot was much better. She had always recovered quickly from cuts and scratches, and she seemed to recover even quicker in this new world. After breakfast she set out with Tash to find the lock that fit the ruby key.

Tash described each room as they came to it, led Josie to the more interesting bits, and looked at any shiny objects that attracted his attention, while Josie carefully felt over the walls, bookcases, chests, and anything else that might conceal a keyhole.

‘He would not want to keep it very far from himself,’ said Josie, feeling impatient and irritable after an hour of searching. ‘So we probably won’t have to go far.’

The hidden door was in fact in the magician’s bedchamber, whose walls were covered with a great deal of elaborately carved panelling. Some of them depicted scenes featuring the woman from the statue in the garden – at least, Josie expected it was the woman from the statue, from Tash’s description – vanquishing various enemies or gesturing grandly, and it was one of these scenes that hid the keyhole. It was the third time Josie had gone over that particular bit of panelling, and she was just about ready to give up and move on to the next room.

‘Imagine putting it just there,’ thought Josie, blushing. ‘What beasts those men of Telmar were.’ She did not call to Tash , who was in the next room clattering the glassware on the bookcases . For some reason she could not explain was already quite sure this was the keyhole that fit the key. Making a sour face, she put the key in and managed to turn it after a bit of wriggling about.

Josie tugged hard on the end of the key, and the whole panel, which went almost to the ceiling, swung open on silent hinges.

‘Here it is,’ she called to Tash.

There was a crash as Tash swept something fragile from the bookcase in his haste to join her, and a moment later he was at her side, peering through the open doorway. The air beyond the panel had the feel of a very large inside space, rather than a little room.

‘It is just a place for hanging garments,’ said Tash, disappointed. ‘There are some robes in bright colours, and some boxes on the floor- maybe there is something interesting in one of them.’ He crouched down and Josie could hear him rummaging in a space that was rather too small for him.

‘It feels like a large room,’ said Josie.

‘No, it isn’t – oh, you are right. Behind the curtain it goes on. There are stairs.’

‘May I?’ asked Josie, and limped past Tash. Sure enough, two sides of the little dressing room were proper stone walls, one was the panel they had swung aside, and the third was a stairway going down, behind a heavy damask curtain. Josie took a few steps down the stairs without thinking; when she did stop, and thought about what she was doing, she felt oddly like she was being pulled through some resistant substance. She felt that there was something fascinating down the stairs, something that she ached with a kind of homesickness to get to. At the same time there was a resistance, like she was trying to wade through waist-deep water, or walk against a strong wind; if she let her feet move idly of their own accord, it was hardly noticeable, but if she thought about taking a step, it made it nearly impossible to go forward.

‘Wait,’ said Tash. ‘It is dark. I will find a light.’

‘Alright,’ said Josie. But she did not end up waiting. She took one step, and then another, down the staircase, and when she heard Tash’s voice again it was quite a way above her.

‘Josie?’

‘Down here,’ said Josie. ‘It is safe.’ She was surprised how safe she felt. The feeling that she was pushing against something had gotten stronger and then abruptly stopped, replaced by a kind of cheerful crispness to the air. It did not smell any different from the air above, but she felt she could breathe more easily. It was as if there was a good magic down here, a good magic that was being held back by the wicked magic of the men of Telmar, and she had just moved into the atmosphere of the good magic from the atmosphere of the wicked magic.

‘Like I have just come out of a stuffy room, instead of going into a cellar,’ she thought.

Long before Tash had returned the wall on one side of Josie had dropped away, and she ran the fingers of her right hand lightly along a balustrade of stone. The stairs were curving gently around the edge of a round room that felt as big as a country hall- big enough to have dances in- and it was filled to the brim with what she was thinking of as good magic. She took a few deep breaths of it.

‘There is something powerful here,’ said Tash, reproaching her. ‘You should not have come alone.’ She could smell the smoke from the lamp he held.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. She took one of his hands. ‘But it feels like something powerful and good, doesn’t it?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash.

‘You have to admit it does seem dreadfully like a treasure chamber,’ said Josie.

They reached the bottom of the stairs, and Tash said there was something in the middle of the room, which was also where the sense of good magic felt strongest to Josie. It was a round dais big enough for a string quartet to play on, surrounded by something like an altar rail except in one place where there was a gap, with steps leading onto the dais.

Tash eagerly forged ahead, peering at things. ‘What are those? Armour for humans, I think. There’s something at the top of the steps, in the way. What is it?’

‘’It’s a wooden box,’ said Josie, feeling the curve of the unpolished wood. There was a lid on the box, but it did not fit snugly, and when she sniffed the air she could smell the unmistakeable scent of fresh apples.

‘Apples,’ she said, very softly. ‘There are apples in it.’

A sudden fear came over her. There might be good magic here, but she had never thought of what good magic would really be like. It was a terrible wild good magic, a magic that would think nothing of using her for some greater good, that would weigh her hopes and desires no more than the hopes and desires of a billion billion other beings. It would use her as its instrument until she was blunt and broken, she felt; she would have done good, far more good than she would ever have done on her own, but she would still be broken at the end of it.

Tash had clambered over the railing in another place while Josie examined the box and was exploring the dais. ‘There are two suits of armour, very shiny ones. Maybe one for both kinds of human? And here is a table with food and drink. It’s very strange, it seems perfectly good.’

‘Don’t touch it,’ said Josie.

‘I won’t,’ said Tash obediently. ‘Oh, and there are two shields here, with pictures of lions on them, and some swords. I can feel the magic, Josie; it’s a kind of magic that keeps things from decaying, I think, everything seems perfectly new even though it must have been down here a long time.’

‘Let’s go,’ said Josie.

‘And there is a – yes.’ Tash climbed back over the railing and joined Josie where she stood a few paces back from the dais.

‘What was in the box?’ he asked.

‘More food,’ said Josie. ‘Kept perfectly good by magic, like you found.’

‘Are you sure you want to go? There is so much, and we have not found the wand, or the apples.’

‘We can come back here any time,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘I think there is something wrong with the lamp, anyway.’

Even as she left, Josie felt the same homesick longing to remain in the hidden chamber, nearly as strong as the fear that drove her away from it. It was the same as when she had first heard the name of Aslan, the name she could still not bring herself to say aloud.

***

‘They didn’t seem at all the things the men of Telmar would have made, so I expect it is from when the Lion was here,’ Josie told Tash, when they were sitting comfortably upstairs again. Tash had not felt the magic of the treasure chamber as strongly as Josie, only enough to make the experience feel even more splendid and adventurous. Even the climb back, when the lamp had given out and Josie had had to guide him up the stairs, had been a great adventure. He had seen magic do so many terrible things in the past few days, and it was cheering to see magic used to do things that were beautiful and useful instead.

‘After he turned the people here into beasts, he must have left these things behind, with the good magic to preserve them. Until the next bit of his story.’ Josie looked very wise and regal as she said these things, Tash thought.

‘What use would a lion have for armour and weapons? And human sorts of food?’

‘Maybe the two suits of armour are for two heroes who are supposed to come here. And the food could be magic food that they are supposed to eat, or give to someone else. In the stories the gazelles told, the Lion would be there to explain it to them, so it would make sense. I don’t know much about this Lion, but if he did leave those things there I think we should leave them alone. Yustus seemed to have left them alone. I think he was probably afraid to touch them.’

Tash considered this. If this lion god was even a very little bit like the Overlord Varkarian, it would be foolish to meddle in his plans. That must be why Josie had wanted them to leave, before they could accidentally disturb anything.

‘You think it is dangerous,’ he said. ‘I think so too.’ He took one of her hands and rubbed it to show how much he agreed with her.

She nodded, ‘We can look there again, and maybe if we are in desperate trouble there is something there we can use, but I think we should leave that place alone.’ She retrieved her hand to do something with her hair. Tash watched admiringly as she arranged it away from her face and tied it back.

‘This is the first real sign of good magic that we have seen ourselves here, though,’ Josie said when she was done. A note of uncertainty came into her voice. ‘Maybe we should make plans to travel to this Prince Margis who the gazelles wanted me to see, who I was trying to get to before.’ She bit her lip. ‘But, he is supposed to be coming here. Maybe the gazelles were wrong, and I’m not meant to warn him away from this place, but meet him here.’

‘Then it would make sense for all the magic things to be here,’ agreed Tash.

Josie sighed. ‘You’d think, if we were part of a prophecy in a fairy tale, it would be explained to us so we knew what to do.’

‘Do you think I am part of the prophecy too?’ asked Tash hopefully.

‘I don’t know that is something to wish for,’ said Josie, smiling at Tash. ‘I get the feeling it is like being a tool – in a prophecy you are just an instrument for someone else to use, without caring how you feel about it.’

Tash bowed his head and drooped his arms, just a little. ‘That is what life is, I thought.’

‘Poor Tash,’ said Josie, taking one of his hands in two of hers.

‘I still wonder where those apples of immortality are,’ Tash wondered aloud.

‘Oh,’ Josie said slowly. ‘They’re around here somewhere. I’m sure we’ll find them. Now,’ she continued more briskly. ‘You were going to tell me your story.’

Tash supposed he could. She had told him all of her story, after all, and he would have to tell her about Nera sooner or later.

‘I was always told I was useless,’ Tash began, and recounted his story very much as you have read it here.

‘Oh, Tash,’ said Josie when he had finished, putting her arms around his neck. ‘It is too terrible. That poor girl. Don’t worry, it will be better now.’ And she kissed his beak again. Tash thought again how strangely pleasant she smelled.

***

The next few months were the nicest months of Tash’s life. The fresh food soon ran out, but there was plenty of stored food of the kind that keeps practically forever. Josie became quite good at cooking in the old-fashioned clay ovens in the kitchen of Telmar, and everything they had to eat was very much nicer than pickled grith. The air was too dry, but Tash could have hot baths every day, as often as he liked. They found early on a way down from the castle to the forest that only involved clearing a few brambles away and breaking through one rather poorly bricked-in doorway, so they could go down every now and again. Tash found he had a talent for hunting the black pigs that roamed in the forest, and the wild dogs learned to give them a wide berth; they gathered nuts and fruit and wild onions, and there was a deep pool downstream of the castle where they could catch delicious silvery fishes. On these trips they formed a fair idea of the place they were in. On three sides the valley where the castle lay was bounded by high country- not terribly high mountains, but tall enough to be dusted with snow long before the valley floor. On the fourth side it fell away downward in a tumbled way, with no very great obstacles as far as the limits of their expeditions, half-a-day’s Tash walk from the castle. The stream began in a waterfall some distance to the north of the castle, looped around it, and then a little way below the fishing pool descended steep rapids into a gorge. All of the valley was thickly overgrown with cypress trees, with no clearings of any size. The traces of whatever fields and roads the men of Telmar once had were entirely effaced by time.

Tash and Josie made these trips more seldom after the first snow fell, but then there was exploring of the castle to be done: it had been the living place of scores of the men of Telmar before they became so deplorably wicked, and although much of it was half ruined – roofless and overgrown with weeds – there were no end of intact halls and passages to explore, with secret underground passages and doors that had been locked for generations.

So Tash had an abundance of things to find out about, and felt himself to be abundantly useful in helping Josie, whose life he had saved: Josie, who trusted him with responsibilities, and shared all she had with him, and touched him kindly, and became more pleasing to his senses day by day, and never once said that he was completely and utterly useless. He did not complain that she did not want to visit the hidden room with the magic food and the suits of armour again, for she was after all Mistress of Telmar, and he felt joy in doing what she wanted.

 

It would not be quite true to say that these months were the nicest of Josie’s life. There had been many uncomplicated months of her life before her family’s troubles had begun, and even months afterward that had not seemed particularly noteworthy at the time, but in hindsight now seemed perfect, and she thought back on those as the happiest months of her life. She had of course at first been almost dizzy with joy at not being a prisoner of the wicked magician any more, with a horrible fate creeping closer day by day: but that sort of happiness never lasts as long as you think it will.

Josie had all she needed in the castle of Telmar. She was safe, and comfortable, and her memories of home had faded so that she hardly ever thought about Gerry, or her mother, and did not feel sad. She almost never quarrelled with Tash, who treated her with affection and respect, but she did not like keeping the secret of the apples from him. She knew in her bones that it would be wrong to use the apples, and she knew in her bones that Tash was different from her in this way, and did not have this same knowledge. Sometimes she would open the secret panel with the ruby key, but never went further than the first few steps, where she could just start to feel the call of the good magic. Josie had a nagging feeling of guilt that she was going down the wrong path and was somehow not doing something she was supposed to be doing.

Then there was the other matter with Tash. She had allowed herself liberties with him at the beginning that she would never have allowed from a boy, thinking of him as a kind of talking animal. And it was true, she supposed, that he was. But he was the only one of his kind of creature here, and she was the only one of her kind of creature, and when he touched her she had begun to feel so particularly a female sort of creature. He had first curled up around her to keep her warm, and to comfort her, and she had welcomed him. He would be terribly hurt if she were to insist that he stop now. But the habit of sleeping together was one that she knew had become wrong, as she became more aware of his maleness, and she often spent the nights in an agitated state, half enduring and half enjoying his embrace. Being blind, Josie had a very sensitive sense of touch, and her touch had been starved for the feel of living things: it felt so very good to touch someone, to be touched in return. So she had let Tash’s unknowing hands stray to places she would have driven a human boy’s hands from with furious blushes.

‘He is devoted to me in his way,’ Josie told herself, sternly. ‘He is as fine a friend as any I could ask for, and the only friend I have in this world. It would not be fair to push him away because of things that I feel, because I am confused. It is complicated, but life is complicated. It would be just as bad if a Prince had rescued me. Worse, because though he would know where the bounds of proper behaviour were, they might not be at all the same here as in Australia. And being a Prince he would probably be used to people doing whatever he wanted to regardless. And furthermore, he would expect me to be grateful – which I would be – and happy to be lorded over – which I wouldn’t, instead of being as accommodating as Tash is. I expect he would probably expect me to marry him straightaway, like in the fairy stories.’ These were the sort of things Josie told herself.

So Josie was troubled, but she let things keep on going the way they were going. Much more trouble is drifted into in such a way then ever results from people boldly charging in and doing something recklessly wicked.

There was no time for witty rejoinder after that – Aronoke was kept busy firing shot after shot into the whirling mass of drones as they swooped down towards them. Jark Tander was blazing away beside him. It would have been easier if he still had his lightsaber, but he only had a blaster, and Hespenara was weaponless.

“We’ve got to retreat!” yelled Jark Tander, as they were driven back by a cascade of blaster bolts. The drones’ blasters were not powerful, but so numerous that they posed a serious hazard. “If we get inside and close the hatch, we should be safe!”

“But what about Master Caaldor?” Aronoke shouted back. “If the drones can’t get to us, they might all attack him.”

“Sorry, son, but that might have to be his own lookout,” the free trader said. She swore as a blaster bolt singed along one arm. “We’ll all be cooked to crispy corellian fritters if we stay here!”

“Fall back,” said Hespenara. “I’ll see what I can do!”

“No!” protested Aronoke. “Not by yourself!” But the green girl shot him a confident smile and he found himself hesitating. Hespenara stepped forward, reaching out with her arm. She stood there a moment, calm and focussed despite the deluge of blaster fire passing closely around her. Then she swept her arm across, and several drones smashed sideways, crashing into others and sending them tumbling. Another gesture and more drones fell. Aronoke looked on enviously. He had never been very good at alteration, but Hespenara was obviously talented – perhaps not surprisingly, since she had trained under Master Altus.

But for every drone Hespenara smashed aside, another swarmed in to concentrate its fire on her.

“Get back,” Hespenara called urgently. “Get under cover. I can’t hold them much longer.”

Aronoke ducked through the hatch while a few more drones were flung aside, and then Hespenara was dodging through after him.

“That’s all I can manage for now,” she gasped, “but we’ve got to hold so Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz can get in here!”

“They’d better hurry,” snapped Jark Tander. The drones were swooping and diving, firing ever more accurate volleys through the opening.

“There they are!” Hespenara pointed at two figures cowering behind some trees on the riverbank opposite. Aronoke could see Tarric Gondroz’s strange long face and Kthoth Neesh’s pale one close together. “I don’t think the drones have spotted them yet, but there’s no way for them to get through!”

Beyond the drones, Aronoke could see Master Caaldor in the distance, his lightsaber flashing brilliantly.

“We could run a distraction,” Aronoke suggested.

“But what?” Hespenara stared at him blankly.

“I’ve got just the thing,” said Jark Tander, and she ran back into the depths of the cargo bay. “Be ready to help your friends inside.” There was a roar as an engine surged into life. Aronoke leapt hastily out of the way, as a squat, rugged hover vehicle surged past him and down the ramp. It was a platform, a converted cargo lifter, doubtlessly used for the hunting trips Jark Tander had mentioned.

“Cover me,” ordered Jark Tander, following it out a short distance. She held a remote control unit in her hands.

Aronoke followed her out, focussing on shooting more drones. He missed many more times than he hit, but the constant fire kept the spheres darting from side to side, interrupting their firing pattern. Every now and then Hespenara gestured and drones were swept sideways.

The hover platform shot down the ramp and along the river bank, and sure enough, more than half the drones wheeled to follow it.

“Quickly, now!” Hespenara yelled to the pair in the forest.

Still concentrating on shooting, Aronoke had the impression of Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz closing rapidly, slithering a little in the sticky mud, and then the narakite was by his side, taking the blaster and firing with a deft aim that Aronoke could not hope to emulate.

The hover-platform did not stop; it swerved wildly across the muddy riverbank, gathering speed, and careering towards where Master Caaldor was pursuing Bolar Dak around the bounty-hunter’s ship amidst a cloud of drones. The Jedi was trying to get in melee range, while the bounty hunter was frantically using his jump jets to stay at range, firing tremendous bolts of blaster energy all the while. If even one of those shots hit, Master Caaldor would be atomised, Aronoke thought nervously.

“Incoming from your one-eighty, Master Jedi,” yelled Jark Tander.

The platform careered straight at Master Caaldor from behind, and for a moment Aronoke thought he hadn’t heard, that it was going to barrel into him, but at the last instant, without even looking back, Master Caaldor leapt nimbly into the air and landed neatly atop the platform. As he was carried forward towards the bounty hunter, he made another impossibly agile leap, swinging his lightsaber, not at the huge blaster rifle, which Bolar Dak was desperately trying to swing around in time, but at the armoured figure’s other arm.

Bolar Dak crashed sideways, screaming, as Master Caaldor’s lightsaber sliced neatly through the control panel mounted on his left armoured cuff. An instant later, the drones stopped dead and began raining out of the sky, like overripe metallic fruit.

Aronoke didn’t see what happened to Bolar Dak then, because he was busy avoiding the falling drones, but when he looked back, the bounty hunter was lying motionless on the riverbank, and Master Caaldor was striding towards Jark Tander’s ship.

“Well, that distraction went better than I expected,” Jark Tander remarked. “Lucky you Jedi are all that everyone says you are.” She wrestled with the remote controller and the platform began to return to the ship, at a much steadier pace. “We’d best get out of here quickly though. Bolar Dak might have alerted his allies.”

A few minutes later, both the hover-platform and Master Caaldor were safely aboard, and Jark Tander was at the ship’s controls.

“You have my thanks for your timely interruption, Jark Tander,” said Master Caaldor, taking a seat in preparation for take-off. “That bounty hunter was surprisingly dexterous.”

“Anything to get this unexpected mess over with more quickly, Master Jedi,” growled Jark Tander, weighting the last two words accusingly, but Aronoke could see a gleam in her eyes that belied her sharp tone. “Full throttle for Coruscant?”

“Yes, please.”

 

Jark Tander’s ship, the Irrevocable Accolade, was not well equipped to handle passengers on intragalactic journeys. There were only a few cabins, and like on the XL-327, these had to be hurriedly converted from store-rooms to accommodate everyone. Conditions were crowded and hardly private.

Nevertheless, after coming out of hyperspace, during the long descent towards Coruscant, made slow by the sheer volume of traffic coming and going, Aronoke found himself sitting alone in the tiny dining area with Kthoth Neesh. Hespenara and Master Caaldor were meditating in their separate cabins, doubtlessly considering what they were going to say to the Jedi Council when they arrived, while Tarric Gondroz was in the cockpit with Jark Tander, watching the approach of the planet on the viewscreen.

“I never thought I’d be landing on Coruscant,” said Kthoth Neesh, swirling her protein shake around in its cup. “It’s not the sort of place narakites usually go, on account of Republic security being a bunch of anal gravity-wells with long memories.”

Aronoke laughed. “I don’t know if I’ll have time to show you around,” he said reluctantly. “It will depend on what the Jedi Council says. They might be annoyed with us for not doing what we were supposed to.”

“They can’t be too angry, can they?” asked Kthoth Neesh. “After all, you found Hespenara, saved her from being a garden ornament, and found out all that stuff about those other Jedi masters.”

“We also put ourselves out of communication, directly disobeyed instructions, and lost a ship,” Aronoke pointed out.

“Oh, well if you put it that way.”

“What are you planning on doing now?” Aronoke asked. He couldn’t imagine that the Jedi Council’s plans would extend to Kthoth Neesh, Jark Tander or Tarric Gondroz. At least, not beyond asking them a few questions.

“Well, I’m not planning on hanging around on Coruscant, that’s for certain,” said Kthoth Neesh easily. “Jark Tander’s agreed that Tarric Gondroz and I can tag along for awhile. Make ourselves useful. I guess I’ll see where that goes, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll probably go back to the narakite fleet.”

“Back to Captain Krondark?” asked Aronoke sceptically.

Kthoth Neesh made a rude noise. “Not after that skiving freakweasel went off and abandoned us like that. Not that I can’t understand why he did it, and not that I might not do the same thing myself in his position, but I’m not stupid enough to put my neck in the laser-guillotine a second time running.”

“Are you going to visit Ashquash while you’re here?” Aronoke asked. He was looking forward to seeing his ex-roommate again, but the situation between him and Kthoth Neesh made it more difficult. He had experienced that same attraction to Ashquash. It was very confusing, and should his obsession with Kthoth Neesh come to light, Aronoke didn’t know how he would go about explaining it to her.

Kthoth Neesh looked awkward too.

“I know you’ll probably think I’m an awful coward,” she said hesitantly, “but I think I won’t.”

“Why not?” asked Aronoke. “It would mean a lot to her.”

“I know,” sighed Kthoth Neesh. “But if I stay aboard ship there’s no need for me to pass through customs. I don’t think my papers would hold up well to inspection. And then…Ashquash is becoming a Jedi, like you. You aren’t even supposed to have family. Having me turn up now, is only going to confuse things. She might not want to see me.”

“I don’t know about that,” countered Aronoke. “Most Jedi know where they came from. Who their families are. It’s really hard, not having that to fall back on. It’s like you’re always hovering, with nothing beneath your feet. I think knowing she had a sister and who that sister was would be a great boon to her.”

“Mmm. Maybe. I’ll think about it,” said Kthoth Neesh evasively. She leant a little closer to Aronoke. “You know, being a Jedi isn’t really your only chance.”

Aronoke opened his mouth to protest, but she laid her small white hand on his chest, silencing him with a look.

“You shouldn’t automatically believe what they say. You’re not the same as all those other Jedi. You weren’t raised in the temple since you were a little kid. You’re different.Who knows what you can and can’t do?”

“I know I’m different, but-” Aronoke began, but Kthoth Neesh pushed him in gentle admonition.

“Just hear me out. There’s lots of other things you can try, and if you ever change your mind, decide that it isn’t what you want after all, or if, say, they kick you out for dragging your poor old Master into too much trouble, you should remember to look me up. You can always find word of me with the narakite fleet.”

She looked up at him earnestly as she spoke and her hand was toying with the lapel of his robe. “I’ll miss you,” she added in almost a whisper.

“I’ll miss you too,” Aronoke answered uncomfortably.

“I tell you one thing,” said Kthoth Neesh more mischievously, leaning close, looking up at him. Her face was no more than a foot away. Her hand stroked his chest gently through the fabric of his robe. “I wish that imperial scout hadn’t come back just then. Things were getting interesting.”

Aronoke flushed deeply. He picked up her hand and gently but firmly removed it.

“I know, I know,” Kthoth Neesh said, laughing, blushing herself. “I’m just teasing. But keep that image in mind, Padawan, should you find yourself looking for a new direction.”

It was an image that would return to him far too often for comfort, Aronoke thought, a source of many nights of sleepless meditation. It was just as well that he and Kthoth Neesh were to be separated. She was far too tempting.

“I have to do things this way, Kthoth Neesh,” Aronoke said. “I promised I would. I swore an oath. To Master Altus, who saved me from Kasthir. I promised I would try and follow the path of the Jedi Order, in exchange for taking me with him. If I break my word so easily, then I’m no better than Captain Krondark.”

“You were just a kid,” Kthoth Neesh snorted. “And you have given it a try, looks like to me.”

But Aronoke was shaking his head. He knew he hadn’t tried hard enough, that Master Altus would be disappointed if he did something as stupid as running off with Kthoth Neesh. Not to mention what Master Caaldor, who had put such trust in Aronoke and his visions, would think.

Kthoth Neesh sighed. “Well, keep it in mind, anyway,” she said, a little sadly.

“I will. I could hardly forget,” said Aronoke.

 

Two years spent on Coruscant hardly made it his homeworld, but to Aronoke, it felt like coming home. It all seemed so smugly familiar. Master Caaldor was not pleased to be back. Aronoke knew his Master had no fondness for the city planet, preferring less populated and bureaucratic environments. He felt he should dislike Coruscant too, by way of solidarity, but he could not bring himself to feel that way. He was looking forward to seeing the Jedi temple again, to meeting his clan mates once more, and Coruscant felt safer now than it ever had before. He was an old hand at navigating the crowds at the spaceport. He was used to the distracting flicker of the advertising holos, well-acquainted with the great diversity of sentient species who came to visit the seat of the Republic senate, and unperturbed by the swarming traffic and the vast depths that yawned between the immense monolithic buildings.

Armed additionally with the information that Master Skeirim was a traitor, Aronoke felt that his enemies weren’t as threatening anymore. Were no longer so mysterious. It made sense, didn’t it? Master Skeirim was interested in the biocron, Aronoke was connected to it in some strange way, and so Master Skeirim was almost certainly the one who had sought to manipulate Aronoke during his time in the Jedi Temple.

The only problem with this theory, tidy as it might be, was that Master Skeirim hadn’t been present when some of those things had been happening. He had been off betraying Master Altus and then pretending to look for him. Also, Master Skeirim had limited influence, whereas Aronoke’s harasser had demonstrated an ability to manipulate events that marked them as someone with considerable power.

Could it be that Master Skeirim was part of a conspiracy? Or were there several separate enemies that sought to use Aronoke for their own ends?

And what were those ends?

It was typical, Aronoke thought, that every answer only seemed to open up more questions.

 

The Jedi Council was intimidating enough when you had been obedient and obeyed all their instructions. It was more so now, Aronoke thought, as he followed Master Caaldor into the circle of Jedi Masters in the big council chamber deep within the Jedi Temple. It was the same room he had entered when he had been fresh off Kasthir, dressed in Master Altus’s old robes. The robes were still in Aronoke’s bag, carried safely through his various adventures, but too small for him now, at least in length.

Amongst the circle of Jedi Councillors, Aronoke could see faces that he recognised: Master An-ku, of course, with her fierce striped togrutan face and towering horn-tails. Master Rosfantar, who had rescued Aronoke, Draken and Ashquash from the heights of the Jedi Tower and had been nice enough to cover for them. Master Nethlemor, the overseer of examinations. Master Belor, who had argued that Aronoke should not be allowed another chance to become a Padawan. Master Kordu-molh the stuffy duros, and a handful of others with whom Aronoke had only had incidental contact with. The vast majority were unknown to him – a panoply of faces and races, both holographic and solid – but all regarded him and his Master with unpleasantly intense scrutiny. Aronoke swallowed his nervousness, squared his shoulders and did his best to remain calm. These were only Jedi, he told himself. They were nowhere near as scary as Careful Kras.

“Master Caaldor,” said Master An-ku, who was acting as chair, “and Padawan Aronoke. I am pleased to see you intact.” Her tone made it clear that this was something of a surprise. “Padawan Hespenara, I am glad indeed, as I’m certain we all are, to have you returned safely to us, after all that has befallen you.”

Aronoke almost smiled, remembering his first impression of the word befallen.

“I believe you have important news for us,” Master An-ku continued, her stony glare settling on Master Caaldor.

“Yes, Master An-ku,” said Master Caaldor, completely unconcerned by her displeasure. “Padawan Hespenara has information regarding the whereabouts of Master Altus, and the circumstances of his and her own disappearance.”

“Very well. However, I would like to begin with your own activities, and since this matter appears to concern your Padawan to a high degree, perhaps he would outline recent events to us. Please, Padawan Aronoke, tell us what has eventuated since you and Master Caaldor left the Jedi Temple, not so many weeks ago, on what was intended to be a journey to Illum to craft your lightsaber.”

Master An-ku’s glare remained on Master Caaldor a long moment before she switched her scowl to target Aronoke.

“Yes, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke uncomfortably. He had expected to stand at his master’s side, making the occasional observation when called upon to do so, but it seemed Master An-ku had other ideas. “Much of what we did has nothing to do with why we have returned so quickly now.”

Master An-ku made a dismissive gesture.

“Where should I start?” Aronoke asked, uncertainly.

“Start at the beginning, from when you left Coruscant,” she said.

“Yes, Master.”

Aronoke went through the story of his short career as a Padawan, stumbling a little at first, but quickly gaining momentum. He kept carefully away from personal topics, such as his attraction towards Kthoth Neesh, and attempted to put the best light on certain of Master Caaldor’s decisions, such as why they had chosen to not go to Illum, and why they had placed themselves out of contact of the Jedi Temple.

The Jedi Council dwelled annoyingly on the early, peaceful mission on Erebor-3, and Aronoke had to struggle with his patience while fielding their questions. He knew he should give this matter due attention, that the potential discovery of something that increased the chance of force-sensitivity was an important matter, but every minute he spent talking about Erebor-3 was another that Master Altus spent in captivity, and Master Skeirim’s perfidy went unchecked.

He was relieved when he was finally allowed to continue on to their more recent adventures, to Hespenara’s rescue, the encounter with the Sith, and their eventful escape from Quebwoz. But even now, the news Aronoke most wanted the Jedi Council to hear was delayed; Master An-ku carefully directed his narrative, confining him to events he had experienced himself. Finally, when he had finished, there was silence for a few moments, as the members of the Jedi Council digested the information he had related.

“You were promoted to Padawan and sent out of the Jedi temple early for your own protection and in order to continue your training with less disruption, is that not so, Aronoke?” Master An-ku asked.

“Yes, Master An-ku, and also to protect Ashquash.”

“It seems strange then, that Master Caaldor should suddenly choose to take you into a dangerous and unpredictable situation on Quebwoz,” commented Master An-ku.

“Master Caaldor didn’t choose by himself,” protested Aronoke. “He believed that I had been granted visions through the Force for a reason, and that ignoring those visions was just as dangerous as following up on them. He asked me what I wanted to do, and he held by my decision.”

He was surprised to see that some of the Jedi Councillors nodded when he said this, as if they agreed with Master Caaldor’s decision, while others, including Master An-ku, looked stern and disapproving.

“And do you think that was a wise course of action, Padawan?” she asked.

“How can I think otherwise, Master An-ku?” said Aronoke. “Hespenara is here because of that decision. The risks we took, the material possessions we lost, how can those compare to the value of her freedom?”

“Yes, we are all relieved that Hespenara has been returned to us,” said Master An-ku, “but the situation could have turned out far differently. As it is, you have lost a ship, a Jedi lost her life attempting to assist you, and you may well have caused diplomatic difficulties by breaking the Republic’s treaty with Quebwoz.”

“It’s not just Hespenara, herself, Master,” said Aronoke. “It’s the information she carries. We now know where Master Altus is being held captive, and also…”

“Yes, I will ask Padawan Hespenara to relate her own story, Padawan,” interrupted Master An-ku crisply, “but first I would like you to answer one last question: do you consider that Master Caaldor has shown adequate concern regarding your safety during your travels with him?”

“Yes, of course, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke stalwartly. “I would trust Master Caaldor to look out for me under any circumstances.”

“I see,” said Master An-ku. “Your loyalty to your Master is certainly commendable. I believe that is all we require of you at this time, Padawan Aronoke. You may go. Report to the medical bay and have your injuries seen to.”

Aronoke gave the Jedi Council a respectful half-bow, and was escorted outside by a formally-robed attendant.

 

It was difficult to retire quietly without knowing what further discussion was taking place, to go meekly to the chambers assigned for his and Master Caaldor’s use. The style of the guest chambers was familiar – Aronoke had often visited Master Altus and Hespenara while they stayed in the Jedi Temple. They were designed for habitation by a master and padawan and were not especially large, but they were comfortable, and Aronoke spent some time tweaking the settings to how he thought Master Caaldor would like them. Then he sent a message to the medical bay, obediently setting an appointment as per Master An-ku’s instructions.

That done, he forced himself shower and rest. He would have prefered to exercise, to help settle his mind, but his leg still ached dully. As he settled into one of his favourite meditative positions in his own chamber, Aronoke sighed. It would be difficult calm himself enough to reach a proper meditative state. His thoughts were in turmoil.

Aronoke knew Hespenara would tell the Jedi Council everything, that she was as determined to see Master Altus rescued as he was. Of course it was unlikely that the Jedi Council would decide that Aronoke should go and rescue him, but Hespenara was Master Altus’s padawan, so surely she would get to go along. It was her duty, after all.

Aronoke felt a sudden pang of jealousy, much like he had once before. It was not fair! Hespenara was Master Altus’s padawan, she got to travel with him everywhere, to learn from him, whereas Aronoke would never have that opportunity.

It was ridiculous to feel that way, he knew. Firstly, Master Altus himself would disapprove. Secondly, Hespenara was his friend, whom he had been so glad to rescue. Thirdly, Aronoke had his own master, to whom he owed a great deal. A master who had allowed him to pursue his visions, despite the trouble it might land them both in. A master whom he both liked and respected. To wish he had a different master was the worst sort of disloyalty.

It was not important, who got to rescue Master Altus. The Jedi Council would surely choose whoever was most suitable for the task. As long as he got rescued, and was returned safely, that was what mattered.

But they had failed before, and it was my vision, Aronoke thought doggedly. No one rescued Hespenara either, until I took matters into my own hands. Is that what the Force is trying to tell me? That I have to be part of all these events? Or am I just being stupid, wanting to rescue Master Altus myself, because I want to impress him? Because he rescued me?

But it was more than that, Aronoke knew. He could not do anything else, not where Master Altus was concerned. It was something that didn’t fit within the Jedi Code, friendship that went a step too far. Not an attraction, certainly not an obsession like Aronoke had felt towards Kthoth Neesh, but something deeper, emotional and intrinsic. A platonic dedication that Aronoke was helpless to oppose. Jedi Code or no Jedi Code, Aronoke knew that he would do anything in his power to help Master Altus.

Sighing again, he settled back to try to calm his mind, to cleanse it of his impatient anticipation of Master Caaldor’s arrival, hopefully with more news.

 

As it turned out, Master Caaldor had not yet arrived by the time Aronoke’s medical appointment came around, so he had to depart without learning anything new. It was with some impatience that he departed, striding quickly despite his limp, as if hurrying would make it over more quickly.

When he arrived in the medbay, he was met by D-2J399, the medical droid who had always overseen his medical treatment.

“Hello, D-2,” said Aronoke, pleased to see the familiar droid. He still did not like medical examinations, but the pang of unease was merely a discomfort, no longer a source of fear. He knew he would have felt differently if it had been a different droid.

“Greetings, Padawan Aronoke. It is a pleasure, as always, to administer to your health concerns. You will be glad to know that my data banks have recently been updated regarding medical treatment specific to your species.”

“Well, that’s good to know,” said Aronoke, bemused. “I’ll be in even better hands than before.”

“Strictly speaking, my grasping and manipulative appendages are not hands, Padawan Aronoke, but a discussion of structural terminology is not my primary goal at this juncture.”

“This won’t take long, will it, D-2?” Aronoke asked. “I’m in something of a hurry.”

“It is most likely that your assumption is correct, but the error margin of my estimate is considerably higher prior to complete scanning. My preliminary scans have detected that you suffer from extensive, if superficial, tissue damage, and some underlying structural injuries that are of greater concern. Please remove your garments and step in front of the scanner.”

Aronoke complied.

“The injury to your left patella and the underlying bone and muscular structures is more extensive than I initially estimated,” said the droid. “It is advisable that you undergo treatment in a kolto tank. As one is available, I advise that this should be performed immediately.”

“I didn’t think it was that bad,” said Aronoke evasively. He was still limping, but he thought his leg was getting better. Being sealed in a kolto tank meant he wouldn’t find out what the Jedi Council decided for days!

“The nature of the injury is such that without treatment, the probability of repetitive strains and subsequent weakening of the joint is as high as 38.57%,” intoned D-2 solemnly.

“Urgh,” said Aronoke. That did seem a considerable risk.

“You are also suffering from extensive contusions, abrasions and burns, which although minor and healing well, will almost certainly result in some scarring if treatment is withheld. Are you willing to undergo treatment?”

Aronoke hesitated. It seemed likely that the Jedi Council would take immediate action in regard to rescuing Master Altus. If, by some slender chance, Aronoke was a part of those plans, he might be left behind if he was in a kolto tank when the others left.

But if he didn’t take the treatment, they wouldn’t take him anyway, because he was still injured.

You’re being foolish, trying to second-guess everything, Aronoke told himself firmly. Just stop it.

“Alright, D-2, if you think it’s best,” he said reluctantly.

“Very well, Padawan Aronoke, I will have the tank prepared at once,” said D-2. “If you will go through the door on your right, we will prepare you for immersion.”

 

Waking up in the tiny green world of the kolto tank was not one of Aronoke’s favourite moments. There was a rising sense of panic at being submerged, held in check by a heavy lethargic calmness. It was like fighting an impossibly heavy green blanket with your arms tied. Then full consciousness came flooding back, with a decisive clarity that swept the feeling of helplessness away. When he opened his eyes he could see a distorted view of the chamber beyond the glass, with blurry figures moving in it. Someone tapped on the curved surface, and then a face was pressed closely against it. Aronoke could recognise Draken’s cheeky grin. Someone was with him, further back, a pale green-tinged blur that Aronoke’s Force senses immediately recognised as Ashquash. Knowing that they could see him far better than he could see them, he waved. There was more activity, and then Draken and Ashquash were gone, doubtlessly shooed from the room by a medical droid.

A few minutes later, Aronoke was dressed and striding out to meet them. He felt better all over, fresh, awake and ready to deal with anything. His knee felt good as new and his limp had vanished. He hadn’t realised how bad he had actually been feeling, how many of his injuries he had been controlling, until now, when they were gone.

“Aronoke! You’re looking so… grown up,” said Draken, bounding up to meet him. Ashquash was following at a distance, dignified and quiet. Her calm demeanour hid an inner turmoil that Aronoke could not help but detect, for it spilled out everywhere, through cracks in her control. Gladness, uncertainty, hope, fear…

“I hope that’s not a bad thing,” said Aronoke mildly.

“What happened to your hair?”

Aronoke ran a hand absently through his very short hair, still scarcely more than a finger-width high and patchy in places.

“I made a stupid mistake and got caught in an explosion,” Aronoke explained. “While we were rescuing Hespenara from the queb.”

“I can’t believe you actually got to go and rescue her!” exclaimed Draken enviously. “You’ve only been a padawan such a short time and already you’ve had more adventures than most people get to have in a whole life time!”

“It’s just the way things worked out,” said Aronoke.

“Where’s your lightsaber?” Draken looked about Aronoke comically, as if expecting the weapon to miraculously appear somewhere.

“I don’t have one at the moment,” Aronoke explained. “We ended up not going to Illum, because Master Caaldor thought it was too predictable, too likely to be anticipated by my mysterious enemies. I was using another one for a while, but I’m afraid I lost it in the explosion.”

“Lost it? Already? You don’t even have your own lightsaber and you’ve lost one already? That might be some sort of new record!”

“I’m pleased to see you, Aronoke,” said Ashquash with a flicker of good humour, pushing the irrepressible Draken aside. “We heard you were back, and wanted to come and see you earlier, but they put you in the kolto tank before we had a chance.”

She looked so small, Aronoke thought with relief. So young. It was like she was back to being his kid sister. Looking at her just now, with Kthoth Neesh fresh in his mind, he couldn’t imagine feeling the same way towards her as he had when he had left. And yet, she was there, demandingly present in the Force in a way that other people, even people he knew well, like Draken or Master Caaldor, were not.

“How are you doing, Ashquash?” he asked. “Have things been better since I left?”

She nodded, a little hesitantly. “At first, not so much, but now it’s getting better.”

“No more attacks?”

She shook her head, reluctantly.

“Kthoth Neesh came to see me yesterday,” she said, overtly changing the subject.

Draken stared at her, puzzled. “Kthoth Neesh?” he asked.

“She did? That’s great!” said Aronoke, surprised. “She said she didn’t know if she would. She was worried about her papers not getting her through Republic Security.”

“Kthoth Neesh?”

“The Jedi Council wanted to speak to her, to ask her some questions,” explained Ashquash. “About what happened when you found her. About what happened to her narakite friend who got pushed out an airlock. Since they brought her here anyway, and granted her an amnesty for her past actions, she asked to see me, and in consideration of the unusual way I left home, the Jedi Council agreed.” Ashquash paused, biting her lip, and for a few seconds the look in her eyes was intense, like she wanted to absorb as much of Aronoke as she could. “It was very strange to see her,” she admitted slowly. “Strange, but also good. I feel better about myself, more confident. Able to move on more easily and focus on becoming a Jedi.”

“Well, that’s good!” said Aronoke. “I’m glad she was brave enough to come and see you. She was worried about how you would react.”

“Brave enough to see me?” snorted Ashquash. “She’s as tough as wampa claws! I expect I would have turned out like that too, if I hadn’t been stolen away,” she added wistfully.

“You are like that,” put in Draken. “Kthoth Neesh?” he prompted hopefully.

“I was scared of you, when I first saw you,” admitted Aronoke, smiling. “I remember thinking I wasn’t going to let any kid, no matter how tough he was, push me around, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to manage.”

Ashquash smiled, enough so that it dimpled her face attractively.

“Master Skeirim told me there would be others like me, others who had come from unconventional situations to train at the Jedi Temple, but I didn’t believe him. Not until I met you.”

Aronoke’s heart fell at the mention of Master Skeirim. It was suddenly obvious that Master Skeirim’s defection could not be anything but acutely painful to Ashquash, even if its revelation was completely necessary. His face must have revealed something of these thoughts, because Ashquash’s smile was instantly erased to be replaced with uncertainty.

“What?” she asked urgently. “What’s the matter? Has something happened to Master Skeirim?”

“We found out something from Hespenara when we rescued her,” said Aronoke reluctantly. “She and Master Altus were meeting with Master Skeirim on Zynaboon when they were captured. They were all together when they were attacked by Imperials and were taken prisoner.”

Ashquash’s face went through several changes, flicking from worried to confused and back again in rapid succession.

“But… Master Skeirim wasn’t a prisoner,” she said slowly. “He was at the Jedi Temple no more than ten days ago. He’s been here often, since Master Altus disappeared.”

“I know,” said Aronoke heavily. “Master Skeirim wasn’t taken captive, and he didn’t report anything about what had happened either. He was even assigned to try to find the others afterwards, and never said a word to the Jedi Council about where they were. He made certain no one would find them.”

He didn’t voice his suspicion that Master Skeirim had played some part in drugging Ashquash, but the implication was there, hanging in the air between them, heavy and almost tangible.

“No!” cried Ashquash. “Not Master Skeirim. He wouldn’t do a thing like that! There must be some mistake!”

“I don’t think there can be,” said Aronoke grimly. “It fits together – he worked with Master Altus, they were both interested in the same things. Obviously there was some rivalry between them that no-one knew about. I’m sorry,” he said, more gently, reaching towards Ashquash’s shoulder to try to comfort her.

But Ashquash flinched away.

“I can’t believe it,” she said, vehemently, her eyes flashing. “Master Skeirim saved me from the slavers, brought me here to the temple! He’s a good Jedi. He can’t be a traitor! You’re wrong, Aronoke. It’s a lie!”

She ran from the room, nearly bowling over an orderly droid who was coming in to see what the disturbance was about.

“I’m sorry,” Aronoke apologised to the droid. “We didn’t mean to make so much noise. We’ll leave at once.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have told her,” he muttered to Draken as they strode out of the medical bay. “Should have left it to the Jedi Council to send someone to break it more gently.”

But the younger boy was shaking his head.

“It’s better this way,” he said wisely. “The truth is more important than hurt feelings. You’re her friend and her clanmate – she trusts you to not cover up unpleasant things just to protect her. She’s shocked and angry now, but not really at you. I expect she’ll come to see you again once she’s had time to think things through. I just hope she doesn’t decide to run away.”

“Draken,” said Aronoke solemnly, “you sound awfully like a Jedi.”

Draken clapped him chummily on the shoulder. “That’s because I am one, son, and don’t you forget it! Oh, and one more thing?”

“Yes?” Aronoke paused, expecting more insightful revelations into Ashquash’s reaction.

“Who in the nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine great constellations of Ribor is Kthoth Neesh?”

 

Master Caaldor was not in his quarters when Aronoke arrived back, and when he did return, several hours later, he looked tired and introspective. His face cleared when he spied Aronoke in the common area of their apartment.

“Ah, Padawan,” he said. “It’s good to see you up and about, and in good time, too. Everything back in the right place, I hope?”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “I feel much better. What’s happening?”

“Nothing,” grumbled Master Caaldor. “Nothing right now, besides endless discussion in regard to the information we brought back. You’d think our course of action would be obvious, but if there’s anything a committee is good for, it’s for finding endless ways around the obvious.”

He sounded frustrated.

“Master An-ku expressed a wish to see you as soon as possible,” he added. “You had best make an appointment with her immediately.”

“Yes, Master. They are going to go and rescue Master Altus, aren’t they?

“Oh, yes. Preparations are underway. The debate is mostly regarding the possible diplomatic repercussions of sending Jedi to a world controlled by the Sith Empire.” He regarded Aronoke with a slight frown, as if evaluating what he saw. “Tell me, Padawan, what are your wishes – do you wish to be a part of the rescue operation, or are you content to leave the matter in the hands of others?”

“I’ll do whatever you and the Jedi Council decide is best, Master,” replied Aronoke primly. He had resolved that he had to act obediently, since he couldn’t trust his judgement – not where Master Altus was concerned. He would adhere to the Jedi Council’s decision, no matter how painful it was.

“Yes, I’m sure you will,” said Master Caaldor, looking mildly amused, “but that’s not what I asked. If you were the one responsible for making the decision, what would you do?”

“I’d go myself,” said Aronoke promptly. “I know I can find him, especially now we know where to start looking. No one else has been able to, and there’s been plenty of time to try.”

“I thought you’d say that,” said Master Caaldor. “I’ve done my best to persuade the Jedi Council that your visions are of utmost importance in this affair – that you are an integral part of this stream of events, and interfering in your destiny is even more dangerous than letting things run their course.”

“Do you think they’ll listen, Master?”

“I don’t know,” said Master Caaldor. “Certainly if Master An-ku has her way, you’ll be taken out of my hands and locked back up in the Jedi Temple, padawan or no.”

“Surely not, Master,” Aronoke objected, but Master Caaldor’s eyes were fixed sternly upon him.

“I’m afraid so,” he sighed. “Hespenara has voiced Master Altus’s suspicions that you are connected intrinsically to the biocron on Kasthir, that the images on your back are a map to its location, and it seems that these theories are revelations to the Jedi Council as well as to us.”

“He didn’t tell them anything.” Aronoke was not surprised. He knew that Master Altus was dutiful, but he would not reveal secrets passed on to him personally, in confidence. Only Hespenara knew, because she worked so closely with him, and she had been part of the matter from the beginning. He remembered the green man’s aversion to paper work and his dislike for bureaucratic processes, things he had in common with Master Caaldor. He also remembered how Master Altus had encouraged him to keep the markings on his back secret.

“You should try to conquer your fear, of course, Aronoke, but I think you are right to be cautious.”

“I am?” said Aronoke, surprised. He had thought his fear about his back was a failing. Something to be ashamed of.

“Yes. I believe you should trust your instincts to keep those markings hidden. I think it might prove important.”

“I am not sure I always felt this way about them though, Master,” said Aronoke reluctantly. “When I was small…the first time…I did not even know they were there.”

“Nevertheless, your instincts are trying to protect you,” said Master Altus. “And while you should try not to be afraid, there is no harm in taking note of the warning they present to you.”

Master Altus had always treated the things Aronoke told him as secrets, not to be written down. It was one of the reasons why Aronoke trusted him so absolutely. Master Bel’dor’ruch had commented on Master Altus’s secrecy, Aronoke remembered, although at the time he had been too overwhelmed regarding the revelation of his back to pay it much heed.

“Your Master Altus recorded in his report that you were being provoked. His words indicate that he recognised that there was a reason for this happening and did not question that it was valid, but he did not see fit to record exactly what it might be.”

Aronoke could feel the heat rising in his face, a side-effect of the old shame and fear that were rising unbidden inside him, when he realised where this conversation was leading.

“Now Master Altus has disappeared as well,” said Master Bel’dor’ruch pointedly. “He has obviously met with a disaster great enough to overwhelm even one of his power and experience. I can’t help but think that these things are potentially related.”

Master Bel’dor’ruch had been right, Aronoke thought to himself. It was all related to the Biocron, and through it, to Aronoke himself. But surely…

“Master Bel’dor’ruch must have reported her findings to the Jedi Council,” Aronoke said, frowning. “She had those scans taken of my back. She said they might help find Master Altus.”

“Yes, they knew about your tattoos,” Master Caaldor said. “But not what the markings meant. There was some speculation, but no real answers. Not until now.”

“Hrm.”

It was an uncomfortable thing, to be the key to such an important artefact. It was almost as though Aronoke was an artefact himself, like the ones in the depths of the Jedi Archives, that Draken had wanted to sneak in and look at when they were both children.

“The Jedi Council are largely of two minds concerning your case,” Master Caaldor was continuing. “Some of them consider that you are too important to be risked out in the field – that you should be kept here in the Jedi Temple safely out of the hands of the Sith. Should the Sith capture you, there is little to prevent them from recovering the Biocron, and they will doubtlessly put it – and you – to unmentionable purposes.”

“And the other half?”

“They are more of my opinion,” said Master Caaldor, smiling. “They agree that you have a purpose in the wider galaxy and that the importance of allowing you an active role outweighs the risk. That is also why the debate is taking so long. But, even as the talking continues, an expedition is being prepared for the rescue attempt. An outright attack on a Sith-controlled world is inexcusable at this time, since we are ostensibly at peace, so it will by necessity be small and secretive. Master Temon has been placed in command, and he will be accompanied by his padawan, Tolos, and Hespenara. Master Quor, who is a researcher with a strong interest in the Biocron, will also be going.”

Aronoke knew neither Master Temon nor Master Quor, but from Master Caaldor’s tone he assumed that there was little rapport between him and the latter.

“And us?” he asked, trying not to feel too hopeful.

“That hasn’t been decided yet.”

“And Master Skeirim?” asked Aronoke. “What’s being done about him?”

“He is currently not in residence at the Jedi Temple,” said Master Caaldor. “He unfortunately left on assignment a short time before we arrived. He has been summoned back to Coruscant to account for his actions.”

Aronoke pulled a face. “It seems unlikely that he will come back voluntarily,” he said. “Surely he’ll make a run for it.”

“Perhaps,” said Master Caaldor, “but perhaps not. You have to remember, Aronoke, that he has followed the Jedi Code his whole life. He may have simply lost his way – one bad decision, one tenacious fear after another, mounting up to direct his course along a path he once would never have chosen. If there remains a great enough remnant of the Jedi he once was, then he will return to us, and otherwise – ” He shrugged grimly.

“He might go to the Sith?”

“He has almost certainly had dealings with them already,” Master Caaldor pointed out. “It is merely another step along an easier, if darker, way.”

“I hope he comes back, for Ashquash’s sake,” said Aronoke. “And yet – that might ultimately be more difficult for her.”

“If he returns, he will be offered a chance of redemption,” said Master Caaldor, “but he will never have sanctioned influence over Ashquash ever again. Of that you can be certain.”

“Good,” said Aronoke, with some relief. “I just hope she’s strong enough to cope with all this, on top of everything else that has happened to her.”

“Her mentors in the Jedi Temple will be alongside to guide her,” said Master Caaldor. “If she can bring herself to trust in the Force, she will make it through these difficulties.”

But Aronoke could not help but dwell upon the roiling emotions he had felt peeling off Ashquash, even before she had learned of Master Skeirim’s betrayal. What would happen to her if she didn’t have the strength to become a Jedi? At least, he thought, Kthoth Neesh had made the important first step of contacting her. If she wasn’t destined to become a Jedi, then the support of her family had to be the next best thing.

 

“You wished to see me, Master An-ku?”

Aronoke stood in Master An-ku’s office, which was an impressive circular marble chamber with shelves of datacubes and a long, narrow table in lieu of a desk. Imposing stone statues in white and rose-pink, symbolic featureless figures representing the Jedi and their role as peacekeepers in the galaxy, stood at intervals along the walls. An assortment of chairs, both comfortable and practical, completed the furnishings.

“Yes, Padawan Aronoke.” Master An-ku was sitting behind the table in a well-worn way, like she had been there a very long time. She looked tired, Aronoke thought, looking at her more closely. The colourful blue-and-orange stripes across her togrutan face disguised most of the crease-lines that crinkled the corners of her eyes and lined her mouth. Like Master Caaldor, she was older than she looked.

“Please be seated.” She gestured gracefully towards a chair on the opposite side of the long table, and Aronoke perched upon it obligingly.

“I am sure you are aware that Hespenara’s report has caused quite a stir, Padawan,” said Master An-ku heavily. “You have been the source of considerable discussion and dispute.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” Aronoke began, but Master An-ku held up a hand to stop him.

“No, you are not here to be admonished,” she said. “Your master is ultimately responsible for your actions in this matter, and his decisions on your behalf have garnered enough support in the Jedi Council to be approved, despite my own misgivings. You are fully aware of what Hespenara’s revelations mean, should Master Altus be correct?”

“I think so, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke steadily. “I’m supposedly connected to an important Force artefact, or collection of artefacts, known as the biocron. Since I am bioengineerd, it seems likely that I was created purposefully in connection to it, although how, why and by who are as yet unclear. The markings on my back are a map, probably leading to the fragment of the biocron located on Kasthir.”

“This makes you an obvious target for the Sith,” said Master An-ku. “And I believe they are already aware of your existence. It can be assumed that the Sith on Quebwoz was there with the sole intention of taking you prisoner. From what you have said, it is obvious that he wasn’t intending to kill you.”

“That’s true, Master,” said Aronoke.

“There has been considerable debate regarding whether or not you should be sent on the expedition to Zynaboon to recover Master Altus,” Master An-ku continued, and Aronoke’s heart leapt uncomfortably. “Your connection to Master Altus and your success in locating Hespenara makes you the best possible chance the rescue expedition has to find him quickly and recover him subtly.” Aronoke’s face must have betrayed his rising hope, for Master An-ku held up a restraining finger. “However,” she said firmly, “from your visions it also seems most likely that Master Altus is being held where the biocron is located. We have no idea what effect its close proximity may have upon you, or, for that matter, that you might have upon it.”

“I understand, Master An-ku,” said Aronoke, trying to stay calm.

“Nevertheless, it has been decided that you and Master Caaldor will be a part of this expedition,” said Master An-ku heavily, “should you be willing to go”.

Joy rose in Aronoke’s throat, threatening to bubble over into an exhilarated war whoop. It was all he could do to sit still and keep quiet. He couldn’t remember ever feeling so purely happy about anything. Leaving Kasthir had been a dream come true, but it had also been a voyage into the unknown, attendant with its own worries. Passing his exams to become a padawan had been a happy occasion, but he hadn’t wanted to leave the Jedi Temple so soon.

This outcome, he realised, was the only right one. It felt like destiny.

“You will accompany the expedition on one condition,” Master An-ku continued sternly, holding a restraining finger up at him again. “You will assist in attempting to locate Master Altus, but you will remain on board the ship unless Master Temon, who will be in command, instructs you otherwise. There can be no unauthorised escapades this time. Is that perfectly clear, Padawan?”

“Yes, Master An-ku, it is,” said Aronoke, his heart still soaring.

“I can see that there is no question of asking you if you wish to go or not,” said Master An-ku, sounding a little exasperated. “The answer is written all over you. Go and inform Master Caaldor that you are both to depart with the expedition when it leaves, as soon as preparations are complete. You are to draw a lightsaber from the reserves held by the weapons quartermaster, but if everything goes according to plan, you will have no need to use it.”

“Yes Master An-ku. Thank you.”

“There is no need to thank me, Padawan,” said Master An-ku, although her fierce face had softened a little in response to his cheerfulness. “If it was up to me, you would be kept here in the Jedi Temple, safe from harm, at least until we have learned more about the biocron and your role in respect to it. You may go.”

Aronoke stood and bowed formally before departing, but he found it impossible not to walk with a bounce in his step as he hurried back to his quarters, to share the good news with Master Caaldor.

Zynaboon at last! Even if he only got to stay on the ship, it was better than nothing. He would play a part in saving Master Altus, and possibly learn more about the biocron, that strange and powerful artefact that had exerted such an intrinsic effect upon his whole life without him ever knowing.

It sounded like a lifeboat smacking the surface of the sea, Josie thought. She picked herself painfully out of the thornbush where she had been none-too-gently knocked by the ifrits.

‘I’m alright,’ she told Tash, who was anxiously forging into the bush to help her. ‘Just a little scratched. That was well done. Very well done.’ She reached up to Tash, and he pulled her out of the bush and took her into his arms.

‘Thank you,’ said Josie, starting to tremble. It had been so close, but Tash had taken her hint, and she had managed to distract the magician and his minions long enough for him to get the magician’s rings. She was not exactly sure what had happened, but could guess well enough from Yustus’ screams and curses.

‘Are you sure you are alright?’ asked Tash uncertainly.

‘Yes,’ she said, clinging to him. ‘How about you? You are bleeding.’

‘I think it is the magician’s blood,’ said Tash. ‘Excuse me, I need to drink.’ Tash carried Josie to the edge of the stream, set her carefully down, had rather a long drink and washed his face, and picked her up again. She did not say anything during this time. She was scratched and bruised – she seemed to have stabbed one foot particularly badly on a broken bit of branch – but she was happier than she had ever been. There was a long way to go to get to anything that she would have called a safe, normal life before, but she was free of the magician, and her soul danced and sang. In the distance, a wild dog howled a signal to its fellows.

‘I don’t think the ifrits will stay in the castle long,’ said Josie, once Tash had picked her up again. ‘They’ll want to go back to wherever it is they came from. We should go there.’

‘The castle?’ said Tash.

‘Yes,’ said Josie again. ‘Thank you.’ She tightened her arms around Tash.

‘You said that already,’ said Tash.

‘I suppose I did,’ said Josie. She laughed. ‘If this were a fairy tale, I would kiss you now, and you would turn into a handsome prince.’

‘What is kiss?’ asked Tash.

Josie laughed again, and planted her lips on the side of Tash’s broad beak. ‘This.’ It should have been as unsatisfactory as kissing the keys of a piano, but in some curious way it was not. Tash’s beak was like ivory, yes, but warm ivory, and smelt of jasmine, and a trace of magician’s blood.

‘I do not seem to be turning into anything,’ said Tash.

‘I expect you have transformed enough already to last you a good long time,’ said Josie. ‘Besides, this is some kind of real life, and not a fairy story.’

They gave the corpse of the magician, already surrounded by snarling wild dogs, a wide berth. The sounds of the dogs feeding carried a long way.

Josie clung to her strange protector as he loped through trees and clambered over rocks. She was still happy, deliriously happy, but underneath she also felt sick. Yustus had been an evil man, but she had killed him, as surely as if she had dropped him a hundred feet herself. He would be alive if it were not for her. But he would also be alive, she told herself sternly, if Tash had not played his part, and if the ifrits had not exacted their revenge, and if Yustus had not behaved so abominably himself and planned such horrible things for her, and if the Lion had not drawn her into this strange world. They were all links in a chain. Still she felt sick: she could not get rid of the feeling that the magician’s blood was on her head.

‘The castle is up there,’ said Tash. ‘But we have come back to the bottom of the steep cliff. I will go around the bottom of it and see if there is a way up.’

‘I was thinking about that,’ said Josie. ‘Of course there has to be a better way in, since he would have left himself some way to get in and out without the ifrits. But it occurred to me that there might be all kinds of nasty traps that way. So maybe we would be better off climbing up the wall where we climbed down it, since we know that is safe.’

‘Um,’ said Tash. But he was willing enough to follow Josie’s advice.

It was a hard climb, and there were a couple of times when Josie’s heart went into her mouth, but at length they found themselves back in the garden. The wound in Josie’s foot was bad enough that she could only limp painfully about, but it was very nice to lie back on the soft grass in the sunshine. Tash prowled about the garden, exploring.

‘What does the statue in the middle of the fountain look like?’ asked Josie. ‘I could only reach the feet.’

‘It looks a bit like you,’ said Tash. He sounded very weary to Josie, and she was tempted to tell him to sit down and have a rest instead of prowling about. ‘But too tall, as tall as me. And carved as if she was all over jewels. She is holding the head of some animal.’

‘Oh,’ said Josie, rolling onto her front. ‘What sort of animal?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash, but he described it to her as looking rather like one of the statues in the garden, the one without the antlers, but with more shagginess to it.

‘It sounds like a lion,’ she said.

‘So that is what a lion looks like,’ said Tash.

‘There hasn’t been any sound of the ifrits at all,’ said Josie. ‘I suppose they must be gone.’

‘I hope so,’ said Tash.

A moment later, in that curious way people have of appearing when you mention them, Josie heard the first faint sounds of distant flapping.

‘Uh-oh, they are coming,’ she said, and then corrected herself, as the sounds resolved into those made by a single pair of wings. ‘One of them, anyway.’

‘Shall we hide?’ Tash asked.

‘Let us find out what it wants, if it is only one,’ said Josie. ‘I am sure you can fight it, and I am sure it cannot carry me away alone.’ It seemed to Josie that they were Zardeenah’s wings, and not those of any of her brothers, as the sound drew closer. She could not have described what the difference was, but she knew it was there. She stood up, and a moment later Tash was standing protectively at her side.

‘Miss Furness,’ called a voice from the sky.

‘Yes, Zardeenah?’ Josie called in return. Zardeenah was not landing, but was circling in the air above them, near enough that Josie could smell the burnt cinnamon fragrance of her hair.

‘We are in your debt, my brothers and I,’ called the ifrit.

‘Yes?’ said Josie, thinking wildly for a moment of three wishes and magic carpets.

‘My brothers think it will amply settle our debt if we leave you as Mistress of Telmar,’ said Zardeenah.

‘But,’ began Josie. She was going to say, ‘But I don’t want to be Mistress of Telmar, I want to go to- to-‘ but she did not really want to go to the place where the gazelles were sending her, to the strange foreign men with their lion god and their prophecies. And the ifrits could carry her, but what about Tash? There was no way they could take him.

‘Indeed, I told my brothers, she cannot rightly be called Mistress of Telmar if she does not have possession of its secrets.’

‘Uh-huh,’ said Josie.

‘She would not find it herself in a hundred years of searching, I told my brothers, despite her magic; but I know the place where it is kept.’

‘But-‘ Josie began again.

‘So this is yours, Mistress of Telmar, she who turns-stone-to-flesh,’ said Zardeenah, and let something drop. Tash almost, but not quite, caught it, and bent over to pick it up from the grass.

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘But I don’t want to be-‘

‘Our debt is finished,’ called Zardeenah from a height as she flew rapidly away.

‘-Mistress of Telmar,’ Josie replied, to empty air.

‘It is a very grand place,’ said Tash. ‘Nearly as grand as the Procurator’s Tower. Here.’ He handed Josie the thing Zardeenah had dropped – a key as long as a fountain pen, carved out of some very hard glassy stone, which was tied to a silken ribbon.

‘The key to the secret treasure chamber, I expect,’ she said, and slipped the ribbon around her neck. She gave a rueful smile.

‘I am sure of it,’ said Tash.

***

Tash liked the look of the red key around Josie’s neck. It made her look more queenly, more like the statue. Surely there would more jewels in this place, and then Josie could be bedecked properly as Mistress of Telmar.

The highest ambition anyone could imagine in the village Tash had come from was to rise high in the service of the Overlord – this had been the way of things for countless generations – so it is not surprising that the dream of not being useless that had come into his head was of rising high in the service of Josie, Mistress of Telmar. He rather liked the statue in the middle of the fountain: the expression on the woman’s face put him in mind of the exultant way Josie had looked, when he had pulled her out of the thorny bush. The severed lion’s head, on the other hand, bore an expression of idiot malice. He supposed whoever carved the head had put it there on purpose, but it certainly did not look like the expression of any kind of god. The woman looked much more like a god.

‘Now, I can go through over there,’ said Josie, pointing almost at the base of the tower. ‘There’s a door. But I think it is too small for you.’

‘Maybe over here,’ said Tash. He had seen already the barred gate that Josie had found impenetrable, and a flagged courtyard beyond it, and thought that he would try his new strength out on it.

It was not easy, but the bars did bend a little when he tugged hard on them, and when he figured out the right way to twist the gate came off its hinges. ‘It worked!’ he said triumphantly.

‘I heard,’ said Josie, smiling at him. She started walking toward the gate in a slow and painful way.

‘Do you want me to carry you?’ he asked.

‘You have carried me enough for now,’ she said. But she did not make any protest when he gathered her up. Beyond the flagged courtyard there were other courtyards, and then a broad flight of steps leading up to heavy double doors. Tash tried these, and they opened with a loud crack, and beyond them was a high-ceilinged stone hall, and after a few more doors and halls and turning they found themselves in the rooms that had belonged to Yustus.

You or I would be pleased enough to find ourselves in possession of the palace of a magician, filled with all the good things that can be provided by magic; but we know of such things through stories, and have some idea of the kind of things we might find. Tash had no idea. He had never imagined such comfortable rooms, or so many good things to eat. There were cushions to sit on that were softer than anything he had thought of, and mirrors where he could see himself outlined as sharply as if here were some other thalarka- very drab he looked in such richly furnished rooms, he thought – and pools of warm water set in smooth white stone where he could soothe his itchy skin, but most of all there was the food. There was every kind of food that the ifrits had fetched for the magician – fresh fruits, and cold roast meats, and honeyed pastries, and other things that Tash had never seen or thought of. Every one of them tasted nicer than pickled grith, and he gorged himself in a haze of joy.

Josie meanwhile had bandaged her foot, eaten more sparingly, and gone to search the rooms for a change of clothes. ‘I know there are clothes for me in the tower by the garden, but it is a long walk back there,’ she told Tash.

When Tash was full enough he looked around for jewels and ornaments, of which there were plenty. There were also plenty of things that were of no immediate use to Tash – probably of no use to him, ever – but which still grabbed his attention, for magicians’ rooms tend to be full of such things. There were vials of evil-smelling oils and spices, leather-bound books of strange ideographs and peculiar pictures, strange implements of glass and nasty-looking metal instruments; curiously shaped knives in polished boxes; other things that looked like they could be used for carving words into wood, or flesh; a fragment of something that reminded Tash uncomfortably of part of the device the old thalarka had used to command the Gnawers.

Josie reappeared in clean garments of a shimmery soft material. Instead of a single long black garment, she had a much shorter green one on top, and billowy yellow things that that clung to her legs underneath. The ruby key looked very splendid indeed, Tash thought, on top of the green cloth.

‘I found these jewels for you,’ said Tash. ‘You will look very splendid.’

Josie took the things he offered, and smiled, but did not put them on. ‘Thank you.’

‘Did you really use your magic to change me back from stone?’ Tash asked cautiously.

Josie grimaced. ‘I don’t think so. Not unless it is like you being stronger, and it is something that happened when I came here. I don’t feel magical at all.’

‘You could try with the other statues in the garden and find out,’ suggested Tash.

‘Hmm,’ said Josie. ‘Not right now, I think. Just in case it does work. If it works, and either of those beasts aren’t talking beasts, or talking beasts that don’t like us, it will be very complicated and unpleasant. And I was just enjoying it being not complicated or unpleasant.’

‘You are right,’ said Tash.

Josie sat down on one of the big cushions with a sigh of relief, and Tash realised that he was also very tired. In the excitement of exploring all the marvels of the palace he had quite forgotten how exhausted he was. He dragged the largest one he could find next to her and plopped himself down as well. It was curious how pleasant she was beginning to smell. He had found the strange animal smell of humans strong and unpleasant when he had fallen into Telmar – that was blood, he remembered with a shock, Nera’s blood – but the more he had carried Josie, or curled up around her, the nicer she had smelled to him.

‘We should find out what that key opens,’ said Tash.

‘Tomorrow,’ said Josie. ‘I don’t want to do anything that might cause more problems.’

‘What do you think it will open?’

‘Well, a door, or a chest, or something. We haven’t found the wand they used to turn you to stone, or the apples of immortality that the magician talked about, so I expect they will be behind whatever it opens.’

‘It would be useful to turn our enemies into stone. Also to be immortal,’ said Tash enthusiastically.

‘Silly, we can’t do those things,’ said Josie.

‘Why not?’ said Tash.

‘It wouldn’t be right,’ said Josie, in an explanation that wasn’t an explanation. ‘It wouldn’t be right for us to turn people to stone, and it wouldn’t be right for us to live forever.’

‘It wouldn’t be right for anything bad to happen to you,’ said Tash resolutely. ‘Ever again.’

Josie made one of those exasperated noises. ‘You’re very sweet, Tash. But like I said, I don’t want to do anything that might cause problems for the rest of the day. Or anything at all, really. Except maybe have some of those sweetmeats. Is there any of the Turkish delight left?’

‘Turkish delight?’

‘Little cubes of soft stuff, covered with powder.’

‘Yes, rather a lot.’ Tash got up helpfully and returned rather too hastily, giving Josie’s new clothes a solid dusting of white powder when the tray tipped sideways. ‘I am sorry,’ he said.

‘Oh, there is no need to be sorry,’ said Josie, laughing. ‘You saved my life. That gives you every right to cover me with powdered sugar if you want.’

‘Does it?’ Tash asked her. This seemed like a curious custom.

‘Well, no, not really,’ said Josie. ‘I just mean it would be ridiculous of me to complain about a little thing like that, after all the big things you have helped me with.’

Tash sat down next to Josie and together they ate rather a lot of Turkish delight. There were five or six different kinds, of different colours and flavours, some with different chewy lumps in them – ‘nuts’ Josie explained – and they were all ever so much nicer than pickled grith.

‘You saved my life too,’ he pointed out, between mouthfuls of rosewater-flavoured Turkish delight.

‘We don’t know for sure,’ said Josie. ‘It might just have been a coincidence. I certainly didn’t set out to turn you back from stone.’

‘You would have, if you had known,’ said Tash confidently.

‘Very well then,’ said Josie, and flicked powdered sugar at him with her fingers.

Tash and Josie let the fire die, and spread the floor with silken blankets to sleep on, since Josie did not want to go back to the tower where she had slept before, and neither of them wanted to sleep in the bedchamber of Yustus the magician, whose bones were at that moment being fought over by wild dogs. Without either of them saying anything they ended up sleeping much as they had the night before, with Tash curled up around an uncomplaining Josie.

‘Good night, Tash,’ she said.

‘Good night, Josie Miss Furness, Mistress of Telmar,’ he said.

‘Don’t be silly,’ she said, but he could tell she was pleased. He thought, for the hundredth time, that her hair was exactly the colour of fresh grith stalks before they started to turn grey.

 

Aronoke clung to Kthoth Neesh tightly as they zoomed between the dark trees. Branches occasionally whipped across his face, but that was better than the lashing he had gotten when Kthoth Neesh had tried to cross one of the open clearings. That had been a mistake. They had been forced to forge a path back towards the forest and had lost much of their lead.

“They’re gaining on us!” Aronoke’s words were whipped away uselessly, long before Kthoth Neesh could hear them, but she seemed to understand anyway. The angry insectile humming of the imperial speeders was louder now, clearly audible over the whine of their own bike’s engine. After Aronoke had inadvertently given their position away, the speeders had converged on them all too quickly. If only he could drive, Aronoke thought, they might have gotten away – he might have managed to fly completely in the dark with the assistance of his senses – but it had proved impossible for Kthoth Neesh to navigate the forest without the headlights and they had been followed. Even with the lights on, Aronoke wasn’t sure they would avoid crashing. He had shut his eyes tightly several times when they came too close to trees.

It was no surprise that their pursuers were gaining; they were trained Imperial scouts, while Kthoth Neesh’s experience was limited to a few occasions when she had visited planets and tried out the local transport. Narakites didn’t have much need to learn to pilot ground vehicles. Aronoke’s experience was more limited still, because the Fumers had never used bikes, so all he could do was cling to Kthoth Neesh and hope for the best.

It was strange, Aronoke thought, to be holding her closely so soon after the fiasco behind the log. He would have preferred to retreat far away from Kthoth Neesh, to come to terms with the strangeness of his overwhelming attraction to her, but necessity was a strong master.

He should be thinking about something else, he thought crossly, or at least, be working on regaining his equilibrium, but it was difficult when he was expecting they would crash at any moment.

Blaster fire had been whistling after them, but it didn’t seem like their pursuers were trying very seriously to shoot them. They were obviously supposed to be taken alive. Then suddenly there wasn’t any firing at all. Aronoke glanced back over his shoulder and saw one of the bikes was outdistancing the others. It drew steadily closer, flicking through the tree trunks with reckless expert ease. The rider must have amazing reflexes, Aronoke thought to himself. He had never seen anyone drive with such disregard for personal safety, not even Mill, but this person was taking insane risks and winning them time after time. Almost as if… of course, he realised with a pang of dread. It was the Sith.

“Drive faster!” Aronoke shouted in Kthoth Neesh’s ear, and the narakite girl stiffened tensely and bent further forward over the bike’s controls as if she was urging it onwards. The bike behind them swooped and zagged, drawing so close that Aronoke could see by the flashing headlights that its rider wore full body armour, black, ornate, and patterned in a distinctive style. It was definitely the Sith. Aronoke could see him casually steering one-handed while he reached for something at his waist. Could see his hand coming forward with a bright blaze of red as his lightsaber activated. Like a jouster, the Sith thundered after them and with a sudden sideways swoop, slashed at their speeder.

Much to his shame, Aronoke squealed in a most undignified way as he swung his leg up and out of the way, clutching even more tightly to Kthoth Neesh to avoid falling off. The speeder swerved alarmingly, sparks blazing off the rear panel, and she almost lost control. She hit the brakes hard as the bike slewed wildly from side to side, and the Sith shot past them, careering ahead into the forest. The other bikes were forced to go around them, to slow and curve back, but Kthoth Neesh heeled the bike over almost at right angles, pointed it at what looked like a solid wall of vegetation and pushed the accelerators full forward.

Aronoke ducked as some low-hanging branches nearly took off his head. One impacted against his back, where it was deflected by the thick swimsuit material, while a stick scratched painfully across his face, just below one eye. The speeder hurtled unstoppably onwards crashing through the bushes. They were angling downwards now, through stringy saplings and scraggly foliage, until the speeder suddenly shot out over water, trailing a mess of broken vines behind it.

The river!

Aronoke hadn’t been certain the speeder would even hover over water, but this model was apparently capable. He looked back over his shoulder, but he could see no one following. The density of the undergrowth had slowed pursuit for the moment. He glanced quickly upstream and downstream, but he couldn’t see very far in either direction. The river curved sharply here and the vegetation on the banks was dense and obscuring. If they hurried they might get out of sight before their pursuers could see which way they went. But which way should they go? Aronoke thought the ship lay downstream somewhere – they had travelled very quickly and had surely come further upriver than they had walked, but heading straight towards it might give their hiding place away. Upstream only led further from safety, and Aronoke doubted that Kthoth Neesh would be able to outmanoeuvre the more experienced scouts for long. Or they could abandon the bike and…

“Quick!” he shouted in Kthoth Neesh’s ear. “Stop! Deactivate the hover-thrusters.”

“But we’ll sink!” the narakite yelled unthinkingly, and then she staightened in comprehension. She braked so hard that Aronoke nearly shot over her head; was crushed up against her back, only barely resisting being flung off. The bike bobbed alarmingly over the water. It took a moment for Kthoth Neesh to find the controls and then quite suddenly the bike dropped in the water and began to sink, taking them both with it.

Aronoke felt a pang of dread as the water closed over his head and had to will himself to be calm as he kept hold of Kthoth Neesh with one hand while he fumbled in his swimsuit pocket for his breather with the other. If it wasn’t there, if it had somehow fallen out, then he was sure to be caught. Aronoke remembered Master Caaldor’s directions all too clearly. Don’t take any risks. Better to fail than to fall into the hands of the Sith. But then his fingers closed on the familiar wedge of the breather and he pushed it into his mouth, remembering to breathe out first to expel any liquid that might have gotten into it.

With any luck, Aronoke thought, the current should bring them straight back to Master Caaldor and the others. As he drifted, holding tightly to Kthoth Neesh’s hand, Aronoke concentrated hard on trying to dampen his thoughts and his connection to the Force, trying to hide their presence. It was difficult, because he had to keep one tiny tendril of his Senses open, feeling through the water for the vast bulk of the ship and Master Caaldor’s presence.

No sign of the ship, no sign of Master Caaldor’s familiar calmness. Surely they hadn’t come so far upstream as all that. Aronoke could sense a sudden spike of intense Force-driven rage from nearby. The Sith had lost them, he realised in relief, and had probably used the Force to do something nasty to one of his underlings. He wouldn’t like to be one of those speeder bike scouts right now.

They drifted for ten minutes and then ten minutes more, and Aronoke began to grow worried that they hadn’t been upstream of the ship at all. That they were drifting further and further away from safety with every passing moment. Maybe he had missed the ship in all this sludgy water. Or, worse still, maybe this wasn’t the right river. Aronoke allowed his senses a little more freedom, letting them probe out further, and was relieved to detect a familiar, if somewhat muted presence on the riverbank. Aronoke tugged at Kthoth Neesh’s hand and began to swim for the shore.

“What are you doing here?” Aronoke asked Hespenara as he staggered out onto the muddy bank. Behind him, Kthoth Neesh spat out her breather and let loose a deluge of curses as she examined something clinging to her leg.

“Leeches!” she said in disgust.

“I came to find you!” said Hespenara. “I was feeling better, and you’d been gone such a long time. Master Caaldor thought it best that I try and locate you, since he was worried you couldn’t find your way back, but I met a rather unpleasant creature while I was trying to get out of the river. I’m afraid it took me a while to deal with that.”

“The giant river worm?” asked Aronoke, and the green girl nodded.

“We met it too.”

“We’d better get back to the ship,” said Kthoth Neesh, still plucking at slimy things attached to her swimsuit, real and imaginary. “Wouldn’t be surprised if those speeders are still looking for us.”

“I can see you have a story to tell,” said Hespenara. “Let’s get under cover. You look all done in.”

 

“Padawan. I’m glad to see you’ve returned safely.” Master Caaldor looked remote, as if he was trying to see something far off in deep space, and Aronoke thought that his Master couldn’t continue shielding them for very much longer.

Aronoke, Hespenara and Kthoth Neesh had cleaned up and changed out of their wet garments. Aronoke had been glad to retreat into the depths of his Jedi robes. They felt safer than the tight-fitting swimsuit and helped conceal the collection of minor injuries this latest escapade had earned him. Yet, despite his weariness and the deterioration of his limp, all the scrapes and scratches didn’t weigh him down as heavily as his disappointment in himself.

“I take it things did not go as smoothly as we hoped,” Master Caaldor said, giving Aronoke a scrutinising look. Aronoke tried hard not to flush, wondering if his Master had detected the terrible surge in the Force that had attracted the Sith. Probably not, Aronoke deduced. Master Caaldor had been busy shielding the ship and was not particularly good at sensing things. He was probably just noting Aronoke’s grim expression.

Should he tell his Master what had happened? Almost certainly. But would he? No. Not now. Not with Kthoth Neesh and Hespenara here listening. It was far too embarrassing. He took refuge in starting his report instead.

“We managed to avoid being detected until after we set the beacon,” Aronoke said. “There were imperial speeders out looking for us, but it was very easy to hide from them. It took longer to get to the hill than I thought, because the terrain was very difficult, but once we got there, that part went quite well. But the beacon only signalled for a about a minute before someone blew it up. I don’t know that it was really signalling enough to do any good.”

“There may still be a response,” Master Caaldor said reassuringly. “The signal contained coded data as to our location. If it was detected by any Jedi anywhere, merely once, they will know where to find us. The beacon does not need to continue being active for them to do so.”

“So you encountered trouble on the way back?” Hespenara asked, and Aronoke couldn’t help but look at Kthoth Neesh. She looked back at him expressionlessly and shrugged.

“It was always going to be the rough part,” she said wearily. “Once we set up the beacon they knew exactly where to find us, of course. We got out of there quickly, but they were closer on our trail than before.”

Aronoke heaved an internal sigh of relief. He hadn’t really thought that Kthoth Neesh would reveal what had happened, but he was still glad she hadn’t said anything. I have too many secrets, he thought glumly, thinking of the map on his back. I don’t really need another one. In the end though, he realised, all his secrets came from one source, which at least was something Master Caaldor already knew about. But he still knew, deep down, that his Master should be told about what had happened between him and Kthoth Neesh – about what kept happening.

“And then?” asked Master Caaldor, and Aronoke realised that they were all looking at him, waiting for him to continue as he stood there, caught up in reverie.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m tired.” He forced himself to breathe, slowly, deeply, and drew upon the Force to make himself calmer. To override aches and pains to allow him to concentrate better. As his heart rate steadied and his muscles began to relax, the right words came into Aronoke’s mind.

“On the way back, we were seen by a scout,” he said. “At first we hid and he went away, but he came back again after a few minutes and began looking around carefully, like he knew we were somewhere nearby. I think the Sith must have detected us.”

“Oh?” said Hespenara. “That’s surprising. Most Jedi, and Sith too I expect, wouldn’t be able to detect someone easily amidst all that jungle, unless you were doing something very overt and powerful.”

“Our Sith could possess a talent for sensing,” observed Master Caaldor, staring at Aronoke thoughtfully.

“Maybe we made some noise and the scout heard, I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “Maybe he saw our tracks. It just seemed like he came back so suddenly, I thought it must be the Sith. We managed to get the drop on the scout, but not before he gave the alarm. We took his bike.”

“Then it was like we’d shot at their capital ship or something,” Kthoth Neesh interjected smoothly. “Suddenly there were speeders everywhere, chasing us. I tried to head upriver, but they caught up quickly. I’m not very good with speeders.”

“Most likely they had some sort of tracer on the bike,” said Hespenara.

“Possibly,” Kthoth Neesh replied. “But they didn’t seem to be able to trace it when we dumped it in the river.”

Aronoke listened to her tell the rest of the story. They had been very lucky to get away, he realised, and yet, the danger had not completely passed. The Sith might still trace them along the river, if he realised they had disappeared into it. He would doubtlessly be watching and scanning it much more closely than before.

“I suppose now we have to wait,” Hespenara sighed.

“For a time,” said Master Caaldor mildly. “There’s a limit to how long I can maintain our shielding. Hopefully the Sith will lose patience with the search before then.”

“So we do nothing?” asked Aronoke.

“Eat. Drink. Rest,” said Master Caaldor. “If nothing has happened after twenty-four hours, then we’ll have to work out another plan, but until then, we are best off conserving our energy.”

 

In the end they waited for about eleven hours.

Aronoke was awake again by then, having slept for nearly all of them. He was sitting in the cockpit in the co-pilot’s seat, leaning back in his chair with his feet up on the dash, concentrating on scanning the sky for ships – ships that might contain Jedi come to help them. It was important that any Jedi should be quickly informed of the situation, so they didn’t fall foul of either the Queb or the Sith.

Master Caaldor sat in the tilted pilot’s seat, steadily staring out into the murky water that lay beyond the front viewscreen. He hadn’t slept for at least three days running, Aronoke knew, but he didn’t seem to have any trouble staying awake. Aronoke wished his own control was so effective.

But there were things Aronoke could do better, despite his limited experience, and sensing other Force-users was one of them. Aronoke had been concerned that using his Force-senses might alert the Sith, and Master Caaldor had conceded that there was a risk, but, he had added, there was a risk in everything.

“Even merely hiding poses a risk,” he had said. “Everything is connected in the Force.”

Yes, thought Aronoke, every moment they delayed gave Master Skeirim a chance to pursue his treacherous plans, whatever those were. Every moment was one that Master Altus spent in suffering. And so Aronoke scanned for ships, for Sith or Jedi, hoping that help would come soon.

And then help came.

At first Aronoke thought he was imagining the twinkle in the sky, for it was as faint as the most distant star still visible to the naked eye. The tiny blip of Force energy was erratic, thready and diffuse, and yet he knew it was there. He sat up to focus more carefully. Even though changing his physical position made no difference to how well his Force senses worked, it still felt like moving helped. It seemed to help now, because a few moments later he had honed in on the twinkle and was certain of what he was sensing.

“Someone’s here,” he said to Master Caaldor. “Travelling in a ship, just entering the atmosphere. I think it’s a Jedi, but I can’t be sure yet.”

“Make sure first,” said Master Caaldor. “Then we’ll make contact.”

Aronoke obligingly probed more intently. Yes, it was a ship, a small ship probably, since it contained only one person, now descending through the higher reaches of the atmosphere, drawing closer to them with every passing second. The pilot was a human woman. She tensed and looked around, probably checking the instrument panels. She was definitely a Jedi, Aronoke thought, detecting no trace of the hot intensity he had felt surrounding the Sith. Her connection to the Force deepened and flared, and Aronoke realised she had detected something of his perusal and was trying to tell what he was.

It’s me, Padawan Aronoke, he thought at her, wondering if he could make her understand. Could you speak, mind to mind through the Force? He had no idea. He tried to connect to her more strongly, but only found himself more highly aware of her physical form. She was tall and slim, although not as tall as him. Her long hair was pinned neatly back in a tight braid. He could feel the flow of blood through her veins, the constant onward march of her digestion, the light play of the muscles in her hands and arms as she expertly manipulated the controls of her ship.

Aronoke hesitated a moment, remembering what had happened when he had sensed Kthoth Neesh so closely, but this time it was different. The strange attraction was not there: the experience was as sexless as if the woman had been a tree. There was no sudden overwhelming lust, no biological imperative, but just a deep awareness of her biological structure.

Suddenly Aronoke could tell something was happening, not because he could see it, but because the Jedi could. There was a rush of adrenaline, quickly controlled and harnessed. She wrestled with the ship controls, and the effects of gravity on her body told Aronoke that her craft was ducking, rolling, weaving.

“She’s been spotted,” said Aronoke aloud, and realised he hadn’t answered Master Caaldor’s most important question yet. “She is a Jedi, and I think she’s looking for something – for us, most likely – but she’s been spotted. I think she’s in combat…”

Master Caaldor said something then, but Aronoke didn’t hear it, because one moment he was embedded in the strange Jedi’s biology, and the next moment…. intense agony, pain, every molecule within his awareness being torn apart from every other, and she was nothing, falling through glaring light into darkness, and Aronoke was falling too, clinging to the shred of Force that was all that was left of her, because that was all there was to hold on to…

Someone slapped him hard in the face and it was like they’d slapped his bare brain, it was so devastatingly shocking. It was Hespenara, Aronoke saw, bent over him, pulling her hand back for another slap. Aronoke winced, putting up his hands automatically to shield his face, and Hespenara’s hand fell away in slow motion.

“She…they…” said Aronoke numbly, feeling each word to be a huge mountain he had to climb with numb legs.

“We know,” said Hespenara sadly. “We felt it in the Force.”

“Let’s get him up,” said Master Caaldor and together the two Jedi helped Aronoke to his feet. “You’re lucky you’re still with us, Padawan,” he scolded Aronoke as they helped him sit back down in his chair. “You must never allow yourself to become so heavily invested in what you Sense that you lose track of yourself, of your connection to your body. One of the major hazards that affects Seers is that they can become lost in the Force, unable or unwilling to return to themselves. Following someone into death is a hazard not even the greatest of Seers should tackle.”

It must have been serious, Aronoke thought, still dazed. His master looked so relieved.

“We don’t want you stuck as a mindless vegetable,” said Hespenara, also looking grim and shaken.

“I’m…sorry,” said Aronoke. His mind fumbled with the concept of being a Seer. The Seers in the Jedi Temple were such distant mysterious figures, he couldn’t imagine himself being one. And then they tended to stay there in safety, guarded like sacred relics, not taking any action but only making predictions of the future and watching for secret signs of trouble. He shivered, thinking how difficult such a life might be.

“Your training has been far too sketchy,” Master Caaldor was continuing. “Unfortunately your abilities in sensing far outstrip my own, and I have little knowledge of the specialised techniques Seers use to safeguard themselves. Until you can receive proper training, you must be very cautious, Padawan. Your natural instincts have served you well thus far, but out in the field there are always new dangers. The situation is hardly ever entirely predictable.”

No, Aronoke thought vaguely. There were river monsters and explosions.

“I blame myself,” Master Caaldor was saying. “I’ve made too many demands of you when you have had so little training.”

“No, Master, it’s not your fault,” said Aronoke, forcing himself to straighten a little, to push aside the heavy lethargy and the strange numbness that fogged his mind. He sternly made himself take stock of his condition, to flex his hands and wriggle his toes. He felt too loosely attached to his body, like that time long ago, when he had tried to see what had happened to Master Altus. “It’s like you said – we have to take risks and this one was mine. I had to try, and I don’t hink I’ve suffered any lasting harm. You brought me out of it.” He smiled weakly over at Hespenara, who was still regarding him with some concern. “You didn’t have to slap me so hard, though,” he said, trying to lighten the mood.

“That was the third time I slapped you,” said Hespenara flatly. “I thought we’d lost you.”

“I’m fine,” said Aronoke. “Just a bit shaken. But that Jedi… she’s not fine. She’s dead.”

“Do you have any idea what killed her?” Hespenara asked.

“It was almost instant,” said Aronoke. His voice still sounded dreamy, even to himself. “She was trying to evade something, throwing her ship around the sky. She must have been hit. It was… awful, but she didn’t suffer. It was so quick….”

His voice trailed off again, as he relived that terrifying yet oddly exhilarating moment.

“Stay with us,” growled Hespenara, roughly shaking his shoulder.

“Sorry,” mumbled Aronoke sheepishly.

“We’ve got to decide what to do next,” said Master Caaldor. “Whatever we do, the risks we have already taken will doubtlessly pale beside the ones we must take now.”

“We have to make sure the Jedi Council learns about Master Altus and Master Skeirim,” said Hespenara firmly. “If we are about to be caught, we have to send a message telling them what’s happened, so they can take action.”

“Yes,” said Master Caaldor. “That is a valid point. But I am loathe to sell ourselves cheaply to our enemies by broadcasting where we are. It is vital that we stay out of the hands of the Sith. Perhaps there is still a way we can win our freedom.”

Aronoke knew Master Caaldor wanted to save them all, but it was entirely obvious that it was him his Master was talking about. That it was vital Aronoke didn’t fall into the hands of the Sith, because of what was on his back. That Master Caaldor felt somewhat guilty, because they were here against the Jedi Council’s orders to stay as absolutely safe as possible.

“Let’s go through all the possibilities,” said Hespenara. “Ideas… We could lay an ambush for the Sith, tackle him head on, and take his ship. There are three of us and only one of him, although he does have lots of trained soldiers.”

“It would be best to avoid physical conflict if at all possible,” Master Caaldor countered. “The Sith might be able to bring in Queb reinforcements.”

“We could try setting another distress beacon, somewhere else,” said Hespenara, counting off on her fingers.

“They’ll just blow it up again,” said Aronoke dully. “Probably even faster this time. I barely got out of range as it was.”

“Besides,” said Hespenara, “it’s too dangerous – dangerous for us, as you say, but also dangerous for whoever comes to help us, unless they come in numbers, which they are unlikely to do, considering this world is off-limits.”

“We could choose to do nothing,” said Master Caaldor. “We could wait until someone investigates the disappearance of the Jedi who attempted to rescue us. She most probably sent a communication saying she was investigating a distress signal before she came here.”

“That might take a long time,” said Hespenara grimly. “I hate to think of us sitting here, waiting, hiding at the bottom of a river while Master Altus is still a captive.”

“We need to get a ship,” said Aronoke dreamily. “But the spaceport is up on the platforms and there aren’t any ships down here, except the ones looking for us, who are our enemies, and maybe mostly just atmospheric fliers anyway, and a few that come down to… that…”

Aronoke stood up abruptly, his mind suddenly racing.

“Aronoke?” prompted Hespenara gently, hovering at his elbow. He must look very unstable, Aronoke realised.

“That woman I met in the bar,” he said aloud. “The one with the ship who wanted to be our guide – she gave us a holocube with her frequency…. What if we called her?”

Hespenara looked blankly across at Master Caaldor who was stroking his beard and nodding thoughtfully. “Our enemies probably won’t be expecting us to make use of local frequencies since we’ve already shown our hand by trying for intergalactic assistance,” he said. “It’s possible they may still intercept any communication we make, possible also that Jark Tander won’t want to work against the Queb, but maybe…”

“We can offer her a good incentive,” said Hespenara. “Surely the Jedi Temple will hold good on any reasonable offer you make her to bring us to Coruscant.”

“It’s worth a try,” said Master Caaldor, “and there’s no point waiting any further. Padawan, if you could fetch the holocube…?”

It was a request designed to force him to focus, Aronoke realised, and perhaps to take him out of the room, so the other Jedi could discuss him in his absence. He stumbled along the sloping corridor into the main living area of the ship. Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz were there, gloomily playing Smackdown on the sloping table.

“What’s happening?” asked Kthoth Neesh, dropping her cards and leaping to her feet at once.

“Help’s not coming,” said Aronoke. “We’re trying something else.”

Quickly he explained what had happened and what the new plan was.

She frowned at him. “That doesn’t explain why you look so terrible.”

“I’m fine – I just overdid things. Jedi things,” said Aronoke, but it didn’t stop her from coming over to stare at him as he began to search through the holocubes. They largely lay where they had been stacked before, stuck together by their magnetic surfaces despite the trauma suffered by the ship. “I expect we’ll be leaving rather quickly if this works,” he said, sorting amongst the teetering pile, “so you’d best get together anything you want to bring. We won’t be able to take much – only what we can easily carry – and it had best be wrapped in something waterproof.”

“Waterproof? You mean we have to swim out?” asked Tarric Gondroz, sounding alarmed.

“At least you didn’t bring much luggage,” said Kthoth Neesh lightly.

“Fate obviously has it in for me,” moaned the kubaz, cradling his head dramatically in his hands. “I can’t swim! I’ve traded a watery death in a tank for one in a stinking muddy river.” He scuttled off into the depths of the ship, making unsettled wheezing sounds as he went.

Aronoke turned his attention back to the task at hand. Jark Tander’s holocube had to be one of the ones on top.

He had just found it when Kthoth Neesh laid a hand on his arm. In his current state of mind it translated into a physical shock and he started, turning abruptly, the holocube in his hand. She looked up at him, and Aronoke was surprised by the genuine concern in her expression.

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I’ll recover,” said Aronoke brusquely.

“I’m sorry for what happened,” she said softly, her voice thick with emotion. “I didn’t mean for things to take off like that. I mean, I do like you, but mostly I was just fooling around. Not…thinking, I guess, about what it really might do to you.”

“It’s more my fault than yours,” said Aronoke. “You haven’t dedicated yourself to live by any code.”

“I know,” said Kthoth Neesh. “But still. At first I meant it, trying to seduce you so that you would let me go, one way or another. After that it was just funny, but I never expected you to… well, I didn’t mind but…”

“It’s alright,” said Aronoke. “I don’t properly understand why this is happening to me, or why you in particular have this effect on me. It’s not normal – it goes way beyond a normal attraction.”

Kthoth Neesh smiled a tiny mischievous smile. She was incapable of being repressed for long. “And here I thought I was just that sexy.”

“You are,” said Aronoke, seriously, and was surprised to see her pale cheeks tinge with pink. “But that doesn’t mean I should be acting like I have been. Being a Jedi… that’s my big chance. Maybe my only chance. I don’t want to stuff it up.”

“I’m sorry,” said Kthoth Neesh, contritely. “I’ll try to behave.”

“I’ve got to get this back to Master Caaldor,” said Aronoke gently, holding up the holocube.

“I could take it,” she said, reaching towards it. “You still look like you’re going to faint. You should sit down.”

Aronoke drew his hand back closing his fist over the cube. “It’s okay – I think they’ll want to keep an eye on me,” he said, and the Narakite nodded, stepping aside.

It was all horribly awkward, Aronoke thought grimly as he stumbled along the passage to the cockpit, and for a moment he envisoned an easier world where he wasn’t Force-sensitive, wasn’t a Jedi. Where everything wasn’t so much trouble and he could kiss Kthoth Neesh again without worrying about the consequences.

But there was never any point wishing for might-bes. No use imagining that you had a real family when you were a bioengineered freak, for example. And everything was so much better, a thousand times better, than it had been on Kasthir.

Yes, it was better to be a Jedi than a skimmer. Better to be a Jedi than a Sith. And then there were things he had to do, traitors to apprehend and friends to rescue Things that seemed impossibly difficult to manage, but the sorts of things that Jedi did all the time.

Being a Jedi was the only thing that really gave his life form and meaning. He couldn’t just give up because things became difficult. Because he was suddenly obsessed with a girl. No, he would save Master Altus. He would learn more about the biocron and find better ways to deny its hold over him. He would become a proper Jedi in proper control, and then these juvenile worries would seem unimportant.

Feeling more in charge of his destiny, Aronoke passed the holocube to Master Caaldor.

“Sit down,” said Hespenara firmly. “You still look like you’re going to fall over.”

“I’m fine,” said Aronoke mechanically, but he sat where she told him to anyway.

 

“Blasted droids – always causing problems,” growled Kthoth Neesh from the muddiest extremity of the riverbank, staring into the brown water as if the intensity of her glare alone could levitate PR-77 out of the mud. The rest of the party was perched on a giant dead tree partly embedded in the bank of the river, which extended some distance out over the water. Tarric Gondroz clutched his carry-all miserably, while Hespenara was keeping a careful look out for trouble.

“PR should be fine,” said Master Caaldor vaguely. “He’s quite waterproof.”

“But what if he gets swallowed by a river-worm, or stuck in the mud, Master?”

“Then I expect we’ll have to leave him behind, but there’s no need to be alarmed yet. Besides, I believe that’s him now.”

Sure enough, there was a swirling in the water, and Aronoke could see PR’s domed head just below the surface. The strange muted sounds rising from the water suggested that the droid was complaining non-stop as he slowly but steadily forged his way up out of the river.

Exiting the ship had been less of a drama than Aronoke had anticipated. Tarric Gondroz had been assisted by Hespenara, who was a stronger swimmer than anyone else. The other Jedi and Kthoth Neesh had managed without assistance, but PR-77, being made of metal and rather heavy, had immediately sunk to the bottom and been lost from sight. They had been forced to leave him behind while they made their way to shore, where they had quickly changed into dry clothes.

“I suppose we should find better cover,” Hespenara said uneasily, once the droid was out of the water. “Oh, do be quiet, PR – we’re trying to be inconspicuous.”

“Sorry, Mistress Hespenara.”

“Perhaps under that clump of trees?” suggested Aronoke, but they hadn’t moved far towards it, when the noise of engines warned them of an approaching ship .

“Quick!” said Aronoke, but it was too late – the vessel was obviously coming straight towards their position. It was with some relief that Aronoke saw it was the sort of ship he might have expected a smuggler to own, a slightly battered vessel about the same size as the XL-327, and surely not the sort of craft a Sith would deign to travel in.

With some difficulty, the ship set down on the riverbank, half-in half-out of the water, angled so that its access hatch was over the shore. Even before it came to a complete halt, the ramp came smoothly sliding down.

“Come on, it must be Jark Tander,” said Aronoke, but before anyone could move, shots ripped into the riverbank as a second ship streaked overhead.

It was a small strangely shaped vessel that looked a bit like a triangular wedge with three long tails, and it curved sharply about and came angling down towards them.

“It’s going to land!” yelled Hespenara and they all scattered. Aronoke and Master Caaldor went straight forward into the trees. Hespenara darted behind a slimy rock, while Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz fell back behind the log.

“Oh no!” said Aronoke. “The droid!”

PR-77 had attempted to run after the others, but had slipped and fallen in the mud. He was laying on his back on the muddy riverbank, his arms and legs twitching helplessly.

“Too late,” said Master Caaldor grimly.

The ship came down, contacting the muddy ground. It didn’t stop immediately – the bank was too slippery for that. It skated along on its landing struts. For a moment, Aronoke thought PR would be crushed, but the droid managed to roll sideways, flopping on his face, and the ship narrowly slid past, burying the droid in a wave of mud. It continued inexorably onwards, straight towards Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz. Aronoke thought they would be crushed to death for sure, and they obviously thought the same. Aronoke could hear Tarric Gondroz’s panicked wail and see Kthoth Neesh’s pale face gaping in terror, as the ship slid towards them, closer and closer. Kthoth Neesh made a last desperate lunge towards the jungle, dragging the kubaz after her. She would have been too slow, but the ship finally crunched to a halt, crashing forcefully into the log. Splinters flew and the great trunk shuddered, but the tree was so heavy and well buried that it barely moved. The narakite and the kubaz kept going, seeking the cover of the trees.

“Quickly now,” said Master Caaldor. “Get PR and head to the ship.” He gestured to where Aronoke could see Jark Tander, blaster in one hand, waving desperately at them from the ramp.

“But what about the others?” Aronoke asked. “I can help…”

“Get on the ship, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor sternly. “Let me worry about them.”

Aronoke obediently sprinted across the mud to where PR was wallowing.

“Master Aronoke,” said the droid. “For a moment I thought I was scrap-metal. Luckily the danger is past, but I still seem to be somewhat stuck!”

“Come on, PR,” said Aronoke, trying to tug the droid to its feet and getting more muddy than he would like.

“I knew I should have stayed on the ship, Master Aronoke,” said PR, his efforts to stand more of a hindrance than a help. Clumps of mud flew through the air as he waved his arms effusively. “I’m not designed for working in such primitive unstable environments!”

“Stop talking, PR, and get up!”

“Yes, Master Aronoke, I am trying!”

Finally, the muddy droid was standing and Aronoke led him hurriedly across to the ramp where Jark Tander waited.

“Go inside, PR,” Aronoke said, a bit breathlessly, and the droid meekly complied.

“Jaxxor Branx,” said Jark Tander, looking him up and down. Aronoke realised somewhat belatedly that he was wearing his Jedi robes rather than his smuggler disguise. “Or, should I say, Master Jedi, since I suppose that’s not really your name. I can see you’re not the freelance entrepreneurs I took you for. Are you really a Jedi, or is that a disguise too?”

“I’m Padawan Aronoke of the Jedi Order, and that’s Master Caaldor,” said Aronoke, deciding there was little point in further prevarication. “We were working under cover. We came here to rescue Hespenara.” He gestured across at where the green girl was running across the muddy bank towards the ship.

“You can explain later, once we get off the ground,” said Jark Tander tersely, passing Aronoke her spare blaster pistol. “That is, if we get off the ground. I trust you actually know how to use this?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke.

“I mightn’t have agreed to this if I’d known you were Jedi,” muttered Jark Tander, giving him a hard stare. “I smelt something funny when you wanted to go to Coruscant. Who’s the canned meat?”

This last she directed at the well-armoured figure that had emerged from the other ship.

“Bolar Dak,” said Aronoke. “A bounty hunter.”

Jark Tander nodded grimly. “I’ve heard of him – he’s considered to be bad news. I suggest we fry him if he comes anywhere near my ship.”

“Well, you’re the captain,” said Aronoke, checking the settings of the blaster.

Hespenara came slithering across the last bit of mud. “Master Caaldor sent me back,” she told Aronoke, with a brief acknowledging nod to Jark Tander.

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “I think he’s a bit leery of the possibility of losing any more padawans.”

Along the river bank, Master Caaldor seemed to be delivering an ultimatum to Bolar Dak, while Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz were doing their best to sneak by unnoticed, making their way along the edge of the jungle. The bounty hunter didn’t seem inclined to surrender. From the way he gestured with his enormous blaster-rifle, Aronoke thought he was making it quite clear who he thought was capturing who. He must have finished with something threatening, because Master Caaldor suddenly took a single step back and drew his lightsaber, as the bounty hunter threw something spherical into the air. It rose unnaturally swiftly, obviously under its own power.

“What is that?” Aronoke wondered aloud. “Some kind of explosive?”

“Surely he wouldn’t blow himself up too,” said Hespenara. But even from this distance it was becoming obvious that the sphere was a flying droid. It had extruded wing-like fins, antennae and little blaster guns.

“It looks little more dangerous than a Jedi training drone,” said Hespenara sceptically. “Master Caaldor shouldn’t have any trouble dealing with that.”

Even as she spoke, a swarm of larger drones, as uncountable as insects, swooped up from behind the bounty hunter’s ship and streamed down in an angry cloud towards them.