Get Adobe Flash player

freebie

Of all the astonishing things that had happened to Josie, the statue coming to life as she climbed it was close to the most astonishing. It was strange how she had not been frightened, even at the very first. Tash was so obviously kind and had such a comforting smell. It was vaguely like jasmine, and impossible for Josie to associate with anything bad or dangerous.

She had no real hope that anything good would happen, when she began her desperate climb over the wall. Tash’s arrival had been miraculous; that was the only way to describe it. She could not help laughing for joy when their climb was over.

‘This has to be a dream,’ Josie told herself, as she had told herself so many times since she awoke by the side of the Lion’s Pool. ‘But I feel so very awake.’ She clung tightly to Tash, who had been a statue such a short time before, as he carried her through the forest on long swift legs.

‘Do you think this will do?’ asked Tash. Josie could still clearly hear the tinkling of the stream and the whistles of the night birds, but the air had a more closed-in feeling than it had before. There was a musty, herbal smell of decayed vegetable life.

‘I suppose so,’ she answered, climbing rather stiffly out of Tash’s arms and onto a carpet of dry leaves. ‘What is it like?’

‘A sort of a cave’ said Tash. ‘Just a little one. There are plants in front to make it hard to see.’

‘It doesn’t smell like any animal lives here – nothing large, at any rate – so it ought to do.’ Josie sat down on the leaves, which were soft and comfortable, if noisy whenever she moved a muscle. ‘If the ifrits know it is here, it will be a problem, but they seemed to spend most of their time at the castle, or miles and miles away running errands, so maybe they don’t know.’

‘It is dry,’ Tash said unhappily.

‘Dry is good for me,’ said Josie, and smiled. ‘Is it very wet where you come from?’

‘I think it must be,’ Tash said. ‘All the other places I have been so far seem too dry.’ There was a rush of dusty air, and rustling noise that took a long time to stop as Tash sat down

‘I hope it won’t be too uncomfortable for you,’ said Josie. ‘Maybe you will get used to it.’ Or maybe you will have to spend most of your time in a pond, like a frog, so you won’t dry out, she thought, but didn’t say. ‘Where is your country?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash. ‘I – I came through a hole from a place where the sky is different. Everything is different.’

‘So did I!’ said Josie. ‘I came here from a different world entirely, somehow.’ She shook her head, but grinned with a wild exhilaration that came from she-knew-not-where. ‘It is the kind of thing that only happens in stories.’

‘We do not have any stories about holes into other worlds where I come from,’ said Tash. ‘I did not know of such things until I went through one.’

‘Well, that too,’ said Josie. ‘But what I meant was, there aren’t many people coming into this world from other places, from what the gazelles – from what other people I talked to here – said, so it is amazing that we should meet up with each other. It is the sort of thing that happens in stories, where a man might be walking down the road in a foreign country and rescue a strange woman from danger, and the strange woman turns out to be his long lost sister.’

‘I would have been in very great trouble if I ever lost a sister,’ said Tash gravely.

‘I didn’t mean the man would have been the one who lost his sister, I meant she would have been lost in some other way.’

‘Maybe her parents sent her off to be sacrificed for the greater glory of the Overlord, without telling her brother?’ suggested Tash.

Josie shuddered. ‘Is that- is that the sort of thing that happens in your world?’

Tash said nothing, and Josie guessed he was nodding, or shrugging, or something like that, from the way the dry leaves crunched beneath him.

‘Well, we should be figuring out how we can get away from this evil magician and his servants and find ourselves somewhere safe,’ said Josie. ‘I am sure there will be plenty of time to tell our stories. So. I do know this place is a long long way from any inhabited country, at least from what other people said before I was carried off. I don’t know anything about the country around us. I was carried here through the air, a long way, from the place I arrived in this world. Did you get to see much before you came here? Do you have any idea where we could go?’

‘I did not see anything,’ said Tash, sounding apologetic. A sort of sad uncertainty had come into his voice since the topic of long-lost sisters had come up, and Josie had a powerful urge to pick him up and give him a hug.

‘I was not outside until just now,’ Tash continued. The last thing I remember I was in an inside place, and there were creatures who looked like you, and dressed like you, so I think it was the inside of the same place as we were at. But that is all.’

Josie shuffled herself closer to Tash and reached out to pat one of his hands, in lieu of the impossibility of picking him and giving him a hug.

‘Maybe we should tell each other our stories, then,’ she said. ‘It might be there is something in them that can help us.’

Tash said nothing one way or the other, so after a moment Josie started to tell her story, much as it has been written here: how she was going to England to live with her father, how she was swept overboard, how she wasn’t drowned but ended up in a strange world, and how she had fallen in with the gazelles. It seemed to her that Tash cheered up a little as she told her story.

‘They say there is a lion who pulls people out of other worlds into this world, because there is something important they are supposed to do here. He is kind of like- like a god, I suppose, of this world.’ She said this last bit as if it was something shameful, since it was after all shameful to act as if there were any gods other than the real God.

‘One of the humans said something about a lion, before I was turned to stone,’ said Tash. ‘What is a lion? And a god, what is that?’

Josie explained as best she could.

‘That is what the gazelles told me, at any rate,’ she said, when she was finished. ‘They seemed to think I had been brought here for some particular reason. Which would mean you were, too. And us both being here makes it seem very likely.’

Tash sounded dubious. ‘I was sent out of my world by- by an evil magician. And it was only chance that I got here, instead of somewhere else. I think. So I don’t think that this lion can have brought me here.’

‘They say God works in mysterious ways,’ said Josie, with some bitterness. ‘So I suppose this lion could work in mysterious ways too, if he is a sort of god.’

‘We did not have a God,’ said Tash. ‘Only the Overlord Varkarian. I think her ways were mysterious. But I don’t see how it can be the lion bringing me here, if it was an evil magician, and me deciding to choose to jump one way instead of another.’

‘I guess it really doesn’t matter anyway,’ Josie said. ‘Even if we are supposed to do something in particular, there’s no way we can go out of our way to do it if we don’t know what it is. We will have to figure out what to do without the help of a lion.’

She went on with her story, telling Tash how she had gone along with the plans of the gazelles because they seemed to know what they were doing, and were kind to her.

‘There is only one kind of speaking creature on my world,’ said Tash. ‘All the others are just beasts.’

‘It is the same on mine,’ said Josie. She had never quite gotten around to letting go of Tash’s hand.

‘And it is strange that we all speak the same language, though we come from different worlds.’

‘I thought that was strange, too,’ admitted Josie. ‘It is one of the things that makes me still think this is a dream, though it feels so real.’

‘It feels very real,’ said Tash, and Josie could feel the inhuman shudder that ran through him. ‘I do not want it to end. Though it is too dry.’

‘How could we ever tell that anything is real, really?’ said Josie, squeezing Tash’s hand. He squeezed hers back, and she gave an involuntary cry of pain.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Tash, as Josie retrieved her hand and rubbed it. ‘I am stronger here than I was.’

‘That’s okay,’ said Josie. ‘Ouch.’

She went on to tell Tash how she had been carried off by the ifrits, and what the evil magician said he was going to do to her.

‘That name, Yustus,’ said Tash. ‘The others said that name, just before they turned me to stone. They were turning me to stone until he came back. He was going to get the apples you talked about. I am not sure what apples are.’

‘They are a kind of fruit,’ said Josie. ‘He said he came back with them, and all the others had been turned into beasts by the lion,’ said Josie.

‘Good,’ said Tash.

‘I suppose they deserved it,’ said Josie. It was growing cold, now that the excitement of escape was passing, and she wished she had taken a blanket with her when she escaped from her tower. She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them to make a little ball of Josie-ness.

‘Hang on,’ she said, as she turned the events of her second meeting with the magician over in her mind to see which way they would fit in a story. ‘I remember the magician’s hand was all over rings, and Zardeenah said that rings were used to control the ifrits. Maybe if we took the magician’s rings… somehow… the ifrits wouldn’t be under his control, and would help us?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash. It seemed as if his attention had wandered, or he was growing sad again, or both.

‘It is something to try for, anyway, if we get an opportunity,’ said Josie. ‘The kinds of rings an evil magician wears are almost always good to get away from him.’

Tash made the kind of nod or shrug that Josie had noticed him making a couple of times before.

‘Maybe that’s why we got away, even though the ifrits were so close,’ mused Josie. ‘I thought it seemed too easy in the forest, almost as if they didn’t really want to find us. Maybe they can’t do anything directly against their master’s orders, but they’ll do whatever they can to trickily work against him so they can get free –that’s what ifrits would do in the stories on my world. So they’ve let us go, and they’ll let us run free as much as they can get away with, on the off chance that we’ll do something that will set them free.’

‘The stories of your world seem to contain many useful things,’ said Tash. ‘Ours are all about the necessity of obedience to the Overlord.’

‘That’s terrible,’ said Josie.

‘What about the rest of your story?’ she asked after a minute. ‘Why don’t you tell me what happened to you?’

‘I am not very good at recounting events,’ said Tash, taking her question literally. ‘And I feel very confused.’

‘That’s alright,’ said Josie. She shivered. ‘Maybe later is better.’ Outside, she could hear the howls of the wild dogs drawing closer. They did not know what sort of thing Tash was, she thought, so they were being cautious.

‘If the dogs- the animals that make those sounds- come to the edge of the cave, you need to throw something at them hard to make them afraid of us,’ she told Tash. ‘If they think we are dangerous, they will stay away, but if they think they can beat us, they will try to kill us.’

‘I can do that,’ said Tash confidently. ‘I am stronger here.’

***

It was a pleasant thing for Tash to think about, that he was stronger in this place than he had ever been, and he had thought about it for rather a long time. It seemed all the time he was thinking that Josie was just about to say something more, so that Tash remained quite awake, but she fell asleep instead. She had seemed cold to Tash, and he certainly seemed cold to himself, so when she was asleep he curled up around her. She stirred, but did not wake. Nothing would happen to her as had happened to Nera, Tash promised himself. Never, never, never. The night of the strange world rolled on towards dawn.

Tash was not very tired. He had been resting, after a fashion, for who knows how many years. He was also unused to the uncomfortable prickling dryness, so he woke while Josie still slept even though he had stayed awake very late indeed. The sun was already high in the sky, casting a strange hot yellow light, and the plants at the entrance to the cave made complicated shadows on the floor. The edges of the complicated curling shapes were sharp, but they moved constantly as the plants shifted in the wind, making the floor a seething mass of light and shadow that kept Tash’s attention for a long moment despite the fierce itching that had woken him. He carefully unwrapped himself from around the human and went to bathe in the stream.

In the daylight the sky, where it could be seen between the trees, was painfully blue, brighter than the sky of the world where he had met Nera. The space between the trees was flecked with countless flying things. There were large ones with feathers like his own, dozens of them, in many different kinds; and smaller ones, thousands of them, with fragile wings that were transparent opal or any one of a hundred brightly-coloured patterns.

The stream was deep enough that if he sat in it, it came up to his middle, and he enthusiastically splashed water over the rest of himself. It was very cold, but it made the itchiness disappear at once, and in some curious way it felt more like water than the water of his own world did. This whole place was like that. It felt alive: beautifully and wonderfully alive. For all the dangers here, it was a world that was more alive than his own, and he felt more alive in it.

He would never go back to his own world, he told himself. It was not possible; and if it were possible, he would not do it. Whatever dangers waited for him here, he would never be sacrificed to the Overlord. ‘Sweeter than narbul venom it is-‘ he found himself thinking reflexively, and stopped himself. Then thinking of narbul venom reminded him that it must have been a long time since he ate anything, and he wondered that he did not feel hungrier. Except for the lime ice, he had eaten nothing at all since he had been a prisoner underneath the Procurator’s tower, who knows how many lifetimes ago.

‘And who knows how far away,’ he thought joyously.

Because of the noise of the stream, Tash saw the shadows momentarily dimming the sunlight before he heard the flapping of the great wings of the ifrits. It would have made more sense for him to remain still and quiet, instead of getting up with a great splashing and rushing back to the cave, but as it turned out it would have made no difference. The magician had evidently found where they were hiding by some magic, and arrived outside the cave a few instants after Tash ran rashly into it to wake Josie.

‘Awake!’ he cried, but she was already awake and alert, brushing the crumbs of leaves from her garment. ‘Be brave,’ she told him.

It was easier for Tash to be brave when he saw that the magician was not carrying the wand that had turned him to stone. It was still not easy at all, though, and he fought the impulse to bow his head and let his arms droop in submission. The magician was darker than Josie, though not as dark as Nera had been, and he stood head and shoulders above the girl; in turn he came only up to the chests of the ifrits who stood to either side of him. Their skin was the livid red of boiled mire-beast, their eyes had the cruel glare familiar to Tash from the priests of his own people, and they bore spectacular arching membranous wings, but otherwise they looked much like humans. They were wearing breechclouts and embroidered vests that were too small for them, open in the front, while Yustus wore sombre black robes as evil magicians ought to.

‘You fools are as blind as the child,’ Yustus snapped at his minions. ‘There she is, and there is the fiend that helped her. Tell me, why did I not have it broken into pieces long ago?’

Tash tried to be brave, putting himself between Josie and her enemies, but Josie pushed past to stand at his side.

‘The thrill of the chase is all very well, but the time for games is over,’ said Yustus, relishing the sound of his own words.

‘No,’ said Josie.

‘Yes, child,’ said Yustus. ‘Your eyes are ready. Soon you will see. And soon afterwards-‘ he licked his lips. ‘Come quietly.’

‘No,’ said Josie, with authority. ‘I will not.’

‘It does not matter to me whether you come quietly or not,’ said the magician. ‘Eber, Saleh, seize her.’ The ifrits moved inexorably toward Josie, and Tash again tried to interpose himself, but she angrily batted him aside.

Why would she do that? She knows I am strong, and can fight them off, thought Tash.

Josie sprang, not backward into the cave, but sideways and away, crashing heedlessly through the undergrowth like someone who could see where she was going.

‘Get her!’ cried Yustus, his eyes glistening with excitement, and at a gesture the other two ifrits pounced after Josie. A few wingbeats, and the four ifrits had descended on Josie, bearing her down into a thorny bush. The magician clapped his hands in indecent glee.

His hands! Yes, one was bare, while the other bore six rings, five carved from precious stones, and one of gold. He and his ifrits were watching Josie’s capture, and – she knows I am strong, but they do not know I am strong – thought Tash in an instant. He thinks he is safe that far away.

Tash leapt forward, and in one bound had the magician’s hand in his beak.

‘Aieee!’ cried the magician, ‘Kill him, kill him, kill him!’ Tash’s beak cut through flesh and sinews instantly, but the bones offered more resistance; he levered his jaw back and forth, tasting human blood on his tongue for the first time. The ifrits had dropped Josie, were hurtling towards him in a storm of wings. The blood was hot and metallic and sweeter than narbul venom. One bone parted, than another; the magician’s hand tore free. The headlong rush of the ifrits suddenly slowed to a walk. Tash flicked his head, and sent the magician’s hand flying into the undergrowth.

‘Lion’s arsehole!’ swore the magician, desperately trying to staunch the torrent of blood from his stump with his remaining hand. ‘I will kill you with such tortures…’

‘No you won’t,’ said Tash, taking a few stumbling steps backward.

‘Help me,’ Yustus called to the ifrits. They slowly formed a circle around him, evidently in no hurry to obey his command.

‘You have been a good master to us,’ said the one the magician had called Eber, walking to where Tash had flung the magician’s hand.

‘Damn your balls, I have. Help me, you fools! And kill this monster.’

‘Of course, you could have been a better master,’ said Eber.

‘Damn you, help me.’ The magician was drawing on some hidden power, Tash could tell: although he was pale, he was controlling his pain, and the torrent of blood from his arm had slowed to a steady drip. Tash tried to follow Eber to where the hand lay, but the other ifrits blocked his path.

‘Indeed, I think you were no more than half the master you could have been,’ said Eber, retrieving the ring-encrusted hand. ‘What say you, my brothers?’

‘You speak truth,’ said Jabeth. The other two ifrits murmured their agreement.

‘What is this foolishness?’ cried Yustus. His concentration wavered, and he stumbled to one knee. He began – too late – to recite words that Tash could tell crackled with magic, forcing his good hand to trace letters in the air. ‘Makhr. Shalal. Khash…’

Eber nodded, and his brothers grabbed hold of Yustus by his ankles and his remaining wrist, as swiftly as a mist-stalker seizing a mire beast.

‘He has not been a half bad master to us,’ Eber told his brothers. ‘So take him halfway back to Telmar.’

‘No,’ said Yustus. ‘No!’ The wings of the three ifrits bore him irresistibly up into the painfully blue sky, up, up, and up. Eber followed a second after. A few drops of blood spattered the leaves of the bush where Josie lay, like the first fat drops of a thunderstorm.

The curses of Yustus trailed off in the direction of Telmar, and in a very little while were replaced by a scream, and then a sound of something hitting the ground.

At last, when everything had stopped moving, when the ship had ground to a creaking hull-rending halt and the whine of the engines choked into uneasy silence, Aronoke found the wherewithal to pick himself up and take stock of their situation. It was dark, very dark, but he could feel Hespenara stirring on the bench beside him and hear Tarric Gondroz muttering from across the corridor.

The emergency lighting flickered into dull green life.

“Is everyone alright?” asked Kthoth Neesh, her voice sounding strained and a little out of breath. Aronoke’s deafness seemed to be receding. He could hear her quite clearly now.

“I’m okay,” gasped Hespenara. “Just rather shaken up.”

“I can’t believe we’re not dead!” wheezed the kubaz.

Aronoke undid the buckles on his safety harness. “Everyone’s fine,” he said, standing up, his senses having already confirmed this, “but I think the ship’s not going anywhere any time soon. We’d best see what Master Caaldor thinks we should do now.”

Kthoth Neesh followed his lead, unbuckling herself and then helping with Hespenara’s harness.

“You should get yourself some other clothes, Aronoke,” she said. “And you need a medpac.”

Aronoke looked down. Kthoth Neesh must have been badly shaken to not take this obvious opportunity to leer at him, he decided. His garments were badly shredded, revealing more of his skin than he liked. His heart suddenly skipped a beat, as he wondered how obvious the markings on his back were.

No, don’t even think about that, he told himself firmly. There were more immediate things to worry about.

Like his leg. The left one was deeply gashed by shrapnel and gently pulsing blood. He hadn’t noticed it hurting any more than the rest of him, but now, as if encouraged by his attention, it began aching with a dull stabbing pain.

“I just have to speak to Master Caaldor first. Will you..?” he indicated Hespenara.

“I’ll look after her,” Kthoth Neesh said agreeably. “Come along, Padawan Hespenara. We’ll get you cleaned up and into some other clothes.”

“I could use a change,” said Hespenara wryly.

Aronoke could hear them continuing to banter as he stumbled and limped along the oddly angled corridor that led towards the front of the ship.

“Those robes are looking decidedly dated.” Kthoth Neesh’s voice was tinny but audible. “Let’s see if we can find you something in a more modern style. And do you realise you haven’t had a shower in over two years?”

“Better than Aronoke when we first met him,” came Hespenara’s reply, and Aronoke smiled to himself, blinking away the sudden tears that came into his eyes.

Master Caaldor was still sitting in the pilot’s seat when Aronoke came into the cockpit, bent over the instrument panel. He looked up as Aronoke came in. “Everyone is alright?” he said. It was only barely a question.

“Shaken and a little bruised, but nothing worse than that, Master,” said Aronoke. Master Caaldor’s dry expression told him that his own condition was obviously a lot worse.

“You should get yourself cleaned up, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor. “You could use some medical attention. In fact, you should probably be in a kolto tank, judging by that leg, but we don’t have the facilities. We do, however, have a little time. I don’t think the queb saw exactly where in the river we came down, which gives us some leeway. I’ve dampened all our external emissions short of turning off our life support systems. It’s best that we meet any new obstacles rested and refreshed.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, “but there’s something I have to tell you first. Just before we were taking off, I sensed something – or rather someone – in a ship high up in the atmosphere. I’m certain it couldn’t be anything other than a Sith.”

“A Sith?” asked Master Caaldor, studying Aronoke’s face intently for a moment. He sat back in his chair and stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Well, that does complicate matters.”

“Why would a Sith be here now, Master?” Aronoke asked.

“There could be any number of reasons,” said Master Caaldor slowly, “all unrelated to our presence here.”

Aronoke nodded.

“However,” Master Caaldor continued, “I am not a subscriber to coincidence. It seems to me that there can only be one reason for the appearance of a Sith here now, and that is because we are here. Either they have traced Hespenara, or they came in pursuit of us. They could have had informants on Zamora station, or amongst the queb.”

“What do we do, Master?”

Master Caaldor sighed. “For the moment, we hide,” he said. “I have a knack for dulling the emanations that Force-users naturally emit, which is one of the reasons that you were assigned to me, Padawan. I can keep us concealed from the Sith for a considerable length of time.”

“But what about the queb?” asked Aronoke. “I doubt they’re going to give up looking for us any time soon. They must know that we’ve crashed, even if they don’t know exactly where. If they find us, the Sith won’t be far behind. They might even combine forces.”

“We’ll worry about that when the time comes, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor. “We have some time in hand. Time that you should put to good use. Go and clean up and have that leg seen to. I only had time for very basic first aid earlier.”

“I’m sorry about the droids, Master,” said Aronoke, remembering his nigh-disasterous mistake anew. “I didn’t sense them at all, only the queb.”

“That’s something we can concentrate on during your future training,” mumbled Master Caaldor, his attention already back on the ship’s readouts. “Now go.”

“Yes, Master.”

 

Aronoke felt considerably better once he was clean and PR-77 had seen to his wounds. He had instructed the droid to cut his hair off evenly, which left little more than the barest fuzz covering his skull. He would have to cultivate a new padawan’s braid once it grew, he thought sadly.

“I do hope the ship will be repairable, Master Aronoke,” the droid had said nervously while it applied synthflesh to his various injuries, “but I estimate that there is only a 2.34978 percent chance of that being achieved with the equipment and spare parts we have on board.”

“Don’t worry, PR,” said Aronoke comfortingly. “I’m sure the Jedi Council will recover or replace the ship.”

“But a new ship would not be the same,” quavered PR-77. “I have spent years adapting this one and ensuring that its systems run according to Master Caaldor’s most exacting standards.”

Aronoke privately thought that PR’s standards were likely to be far more exacting than Master Caaldor’s.

“I think I may request that I remain with the ship, if Master Caaldor is required to abandon it,” PR-77 continued, pausing thoughtfully. “I don’t know that I could bear to think of it left alone, slowly deteriorating under the water, only observed by hostile river creatures.”

“If that happens, I’m sure Master Caaldor will want to bring you with us, PR,” said Aronoke firmly. “You are too valuable to be left behind.”

“You are very kind, Master Aronoke,” the droid said mournfully. “But there is also my collection of images of different models of ships. I doubt there will be time or storage capacity to recover it from the ship’s databanks before we are required to leave.”

“You can always start a new collection, PR,” said Aronoke wearily. “Master Caaldor and the Jedi Order need you more than your collection does.”

“Master Caaldor has put a great deal of trust in me, granting me the duty of overseeing the XL-327’s maintenance to such a high degree,” the droid said, brightening a little as it glued another patch of mismatched synthflesh on Aronoke’s upper thigh. The synthflesh was of a pinkish human skin tone, suitable for use by Master Caaldor, so it looked terrible applied to Aronoke’s dusky blue skin. It was a minor thing, not worthy of his consideration – he knew the colour would adapt to his own within a few days. “Do you realise, Master Aronoke, that he even entrusted the naming of this ship to me, back when we were first granted its use by the Jedi Council?”

“You named the ship?” Aronoke asked, a little confused. He had only ever heard it referred to by its number.

“XL-327 has such a nice ring to it,” said PR-77 proudly.

 

“Aronoke, come in and sit down,” said Master Caaldor, indicating a chair near Hespenara. The three Jedi were meeting in Master Caaldor’s personal chambers, which were on as lopsided an angle as the rest of the ship.

“Aronoke, you’re looking so grown up,” said Hespenara, smiling at him. “You’re even taller than I thought.”

“Your sight has come back?” Aronoke asked.

“Yes, although it’s still a little blurry,” Hespenara admitted. “I feel vastly better after my rest.”

“I trust you are also feeling recovered, Padawan?” Master Caaldor asked.

“Mostly,” said Aronoke. “A bit stiff and sore, but nothing to worry about.” He ran a hand ruefully across his extremely short hair.

“Good. Let’s get down to business then. I shall entrust most of the conversation to you two, since my attention is largely absorbed with maintaining a shield over us all, to ensure that the Sith don’t find us. I know we are both eager to hear Hespenara’s story, so we will start with that.”

“Very well, Master Caaldor,” said Hespenara, gracing the older Jedi with a polite gesture. “Master Altus and I, as the Jedi Council are doubtlessly aware, were investigating an artefact known as the Biocron.”

Aronoke glanced at Master Caaldor but could see no hint of recognition in his master’s face.

“It’s a very ancient Force artefact, or should I say, network of artefacts, with nodes, or individual Biocrons if you like, hidden across the galaxy. They are large and ancient machines, incredibly complex and very powerful, thought to have been created by a mysterious and as yet unknown race of ancients. They are very strongly tied to living systems, but, as far as we know, no one has found any way of actually controlling or activating them.”

She looked at Aronoke seriously and he felt an icy wave of trepidation rise in him.

“Master Altus was convinced that you, Aronoke, were intrinsically connected to them.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke weakly. “So that was what you were investigating on Kasthir?”

The image from his vision arose as fresh and clear as ever in his mind – the now-familiar underground chamber floored with red sand and writhing bone-sucking worms, the simple monolith statue seething with dark Force energy.

“Yes,” said Hespenara, a little grimly. “Both Master Altus and Master Skeirim, Ashquash’s master, have spent years researching the Biocron, hoping that there might be a way to use its power for the benefit of the Jedi Order and the greater galaxy. We went to Kasthir, following up one of Master Altus’s leads, hoping to find part of the Biocron there.”

“And you found it?” Aronoke asked.

“We didn’t locate it entirely,” said Hespenara. “It was too deeply buried, but Master Altus found enough to convince him that it was there.”

“But you did find me.”

“We weren’t looking for you. You were a surprise.” Hespenara smiled, doubtlessly remembering the scruffy little chiss skimmer she had first encountered. “Even when we found you, we didn’t know you were anything more than a Force-sensitive kid, but Master Altus wanted to take you off Kasthir as quickly as possible, back to the safety of the Jedi Temple. Being so near the Biocron was dangerous for someone as inherently Force-sensitive as you, he said. We broke off our investigation early.”

Aronoke had no idea that they had considered his welfare so important. He remembered how he had expected that the deal would never go through. How it was impossible that he would ever leave Kasthir. Strong emotions rose in him, remembering what it had been like to feel those things, and he schooled himself to be calm and patient.

“Later he decided you were connected to the Biocron,” said Hespenara.

“I showed him my back when we were on Coruscant,” Aronoke said. He remembered the Jedi Master’s reaction. Master Altus had asked him nothing about the strange tattoo or the hideous scars that obscured it, but had only reassured Aronoke that no harm would come to him because of it. Only a good deal later had he asked questions and recorded an image of it.

“Master Altus thought you were created as a living key to the Biocron,” Hespenara said. “He believed that the markings on your back were a map, showing the path to the Kasthir Biocron. It explains why you were there in the first place – someone was trying to follow the map.”

“Uncle Remo?” mused Aronoke. The new information cast the large pink twi’lek, one of the few of Aronoke’s childhood memories that was not unpleasant, in a different light. “He was just a treasure hunter?”

“We don’t know what Remo’s intentions were,” Hespenara said. “Master Altus thought he was one of the researchers who worked with the project that created you, somewhere in the Empire, and that he went rogue and stole you away from them. He may have wanted to use you himself, he may have intended to sell you, or he may have taken you to Kasthir to hide you, thinking that your connection to the Biocron might protect you in some way. I don’t expect that we’ll ever know,” she concluded gently.

“Why did Master Altus never tell me any of this?” Aronoke asked, dismayed. Feeling betrayed and disappointed. He had learned he was bioengineered from a droid, sent by his harasser. He had felt so abandoned and alone, not knowing where he had come from, or why he had warranted such negative attention.

“Master Altus didn’t piece together everything I’ve told you until later,” said Hespenara. “He didn’t have a chance to tell you all of it, but I think he wouldn’t have told you anyway, at least not right away. He sought to protect you – he wanted you to have what you never had on Kasthir. He hoped that within the Jedi Temple you might be able to experience something of the childhood you missed out on. He wanted you to have as much time as you needed to feel safe and to grow into the Jedi he thought you could be.”

Her face fell. “I suppose his attempt to protect you failed after all,” she said sadly, “or you wouldn’t be here, a Padawan already.”

“Someone found out about Aronoke’s hidden potential,” observed Master Caaldor quietly. “He was not allowed to pursue his studies peacefuly within the Jedi temple, but was hounded by attempts to influence him in a most un-Jedi-like way. Being made a padawan early was considered the best alternative, especially when taking into account Aronoke’s rapid maturation.”

“The harassments started up again after you left,” said Aronoke to Hespenara, “as soon as Master Altus was gone. It wasn’t just me that was affected – they tried to get to me through Ashquash in a very harmful way.”

“And we didn’t come back to stop it,” Hespenara said heavily.

“But what happened to you and Master Altus?” said Aronoke. “How did you come to be frozen in carbonite?”

“Master Altus uncovered a lead regarding a Biocron hidden deep beneath the ocean on a planet called Zynaboon,” said Hespenara. “I don’t expect you’ve heard of it – it’s a water world controlled by the Sith Empire, unremarkable in most aspects, save that it’s inhabited by a native race of natural force-users, called the Kroobnak. We went there incognito, planning to meet with Master Skeirim to combine forces to search for it.”

Aronoke sat very still. “Master Skeirim?” he asked. “He knew you were there, on Zynaboon?”

“Yes, of course,” said Hespenara. “Master Altus and Master Skeirim often worked together. We went to meet with him, but the Imperials somehow found out we were there. There were so many of them and they had back-up forces. Mercenaries. Master Altus and Master Skeirim put up as much of a fight as they could, but it wasn’t going well, and after that – well, I don’t remember. I was stunned during the fight, and after that I suppose I was frozen in carbonite.”

“We have to get this information back to the Jedi Temple,” said Master Caaldor.

“I don’t understand,” said Hespenara, looking bewildered.

“Master Skeirim wasn’t captured by the Imperials,” said Aronoke. “He didn’t say anything about meeting Master Altus on Zynaboon.”

Hespenara looked horrified. “He betrayed us? But why? Master Altus and Master Skeirim were close colleagues.”

“He’s the one who has been put in charge of leading the search to recover you,” said Aronoke grimly. “No wonder it was taking so long. I wonder what else he might have been responsible for.”

Could Master Skeirim have also been involved in the strange incidents that had plagued Aronoke in the Jedi Temple? He hadn’t been there most of the time, Aronoke remembered, but he was Ashquash’s mentor and would have had ample opportunity to drug her. Master Skeirim had also encouraged Aronoke and Ashquash to spend time together. Had the entangling emotions that developed between them, the strange uncontrollable wave of lust, also been part of his plan?

If he had been responsible for hurting Ashquash, Aronoke thought, with an un-Jedi-like pang of fury, he would pay for what he had done to her.

Calm. Peace.

“So I was captured and frozen in carbonite,” said Hespenara. “But what happened to Master Altus?”

“I’m afraid we don’t know,” said Master Caaldor, but Aronoke shook his head fiercely, for he had worked something out in his head that very moment.

“He was captured by the Imperials, either then or later, trying to save Hespenara,” he said, intently. “He was taken prisoner on Zynaboon, and hidden away in an Imperial facility there, deep under the water. That’s the place I saw in my vision – an Imperial base, deep in the ocean, with strange Force-sensitive sentients swimming above. He was alive,” he told Hespenara darkly, “but suffering. Tormented. They were torturing him somehow but he was withstanding it.”

“Oh no!” said Hespenara, paling. “Poor Master Altus.”

“From what Hespenara has told us, it seems likely that facility is also where the Biocron is hidden,” said Master Caaldor thoughtfully. “Which brings us to the second part of our discussion. This information only makes it more imperative that we get out of here and back to the Jedi Temple as soon as possible. We will have to abandon the ship, I’m afraid. PR will be most upset.”

Aronoke judged that his Master wasn’t too pleased about it either.

“Getting away without a ship won’t be easy,” Aronoke said. “We’ve got the queb and the Sith looking for us everywhere, and there’s no vessels to, ah, requisition, down here on the planet’s surface.”

“The ship is too badly damaged to be repaired here,” said Master Caaldor shortly.

“Can we send a distress signal?” asked Hespenara.

“Sending a conventional communication will pinpoint our position accurately to our pursuers,” reminded Master Caaldor, looking strained. Aronoke guessed that the effort of maintaining the shield protecting them from detection was weighing heavily on him. “Although the content of our message would be protected by encryption, that’s of little help to us. With all the scanners they’ve doubtlessly deployed, they only need to pick up a stray electronic signal. By the time help arrives, they’ll have traced it back to our current location.”

“Bolar Dak is probably out there looking for us too,” said Aronoke glumly. Seeing Hespenara’s blank look he added “Bolar Dak is the bounty hunter who froze you in carbonite and auctioned you off. He worked with the Empire and for the queb.”

“I see,” said Hespenara.

There was a long minute of silence while they all thought.

“What if one of us sneaks off the ship,” said Aronoke slowly, “and fires off a distress signal from somewhere else? When the Jedi come to find us, we can send them a message then. If they’re close to us, they should be in a position to help us more quickly than the queb can trace us.”

“That could work,” said Hespenara. “I expect there’s a portable distress beacon somewhere on this ship. As long as it gets off a signal, there’s a good chance some Jedi somewhere will pick it up.”

“Of course, it could also attract a lot of unpleasant attention,” added Aronoke.

“Nevertheless, it’s probably our best chance,” said Master Caaldor. “All that remains is to decide who should do it. I am obviously the least injured, but I am also the only one able to hide our presence from the Sith.”

“That leaves either Aronoke or myself,” said Hespenara reluctantly. “I can see quite well now, but I’m afraid I’m not feeling very fit. Certainly not up to a cross-country expedition. That leaves Aronoke, but he has been quite badly injured.”

“There’s also Kthoth Neesh” said Aronoke. “She could come with me.” He didn’t bother to mention the kubaz. If Tarric Gondroz ran into any trouble, Aronoke didn’t doubt that he would sell them out immediately to save his own skin.

“That’s probably our best option,” said Master Caaldor. “Ask Kthoth Neesh if she will accompany you, Padawan. PR can assist with finding the distress beacon. You must not take any unnecessary risks. Better to fail to set off the beacon than to get captured by the Sith. I have little doubt they have made an arrangement with the queb specifying that they are to be given custody of any prisoners which are taken. Except perhaps for you, Hespenara.”

“Doubtlessly they plan for me to continue as some sort of lawn ornament,” said Hespenara wryly.

“Indeed.”

“I’d best leave immediately,” said Aronoke, climbing to his feet. “Perhaps you can decide where the best place would be to fire the beacon off while I gather together the equipment I will need.”

“May the Force be with you, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor.

 

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so quick to volunteer,” said Aronoke, looking doubtfully at the underwater breather Hespenara had just passed him. “I didn’t get up to the part of the training where we learned to operate these.”

“Look on the bright side,” said Kthoth Neesh, not looking any more enthusiastic. “At least you get to wear a spankworthy swimsuit.”

The narakite girl was dressed similarly to Aronoke himself, in a form-fitting full body underwater suit with a tight-fitting face mask.

“The breathers are very easy,” said Hespenara reassuringly. “You can’t go wrong, so long as you remember to breathe through your mourth and not through your nose.”

“Have I mentioned my phobia of water?” Aronoke quipped half-seriously, but both Kthoth Neesh and Hespenara looked so worried, he wished he hadn’t said it aloud. “It’s true – I don’t like water,” he added, trying to sound reassuring, “but I can deal with it when I have to. I’ll be fine.”

He didn’t feel like he was going to be fine when he and Kthoth Neesh stood in the ship’s airlock with cold green river water rising up around their waists. He felt like he was going to panic, to spiral out of control like he had when Ashquash pushed him in the pool, when he had thought he was drowning. Perhaps the Aronoke of back then would have perished in this situation, a victim of his own fear, but he had come a long way in the intervening months. He knew how to control his fear. Knew so many things he hadn’t known then.

A minute of meditation. A deep breath through the breather as the water rose to cover his face. A momentary twist of fear in his gut as the water completely filled the airlock, quelled by calm confidence that everything was okay. He was in control. Here by choice. He could do this.

By the time the outer airlock door slowly ground aside, manually opened by Aronoke and Kthoth Neesh, Aronoke was ready to face the great brown and green current of the open river beyond. A flick of his feet, and his special swim-shoes expanded into graceful flippers, allowing him to swim far faster and more competently. Beside him, Kthoth Neesh was also making good progress. The narakite girl had no more experience with swimming than Aronoke did himself, having been raised on a space station and spent most of her life on ships, but she grinned cheerily at him and made a thumb’s up sign as they surged downstream, angling across towards the riverbank.

Being underwater was not so different from being in open space, Aronoke thought to himself. It was odd that the latter didn’t disturb him anywhere near as much as the former.

The plan was that they should swim a considerable distance from the ship before surfacing near the riverbank, just in case they were observed leaving the river. Once on land, they would trek through the jungle several miles towards a low hill offering a vantage point above the trees. Here, they would set off the distress beacon and then retreat quickly back into the jungle. Once certain that they were not being followed, they were to return to the ship by a different route.

It sounded easy in theory, but in the field, even the best-laid plans were open to random influence and unknown factors, something that made itself clear only minutes after the two explorers had left the ship.

Aronoke had been keeping his senses open, watching for anything that lived in the water that might be a threat. There were plenty of small things that dwelt in the river. The vast majority of them were tiny – single-celled algae, slightly larger plants, some weedy and free-floating, others adhering to the bottom of the riverbed in the shallows. Then there were animals. Tiny swimming worms composed of chains of flat paddles, and crustacean-like creatures composed of balls of conjoined limbs, no larger than the fingernail on Aronoke’s smallest finger. Larger swimming wrigglers with fins and tentacles ate the algae and the smaller creatures, and then there was….

Big. Very, very big. Aronoke could sense the curiosity and hunger of the giant river worm as it oscillated through the water towards them. It was easily large enough to swallow them whole. He couldn’t be certain if it was purely aquatic or an amphibian, but now was not the time to get caught up in interesting taxonomic details.

Kthoth Neesh grabbed at Aronoke’s arm and he realised he had stopped swimming. She made a querying gesture and he pointed off through the water towards the creature. Big, he mimed, putting his hands far apart. Snake. He pressed his hands together and made an undulating movement. Kthoth Neesh stared off into the murky water, glanced back at Aronoke and shrugged. It was still too far away to see, but it was getting closer with every second. Too quickly for them to make it to the riverbank, Aronoke judged, even if they headed directly towards the closest point and swam with everything they had.

He gestured for Kthoth Neesh to wait and swam a few strokes closer to the creature.

As the monster came nearer and nearer, Aronoke tried to be calm and focussed his senses on its brain. It was small compared to the vast bulk of its long, thick finned body. The monster was surging forward, opening its mouth, getting ready to engulf him. Aronoke wondered briefly if it would swallow them both, and if he would be able to cut his way out of its gargantuan body with his lightsaber before he was digested.

Ah. No lightsaber.

This was not a good time to try learning how to trick minds, but on the other hand, the creature’s intellect was small. It should be easy to trick. It was the best option left to him.

Calm, peace and certainty. Aronoke tried to channel the Force into one decisive sweeping thought, emphasised by a single gesture.

You don’t want to eat us. You should go away.

For a moment he thought it hadn’t worked, as the creature continued to bear down upon him, but perhaps it was merely momentum that carried it along, for at the last moment, tossing Aronoke aside in its tumultuous wake like a drowned leaf, it streamed past him and Kthoth Neesh and continued on its way up the river.

Once he had righted himself, Aronoke located Kthoth Neesh and swam over to her. She hung in the water, her eyes huge and round in her face mask. She looked vastly relieved to see him and made emphatic gestures towards the shore.

Yes, perhaps we are far enough away from the ship, Aronoke thought to himself, and he nodded. They lost no time making their way to land.

 

“I thought we were dead and no mistake,” spluttered Kthoth Neesh as she tore off her mask. “Monster bait. Then I thought it had swallowed you. I wonder what made it change its mind. Lucky it didn’t decide to come back for a second try.”

“Yes,” said Aronoke taking a grateful breath of fresh air and restraining himself from kissing the ground. It sounded good from a dramatic perspective, but the riverbank was profoundly muddy. “Come on – there’s no time to waste. Let’s be off up that hill and get this over and done with.”

He retracted his flippers into his swim shoes and together they set off towards their goal.

Like the first part of their journey, the trek through the jungle looked far easier on a map than it was in practice. The jungle in this area was pock-marked with clearings and criss-crossed by streams. Whereas walking through a rainforest was relatively easy, since there were not many plants that grew beneath the canopy, this area was tangled with dense stringy undergrowth and oozing lobe-leaved creepers. Many tiny creatures lived amidst the densely coiled brambles and vines, and Aronoke and Kthoth Neesh were continually stopping to remove would-be parasites from their clothing. Aronoke was grateful for the tough form-fitting swimsuit now – Jedi robes would only be an additional encumbrance under these conditions.

They had been pushing their way through the undergrowth for about an hour before Aronoke heard the sound of a ship approaching.

“Quick, someone’s coming!” he said, pulling Kthoth Neesh under the nearest bush.

The ship that passed almost directly overhead was sleek, black and triangular.

“An Imperial ship,” said Kthoth Neesh, staring up at it angrily.

Aronoke was no expert on ship models, but his senses told him that this vehicle did indeed contain the Sith that he had sensed earlier. Suddenly the spark in his mind that represented the strange Force-user flared oddly, and Aronoke hastily withdrew his senses, clamping them tight around himself. Too late. The ship altered its path and began to curve almost lazily around, circling around their hiding place.

“They detected me,” he hissed to Kthoth Neesh. She shot him an alarmed glare.

How did Master Caaldor’s Force shielding trick work, Aronoke wondered fretfully as the ship droned by overhead. Another thing he had never been taught. The best he could do was to sit quietly, gathering his Force powers around him in tight-fitting quiescence. He tried to empty his mind and visualise empty space, an absence of everything except the natural world around him, continuing with its biological business. No Jedi here.

“I think they’ve given up,” said Kthoth Neesh after a few minutes. The Sith ship had streaked away across the sky, but not so very far, Aronoke thought, allowing a tiny tendril of his senses to follow that strangely tainted flare in the Force. It was setting down over there behind those trees, perhaps a mile away.

“We’d better hurry,” said Aronoke. “They haven’t gone far. They’re still looking for us.”

Kthoth Neesh nodded grimly. “Then let’s make as much distance as we can.”

 

Another hour and Kthoth Neesh was flagging and Aronoke was limping, despite his efforts to control the injury in his leg. They had reached a more substantial tract of forest and were walking under the trees. The sun was setting, casting long, low-angled rays sporadically through the canopy. The sounds of forest creatures heightened around them to a new crescendo as the diurnal cycle of the forest shifted through a crepuscular interlude.

Aronoke had been glad they had not encountered anything more difficult than the regular hazards of the jungle. Large predators had been conspicuous only in their absence. He was glad too that Kthoth Neesh had accompanied him. He had tried to keep his senses wound in tight, only using them intermittently to spot approaching threats. As his injuries had made themselves more loudly known, he found it difficult to concentrate, and he was grateful of the pirate girl’s quick eyes in helping to avoid potential dangers. Aronoke had not spotted the metallic wasp’s nest, suspended at head-height from a tree, nor had he noticed the trail of enormous spiked many-legged ground bugs, each the size of his hand, that consumed everything in their path. Both threats had been successfully avoided; each could have caused them serious trouble had they not been noticed in advance.

He and Kthoth Neesh had both heard the occasional sounds of speeder bikes criss-crossing the jungle around them. Thus far they had been lucky, easily able to avoid the search pattern of the vehicles, but the buzz of engines was a constant reminder that their enemies were aware of their presence and were hot on their trail.

As they reached the top of one slope and turned towards another, Aronoke could see the forest opening up into another clearing ahead.

“I think that is it,” said Kthoth Neesh, looking up from the navigation unit she carried. “It’s as close as we’re going to be able to get, anyway.”

“Good,” said Aronoke. “You might as well wait down here. There’s no sense both of us setting up the distress beacon – it might attract unpleasant attention rather quickly.”

“I can do it,” said Kthoth Neesh. “Your leg will slow you down.”

Aronoke’s injury had worsened as the day progressed, and his limp had grown more pronounced.

He took a swig from his water flask as he considered her offer, then passed it to Kthoth Neesh. “I can handle it,” he said to the pirate girl. “This is our mess that you’re caught up in, so it should be my responsibility. Besides, I’m experienced at being blown up.”

She smirked tiredly at him. “All right then. I’ll head north from these coordinates and meet you near the base of the hill,” she said. “I’ve no doubt you’ll be able to find me there.”

Aronoke nodded. “If I’m not back in half an hour, return to the ship,” he said.

“I will, but there’ll be no need,” said Kthoth Neesh. “I know you Jedi – tough as gundarks and full of hidden surprises.” She leered at him as she said the last bit, although Aronoke thought it was more through habit than from any immediate desire. They were both far too exhausted to worry about such things now, he thought.

 

The hill-top was choked with undergrowth and alive with tiny creatures. Clouds of leathery winged fliers, no larger than Aronoke’s thumb, flitted raspily through the maze-like world formed by the densely packed sticky-leaved plants, while many-legged carapaced invertebrates clung to leaves, flew through the air, crawled on the ground and burrowed underfoot. Swarms of aerial tentacular bladder-creatures were starting to awaken in dark clusters under the nearby trees. Here and there, larger creatures wandered through the tangle, preying on the smaller ones. Aronoke stamped out a small clear space at the top of the hill, and set down the distress beacon, feeling guilty that he was about to turn this thriving environment into a blazing warzone simply by pressing a button. He looked back along the way he had come, picking out the path he had made through the undergrowth. He intended to return along it with all possible haste as soon as he had activated the beacon.

He took a deep breath, snapping his control fully over the injury in his leg, dampening the pain, and simultaneously twisted the control on the beacon to start signalling. The barrel-shaped device expanded, mechanically unfolding stubby stabilising legs and spindly antennae. A small dish started revolving, and the whole unit emitted a faint glow. Aronoke did not wait to see more, but began running, across the clearing and down the hill, focussing on turning his body into a Force-driven propulsion machine. He surged through the undergrowth, leaping over the denser tangles of plants, narrowly avoiding ensnaring himself in the multitude of twisted vines and thorny bushes. He reached the edge of the clearing and continued off under the trees, his breath coming in steady, controlled gasps, the Force fuelling his muscles towards greater effort as the way became clearer.

How far… how far should he run? How quickly would…

The hillside exploded behind him, spectacularly. Trees on the edge of the clearing were knocked flat by the force of the explosion, and Aronoke himself was carried forward several metres and rolled along the ground like a quozball. He picked himself up painfully, staring in astonishment at the devastation raging behind him. The whole hilltop was ablaze with fire. The beacon surely hadn’t managed to function for more than a minute before it had been completely destroyed.

Someone was extremely averse to the idea of them getting help from outside. He could only hope that the brief window the distress beacon had signalled within would be enough.

There was no time to hesitate; enemy forces would soon be here, looking for him. Hopefully they would be uncertain as to whether he had been caught in the blast, and would spend some time trying to determine if this was the case.

Breaking into a steady jog-trot, Aronoke began running through the darkening forest, heading towards his meeting point with Kthoth Neesh.

 

Not far. Not far now. Surely no more than another hour. Aronoke was more tired than he had ever been in his life, except perhaps for that one time when Mill thought it would be funny to drop him off ten miles from Bunkertown, to see if Aronoke could run that far in the single hour remaining before sunset. Aronoke had been completely convinced that Mill was entirely capable of abandoning him out in the Fumelands at night, and had ran, as hard and as fast as he could, across the loose sand, across the firmer, crumbly ground scattered with tiny marble-sized rocks, across the vast dangerous sprawl of the Fumelands that lay between himself and safety. On and on, chest aching, robes flapping, legs turning to rubber beneath him. His ventilator filters hadn’t quite kept up with the demands his labouring metabolism had put on them and his body demanded water that he didn’t have.

Aronoke had nearly died of sheer relief when the flier had returned minutes before sunset. Mill had smirked as Aronoke climbed weakly inside. “You’re slow, kid,” he drawled. “There’s still three miles to go!”

Aronoke was certain that Mill would never have bothered to return, if not for the fact that Careful Kras would have been angry if anything had happened to him because of one of Mill’s stupid jokes.

As he and Kthoth Neesh straggled across yet another dark forested slope, Aronoke paused to briefly sense his surroundings and was immediately aware of a sentient approaching quickly from ahead of them.

“Another speeder bike,” said Kthoth Neesh at almost the same moment. “Hide!”

There was little cover, other than tall thin tree trunks. Both Aronoke and Kthoth Neesh dived behind the same fallen log, which would have been a close fit for just one of them. Despite the tenseness of the situation and his considerable weariness, Aronoke was intensely aware of the narakite’s warm body pressed up tightly against his own.

No, no time for distractions!

The speeder was drawing near, travelling quite slowly as it picked a path between the trees. A searchlight flickered between the treetrunks, glancing momentarily off the top of the log they hid behind. The engine slowed as the bike drew very near indeed and then idled a moment. A masked, slightly robotic voice spoke briefly.

“This is unit six, reporting in. All clear,” the rider said.

Aronoke held his breath. The speeder bike could be no more than two body-lengths away from them. The bike rider waited a moment that seemed to stretch on forever before he spoke again. He must be receiving further instructions, Aronoke thought.

“At once, my Lord,” said the rider, and the speeder bike turned and zoomed off through the trees.

Aronoke and Kthoth Neesh lay still and silent for a short eternity, crushed up against each other behind the log, as the sound of engines receded.

“Why, Padawan,” the narakite girl said seductively, twisting around to face him, “and here I thought you weren’t interested.”

Aronoke blushed and opened his mouth to voice a denial, but before he could say anything, Kthoth Neesh leaned over and kissed him.

And like before, when he had kissed Ashquash, a great green wave of energy broke over Aronoke, tearing his control aside as if it counted for nothing. His Jedi training was washed away, forgotten, as was his weariness and the pain of his injury. Any thought of shielding or restraint was lost in the current that ran between his body and hers, in the intense biological resonance between them, and the awareness of a connection, distant and tenuous, controlled by an ancient alien instrument, that nonetheless linked them intrinsically through the Force.

He kissed her back, pushing himself against her with a fierceness that Kthoth Neesh herself hadn’t anticipated. Her eyes widened and she tried to pull away, but she was trapped between Aronoke and the log. Then she gave in, relaxing against him, her hands coursing down his back delightfully. Aronoke was completely lost in the sensation, unprepared for the abrasive interruption when she suddenly broke the kiss and wrenched her head aside.

“Aronoke!” she hissed, fiercely.

He ignored her, driven by his rising passion, tugging at the fastener of her annoyingly restraining swimsuit.

She slapped him across the face. Hard.

“Ow!” he said, stung. She had wanted this… she had taunted him. What right did she have to suddenly deny him now?

“The speeder,” Kthoth Neesh hissed frantically. “It’s returning!”

Sanity returned slowly and Aronoke’s face burned with the enormity of his own foolishness. Whatever he had just done, whatever he had been intending to do, had doubtlessly blazed through the Force with a penetrating, clear and unique signature. Back in the Jedi temple, Master Insa-tolsa had known instantly that something was happening to Aronoke when this had happened with Ashquash! Here, now, while trying to hide from the all-too-observant senses of a Sith lord, Aronoke had announced their position as clearly as if he had fired off a flare.

Aronoke pushed the confusing tangle of thoughts aside, pushed himself away from Kthoth Neesh and scrambled to his feet.

“Stay in hiding,” he snapped at her. “I’ll distract him.” He ran over to hide behind the trunk of a nearby tree.

The speeder bike approached, more carefully than it had the first time. The rider was obviously alert and fully aware that there was some danger in the area. He probed the jungle carefully with his searchlight and scanned the ground, looking for footprints. Aronoke waited until the bike was near the fallen log and then leaned out a little too far from behind his tree.

The rider must have had some sort of augmentation system, Aronoke thought later, for he detected that slight movement immediately. His blaster rifle swung around to point at Aronoke instantly. “You there, step out into the open slowly. Throw down your weapons!”

The speeder bike rider dismounted smoothly while keeping Aronoke in his sights. He wore Imperial armour in camouflage green and black and the rifle that was trained on Aronoke was held sure and steady. Aronoke had no doubt that he was a trained professional soldier and a crack shot to boot.

“Don’t shoot!” Aronoke stepped slowly out from behind the tree, arms raised, moving carefully. Growing up in the company of Fronzak and the other Fumers had made him fully aware of exactly what damage a blaster could do. He was a Jedi now, capable of dealing with mundane forces like blaster fire, but he had a different plan in mind. Catching a glimpse of a slight movement behind the log made him certain that Kthoth Neesh had exactly the same idea.

“This is Unit 6,” said the trooper into his communicator, his attention focused intently on Aronoke. “I’ve located the subject. Repeat, I’ve located the subject at my current coordinates.”

Aronoke swore silently to himself. He had hoped to distract the man enough so that he didn’t send out an alert. Best to deal with him as quickly as possible and to get on their way.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” said Aronoke, talking to keep the speeder bike rider’s attention firmly on himself and to cover any small noises Kthoth Neesh might make. “I won’t do you any harm. In fact, I’m glad to see another sentient face. I’ve been wandering around this jungle for days, ever since I was separated from my hunting party. Just about near starved to death.”

“Keep your hands where I can see them and lay flat on the ground,” said the speeder bike rider, ignoring Aronoke’s patter. “Any sharp moves, and I’m instructed to shoot first and worry about your health later.”

“There’s no need to be like that,” said Aronoke, in a wounded tone. He moved slowly to comply.

The speeder bike rider made a choking noise and dropped to the ground, Kthoth Neesh’s vibroknife protruding from his back. The blaster rifle fell from his hands unfired. Aronoke could sense the life fading from him as he fell.

He turned to Kthoth Neesh.

“Don’t you ever do anything like that to me again,” he snarled, stepping towards her, ignoring the second vibroknife she still held in one raised hand. “No more seductions. No more kisses!”

“You didn’t seem to mind,” she said indifferently, dropping her hand and lightly kicking the body of the fallen soldier, making sure he was properly dead.

“This is not a game,” said Aronoke angrily, overflowing with self-loathing. “Not an amusing challenge. I don’t have time to explain, but I have enough problems without you playing with me. I know you don’t understand – I don’t understand properly myself – but there’s more at stake here than simply the Jedi code.”

“I’m sorry,” said Kthoth Neesh curtly, but her face showed a moment of genuine regret. Then, as her expression closed down, Aronoke’s anger faded, and he chided himself for giving in to it so precipitously. For shouting at Kthoth Neesh, when the one he was really angry with was himself.

“I’m sorry too,” he said more quietly. “I should have more control. It’s not your fault, Kthoth Neesh, it’s mine, although I would appreciate it if you made things a little easier on me.”

The narakite girl studied him a moment, her emotions opaque to Aronoke’s scrutiny.

“Come on,” she said quietly. “Like you said, we don’t have time. Let’s get out of here.”

She climbed on the speeder bike and waited for Aronoke to climb up behind her.

As they zipped away into the darkness, Aronoke wished his life was less complicated. He could blame Kthoth Neesh, but she wasn’t a Jedi. He could blame himself, and by all means, he deserved a hefty serving of self-criticism. Yet there was something else with which some of the blame deserved to lie, and now he had a name for it. The Biocron.

Tash was stone. Nera’s world turned swiftly around its cheerful yellow sun, and summer followed winter in bewildering succession. Men rose to greatness and built things to last forever, and their grandchildren saw those things wither and fail.

Time does not flow the same way in different worlds, and on the clouded world of the thalarka time sped by yet faster still. While Tash was stone the long rule of the Overlord ended and those who came after her fought one another with evil over-powerful things, and it came to pass that a lifeless grey sea roiled without ceasing over all the places Tash had ever known or heard of before he was cast into the void. But Tash knew nothing, felt nothing, saw nothing.

***

Josie was a prisoner in Telmar for several weeks before she found the door. Yustus was busy researching magics to make her see, and Eber and Jabeth had been sent off to the Valley of Fire, wherever that might be, and were not expected back for some time. (Jabeth was the ifrit who had found it such fun to let her ankle drop in midair.) Ureth and Saleh carried her up and down through the window of the tower on the infrequent occasions Yustus wanted to gloat or make some unpleasant measurement of her face; and Zardeenah provided her with every comfort. She remained friendly, and Josie remained none the wiser as to whether it was true friendliness or a sham. Zardeenah was willing enough to talk, but Josie soon learned the topics about which she could not speak, at the bidding of her master: it was useless to ask any question that might have some bearing on the possible weaknesses of the magician, or a way that Josie might escape. At night she often heard the howling of wild dogs in the lands beyond, and Zardeenah said that these were ones descended from the men of Telmar, who Aslan had turned into beasts.

‘I rather hope the gazelles don’t manage to persuade this Prince Margis not to come here,’ Josie thought to herself. ‘I should like nothing better than a Prince with an army of knights to rescue me from this tower. And that magician certainly deserves to have his head lopped off.’

During this time Josie explored the tower room thoroughly. A blind girl can explore a room quite as well as a sighted one, given enough time, and when she is done she knows a great many things that the sighted one still has no clue about. The door was one of those things you or I might walk past a thousand times, and not notice a thing, but to Josie’s sensitive fingers it was as obvious as a line of red ink on a whitewashed wall, and the handle concealed in the carved olive branches of the panelling no more hidden than a brass knocker. It was a door about Josie’s size, under a writing desk that was ifrit-sized, which was a further reason she supposed why Zardeenah did not seem to know it was there. She was consumed with curiosity about what might lie behind it. It was good to have something to think about that had nothing to do with her troubles – except, just perhaps, as the first link in a plan of escape. The door was locked, but she had a very good idea of where the key might be – there were several keys inside a little porcelain box on a high shelf. The problem was only that Zardeenah never left her alone.

‘But if humans are really so clever at fooling ifrits, like she says we are, I should be able to think of something.  Or I could ask, I suppose, since I have not been told the door is forbidden. But, then if it is, as it probably will be, she will be forewarned and hide the key, and maybe put something heavy in front of the door.’

***

After Josie thought of something to distract Zardeenah it all happened exactly as she had imagined: when the lady ifrit had gone, she retrieved the porcelain box, rummaged through it to find the keys and took them under the desk with her. In a most satisfactory way the very first key she selected slipped easily into the lock and turned, and the door opened. The air behind it was cool, with a faint smell of drains and mouldy straw, and the inside of the door was covered with a thick coat of dust. She stepped cautiously through the doorway, careful to touch the walls and floor only with her bare hands and feet, since she did not want to leave telltale smudges on her clothes. Beyond the door was a little landing for a spiral staircase with steps leading both up and down.

‘It is a sensible thing to be here,’ she thought. ‘The tower was probably built in the first place by men who didn’t have ifrit servants, and would need a way to get up and down. And even if it was built later by the evil magician, if I was him I would want a way to get anywhere without letting my slaves know, just in case.’ Josie put the ‘if I was him’ out of her thoughts – it was too horrible to think that it might ever be true – closed the door behind her, and started down the staircase.  She passed other landings, and there might have been other doors with keyholes that a sighted girl could have peered through, but likely as not it would have been pitch black in those rooms anyway. She hurried on toward the bottom, because she wanted to find out what was behind the door, which meant getting as far she safely could get in the short time she had.

The staircase ended in a small room with a very dirty floor. Something that could only have been the dried-out body of a rat crunched under the ball of Josie’s left foot. Here was a grate, from which the foul smell of drains was strongest; and here was a faint draught playing across her ankles, coming from under a door. She bent down and felt the cool night air trickling in, carrying with it the unmistakeable scent of honeysuckle. The hopeful outsidiness of the smell made her desperately keen to keep going.

Here was the door’s handle, rough with verdigris. She turned it with difficulty and pushed against the door. When nothing happened, she forgot she was trying to keep her clothes clean and threw all her weight against the door through her shoulder. On the third try, the door swung open with a loud crack and spilled her out through a honeysuckle vine onto the grass.

‘Well, that’s torn it,’ she said, fingering the tear in the shoulder of her dress. ‘It will be hard hiding that I’ve been somewhere I shouldn’t now.’ She stood up and dusted herself off. ‘So I should make the most of this adventure while I can.’

It is unfortunate that things that are beautiful and people who are kind do not always go together, for that walled garden was a very beautiful place and it would be nice to think that it had been planned by a man of Telmar who had something kindly inside of him, in order to imagine a place so lovely and peaceful. But history is full of tyrants who made the most beautiful gardens and temples and thought nothing of also making pyramids from the severed heads of the peoples they conquered, or fires to roast their enemies alive. So the man who planned that garden was very likely as horrid as all the other men of Telmar who come into this story.

The garden was round, with a wall on all sides, and had been planted with many different flowering plants which were now growing with a wild exuberance, though it had been kept up well enough that there were still lanes of lawn in between them. Next to the honeysuckle were oleanders, and then wisteria, and then several sorts of flowering bushes and vines that Josie did not recognise.  Standing around the edge where the marks on a clock would be were cypresses, and in the middle was a stone fountain, dry except for a little puddling from the rain. It was one of those fountains like a pie-plate, with an edge you can easily step over, a flat tiled expanse for the water to play in, and something in the middle for the water to come out of. This something was a pedestal about as high as Josie, with carved horses’ heads around the edges, and in the centre two sandalled stone feet that presumably connected to the rest of a statue – but Josie could not reach that high.

In one place in the wall there was a gate made of metal bars, but it was locked fast, and fit snugly into its stone arch, so there was no question of Josie squeezing through the bars or over the top of them. ‘So that way is out,’ she told herself.

Beyond the cypresses, right up close to the wall of the garden, were three more statues. There was a stag with his head low to the ground, as if he was about to charge; a large snarling cat that might have been a lioness or a leopard; and some sort of fairy-tale creature that Josie did not recognise. It was twice as tall as she was, and had bandy sorts of legs with clawed feet, arms that bent down at such strange angles that she bumped her head against them more than once – it did not help that there were four of them – and bits of it seemed to be carved into very realistically textured feathers. When she climbed it, since it seemed to be the tallest thing close enough to the wall for her to get an idea of how tall the wall was, she found it had a head like some great bird of prey.

‘What curious taste in statues these men of Telmar had,’ said Josie to herself. ‘It must have been a terrible lot of work to carve these things, and here they are tucked away in a corner of this garden.’

Josie found that by standing gingerly on top of the head of the bird-headed thing, supporting her weight by one hand leaning against the wall of the garden, she could just reach the top of the wall with the outstretched fingertips of her other hand.

‘I could probably jump and grab the top and pull myself up,’ said Josie to herself. ‘But there is no way of knowing what is on the other side. If it is the outside, I will have to deal with those wild dogs; and if it isn’t the outside, well, it could be anything. And the drop could be a lot farther on that side, for all I know.’

Josie was spared the chance to do something rash at that moment, or dither further about whether she should do something rash, by losing her footing and falling to the ground.

She lay there under something like a camellia bush, catching her breath. She had had the wind knocked out of her, and struck her elbow painfully on a foot of the statue, but did not seem to have broken anything.

‘Oh dear,’ she said to herself, hearing flapping in the sky above her. ‘Can Zardeenah be back so soon?’

There was more flapping as whoever it was entered a window, then she heard her own name called inside the tower. Very shortly afterward the sound of ifrit wings flapping came again, as Zardeenah – for it had been her voice – launched herself back into the air.

‘Back, I must get back,’ thought Josie, and scrambled to her feet, thinking at that moment only of hiding herself in under the blankets and pretending not to have been away when Zardeenah returned again. She had long practice at remembering the layout of new places on a brief acquaintance, so was able to run across the garden back to the door at a cracking pace without tripping over anything.

‘I will have to pretend I fell asleep somewhere peculiar, and didn’t hear her,’ Josie told herself, walking up the stairs as quickly as she dared. She knew her clothes would be dirty from falling to the ground, and it would be obvious to Zardeenah that she had gotten out somehow. ‘But maybe she won’t notice. Please, God, let her not notice.’

When Josie returned the ifrit did not seem to be there. She locked the hidden door, changed into a nightdress, took one of the underblankets from her sleeping pile, and curled up in a corner between a cabinet and the wood-box.

Before long there was the flapping of wings at the window, and a voice calling once more, bright with anger. ‘Josie?’

Josie stirred as if she was waking up from a deep sleep, and answered. ‘Yes?’

Josie could not see Zardeenah, but she could feel her eyes boring into her as she gave her a long stare. ‘Indeed, yes,’ said Zardeenah, the words pronounced so that they meant something entirely different.  ‘So, you have been there all this time?’ she asked.

‘All this time?’ said Josie.

‘Very well then,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Come out of there and sleep in the proper place.’

‘It felt more comforting over here when you were gone, somehow,’ explained Josie, acting as if she were younger than she was. She gathered up the underblanket and wandered over to her bed acting as sleepily as she could manage.

‘I don’t believe you for a moment,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Up to some scheming, I am sure. Well, I would do nothing else in your place.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Josie, settling herself down on her bed of blankets.

‘There are stranger things in the world,’ said Zardeenah, and Josie could still feel the pressure of her inhuman gaze. ‘I have it mind not to tell you the news Saleh has brought.’

‘Please tell, Zardeenah,’ said Josie, ‘I really am sorry to worry you.’

‘Not so sorry as you will be when you hear it, girl,’ said Zardeenah, but her voice was not unkind. ‘It would only have meant his death, of course, but your ally from the human lands will not be coming to save you. He has turned back.’

‘Oh,’ said Josie, thinking of the man Margis she had never met. She had not known that she had put any hope at all in him coming to rescue her, but at the news that he certainly wasn’t, she felt a crushing sense of disappointment. ‘That’s too bad,’ she said.

‘Console yourself with the thought that he would certainly have died otherwise,’ said Zardeenah. ‘He and all of those with him. We ifrits are powerful servants.’

Josie did not find this a terribly consoling thought. ‘Do you know why he turned back?’ she asked.

‘His brother was thrown from a horse and broke his neck,’ said Zardeenah. ‘That is the tale Saleh brought. He was needed then to return to the city of the humans.’

Josie thought of Gerry and the accident again, and bit her lip. ‘Maybe he will try again later.’

‘Indeed,’ said Zardeenah. ‘Maybe he will.’

***

At midwinter Jabeth and Eber returned with two great diamonds from the Valley of Fire, and Yustus made Josie feel them.

‘Are they not splendid?’ he said. ‘They are exactly the right size, and a splendid shade of blue. I always think that a pale woman like you looks most imposing with blue eyes.’

Josie held the stones in her hands and wondered if they would smash if she were to hurl them at the floor.

Yustus snatched the diamonds out of her hands as if he could tell what she was thinking. ‘You are growing well,’ he said approvingly. ‘Soon you will have reached your full height, and then, ah, then let the world tremble before a new queen!’

‘I will kill myself first,’ said Josie. ‘I will.’

Yustus laughed. ‘No, you won’t. The power that is in you will not let you. The hunger for life is strong in you. I never saw the White Queen, but I recognise in you what is said of her in the tales. Only those who are exceptional in power are drawn through from world to world.’

‘You should be careful, then,’ said Josie. ‘Maybe I’ll work out how to use my power against you.’

‘Delightful, child!’ said Yustus, reaching out and patting her cheek. ‘Delightful! You just keep telling yourself that.’

***

At times it seemed to Josie that she had spent all her life as a prisoner of the evil magician. At first she missed her mother, she missed her sister, she missed potatoes and the smell of the bush and the hot Australian sunshine; but she missed these things less and less each day, and all her memories of her life before she came to the new world grew more and more vague and dreamlike.  From the passing of the seasons, she could tell that more than a year went by: a year of eating Telmarine food, and wearing Telmarine clothes, and only rarely speaking to anyone other than Zardeenah.  She could feel her body growing and changing – which would have happened wherever she was, but seemed almost to be a malign enchantment in Telmar. For she knew that when she had grown close enough to a woman’s size and shape Yustus would judge her big enough to steal her body, and this made the process of growing up, which was already nasty enough, truly horrible.

Every month or so Josie would be brought before Yustus, who would appraise how much she had grown and say again how fine her white arms would be splendid for casting incantations. Sometimes he would come up and squeeze her arms when he said how fine and white they were, and once he had her brought before him naked – so he could look her over for blemishes, he said – but he did not do any of the most dreadful things that Josie had feared evil magicians might do to girls they captured, especially after she had heard Zardeenah’s stories.

Josie often felt that she would have gone mad if it were not for the garden.  She could not go down there often, and had to plan her excursions very carefully so as not to be caught. When she thought about it, she was quite certain that Zardeenah had a good idea of where she had gone, that first night when she returned unexpectedly; but Josie was very careful not to give her any extra cause for suspicion. Thinking about how she would next get out took up a good deal of Josie’s time; and when she was out, she savoured every moment of the outside air on her skin and the smell of the garden, and learned every branch of the bushes until she could navigate in the garden as easily as she could in her bedroom at home.  Sometimes she would sit underneath the statues and talk to them.

It was a summer evening and the crickets were loud, and Josie was stretched out on the grass beneath the statue that was rather like a lion.

‘It seems a terrible shame to bring me here just so I can be a prisoner and then be taken over by an evil magician. What is the point of it all? I wish I knew what was going on. Please, Aslan, if you can hear me, do something to get me out of here.’

These were the sorts of thoughts that had gone and on around in her head unceasingly all year. She prayed a little prayer. ‘Please, God, help me to get out of here.’ She tried to be calm, and breathe slowly, and told herself for the ten-thousandth time that while there was life there was hope. After a while she felt a kind of peace.

‘It will be all right in the end,’ she told herself. ‘It has to be.’

She gave the face of the great stone cat a familiar pat, and made her way back to the door at the base of the tower.

The next day Yustus told her she was ready.

Aronoke was woken by the chime at his door. “Master Aronoke,” the ship’s droid’s tinny voice said over the intercom. “Master Caaldor wishes to speak with you on the communicator.”

“Okay, PR,” said Aronoke, trying to blink himself awake.

It was all very well for practiced Jedi Masters like Master Caaldor to get along without any sleep, but Aronoke still found it difficult. It was hard to wake up quickly after only six hours. He had been awake for more than twenty-four hours previously. It was no use complaining – Master Caaldor would only say he had to work harder on his control techniques.

He rubbed his face, stripped off his sleeping robe and quickly dressed, yawning hugely.

“Are you ready to take a shift here now, Aronoke?” asked Master Caaldor, and Aronoke nodded. “Yes, Master,” he said. “I should probably see to the pirates first, though.”

“Do that and then come across,” said Master Caaldor. “I’ll see you on the bridge.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke again.

He dealt with the two male pirates first, checking the older one’s arm, which seemed to be healing well. He showed them into the facilities at the end of the hall near their cells, and then provided them with food and drink. Next he took the kubaz out and did the same with him.

“I must express again how grateful I am that you rescued me,” said the kubaz. “Those others would have killed me for sure! My life was worth nothing back there.”

“Perhaps you should have been more careful how you dealt with the pirates,” pointed out Aronoke. “I don’t know what sort of deal you made, but obviously the other refugees consider you to be a traitor.”

The kubaz fidgeted anxiously. “That wasn’t my intention,” he said, his voice whining nasally. “I didn’t want anyone to be hurt. The pirates were frightening! They threatened us! Someone had to say something.”

“Your fear betrayed you and through it you betrayed your friends,” said Aronoke patiently. “Sometimes it’s better to do nothing than to act out of fear.”

Hearing his own voice he couldn’t help but smirk internally at himself. Spouting platitudes. Making moral judgements. So much had changed in the way he thought about things. Yet even when he had been a skimmer working for Careful Kras, Aronoke had known that it was better to stick by his own people than to betray them to one of the opposing compounds. No matter what the blandishment, what the temptation, no one ever trusted a turncoat, no matter what side he ended up on.

Although wasn’t that what Aronoke himself had done, when he made that deal with Master Altus? Turned traitor to the Fumers?

Life was complicated. That moment on the sand when Master Altus could have killed Aronoke had been crucial. That was when everything had changed.

“I hope you Jedi will consider taking me with you when you leave this place,” said the kubaz. “If you hand me back over to those refugees you might as well have left me there in the first place. Not that I’m not grateful, mind you.”

Aronoke shrugged. “It’s not up to me, it’s up to Master Caaldor.”

“You might tell him that I’ve been very well behaved,” suggested the kubaz, as Aronoke opened the cell door to put him back inside. “Tell him I deserve another chance. My name is Tarric Gondroz, by the way.”

“I will be sure to tell him exactly how you’ve behaved, Tarric Gondroz,” said Aronoke, propelling him gently through the door.

“Your turn,” he said to the pirate who looked like Ashquash.

He took her to the facilities first. When she was finished there, he said “I would like to talk to you for a minute.”

“Me?” said the pirate, scowling. “What about?”

Aronoke silently gestured she should walk in front of him. He took her to the common room of the ship, where there was more room and it was more comfortable to talk. The pirate glowered at him suspiciously and stood staring at him with open resentment.

“What do you want with me?” she demanded.

“Just to talk, nothing more,” said Aronoke. “Firstly, what’s your name?”

“Kthoth Neesh,” said the pirate sullenly. “And I know you’re Padawan Aronoke and a Jedi and all that.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Aronoke. “Do you know someone called Ashquash?”

The pirate girl forgot to glower at him for a moment, her mouth dropping open slightly, her eyes widening. She recovered quickly, but Aronoke had been watching for her reaction. He could see that the name meant something to her.

“I don’t think so,” said Kthoth Neesh stubbornly.

Aronoke smiled. “I can see that you do,” he said. “I thought you might be some relation of hers. She looks a lot like you.”

Kthoth Neesh was surprised enough to forget to glower. “She’s my sister,” she said guardedly. “She was taken away by the Sweeping Hawk when she was very small, only two or three years old.”

“The Sweeping Hawk?”

“Another clan of my people. Our enemies.”

“You make slaves of each other?”

Kthoth Neesh nodded. “It’s our way. Our life is harsh, but it makes us strong. How do you know Ashquash?” she asked, curiosity tinging her voice.

It was Aronoke’s turn to hesitate, but there was no harm, he thought, in telling Kthoth Neesh what he knew.

“She was my room-mate at the Jedi Temple. She was being trained, like me, to become a Jedi.”

“A Jedi? Ashquash?” Kthoth Neesh’s mouth dropped open again. It was a long moment before she closed it properly. “I didn’t know my people could become Jedis.”

“It’s true that there aren’t many,” said Aronoke. “Just like there aren’t many of my people. Ashquash was rescued from the slavers by a Jedi master and he recognised that she was Force-sensitive, so he brought her to the temple to be trained. It hasn’t been easy for her though. While she was a slave she was addicted to riksht, and it was difficult for her to be weaned off it.”

Kthoth Neesh was nodding. “It’s the only way we can be made slaves,” she said proudly. “Our people are strong willed and do not submit easily. Is that why you chose me as a hostage? Because you thought I looked like Ashquash?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “Partly. I recognised you,” he said awkwardly, “not only because you looked like Ashquash, because frankly, you narakites all look alike to me, but because I had seen you before.”

“Seen me before?” Kthoth Neesh frowned.

“In a vision,” admitted Aronoke, feeling very pretentious.

“You have visions? You are a seer?” asked Kthoth Neesh doubtfully.

“I’m not fully trained. I’m only an apprentice,” said Aronoke. “I had a series of visions during one of my tests and you were in one of them. I recognised you immediately when I saw you in the hallway when you were trying to ambush us.”

“Bah, you took us far too easily,” said Kthoth Neesh, scowling and rubbing her arms. “All by yourself. Jedi have so much power, and you do so little with it.”

“We do plenty with it,” countered Aronoke. “We defeated you and rescued those refugees, for one thing.”

“Yes, you have a point. But in this vision, what was I doing?”

Aronoke felt uncomfortable. Telling someone you had foreseen their death was an awkward thing.

“It’s not good, I can see,” Kthoth Neesh remarked lightly.

“You were being pushed out an airlock,” said Aronoke.

Kthoth Neesh was silent and thoughtful for a moment. She didn’t question Aronoke’s vision. Seemed willing to believe it well enough. “Not good at all then,” she said, pulling a face. “It could happen, of course. The sorts of things my people do, it could happen all too easily. Can I avoid it, this fate, or is it a fixed destiny?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Aronoke. “I’m not trained as a seer. But I would think it could be avoided, otherwise why would the Force show me something like that?”

“I thank you for the warning,” said Kthoth Neesh. “It is very strange to think of Ashquash as a Jedi,” she said, shaking her head from side to side. “Is she doing well?”

“She has had a hard time of it,” said Aronoke. “She has some problems in the Jedi temple that have been difficult for her to deal with, but she is very determined. I hope she will succeed.”

“She was so small when she left,” said Kthoth Neesh. “Hardly more than a baby. She probably doesn’t remember anything of what it was to be one of us.”

Master Caaldor was waiting for him on the refugee ship, Aronoke reminded himself.

“I had better go now,” said Aronoke. “There are things I am supposed to do.”

He escorted the pirate back to her cell and locked her in, thinking that although he had confirmed Kthoth Neesh and Ashquash’s relationship, he had learned little.

Why had the vision of the pirate girl been tangled up with all those other things? With Master Altus and Hespenara, and that strange underground place on Kasthir?

As Aronoke pulled on his suit and PR checked that he had done all the connections up properly – he had only used the suit for the first time when he and Master Caaldor had taken over the pirate ship the day before – he tried to piece together what it might mean.

If they were all isolated events, why had he seen them all together like that, mingled through each other at the same instant, and yet each distinct?

He wished he had more training as a seer. It was all very well for Jedi Masters to go about cautioning initiates against using powers, but sometimes things happened without you intending them to. No one had ever explained anything about what he should be doing with his senses, other than restraining them.

No, that was not quite true. Master Squegwash had encouraged Aronoke to use his senses during his lightsaber training, and Master Caaldor had called upon Aronoke to use them several times, to sense things that Master Caaldor himself could not sense accurately. The trials, too, had required that Aronoke use his senses to complete them.

Obviously the use of Force powers, other than control, was something Initiates learned more about during the later years of their training. The years that Aronoke had missed out on.

On the refugee ship, repairs were proceeding very slowly.

“The mood amongst the refugees is unsettled,” said Master Caaldor. “They feel considerable resentment towards the ship’s crew. You should make your presence known, Padawan. If there are any disturbances, you may have to use an ostentatious display of power to maintain order, like you did yesterday when you were escorting the prisoners.”

Oh, so Master Caaldor had heard about that?

Aronoke nodded. “I spoke to the pirate I saw in my vision, Master,” he said.

“Oh? And did she have anything interesting to say?”

“It seems she is Ashquash’s sister,” said Aronoke. He had already discussed Ashquash with Master Caaldor earlier; how she had been his room-mate and had borne the brunt of a number of insidious attacks, presumably because of her friendship with Aronoke.

“That is a strange coincidence,” said Master Caaldor, “and yet, I am inclined to think it is no coincidence at all. The Force works upon us in peculiar ways. You would not have seen her, and we probably would not have encountered her if she did not have some connection to the other visions you had at the same time.”

“I can’t see a connection,” said Aronoke. “Perhaps I will learn more if I speak to her again.”

“For now, stay here and keep order,” instructed Master Caaldor. “You can contact me on the communicator if anything arises that you can not handle yourself.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke.

More of the ship’s crew were on duty on the hulking refugee vessel, Aronoke was pleased to note, and more of the systems were operational, although it would still be many days, he was informed, before the ship was ready to depart the giant asteroid where it had landed to attempt to make repairs.

Aronoke spent most of the day touring about the refugee ship, making his presence felt. Most of the refugees seemed grateful to be rescued, but some of them were despondent and fractious. They had fled from their home planet, driven out by a terrible civil war, and they came from many different factions and social situations. While some had managed to retreat with their resources partly intact, many had only managed to escape with their lives. There was considerable resentment between some of the different factions. This was, Aronoke gathered, a ship that had left late in the war, when there had been little choice left about leaving. Those who were cautious, who had the wherewithal, and who had planned ahead had left on earlier vessels.

These people were desperate and unhappy, having not wanted to leave their world at all.

Still, they were lucky to be alive, Aronoke thought. Lucky to not be taken as slaves. He thought they would feel a lot better once they reached their destination and could leave the overcrowded, smelly transport ship behind. Once there was room to spread out, the different factions would not be pressed up against each other. There would be less friction than there was now.

Of course, until the ship was repaired, the order of the day was keeping the refugees from each other’s throats, and also under the control of the ship’s crew. Many of the refugees felt the latter had handled the incident with the pirates very badly.

It was not all doom and gloom though.

“This kubaz wants to know how you became a Jedi,” said the crewman assigned to be Aronoke’s interpreter.

“Not everyone can become a Jedi,” said Aronoke. “Only those who are Force-sensitive are selected to be trained. Usually those people suspected of being Force-sensitive are brought to a Jedi temple for testing, and if they pass the requirements, then they are trained. Usually this happens when they are very young.”

The crewman relayed this information.

“He says there are some children on the ship they think might be Force-sensitive,” interpreted the crewman.

Aronoke stifled a smile. He thought these people were impressed by their rescue and quick to see an opportunity for their children.

“He wants to know,” the crewman continued, “if you will bring these children to the Jedi temple to be tested.”

“We can’t do that,” said Aronoke. “Master Caaldor is in the middle of other Jedi business, and won’t be returning to the temple any time soon.”

“Can’t you tell yourself if these children are Force-sensitive?” the crewman asked next.

Aronoke hesitated. It would be wrong to give the refugees any false hope. “I might be able to tell,” he admitted at last. “But I am not an expert. I am only an apprentice, not a Jedi Master. I can give you my opinion, but even if someone is Force-sensitive, I can’t promise to take anyone to the Jedi Temple to be tested.”

“But you could tell the Jedi about them?”

“Yes, I expect so,” said Aronoke. “If Master Caaldor agrees with my opinion.”

“He says he will gather the children together,” said the crewman, “if you will agree to test them later.”

“Very well,” said Aronoke, thinking that such an event might make a welcome distraction for the refugees, if nothing more.

The kubaz passenger went off smiling.

There were no serious outbreaks of discontent amongst the passengers during Aronoke’s watch. Nevertheless, he was very tired by the time Master Caaldor returned to take over. There were still the pirates to see to when Aronoke got back to the ship.

“You know, Aronoke,” said Kthoth Neesh, when Aronoke was taking her back to her cell after she had used the facilities, “there could be lots of opportunities for someone like you outside of the Jedi order.”

“I’m quite happy where I am,” said Aronoke firmly.

“But just imagine,” said Kthoth Neesh, stepping a little closer to Aronoke than he found comfortable, “what someone like you could do if you joined a group like the one I belong to. You could be rich, own your own ship. No one would be able to stand up to you.”

“I’m not interested in becoming a pirate,” said Aronoke. The smell of her breath washed up into his face. It was warm and slightly spicy; not at all unpleasant.

“But why be a servant to someone like your Master, when you could be your own Master?” asked Kthoth Neesh. “The master of others? I could introduce you to the others in my group. Smooth things over, so there are no hard feelings…?”

“Then I wouldn’t be a Jedi at all,” said Aronoke. “Jedi don’t seek power or personal wealth. When Jedi follow that path, we become something else. Something dark and terrible.”

“It might not be as terrible a thing as they want you to believe,” said the pirate girl, sidling closer still. The static slider on her jumpsuit was not closed all the way to the top, Aronoke could not help but notice, revealing more of her smooth white skin than he had seen before.

“It’s not what I want,” said Aronoke uncomfortably. “I’m happy being a Jedi.”

“Isn’t there anything you do want?” asked Kthoth Neesh, looking up at him, all wide-eyed innocence. Her hand toyed with the slider of the jumpsuit, tugging it even lower, and her freshly moistened lips indicated that whatever he asked for might well be freely available.

A pang of undeniable lust washed over Aronoke. He felt a sudden connection to Kthoth Neesh, a sense of how her hormones were coursing through her body. A sudden intimate awareness of the changes her tissues made in response to them. He knew exactly what her body wanted and what his own desired in response.

Right here. Right now. Master Caaldor was far away on the refugee ship, and need know nothing…

What do you think you’re doing, Aronoke thought furiously at himself, blushing. This isn’t how Jedi behave!

He stepped back. “At the moment, I want to get some rest,” he said abruptly. He was too tired for this. He shoved Kthoth Neesh back into her cell less gently than he might, locked the door, and stomped off to bed.

 

Despite his exhaustion, Aronoke found himself lying awake thinking over what had happened. It had been very like when he had gone to say goodbye to Ashquash shortly before he had left the Jedi Temple. He still blushed and felt guilty when he remembered that occasion.

He had reacted so precipitously, despite his long inurement to Ashquash’s proximity. They had done little more than kiss, but they might have done so much more, were it not for Master Insa-tolsa’s timely interruption. Logic had been swept aside by lust, inexorable and undeniable, which Aronoke had experienced right down to a cellular level. He had put it aside as a fluke, born out of the emotional discord of saying goodbye to his friend, but the temptation he had felt when Kthoth Neesh attempted to proposition him had felt the same, an echo of that moment.

Aronoke knew from his studies that Jedi must avoid romantic entanglements and his training had previously helped him bridle his natural urges. He had thought himself well under control, but the incident with Ashquash had shaken his confidence and now it had happened again.

Had he been misguided in thinking he had mastered the meditative exercises Master Insa-tolsa had taught him? Or was this something different, something to do with being a chiss? Master Bel’dor’ruch had not mentioned anything he ought to be aware of and she was blunt enough to have done so, regardless of Aronoke’s embarrassment. But then there was his odd awareness of Kthoth Neesh’s biology. Perhaps it was something to do with his hyper-acute Force senses, something that had become apparent now because he was using his senses more and going unshielded more often?

Aronoke knew he should seek Master Caaldor’s guidance, but he felt embarrassed just imagining how to start that particular conversation. Master Caaldor would doubtlessly ask if it had happened before, and he would have to admit the scene with Ashquash. No, it was too painful. He would have to try and deal with it himself and hope that it didn’t recur.

Aronke sighed and began to meditate, trying to convince his agitated mind and his rebellious body to both be calm.

 

The next day, there was a murder on the refugee ship.

“A dead body, discovered by the kitchen staff!” Aronoke’s translator informed him. “They found him in the freezer, not yet frozen solid. Perhaps it was an accident.”

“I expect we should go and investigate,” said Aronoke grimly. It had seemed inevitable that something would happen on the refugee ship eventually, considering the turbulent social atmosphere. He had hoped that a Jedi presence would be a restraining influence, but apparently it had not been enough.

It did not look like the victim had struggled, nor was the door locked or forced shut. Questioning the kitchen staff who worked in the area immediately outside the freezer where the poor frozen kubaz had been found revealed nothing. It was obvious that the alien had been left in the locker alive and he appeared to have been uninjured. Had he been drugged or poisoned?

“We should search his living quarters and question the ones who knew him,” prompted Aronoke, scandalised that this had been left up to him to suggest.

“He was from floor nine,” said the translator, dismissively. “Almost all the trouble that happens comes from floor nine.”

“Why is that?”

The translator prevaricated. All of the inhabitants of floor nine were troublemakers. They came from opposing criminal elements that had fought like quats and queasels on their homeworld. Everyone would be better off, if only they had been left behind! Aronoke was left with the impression that the translator privately thought all the passengers on floor nine should be locked in and allowed to kill each other off, and that the resulting carnage would only be of benefit to the galaxy at large.

“Nevertheless,” said Aronoke firmly, “we can not allow this to escalate into a larger conflict, as it so easily could. Should one or another of these factions gain control, they might make a bid to take over the ship. Also, I don’t believe that everyone on floor nine can be involved. There are innocent people who must be protected.”

Somewhat wearily, the translator relayed Aronoke’s demands to the rest of the crew.

The investigation proceeded with more difficulty than Aronoke would have thought possible. Although the crew agreed that the victim’s quarters must be searched, they refused to participate more than minimally. Aronoke was escorted there by some of the refugees and quickly became aware that he was being led along a divergent and unnecessarily lengthy route through the ship. Since he didn’t know where he was going, Aronoke was forced to be patient and swallow his annoyance. It was obvious that the victim’s cabin would be extensively doctored by the time he got there.

Indeed the three kubaz in the small cabin seemed to know little about the murdered kubaz. Aronoke thought they were probably not the regular inhabitants of that room at all.

Being stymied like this was frustrating, but Aronoke thought it best to pretend he hadn’t noticed. Master Caaldor would be able to get more information and it would be easier if the perpetrators were unsuspecting.

It was when he was returning to the bridge that a kubaz sidled up to him and tried to pass him a parcel.

Aronoke hesitated. He was too accustomed to strangers trying to give him unwanted things to take it instantly.

“What is this?” he asked. The bundle was not large or heavy. He frowned uncertainly. Was it something to do with the case of the murdered kubaz or not?

The kubaz muttered something urgently in its own language, but Aronoke had no idea what it was saying. The alien thought for a few moments and put a few basic words together.

“Take… you take,” it buzzed. It held out the parcel.

But before Aronoke could take it, a group of other kubaz approached down the hall, and when Aronoke looked back, the parcel-bearer was gone, vanishing swiftly down a side passage.

Aronoke frowned again to himself. Had he had just missed out on something important?

 

The next day, Aronoke was escorted to a spacious chamber which had obviously been designated as a community recreational area. A large number of solemn adult kubaz were waiting there, along with clusters of children. Some of them looked hopeful, while others seemed merely apprehensive.

“These are the ones they have brought to you for testing,” Aronoke’s interpreter supplied unnecessarily.

“So I see,” said Aronoke, smiling.

It was not the first time he had dealt with identifying Force-sensitives. Master Caaldor and Aronoke had been investigating a town called Trefon on Erebor-3, an agricultural world in the Tionese cluster. Shoka-world, Aronoke thought of it in his mind, because of its endless plains of grass and high concentration of methane-producing herd-beasts called shoka. It had been a very alien environment to him – the blue sky, the towering banks of clouds, the endless fields of crops and creatures, the strange shoka-like smell of the air. It rained often, something Aronoke had never previously experienced. The area surrounding Trefon had produced a statistically improbable number of Force-sensitives in recent decades, and Master Caaldor had been investigating why this might be so. They had spent a lot of time interviewing the locals and driving across the endless plains, while Aronoke tried to sense anything unusual in the Force.

It was while they were staying in Trefon that Aronoke had suddenly noticed an odd, if minor, fluctuation. It had tugged at his senses insistently, and he had looked around startled for a moment before pinpointing the source of the disturbance. It originated from a woman with two children walking along the street. The smallest child, a youngling still too small to walk, was being pushed in a hovercrib. The child was waving its hands in the air in a seemingly pointless fashion, but Aronoke could tell at once that it was using the Force in a way akin to how he used it himself.

“I expect the best thing to do is to inform the child’s parents immediately,” Master Caaldor had said when Aronoke told him. “You can do that tomorrow, Padawan.”

It had seemed a serious duty to Aronoke. He was going to bring disquiet and uncertainty into these peoples’ lives. Getting the news from someone like him would make things even harder. Shoka-world was such a human place. People there sometimes crossed the street to avoid passing Aronoke too closely. He had not seen many non-humans there, and even an alien as mildy different as Aronoke was strange enough to be unsettling to the locals.

The parents had been shocked, and Aronoke did not feel he had broken the news well. He felt like the bearer of bad tidings. It did give him insight into how families felt about their children becoming Jedi. The little kids in Clan Herf had sometimes cried because they missed their families, but Aronoke had not considered how the families felt. Although becoming a Jedi was a great honour, it also took people away from those who loved them most.

There were some advantages to being a bioengineered creature with no family.

Now, however, there was no such concern; a quick scan of the younglings in front of him told Aronoke that apart from himself, there was no one even remotely Force-sensitive on the entire ship. It was disturbingly easy to tell. Aronoke found it unsettling how simple it was for him to sense things like that, things that he knew most Jedi Masters would have to consider carefully.

Even Master Altus, who had spent his career searching for Force artifacts, could not spot them as quickly as Aronoke, although his other abilities far outweighed Aronoke’s own.

Aronoke knew the kubaz would not be convinced if he told them straight out that none of the children were Force-sensitive. They would benefit from a distraction that lasted longer, something that let them think of something other than the sour, unhealthy environment of the transport ship. He made a short speech, interpreted by one of the kubaz who was fluent in basic, repeating what he had said before. That he was only an apprentice. That this testing was only his opinion. That even if the children were Force-sensitive, they would have to be presented to a Jedi centre for proper testing to confirm this. He and Master Caaldor could not bring the children, because they had other important Jedi business to attend to. This last Aronoke was making up. He had no idea what Jedi business Master Caaldor would choose to pursue next. Master Caaldor had made it clear that his major concern was keeping Aronoke safe, out of the hands of those who might wish him harm, or try to make use of the map upon Aronoke’s back. If they could do some good in the galaxy while achieving this, so much the better.

For the kubaz’s benefit, Aronoke made a show of using cards to perform a basic test on the children, examining them one at a time. He rewarded the children with sweets he had hidden in his pockets. For a short time the younglings were happy and distracted. Seeing their children enjoying themselves made the parents happier too, and they all relaxed a little.

“I’m afraid none of you are Force-sensitive,” Aronoke announced to the children and their parents, “but that is not a bad thing. It is not easy to leave your family and everyone you know, to live in a place far away and learn strange new things. And even after spending years in training, only a few candidates become Jedi knights. Being a Jedi is dangerous and a lot of Jedi die in the service of the Republic. Although none of you are destined to be Jedi, you should remember that doesn’t stop you from pursuing other careers, as pilots or or peacekeepers, for example. It doesn’t mean you can’t do things that are impressive. If you work hard, you can change your life and the lives of those around you for the better.”

Aronoke knew all too well that individuals, especially children, were often swept along by events, powerless to influence their destination. But no one needed to believe that. People needed to have hope.

Coming back from this event, Aronoke noticed the kubaz with the parcel approaching in the hall.

“Please, take…” said the kubaz. It muttered some other things in its own language, but Aronoke had no idea what it said. “Take….tell no one.”

This time Aronoke took the bundle it offered – it seemed to be a roll of flimsiplast – and secreted it in his robes.

“Did you learn anything new about the murder?” asked Master Caaldor, when Aronoke swapped shifts with him.

“Not really,” said Aronoke. “I think the refugees are covering up – they won’t tell me anything. I believe the three kubaz who supposedly shared a room with the dead man are plants. There is this though – some documents that one of the refugees slipped to me. They might be relevant.”

“Did you open the package?”

“No. I was being observed.”

“Hmm,” said Master Caaldor, taking the bundle. “I’ll have a look. Maybe talk to some of the suspects again.”

Master Caaldor would be able to get more information out of the refugees, Aronoke knew. He would be able to mind trick them into giving information.

“I had been hoping we could leave the refugees to take care of themselves, once things had settled down a bit,” Master Caaldor sighed, “but this murder has made the situation clear. The refugees have no confidence in the ship’s crew and if we leave, there’s a strong possibility everything will erupt into violence. For the sake of the innocent among them, we will have to wait until the repairs are complete and then escort this ship to its destination. It’s going to take a while, I’m afraid.”

When Aronoke got back to the ship, he gave the pirates their few minutes of freedom.

“How long is this going to take?” complained the eldest pirate. “Is your master really going to let us go afterwards? This is all taking longer than I thought it would.”

“The refugee ship is damaged,” repeated Aronoke. “It needs repairs before it can take off, and until then, my master and I must remain here. You won’t be set free until we leave.”

“Hm,” said the pirate unhappily. “The captain will be impatient to be underway. Do you know if our ship’s still waiting?”

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “It was last time I checked, but I don’t know about now.”

The last time had been a day or two before.

“What if the captain’s gotten really impatient and cut his losses?” said the pirate. “Gone off and left us. What would your master do then?”

“I expect he’d drop you off somewhere else,” said Aronoke. “I doubt he’d leave you here on this asteroid if there wasn’t a ship waiting to pick you up. Jedi don’t do that sort of thing.”

“Yes, but what sort of place would he drop us?” asked the old pirate cannily. “Straight onto a heavily policed republic world no doubt. Straight into the slammer.”

Aronoke privately thought it was likely to be somewhere more convenient to Master Caaldor’s plans – probably the first place they stopped. Master Caaldor did not like paperwork, council meetings or legal entanglements and was inclined to follow his own interpretation of the Jedi code rather than the Council’s. When they had left Erebor-3, Master Caaldor had even had PR disable the ship’s holocommunicator, so no one would know exactly where they were.

“If someone on the Jedi Council is trying to manipulate you,” Master Caaldor had told Aronoke, “than it’s safer if we have minimal contact with them.”

“It seems reasonable to me, but Master An-ku won’t like it,” said Aronoke. Master An-ku was the council member who was ultimately in charge of Aronoke’s affairs. She had been very diligent about checking up on exactly what he and Master Caaldor were doing, ever since they had left the Jedi temple. She had not been pleased when they didn’t go to Ilum as planned.

“Master An-ku and I have never seen eye to eye, anyway,” Master Caaldor replied easily. “As long as you understand why I’m doing things this way and don’t have any objections, I think we’ll fly silent.”

Aronoke had agreed. It did seem sensible.

He was loath to tell the pirate his guess, because he didn’t really know Master Caaldor that well yet. Master Caaldor might have other ideas.

“I don’t know. I will ask him next time I see him,” said Aronoke. The old pirate grunted uninterpretably, and Aronoke shut him back in his cell.

He saved Kthoth Neesh for last because he wanted to talk to the pirate girl again. He had thought of something else he wanted to ask her. Every time Aronoke escorted her to the facilities or accompanied her on walks around the ship’s corridors, she had continued trying to flirt with him. Expecting that she was going to try to seduce him had made it easier to resist. There had been no recurrence of the odd impulse Aronoke had experienced, and he found himself puzzled as to why he would react that way to her. She was not his type. She had no hair, was pale, tattooed and flat-chested as all narakite women were, and looked too much like Ashquash. Kthoth Neesh was Ashquash’s sister. He had felt the same way about Ashquash. So why had it happened with both of them? It was all very weird.

“So what’s this?” said Kthoth Neesh, when Aronoke led her into the tiny dining room that led off from the ship’s kitchenette.

“I want to talk to you,” said Aronoke. “But I’m tired and I need to eat. There’s plenty to share if you’re hungry.”

“More restless than hungry,” said Kthoth Neesh. She sidled a little closer to Aronoke.

“Sit down,” said Aronoke. “I haven’t forgotten that we’re not friends.”

“Would you like to be friends?” leered Kthoth Neesh, leaning closer still.

“Stop that and sit down,” said Aronoke impatiently. To his relief the pirate obeyed, sliding into the seat opposite him.

“I figure the captain’s not coming back for us, you know,” said Kthoth Neesh philosophically. “He’ll cut his losses and go. Not that it matters – we can hook up with them again. Unless there’s a better deal on offer.” She leered at Aronoke again so he might know exactly what sort of offer she would find interesting.

“My master will probably drop you off on the next world we visit, should your captain desert you,” said Aronoke.

“That would be right decent of him,” said Kthoth Neesh. “So what was it you wanted to talk about?”

“I noticed your ship had a lot of people frozen in carbonite in the cargo bay,” said Aronoke. He and Master Caaldor had regretted the necessity of leaving those people there, but the greater concern of rescuing the thousands of refugees had taken precedence. “Are those slaves that you captured?”

“No,” said Kthoth Neesh. “We don’t freeze people in carbonite. Don’t have the equipment. It’s too bulky for our kind of operation. But we transport ‘em quite often.”

“I’m interested in one particular person,” said Aronoke. “A Jedi frozen in carbonite, perhaps a year ago now. A mirialan girl with tattoos.”

Kthoth Neesh shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. Usually we don’t get to know any details, although maybe the captain does. I don’t know. I don’t remember any mention of Jedi though.”

“Where do you transport most of these frozen people to? If you transport them often, do you transport them for the same person or company?”

“The White Krayt,” said Kthoth Neesh. “He’s a kubaz and something of a legend. We run corpsicle runs for him all the time.”

“And where might he be found?” asked Aronoke.

“In the Primtara sector,” said Kthoth Neesh. “Anyone who’s anyone should be able to tell you where to find him. Mind you, you didn’t hear it from me.”

“Of course not,” said Aronoke, and Kthoth Neesh grinned.

“Good to see we’re on the same wavelength about something,” she said. She stared at him a moment and then shook her head dismissively. “It’s weird to think about Ashquash being a Jedi,” she said. “I can’t imagine it at all.”

“She’s not a Jedi yet,” Aronoke reminded her. “Hopefully she will make it. She’s had a tough time.” Tougher, he thought privately, because of her association with him.

“Ah well, maybe I’ll meet her myself again one day,” said Kthoth Neesh. “See for myself.”

Aronoke nodded. He stood reluctantly. “You’d better go back in your cell,” he said. “There’s things I’m supposed to be doing.”

“Aw,” said Kthoth Neesh. “You don’t have to lock me up you know – I promise I won’t be any trouble.”

“Yes, but trouble is what I’ll be in when my master comes back and finds his ship missing,” said Aronoke, gesturing that she should walk ahead of him down the hall.

“Have you given any thought to what I suggested earlier?” asked Kthoth Neesh persuasively as she complied. “We don’t have to join up with my old friends, you know. We could start afresh on our own. It might even be more profitable – my experience and your skills. We could do things our own way.”

“I’m not interested,” said Aronoke

“That’s a pity,” said Kthoth Neesh, posturing sadly. Her mouth made a little moue of discontent.

Aronoke smiled to himself as he locked her back into her cell. He found he was enjoying the back-and-forth of his conversations with Kthoth Neesh, now he had inured himself to her charms. Her offers appealed to the skimmer in him – he knew she would manipulate him shamelessly to her own advantage if he did take her up on them. He had no intention of doing anything of the kind, of course, but in an alternate universe, if he were still a skimmer and not a Jedi, he might well have enjoyed working with someone like Kthoth Neesh. Might well have ended up a pirate himself, if he had ever managed to get off Kasthir.

 

 

Aronoke woke lying on something strange and not quite soft. He could see the corners of jungle trees out of the corner of his vision. He felt peculiar for a few moments, heavy and lethargic. His mind moved very slowly, grainy and dark, shot through with pulses of red.  His connection with the Force felt strange and ropy, slithering like hot intestines. He looked about himself, confused. Had he been drugged, like Ashquash?

“Initiate Aronoke,” said a metallic voice, and he blinked to recognise a droid bending over him. “Can you hear me? How many fingers am I holding up?” It waved its droid hand in front of his face, a blur of metallic appendages too close and fast for Aronoke to focus on.

“I… don’t know,” he said, still feeling dazed. “What happened?”

The black-and-red fog was ebbing a little, but not as quickly as he would like.

“You fell unconscious during your examination,” said the droid. “Quite suddenly with no apparent stimulus. It has has not yet been determined why. Unfortunately your examination had to be stopped before it was complete. Your fellow initiates carried you here.”

“I…don’t remember,” said Aronoke, confused. He tried to sit up, his body feeling fine, but the droid reached out a hand to prevent him. His head still felt oddly clouded. He could see some other initiates standing in an awkward group some distance away, watching. They seemed faintly familiar.

“Please remain in a reclining position,” said the droid, reaching out an arm to steady him. “You must undergo medical testing before resuming verticality.”

“Okay,” said Aronoke. He lay back on the grass and allowed himself to be loaded onto a medcradle and floated off to a medical laboratory.

Master Nethlemor was waiting there and stood watching as they took him off the stretcher and laid him on a bench.

“Aronoke, what happened?” he asked, concerned, as the droid began running scans.

“I don’t know, Master Nethlemor,” said Aronoke. “I don’t remember.”

“What is the last thing you do remember?”

Aronoke tried to think back to that morning, before the test had started and suddenly memories gushed back into his mind all at once.

 

Aronoke’s third test was to be held in a substantially different location from the first two. He recognised the coordinates as being somewhere up near the top of the temple, where the speeder ranks were. As he made his way there after breakfast on the prescribed morning, he wondered if it was to be held outside the Jedi temple.

When he arrived at the coordinates listed, he saw that he wasn’t the only person waiting. Two other initiates were already there. One was a nervous looking human fellow with a thin moustache. Another was a human woman, with interesting hair tied in intricate bands at the back of her head. Aronoke was careful not to look too closely at that – he still found women’s hair very distracting. The third arrived shortly after Aronoke had found a bench to sit and wait on, and was a rodian. They all wore initiates’ robes like his own, and Aronoke found himself wondering if they were real candidates or merely Jedi posing as them to make up the numbers for the test. He wondered then if there were always fake candidates, or merely if there were not enough people sitting the test that day.

At the correct time, four droids came into the chamber. Each approached one of the waiting initiates.

“Examination Candidate Aronoke?” said the droid that came up to him. “Please stand by in preparation for boarding the shuttle.”

“Yes, certainly,” said Aronoke. He stood where the droid told him to, and waited while two of the other candidates were loaded onto a shuttle. It was different from the one he had rode in when he first arrived on Coruscant. It had a separate compartment for each initiate and Aronoke could not see outside. He took his seat expectantly, wondering why they were being taken outside the Jedi temple for this last test. Perhaps to test their ability to function outside the temple’s shielding? He was ready for the sudden exposure of his senses to the Force and grateful for the excursions outside when he had gone unshielded, or he would have been very taken aback indeed.

Presumably handling this sort of exposure was something else that was usually taught at a later stage of training. Perhaps it was something that most students weren’t affected by. Aronoke remembered Hespenara saying that she had to work hard to sense the currents in the Force.

The shuttle travelled for some time and then made two stops in short succession. On the third stop, the door to Aronoke’s compartment slid open. There was a short passage beyond, and then another doorway which opened automatically as he approached it. It slid shut behind him.

He found himself standing in something that reminded him of the environments at the biological gardens. Although he could still see the faint green lines of a dome high above him, this was a self-contained outdoor environment. It was quite hot, Aronoke noticed. Pleasantly warm by his standards. He was certain that he would find Kasthir itself very hot after spending so long in the climate controlled environment of Coruscant. Trees grew everywhere. Thick bushes and weeds clustered where the larger trees had toppled.

Just in front of him, on the ground, lay a practice sabre.

Aronoke remembered the last test. He was not going to be fooled by the same trick twice, even though this time he knew he had no eye lenses in. Slowly he let his shields recede, letting his senses expand to fill the surrounding area, until he had located the edges of the dome. He could sense the other candidates spread out across it. Could also faintly sense the city beyond and several Jedi masters in relatively close proximity. The examiners, he thought. Or perhaps the emergency response crew, in case someone fell on their head. Him, most likely. There were also other things lurking amongst the dimmer force-web of the vegetation. Subsentient creatures, some larger than others. They were mostly predators, he thought. There was a large one quite close to him. A group of smaller ones were already rapidly closing in on the candidate closest to him.

In the centre of the dome there was a gleaming nexus of Force power. An artifact of some sort perhaps? It was an obvious goal.

Jedi would not ignore colleagues in need, Aronoke knew. With some haste he scooped up the practice blade and began running through the jungle towards the nearest candidate, leaping over fallen trees and densely tangled bits of underbrush. The group of creatures had closed on their victim rapidly. The larger creature was following Aronoke from a distance, hunting him. Doubtlessly waiting for him to be distracted. He kept one part of his mind watching it, while he manoeuvred himself towards one of the outlying creatures attacking the other candidate.

It looked like some sort of insect, Aronoke thought, brown-carapaced and hardy, with lots of legs. It was quite large, coming up somewhat past his knees.

“Help!” called the other candidate, rather belatedly Aronoke thought. It was the human man with the little moustache. If he hadn’t been well on the way to help already, surely the fellow would have been overwhelmed long before he could have reached him. He was stuck, Aronoke saw, trapped up to the knees in some sticky globular substance, presumably spat by the creatures.

Aronoke slashed forcefully at the nearest bug and succeeded in hitting it and distracting its attention. The human was gamely trying to wade towards Aronoke, presumably so they could work together to drive off the creatures.

The bug-thing spat at Aronoke and a glob of sticky stuff splattered on his hand, having little effect other than to stick his practice blade to his skin. He swung at it again and missed, but caught it hard on the underside with his backstroke as it reared up to spit again.

The creature let out a squelchy squeal, and suddenly, before Aronoke could pull away, it curled itself up into a ball.

That would not have been an issue, except it curled up so quickly and tightly, that Aronoke’s hand and practice blade were caught in the middle of it.

He tried pulling free, but the sticky glob had additionally stuck his hand and his blade to the middle of the creature. He tried lifting the creature to smash it against the ground, but it was awkward and heavy. He tried kicking it, but was too close for him to make much impact.

All the while, Aronoke could still sense the larger predator approaching. It was somewhat above him, just over the level of the canopy. He assumed it was something arboreal or something that flew. Wondered how he would fight it off if he was still trapped when it attacked. Even as he struggled to free himself, a plan began to form in his mind.

Suddenly the three other bug-creatures surrounding the other initiate scuttled off and disappeared into the underbrush, where they curled up like the first one had. They could also sense the approach of the predator in the trees, Aronoke realised.

“Careful, there’s something big up there,” called Aronoke, gesturing with his head. “About to attack us.”

About to attack him, he realised, as he caught a glimpse of a dark, tattered bat-like form preparing to swoop down towards him.

“I can’t get loose!” the other initiate yelled, tugging futilely at his glob-encased legs.

“It’s okay,” said Aronoke, focusing on the bat-creature. “I’ve got it.”

He changed position, switching his grip so his left hand grapsed the other end of the practice blade. Waited… waited… and as the creature swooped at the last minute, he rolled on the ground on his back, using his weight to swing the bug-thing between himself and the swooping predator. Sharp claws raked across the bug, tearing big rents in its carapace, but it was not over yet. The predator was coming around for another attack. This time, from his position on the ground, it was harder for Aronoke to move to shield himself. He managed by the merest whisker to avoid being clawed. The bat creature flew up into the trees, out of sight. Aronoke could sense it waiting there for something.

For its poison to take effect, he realised, as the bug-creature relaxed about his arm and came part-way uncurled. Whether it was dead or merely paralysed he was uncertain, but he wasn’t going to wait around to see. He worked his arm gradually free, and then went over to help the other initiate who was in the last stages of freeing himself.

“That was a fancy move you pulled there,” the man said, approvingly. “The name’s Piralon Thrux. Thanks for helping me with those things.”

“It makes more sense to work together,” said Aronoke. “I’m Aronoke.”

“I haven’t seen you around before,” said Piralon Thrux, but Aronoke thought it was not a good time for idle conversation. His Force senses suggested to him that this Initiate’s Force abilities were far stronger than he had demonstrated during the fight, so he was almost certainly only pretending to be sitting for the test.

Aronoke took charge.

“Come on,” he said. “That bat-creature hasn’t gone. It’s waiting to eat its dinner. We had better be off before it decides it wants an extra helping.”

He turned back towards the middle of the dome, “We should try to meet up with the others,” Aronoke said. “It makes sense that they will head towards the middle too. In fact, I think they’re ahead of us.” He could sense the other initiates closing upon the central location, and set off in that direction, reminding himself that it was not a race.

They made their way through the jungle, Aronoke using his force senses to avoid the other creatures which inhabited it. He was relieved that the bat creature chose not to follow them, but stayed behind, presumably to feast on the bug-thing. It was not a long walk to the centre of the arena, as Aronoke now thought of it. The other two initiates had arrived shortly before them. They turned to watch him approach, from where they stood looking at something.

Set into the ground were four platforms. If there was anything else to see it was buried beneath the dirt. It looked like the start of some sort of puzzle, Aronoke thought.

“Greetings,” said the human woman with the braids. She did not look like she had faced any difficulties reaching the centre. Did not have a hair out of place, Aronoke thought. “I’m Leptospora. The others introduced themselves as well, and Aronoke followed suit. The rodian was called Oobalur.

“So, I wonder what we are meant to do here,” said Leptospora, gesturing at the platforms. There was little enough to go on. Aronoke could not sense anything more even with his Force senses. The proximity of whatever was producing the Force energy was making it difficult to see anything subtle nearby.

“It looks like we are meant to work together,” said Aronoke. “Four platforms, four of us. I expect we each have to step onto a platform to trigger what comes next.”

“Seems reasonable enough,” said Piralon Thrux.

“Still, there is a possibility that it is a convoluted trap,” said Aronoke. “Although I don’t really believe it is. One of us should probably step up first, in case it is. No sense risking all of us at once.”

“Right then,” said Leptospora. “I’ll volunteer for that.” She strode over to the nearest platform and stepped upon it. Nothing seemed to happen.

The other initiates spread out, each choosing a platform at random. Aronoke stepped on his, then Piralon, and finally Oobalur.

As the rodian stepped into position, the platform Aronoke stood on began to vibrate gently. The ground began to shake gently and then to move. Dirt quivered in place, as if there was going to be an earthquake. Then plates slid aside underneath, revealing a cavernous opening. Walls began rising between the candidates. Some sort of spinning cylindrical construct, the source of the Force power Aronoke had sensed, began to rise in the middle. Runes indicating the qualities of Emotion, Ignorance, Passion, Chaos, and Death were marked on its sides and seemed to cover pressure plates or switches of some kind.

He was right. It was almost certainly some sort of puzzle.

 

“…One moment I was standing on the platform, and the next I woke up lying on the grass,” said Aronoke to Master Nethlemor. “I wasn’t trying to do anything, wasn’t feeling particularly stressed. I felt I was doing well and was almost enjoying the test.”

“Initial scans have revealed no physical abnormality or chemical imbalance to suggest why you might have lost consciousness,” said the medical droid. “Please remain still while some final data samples are taken.”

“There were no visions this time?”

“I don’t remember anything, Master,” said Aronoke.

“An investigation will have to be made,” said Examiner Nethlemor. “To determine why you were unable to complete your test. For now, just follow the medical droid’s instructions and you will be escorted back to your clan rooms once the scans are complete.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. He felt confused and disappointed. Fainting in the middle of a test for no reason… was there something seriously wrong with him? Something left over from his injuries in the second test? Or was it another harassment?

Aronoke was left to lie in the medical bay for some time while further scans and tests were performed. Afterwards he was allowed to get up and make his way over to the shuttle to be taken back to the Temple. He tried to centre himself by meditating during the flight back. His mind felt tenuous and off-key, like after he had tried to detect Master Altus. The red haze still hung over everything, making his efforts curiously ineffective.

Master Insa-tolsa was waiting at the speeder terminal when Aronoke arrived.

“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “I will escort you back to your clan rooms. It is better that you do not travel alone so soon after regaining consciousness.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, subdued.

“Was there anything unusual about this incident?” asked Master Insa-tolsa, as they set off through the passages.

“I don’t know, Master. It was strange in that I was standing there one minute, not feeling particularly stressed. I didn’t feel dizzy or anything. Then I awoke lying on the grass. I have no idea what happened.”

“That is unfortunate,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “And quite peculiar. We must await the result of your extended medical tests before coming to any conclusion.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke dully.

“If it remains inconclusive, you will have to attend a meeting to determine the outcome of your test,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “It must be decided if you failed because of some external influence. If that is the case, you will be assigned a new test instead.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “It was going so well up until that point, too. I thought I was doing well.”

But, he reminded himself, the worst thing that could happen was that he failed. That he got to remain in the Jedi temple and repeat the tests again later. That was not so terrible.

But it might be terrible for Ashquash, he thought.

Aronoke spent the rest of the day quietly in the company of his clan mates. He went to bed early and tried to sleep, but woke up sweating. His mind was completely tangled, still full of red pulsing ropes of darkness.

This is no good, he thought. This is something unusual. He got up and went to the meditation room, but it was several hours before he really felt his mind was clear again. He was exhausted, ethereal and almost asleep on his feet by the time he had finished.

A few days later, Aronoke was required to attend the inquiry regarding his examination. It was held in a room near the council chamber he had visited when he first arrived in the Jedi temple. There were fewer masters attending this session. Master Nethlemor, the examiner was presiding.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said Master Nethlemor. “This hearing is to determine whether or not your recent examination, which was prematurely terminated and which you were unable to complete, should be deemed a failure or whether you deserve a second attempt to complete to test.”

“This is Master An-ku, who will be arguing in your defence, and Master Belor, who will be arguing that you have failed. Before we begin this process, I must ask do you yourself desire to perform a replacement examination, should this hearing be decided in your favour? If not, there is no necessity for us to continue any further at this time. You will be presented with another opportunity to sit for your examinations to become a padawan after you have continued with your training program as it stands.”

Aronoke was silent for a short moment. He was tempted by the opportunity to stay in the Jedi temple, but he did not like to fail without trying as hard as he could. And staying in the temple also meant that Ashquash and his other clanmates would continue being at risk.

“If this inquiry is decided in my favour, I agree to perform a replacement examination,” said Aronoke.

“Very well then. Before the Masters pose their arguments, both for and against you, what is your opinion regarding the test you have just failed to complete? Do you believe that you should have failed, or that you should be given a second chance?”

Aronoke hesitated. He could not decide either way, because he did not know why he had fainted.

“Please, speak,” said Master Nethlemor as the pause lengthened. “There is no correct answer.”

“I can not decide either way, Masters,” said Aronoke, giving an awkward little bow. “I remember nothing of how I came to faint. I was standing on a platform. I did not feel like I was about to faint. I felt curious about what was going to happen. I did not even feel particularly stressed. I felt I was doing well. And then I woke up lying on the grass. If I fainted because of some external influence, then I would say I deserve a second chance, but if I fainted because of some weakness in myself, well, then I do not.”

“Very well. Master Belor will now present his case.”

Master Belor was an elderly human man and he rose from his seat to speak.

“As Initiate Aronoke has so conveniently summated already,” he said, “fainting because of some internal weakness can only be classed as a failure on his behalf. The examination chamber has been carefully examined and its condition is no different than it has been during the many thousands of examinations which have already been performed in it. It is designed in a manner to make tampering with the results of examinations as completely foolproof as our technology allows. The probability of such interference is so minute that it can not be credited, without even considering what motive could possibly exist for wishing this specific candidate to fail. With no evidence of any tampering, the simpler suggestion is obviously the correct one. It is obviously a failure on Initiate Aronoke’s behalf.”

“Very well,” said Master Nethlemor. “Master An-ku?”

Master An-ku stood up.

“In the vast majority of situations there would be no question of such an event being anything other than weakness on Initiate Aronoke’s behalf. However, Initiate Aronoke has already been the subject of a number of peculiar harrassments and events which are extremely unusual in their nature. These interferences have proven unable to be prevented or traced, despite the efforts of a large number of Jedi Masters working in concert to do so. Firstly, it may be argued that Initiate Aronoke has already suffered unusual stresses due to these unwarranted attacks outside of the examination chambers, and that these events may have had a deleterious and unfair influence upon his performance during his examinations. Secondly, if we have been unable to trace the origin and path of these interferences previously, perhaps we are also missing something now. I argue that Initiate Aronoke deserves the benefit of the doubt due to the uncertainty of the situation, and should be given the opportunity to undertake a fourth test.”

Aronoke was doing his best to stand still and keep his mind calm. He was willing to let the masters decide for him. He would be satisfied, he told himself, whatever the result.

“So to make sure the situation is absolutely clear to all parties,” said Master Nethlemor, “I will outline the situation as it stands. Aronoke has already completed two prior examinations. The first, which was a test of Control, was ruled to be a pass, and the second, a test of his Sense abilities, was also ruled to be a pass. He also performed very well during the third test up until the point when he suddenly fell unconscious. He need only pass a third examination to be awarded the rank of Padawan.”

Aronoke felt a glow of pleasure. So he had passed the first two tests! He was pleased too, at Master Nethlemor’s evaluation of his progress through the third examination.

“Master Belor, do you wish to speak further?”

“I wish to speak in regard to Master An-ku’s first point,” said Master Belor calmly. “Other initiates also suffer stresses peculiar to their situation in the Jedi temple, which may, to them, seem as difficult to deal with as those experienced by Initiate Aronoke. Students are expected to pass the tests in spite of these pressures. It is part of the process. I do not believe that Initiate Aronoke deserves any special treatment in this regard.”

“Master An-ku?”

“My argument stands as presented,” said Master An-ku solemnly.

“Very well,” said Master Nethlemor, turning his attention back to Aronoke. “This concludes the portion of this inquiry requiring your presence, Initiate. Let me congratulate you on the successful completion of your first two examinations, and the successful completion of the portion of your third examination up until it was terminated due to medical concerns. You will be informed shortly as to the results of this inquiry, and should it be decided in your favour, you will receive notification regarding your substitute examination within the next week.”

“Thank you, Master Nethlemor,” said Aronoke. He bowed again and made his way out of the chamber, feeling relieved that it was over. Making his way back to the clan nest, he felt he had done better than he had thought he would. As he walked back, he noticed he was being followed by a droid – it looked like a protocol droid this time. It tailed him, not very unobtrusively, almost all the way back to his clan rooms. Aronoke didn’t want it wandering about there, close to his younger clan mates.

“What do you want?” he asked rudely, turning to confront the droid.

“Want, Initiate?” said the droid. “I do not want anything. I am merely performing my regular duties about the temple.”

“That’s a load of gundark piss,” said Aronoke, coining an expression he hadn’t used since his days as a skimmer. “You’ve been tailing me all the way back from the Council chambers. Why are you following me?”

“I assure you, I am not following you,” said the droid stuffily. Aronoke was carefully checking its identification plaque while it spoke, identifying its number. “There has obviously been some sort of peculiar coincidence that has led you to this mistaken observation. I admit the chances are-”

The droid suddenly stopped speaking and gave a peculiar little shudder. “Oh,” it said. “What a convenient situation. I believe I have a message for you, Initiate Aronoke.”

A familiar-looking holotransmission began.

“Aronoke,” said the scrambled voice. “I am disappointed that you chose not to receive the last message I sent you, but no matter. I have some important information for you. If you would like to help Master Altus, you will come to these coordinates tomorrow morning at seven hundred.”

The appropriate coordinates followed quickly, and Aronoke repeated them several times in his head to memorise them.

“Goodness!” said the droid, twitching its hands in the air feebly. “I don’t know what came over me. I have never been in this part of the temple before! I must return to my regular duties at once!” It tottered off, leaving Aronoke standing, watching thoughtfully until it disappeared from sight.

Reporting this incident in the usual way was obviously no good at all. When he had brought Razzak Mintula’s attention to an appointment like this, there had been nothing there to find. His assailant had stayed away. Reporting directly to Master Insa-tolsa had resulted in the message cylinder blowing up, again leaving no evidence. There had to be some other way to do this. In class, the younglings had been practicing writing by hand, on sheets of flimsiplast. Some were still lying about the clan common room, along with several writing styluses. Aronoke picked up a sheet and took it to his room, and with some difficulty, began to scribe a letter:

Master Insa-tolsa,

I am sending you this message because I have received another holo-transmission from a droid. The droid’s designation is TR443. It followed me back from the Council chambers after I attended the inquiry there. The holotransmission said I should go to a particular location tomorrow morning at 0700 if I wanted to help Master Altus. I am sending this message with Draken, so it might not be intercepted.

Aronoke.

Beneath he wrote the coordinates the droid had told him.

Later that evening, an hour or two after dinner, he went to Draken’s room.

“Can I talk to Draken alone for a moment, please Golmo?” he asked. “In here?”

“Uh, sure, Aronoke,” said Golmo, looking a little curious. Aronoke had never asked anything like that before.

“Draken, can you do me an important favour?” asked Aronoke, once Golmo was gone and the door was closed. Draken was already looking intrigued. Aronoke knew he would enjoy a task like this one.

“Uh, sure,” said Draken. “What is it? Is it something mysterious?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “It’s important, or I wouldn’t ask you like this. Can you take this message to Master Insa-tolsa for me? He needs to see it right away, and I don’t want to be seen taking it myself. The less noticeable you are, the better it will be.”

“I can do that,” said Draken. He took the flimsiplast message, looking more nervous than Aronoke had thought he would. “Does Master Insa-tolsa know I’m coming?”

“No,” said Aronoke. “He’s probably in his chambers. I’m sure you can find them.”

“That shouldn’t be too hard,” said Draken, “but…ah…can’t you at least tell him I’m coming? He mightn’t be pleased.”

“I can’t do that. It would defeat the purpose,” said Aronoke.

“I see. I suppose if you want it to be secret that’s true,” said Draken, starting to look more excited.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure he won’t mind,” said Aronoke. “If you get into trouble with him or anyone else, you can tell them that I stood you up to it and I will explain to them. It will be fine.”

“Sure, Aronoke. Of course I can do it.”

It was the sort of mission Draken was perfect for, Aronoke thought, as his friend hurried out of the clan rooms. A way his clan could help him deal with his problems. He was well satisfied with having thought of sending a message by this means, and fairly certain that his harrassers would not expect this. He had tried nothing of this kind before.

Draken was gone for some time. It was not a short walk to Master Insa-tolsa’s quarters. He came back looking pleased with himself.

“It all went well,” said Draken. “Master Insa-tolsa didn’t mind at all. He’s quite nice really.”

The next day, Aronoke was careful to go out for a long walk around the time he was meant to go to the coordinates in the mysterious message. He figured that if his harasser had some way of observing his comings and goings this might convince them that Aronoke was doing what they wanted. Later that day he received a message asking him to go and speak with Master Insa-tolsa.

“That was well thought of by you to send a message by those means,” said Master Insa-tolsa approvingly. “We were able to intercept a droid at the coordinates you gave us. A red lightsaber crystal of an unsual kind was recovered from the droid.

“A lightsaber crystal,” said Aronoke, a little shocked. Such an item would not be trivial to bring into the Jedi temple. There would be serious risks involved.

“Indeed,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “This is something of a breakthrough in this investigation, Aronoke. I hope very much that some information leading from this might help us finally identify the perpetrator.”

“I hope so, Master,” said Aronoke, inwardly sighing. He held little hope by this time that his harasser would ever be found.

Several days later, he received a message from Master Nethlemor that the inquiry had decided that Aronoke could sit for a fourth examination.

One final chance. It would all hinge upon this last test. The subject for the examination was Moral Applications of the Jedi Code. The sort of thing Aronoke had always had trouble with. The sort of decisions that could get you killed on Kasthir. And yet, those were the rules Master Altus lived his life by, so it was obviously a viable choice.

Sighing, he set himself a reading schedule that covered all these moral topics. He carefully studied a wide variety of historical situations and moral tales to use as examples. Throughout this time he continued his lightsaber training, but decided to take a break from running.

To his relief, the fourth test was within the limits of the Jedi Temple. It seemed less likely that the examination could be tampered with there, with so many Jedi nearby.

Aronoke was precisely on time.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said the examination droid, when he arrived at the examination room. “Your final examination lies through this door. You may take up to twenty-four hours to complete it once you pass inside. Please step through the door.”

“Certainly,” said Aronoke, stepping through the door when it opened. Twenty-four hours was a long time for a test. What could it possibly involve?

Inside, he found himself in a moderately large chamber, almost cubic in shape. Before stepping forward, he allowed his Force senses past the shield of his control, out to the extents of the room.

Up near the ceiling, a large box hovered, suspended by two energy-beams. Aronoke could see two controls for operating the system, high up in the walls well out of reach, which would, if his evaluation was correct, move the box across horizontally and vertically. They could be triggered by using the Force to push them, something Aronoke was not very good at. He could tell also that hidden nozzles lay behind the controls. Operating each one would expose a nozzle, allowing something to flood into the room.

Water? Sleeping gas? Aronoke had no idea. He didn’t like the idea of water. He thoughtfully took off his outer robe and hung it over some pipework before beginning.

The pipework was at one side of the room and looked readily climbable, Aronoke noted.

First he decided to tap one of the controls to see what happened. That way he would be prepared for whatever lay ahead and could plan his next move. He reached out through the Force to push one of them. It was a simple mechanism, easy to push. It was no more difficult than lifting a pebble. While it was depressed, the box in the ceiling moved incrementally across the room towards the pipework. There was a hissing noise, as some sort of gas flooded the room. The temperature immediately grew a little colder.

Aronoke was relieved that it wasn’t water. He tried the other control. This time the box moved downwards. More gas hissed in. Aronoke noticed that moving the box downward produced far more gas than moving it across.

Very well then, he had a plan. He didn’t put his robe back on just yet, but continued moving the box downwards until it was at a height so that he would be able to climb on top of it. Then he used the first control to move it across to a position near the climbable pipework. The temperature in the room had dropped remarkably by the time he was finished, but controlling his body temperature was something even Clan Herf had studied, and Aronoke was able to maintain his at a comfortable level. Taking his outer robe, he tossed it up on the top of the box and began climbing the pipework.

The last step onto the top of the box was the most difficult. A thin patch of slick ice had already formed on the box’s outer surface. Unfortunately that was just the place Aronoke had chosen for a foothold. His foot skidded suddenly off into space, sending him plummeting headfirst towards the floor.

He twisted in mid air and landed on his feet. He rolled his eyes at himself. What was it with falling during these tests? Quickly he climbed back up the pipework, avoiding the slippery patch this time. Crouching on top of the cube, he put his outer robe back on.

On top of the cube was a simple puzzle square with sliding pieces that had to be moved to make a picture. Aronoke recognized the picture from some of his reading, of the Jedi Tower on Taris. The puzzle itself was simple enough to complete by trial and error, and was easier because he knew the picture. Once done, a panel clicked open, revealing a trap door that lead down inside the box. Down in there, Aronoke could see a chair, a desk and a datapad. The examination he had to complete.

Carefully he climbed inside the box, sat down at the datapad and began. The test was not as difficult as he had feared. Easier than writing the essays had been. Mostly he had to make moral decisions in regard to different situations, but the numerous examples he had studied stood him in good stead. The longer explanations some of the questions required were difficult for him to formulate, but still lay within his capabilities.

As he worked, Aronoke was aware that the nozzles in the walls of the room outside hissed occasionally, letting more gas in to cool the room. As time went on, the temperature grew even colder. Aronoke was glad when he came to the end of the examination paper, and quickly checked through his answers. He was relieved to climb back outside and push the buzzer on the outer door to be let out.

He had no doubts that he had passed this test, and felt pleased with himself. Everything had gone right this time, apart from falling off the box on his first attempt to climb on it.

He was even more pleased to receive his formal results a few days later.

“Congratulations!” said Master Insa-tolsa. “You have passed the tests required to pass to the rank of Padawan.”

Aronoke was silent for a moment. He was pleased that he had passed, certainly, but sad that Master Altus was not here. If his education had proceeded normally, he might have become Master Altus’s padawan after Hespenara had become a Jedi. It was certain now that he never would be.

“Thank you, Master,” he said.

“Typically your next task would be to forge your lightsaber,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “after which you would be available for selection by a Jedi Master. However, the Council has decreed that in your case, they will begin the selection process immediately and have called for expressions of interest from Masters wishing to take a padawan.”

“That’s good, Master,” said Aronoke.

“I believe there have already been several expressions of interest,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “Usually any Master wishing to take you would approach you directly, but in your case the Council has chosen to intervene and will decide on your behalf.”

“That is probably all for the best,” said Aronoke. He was glad that he would not have to worry about not being chosen, like Emeraldine had.

Razzak Mintula had congratulations to offer as well.

“I’m glad to see that your hard work has paid off,” she said. “Although you have not been here very long, and, I feel, perhaps not long enough, congratulations, Aronoke. I’m sure you will make a fine padawan.”

“Thank you Instructor,” said Aronoke, smiling.

“I’m sure your clan-mates will be eager to congratulate you too,” said Razzak Mintula. “They have been very excited, following your progress through the tests. It was been an excellent educational experience for them, one that I am certain will be of value to them when it comes time to prepare for their own tests in the years to come.”

“I’m glad that it has been of some benefit,” said Aronoke. He still felt that he had been hurried through his training far more than he would like. “I hope that all the trouble will now stop, and that things might be a little more peaceful for you and the clan, Instructor.”

Razzak Mintula sighed. “I know you would have liked to spend longer with us, Aronoke. I am certain, however, that despite the shortness of your stay here in the temple, that a strong bond has grown between you and the rest of your clan mates, one that you may come to appreciate further in your later years as a Jedi.”

By the time he became a Jedi, Aronoke thought, it was likely that his younger clan-mates would just be taking their tests to become padawans, although Ashquash and Draken could hope to graduate earlier if they were were diligent in their studies.

“Thank you, Instructor. I know that’s true.”

“I know Ashquash would like to congratulate you as well, but unfortunately she must remain in her rooms near Master Skeirim’s quarters for the moment.”

“Hopefully she will be able to return to the clan once I am gone,” said Aronoke sadly. It would be hard to not see Ashquash before he left.

“Perhaps,” said Razzak Mintula somewhat guardedly.

“How is she doing, Instructor? I hope she is improving.”

“You were not told, because it was decided that it was better to avoid distracting you from your tests, but Ashquash is not doing very well at the moment,” said Razzak Mintula. “Despite the precautions taken, she was drugged again during your tests.”

Aronoke was shocked. Outraged. “Again!? How can this keep happening, Instructor? I can’t understand how it can’t be stopped.”

“I can’t either,” said Razzak Mintula tersely. “It is just evidence that whoever is doing this is very powerful indeed, someone with considerable influence.”

“Well, perhaps she will be left alone once I am not here,” said Aronoke.

The younger members of Clan Herf were eager to help Aronoke celebrate and he found himself more popular than ever over the days that came next. There was nothing for him to do – lessons were over.

“You finally get a proper holiday,” said Draken self-righteously.

Aronoke laughed. “I suppose so.”

It was too difficult to do nothing. Aronoke rested more than usual, accompanied his clan-mates during some of their lessons, and spent free-time playing games and helping with homework. After four days of this, he received official notification that he had been assigned for apprenticeship to Master Ninnish Caaldor, a Jedi master who seldom came back to Coruscant, but would arrive to collect Aronoke in a few days’ time.

“Then you’ll get to go to Ilum to get your lightsaber,” said Draken enviously. “I bet you can’t wait.”

Aronoke shrugged. He felt that getting a lightsaber was another immense responsibility. Would forging a lightsaber be another kind of test, he wondered. How difficult would it be?

“It will certainly be exciting,” he admitted.

“I wonder what your Jedi master will be like,” said Draken, voicing Aronoke’s own thoughts. “I don’t expect you’ll come back here for a good long while, if at all, so we won’t get to know.”

“I’ll try to send a message when it’s appropriate,” said Aronoke. “Although you’re right – it could be some time before I can.”

The next afternoon a message came from Ashquash, a stilted recorded message, carefully cut-and-pasted. Ashquash wished Aronoke congratulations on becoming a padawan. She was glad he had passed his tests. Aronoke sent a carefully composed reply, sorry he was leaving Ashquash behind without properly saying goodbye.

Then the next day, his holocommunicator chimed, and there was Ashquash herself, no recording this time. She looked pale and thin. Her eyes were large and slightly wild. She looked dangerous and only barely in control, but determined and courageous.

“Aronoke,” said Ashquash. “I wanted to say goodbye properly. Will you come and see me?”

Aronoke hesitated just a moment, but surely there could be no harm in it.

“Of course,” he said.

“Then come now to the rooms at these coordinates.  I can’t stay long, but at least we can talk.”

They were chambers near Master Skeirim’s, Aronoke could see from the coordinates.  Rooms close to Ashquash’s new quarters.

“I’ll be there right away,” Aronoke said.

Walking through the familiar hallways of the Jedi Temple, he couldn’t help thinking that it was somewhat unusual.  Razzak Mintula had said he couldn’t meet with Ashquash, but he was confident that she wouldn’t lead him into a trap, and if she was still drugged and strange, well, he knew about such things from his time with Boamba.  He wouldn’t let himself or Ashquash come to any harm.

Aronoke palmed the door control when he arrived at the appropriate location and to his surprise the door slid back at once, without waiting for verbal confirmation from within.  Beyond lay typical rooms of the type kept to house Jedi Masters while they visited the Temple, much the same as those Master Altus had inhabited while he had been here.

Inside, Ashquash wheeled hastily to face Aronoke, looking tense and defensive, only relaxing when she saw it was him.

“Aronoke!  Come in,” she hissed and hurried forward to close the door behind him.

“Are you supposed to be here, Ashquash?” asked Aronoke.  “I hope you’re not going to get into any trouble over this.”

“As if I could be in any more trouble than I’ve already been,” said Ashquash, dismissively, stepping close to him and speaking softly.  “I couldn’t let you go without saying goodbye!  You’re my only real friend!”

“You know that’s not true,” said Aronoke.  “What about the rest of the clan?  You know that they care what happens to you.  Draken helped to rescue you too.”

“I know, I know,” said Ashquash dismissively.  “But they don’t really understand.  The younglings are too little, and Draken only thinks he knows what the seamier side of the galaxy is like.  He doesn’t truly understand what that sort of life is like, not like you and I do.”

“Nevertheless, they can still help you,” said Aronoke, but Ashquash made a dismissive, impatient gesture.

“They wouldn’t let me send a proper message before,” she said. “They were worried about what I might say.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Aronoke, smiling. “I’m glad that we can speak before I leave. I hope that things will go better for you now that I’m leaving. That everything will get easier.”

Ashquash looked down. She chewed her lip. Looked back up at him. “Master Skeirim has promised that it will,” she said steadily. “He said if it doesn’t stop after you have left, than he will take me away from here, to continue my training somewhere else where it can’t happen any more.”

“That’s good,” said Aronoke. “So he should too.”

“I’m not giving up,” she continued, glaring at him, making him smile because he knew she meant it. “I’m not going to let them influence me in this way, no matter what, if I’m only strong enough. I’m going to try as hard as I can, Aronoke, and one day, you’ll see. I will be a proper Jedi. I’ll come and see you when that happens. We will be Jedi together.”

“If you weren’t strong enough, Ashquash, than no one would be,” said Aronoke. “You’re the strongest person that I know.”

Ashquash looked away then. The faintest pink tinge highlit her bone-white cheeks.

“Thank you, Aronoke,” she said. “Thank you for helping me and being my friend.”

“You’re welcome,” said Aronoke. “Thank you for helping me. All the studying and the conversations that we had… I doubt I would have passed if I hadn’t had you to discuss all those moral tales with. Look after the others for me, the younglings, and Draken, if you can. And I’ll hold you to what you said, about meeting up when we both are Jedi.”

“You can count on it,” said Ashquash fiercely.

Aronoke smiled down at her.  She stood very close to him now, her eyes full of some undeniable emotion.  He felt a sudden hot rush of realisation that Ashquash was well and truly a girl – a young woman, he amended – and that he was attracted to her, even though he had always gone to great lengths to deny it to himself. He felt his face heating as his body began to respond to her close presence with an undeniable giddy enthusiasm.

And at that moment, just as he was forcing himself to step back, to take a deep breath, to use his meditative techniques to bring himself back under control, his habitual shielding from the Force was ripped aside by a sudden wave of energy.  It was not like the currents of Force energy he had felt exuded by strong sources of Light side energy, like powerful uses of Force by Jedi Masters.  It was not like the ropy red pulsing strands that had entangled him after he had fainted during his trials.  If anything, it was overwhelmingly green, filled with the vibrancy of living things. It pulsed undeniably through him like a new alien heart beat, exultant and demanding.

Suddenly Aronoke was completely aware of the workings of his own body, like he had been when he was injured during the trials.  He was also intimately aware of Ashquash and exactly how her body was responding to his own, like they were undeniably connected in some way.  He was mesmerised by the rush of blood through her veins, the fast beat of her heart, the building insistence of the attraction she felt for him. And then somehow, crazily, she was stretching up to kiss him, and his lips were pressing themselves against hers.  Her tongue flicked into his mouth, hot, wet and demanding. Her arms reached around him and pulled him against her, and he gasped, overwhelmed with confusing emotions.

Maybe Boamba had hugged him sometimes when he was a child, but it was certain that no one had since.

He felt a sudden hunger for physical contact that transcended any thought of restraint.  He pulled her more firmly against him, his hands groping clumsily to remove the frustrating barrier of her clothing.  Her pale hands had slid inside his tunic to touch his bare skin, and he shuddered with the intensity of the contact.  He felt the warmth of them against his back, and shivered as she slid them lower, under the band of his trousers.  He tugged at the ties that fastened hers, and they came undone with surprising ease.

And then his holocommunicator chimed insistently.

For a moment, Aronoke considered ignoring it, but the noise was enough to break the moment, to allow common sense and self-control to reassert themselves.

A sudden wave of shame washed over Aronoke as he realised what they were doing, already well on the way to being half-naked. Ashquash had a reason; she had been drugged and had not yet completely recovered, but he had no such excuse. His face burned hotly and he gently but insistently pushed Ashquash away.

“Aronoke!” she complained, still clutching at his robes.

“I have to answer this,” said Aronoke firmly, and he untangled her resistant fingers, and walked away into the back section of the room, straightening his garments.  He took a deep breath, and answered the call.  A tiny holographic image of Master Insa-tolsa appeared.  Aronoke knew the ithorian master well enough by now to recognise his expression as one of considerable concern.

“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa.  “Is everything well with you?  I felt a sudden strange disturbance in the Force and it seemed to me to originate from your vicinity.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke, grateful that the holographic image was colourless, and would not betray his blushing.  “I inadvertently let my shielding slip for a moment, but now I am recovered.  Perhaps that is what you sensed.”

“Hrm,” said Master Insa-tolsa, seemingly unconvinced.  “Well, so long as you are certain.  I know this has been a time of some stress for you, Aronoke, and it would be sad if you were to suffer some mishap now.”

“I’m fine, Master,” said Aronoke, trying to slow his still-racing heart and to exert calmness over his rampaging hormones.  “I just need a little time to compose myself.”

“Of course, Padawan.  I need not remind you that you can come to me if you experience any further difficulties.”
“I will, Master.  Sorry to be the cause of such concern.”

He turned the holocommunicator off, and turned to Ashquash who was standing there, caught somewhere between alarm and unrepentance.

“I’m sorry,” said Aronoke.  “I shouldn’t have done that.  I lost control.  We shouldn’t be doing this at all, of course, but especially not now, while you are still recovering.  Things are confusing enough.”

“There won’t be any time later,” said Ashquash, bitterly, hugging her arms around herself.

Aronoke sighed, still struggling to regain equilibrium.  He couldn’t believe he had just acted like that, so uncontrolled, in the face of all his training.  He could only put it down to a relaxation of his usual vigiliance, in relief that the trials were over.

“Look, we are trying to be Jedi.  This is not a Jedi-like way to behave. I’m supposed to know better – I’ve just been made a Padawan and something like this could destroy everything.  Not just for me, but for you too.  Do you really want that?”

Ashquash looked uncertain, but the expression in her eyes made Aronoke think that she did not really care, that if he suggested they leave the Jedi temple and run away together, that she would take his hand and never look back.

“And besides,” he hurried on, resolutely, trying to ignore the small part of his mind that was already plotting out that strange alternate future, “you saw what just happened. Master Insa-tolsa has been watching over me for years, since I was a new initiate and scared of the power of my own senses.  If I lose control like that again, he won’t just call.  He’ll be over here in person to see what’s happening to me, in case it’s some new persecution dreamed up by our enemies.”

Hope died in Ashquash’s eyes and she nodded sadly.  Her shoulders slumped and she stared at the floor.

“I’m sorry, Ashquash,” Aronoke said.  “I’m sorry to confuse you even more.  I don’t know what came over me.  I’ve never felt anything like it.”

“It’s alright,” whispered Ashquash.  “I think I’d better go now.”  She slowly refastened her clothes.

“That’s probably a good idea.  I have to go too.”

She walked to the door, a small, sad, lonely figure.  When she reached it she took a deep breath, obviously preparing to face the world again, alone.

“May the Force be with you,” said Aronoke. It was the first time he had said it aloud.

“May the Force be with you too, Aronoke,”said Ashquash quietly, and she slipped out the door and was gone, leaving Aronoke wishing that he could somehow help her achieve her goals. He knew he really couldn’t, except by following what he was already doing. Going away.  What had just happened only made that more imperative.

 

When Master Ninnish Caaldor arrived, he did so in the middle of the night. Aronoke’s holocommunicator chimed, waking him up, and it was a few minutes before he could remember what the noise meant. When he did, he sat up groggily and composed himself a little.

“Ah, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “Master Caaldor has arrived to collect you. He is here at my quarters. I realize that it is the middle of the night, but you should come and join us here. He is eager to meet you at the earliest opportunity and wishes to discuss his plans for leaving Coruscant with you.”

“Yes, of course, Master,” said Aronoke. “I will come at once.”

The Jedi temple never really slept. There were too many different species of Jedi with different sleeping habits to ever conform to any single schedule. Too many people from different planets accustomed to different sleeping cycles. It was important that Jedi were on hand at all times to deal with galactic disasters and issues as they arose. Nevertheless, the corridors and chambers were distinctly quieter at this time of night, and Aronoke felt excited and out of place travelling through them, like an explorer embarking on a great adventure.

Aronoke had been to Master Insa-tolsa’s rooms many times over the last few years, and knew the way well. Nevertheless, this time he felt more nervous than on his previous visits. He knew that he could have looked up information on Master Caaldor on the holonet and learned a little about what he was like. He had not wanted to. He felt he wanted to form his own opinion first.

“Come in, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa when he chimed the door.

In Master Insa-tolsa’s rooms waited a human man, not exactly elderly, but grey and bearded. He was a little shorter than Aronoke himself.

“Padawan Aronoke,” said Master Caaldor. “It seems you are to be my new padawan. I haven’t had one for a very long time – about twenty years to be precise – but I expect we shall get along passably.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “I am pleased to meet you.”

“My last padawan was also a Chiss,” said Master Caaldor. “I expect that might be one reason why the Jedi Council settled you on me instead of any of the other Masters who expressed an interest in taking on a new Padawan.”

A chiss too? But there was only one other chiss Jedi.

“You were Master Bel’do’ruch’s Master?” Aronoke asked.

“Yes. She made an interesting Padawan, even if she was a rather slow learner.” Master Caaldor’s eyes twinkled mischievously, and Aronoke didn’t know whether to take him seriously or not.

“Master Insa-tolsa has been discussing your training with me in some detail,” Master Caaldor continued. “Not to mention these annoying incidents. All things considered, I am eager to leave Coruscant as soon as possible rather than wait until after the next shuttle is sent to Ilum. That is still some time distant, so I will request from the Council that I take you to Ilum en route to our next destination, so that you can forge your lightsaber immediately. That will be far more convenient.”

“Yes, Master, as you wish,” said Aronoke, smiling. He was pleased not to have to wait until the next shuttle. Going to Ilum with his new master would surely be far more pleasing.

“Very well then, we shall depart as soon as is practical. I trust you can be ready to leave tomorrow?”

“Of course,” said Aronoke. He had little enough to pack.

Master Insa-tolsa said something then and he and Master Caaldor fell into one of those conversations that older people enjoyed, full of people, places and situations which originated long ago, and Aronoke was left to listen. He was given some tea to drink and fruit to nibble on.

“You’ve been very quiet, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa after a while. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke mildly. “It is the middle of the night.”

“Why, so it is,” said Master Caaldor. “I was forgetting that you are on a Coruscanti schedule. You should probably get back to sleep. You can come and meet me back here tomorrow, at, let’s say, 1500 hours. Bring your things and we will leave then.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “I will do so.”

It was difficult to go back to his quarters and sleep, but Aronoke reasoned that the later he slept the better, since he would be doubtlessly be required to adapt to Master Caaldor’s schedule. He slept through breakfast, and tried to rest as long as he could, but was accustomed to getting up very early, and even with the interruption to his rest, could not sleep much later than 1000. He had a shower, packed his things carefully into his bag. There was not much to pack – a Jedi does not collect personal possessions. There was his datapad and practice sabre, several sets of new padawan robes, the old robes of Master Altus’s that Hespenara had given him, three years ago. Aronoke held them up against himself and looked in the little mirror inside the cupboard door. The robes would fit well enough in the breadth, but were short in the sleeves now. The legs of the trousers would end somewhat above his ankles. He felt sad as he folded the robes away into his pack. He wished he was strong enough to go and save Master Altus from the pain and torment being inflicted upon him, far away on that watery planet, but he was still only a padawan, and a scantily trained one at that. How could he rescue Master Altus when the green man himself had fallen prey to whatever trap or danger had struck him down? Master Caaldor would hardly be likely to take Aronoke to rescue Master Altus, when there were other Jedi trying to do that at the Council’s behest. He would have other duties, and Aronoke was being sent away to distance him from his enemies, not to seek out even greater danger.

At lunchtime Aronoke said goodbye to his clanmates.

“We will miss you Aronoke,” said the younglings. They were solemn and calm as befitted young Jedi, and Aronoke smiled down at them.

“I will miss you too,” he said. “But it won’t be as long as it seems. Work hard in your training, and I’m sure we will see each other again, when you are padawans, if not sooner.”

“Don’t forget to have some fun too, Aronoke,” said Draken mock-severely. “It shouldn’t all be about meditating and philosophy and doing your Master’s laundry.”

“Don’t get in too much trouble while I’m gone, Draken,” said Aronoke. “I expect you to look after these younglings. You’ll have to run the sparring classes now, you realise. It’s become something of a clan tradition.”

“I’ll do my best, Aronoke,” said Draken and then he abruptly turned away.

“Goodbye, Instructor Mintula,” said Aronoke. “Thank you for all the lessons and advice that you have given me. They have always been useful and I’m certain they will continue to be so.”

“Goodbye, Padawan,” said Instructor Mintula. “You have been a good student and a good example for the younglings to follow. You may have only been here a short time, but I am certain that you will do well as a padawan. Listen well to your new master, Aronoke.”

“I will, Instructor.”

And then he was walking along the corridor towards Master Insa-tolsa’s residence, shouldering the pack with all his worldly belongings, the first step towards an unknown destination amongst the stars.

 

{Continued in Aronoke – Book 2 – Padawan.  Chapter 1 coming soon!}

Tash was awakened by the silence. For a very long time he had lain there listening to the shuffling and wheezing and jangling and occasional unhappy gabbling of the other sacrifices, and he must finally have fallen asleep, but he awoke with a start to a silence like death. No one stirred. No one wheezed or muttered nonsense words to themselves. It was yet harder to see than it had been, for some kind of thick fog had filled the chamber and the lights on the pillars spent themselves in muddled grey-green blobs and failed to illuminate anything more than a few paces distant.

‘I hope they are not all dead,’ said Tash. It would not really have been any worse for him to be chained up with some hundreds of dead bodies than with some hundreds of sacrifices who were to be killed in a few days at any rate, but it was a horrible thing to imagine, and frightened him every bit as much as it would you or me. He felt at the idiot boys chained to his left and to his right, but could not wake them, nor could he tell for sure whether they were breathing or not. When he moved, his chains clanked, but less than they should have, like they were clanking underwater.

‘I wish I was anywhere else at all,’ thought Tash unhappily.

A moment later things became yet more alarming, for Tash felt something crawling on his arm. It was a quick tickly rasping thing with too many legs, as big as his hand, and he could see it only as the merest flicker of movement in the gloom.

‘I must be still and quiet and maybe it will not bite me,’ said Tash to himself.  He had learned this way of dealing with biting creatures through painful experience. So he sat very still as the something crawled down to his wrist and sat there in an unruly ticklish way like a newborn sister, and as another something of the same sort crawled onto one of his legs and scrabbled to his ankle, and then another, and another, until the rasping things were perched everywhere the chains bound Tash to the stone post. Then they began to gnaw. Not on Tash – for which he was very grateful – but on the fetters that held him. He could feel the patient grinding of their teeth in his bones, an inexorable gnawing that went on and on without ever slowing down or speeding up. He had the feeling that if these creatures with too many legs set their tiny minds to it they would simply keep gnawing forever through anything that was in their way, flesh and bone and metal and stone, year after year and generation after generation, until they had gnawed a tunnel through the world from one side to another.

After a long time the things with too many legs had chewed through all of Tash’s fetters. The chains fell dully to the floor, one by one, and the many-legged things gathered in a vague mass before him. He could see their green eyes shining now, little pinpricks of light in the fog. They were looking at him.

‘It is better to do something than nothing,’ thought Tash, which was one of the proverbs he had heard all his life whenever he had been found doing nothing. He stood up, which was more difficult than he expected. First one of the many-legged creatures darted away into the darkness, then another one.  The remaining green eyes watching him seemed to be brighter. He took a step in the direction the creatures seemed to be going and they took off before him in a rush, their eyes bounding like grith nodules in a pot of boiling water.

As Tash walked away from the pillars where the sacrifices were chained, the fog lifted and the eyes of the creatures grew brighter and brighter. The strange silence also faded, and Tash could hear the scrape of his own feet on the pavement, and the rustle of the many-legged creatures around him. There were more of them than there had been:  more and more, until he could dimly see his injured hand by the glow of their eyes, and the shadows cast by their capering bodies. They were leading him away from the doors to the outside, across the vast chamber, deeper and deeper into the evil-smelling darkness.

‘Now I am somewhere else, as I wished,’ thought Tash. ‘It is better, I suppose. How this chamber goes on and on. ’

If it had been outside and lit, it would doubtless have seemed no great expanse, smaller than many of the grith fields in which Tash had spent his life; but it was inside and dark, so seemed to be without beginning or end.

But at last it did end: stone walls closed in around Tash, and the air grew damper and less evil-smelling. The creatures danced around him, steering him first one way and then another through what seemed to be a maze of passages, sometimes down, sometimes up, but more often down. The air grew damper yet, and the walls Tash came close to were slick with slime. Once they passed over a thunderous stream of water, and another time Tash had to climb over a statue that had fallen over to block the way. Tash would have liked to stop and examine the statue more closely, for he had never been so close to any of the great carven images which the Tower was decorated, but the many-legged creatures became so terribly agitated when he bent down to peer at it that he judged it unwise.

‘After all if I scare them away I will have no light at all, and will never be able to find my way anywhere in the dark,’ he thought. And he followed the creatures on, and on, and on, through the maze.

Tash was dizzy from watching the green eyes of the creatures, and weary from not being able to stop and ponder things, and feeling rather sore from one particular place he had been clouted that had not seemed such a big deal at the time, when the passage he was following ended abruptly in a wall.

Several of the creatures took off excitedly into the darkness, while others scrabbled up the walls and even clung to the ceiling above Tash’s head. Before he had time to think of much of anything at all he saw a light that was not dancing and green. It was a bluish light like fire that was very bright – really too bright to look at directly – and it traced a line along the wall in front of him, from the floor to somewhere well above his head. Then it grew wider and wider, and was a door opening into a room, where everything was too bright to see. Of course the light poured out of this room as well, so it was just as impossible to see anything outside, but Tash was vaguely aware of the many-legged creatures capering into the room like mad things. A slightly darker patch loomed out of the brightness, took Tash by an arm and steered him into the room, less roughly than he was accustomed to.

‘Stand still,’ said a voice. ‘Don’t fall over.  And straighten up.’ It was the voice of a very old thalarka, and it spoke the words very carefully, as if they were made out of something fragile and would break if spoken too roughly.

Tash did his best to follow these sensible instructions. Little by little his eyes adjusted and he could make out the source of the voice.  The unbearable brightness came after all from a rather small lamp, which filled the room with wavering blue light and a sickly sweet smell. The lamp hung from the ceiling above a stone table covered with mysterious devices, which under normal circumstances Tash would have been inordinately curious about. There were books, too, like the ones the tax collectors carried, but instead of one there were scores, stacked on the table and on shelves on the far wall. Clinging to the walls – and the shelves – were very many of the things with too many legs, shifting ceaselessly about and rustling like a crowd of villagers on a festival day. In some curious way Tash was quite sure that they were paying attention to the old thalarka; that he was their Overlord, and that their mindless whispering meant something very like ‘sweeter than narbul venom is it to serve the Overlord’. In the lamplight the eyes that had lit Tash’s way were nearly invisible, buried deep in their wrinkled beastly faces, and they looked every bit as horrid as Tash had first imagined in the darkness.

The thalarka had one withered arm and one blind eye, and stood hunched over so that this eye was level with Tash’s eyes though if he had stood straight he would have been rather tall. He wore a necklace with a sigil of reddish-black stones, and with his remaining good eye he studied Tash with a furious silent intensity.

‘Yes… yes,’ the old thalarka said to himself. ‘You will do.’

It was better to be told that he would do, than to be told he was perfectly and completely useless, Tash thought. He bowed his head and let his arms droop, but he let his arms droop less than he usually did when his elders spoke to him, and when he bowed his head he kept one eye peeking at what the old thalarka was doing.

‘You don’t appear to be witless,’ said the old thalarka, keeping his eye on Tash while picking up a complicated metal instrument from the table. The lamplight reflected prettily from it. ‘Can you talk?’

‘Yes, Much-Knowing and Venerable Antiquated One,’ said Tash. ‘What does that thing do?’

The old thalarka raised the instrument to his eye and looked through it at Tash, making a clicking noise in his throat. He adjusted a knob on its side, took it down and adjusted another knob, then raised it to his eye again. Tash watched these proceedings with fascination. He had not really expected the old thalarka to answer his question, but after making a few more adjustments he said something that must have been an answer.

‘It uses certain little known properties of solar radiation to estimate the eckward component of the aetheric vibrations.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Tash. ‘Much-Knowing and Venerable Antiquated One,’ he added hastily after a moment.

‘Of course you don’t,’ said the old thalarka. ‘If you did, you wouldn’t be chained up under the Procurator’s tower waiting to be sacrificed. You would be the apprentice of one of my rivals, and I would have brought you here to persuade you betray them. Or perhaps to torture you to death, as a warning to your master not to interfere with my plans.’

‘I see,’ said Tash. ‘Much-Knowing and Venerable Antiquated One.’

‘Don’t look so alarmed,’ said the old thalarka, setting down the instrument and picking up another one – still keeping his one eye fixed on Tash. ‘I have no interest in torturing you to death. It is quite clear that you are an ignorant peasant.’ This new instrument seemed to contain some kind of liquid, which could be ejected in a very thin stream through a small tube when the old thalarka pressed a lever.  He did this once, spraying a little of the liquid into the air, and the many-legged creatures seemed to find it of great interest. They began to seethe more rapidly, and a few dropped from the walls to scuttle across the floor.

‘What is that?’ asked Tash, forgetting to add ‘Much-Knowing and Venerable Antiquated One’.

‘Aetheric essence,’ said the old thalarka. Slowly and carefully, he traced a circle with the oil on the floor between himself and Tash about a body-length across. The things with too many legs dropped to the floor in numbers and began to cluster along the circle, climbing on top of each other in their eagerness to be close to it. Tash could hear the grinding sound of their teeth in his bones. It was a very unpleasant sound. It began to smell oddly, like the taste Tash got in his mouth sometimes when he had been clouted over the head.

‘What are they?’ asked Tash.

‘Gnawers,’ said the old thalarka.

‘I have never seen them before,’ said Tash.

‘They are forbidden,’ the old thalarka replied. For the first time, he took his eye of off Tash, to do something fiddly with one of the most complicated looking devices while he consulted one of the books on his table. ‘The penalty for keeping them is death by fire.’

‘Aren’t you afraid I’m going to tell on you? No, you’re not. Oh.’ For the first time Tash considered that there might possibly be worse things than being sacrificed to the glory of the Overlord. The odd smell was stronger now, and the sound of the gnawers gnawing, without becoming any louder, grated more and more insistently on Tash’s mind so that he found it hard to think of anything else. He glanced at the door, considering and then instantly dismissing dashing to it and running off in the dark.

‘What do they gnaw?’ asked Tash after a pause.

‘Everything.  Plants. Stones. Men. Even – if encouraged properly – the very tissue of space and time.’ The old thalarka carefully adjusted a knob on the device, glancing every now and again to the book. It was open to a picture, rather than rows of ideographs, Tash saw – some kind of tangle of circles within circles within circles that he wished he could look at more closely.

‘Is that what they’re doing?” asked Tash. ‘Much-knowing…’

‘Oh, you are too clever by half,’ said the old thalarka, amused. ‘Of course. Of course that is what they are doing.’ All the gnawers had clustered in a thick writhing mass around the circle of oil that the old thalarka had made, crawling over one another and sometimes biting through each other’s legs by mistake. The air above them was starting to waver, like the air above the smokeless fires that were kindled in the temples.

Tash asked the question then that had first popped into his mind when he had been brought into the room, but kept being pushed back when he thought of other questions. ‘What are you going to do to me?’

‘Don’t you worry about that,’ said the old thalarka. ‘It will be much more interesting than being sacrificed. Hold out your hands.’

‘Why?’ asked Tash. But he held out his hands, being accustomed to obeying orders. The old thalarka picked a length of silvery cord up from the table and tossed one end across to Tash.

‘You don’t want to let go of that. Just keep holding on, and everything will be fine.’   The old thalarka’s one eye glistened with excitement. He had kept hold of the other end of the cord, which now passed directly over the circle of gnawers.

Tash held the end of the cord tightly. It was comforting, despite everything that had been happened, to be told that everything would be fine if he just held on to it. ‘What does it do?’ he asked.

The old thalarka did not answer, but shifted from one foot to another in his enthusiasm, alternately gazing proudly at the seething gnawers and examining a dial on one of his devices. And a moment later Tash had forgotten that he had asked any such thing.

It was very like when the door had opened. There was a crack of bright light, but it was a crack in the air above the gnawers, rather than a crack in the wall. It swiftly got wider and brighter, and then everything inside it fell out of the world.  That was the only way Tash could ever explain it afterwards.  A little piece of the universe had been gnawed away at the edges, and it had fallen off into something else. The gnawers stopped gnawing; most of them scuttled backwards, while a few slipped over the edge of the void and were instantly whisked away.

Tash’s eyes refused to tell him what was going on in the space above the circle. It was black and piercingly white at the same time, and it seemed to be in ceaseless motion, but not in any direction that Tash had ever encountered before. The silver cord he held disappeared into one side of it, swaying gently, and reappeared on the other.  At the edge of the void the air was shimmering, and seemed to be rushing swiftly like water in a millrace; but the space itself he could not manage to get his thoughts around.

‘Magnificent,’ exclaimed the old thalarka. ‘Exceptional. Look at how smooth the interface is! How stable the aetheric flux! If only Zmaar could see me now. If Tzorch knew how much I have surpassed him. The old fool!‘

The whole thing was so fascinating that Tash forgot to be terrified, and stopped attending to what the old thalarka was saying. He tugged at the cord, ever so gently, to see what would happen. Nothing did. It was as if the void was an immovable object. He stared into the absence of universe, willing himself to make some sense of it. The old thalarka was quite right: whatever else this was, it was certainly more interesting than being sacrificed.

‘Is that clear?’ asked the old thalarka sharply.

‘Yes,’ said Tash without conviction, having no idea what the old thalarka had just said.

‘I am sure the powers – inscrutable as They are – will find you an equitable exchange,’ said the old thalarka, his eyes glistening with triumph. ‘Do not let go of the cord.’

‘Y-‘ Tash began. The old thalarka gave his cord the tiniest of tugs, and Tash’s cord was pulled into the void with inexorable force, as if it was attached to a cart that had fallen over the edge of a cliff. Inwards, upwards, and otherwards, Tash was instantly and irresistibly dragged into a place where nothing made sense.

Cover BoT smlIt may seem that we have not been writing very much over the last six months or so, and this is both true, in terms of publishing things, and not true, in terms of projects that have been trickling along the background.  In my case, I have been working on “The Changing Man,” a teen fic novel set in the universe of “Misfortune“, and also on the second volume of Aronoke,  More recently I have started a story about a traveller boy in the world of Tsai, called “Sky’s the Limit” (which may never see the light of day), whereas Chris has been diverted into completing his Narnia fan-fiction story, Bride of Tash.

Today I put up the first chapters of Bride of Tash at fanfiction.net, and also at Archive of Our Own, which is a fan fiction site frequented by our children.  There are great drosses of trash to be found on fanfiction collection sites such as these, mostly in the style of “What would happen if Major Character X had the hots for Major Character Y?” but there are occasional gems to be found floating in this sea of mediocre slush.

Bride of Tash can also be found here, in the Freebies section, where it will be updated prior to other postings.

 

Tash had always been told he was perfectly and completely useless.

‘Perfectly and completely useless,’ his father would say, in a voice that was an instrument  for making absolutely clear statements of mathematically precise fact.  His brothers would nod their heads solemnly in agreement, and his sisters and mothers would creak wheezily from their alcoves to show that they also agreed that Tash was perfectly and completely useless.

Tash would bow his head and let his arms droop, as if to agree that what his father said was true.

‘And yet,’ Tash would think to himself, ‘I am not useless at all.’ And he would daydream of what he would do one day to prove to everyone that he was not perfectly and completely useless and lose track of what his father was saying.

It is not my intention to excuse anything Tash did or didn’t do on the grounds that he had an unpleasant childhood.  I am not telling you this so that you will feel sorry for him, or so you can psychoanalyse him.  It is only that if Tash hadn’t had an unpleasant childhood, he would have gone on to live a very ordinary life like his brothers and would not come into this story at all.

For the first four years of his life no one said a kind word to Tash. Four years among the thalarka is about the same as fifteen or sixteen of our years, for the world of the thalarka rolls sluggishly around their great green marrow-fat pea of a sun. In all that time no one told Tash that he was anything other than perfectly and completely useless.

In point of fact, he was useless. To live in the Plain of Ua requires stamina, to work all day in the endless fields of mud: planting grith, and fertilising grith, and weeding grith, and warding off the beasts of mire and mist that are eager to eat the tender young grith plants, and harvesting the spindly fruit of the grith that must be picked in darkness and husked and pickled the same night it is picked so it will not spoil. Tash was weak, and could not do any of these things for more than half an hour at a stretch. Furthermore, he was sickly, and was forever getting fevers that made him no good for any work at all for days on end. Worse, he was impatient and easily distracted, and long before he was too weak to work he would usually have wandered off to tease some many-legged crawling thing with a bit of stick, or make little dams and canals in the mud with the hoe he was supposed to be weeding with.  And he was clumsy: he would trample the little grith plants, and pull them up instead of the weeds, and at harvest time he would get bits of husk in the pickling pot, and drop fruit in the mud, and stab his fingers on the prickly parts of the fruit so that they swelled up and were perfectly and completely useless for any more husking.

Once in each long year of the thalarka was the festival of Quambu Vashan, which was held in the city where the Procurator of the Overlord had her alcove, some days journey away on the edge of the Plain of Ua. There was always great feasting at the time of the festival of Quambu Vashan, and acrobats and clowns, though only old Raaku of all the villagers had ever seen them.

Two or three times a year the rain would stop and the sun would peer down through a canyon in the clouds. Then the thalarka in the fields would down tools and try not to look up at the great green marrow-fat pea of the sun and mutter proverbs. Tash would always look up at the sunlit sides of the canyons of cloud- which were almost too bright to see- and dream of what it must be like to be up there.

Eight times a year was the frenzy of the harvest, and after the harvest came the feasting, and after the feasting the coming of the Overlord’s tax collectors, to carry off rather a lot of the pickled grith that was left over from the feasting.

Two or three hundred times a year there would be some sort of holiday to break the round of working in the fields, with the proper dates for each holiday kept in order by the priests. There would be dancing in figures, and wagers on fights between caged mire beasts that were things like hairless weasels, and the priests would usually sacrifice something and make patterns on the walls of the priest-house with dripping bits from its inside.

Every day it rained.

The plain of Ua was a plain of grey mud, and the skies were of grey cloud, and the stick-like grith were grey, and the huts of the thalarka were grey. The thalarka themselves were also grey. The huts of the thalarka were dry inside with a fitful clammy dryness, in which lamps burned only with a feeble bluish flame.  Tash thought fire was splendid, since it was not grey. That was how he managed to burn one of his hands rather badly just before the harvest. At this particular harvest he was needed more than usual, since his two oldest brothers had been married off into other villages since the harvest before, but because of his injury he ended up being even less useful than usual.

This was not long before the festival of Quambu Vashan.  Besides clowns and acrobats, great numbers of sacrifices of a particular kind were always required at this festival, so it was the custom of the tax collectors of the Overlord to demand from each village they visited at the harvest an appropriate sacrifice. This would not be important if it were not that the sacrifices required for the festival of Quambu Vashan were thalarka of about four years of age. It was required that they have all their limbs intact, and have no obvious serious blemishes, but otherwise it was all the same to the Overlord whether they were useless or not.  This part of the festival did not feature in Raaku’s stories, and the older thalarka of the village tended not to discuss it in the presence of younger ones.

‘We should give Tash to the tax collectors for sacrifice at the festival of Quambu Vashan,’ said Tash’s father to his mothers one night. ‘For he is perfectly and completely useless for anything else.’

A family that freely gave the sacrifice for the festival of Quambu Vashan would be noted on the books of the tax collectors and not be called upon to give another for a generation, during which time more useful members of the family suitable for sacrifice would be spared to work in the fields. It was also the custom in Tash’s village for the families who had not given a son or daughter to the tax collectors to bring presents to the family that had, and speak approvingly of them, so Tash’s father’s suggestion was quite a good one. It is only fair on Tash’s mothers to report that they did not croak their agreement immediately, not until Tash’s father had reminded them of these things.

So after the harvest when the tax collectors of the Overlord came to the village Tash was sent off with them.

‘You are being apprenticed to the tax collectors,’ Tash’s father told him. ‘You will leave with them when they have finished lunch.’

Tash did not realise why he had been sent off until he had been travelling the rest of that day with the tax collectors. He had spent most of the afternoon staring up at the roiling patterns of the clouds, imagining that they had hidden meanings. They were like secret symbols from a mysterious power in the sky sending orders to its minions in the mire, in a tremendously complicated language that never said exactly the same thing twice.  The tax collectors had already collected four other young thalarka for the festival of Quambu Vashan. Three of them were girls, and Tash could not understand their speech – it was another part of Tash’s uselessness that he had a bad ear for women’s language – and the fourth was a boy. He was slow-witted and smaller than Tash, but he had paid more attention to the world around him.

‘Where do you think we will stop?’ said Tash as it started to get dark, meaning ‘where are we going to stop tonight’, but the slow-witted one took him at his word and said, ‘At the festival’.

‘Why did you say, ‘at the festival’?’  said Tash, since he was bored and couldn’t think of anything better to do than quibble with the slow-witted boy. ‘Why not say we’re going to the city of the Overlord’s Procurator?’

‘I don’t understand,’ said the slow-witted boy. He hung his head and drooped his arms in exactly the same way Tash had always done when his father told him how useless he was.

‘So, what does the festival have to do with it?’ said Tash impatiently.

‘I’m going to be a sacrifice at the festival,’ said the slow-witted boy. He said it in the same way that Tash’s brothers would say things like ‘I’m going to weed the south-eastern corner of the field today’.

Tash looked around at the others and thought that the tax collectors had treated all five of them in exactly the same way since they had left the village. Here they were, all walking in a line through the mud.  And he realised that his father had very probably lied to him, and that he was going to be a sacrifice as well. For a while he could say nothing at all.

‘I seem to be in terrible trouble,’ Tash thought.

Over the next few days of tramping across the Plain of Ua Tash tried to escape many times, but the tax collectors were experienced collectors of sacrifices, and he had no luck. They went through nine more villages and collected nine more sacrifices for the festival of Quambu Vashan. Five of these were boys, and they were all slow-witted except for Zish, who was contrary.

‘I was opposed to the ways of the village because they were brutish and stupid,’ said Zish, in a way Tash had never heard before, that was bitter and mirthful at the same time, as if it pleased Zish more than anything to call the ways of his village brutish and stupid. ‘So I’m to be sacrificed now,’ he went on. ‘At least my blood will be of some use to the Overlord Varkarian, if it is of no further use to me.’

‘I’m sure there is some way to escape,’ said Tash. ‘If we work together’-

‘There is no way to escape,’ said Zish in his bitter mirthful way. ‘This is our destiny, Valgur’ – he had confused Tash with one of the other boys, whose name was Valgur, and took no notice of Tash’s efforts to correct him – ‘to serve the Overlord by being sacrifices at the festival of Quambu Vashan. Our destiny is inexorable. Our destiny is irresistible.’

Tash stopped listening to Zish as he talked more about inexorable destiny and the usefulness of being sacrificed. Tash was not sure whether this was what Zish really believed or not. Perhaps he did not know himself whether he believed it or not. Sometimes Zish talked in such a way that Tash thought he must be mad, and sometimes Zish told Tash that he was mad.

‘I have said the same thing to you a dozen times, Valgur, and you haven’t said a word back, just gone on staring at the clouds,’ said Zish. ‘You must be mad. It is no wonder you are only fit to be sacrificed.’

At any rate Zish was too contrary to be in any way helpful to Tash.

If he had not known he was going to be sacrificed at the end of it Tash would have had a lovely time. The long hours of walking were dreadfully wearying at first, but he felt himself growing stronger each day, and the sacrifices were fed twice a day with the freshly pickled grith the tax collectors had gathered, which was more and nicer food than Tash had eaten before. Each day he saw new villages, with new and different temples, and new fields cut into different shapes, and great coiling worms of rivers, and broad lakes spotted with rafts, and companies of spear-men and javelin-women marching on the highroads, their armour as silvery-grey as the lakes and spotted with metal spikes instead of rafts. He had seen nothing but his village and the fields immediately around it for his whole life and found he quite liked travelling.

At the edge of the Procurator’s city Tash’s party met up with several other parties of tax collectors. All the sacrifices were collected together and tied in a long chain to keep them tidy, ankle to ankle and wrist to wrist, and in this way they all shuffled together into the Procurator’s city. This city was made of grey stone, huts and palaces alike, and they were scattered together in no particular order over the plain, at first with plenty of space between them but then closer and closer together until they almost blocked out the clouds.

‘Do not let the splendour of this place fool you, Valgur,’ said Zish. ‘Here, too, the ways of the common people are brutish and stupid. But we are irresistibly called to a higher destiny. Inexorably!’

In the middle of the city was the Tower of the Procurator of the Overlord, ten or twelve times higher than any other built thing Tash had ever seen. It was carved on every side with images of mist-beasts and mire-beasts and thalarka, all larger than life, and all making gestures of obeisance to the sigil of the Overlord Varkarian, which was at the top of the tower and was worked in huge blue stones like fire.

‘Sweeter than narbul venom is it to serve the Overlord,’ intoned the most senior of the tax collectors, when the party could first see this sigil in blue stones like fire. All the more junior tax collectors dutifully intoned in unison that it was sweeter than narbul venom to serve the Overlord, and so did the long line of sacrifices. Strictly speaking Tash had no idea whether this was true or not, having never tasted narbul venom nor anything other than grith. But he intoned along with the others. They only had a few moments to look at the tower. Tash would have stared longer, but was dragged along as he was chained to everyone else. Then they were steered through a big black door and down a long ramp which stretched down into a chamber somewhere underneath the tower. The ramp ended somewhere in the middle of the chamber, which stretched off into darkness on every side, over-warm and evil-smelling. Some dozens of boys and girls for the sacrifice were there already, chained to posts set in the floor in groups of six or seven. On top of these posts there were lanterns, and every post that had thalarka chained to it had its lantern lit, with a dancing flame that was more green than blue. Tash’s long line of sacrifices was split up into groups of six or seven and chained to posts, and at the same time the lanterns on top of the post were lit. But there were still many many more empty posts with unlit lanterns.

The chamber was drier than any place Tash had ever been. You or I would have found this its one redeeming feature, but to Tash it was unnerving. The dryness hurt his ears and made his throat itch.

The thalarka who lit the lanterns was an old priest woman, bent over like a grith plant that has grown in too dark a shadow, and she lit the lanterns with a thin silvery stick longer than she was tall. Tash found the lighting of the lanterns very interesting and wondered if the old priest stayed down in the chamber all the time, waiting for a reason to light the lanterns, or if she went somewhere else. She seemed so completely a creature of the dark chamber that Tash could not imagine her being anywhere else. Tash ended up chained with a group of dim-witted boys around one of the pillars at the edge of the darkness.

As soon as all the sacrifices were properly chained a group of younger priests handed out something to eat that was not grith. They were cakes of something very much nicer than grith, though I dare say you or I would still have found them very nasty, and Tash devoured his greedily. So did all the others. When they had finished eating two more priests in more resplendent garments – still mostly grey, but shiny – came and gave speeches, one in male language and one in female language.

The speech that Tash heard went something like this:

‘Welcome in the name of the Overlord Varkarian. Truly it is sweeter than narbul venom, and more pleasant than the song of horn and cymbal, to serve the Overlord Varkarian. Truly are you favoured, for through your sacrifice the Overlord will be glorified. Truly will your sacrifice bring the inscrutable designs of the Overlord closer to their inexorable fruition. Though you may have been useless until this moment, very soon you will attain to a destiny greater than that of many a skilled spear-man or artifex. The part you play in the designs of the Overlord is a very great one.’

There was much more like this and Tash soon stopped paying attention to it. He was more interested in the costumes of the priests than in what they were saying. Their chest pieces were particularly splendid, much more splendid than the chestpieces the priests of his village wore when they sacrificed mire beasts. They were set with such marvellous stones, blue and green and other colours he could not name, and shone delightfully in the lanternlight.

The priest explained while Tash was not listening that they would be given things to eat as nice as the cakes, or nicer, for the next few days until the festival, and that they would be taken out in batches and cleaned and ornamented before the ceremony, and then again that theirs was a rare and glorious destiny.

Because he was not listening Tash was taken by surprise to be taken out and scrubbed and plastered with some sort of oil and hung with jangling bits of fine chain. The only good thing about the oil was that it made it quite impossible to tell how evil-smelling the chamber was. The smell of the oil stung and tickled and burned and it was almost impossible to think of anything else when you had been plastered with it.

‘What’s that you’ve done to your hand, lad?’ asked the young priest who was seeing to the oiling of the sacrifices. ‘Burnt it, eh?’ The young priest found this amusing. ‘Well, mind you keep it away from the lanterns now. Stick one little finger in the fire and you’ll be sizzled to a crisp in an instant, with that oil on you.’

Tash took respectful note of this advice.

Tash had been chained to a post on the other side of the ramp from Zish, and the dim-witted boys who were chained with him were too dim-witted to be any use talking to. He spent the night peering out into the further reaches of the chamber, wondering what was there and thinking of all the marvellous things he had seen in the last few days and what a pity it was that he would be sacrificed in a few more days. The sacrifices around him shuffled and wheezed and jangled in their sleep and the smell of the oil hung thick and heavy in the air. No one came and turned down the lanterns, but they seemed to dim of their own accord, and burnt with feeble flames that were greenish-grey, if such a flame were possible.

Tash found it impossible to get free of his chains. Even if he had, it would surely have been impossible for him to have forced his way through the heavy doors, past the watchers beyond, and made his way to somewhere safe.

‘It seems such a waste, when the world is so big and interesting, to be ending so soon,’ he thought to himself. And a black mood took him and he thought to himself: ‘Perhaps I am useless after all’.

 

 

Aronoke was left by himself with a deluge of disturbing thoughts to contend with. How could Ashquash be drugged? How could anyone do such a thing to her, here in the middle of the Jedi temple? Why would anyone want to?

And then the truth hit him. It was a punishment. Not a punishment for Ashquash, most likely, but a punishment for him. He had reported the strange message, reported all the odd things on his datapad. Ashquash was his friend and had been attacked in order to convince him that this was not a good idea.

He slept little for the rest of the night; would have liked to go running, but knew that was not wise. That Razzak Mintula would not have liked him to go alone, not just then. So he meditated instead. After a long time he was able to calm his thoughts enough to fall asleep.

He awoke quite late the next morning, but Ashquash was still not there. Razzak Mintula was not there either. Mintaka, the instructor who sometimes stood in for her was there instead.

“Razzak Mintula will not be here today,” Mintaka announced at the start of their first lesson. “She was up very late tending to Ashquash, who is sick. Ashquash has been taken to the medical bay, and she is fine, but she will not be back for a few days.”

Aronoke could feel the weight of Draken’s eyes and knew that Draken wanted to ask him all sorts of questions, but he refused to meet the other boy’s eye and firmly concentrated on his lessons.

“What happened to Ashquash?” Draken asked as soon as they went off to the refectory for the midday meal. “She seemed fine yesterday.”

“I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “She woke me up in the middle of the night, and Razzak Mintula took her to the sick bay. That’s all.”

“Oh.”

Aronoke did not want to tell Draken about Ashquash being drugged.  Draken was his friend, but inclined to gossip with people from other clans.  Aronoke thought that if he were Ashquash, he would feel ashamed and wouldn’t want the real story spread about.

But a few days later it became apparent to everyone that there was more to the story than merely Ashquash falling ill.  Razzak Mintula was back by then and had reassured Aronoke that Ashquash was fine and was being decontaminated. Aronoke sensed that she was angry that something like this could happen to a student in her care.  He felt the same sort of powerlessness himself.

“Today our schedule will be a little different from usual,” said Razzak Mintula as they gathered in the clan room after breakfast. “We will be having our first session in here today, so it will almost be like a kind of holiday. An investigator will be coming to ask some questions about Ashquash. He will want to know if you noticed anything the day before she was sick, because there is some concern that it might have been done on purpose.”

“On purpose?” asked Draken, his voice rising in his surprise. “Ashquash was poisoned?”

“That’s bad,” said Andraia, one of the smaller humans. “I don’t want to be poisoned!”

“It is bad,” said Razzak Mintula. “But you don’t need to worry. There is no reason to think that any of you will be poisoned, but you must be sure to answer the investigator’s questions carefully.”

“Yes, Instructor Mintula.”

When the investigator arrived, he was a man who looked largely human except for his skin, which was marked like that of a spotted cathar.  He was accompanied by four droids and Aronoke wondered why he needed so many of them.

“This is Investigator Rythis,” said Razzak Mintula to Clan Herf, who sat cross-legged on the floor.  “He has set up his office in our usual classroom, and will want to ask you all some questions, as we have previously discussed.”  Even while she spoke, three of the droids began cruising about Clan Herf’s rooms, scanning everything.

The investigator was a dour looking man for a Jedi, Aronoke thought.  Either he was of a naturally sombre disposition, or he was not pleased at having to interview a bunch of initiates.  Perhaps though, to be fair, thought Aronoke, the Investigator judged the situation was serious enough to warrant such an attitude.

“This is a serious matter,” said the Investigator sternly. “I intend to determine how your clan-mate Ashquash was drugged, so we can find out who is ultimately responsible. I will take you one at a time to ask you questions. I want to know if you noticed anything unusual about Ashquash or anything else, so you should think about that while you are waiting for your turn.”

The way he spoke was very intimidating, and Aronoke noticed several of the smaller clan members edging closer to their fellows.

“Which one of you is Initiate Aronoke?” asked the Investigator.  “I would like to speak to him first.”

He pronounced Aronoke’s name wrong, which hadn’t happened in some time.

“I’m Aronoke,” said Aronoke, by means of correction as he climbed to his feet.  He met the man’s intense gaze steadily. This was just a Jedi investigator, here to help Ashquash, and Aronoke hadn’t done anything wrong.  Besides, he wasn’t anywhere near as frightening as Careful Kras, and Aronoke was determined to show the smaller ones that they need not be afraid.

“Come this way,” said the Investigator, gesturing towards the door that led outside.

“Yes, Investigator,” Aronoke said.

He followed the man across the hall into the classroom on the other side of the hallway.

“You are Ashquash’s room mate?” asked the Investigator, and Aronoke agreed that this was so.  “This whole situation seems somewhat irregular,” grumbled the investigator disapprovingly, and Aronoke wondered what he meant.  Because Ashquash was a girl?  Because they were different species?  Because both he and Ashquash had unusual backgrounds and had come late to the Jedi Temple?

The Investigator did not explain himself, but lots of questions followed, concerning what had happened the night Ashquash was drugged. Aronoke did his best to answer all of them. How had Ashquash woken him up? Had she ever done so before? Did she usually touch him like she had when she had shaken him? How did she usually behave around him? What sort of sparring did they do? Did they ever go sparring together alone? Did they go out in the middle of the night?

Aronoke began wondering if initiates did all these strange sorts of things more often than he realised. He also found himself questioning exactly what it was the investigator was investigating.

“Do you have any idea why someone would want to drug Ashquash?” the investigator asked.

“I thought it might be part of the unusual things that sometimes happen to me,” said Aronoke hesitantly. “I thought it might be a punishment, because I did not do what the message in one of them told me to do, because I knew it was wrong.”

“Unusual things?” asked the investigator. “What message?”

Aronoke was surprised, thinking that the investigator would have known about all that.

“I reported all of them, either to Master Insa-tolsa, or Master Altus, or Razzak Mintula,” he said. “Unusual things happen to me sometimes. Someone is trying to manipulate me. I thought what happened to Ashquash might be a punishment because I refused to do as I was directed.”

“These incidents will have to be recovered from any reports that were made by your superiors,” said Investigator Rythis primly, his fingers flickering over his datapad. He seemed annoyed with Aronoke, like this information was not helpful at all.

Aronoke shrugged. He tried to explain everything in detail, but by the end of it he still felt that the investigator was not pleased with him. Whether the investigator had expected to find a connection between Aronoke and the drugging, or thought Aronoke was purposefully concealing things was not obvious.

“What was it like?” Draken asked, he face alight with anticipatory relish, when Aronoke returned. “Was he scary?”

“No, not really,” said Aronoke calmly. “He just asked me lots of questions.”

“What about the droids? They didn’t torture you did they?”

“No, of course not!” said Aronoke. “There was one taking notes. The others seemed to be off scanning things.”

Draken was caught between relief and disappointment.

“He can’t be much of an Investigator then,” he muttered, “if he’s not as scary as he seems.  Really it’s an affront to Ashquash to send somebody so tame.  How can he be a proper investigator?”

“You can’t have it both ways you know,” pointed out Aronoke. “It’s either scary and then you’ll be scared because he’ll probably want to talk to you next, or it’s not scary and it’s boring.”

“Hm, I guess,” said Draken, unconvinced.

 

The investigation did not result in any great revelation that Aronoke ever learned of. No culprit was brought to justice, although eventually it was revealed that Ashquash’s toiletries had been tampered with, and that this was how the drug had been administered. Aronoke looked at his own toiletries with new distaste. He had never been fond of them – the water was bad enough by itself – and now he was even less inclined to use them.

It was difficult to relax and be calm after that. He felt angry and unsettled. More and more it seemed that what had happened to Ashquash was his fault, if only indirectly. If he had not been here, than would this have happened to Ashquash? He didn’t think so. It wasn’t fair. She only had this one chance to succeed at being Jedi, like he had, and because she was Aronoke’s friend it was being taken away from her.

It would be better, Aronoke reasoned, if he had no friends. He knew this was not right. After all, clan-mates were supposed to work together to solve problems. But most of Clan Herf was so small. What good would it do to involve the little kids in his problems? What if one of them was hurt next? That thought was unbearable. He wished Master Altus was here to talk to. That in itself was pointless, because it seemed likely that none of this would have happened if Master Altus was here. Aronoke knew he should try to be brave and independent, even if he felt out of his depth.

Ashquash came back a week later, quiet, withdrawn and grumpy, in many ways reverted to the angry uncommunicative person whom Aronoke had first met. Aronoke took care to behave like he had done then.  He sat quietly and did his lessons nearby, not ignoring Ashquash, not paying undue attention to her, but focusing on his reading.

Ashquash sat on her bed and did nothing for a long time.

“I don’t think I’m going to make it,” she said finally. Sadly.

“Don’t say that,” said Aronoke, shocked. “I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t make it.  You’re smart and strong as anyone else.”

“Someone doesn’t want me to,” said Ashquash. “It’s obvious. They don’t want me to succeed, so they did this to me. And right now, it’s only the stubborn, angry bit of me that wants to stick it through, just so that they don’t get what they want.”

Aronoke was overcome with remorse.

“That’s not necessarily true,” he said. “It is possible that some Jedi masters think that you shouldn’t be an initiate, but that doesn’t mean they would go so far as to sabotage your efforts. And for every one that thinks you shouldn’t be given the opportunity, there must be even more who think you should, otherwise you wouldn’t be here at all.”

“Hrm,” said Ashquash, unconvinced.

“And it might not be because of you at all,” said Aronoke, ploughing on despite his better judgement. “Strange things have been happening to me practically since I got here. Especially since Master Altus left. Weird things keep appearing on my datapad. A strange holotransmission was delivered by a droid, trying to manipulate me. I reported them all, and it seems to me that this attack on you might have been a sort of punishment. I mean, you are my room-mate, we are friends, right? Maybe you got hurt so that next time I listen to what it says.”

Ashquash looked up at that, warily.

“I reported those things to Master Insa-tolsa,” said Aronoke. “He said they are trying their best to fix them. I really hope it won’t happen again.”

“Why would they want to manipulate you so badly?” asked Ashquash critically. “To do what? Because you’re so special?”

“Because I’m different,” said Aronoke. “I…there are some different things about me.” He thought for one wavering moment that perhaps he should tell her about his back, but it was too frightening, too strange. Too much to burden Ashquash with.

“I am different too,” said Ashquash.

“Yes, that’s true,” said Aronoke. “I don’t know why they would want to manipulate me specifically,” he continued, semi-truthfully, for although he knew it was almost certainly something to do with his back, he didn’t know why his back was so important. “But it’s obvious that they do, because of the message and the other things that have happened.”

“Huh,” said Ashquash.

“I was thinking,” Aronoke said, “that if it’s true that you were hurt because of me, than perhaps it might be better if you were not my room-mate anymore.”

Ashquash looked up at him. Her complexion darkened like a sandstorm was rolling across it.  Her eyes darkened and her young face settled into hard, tense lines that made her look much older.  Her anger was a tangible, frightening thing.

“I just don’t want you to be hurt because of me,” he explained hurriedly.

“Maybe it would be better,” said Ashquash tightly.

“We could pretend that we had argued,” said Aronoke. “That’s not true of course. We would know we hadn’t argued. We haven’t argued, have we? But it might be enough to keep you safe.”

“How will we decide which of us should change rooms?” said Ashquash flatly, suddenly looking drained and tired instead of angry. Aronoke felt sick, because he didn’t want to travel this path. Wouldn’t the voice have won a victory if he did? But the alternate path seemed impossible. He wanted to protect his clan-mates from this mess, not get them further involved. They were too small to have to deal with such a big problem, he reasoned.  Or had too many problems of their own, like Ashquash.

“It’s okay, I don’t mind changing,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to do anything – it’s because of me that this happened, so I should be the one who changes.”

Ashquash said nothing for a long moment.

“Alright, go then,” she said, bitterly.

Aronoke nodded, got to his feet, and went to Razzak Mintula’s room.

“Yes, Aronoke, what is it?” asked Razzak Mintula wearily.

“Razzak Mintula, can I change rooms?” asked Aronoke.

She looked at him for a long moment, studying his expression. “Perhaps that mightn’t be such a bad idea,” she said, finally. “I am reluctant however, to swap you with anyone else at this time. There is an empty room across the hall, not within the clan rooms, that you can use. Although it doesn’t have the same facilities that your current room has.”

“That doesn’t matter. It will be fine,” said Aronoke.

It was a small matter to move his stuff across to the new room. The isolation of the chamber made it easier to think of himself as being separate. It was the perfect opportunity to divorce himself from his clan-mates, at least in appearance. He must be strong, must not let himself be made miserable or angry by this self-imposed distance, because then the voice would have won. He had to be calm and resilient.  He had to be a Jedi.

There is no emotion, there is peace.

It was difficult. There was an undercurrent of sadness that Aronoke found impossible to erase entirely. He could control it while he was meditating, but every time that Draken asked him to play a game, or any of the little kids were particularly forthcoming, he forced himself to be friendly but stand-offish and it came back. Draken seemed puzzled and hurt, and the little kids looked at him oddly like he had been replaced by someone who was not really him.

Just when he had felt he could really belong, Aronoke thought, something happened to force him apart again.  Was that what it was always going to be like?  Eternal isolation?

Nevertheless, Aronoke persevered in his self-imposed solitude for a couple of weeks. Buried himself in his lessons. Increased the amount of time he spent running and meditating and did a great deal of extra reading to pass the time. Walked down to the pool regularly to look at the water. It was difficult to occupy his mind with enough things to keep himself from feeling depressed, although all the meditation helped a lot. He felt he was getting on top of it most days.

One day he was down at the edge of the pool looking down into the deep water introspectively when suddenly Ashquash was there with him.

“Why do you always look at it like that?” she asked. She seemed tense, irritable.

“Because I don’t like it,” said Aronoke immediately. “It makes me feel uncomfortable, so I look at it to help me get used to it.”

He was going to say something else, but all at once, Ashquash gave him a sharp push. For an instant he thought there was a chance he could regain his balance, but in actuality it was hopeless. Windmilling wildly, he toppled into the deep pool.

The water closed over Aronoke’s head, green and smothering. The world of air was abruptly cut off and he could hear nothing except the rising bubbles around him. Even then, he did not immediately panic, but restrained his fear with barely tethered threads of will. He held his breath and repressed the urge to scream.

But he was sinking. Running out of air with every passing second.  His terror was rising uncontrollably.

Kick off your shoes, countered the trying-to-be-calm voice in his head. Undo your belt, slide out of your robe. You can’t swim in all these clothes.

He tried, but his gestures were too jerky, too hurried. The robe came half off and rose over his head so he could not see. One arm was twisted somewhere behind him, caught in his sleeve. He was stuck.

Sinking further, faster. Couldn’t move, couldn’t swim in all these clothes.

What if Ashquash was standing up there, angry and cold, dispassionately watching him sink? What if Ashquash had planned this all along?

His fear exploded, unrestrained. Aronoke panicked completely, thrashing and struggling. He only succeeded in tangling himself more thoroughly and disorienting himself so he no longer knew which way was up. He gasped in half a mouthful of water. Coughed it out. Couldn’t breathe.  Reflexively he gasped again and burning water flooded his lungs.

He was drowning, a tiny detached part of him realised.  This was how it would ignominiously end.  This death seemed a lot worse than being decapitated by a lightsaber.

Something grabbed his shoulders none too gently, tugging at him, dragging him through the water. Irrationally he fought, but the hands were strong and insistent. Then his head broke the surface, and he gasped for air, spluttering and coughing. Thrashing uncontrollably.

“Be still!” said Ashquash crossly, but Aronoke was still caught in the blind throes of panic and struggled wildly. She slapped him hard across the face. He subsided a little in shock and found himself pushed towards the edge. He clawed at it and clung to it, wheezing and gasping.

“What are you doing?” came an irate voice from far across the pool. “Stop that immediately!”

Aronoke struggled to climb out, but floundered ineffectively, unable to find the strength. Then Ashquash was there at the top, holding out her hand, and with her assistance he rolled up over the side and knelt there for long moments, coughing and gasping, retching up great gouts of water.

“You initiates are not supposed to be in the pool,” said someone closer now, an Aqualish instructor, coming over in the company of a warden droid. “It has been reserved for Clan Vequish’s use for the entire afternoon.”

“Yes, we know,” said Ashquash petulantly.

Aronoke could not speak, was too busy coughing still.

“You had better leave and return to your quarters at once,” said the instructor.

Can’t he see that I’m half drowned, thought Aronoke. His fear had been replaced by anger. Anger at Ashquash, anger that she had done this to him, anger that the instructor was berating him when none of this was his fault. Was this Ashquash’s repayment for what had happened to her? She thought it was his fault?

“Yes, yes, we’re going,” said Ashquash insubordinately. Aronoke made a brief sign of acquiescence, but still did not want to speak. He was too angry. It was only when they were moving off down the hallway that lead to the elevator banks that he felt he could talk.

“What did you want to go and do that for?” he snarled.

“It seemed to me it wasn’t helping,” said Ashquash defensively.

“Wasn’t helping?” Aronoke had lost it, he realised. Heard the anger in his own voice.

“All the looking,” said Ashquash.

“Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean you should push me in.” Aronoke could feel his hands were shaking badly. But he was alright, he thought. He wasn’t dead. He had fallen in and panicked, and he wasn’t dead. That counted for something. Maybe Ashquash was right. And as angry as he might be, he was also relieved that she had pulled him out, was not part of the conspiracy, but had acted, it seemed, through a misguided impulse of her own.

He took calming breaths, interrupted by more coughing. Recited a platitude in his head. Slowly felt like he was coming back under control.

“Just don’t do it again,” he said firmly.

Ashquash stopped, looking wild and a little fey. “I should never have said for you to do it,” she said.

“What?” asked Aronoke, confused.

“For us to argue,” said Ashquash. “I shouldn’t have said it.”

And she turned and ran away.

Aronoke stood there dripping a long moment, confused. Was that was this was all about? She was angry with him for leaving? But he had explained beforehand that it wasn’t real…

Feeling more confused and upset than angry now, he made his way back to his room and changed into some dry robes. He had not yet put the wet ones in the laundry chute when Draken rang the door. When Aronoke opened it, Draken’s eyes immediately travelled to Aronoke’s hair and the puddle of wet clothes on the floor.

“Your hair’s wet,” he noted. “And, um, your robe. But I guess you know that. Do you know where Ashquash is? I can’t find her.”

“She ran off,” said Aronoke wearily. “I expect she just needs a bit of breathing space, and she’ll be back.”

“What?” said Draken. “What do you mean she ran off?”

“I was down by the pool, looking at the water, and she pushed me in,” said Aronoke. “Then I was angry, and told her not to do it again, and she ran off.”

“She pushed you in?” asked Draken. He looked at Aronoke stupidly and stared again at the wet robes. “I hope she comes back soon,” he said finally.

“I expect she will,” said Aronoke.

But Ashquash had not returned by the evening meal and when Aronoke went to ask Razzak Mintula about it, he found Mintaka was in the office instead.

“Razzak Mintula’s been called away,” she said, and Aronoke immediately assumed it was something to do with Ashquash’s disappearance. He hoped Ashquash had not done something too crazy, or gotten herself hurt.  He spent the rest of the evening sitting in the common room, studying his reading tasks, but Razzak Mintula and Ashquash did not return. Finally he composed his thoughts and went to bed, hoping everything would be cleared up by morning.

But in the morning he was woken up very early by Instructor Mintaka. “Do you know anything about where Ashquash might be, Aronoke?” she asked. “She is not in her room this morning, and it does not look like her bed has been slept in.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke stupidly. “But Instructor Mintula… I assumed…” he stopped to organise his thoughts and began again.

“I argued with Ashquash yesterday,” Aronoke said, “when I was coming back from the swimming pool. I was angry because she pushed me in. I am… scared of the water. And I didn’t say much, only that she must not do it again. But she was upset and ran off. I assumed that Razzak Mintula had gone off because of her, but… I am stupid,” he finished awkwardly, beset with self-loathing.

“You are not stupid, Aronoke,” said Instructor Mintaka. “Do you have any idea where she might have gone?”

“No, I have no idea,” said Aronoke wretchedly. Ashquash missing, wandering around the streets of Coruscant by herself? Surely she couldn’t get far with all the security. “I’m sorry, Instructor Mintaka. I should have said something yesterday.”

“I’m sure everything will be fine,” said Instructor Mintaka. “I must go and report her disappearance. You should go back to your regular schedule.”

“Yes, Instructor.”

After that, Aronoke decided that he should talk to Master Insa-tolsa about the whole affair and called him by holocommunicator to make an appointment.

“I have just been talking about you, Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa enthusiastically when he answered. “I am here with Master Parothis and we were discussing the possibility of taking you and several older members of your clan on some excursions to various parts of Coruscant, rather like Master Altus did with you. We think such excursions might be of considerable benefit to your education.”

“I’m sure that my clanmates would be very excited to undertake such a thing, Master,” said Aronoke, “but…”

“Excellent. It will be several weeks before the arrangements can be properly made, of course. Master Parothis has several interesting ideas for locations we can visit. Well, thank you for your call, Aronoke. I will be in touch with you as soon as everything is organized, to let you know the details.”

“Yes, Master, but…” said Aronoke, but the ithorian had already closed the connection.

He could have called back, but Master Insa-tolsa was probably still speaking to Master Parothis and he did not want to be a nuisance. Instead he left a recorded message asking for an appointment, and later the confirmation came back that he could visit Master Insa-tolsa the next morning in the Master’s chambers.

The next morning, however, there was a new item on Aronoke’s schedule, a request from a Jedi Master Skeirim.

“Initiate Aronoke,” said the message. “I request that you come and speak with me after the conclusion of your evening meal today. I will arrange for you to be collected from your clan rooms. Please be aware that your Instructor has been properly informed regarding this meeting.”

Though that would be easy to say and not do, thought Aronoke. He sent back a message saying that he would, of course, be available to attend. A mere initiate did not deny the request of a Jedi Master. Then he went to check that whoever was currently in charge was aware of the meeting.

“Yes, I received the proper request,” said Razzak Mintula, who had arrived back.  “By all means, go and speak to Master Skeirim.  I assume he wants to ask you some questions about Ashquash.”

“Ashquash?” asked Aronoke, confused.

“Yes, Master Skeirim is the Jedi who brought her here,” said Razzak Mintula, “much like Master Altus brought you.  He is not always stationed here at the temple. He is a colleague of Master Altus’s, involved in researching and retrieving artifacts from distant parts of the galaxy.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke. “Thank you, Instructor.”

The next morning, Aronoke went to see Master Insa-tolsa.  He had not visited the ithorian master’s chambers before.  They were dim and green, a tribute to the forest world that he came from.

“Your chambers are very peaceful, Master,” said Aronoke, looking around.

“I find them so,” said the ithorian. “These chambers are supposed to be transient, not personalised. But the Jedi Council has not seen fit to station me anywhere else for many years, so I feel that I may take some liberties.”

“That seems quite reasonable to me,” said Aronoke.

“Master Parothis and I have decided that the first of your excursions will take place in a few weeks time,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “We are considering a number of different venues and I will tell you where we are going closer to the actual day.”

“I am sure it will be very educational, Master,” said Aronoke. “But I would like to talk to you about something else.”

“Of course,” said Master Insa-tolsa.

“You remember I told you about the droid with the holotransmission, Master?” said Aronoke. “And then there was another strange article on my datapad, which Razzak Mintula reported to you?”

“Yes, I remember,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely.  “Has something else happened?”

Aronoke related the events surrounding Ashquash’s drugging, surprised that Master Insa-tolsa didn’t already know about them.

“It is unfortunate I was not made aware of this,” said Master Insa-tolsa gravely. “I should have been informed.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” said Aronoke contritely.  He had assumed Master Insa-tolsa would have been told by someone else.

“It is not your fault, Aronoke.  It is obvious that there has been some breakdown in communication within the temple, either accidental or intentional.  In light of the other incidents you have reported, this one could be seen in a different light.”

“Yes, I thought at once that it might be a sort of punishment. Ashquash is my room-mate and my friend. She is not very social, but we do a lot of things together, like studying and sparring. I thought she was getting better recently, much better than when she arrived. But then that happened…”

Aronoke could hear the emotion creeping into his voice. He found Ashquash’s drugging affected him more than any of the fights or deaths had back on Kasthir.  Now, those scenes were distant and disjointed like dreams, as muted as if he kept those memories sealed in an air-tight box. He swallowed and tried to speak more calmly.

“I decided it might be better if I changed rooms. So whoever is trying to manipulate me might think Ashquash and I were not friends any more. So she would be safe. I know, Master, that I should be able to share my problems with my clan-mates, because that is part of being a clan, but most of them are so little, Master. I don’t want them to get hurt. So I thought that maybe separating myself was a better way. Then yesterday, I was at the swimming pool looking at the water, and Ashquash came and pushed me in.”

“You don’t like the water,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “if I remember correctly.”

“Yes, Master.  Ashquash pushed me in. I got tangled up and thought I was drowning. Then Ashquash pulled me out again. I was angry with her. I did not say much, only that she should not do that again, but she was upset and ran away. I thought she would come back, but now she has gone missing…”

“Oh dear,” said Master Insa-tolsa with some concern. “That is worrying, although I am sure that efforts are being made to find her and that she will be recovered soon.”

“Yes, Master, but I don’t know what to do. I separated myself to keep people safe, and now Ashquash is, if anything, less safe. I think she was unhappy that I left. I did explain the reasons to her beforehand. But maybe because of the drugs, she was not able to cope very well just then.”

“Aronoke,” said Master Insa-tolsa, “You have only been here a very short time, and as you know, your unusual biology has put you into an awkward position amongst your clan mates. You should not have concerns like these at this stage of your training. It is too much.”

“But these things keep happening.  How can I not be involved?” asked Aronoke.

“You should do as you have been doing.  You must continue to report these things when they happen. You should not attempt to deal with such difficult issues yourself,” remonstrated Master Insa-tolsa gently. “You should not have the burden of such a great responsibility.  These things are not your fault, and you must trust us to deal with them on your behalf.”

“But nothing seems to work!  They just keep happening!  What if next time something even more terrible happens?” asked Aronoke fretfully.

“You must not think that the Jedi Council is doing nothing to attempt to alleviate these problems,” said Master Insa-tolsa calmly. “A great deal has been done, that you, as an initiate, do not see from your protected place in the training halls.  Neither is it appropriate that you are burdened with all the details, as you should be free to concentrate upon your studies.  Unfortunately everything that has been done thus far has been of little avail.  The perpetrator of these deeds must be someone of considerable power, cunning and influence, or they would not have been able to remain at large for so long.”

“Oh,” said Aronoke, humbled by the thought that his problems had stirred up so much trouble.

“Now I suggest that you go back to your clan and attempt to continue with your training as if none of these things had happened,” said Master Insa-tolsa. “I will make new efforts to see that the person who is manipulating you is discovered and an end put to these provocations.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke. “Thank you.”

Nevertheless, he did not feel very comforted when he returned to his clan rooms. Either the Jedi Council was incompetent, or his enemy was as powerful as Master Insa-tolsa suggested. Neither option was at all reassuring.

Master Skeirim’s padawan was a sleek human girl who arrived to collect Aronoke very promptly after the evening meal. Aronoke had only just got back to his room.

“Initiate Aronoke?” said the padawan. “I am Padawan Telarfani. I am supposed to show you to Master Skeirim’s chambers.”

“Yes, Padawan,” said Aronoke, and followed her out along the hall.

“I was not expecting you to be so tall,” said Padawan Telarfani smiling and looking up at Aronoke. He was taller than she was, he realised belatedly, and he was still growing. He would be taller still some day. It seemed strange. “I have some good news for you,” continued the Padawan. “They have found your clan-mate, Ashquash. She will be brought back to the Jedi temple soon.”

“Oh, that is good news,” said Aronoke, relieved. “Is she alright?”

“She is unharmed,” said Padawan Telarfani. “I thought you would like to know before your meeting with Master Skeirim, since I am certain you and your clan-mates must be worried about her.”

“Yes, we have been very worried,” said Aronoke. “Thank you, Padawan.”

She smiled, making a minor gesture of respect, which Aronoke returned.

Padawn Telarfani led Aronoke to a door which opened, not into a chamber, as he had expected, but into an elevator. She gestured him inside but did not get in herself. It was a long ride up to the top, and Aronoke wondered where it was going.

When he got out, it was immediately apparent that he was in one of the Jedi Temple’s towers. The walls of the chamber were lined with banks of data crystals, although one was given over to a large curved window showing the dark cityscape beyond. Ablaze with lights, streams of traffic seethed constantly past.

Jedi Master Skeirim was outlined against the window, a tall and imposing dark-skinned human man.

“Initiate Aronoke,” he said. “Come in. I am Master Skeirim. You will probably understand better why you are here if I tell you that I am the one who sponsored Ashquash’s initiation at the Jedi temple.”

“Yes, Master,” said Aronoke.  “Instructor Mintula told me.”

Master Skeirim nodded and continued.

“As I am sure you have realised,” he said, “you and Ashquash have certain similarities which led to your being placed together. You are both unusual students. You have had atypical backgrounds and you are older than the majority of initiates who are accepted into the temple. You suffer unique problems and difficulties that other students do not encounter.”

“Placing you together was something of a risk that I hoped would pay off. There are obviously many ways in which this could have gone awry, but, to be honest, there was no one else who was deemed suitable to share a room with Ashquash because of her problems. I was hoping that here in the Jedi Temple she would be able to adapt to her new situation, that she would come around to the teachings and philosophy and learn a new path which might lead her through life. It has always been uncertain, perhaps unlikely, that she would succeed, and yet thus far the experiment has continued.”

“Now, however, she has run away. She has been recovered and will be returned to your clan rooms shortly. I am hoping that you, as her room-mate, might have some insight to offer as to why she left. I am worried that we are losing her, and should that be the case, her future is dark and bleak. I do not wish that to happen if there is any way in which it might be prevented.”

Aronoke listened to this speech with some relief, glad that someone had such a positive interest in Ashquash’s affairs.

“I think Ashquash was doing a lot better,” he said, when Master Skeirim looked at him expectantly and gestured that he should speak. “When she first arrived, when we first became clan-mates, she was very angry. I know about spice addicts, because I was brought up by one when I was quite small. So that didn’t worry me much, because I knew it was just the drugs. At first, Ashquash was very quiet. We didn’t talk much, just a bit, but before long she began to do things with me. To sit and study, to come and practice sparring during our free time. Later we did a lot more things together. We would go over our lessons, discuss some of the moral stories that we had trouble understanding. Things like that.”

“That is what I hoped would happen,” said Master Skeirim. “Do you know anything about what happened to upset that?”

Aronoke nodded. “I don’t know if this is all true,” he said, a little shyly, “but it’s what I immediately suspected when Ashquash woke me up and wanted to go sparring in the middle of the night. I thought she was drugged right away, because I’ve seen people behave like that before. I thought it might be to do with the strange things that have happened to me here in the Jedi Temple, practically since I arrived. Master Altus knows about them, and so do Master Insa-tolsa and Instructor Mintula. I reported everything to them. Strange articles appear on my datapad. I got a holotransmission message from a droid trying to feed me information. Someone is trying to manipulate me. I reported the holotransmission message shortly before Ashquash was drugged. I thought she might have been targeted as a way of punishing me. Because she’s my friend. It seems an obvious way to get at me. To hurt my room-mate.”

“I see,” said Master Skeirim. “I will have to talk to Master Insa-tolsa and Instructor Mintula and see if they can share their knowledge of these incidents. Aronoke, do you know why Ashquash ran away?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke. He related in some detail all the events that had led up to Ashquash’s disappearance, up to the incident at the pool.  “I did not say anything much,” he concluded, “only that she should not push me in again, but she was upset and ran away. I think she was angry that I had left her alone.”

Master Skeirim was nodding. “Thank you, Aronoke. I can see it is not easy for you to talk about these things, but they will be of great assistance to me in helping Ashquash. I would ask a favour of you. I would ask you to help Ashquash as much as you can, like you were doing before things began to go wrong. It would be best, I think, to put these incidents behind us and to try to make things just as they were previously.”

“Of course, Master,” said Aronoke warmly. He would have done whatever he could to help Ashquash anyway. It was also reassuring that Master Skeirim’s words meshed so well with what Master Insa-tolsa had said. “I think you are right, that she will be alright if we make things just as they were, and pretend that nothing has happened without making a fuss.”

“Yes, that is it exactly,” said Master Skeirim. “Thank you, Aronoke. I expect we will speak again at some time in the future.”

“You’re welcome, Master,” said Aronoke, making a small respectful bow in return. He felt a good deal happier and more purposeful as he returned to his rooms. It was good to have something to work towards, a way by which things might be made right. As soon as he arrived, he went in to find Razzak Mintula.

“Can I change back to my old room, Instructor?” he asked. “The new one is too draughty.”

Razzak Mintula stared at him for a long moment. “That would probably be more convenient,” she admitted. “There are some difficulties in having you in a different place from everyone else.”

“Yes, Instructor,” said Aronoke, relieved that no further explanation or persuasion was necessary. He felt his spirit was lightened when he moved back into his old rooms, like he was arriving back in his proper place again. It was a relief to not have to distance himself from Draken and the little kids any more.

Robert Prescott has dined with Princes of Hell and gone whoring along the Grand Canal with fallen Archangels, and no longer feels the slightest apprehension on introduction to a daemon whose name had been a word of power to the infant-strangling priests of Melkart; but the first sight of the Jesuit gives him a peculiar frisson of horror.  Boyhood tales of Popish plots broach dark waters in Prescott’s mind, vast and almost-formless, and the unimposing black figure seems a thing of menace beyond any glamour-dewed Throne or Power. He has a nose like a beak and the flat face and staring black eyes of a native of the Indies, and in his black robes bears a strong resemblance to a raven, blown by some mischance into Prescott’s study. He looks as out of place and wears the same expression of wary startlement. The man’s name is Alvarez, or Alvaro, something like that.  A drab and dark thing he is, with weathered features like a hammered plate attesting to a life spent under a tropical sun, the only shabby object in a room otherwise filled to bursting with the luxurious impedimenta of power.  The elegantly-bound volumes standing in the glass-fronted bookcase, as staid and sober as a morning parade of kitchen staff, had been sourced at great expense from every corner of the Continent, and any one hides secrets that it is death for any less well-connected man to know. The lead crystal decanter is one of few remaining works of a Bohemian master whose life and legacy had been consumed in the holocaust of the Twelve Years War; the topaz-coloured sweet wine it holds is from one of the last vineyards the Most Serene Republic held in the Aegean Sea, a personal estate of the house of Ruzzini, who reserve its output for bribes to high-ranking Imperial officials. Of the paintings on the wall, the one depicting Danaë and Zeus is curiously more chaste than the landscape: Prescott sees with an inward smile that even the priest’s eye has been caught by the lubricious roundness of the hills, the rubenesque creases converging into shadow where they come together, the obscene exuberance of the musky thicket in the foreground, with its plenitude of curving branches. The slim book next to Prescott’s right hand is Baron Spencer’s celebrated  treatise ‘On Sodomy’; the silver reliquary on his right, originally from a bankrupt monastery in the Levant, now contains the black flesh of a certain aquatic centipede preserved in honey and opium. The carpet is from Kachan; the writing desk is of a peculiar Brasilian wood of which only one shipment has ever crossed the Atlantic; and Prescott himself is dressed with costly efficiency, eschewing the ornament of a Venetian dandy for the severe elegance of an English diplomat.

Continue reading