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In Josie’s dream the wind had gotten hold of the loose edge of the tarpaulin, and it was flapping terribly. The rain lashed her face, and the wind swept her voice away, so the men whose job it was to fix the tarpaulin could not hear her instructions. It took a few moments after she awoke for her to realise that the sound of the tarpaulin had not stopped. It was coming from the shuttered window, and she prodded her husband.

‘Tash? Dear Tash?’

Tash mumbled something, and made a clumsy pacifying gesture with an arm at his wife as he slowly flickered into consciousness.

‘There’s something at the window, Tash,’ said Josie, and kissed the soft skin of his throat. ‘Dear Tash, can you see what it is?’ The sound that was not a tarpaulin flapping continued insistently.

Tash opened the shutters. A gust of wind and rain blew into the room – for that part of Josie’s dream had been quite accurate – and with it a very large bird. It was big enough to carry off a small child, and Tash turned instinctively to the corner where Gerald lay, curled up into a ball under his blankets.

‘Josie! It is an owl, I think.’ It was certainly the largest flying creature that had been in that chamber since the ifrits had been freed from their master, years before. Josie sat up in bed and listened to the bird as Tash closed the window and went to stand watch over the sleeping boy.

An owl can be very quiet when it choses, so it sounded disconcertingly as if no one was there at all to Josie. ‘A good evening to you, friend owl,’ she said.

‘Good evening,’ said the owl, hopping closer to Josie. ‘The Lion’s peace be with you. I am sorry to disturb you at this hour, but might I ask- are you Miss Josephine Furness?’

The owl’s voice sounded as exhausted as might be expected from a creature that has been flying through a stormy night. It had that aura of authority that comes not from any natural superiority, but from being the bearer of some important office – a borrowed authority.

‘Yes, I was Miss Furness,’ said Josie, speaking as regally as you can manage when you are sitting up in bed with a blanket held up under your chin. ‘You can call me Josie – er, Lady Josie. This is my husband Tash, and my son Gerald.’

‘My name is Ofrak. It pleases me to meet you more than I can say, Lady Josie.’

Josie could not remember – was that the name of the owl the gazelles had said had brought them news, long before, when she had first come to this world? The unease she had felt at the first entry of the talking bird grew.

‘You are welcome here in Telmar as long as you wish,’ said Josie.

‘You are very generous,’ replied the owl.

‘Oh, I suppose I should get out of bed,’ said Josie, more to herself than anyone else. ’Can you hand me my nightdress, dear Tash? Thank you.’

‘To what do we owe the honour of your visit?’ asked Josie, getting out of bed and into her nightdress.

‘I am a herald of Prince Margis,’ said Ofrak.

At the sound of this name Josie twitched as if she had just heard a human footstep in a room she had just left and knew to be empty. This was a name she was quite sure she remembered. ‘Prince Margis?’

‘Yes. He has sent me ahead to scout out the Vale of Telmar. He will be here in a few days. I think five; certainly no more than a week.’

‘This is unexpected,’ said Josie, swallowing hard.

‘As you may know, Prince Margis had planned to journey here several years ago,’ said the owl, its voice growing more pompous in the way Josie had always halfway imagined an owl might talk. ‘But his Lordship had to postpone this venture when word came to him of his brother’s death, when he had barely reached the edge of the marches. Some time later rumour came to Balan that the sorceror had died, and that a new sorceress had taken over Telmar. It was said even that this new sorceress, begging your pardon, was none other than a girl that had been spoken of by certain talking animals some time before – which was yourself, Miss Josephine – Lady Josie. Last spring Prince Margis had things sufficiently in hand in Balan to set out again on his quest, which he has wisely done so with the aid of certain of the talking animals of Calormen, among which number I am proud to be one.’

While Ofrak had spoken Josie had moved over to where Tash stood and taken his hand. ‘What does the Prince want here?’ she asked.

‘To find the secrets of Telmar. To rescue you, if you are in need of rescue. To do you honour, if you are not. Should you,’ the owl paused, and continued in an apologetic tone, ‘be an enemy, to defeat you.’

‘That is very well,’ said Josie, not feeling at all reassured. ‘You can let Prince Margis know that I am no enemy to him.’

‘Of course, Lady Josie,’ said the owl.

‘Are there many of his party?’ asked Josie.

‘Beside myself, his Lordship travels with his advisor Jardil, who was his father’s cup companion, five men-at-arms of Balan, and a talking gazelle, Mirilitha.’

The name Mirilitha swam up out of depths of Josie’s memory. Yes, she remembered a Mirilitha – she had been one of the gazelles who had accompanied her on the journey that was supposed to deliver her to this Prince Margis.

‘Mirilitha? Then the gazelles-‘ Josie paused.

‘Brought news of your arrival to Prince Margis, yes. And of your abduction. His Lordship regrets very much that he did not come earlier to your rescue. It was thought at first that you were surely dead – for no stories before speak of anyone who has returned from the grasp of the sorceror’s ifrits. Then the stories came that the sorceror had been slain, and later, that a sorceress ruled in Telmar.’

Josie murmured a meaningless polite reply to the owl. It had been nearly three years of peace, living in the Vale of Telmar in the crumbling castle of the magician Yustus; three years that had not always been easy, years that had sometimes felt to Josie more like being in a prison than being mistress of her own domain, but years that had been uncomplicated by any interruptions from outside the valley. There had been no more earthquakes, no more summons to embark on quests. In those three years Josie had felt smothered sometimes by Tash’s devotion, which had not faded a whit since the night they promised themselves to each other. It did not feel right to have a husband who was always so unquestioningly obedient. And the boy – well, she loved him now, but he had been selfish and demanding from the beginning, as children are when they are very young, and she was too young to be properly patient with him, and it was a rare day even now that she did not remember how cruelly he had been foisted on her, a punishment or a twisted consolation prize for refusing to carry out Aslan’s quest.

Those years were over now, for better or for worse.

There was a stirring from Gerald’s bed, and then an excited voice made it evident that two bright little eyes were staring in an intrigued way at the owl.

‘What is it, Daddy?’ asked the boy.

‘It’s an owl,’ said Tash. ‘A talking owl.’ He picked up the boy and held him up where he could see the bird better.

‘Why?’ asked Gerald.

‘It’s a visitor,’ said Tash. ‘We are going to have visitors.’ And he squeezed his wife’s hand reassuringly.

‘I remember Mirilitha,’ said Josie to Ofrak. ‘She is a fine gazelle.’

‘What’s a gazelle?’ asked Gerald.

‘They are like deer,’ said Tash in a small voice to Gerald. ‘I have never seen one either.’

‘As I said, you are welcome here, Ofrak,’ said Josie. ‘There are rats enough in the castle, God knows – I expect you eat rats? But is there anything else you require?’

‘Rats are fine, Lady Josie,’ said the owl. ‘All I need otherwise is a dry place to rest, thank you very much.’

‘It eats rats?’ said Gerald, his voice tinged with awe.

‘It seems so,’ said Tash. ‘We should not, though.’

‘What do they taste like?’ Gerald asked the visitor.

Josie ignored this exchange and spoke with the owl. ‘When you are rested enough, you may let Prince Margis know that he and his company are also very welcome here. Now, I will show you to a place you can rest. I wonder what hour it is?’

‘My apologies,’ said Ofrak. ‘There are still three hours until dawn.’

‘It is not unknown for us to wake at this hour,’ said Josie. For the first time, she showed that she was aware that Gerald was awake, running her fingers through his hair and smiling ever so slightly.


The last of the clouds that had brought the night’s rain were dissipating in ragged shreds, and the wind shook the leafless branches of the poplars, as Prince Margis and his band followed the path along the little river that Ofrak had said led to the Vale of Telmar. They rode in the steady way of men who have ridden a very long way already and expect to ride a great deal further still, and have no hope of a change of horses in the foreseeable future.

‘There must be some ensorcellment lying about the evil place yet,’ said Prince Margis, with an earnestness creasing the youthful brow of a man used to blithely confronting his enemies head on. ‘Why else would she call the creature her husband?’

‘From the tale the thief told it is the very beast that rescued her from their clutches,’ said his advisor, whose brow was permanently creased from long habit. ‘The gratitude of women is less swayed by incidentals than the corresponding emotion of men, and a deformity that would seem appalling to us, in a woman, would seem but a trifle to a woman, in a man.’

‘True,’ mused Prince Margis. ‘You only have to look at Captain Jorjis and his wives. But still, her husband?’

‘With respect, my Prince,’ said Jardil. ‘If she truly is from another world, who knows what may be expected or excused in a woman of power?’

‘Surely not, Jardil,’ said the Prince. ‘You must not entertain such thoughts. It must be some misunderstanding of speech.’

‘It may be,’ said Jardil.

‘But the child. How could she come by the child?’ mused Prince Margis, his brow still uncharacteristically troubled.

‘The way such things happen is well established,’ said Jardil drily.

‘But how could- who could- never mind.’ For they had reached a narrow stony place, and it was needful to ride in single file.

Jardil did not approve of speaking of such things in front of the common soldiers. The news the owl had brought had been alarming, true, but one could not expect a woman who had come from another world to be in any way ordinary. You could not demand a woman obey ordinary rules, when she had bested a sorceror who had been feared for hundreds of years. The best that one could hope for was that she was fundamentally honourable, and receptive to the proposal the Prince Margis brought. After all, one could not heave a stone in Balan without striking a demure virgin of good family: but there was only one Lady Josie of Telmar. If only the Prince would think more strategically, and less romantically, thought Jardil. The advisor would have sighed, if he was not so used to divorcing his interior life from his outward actions.

Prince Margis proceeded first up the narrow path, with the boldness proper to Princes of Calormen. His dog, a black bitch he had befriended in the Marches some years before, scampered up alongside him. Jardil followed, with Ofrak perched imperturbably asleep atop his saddlebags, and behind him the slim gazelle Mirilitha. The five men at arms brought up the rear, loyal men of Calormen who had served the household of the King from their earliest youth, hopeful that they were reaching a comfortable stopping place but alert to any mischance.

It had been a long journey with very little comfort in it, and a great deal of miserable weather, but Prince Margis had kept his beard neatly trimmed and his hair oiled, and expected his company to do the same. Prince Margis himself, while a very fit and well-proportioned man, was no more handsome than the ordinary run of his people (the average man of Calormen of that time was much fitter than an average Englishman of our time, for they had not yet acquired slaves or any of the other things that incline a people to lethargy). Most of Prince Margis’s loyal manservants would have been judged more handsome than he, if they were dressed in the same finery. The prince had a helpful harmless sort of face – a face that would have suited a waiter rather than a prince; and you would have never taken him for a headwaiter. When he was called upon to act as a prince he wore quite a different face over this first face, like a mask, but it did not fit him naturally.

Jardil had been handsome in his youth, but was one of those men who do not age into what is called distinguished, but become creased and gaunt through worry. He did not lament it. Life was complicated enough without the distractions of youth.

‘Lord Jardil?’

‘Mirilitha?’ Jardil replied coolly to the gazelle, who had come up to walk beside his horse as the path broadened again.

‘If you will forgive me speaking to you as if I too were a Son of Frank, what do you think of Ofrak’s news?’ The animal cast her head about in her nervous gazelle fashion.

‘I am not sure I follow you, Mirilitha.’ Jardil looked straight ahead. Overhead cypress trees, gnarled and ancient, blocked out the sun. He did not like this place.

‘Lady Josie,’ the gazelle paused. ‘You have lived a long time, Lord Jardil, and had many dealings with many Sons of Frank and Daughters of Helen in that time. Lady Josie was friendly when I met her, long before, but do you think she will still be friendly? Do you think she will agree to return with the Prince?’

Jardil did not wholly approve that Mirilitha and Ofrak had been brought along on this journey. He saw the usefulness of having them, and went along with Prince Margis’ designs without complaint, as he also saw the usefulness in many other things of which he did not wholly approve, and went along with them. He was a practical man. He was also a political man, and he hid his disapproval well, indeed so well that both the talking beasts were more likely to confide in him than in any of the others. It was still necessary for them to maintain a proper deference towards men, of course.

‘Nothing is ever certain,’ said Jardil. ‘But from Ofrak’s report, the Lady Josie has her wits about her, and I think she will see the wisdom in the Prince’s proposal.’

‘I did not mean any disrespect to the Lady Josie,’ said Mirilitha humbly.

‘I am sure you did not, Mirilitha,’ replied Jardil. ‘But there is no profit in asking me these questions. All will be made clear soon enough.’

‘Yes, Lord Jardil,’ said Mirilitha.

The prince’s company walked forward silently through the forest, the shadows growing thicker as the sun descended behind the mountains.

Tash had felt the same sense of relief Josie had when they bid goodbye to Blackbriar and turned their faces back towards Telmar, a sense that he was turning back to a nest of safety in a dangerous and irritating world. The empty blue lands had called to him, and part of him would have liked to stride out across them, seeing new places each day and meeting peculiar new people; but the greater part of him wanted only to return to the place where he had a good idea of where everything was, and people were unlikely to bother him, and he could curl up with Josie whenever they liked.

This camp by the riverside was a good something-in-between, and he had quite enjoyed their brief holiday there. It was a pity that Josie was still so tired, and had stayed behind at their camp, he thought: but she was never patient with fishing anyway, and she would be pleased with what he had found for her when he came back.

Tash had spent longer than he had expected to, cheerfully tracking the big fish to their deep lurking pool and gathering two of them. By the time he returned to Josie the cloudless sky was a pink shading to grey, and the birds of evening were making their first tentative forays across it. He tarried a little to watch them from time to time, fascinated; they were such interesting creatures, like nothing he had known on his old world.

Josie had not yet lit the fire, Tash noticed as he drew nearer. Perhaps she had fallen asleep? He hurried on, feeling uneasy, and became very much more so when he found no sign of Josie at the camp.

‘Josie?’ he called out. ‘Josie!’

Tash cast about for any signs of his wife. In one place the bracken underfoot seemed to have been trampled by some large creature; in a soft patch of earth by the river, there was the booted footprint of a man. Strangers had been here. Josie had gone with them. No, she had been taken. She would not have gone willingly. She would not have left everything so scattered about. And he could smell that she had been afraid.

The light was failing, and it was not clear which way the strangers had gone. Tash crouched down at the edge of the camp, put his arms over his head and tried to think. He had come from upriver and had heard or seen nothing; perhaps they had come from downriver? If any of them were still near, they were sure to find him; he had shouted lfor Josie loud enough. He crouched for a few long minutes, forcing himself to breathe slowly, listening as hard as he could. He heard nothing but the birds and the river. When no one came, he got to his feet and struck off into the shadowy forest.

Tash saw the fire of the brigands’ camp about three hours into the night after he had walked a wide circle through the woods, frightening woodland creatures as he passed them by. While he walked he had forced himself to stay calm, to conserve his energy, making himself into an instrument for finding Josie, but when he saw the light he began to seethe with rage. Who were these men, to take his Josie? Tash quickened his stride and moved towards the flickering flames, dimly aware of the voices of men and the noises of beasts already alarmed at his approach.

‘Halt!’ called a voice. ‘Name yourself, if you are man or talking beast.’ It was the voice of a human man, but Tash could tell nothing more about it.

‘Where is Josie?’ Tash called in response.

‘Put down your weapons, and advance slowly,’ said the voice. Then it said, ‘By the Lion!’, for Tash had not slowed at all on being told to halt, but had continued to stride angrily on, and his bulk had just become visible on the edge of the firelight. Horses whinnied in alarm, and men scurried for their weapons. They were dark men like Yustus, Tash saw, but most were taller and more heavyset than he had been, and they wore unkempt beards.

‘Halt!’ called one of the men, pointing a complicated sort of bow at Tash.

‘Where is Josie?’ called Tash again, his voice rising to an inhuman roar.

‘What is that beast?’ called one of the men. ‘He is a monster from Telmar,’ said another, and raised his hands to his face in a sign to ward off evil. But the men who had more of their wits about them had swords in their hands, or arrows notched to bowstrings, so there were a good half-dozen weapons pointed at Tash by the time he was near enough to feel the heat of the fire.

‘I don’t know of any Josie,’ said a smooth voice that seemed to hold less fear than the others. The man who belonged to this voice had come striding up swiftly at the first sounds of alarm, and now stood closer to Tash than any of the men who had their weapons trained on him. This man had a beard that was more neatly trimmed than the others, and wore a polished leather breastplate with the image of some insect embossed on it. He spoke as if he met apparitions such as Tash as a matter of course, and held his curved sword in a way that somehow contrived to be neither defensive nor aggressive. A leader must never show fear before his followers, Tash remembered learning on the world of the Thalarka. This one is afraid of me, like the others, but he cannot show it.

‘Is Josie a creature like yourself? Or is it a man you seek?,’ asked the smooth-voiced man. ‘For it might be that we seek the same man. Tell me more, and it may be we can help one another.’

The man stepped took another step closer, keeping his eyes fixed on Tash and his voice calm and steady. ‘We are looking-‘ he began, but he did not finish.

Tash could smell Josie on the smooth-voiced man. With a cry of inarticulate rage, he lashed out. The man was quick with his sword, and brought his blade in position to block Tash’s blow, but the strength that would have stopped a strong human warrior’s swordarm was not enough to stop Tash. The sword cut deep into Tash’s arms, and in one of them stopped at bone; but the other arm carried through and struck the man’s throat, with force enough that things inside it splintered. The man staggered backward, dropping his weapon, gurgling and clutching at the air.

‘Kill it!’ called a man. Tash felt arrows tearing into his flesh, and heard the sickening sound they made as they stuck there. The bowmen had encircled him, so they could not fire high for fear of hitting one another, and most of their shots struck him in the legs.

One man was bolder than the others and came at Tash with his sword. The blade stabbed deep into Tash’s side a little above his waist. Without thinking, Tash brought his beak down into the man’s neck, cutting through artery and windpipe in a single swift bite. The intrepid swordsman’s momentum carried him forward and he fell behind Tash, fountaining blood.

Tash had never been in so much pain, but he did not care. He kicked at the fire, sending up a storm of dancing sparks. Another arrow sank deeply into his back. The taste of the brigand’s blood was sweet in his mouth.

‘Where is Josie?’ he shouted.

‘Keep your distance,’ said one of the men, waving the others back. ‘Keep shooting it. It is too strong.’

The horses were maddened by Tash’s violence and now one broke free of its bonds, kicking wildly and careening wildly off into the darkness. Curses, screams, and inarticulate conflicting orders filled the air. The tear in Tash’s side burned and bled.

Tash pounced to the nearest of the brigands, a bowman who was fumbling to notch another arrow to his bowstring, and broke both his arms in one motion, twisting them like saplings.

‘Where is Josie?’ he cried again. ‘Where is she?’ More arrows struck Tash, but no other swordsman dared to come near. He grabbed a tentpole and drove it through the chest of one of the bowmen who was not standing quite far enough away.

‘The monster will kill us all,’ called one of the men.

Inexorably, irresistibly, heedless of his wounds, Tash hacked his way through the camp, searching for his wife. The brigands fell away before him. The man whose arms Tash had broken wailed in agony. Red foam bubbled from the mouth of the one Tash had impaled with the tentpole.

‘In the commander’s tent,’ called a man with an angular face, one of those who had held back from the fight. ‘The wine-red tent. The girl is in there.’

Tash tore into the big wine-red tent, which was still too small for him to stand upright in. On a bed of blankets at the rear of it Josie lay insensible, her legs showing white in the darkness. She smelled of the smooth-voicced man.

‘Josie?’ Tash gathered her up. She lay limply in his arms, but she groaned at the sound of his voice, and he could not see any wound on her. She was alive.

A wild exultant happiness welled up in Tash. ‘Sweeter than narbul venom is it to serve the Mistress of Telmar,’ he intoned in a soft voice, wrapping his arms around Josie to protect her. He did not leave the tent the way he entered – he could hear the men coming cautiously closer to the front – but instead tore his way through the cloth at the back, bringing the tent down behind him as he fled. A few steps further they were in darkness, and Tash loped off towards the river.

At first Tash did not think of the pain at all in his joy at having Josie back. After a very little while, though, he found he could only carry her with three arms. The fourth, the one the leader of the brigands had struck with his sword, hung stiff and useless. The cries of the men carried a long way in the still night, but it did not seem that they were following, and they grew fainter and fainter as Tash crashed through the darkness. At the river side he paused. He needed to set Josie down to do two things: to gather up their things, and to remove the arrows sticking into him. The one in his back was the worst, for he wrenched it sideways as he pulled it out, and afterwards it hurt him even more than the wound in his side. It was hard to gather up Josie and start again, harder than he had thought it would be; his arms and legs felt too heavy, and he felt dizzy. And he hurt, worse and worse.

After he forded the river Tash could no longer run, only walk. With Josie clutched unconscious to his chest he walked on until dawn, then for two hours after, while the birds sang and the sun shone down on meadows carpeted with blue and white flowers. The world occasionally spun giddily around him or bucked unexpectedly, but he ignored this and walked on.

Tash had never been in so much pain for so long, and he had rarely been so tired, but he was not miserable. It was true that he had failed in allowing Josie to be captured, but he had not been at all useless in rescuing her. He had not failed Josie as he had failed Nera. He had cut through the brigands who had captured Josie: inexorably, irresistibly, and he had saved his wife. Now he would go home with her and be safe. He clung to this thought as he walked on, and it kept him happy despite all his pain.

Tash did not feel sorry for the brigands, and think that any of them might have been poor farmers’ sons impressed against their will, with doting sisters at home who would cry when they heard they were dead. Chances are that none of them were, at any rate; and if humans are not often brought up to think of their enemies in such a way, thalarka were brought up even less so when Tash was growing up.

The pain from the wound in Tash’s side had somehow spread to that whole side of his body, and from time to time he had to stop entirely as a spasm of pain went through him.

‘Tash?’ said Josie muzzily.

‘Josie?’ Tash clutched her a bit more tightly to him, and turned to look at her. Her face was paler than usual and she looked thoroughly miserable.

‘I am so glad you are here, dear Tash,’ she said, in a small weak voice. ‘I love you. Can you put me down? I feel sick.’

‘I love you,’ said Tash tenderly, carefully setting Josie down on the grass. She did not stand, or even sit properly at first, but slumped forward, holding her face just off the ground with her hands. She threw up, and then very slowly and carefully stood up, with Tash helping as much as he could manage.

‘Bleh,’ said Josie. ‘Oh, I am so glad you are here.’ She sounded a little better, Tash thought. It was so very very good to hear her voice again, even if it seemed further away then usual.

‘How are you?’ Tash asked her. ‘Did they hurt you?’

‘My head hurts, I feel ill, and – your arm is all over blood, Tash. Poor Tash. Oh, I am so sorry.’ Josie sounded very alarmed.

‘I am alright,’ said Tash. This was not true. The wound in his side had hurt him more and more as he walked, and the flow of blood from it had not stopped, trickling all the way to his feet.

‘No, you are hurt,’ said Josie. She felt him over gently, finding many of his wounds. ‘You are all over blood. Poor Tash. This one is very deep.’ He twitched and hissed at her gentlest touch, the pain making it hard for him to keep standing. ‘Oh, poor Tash, you have been hurt terribly. You must sit down.’

‘I can keep going,’ said Tash. ‘I want to get home.’

‘You are shaking,’ said Josie. ‘And over warm. Sit. Put the packs down.’

Tash obeyed. It was very easy to sit down when he began. The soft grass seemed to drag him to it. The ground rocked gently beneath him, and above him clouds made lazy circles in the painfully blue sky. In the end he found himself more lying down than sitting.

‘What happened to you?’ Tash asked Josie. He lay with his eyes closed, happy that Josie was there, waiting to hear her voice again.

Josie did not answer Tash’s question. ‘There is no water in the canteen,’ she said after a moment. ‘Is there any water near?’

‘There was a stream not long ago,’ said Tash. ‘I will take you there.’

‘No,’ said Josie firmly. ‘I think I can hear it. I will be very careful; you don’t have to worry about me. I feel much better now.’

‘I wish you could stay,’ he said mournfully.

‘I am not going far,’ she said. ‘I will be right back. Just rest for a while, dear Tash, I will be back before you know it.’ She kissed the soft downy bit of his neck and left, and he was very sorry that she was leaving, but he did not complain.

Tash listened to Josie moving slowly off across the meadow, breaking a switch from a willow, and then moving more slowly into the forest. He felt very heavy. The world, which had not rocked or spun for a while after he lay down, started to move again. He found if he stayed very still and tried to breathe very shallowly it seemed to hurt a little bit less. He tried hard to concentrate on doing this, at the same time listening hard for the sounds of Josie in the distance.

On the afternoon of the fifth day they were camped by the river, Tash went off looking for a better place to fish. ‘There are more good fish in this river,’ he told Josie. ‘I can tell. But they have learned that I am here, and there is so much water for them to hide in.’

‘Good luck, Tash,’ she called after him, and settled down to listen dozily to the sounds of the river.

The kinds of sounds a river makes, as I am sure you know, are the kinds of sounds that make you more conscious of the fact that your bladder is full, and after she had lain resting awhile this outweighed Josie’s desire to keep laying there doing nothing. ‘Bother,’ she said, and got up and walked a little ways away from the stream. Once Josie was further from the stream she could other sounds. There was the crunching of undergrowth underfoot, branches being pulled back and let go: the sounds of someone approaching. Could Tash be back already? No, he had gone upriver, and the sounds were very clearly coming from downriver.

Josie hastily returned to the camp. There was no way to hide their things before whoever it was came this way- before they came this way, for there were two separate pairs of feet. They sounded to Josie much more like men than beasts. And they were very close, the sounds they had made as they approached muted by the swollen river.

‘Hail!’ called a voice. ‘Is someone there?’ It was the first voice of a man Josie had heard since the death of Yustus. It had the gruff, confident tone of the kind of man who lives his life out of doors doing things that do not need a lot of artful thinking or book-learning, but a great willingness to take risks and an easy sort of halfway-decent competence in all manner of practical things. It was the kind of voice she had heard often when she was growing up, and it instantly made her feel smaller again, more like the girl Josephine Furness and less like Josie, Mistress of Telmar.

‘Hail!’ called Josie back, trying to sound strong and confident.

‘Why, it’s a maiden!’ the voice said with some surprise, drawing nearer. There was some broad male laughter. ‘And a northern lass, if my eyes do not deceive me. What possessed you to journey in these wilds, northern lass?’

The two men had walked up swiftly since Josie had admitted her presence, and now stood with her at the edge of the patch of sandy ground where she had made camp. She could smell the stale breath of men who eat a great deal of meat and are not particular about cleaning their teeth, and their sweat, and an oil rather like the oil they had used back home for oiling saddles.

‘I am travelling through,’ said Josie. ‘My companions- companion and I.’

She felt it would not be a good idea to volunteer too much about who she was and where she was going.

‘Why, that is the very thing we and our company are doing,’ said the man who had spoken. He laughed again. ‘Where are you bound? It might be we could travel together.’

‘I would rather not say,’ said Josie.

‘Is something wrong with your eyes?’ asked the second man. He had a more cunning, thoughtful sort of voice that reminded Josie uncomfortably of the magician Yustus.

‘I am blind,’ said Josie.

‘That is a great pity, lass,’ said the first man. ‘That means you cannot see the handsome face of Arishan here. He is accounted a great beauty back at home.’

‘Tell us of your companion,’ said Arishan. ’Is she a northern maiden, like yourself?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘He is a man. A big, strong man.’

‘There is just one bed made here,’ pointed out the man named Arishan in his unpleasant oily voice.

‘My companion is my husband,’ said Josie.

‘A fortunate man he must be, to have such a courteous and well-formed wife,’ said the first man.

‘I cannot see any man’s clothing among your things here,’ said Arishan. ‘I hope your husband has not deserted you.’

‘No, he will be back very soon,’ said Josie, starting to feel rattled.

‘Well, we can wait for him, then,’ said Arishan. ‘It will be good to make his acquaintance. No doubt he will see we mean no harm, and feel free to tell us where you are bound.’ He sat down heavily on the bed of blankets that Josie had arranged.

‘Sit down a while, lass, and be hospitable,’ said the first man. ‘There is no need for us to stand here as if we were two watchmen questioning a thief.’

With great reluctance Josie sat down on the opposite side of the ashy firepit from Arishan. The first man plunked himself down next to her.

‘Well,’ said Arishan. ‘We can think of something to do to pass the time until your husband returns.’ Josie could hear him getting something that clattered out of his pockets; a cup and dice, from the sound of it. ‘Do you like games?’

‘No,’ said Josie, shaking her head.

‘I have never seen a girl as white as you, lass,’ said the first man. ‘Are you a Narnian?’

‘No,’ said Josie.

‘Just as well,’ said the man. ‘I have heard it said that Narnian girls look fair enough in most of their parts, but are as dark and hairy as an ape in their nethers.’ He laughed again, and Josie furrowed her brows in anger. ‘I expect your husband could tell us the truth of that, eh, lass?’ He slapped a hand like a slab of salt pork down on Josie’s thigh in an insolent and inappropriate way.

‘You should go,’ said Josie, angrily trying to get to her feet, but the man grabbed her roughly and would not let her.

‘Or we could check for ourselves,’ he said, clutching Josie around the middle and chuckling as she kicked futilely. The smell of stale sweat on him was vile.

‘Let me go!’ said Josie, trying to command like the Mistress of Telmar, but sounding shrill and panicked even to herself.

‘Rozek, stop scaring the girl with your rough talk,’ called Arishan. ‘Put her down.’

‘She’s wriggling too much,’ said Rozek.

‘Stop it,’ said the second man in a voice edged with steel. Grumbling, Rozek tossed her to the ground. Josie gathered herself together and sat with her arms and legs curled up protectively, waiting for a chance to make her escape.

‘We have to do this properly,’ said Arishan, in a voice that made Josie’s skin crawl. ‘We cast lots to see who gets first go at the girl. Odd or evens?’

‘Evens,’ growled Rozek. ‘Best out of three.’

Josie heard the cup rattling, and the dice turned out. ‘Six and three,’ said Arishan.

Was that the sound of someone approaching? It was hard to hear noises in the wood over the sounds of the river. Josie strained her ears.

The cup rattled again. ‘Six and one- look upon them and despair,’ said Arishan, with a horrible glee.

‘Bugger,’ said Rozek.

Yes, someone was definitely coming. Josie leapt to hear feet while the brigands were distracted by their dice and charged off towards the noise. ‘Tash!’ she called out. ‘Tash!’

She slipped on an uneven patch of ground and tumbled, scrambled to her feet and ran forward, and then she was suddenly almost trampled by a pony ridden by someone who was not Tash. The pony was as alarmed at nearly trampling her as she was at nearly being trampled. The rider did something vicious to it and it stood still, breathing heavily.

‘Rozek? What’s this?’ called the angry voice of the rider. It was a higher pitch than the voices of Rozek or Arishan, but sounded no less masculine and rough.

‘Found this lass,’ said Rozek, who had given chase and was now catching up. He grabbed hold of Josie’s arm. ‘Says she’s out here with her husband, but won’t say where they’re going.’

‘So you thought you’d chase her all over the wilderness? Orders are to bring any strangers straight to the commander. You know that. ’

‘We were waiting for the fellow to turn up,’ said Arishan, walking up more slowly and somehow sounding reasonable even to Josie’s ears.

‘Yes, and what do you think he’ll do if he comes back to find two louts like you pawing his woman? Whip out his sword first and ask questions later, and he ends up dead and we don’t learn a damned thing from him. Or, more likely, he kills you two and gets clean away, when we’d have him at twelve to one if he had to track you back to the camp. Are you completely stupid? Settle down, you.’ He said this last to Josie, who was struggling to wrench her arm free from Rozek’s grip.

‘I’m fortunate you showed up to deal with things properly, then,’ said Arishan drily. ‘This man may not exist at all. There are only woman’s clothes here.’

‘Shut up,’ said the rider. ‘Get up behind me, lass. Rozek, put her up behind.’

‘She’s blind, Karasp,’ said Rozek, lifting up the struggling Josie like a sack of oats and putting her on the back of the pony.

The rider made a contemptuous noise at the other brigands. ‘Hold on tight,’ he told Josie.

‘Please, can’t you just leave me here?’ she asked, reluctantly putting her arms around the man’s chest. ‘My husband-‘

‘Sorry, lass,’ said Karasp. ‘Orders are to bring any strangers to talk to the commander. Orders these fools seem to have forgotten. Hold on. If you fall off you’ll bash your head in, like as not.’

‘I have ridden before,’ said Josie. Through her fear of what might happen with these coarse men, she felt a pang of melancholy. She had used to ride double with Gerry almost every day.

The pony took off through the woods at a brisk trot for a good twenty minutes, with enough twistings and turnings that Josie was not at all sure which direction they were from the river. Josie could hear the crackling of a fire, and the sound of a good many horses and men – the dozen the rider had mentioned seemed to be about the right number of each. Her arrival had caused quite a stir, from the voices she could hear as she climbed down from the back of the pony. It was obviously completely unexpected to find a girl in the wilderness, with her pale skin adding an additional thrill of exotic detail. Without ado, Karasp hustled her into what seemed to be a large tent. The hubbub outside suddenly dimmed, and she could smell perfume and roast poultry, rather than just wood-smoke and unwashed man and beast.

‘An interesting find, Karasp,’ said a voice. It was probably the least unpleasant voice Josie had heard yet from a man in this new world, a strong resonant voice she could imagine reading from the Bible on Sunday mornings. It sounded friendly enough on the surface, but Josie could tell there was something unyielding and implacable beneath. It was, in a way, an even more frightening voice than Arishan’s. ‘Who is this young lady?’

‘Arishan found her by the river,’ said Karasp. ‘About half a league upstream. Apparently she’s blind. She says she’s travelling with her husband, but hasn’t said where they’re bound. Arishan said there were only woman’s clothes where she was camped.’

‘I see,’ said the commander. Josie could hear him stepping closer to her, and knew she was being scrutinised.

‘Young lady, my name is Ormuz, and my companions and I are bound on a voyage of discovery,’ he said in a friendly tone. ‘To make a long story short, word has come to us in a distant land that the mage of Telmar is dead and his slaves flown, so the treasures of Telmar lie open to be taken by anyone. Such a chance comes only once in a lifetime, if that.’ Ormuz paused, and added in the same friendly voice, as if he was an old friend of the family being introduced to Josie in her mother’s parlour. ‘You see, I am quite open about who I am, and what my business is. If you could do me the honour of replying in kind, in as much as you are able, it would be a fair and courteous act.’

‘I,’ said Josie. ‘I am not able to tell you my business.’

‘That’s too bad,’ said Commander Ormuz. ‘Karasp, fetch a seat for our guest, and something for her to eat. I will get her something to drink myself.’

Karasp found something like a camp-stool for Josie and she reluctantly sat down on it.

‘If you are not free to tell me your business, perhaps you would be good enough to tell me your name?’ Josie could hear the commander getting bottles and cups from a chest, pouring out two drinks.

‘My name is Miss Furness,’ said Josie.

‘Like furnace?’ said the commander. ‘It is a curious name, but not an ill-favoured one. I know of no place in the world where it would be customary to name such a fair lady after such an instrument of smoke and fire, but the world is large. Here.’ He pressed into Josie’s hand a largish tumbler of something that smelled rather like sherry. ‘You must have had a hard time of it. Drink.’

Josie warily took a sip and found that it almost immediately warmed her right through.

‘It must be very difficult travelling in these lands without being able to see,’ said the commander. ‘Your husband must be very brave and resourceful, to bring you on such a journey. Set it down there Karasp, yes.’ The brigand Karasp set a plate with some kind of roast bird on it down next to Josie.

‘He is,’ said Josie.

‘You are a fortunate woman,’ said Ormuz. ‘Though to look at you, you are hardly more than a child. Have you been married long?’

‘A few months,’ said Josie.

‘Arranged, or a love match?’

‘Love,’ said Josie.

‘And your husband takes you away into the very deepest wilderness? I am beginning to sense an elopement.’ The brigand Ormuz chuckled softly and lowered his voice, as if he was letting Josie into a secret. ‘Did your father take unkindly to your attachment to this man? You so young, and he such a reckless adventurer?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘It was not like that.’ The sherry – or whatever it was- made her feel less like a poor captive, and more like the bold Josie, Mistress of Telmar, who she wanted to be. Imprudently, she took another sip.

‘Still, yours must be a fine story,’ said Ormuz. ‘I am looking forward to your husband’s return, so I can see for myself who has won your heart and led you into such dangerous wilds so far from your family and home.’

Josie let this pass. She did not want to be asked any more difficult questions about Tash, and was feeling bold, so she changed the subject. ‘Your men were horrible- that Arishan, and Rozek. They were going to – to rape me. They were rolling dice for me.’

‘I am sorry, Miss Furness,’ said Ormuz, sounding stern and concerned. ‘Rest assured, they will be punished. Not to excuse them in any way, but I am afraid I had to cast my net rather wide in order to put this expedition together, and a few of my men are unsuited for civilised company. When your husband arrives, I will have them flogged in his presence.’

‘Good,’ said Josie. She took another drink of the almost-sherry, and found to her surprise that the tumbler was empty.

‘You should let me go,’ she said. ‘Back to my camp. Tash- my husband- will be unhappy if he does not find me there.’

‘I am sorry, Miss Furness,’ said Ormuz. ‘In light of what you have told me about the scoundrels in my employ, I am inclined to keep you here where they cannot cause you any more trouble. I hope you do not mind. May I refill your cup?’

Josie did not actually say she did not want her cup refilled, so in a moment she found that it had been, and she could not help taking another mouthful. She was feeling quite warm through now, and very brave and queenly.

‘He will not be pleased to find me here,’ she said. ‘It would be better for you if you brought me back.’

‘I am sure he will be displeased,’ said the commander apologetically. ‘But I will explain everything to him, and I am sure he will understand.’

‘Oh,’ said Josie, taking another drink. She supposed what the commander was saying made a kind of sense.

‘I am glad you like the wine,’ said Ormuz. ‘I had it from a caravan near Teebeth. I have carried it a very long way, hoping for an appropriate guest to serve it to.’

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘It is rather sweet.’ She tasted the inside of her mouth. There was some subtle flavour in the wine that she recognised, but could not place exactly, a bitter but not entirely unpleasant undertone.

‘Tell me,’ said commander Ormuz suddenly, in a sharper voice. ‘What do you know of Telmar?’

‘Nothing,’ said Josie. ‘Well, nothing besides that there was an evil magician there who commanded ifrits, who was the last of the men of Telmar who had been turned into beasts by Aslan long ago.’

‘That is the story that the wise tell in my country, as well, Miss Furness,’ said Ormuz. ‘Where did you hear this tale?’

‘A gazelle told me,’ said Josie.

‘A gazelle!’ Ormuz laughed. ‘Tell me, Miss Furness- would you be surprised to hear that the place Telmar lies no great distance from here?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘I mean, yes.’ She was starting to feel a little lightheaded.

‘No, indeed,’ said Ormuz. ‘Perhaps a week’s journey north of here. Perhaps even less. According to the tales I have heard, we are almost there. We go to seek its treasures. Does your husband, or whoever you are travelling with, perhaps go to seek the same thing?’

‘No,’ said Josie. She set her face in a way that was meant to look proud and defiant. She felt suddenly as if the tent was spinning around her.

‘I feel dizzy,’ said Josie. She set down her tumbler, which was empty again.

‘Perhaps you drank the wine too quickly,’ suggested Ormuz. ‘If you are not used to it, it is easy to do. Just answer my question, and then you can lie down and rest until your head clears. Are you going to Telmar?’

‘No,’ said Josie.

‘Are you certain?’ said the commander. His voice was close now, smooth and unyielding and implacable and not friendly at all.

‘I won’t let you have it,’ snapped Josie unreasonably. Her voice sounded blurry and odd to herself, so she repeated her words. ‘I won’t let you have it.’

‘I am in the habit of having whatever I want,’ said Ormuz, with a chilling calmness. ‘I should not be so confident if I were you.’

‘It is mine,’ said Josie angrily. ‘I am Mistress of Telmar. We defeated the magician, and we can defeat you.’ She went to stand, and found it more of a struggle to get up than she expected.

‘You are mysterious, that is certain,’ said Ormuz. He took her arm and dragged her to her feet. ‘I do not suppose there is one part of truth in twenty of what you have told me. And there is some power to you, I can see that. But enough to hold Telmar against my company? I think not.’

Ormuz was leading her deeper into the tent. She felt something soft beneath her feet, and struggled to keep her balance. ‘Let me go,’ she said angrily, jerking her arm away from him. He let her go, but she found she could not stand alone, and slumped to her knees on what seemed to be a pile of blankets.

‘So you have already reached Telmar?’ said Ormuz. ‘How many are there of your company? Tell me more of this husband of yours.’

‘He is strong and brave,’ said Josie. ‘We will stop you.’ At least, that is what she meant to say, but her voice did not obey her, and she was not sure what she ended up saying.

‘I am still in doubt as to whether you have a husband at all,’ said the brigand leader. He grabbed Josie’s ankle and pulled her leg out so that she fell backwards on the blankets. Feebly, she tried to get up, but she could do no more than raise herself on her elbows. She could feel the warmth of whatever had been in the drink filling her veins, filling her bones, making her slow and soft as before it had made her rash and heedless. ‘Your insolence has made me angry, Miss Furnace,’ said Ormuz.

‘We will stop you,’ Josie tried to say again, but her mouth would not obey her.

She could smell Ormuz close to her face now, rank animal sweat beneath his perfume. ‘I may have given you too much, too fast,’ he was saying. He made a little noise to chide himself. ‘There is probably no point asking you any more questions tonight, but there is time enough to teach you not to be so insolent, before your wits flee you entirely.’

Josie felt the loathesome touch of the brigand’s hands on her legs, shoving her skirts upward. She wanted to curse the brigand and claw at his eyes, to drive her knee up between his legs and kick him viciously, but could only mumble at him and flail feebly.

‘What lovely white skin you have, Miss Furnace,’ said Ormuz. ‘It is a shame you cannot see yourself, but I suppose that saves you from vanity.’

Tash, Josie tried to call out. Tash, help me! Tash, Tash, Tash! ‘Tash,’ she managed to say, in a strangled whisper.

‘You little Narnian whore,’ Ormuz growled, in quite a different voice than he had used before, with no smoothness in it at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are we betrothed now?’ Tash asked uncertainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Is it done?’ asked Tash.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

‘How can you tell?’ he asked.

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

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

‘Oh?’ said Josie.

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


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

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

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

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

‘Please do not stop,’ asked Tash.

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

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

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

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

In the tale of Love there are times

Other than the past, the present and the future;

Times for which no names have yet been coined.

Love is the light of life.

Love is the fire of life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Here it is,’ she called to Tash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Don’t touch it,’ said Josie.

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

‘Let’s go,’ said Josie.

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

‘What was in the box?’ he asked.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We could run a distraction,” Aronoke suggested.

“But what?” Hespenara stared at him blankly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, please.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, well if you put it that way.”

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

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

“Back to Captain Krondark?” asked Aronoke sceptically.

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

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

Kthoth Neesh looked awkward too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And what were those ends?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Master An-ku made a dismissive gesture.

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

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

“Yes, Master.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aronoke complied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“What happened to your hair?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No more attacks?”

She shook her head, reluctantly.

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

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

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

“Kthoth Neesh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Ashquash flinched away.

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

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

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

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

But the younger boy was shaking his head.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

He sounded frustrated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“And the other half?”

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

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

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

“That hasn’t been decided yet.”

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

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

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

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

“He might go to the Sith?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


“You wished to see me, Master An-ku?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s true, Master,” said Aronoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes Master An-ku. Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I think it is the magician’s blood,’ said Tash. ‘Excuse me, I need to drink.’ Tash carried Josie to the edge of the stream, set her carefully down, had rather a long drink and washed his face, and picked her up again. She did not say anything during this time. She was scratched and bruised – she seemed to have stabbed one foot particularly badly on a broken bit of branch – but she was happier than she had ever been. There was a long way to go to get to anything that she would have called a safe, normal life before, but she was free of the magician, and her soul danced and sang. In the distance, a wild dog howled a signal to its fellows.

‘I don’t think the ifrits will stay in the castle long,’ said Josie, once Tash had picked her up again. ‘They’ll want to go back to wherever it is they came from. We should go there.’

‘The castle?’ said Tash.

‘Yes,’ said Josie again. ‘Thank you.’ She tightened her arms around Tash.

‘You said that already,’ said Tash.

‘I suppose I did,’ said Josie. She laughed. ‘If this were a fairy tale, I would kiss you now, and you would turn into a handsome prince.’

‘What is kiss?’ asked Tash.

Josie laughed again, and planted her lips on the side of Tash’s broad beak. ‘This.’ It should have been as unsatisfactory as kissing the keys of a piano, but in some curious way it was not. Tash’s beak was like ivory, yes, but warm ivory, and smelt of jasmine, and a trace of magician’s blood.

‘I do not seem to be turning into anything,’ said Tash.

‘I expect you have transformed enough already to last you a good long time,’ said Josie. ‘Besides, this is some kind of real life, and not a fairy story.’

They gave the corpse of the magician, already surrounded by snarling wild dogs, a wide berth. The sounds of the dogs feeding carried a long way.

Josie clung to her strange protector as he loped through trees and clambered over rocks. She was still happy, deliriously happy, but underneath she also felt sick. Yustus had been an evil man, but she had killed him, as surely as if she had dropped him a hundred feet herself. He would be alive if it were not for her. But he would also be alive, she told herself sternly, if Tash had not played his part, and if the ifrits had not exacted their revenge, and if Yustus had not behaved so abominably himself and planned such horrible things for her, and if the Lion had not drawn her into this strange world. They were all links in a chain. Still she felt sick: she could not get rid of the feeling that the magician’s blood was on her head.

‘The castle is up there,’ said Tash. ‘But we have come back to the bottom of the steep cliff. I will go around the bottom of it and see if there is a way up.’

‘I was thinking about that,’ said Josie. ‘Of course there has to be a better way in, since he would have left himself some way to get in and out without the ifrits. But it occurred to me that there might be all kinds of nasty traps that way. So maybe we would be better off climbing up the wall where we climbed down it, since we know that is safe.’

‘Um,’ said Tash. But he was willing enough to follow Josie’s advice.

It was a hard climb, and there were a couple of times when Josie’s heart went into her mouth, but at length they found themselves back in the garden. The wound in Josie’s foot was bad enough that she could only limp painfully about, but it was very nice to lie back on the soft grass in the sunshine. Tash prowled about the garden, exploring.

‘What does the statue in the middle of the fountain look like?’ asked Josie. ‘I could only reach the feet.’

‘It looks a bit like you,’ said Tash. He sounded very weary to Josie, and she was tempted to tell him to sit down and have a rest instead of prowling about. ‘But too tall, as tall as me. And carved as if she was all over jewels. She is holding the head of some animal.’

‘Oh,’ said Josie, rolling onto her front. ‘What sort of animal?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash, but he described it to her as looking rather like one of the statues in the garden, the one without the antlers, but with more shagginess to it.

‘It sounds like a lion,’ she said.

‘So that is what a lion looks like,’ said Tash.

‘There hasn’t been any sound of the ifrits at all,’ said Josie. ‘I suppose they must be gone.’

‘I hope so,’ said Tash.

A moment later, in that curious way people have of appearing when you mention them, Josie heard the first faint sounds of distant flapping.

‘Uh-oh, they are coming,’ she said, and then corrected herself, as the sounds resolved into those made by a single pair of wings. ‘One of them, anyway.’

‘Shall we hide?’ Tash asked.

‘Let us find out what it wants, if it is only one,’ said Josie. ‘I am sure you can fight it, and I am sure it cannot carry me away alone.’ It seemed to Josie that they were Zardeenah’s wings, and not those of any of her brothers, as the sound drew closer. She could not have described what the difference was, but she knew it was there. She stood up, and a moment later Tash was standing protectively at her side.

‘Miss Furness,’ called a voice from the sky.

‘Yes, Zardeenah?’ Josie called in return. Zardeenah was not landing, but was circling in the air above them, near enough that Josie could smell the burnt cinnamon fragrance of her hair.

‘We are in your debt, my brothers and I,’ called the ifrit.

‘Yes?’ said Josie, thinking wildly for a moment of three wishes and magic carpets.

‘My brothers think it will amply settle our debt if we leave you as Mistress of Telmar,’ said Zardeenah.

‘But,’ began Josie. She was going to say, ‘But I don’t want to be Mistress of Telmar, I want to go to- to-‘ but she did not really want to go to the place where the gazelles were sending her, to the strange foreign men with their lion god and their prophecies. And the ifrits could carry her, but what about Tash? There was no way they could take him.

‘Indeed, I told my brothers, she cannot rightly be called Mistress of Telmar if she does not have possession of its secrets.’

‘Uh-huh,’ said Josie.

‘She would not find it herself in a hundred years of searching, I told my brothers, despite her magic; but I know the place where it is kept.’

‘But-‘ Josie began again.

‘So this is yours, Mistress of Telmar, she who turns-stone-to-flesh,’ said Zardeenah, and let something drop. Tash almost, but not quite, caught it, and bent over to pick it up from the grass.

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘But I don’t want to be-‘

‘Our debt is finished,’ called Zardeenah from a height as she flew rapidly away.

‘-Mistress of Telmar,’ Josie replied, to empty air.

‘It is a very grand place,’ said Tash. ‘Nearly as grand as the Procurator’s Tower. Here.’ He handed Josie the thing Zardeenah had dropped – a key as long as a fountain pen, carved out of some very hard glassy stone, which was tied to a silken ribbon.

‘The key to the secret treasure chamber, I expect,’ she said, and slipped the ribbon around her neck. She gave a rueful smile.

‘I am sure of it,’ said Tash.


Tash liked the look of the red key around Josie’s neck. It made her look more queenly, more like the statue. Surely there would more jewels in this place, and then Josie could be bedecked properly as Mistress of Telmar.

The highest ambition anyone could imagine in the village Tash had come from was to rise high in the service of the Overlord – this had been the way of things for countless generations – so it is not surprising that the dream of not being useless that had come into his head was of rising high in the service of Josie, Mistress of Telmar. He rather liked the statue in the middle of the fountain: the expression on the woman’s face put him in mind of the exultant way Josie had looked, when he had pulled her out of the thorny bush. The severed lion’s head, on the other hand, bore an expression of idiot malice. He supposed whoever carved the head had put it there on purpose, but it certainly did not look like the expression of any kind of god. The woman looked much more like a god.

‘Now, I can go through over there,’ said Josie, pointing almost at the base of the tower. ‘There’s a door. But I think it is too small for you.’

‘Maybe over here,’ said Tash. He had seen already the barred gate that Josie had found impenetrable, and a flagged courtyard beyond it, and thought that he would try his new strength out on it.

It was not easy, but the bars did bend a little when he tugged hard on them, and when he figured out the right way to twist the gate came off its hinges. ‘It worked!’ he said triumphantly.

‘I heard,’ said Josie, smiling at him. She started walking toward the gate in a slow and painful way.

‘Do you want me to carry you?’ he asked.

‘You have carried me enough for now,’ she said. But she did not make any protest when he gathered her up. Beyond the flagged courtyard there were other courtyards, and then a broad flight of steps leading up to heavy double doors. Tash tried these, and they opened with a loud crack, and beyond them was a high-ceilinged stone hall, and after a few more doors and halls and turning they found themselves in the rooms that had belonged to Yustus.

You or I would be pleased enough to find ourselves in possession of the palace of a magician, filled with all the good things that can be provided by magic; but we know of such things through stories, and have some idea of the kind of things we might find. Tash had no idea. He had never imagined such comfortable rooms, or so many good things to eat. There were cushions to sit on that were softer than anything he had thought of, and mirrors where he could see himself outlined as sharply as if here were some other thalarka- very drab he looked in such richly furnished rooms, he thought – and pools of warm water set in smooth white stone where he could soothe his itchy skin, but most of all there was the food. There was every kind of food that the ifrits had fetched for the magician – fresh fruits, and cold roast meats, and honeyed pastries, and other things that Tash had never seen or thought of. Every one of them tasted nicer than pickled grith, and he gorged himself in a haze of joy.

Josie meanwhile had bandaged her foot, eaten more sparingly, and gone to search the rooms for a change of clothes. ‘I know there are clothes for me in the tower by the garden, but it is a long walk back there,’ she told Tash.

When Tash was full enough he looked around for jewels and ornaments, of which there were plenty. There were also plenty of things that were of no immediate use to Tash – probably of no use to him, ever – but which still grabbed his attention, for magicians’ rooms tend to be full of such things. There were vials of evil-smelling oils and spices, leather-bound books of strange ideographs and peculiar pictures, strange implements of glass and nasty-looking metal instruments; curiously shaped knives in polished boxes; other things that looked like they could be used for carving words into wood, or flesh; a fragment of something that reminded Tash uncomfortably of part of the device the old thalarka had used to command the Gnawers.

Josie reappeared in clean garments of a shimmery soft material. Instead of a single long black garment, she had a much shorter green one on top, and billowy yellow things that that clung to her legs underneath. The ruby key looked very splendid indeed, Tash thought, on top of the green cloth.

‘I found these jewels for you,’ said Tash. ‘You will look very splendid.’

Josie took the things he offered, and smiled, but did not put them on. ‘Thank you.’

‘Did you really use your magic to change me back from stone?’ Tash asked cautiously.

Josie grimaced. ‘I don’t think so. Not unless it is like you being stronger, and it is something that happened when I came here. I don’t feel magical at all.’

‘You could try with the other statues in the garden and find out,’ suggested Tash.

‘Hmm,’ said Josie. ‘Not right now, I think. Just in case it does work. If it works, and either of those beasts aren’t talking beasts, or talking beasts that don’t like us, it will be very complicated and unpleasant. And I was just enjoying it being not complicated or unpleasant.’

‘You are right,’ said Tash.

Josie sat down on one of the big cushions with a sigh of relief, and Tash realised that he was also very tired. In the excitement of exploring all the marvels of the palace he had quite forgotten how exhausted he was. He dragged the largest one he could find next to her and plopped himself down as well. It was curious how pleasant she was beginning to smell. He had found the strange animal smell of humans strong and unpleasant when he had fallen into Telmar – that was blood, he remembered with a shock, Nera’s blood – but the more he had carried Josie, or curled up around her, the nicer she had smelled to him.

‘We should find out what that key opens,’ said Tash.

‘Tomorrow,’ said Josie. ‘I don’t want to do anything that might cause more problems.’

‘What do you think it will open?’

‘Well, a door, or a chest, or something. We haven’t found the wand they used to turn you to stone, or the apples of immortality that the magician talked about, so I expect they will be behind whatever it opens.’

‘It would be useful to turn our enemies into stone. Also to be immortal,’ said Tash enthusiastically.

‘Silly, we can’t do those things,’ said Josie.

‘Why not?’ said Tash.

‘It wouldn’t be right,’ said Josie, in an explanation that wasn’t an explanation. ‘It wouldn’t be right for us to turn people to stone, and it wouldn’t be right for us to live forever.’

‘It wouldn’t be right for anything bad to happen to you,’ said Tash resolutely. ‘Ever again.’

Josie made one of those exasperated noises. ‘You’re very sweet, Tash. But like I said, I don’t want to do anything that might cause problems for the rest of the day. Or anything at all, really. Except maybe have some of those sweetmeats. Is there any of the Turkish delight left?’

‘Turkish delight?’

‘Little cubes of soft stuff, covered with powder.’

‘Yes, rather a lot.’ Tash got up helpfully and returned rather too hastily, giving Josie’s new clothes a solid dusting of white powder when the tray tipped sideways. ‘I am sorry,’ he said.

‘Oh, there is no need to be sorry,’ said Josie, laughing. ‘You saved my life. That gives you every right to cover me with powdered sugar if you want.’

‘Does it?’ Tash asked her. This seemed like a curious custom.

‘Well, no, not really,’ said Josie. ‘I just mean it would be ridiculous of me to complain about a little thing like that, after all the big things you have helped me with.’

Tash sat down next to Josie and together they ate rather a lot of Turkish delight. There were five or six different kinds, of different colours and flavours, some with different chewy lumps in them – ‘nuts’ Josie explained – and they were all ever so much nicer than pickled grith.

‘You saved my life too,’ he pointed out, between mouthfuls of rosewater-flavoured Turkish delight.

‘We don’t know for sure,’ said Josie. ‘It might just have been a coincidence. I certainly didn’t set out to turn you back from stone.’

‘You would have, if you had known,’ said Tash confidently.

‘Very well then,’ said Josie, and flicked powdered sugar at him with her fingers.

Tash and Josie let the fire die, and spread the floor with silken blankets to sleep on, since Josie did not want to go back to the tower where she had slept before, and neither of them wanted to sleep in the bedchamber of Yustus the magician, whose bones were at that moment being fought over by wild dogs. Without either of them saying anything they ended up sleeping much as they had the night before, with Tash curled up around an uncomplaining Josie.

‘Good night, Tash,’ she said.

‘Good night, Josie Miss Furness, Mistress of Telmar,’ he said.

‘Don’t be silly,’ she said, but he could tell she was pleased. He thought, for the hundredth time, that her hair was exactly the colour of fresh grith stalks before they started to turn grey.


Aronoke clung to Kthoth Neesh tightly as they zoomed between the dark trees. Branches occasionally whipped across his face, but that was better than the lashing he had gotten when Kthoth Neesh had tried to cross one of the open clearings. That had been a mistake. They had been forced to forge a path back towards the forest and had lost much of their lead.

“They’re gaining on us!” Aronoke’s words were whipped away uselessly, long before Kthoth Neesh could hear them, but she seemed to understand anyway. The angry insectile humming of the imperial speeders was louder now, clearly audible over the whine of their own bike’s engine. After Aronoke had inadvertently given their position away, the speeders had converged on them all too quickly. If only he could drive, Aronoke thought, they might have gotten away – he might have managed to fly completely in the dark with the assistance of his senses – but it had proved impossible for Kthoth Neesh to navigate the forest without the headlights and they had been followed. Even with the lights on, Aronoke wasn’t sure they would avoid crashing. He had shut his eyes tightly several times when they came too close to trees.

It was no surprise that their pursuers were gaining; they were trained Imperial scouts, while Kthoth Neesh’s experience was limited to a few occasions when she had visited planets and tried out the local transport. Narakites didn’t have much need to learn to pilot ground vehicles. Aronoke’s experience was more limited still, because the Fumers had never used bikes, so all he could do was cling to Kthoth Neesh and hope for the best.

It was strange, Aronoke thought, to be holding her closely so soon after the fiasco behind the log. He would have preferred to retreat far away from Kthoth Neesh, to come to terms with the strangeness of his overwhelming attraction to her, but necessity was a strong master.

He should be thinking about something else, he thought crossly, or at least, be working on regaining his equilibrium, but it was difficult when he was expecting they would crash at any moment.

Blaster fire had been whistling after them, but it didn’t seem like their pursuers were trying very seriously to shoot them. They were obviously supposed to be taken alive. Then suddenly there wasn’t any firing at all. Aronoke glanced back over his shoulder and saw one of the bikes was outdistancing the others. It drew steadily closer, flicking through the tree trunks with reckless expert ease. The rider must have amazing reflexes, Aronoke thought to himself. He had never seen anyone drive with such disregard for personal safety, not even Mill, but this person was taking insane risks and winning them time after time. Almost as if… of course, he realised with a pang of dread. It was the Sith.

“Drive faster!” Aronoke shouted in Kthoth Neesh’s ear, and the narakite girl stiffened tensely and bent further forward over the bike’s controls as if she was urging it onwards. The bike behind them swooped and zagged, drawing so close that Aronoke could see by the flashing headlights that its rider wore full body armour, black, ornate, and patterned in a distinctive style. It was definitely the Sith. Aronoke could see him casually steering one-handed while he reached for something at his waist. Could see his hand coming forward with a bright blaze of red as his lightsaber activated. Like a jouster, the Sith thundered after them and with a sudden sideways swoop, slashed at their speeder.

Much to his shame, Aronoke squealed in a most undignified way as he swung his leg up and out of the way, clutching even more tightly to Kthoth Neesh to avoid falling off. The speeder swerved alarmingly, sparks blazing off the rear panel, and she almost lost control. She hit the brakes hard as the bike slewed wildly from side to side, and the Sith shot past them, careering ahead into the forest. The other bikes were forced to go around them, to slow and curve back, but Kthoth Neesh heeled the bike over almost at right angles, pointed it at what looked like a solid wall of vegetation and pushed the accelerators full forward.

Aronoke ducked as some low-hanging branches nearly took off his head. One impacted against his back, where it was deflected by the thick swimsuit material, while a stick scratched painfully across his face, just below one eye. The speeder hurtled unstoppably onwards crashing through the bushes. They were angling downwards now, through stringy saplings and scraggly foliage, until the speeder suddenly shot out over water, trailing a mess of broken vines behind it.

The river!

Aronoke hadn’t been certain the speeder would even hover over water, but this model was apparently capable. He looked back over his shoulder, but he could see no one following. The density of the undergrowth had slowed pursuit for the moment. He glanced quickly upstream and downstream, but he couldn’t see very far in either direction. The river curved sharply here and the vegetation on the banks was dense and obscuring. If they hurried they might get out of sight before their pursuers could see which way they went. But which way should they go? Aronoke thought the ship lay downstream somewhere – they had travelled very quickly and had surely come further upriver than they had walked, but heading straight towards it might give their hiding place away. Upstream only led further from safety, and Aronoke doubted that Kthoth Neesh would be able to outmanoeuvre the more experienced scouts for long. Or they could abandon the bike and…

“Quick!” he shouted in Kthoth Neesh’s ear. “Stop! Deactivate the hover-thrusters.”

“But we’ll sink!” the narakite yelled unthinkingly, and then she staightened in comprehension. She braked so hard that Aronoke nearly shot over her head; was crushed up against her back, only barely resisting being flung off. The bike bobbed alarmingly over the water. It took a moment for Kthoth Neesh to find the controls and then quite suddenly the bike dropped in the water and began to sink, taking them both with it.

Aronoke felt a pang of dread as the water closed over his head and had to will himself to be calm as he kept hold of Kthoth Neesh with one hand while he fumbled in his swimsuit pocket for his breather with the other. If it wasn’t there, if it had somehow fallen out, then he was sure to be caught. Aronoke remembered Master Caaldor’s directions all too clearly. Don’t take any risks. Better to fail than to fall into the hands of the Sith. But then his fingers closed on the familiar wedge of the breather and he pushed it into his mouth, remembering to breathe out first to expel any liquid that might have gotten into it.

With any luck, Aronoke thought, the current should bring them straight back to Master Caaldor and the others. As he drifted, holding tightly to Kthoth Neesh’s hand, Aronoke concentrated hard on trying to dampen his thoughts and his connection to the Force, trying to hide their presence. It was difficult, because he had to keep one tiny tendril of his Senses open, feeling through the water for the vast bulk of the ship and Master Caaldor’s presence.

No sign of the ship, no sign of Master Caaldor’s familiar calmness. Surely they hadn’t come so far upstream as all that. Aronoke could sense a sudden spike of intense Force-driven rage from nearby. The Sith had lost them, he realised in relief, and had probably used the Force to do something nasty to one of his underlings. He wouldn’t like to be one of those speeder bike scouts right now.

They drifted for ten minutes and then ten minutes more, and Aronoke began to grow worried that they hadn’t been upstream of the ship at all. That they were drifting further and further away from safety with every passing moment. Maybe he had missed the ship in all this sludgy water. Or, worse still, maybe this wasn’t the right river. Aronoke allowed his senses a little more freedom, letting them probe out further, and was relieved to detect a familiar, if somewhat muted presence on the riverbank. Aronoke tugged at Kthoth Neesh’s hand and began to swim for the shore.

“What are you doing here?” Aronoke asked Hespenara as he staggered out onto the muddy bank. Behind him, Kthoth Neesh spat out her breather and let loose a deluge of curses as she examined something clinging to her leg.

“Leeches!” she said in disgust.

“I came to find you!” said Hespenara. “I was feeling better, and you’d been gone such a long time. Master Caaldor thought it best that I try and locate you, since he was worried you couldn’t find your way back, but I met a rather unpleasant creature while I was trying to get out of the river. I’m afraid it took me a while to deal with that.”

“The giant river worm?” asked Aronoke, and the green girl nodded.

“We met it too.”

“We’d better get back to the ship,” said Kthoth Neesh, still plucking at slimy things attached to her swimsuit, real and imaginary. “Wouldn’t be surprised if those speeders are still looking for us.”

“I can see you have a story to tell,” said Hespenara. “Let’s get under cover. You look all done in.”


“Padawan. I’m glad to see you’ve returned safely.” Master Caaldor looked remote, as if he was trying to see something far off in deep space, and Aronoke thought that his Master couldn’t continue shielding them for very much longer.

Aronoke, Hespenara and Kthoth Neesh had cleaned up and changed out of their wet garments. Aronoke had been glad to retreat into the depths of his Jedi robes. They felt safer than the tight-fitting swimsuit and helped conceal the collection of minor injuries this latest escapade had earned him. Yet, despite his weariness and the deterioration of his limp, all the scrapes and scratches didn’t weigh him down as heavily as his disappointment in himself.

“I take it things did not go as smoothly as we hoped,” Master Caaldor said, giving Aronoke a scrutinising look. Aronoke tried hard not to flush, wondering if his Master had detected the terrible surge in the Force that had attracted the Sith. Probably not, Aronoke deduced. Master Caaldor had been busy shielding the ship and was not particularly good at sensing things. He was probably just noting Aronoke’s grim expression.

Should he tell his Master what had happened? Almost certainly. But would he? No. Not now. Not with Kthoth Neesh and Hespenara here listening. It was far too embarrassing. He took refuge in starting his report instead.

“We managed to avoid being detected until after we set the beacon,” Aronoke said. “There were imperial speeders out looking for us, but it was very easy to hide from them. It took longer to get to the hill than I thought, because the terrain was very difficult, but once we got there, that part went quite well. But the beacon only signalled for a about a minute before someone blew it up. I don’t know that it was really signalling enough to do any good.”

“There may still be a response,” Master Caaldor said reassuringly. “The signal contained coded data as to our location. If it was detected by any Jedi anywhere, merely once, they will know where to find us. The beacon does not need to continue being active for them to do so.”

“So you encountered trouble on the way back?” Hespenara asked, and Aronoke couldn’t help but look at Kthoth Neesh. She looked back at him expressionlessly and shrugged.

“It was always going to be the rough part,” she said wearily. “Once we set up the beacon they knew exactly where to find us, of course. We got out of there quickly, but they were closer on our trail than before.”

Aronoke heaved an internal sigh of relief. He hadn’t really thought that Kthoth Neesh would reveal what had happened, but he was still glad she hadn’t said anything. I have too many secrets, he thought glumly, thinking of the map on his back. I don’t really need another one. In the end though, he realised, all his secrets came from one source, which at least was something Master Caaldor already knew about. But he still knew, deep down, that his Master should be told about what had happened between him and Kthoth Neesh – about what kept happening.

“And then?” asked Master Caaldor, and Aronoke realised that they were all looking at him, waiting for him to continue as he stood there, caught up in reverie.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m tired.” He forced himself to breathe, slowly, deeply, and drew upon the Force to make himself calmer. To override aches and pains to allow him to concentrate better. As his heart rate steadied and his muscles began to relax, the right words came into Aronoke’s mind.

“On the way back, we were seen by a scout,” he said. “At first we hid and he went away, but he came back again after a few minutes and began looking around carefully, like he knew we were somewhere nearby. I think the Sith must have detected us.”

“Oh?” said Hespenara. “That’s surprising. Most Jedi, and Sith too I expect, wouldn’t be able to detect someone easily amidst all that jungle, unless you were doing something very overt and powerful.”

“Our Sith could possess a talent for sensing,” observed Master Caaldor, staring at Aronoke thoughtfully.

“Maybe we made some noise and the scout heard, I don’t know,” said Aronoke. “Maybe he saw our tracks. It just seemed like he came back so suddenly, I thought it must be the Sith. We managed to get the drop on the scout, but not before he gave the alarm. We took his bike.”

“Then it was like we’d shot at their capital ship or something,” Kthoth Neesh interjected smoothly. “Suddenly there were speeders everywhere, chasing us. I tried to head upriver, but they caught up quickly. I’m not very good with speeders.”

“Most likely they had some sort of tracer on the bike,” said Hespenara.

“Possibly,” Kthoth Neesh replied. “But they didn’t seem to be able to trace it when we dumped it in the river.”

Aronoke listened to her tell the rest of the story. They had been very lucky to get away, he realised, and yet, the danger had not completely passed. The Sith might still trace them along the river, if he realised they had disappeared into it. He would doubtlessly be watching and scanning it much more closely than before.

“I suppose now we have to wait,” Hespenara sighed.

“For a time,” said Master Caaldor mildly. “There’s a limit to how long I can maintain our shielding. Hopefully the Sith will lose patience with the search before then.”

“So we do nothing?” asked Aronoke.

“Eat. Drink. Rest,” said Master Caaldor. “If nothing has happened after twenty-four hours, then we’ll have to work out another plan, but until then, we are best off conserving our energy.”


In the end they waited for about eleven hours.

Aronoke was awake again by then, having slept for nearly all of them. He was sitting in the cockpit in the co-pilot’s seat, leaning back in his chair with his feet up on the dash, concentrating on scanning the sky for ships – ships that might contain Jedi come to help them. It was important that any Jedi should be quickly informed of the situation, so they didn’t fall foul of either the Queb or the Sith.

Master Caaldor sat in the tilted pilot’s seat, steadily staring out into the murky water that lay beyond the front viewscreen. He hadn’t slept for at least three days running, Aronoke knew, but he didn’t seem to have any trouble staying awake. Aronoke wished his own control was so effective.

But there were things Aronoke could do better, despite his limited experience, and sensing other Force-users was one of them. Aronoke had been concerned that using his Force-senses might alert the Sith, and Master Caaldor had conceded that there was a risk, but, he had added, there was a risk in everything.

“Even merely hiding poses a risk,” he had said. “Everything is connected in the Force.”

Yes, thought Aronoke, every moment they delayed gave Master Skeirim a chance to pursue his treacherous plans, whatever those were. Every moment was one that Master Altus spent in suffering. And so Aronoke scanned for ships, for Sith or Jedi, hoping that help would come soon.

And then help came.

At first Aronoke thought he was imagining the twinkle in the sky, for it was as faint as the most distant star still visible to the naked eye. The tiny blip of Force energy was erratic, thready and diffuse, and yet he knew it was there. He sat up to focus more carefully. Even though changing his physical position made no difference to how well his Force senses worked, it still felt like moving helped. It seemed to help now, because a few moments later he had honed in on the twinkle and was certain of what he was sensing.

“Someone’s here,” he said to Master Caaldor. “Travelling in a ship, just entering the atmosphere. I think it’s a Jedi, but I can’t be sure yet.”

“Make sure first,” said Master Caaldor. “Then we’ll make contact.”

Aronoke obligingly probed more intently. Yes, it was a ship, a small ship probably, since it contained only one person, now descending through the higher reaches of the atmosphere, drawing closer to them with every passing second. The pilot was a human woman. She tensed and looked around, probably checking the instrument panels. She was definitely a Jedi, Aronoke thought, detecting no trace of the hot intensity he had felt surrounding the Sith. Her connection to the Force deepened and flared, and Aronoke realised she had detected something of his perusal and was trying to tell what he was.

It’s me, Padawan Aronoke, he thought at her, wondering if he could make her understand. Could you speak, mind to mind through the Force? He had no idea. He tried to connect to her more strongly, but only found himself more highly aware of her physical form. She was tall and slim, although not as tall as him. Her long hair was pinned neatly back in a tight braid. He could feel the flow of blood through her veins, the constant onward march of her digestion, the light play of the muscles in her hands and arms as she expertly manipulated the controls of her ship.

Aronoke hesitated a moment, remembering what had happened when he had sensed Kthoth Neesh so closely, but this time it was different. The strange attraction was not there: the experience was as sexless as if the woman had been a tree. There was no sudden overwhelming lust, no biological imperative, but just a deep awareness of her biological structure.

Suddenly Aronoke could tell something was happening, not because he could see it, but because the Jedi could. There was a rush of adrenaline, quickly controlled and harnessed. She wrestled with the ship controls, and the effects of gravity on her body told Aronoke that her craft was ducking, rolling, weaving.

“She’s been spotted,” said Aronoke aloud, and realised he hadn’t answered Master Caaldor’s most important question yet. “She is a Jedi, and I think she’s looking for something – for us, most likely – but she’s been spotted. I think she’s in combat…”

Master Caaldor said something then, but Aronoke didn’t hear it, because one moment he was embedded in the strange Jedi’s biology, and the next moment…. intense agony, pain, every molecule within his awareness being torn apart from every other, and she was nothing, falling through glaring light into darkness, and Aronoke was falling too, clinging to the shred of Force that was all that was left of her, because that was all there was to hold on to…

Someone slapped him hard in the face and it was like they’d slapped his bare brain, it was so devastatingly shocking. It was Hespenara, Aronoke saw, bent over him, pulling her hand back for another slap. Aronoke winced, putting up his hands automatically to shield his face, and Hespenara’s hand fell away in slow motion.

“She…they…” said Aronoke numbly, feeling each word to be a huge mountain he had to climb with numb legs.

“We know,” said Hespenara sadly. “We felt it in the Force.”

“Let’s get him up,” said Master Caaldor and together the two Jedi helped Aronoke to his feet. “You’re lucky you’re still with us, Padawan,” he scolded Aronoke as they helped him sit back down in his chair. “You must never allow yourself to become so heavily invested in what you Sense that you lose track of yourself, of your connection to your body. One of the major hazards that affects Seers is that they can become lost in the Force, unable or unwilling to return to themselves. Following someone into death is a hazard not even the greatest of Seers should tackle.”

It must have been serious, Aronoke thought, still dazed. His master looked so relieved.

“We don’t want you stuck as a mindless vegetable,” said Hespenara, also looking grim and shaken.

“I’m…sorry,” said Aronoke. His mind fumbled with the concept of being a Seer. The Seers in the Jedi Temple were such distant mysterious figures, he couldn’t imagine himself being one. And then they tended to stay there in safety, guarded like sacred relics, not taking any action but only making predictions of the future and watching for secret signs of trouble. He shivered, thinking how difficult such a life might be.

“Your training has been far too sketchy,” Master Caaldor was continuing. “Unfortunately your abilities in sensing far outstrip my own, and I have little knowledge of the specialised techniques Seers use to safeguard themselves. Until you can receive proper training, you must be very cautious, Padawan. Your natural instincts have served you well thus far, but out in the field there are always new dangers. The situation is hardly ever entirely predictable.”

No, Aronoke thought vaguely. There were river monsters and explosions.

“I blame myself,” Master Caaldor was saying. “I’ve made too many demands of you when you have had so little training.”

“No, Master, it’s not your fault,” said Aronoke, forcing himself to straighten a little, to push aside the heavy lethargy and the strange numbness that fogged his mind. He sternly made himself take stock of his condition, to flex his hands and wriggle his toes. He felt too loosely attached to his body, like that time long ago, when he had tried to see what had happened to Master Altus. “It’s like you said – we have to take risks and this one was mine. I had to try, and I don’t hink I’ve suffered any lasting harm. You brought me out of it.” He smiled weakly over at Hespenara, who was still regarding him with some concern. “You didn’t have to slap me so hard, though,” he said, trying to lighten the mood.

“That was the third time I slapped you,” said Hespenara flatly. “I thought we’d lost you.”

“I’m fine,” said Aronoke. “Just a bit shaken. But that Jedi… she’s not fine. She’s dead.”

“Do you have any idea what killed her?” Hespenara asked.

“It was almost instant,” said Aronoke. His voice still sounded dreamy, even to himself. “She was trying to evade something, throwing her ship around the sky. She must have been hit. It was… awful, but she didn’t suffer. It was so quick….”

His voice trailed off again, as he relived that terrifying yet oddly exhilarating moment.

“Stay with us,” growled Hespenara, roughly shaking his shoulder.

“Sorry,” mumbled Aronoke sheepishly.

“We’ve got to decide what to do next,” said Master Caaldor. “Whatever we do, the risks we have already taken will doubtlessly pale beside the ones we must take now.”

“We have to make sure the Jedi Council learns about Master Altus and Master Skeirim,” said Hespenara firmly. “If we are about to be caught, we have to send a message telling them what’s happened, so they can take action.”

“Yes,” said Master Caaldor. “That is a valid point. But I am loathe to sell ourselves cheaply to our enemies by broadcasting where we are. It is vital that we stay out of the hands of the Sith. Perhaps there is still a way we can win our freedom.”

Aronoke knew Master Caaldor wanted to save them all, but it was entirely obvious that it was him his Master was talking about. That it was vital Aronoke didn’t fall into the hands of the Sith, because of what was on his back. That Master Caaldor felt somewhat guilty, because they were here against the Jedi Council’s orders to stay as absolutely safe as possible.

“Let’s go through all the possibilities,” said Hespenara. “Ideas… We could lay an ambush for the Sith, tackle him head on, and take his ship. There are three of us and only one of him, although he does have lots of trained soldiers.”

“It would be best to avoid physical conflict if at all possible,” Master Caaldor countered. “The Sith might be able to bring in Queb reinforcements.”

“We could try setting another distress beacon, somewhere else,” said Hespenara, counting off on her fingers.

“They’ll just blow it up again,” said Aronoke dully. “Probably even faster this time. I barely got out of range as it was.”

“Besides,” said Hespenara, “it’s too dangerous – dangerous for us, as you say, but also dangerous for whoever comes to help us, unless they come in numbers, which they are unlikely to do, considering this world is off-limits.”

“We could choose to do nothing,” said Master Caaldor. “We could wait until someone investigates the disappearance of the Jedi who attempted to rescue us. She most probably sent a communication saying she was investigating a distress signal before she came here.”

“That might take a long time,” said Hespenara grimly. “I hate to think of us sitting here, waiting, hiding at the bottom of a river while Master Altus is still a captive.”

“We need to get a ship,” said Aronoke dreamily. “But the spaceport is up on the platforms and there aren’t any ships down here, except the ones looking for us, who are our enemies, and maybe mostly just atmospheric fliers anyway, and a few that come down to… that…”

Aronoke stood up abruptly, his mind suddenly racing.

“Aronoke?” prompted Hespenara gently, hovering at his elbow. He must look very unstable, Aronoke realised.

“That woman I met in the bar,” he said aloud. “The one with the ship who wanted to be our guide – she gave us a holocube with her frequency…. What if we called her?”

Hespenara looked blankly across at Master Caaldor who was stroking his beard and nodding thoughtfully. “Our enemies probably won’t be expecting us to make use of local frequencies since we’ve already shown our hand by trying for intergalactic assistance,” he said. “It’s possible they may still intercept any communication we make, possible also that Jark Tander won’t want to work against the Queb, but maybe…”

“We can offer her a good incentive,” said Hespenara. “Surely the Jedi Temple will hold good on any reasonable offer you make her to bring us to Coruscant.”

“It’s worth a try,” said Master Caaldor, “and there’s no point waiting any further. Padawan, if you could fetch the holocube…?”

It was a request designed to force him to focus, Aronoke realised, and perhaps to take him out of the room, so the other Jedi could discuss him in his absence. He stumbled along the sloping corridor into the main living area of the ship. Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz were there, gloomily playing Smackdown on the sloping table.

“What’s happening?” asked Kthoth Neesh, dropping her cards and leaping to her feet at once.

“Help’s not coming,” said Aronoke. “We’re trying something else.”

Quickly he explained what had happened and what the new plan was.

She frowned at him. “That doesn’t explain why you look so terrible.”

“I’m fine – I just overdid things. Jedi things,” said Aronoke, but it didn’t stop her from coming over to stare at him as he began to search through the holocubes. They largely lay where they had been stacked before, stuck together by their magnetic surfaces despite the trauma suffered by the ship. “I expect we’ll be leaving rather quickly if this works,” he said, sorting amongst the teetering pile, “so you’d best get together anything you want to bring. We won’t be able to take much – only what we can easily carry – and it had best be wrapped in something waterproof.”

“Waterproof? You mean we have to swim out?” asked Tarric Gondroz, sounding alarmed.

“At least you didn’t bring much luggage,” said Kthoth Neesh lightly.

“Fate obviously has it in for me,” moaned the kubaz, cradling his head dramatically in his hands. “I can’t swim! I’ve traded a watery death in a tank for one in a stinking muddy river.” He scuttled off into the depths of the ship, making unsettled wheezing sounds as he went.

Aronoke turned his attention back to the task at hand. Jark Tander’s holocube had to be one of the ones on top.

He had just found it when Kthoth Neesh laid a hand on his arm. In his current state of mind it translated into a physical shock and he started, turning abruptly, the holocube in his hand. She looked up at him, and Aronoke was surprised by the genuine concern in her expression.

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I’ll recover,” said Aronoke brusquely.

“I’m sorry for what happened,” she said softly, her voice thick with emotion. “I didn’t mean for things to take off like that. I mean, I do like you, but mostly I was just fooling around. Not…thinking, I guess, about what it really might do to you.”

“It’s more my fault than yours,” said Aronoke. “You haven’t dedicated yourself to live by any code.”

“I know,” said Kthoth Neesh. “But still. At first I meant it, trying to seduce you so that you would let me go, one way or another. After that it was just funny, but I never expected you to… well, I didn’t mind but…”

“It’s alright,” said Aronoke. “I don’t properly understand why this is happening to me, or why you in particular have this effect on me. It’s not normal – it goes way beyond a normal attraction.”

Kthoth Neesh smiled a tiny mischievous smile. She was incapable of being repressed for long. “And here I thought I was just that sexy.”

“You are,” said Aronoke, seriously, and was surprised to see her pale cheeks tinge with pink. “But that doesn’t mean I should be acting like I have been. Being a Jedi… that’s my big chance. Maybe my only chance. I don’t want to stuff it up.”

“I’m sorry,” said Kthoth Neesh, contritely. “I’ll try to behave.”

“I’ve got to get this back to Master Caaldor,” said Aronoke gently, holding up the holocube.

“I could take it,” she said, reaching towards it. “You still look like you’re going to faint. You should sit down.”

Aronoke drew his hand back closing his fist over the cube. “It’s okay – I think they’ll want to keep an eye on me,” he said, and the Narakite nodded, stepping aside.

It was all horribly awkward, Aronoke thought grimly as he stumbled along the passage to the cockpit, and for a moment he envisoned an easier world where he wasn’t Force-sensitive, wasn’t a Jedi. Where everything wasn’t so much trouble and he could kiss Kthoth Neesh again without worrying about the consequences.

But there was never any point wishing for might-bes. No use imagining that you had a real family when you were a bioengineered freak, for example. And everything was so much better, a thousand times better, than it had been on Kasthir.

Yes, it was better to be a Jedi than a skimmer. Better to be a Jedi than a Sith. And then there were things he had to do, traitors to apprehend and friends to rescue Things that seemed impossibly difficult to manage, but the sorts of things that Jedi did all the time.

Being a Jedi was the only thing that really gave his life form and meaning. He couldn’t just give up because things became difficult. Because he was suddenly obsessed with a girl. No, he would save Master Altus. He would learn more about the biocron and find better ways to deny its hold over him. He would become a proper Jedi in proper control, and then these juvenile worries would seem unimportant.

Feeling more in charge of his destiny, Aronoke passed the holocube to Master Caaldor.

“Sit down,” said Hespenara firmly. “You still look like you’re going to fall over.”

“I’m fine,” said Aronoke mechanically, but he sat where she told him to anyway.


“Blasted droids – always causing problems,” growled Kthoth Neesh from the muddiest extremity of the riverbank, staring into the brown water as if the intensity of her glare alone could levitate PR-77 out of the mud. The rest of the party was perched on a giant dead tree partly embedded in the bank of the river, which extended some distance out over the water. Tarric Gondroz clutched his carry-all miserably, while Hespenara was keeping a careful look out for trouble.

“PR should be fine,” said Master Caaldor vaguely. “He’s quite waterproof.”

“But what if he gets swallowed by a river-worm, or stuck in the mud, Master?”

“Then I expect we’ll have to leave him behind, but there’s no need to be alarmed yet. Besides, I believe that’s him now.”

Sure enough, there was a swirling in the water, and Aronoke could see PR’s domed head just below the surface. The strange muted sounds rising from the water suggested that the droid was complaining non-stop as he slowly but steadily forged his way up out of the river.

Exiting the ship had been less of a drama than Aronoke had anticipated. Tarric Gondroz had been assisted by Hespenara, who was a stronger swimmer than anyone else. The other Jedi and Kthoth Neesh had managed without assistance, but PR-77, being made of metal and rather heavy, had immediately sunk to the bottom and been lost from sight. They had been forced to leave him behind while they made their way to shore, where they had quickly changed into dry clothes.

“I suppose we should find better cover,” Hespenara said uneasily, once the droid was out of the water. “Oh, do be quiet, PR – we’re trying to be inconspicuous.”

“Sorry, Mistress Hespenara.”

“Perhaps under that clump of trees?” suggested Aronoke, but they hadn’t moved far towards it, when the noise of engines warned them of an approaching ship .

“Quick!” said Aronoke, but it was too late – the vessel was obviously coming straight towards their position. It was with some relief that Aronoke saw it was the sort of ship he might have expected a smuggler to own, a slightly battered vessel about the same size as the XL-327, and surely not the sort of craft a Sith would deign to travel in.

With some difficulty, the ship set down on the riverbank, half-in half-out of the water, angled so that its access hatch was over the shore. Even before it came to a complete halt, the ramp came smoothly sliding down.

“Come on, it must be Jark Tander,” said Aronoke, but before anyone could move, shots ripped into the riverbank as a second ship streaked overhead.

It was a small strangely shaped vessel that looked a bit like a triangular wedge with three long tails, and it curved sharply about and came angling down towards them.

“It’s going to land!” yelled Hespenara and they all scattered. Aronoke and Master Caaldor went straight forward into the trees. Hespenara darted behind a slimy rock, while Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz fell back behind the log.

“Oh no!” said Aronoke. “The droid!”

PR-77 had attempted to run after the others, but had slipped and fallen in the mud. He was laying on his back on the muddy riverbank, his arms and legs twitching helplessly.

“Too late,” said Master Caaldor grimly.

The ship came down, contacting the muddy ground. It didn’t stop immediately – the bank was too slippery for that. It skated along on its landing struts. For a moment, Aronoke thought PR would be crushed, but the droid managed to roll sideways, flopping on his face, and the ship narrowly slid past, burying the droid in a wave of mud. It continued inexorably onwards, straight towards Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz. Aronoke thought they would be crushed to death for sure, and they obviously thought the same. Aronoke could hear Tarric Gondroz’s panicked wail and see Kthoth Neesh’s pale face gaping in terror, as the ship slid towards them, closer and closer. Kthoth Neesh made a last desperate lunge towards the jungle, dragging the kubaz after her. She would have been too slow, but the ship finally crunched to a halt, crashing forcefully into the log. Splinters flew and the great trunk shuddered, but the tree was so heavy and well buried that it barely moved. The narakite and the kubaz kept going, seeking the cover of the trees.

“Quickly now,” said Master Caaldor. “Get PR and head to the ship.” He gestured to where Aronoke could see Jark Tander, blaster in one hand, waving desperately at them from the ramp.

“But what about the others?” Aronoke asked. “I can help…”

“Get on the ship, Padawan,” said Master Caaldor sternly. “Let me worry about them.”

Aronoke obediently sprinted across the mud to where PR was wallowing.

“Master Aronoke,” said the droid. “For a moment I thought I was scrap-metal. Luckily the danger is past, but I still seem to be somewhat stuck!”

“Come on, PR,” said Aronoke, trying to tug the droid to its feet and getting more muddy than he would like.

“I knew I should have stayed on the ship, Master Aronoke,” said PR, his efforts to stand more of a hindrance than a help. Clumps of mud flew through the air as he waved his arms effusively. “I’m not designed for working in such primitive unstable environments!”

“Stop talking, PR, and get up!”

“Yes, Master Aronoke, I am trying!”

Finally, the muddy droid was standing and Aronoke led him hurriedly across to the ramp where Jark Tander waited.

“Go inside, PR,” Aronoke said, a bit breathlessly, and the droid meekly complied.

“Jaxxor Branx,” said Jark Tander, looking him up and down. Aronoke realised somewhat belatedly that he was wearing his Jedi robes rather than his smuggler disguise. “Or, should I say, Master Jedi, since I suppose that’s not really your name. I can see you’re not the freelance entrepreneurs I took you for. Are you really a Jedi, or is that a disguise too?”

“I’m Padawan Aronoke of the Jedi Order, and that’s Master Caaldor,” said Aronoke, deciding there was little point in further prevarication. “We were working under cover. We came here to rescue Hespenara.” He gestured across at where the green girl was running across the muddy bank towards the ship.

“You can explain later, once we get off the ground,” said Jark Tander tersely, passing Aronoke her spare blaster pistol. “That is, if we get off the ground. I trust you actually know how to use this?”

“Yes,” said Aronoke.

“I mightn’t have agreed to this if I’d known you were Jedi,” muttered Jark Tander, giving him a hard stare. “I smelt something funny when you wanted to go to Coruscant. Who’s the canned meat?”

This last she directed at the well-armoured figure that had emerged from the other ship.

“Bolar Dak,” said Aronoke. “A bounty hunter.”

Jark Tander nodded grimly. “I’ve heard of him – he’s considered to be bad news. I suggest we fry him if he comes anywhere near my ship.”

“Well, you’re the captain,” said Aronoke, checking the settings of the blaster.

Hespenara came slithering across the last bit of mud. “Master Caaldor sent me back,” she told Aronoke, with a brief acknowledging nod to Jark Tander.

“Yes,” said Aronoke. “I think he’s a bit leery of the possibility of losing any more padawans.”

Along the river bank, Master Caaldor seemed to be delivering an ultimatum to Bolar Dak, while Kthoth Neesh and Tarric Gondroz were doing their best to sneak by unnoticed, making their way along the edge of the jungle. The bounty hunter didn’t seem inclined to surrender. From the way he gestured with his enormous blaster-rifle, Aronoke thought he was making it quite clear who he thought was capturing who. He must have finished with something threatening, because Master Caaldor suddenly took a single step back and drew his lightsaber, as the bounty hunter threw something spherical into the air. It rose unnaturally swiftly, obviously under its own power.

“What is that?” Aronoke wondered aloud. “Some kind of explosive?”

“Surely he wouldn’t blow himself up too,” said Hespenara. But even from this distance it was becoming obvious that the sphere was a flying droid. It had extruded wing-like fins, antennae and little blaster guns.

“It looks little more dangerous than a Jedi training drone,” said Hespenara sceptically. “Master Caaldor shouldn’t have any trouble dealing with that.”

Even as she spoke, a swarm of larger drones, as uncountable as insects, swooped up from behind the bounty hunter’s ship and streamed down in an angry cloud towards them.

This is not a submission for this upcoming anthology, but instead its first-ever (so far as I know) piece of fan-fiction. You should read the Prologue Story for ‘The Lane of Unusual Traders’ first.


“We don’t have any fruit anymore,” said Len. “Sorry.”

Len wasn’t short for Leonard, but for Lenrek, or Lonroo, or Lanjavian – some first name that I had never heard of anyone else having. He could have been from anywhere in Southern Europe or the Middle East, and looked to be in his early forties, with an unruly mustache and black hair shot through with streaks of silver. His shop was in the sort of suburban shopping centre that used to be everywhere in the seventies, just a row of shops with a parking lot in front, in a sort of backwater a few blocks back from the roar of Woodville Road.

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Alex is leaning forward on one elbow, Kindle held like a hand of cards close to the chest, looking concerned. Looking at you with concerned eyes: but for a moment Alex’s eyes are only globes of protein and water, glittering without meaning like stones in a river. Half-buried white stones with patches of greyish-blue.

‘You alright?’

You had just been jerked awake, arms and legs suddenly twitching in unison as some random firing of neurons dragged you from sleep. That was all. It happened often enough. But you had the feeling – you have the feeling, though it is fading fast – that you had stepped back from an abyss. Or been pulled back by an unseen hand from an abyss that you were powerless to stop yourself from stepping into.

‘I’m fine,’ you say. ‘Just jerked awake.’

A hand squeezes your arm – more protein and water, warm and only a little alien now, as meaning flows back into a world that had been drained of it when you awoke.

Alex rolls over and goes on reading, and you close your eyes, listening to the reassuring click of pages turning. You will turn over yourself in a minute – you don’t like to sleep on your back, and if you do, Alex will usually prod you awake, saying that you are snoring. Falling asleep is a strange thing. You are there, and then you aren’t. You do this every night; but you can never remember exactly what you’ve done. What do you do? Is there a you to do anything? A minute passes as you repeat these thoughts to yourself until they no longer make sense.


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