Parting ways with the Dead. 1
I was born on Tatooine, a fairly unremarkable planet that orbits a binary star system. It is known for two things, it’s unforgiving heat and Luke Skywalker. It lies in the Arkanis Sector of the Outer Rim territories and at one time was mistakenly though to be a third star because the reflection of Tatoo I and Tatoo II’s light from the planet’s surface was so bright. On the whole there was not a lot about Tatooine to recommend it as a home world to anyone. During the Old Republic it was left alone, forgotten and seen as unimportant by the Senate. The Hutts ruled along with the spice smugglers and many other underworld organizations. Its lack of law made it a prime place for ‘undesirables’ to hide out. It was a place most civilized peoples would not dream of setting foot on and whispers of slavery as well as other unsavoury occupations did nothing to improve my home world’s reputation. It would also not have helped if more people knew that it was on Tatooine that Lord Vader, then Anakin Skywalker, grew up as a slave until he was freed and taken away to become a Jedi Knight at the age of ten by Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn which would alter his life and his destiny forever. Twenty two years later I was born on the same planet with my own strange story to tell. Raised in its blazing heat, until I got swept up into working for the Empire and sent to Coruscant, I had known no other way of life and was happy for it.
My time on Tatooine had made me hardy. I had learned at an early age to conserve all water and be wary of the twin suns that reigned in the sky. I never minded the heat which I had grown up with and I found my home planet to be beautiful in its starkness. As a child, I learned the whispering tell tale signs the wind gave when a sand storm was coming because the sky’s face never changed. It never rained and water, plucked from the atmosphere by hardy moisture farmers too stubborn to give up and move someplace else, was more precious than all the spice and credits in the galaxy put together. I knew how long a person could survive in the desert without food or water. I knew what plants held precious juices and liquids which could save a thirsty man’s life and where to find them. I knew the correct way to greet the Sand People should one ever have the misfortune to meet them in the desert and I could ride a bantha with ease but none of these things prepared me for life in the Empire’s service or living on Hjal amongst the Dantassi with Navaari.
Hjal was a small planet far out on the shoulder of the Tingel Arm, one of three planets orbiting a small yellow star and the one with the longest orbit. It was a glacial planet. Almost seventy percent of its mass was covered in some sort of snow or ice. For much of its year the seas and lakes were fully frozen and even in the short summer the highest peaks of its sweeping mountains were covered in gleaming white snow. What Tatooine lacked in water, Hjal had in abundance, almost all of it frozen. Because of its strange elliptical orbit Hjal did have seasons, though none of them would be considered even remotely warm by my standards. The shorter end of Hjal’s orbit around the small sun made up the two months of spring, two months of autumn and four months of summer. Spring and autumn brought violent storms which swept the planet for days on end with astonishing ferocity. The rest of the sixteen month year was the hell Navaari cheerfully called winter. The large enclave where Navaari lived was situated near the midline of the planet, where the weather was most temperate. It was a stunningly beautiful place despite its harshness and cold.
The Dantassi, short for Mathäd’antass’Iyantha which meant the Ghosts of Flesh and Bone, had colonized the planet hundreds of years before the Clone Wars after leaving their home-world of Csilla. They were descendants of the Chiss people, a section of the population that had lived before their home-world had been plunged into an ice age and driven the majority of its people under ground. The Dantassi had chosen not to seek warmth deep under the planet’s crust but instead found ways to survive the bitter cold on the surface.
They had been, for the most part, a nomadic folk wandering with the seasons, such as they were, but at some point they had taken root and begun to build their own small civilizations deep in the caverns of the Csillian Mountains using both traditional and some very advanced technological means to survive the surface cold. Most people, including the Chiss, knew next to nothing about them. The Dantassi had thrived quietly, secretly. Their reputation as terrible and fierce warriors and hunters was well deserved but also highly exaggerated by rumours and whispers passed along by any and all who met them. The Dantassi encouraged these tall tales on the premise that the more outlandish the mystery surrounding them was the less likely it was that people would come looking for them. If this meant that the rest of the galaxy saw them as a vicious feral society to be feared and avoided then so much the better. I knew differently.
My life had changed irreversibly the day Lord Vader had died. In the time I had been lost to a coma the galaxy had moved on, the rebels advanced towards Coruscant and Ysanne Isard was doing all she could to tighten her grip on the power she had inherited with the Emperor’s death. It would have made sense to me that Thrawn be recalled to the Core to take charge of the military but instead he remained stationed on the base on Nirauan, carving out the Empire’s niche in an area of space never before explored by Imperials. What he felt about this I didn’t know, before we could speak of it and the other issues that lay between us he had unceremoniously shipped me off to Hjal with Navaari under the guise of keeping me safe. In spite of the fact that I was furious with him for this, it was probably, given the circumstances, the very best thing he could have done but this did not mean I forgave him for it, far from it.
The journey to Hjal had been a quiet one. I had withdrawn and Navaari let me be. We arrived on the planet in the middle of winter and it was every bit as cold and as strange as I recalled it to be. Bundled up in the furs Navaari had brought with him, I did not feel the cold as we made the sled trip from the docking bay to the enclave, I just felt numb. The small apartment I had stayed in before was just as I remembered it. I chose the same bedroom I had slept in the last time, not wishing to stir up memories of happier moments.
My return to the enclave was a quiet uneventful thing, the few people I saw kept themselves to themselves. When I asked why they turned their faces away from me Navaari’s explanation surprised me a little.
“You are in mourning, they are respecting this.” He had said.
And so I was. It was the Dantassi believed in many things and deaths were treated with the utmost of respect. It was said that the souls of the dead remained with the living until the living let them go, usually this period lasted for a year but in my case, Navaari had said that it would be longer.
“You were walking with the dead.” He had said, as if that statement explained everything. I had just given him a look of confusion. “You were not letting go and saying farewell, you were following their path.”
So I was officially said to be in what the Dantassi called sju’ru’arwy’kha, a period of mourning and meditation. The members of the enclave treated me with kindness but kept their distance. Firm in the belief that during this time the dead walked with the living and it was best to allow the person or people left behind to make their peace and move on. At first I had been furious about this, left feeling even more alone and shunned than ever before but over time I realised it made sense. So with a small solemn ceremony I was declared sju’ru-kha and treated accordingly. I found this idea of an official period of mourning to be silly at first, after all Lord Vader had been killed well over a year past but as Navaari had pointed out, I had not been awake for this time so for me it was a fresh wound which, in his words, was shattering my soul in many pieces. There were many such wounds in my soul, I had told him angrily. All the more reason for you to part ways with your ghosts then, had been his reply. I never could argue with Navaari.
Sju’ru’arwy’kha was observed in many ways, the person in mourning was given lots of space to ‘find their way back’. They were left in peace to contemplate, to experience all the emotions one goes through with loss and above all to forgive. There was a sacred space, a room set aside for remembrance and contemplation. It was a beautiful space and much to my surprise, once I got used to the idea I used it often. Unlike my previous experiences with someone close to me dying, this time I could not escape thinking about it all. Time to contemplate was all I had and there was no place to run to, no place to find loud distractions so for the first time in my life I faced the death of the people I had cared about. It was the most terrifying journey I had ever had to make in my life and I felt as though I were facing it completely alone. Of course, this was not the case at all.
The enclave’s healer and shaman were responsible for the well being of the sju’ru-kha and it was to the shaman, an elderly woman named Ma’kehla, I found myself drawn to when I needed to speak with someone about what it was I had gone through, was going through. She did not have to know Lord Vader to understand that in my case the mourning was complicated and compounded by a terrible, crushing guilt. We would sit in the sacred space for hours, sometimes saying nothing, sometimes I spoke until my voice was raw and sometimes all I could do was weep uncontrollably. I knew that I was not simply crying for him but for everyone and everything I had ever lost. It was a terrible yet at the same a cleansing experience. The rituals she performed were secret and sacred; never to be spoken of and indeed even if I had wanted to share them there were no words to describe this journey.
For the first three months of my time on Hjal I did next to nothing. When I was not wandering around like a ghost or speaking with Ma’kehla, I slept. It seemed surprising to me to sleep so much after nearly a year in a coma but this was not the same thing and for the first time in a very long time it was sleep without the terror of nightmares or pain. My ghosts, it seemed were giving me space and there were no unwelcome visits from long dead Jedi. When I did dream it was of day to day things and slowly I began to heal.
Six months after landing on the planet I woke up one day to realise that the great weight I felt I had been carrying upon my shoulders was gone. I had dreamed of Lord Vader for the first time in ages, seeing him standing on the bridge of a star destroyer, his hands clasped behind his back staring out into the stars. He did not turn to look at me but instead merely said ‘You may go now.’
When I told Ma’kehla this she simply smiled and told me that I was done. My ghosts had released me and I could now return to my life, such as it was. I suppose she passed the word along because within two days of me talking to her about this the enclave elder called a gathering and I was welcomed back from my period of sju’ru’arwy’kha. Suddenly it was as if someone had flooded the world with colour again and when Navaari pulled me into one of his huge bear hugs it was not tears of sorrow that leaked from my eyes but tears of joy.
Once I was considered to be whole and healed, no longer dragging around a bunch of disgruntled ghosts, my life became suddenly very busy. The enclave had need of a teacher, someone who could unravel the secrets of learning basic to those who wished to learn it. I found myself with five willing and eager students to teach which was a completely new experience for me. It was one thing to learn a foreign language but it was quite another to try and teach one’s mother tongue to another. When I was not teaching I was learning. At the hands of Navaari and his own students I began to learn the ways of the Jhal’kai, the art of tracking. Boba Fett would have been envious at what I learned and Navaari was an excellent teacher. While hours and hours of traipsing through the frozen tundra was not my most favourite thing to do it kept me in very good shape as well as on my toes. I was officially a part of Navaari’s family but he by no means went easy on me, if anything he rode me harder than he perhaps might have had I not been who I was. There were days when I could have cheerfully murdered him.
During my time on Hjal, Thrawn wrote letters. They arrived as a packet once every five or six weeks, usually with messages from my family and friends on Tatooine and Coruscant included. My family understood the seclusion and wrote of cheerful day to day things, making them seem less far away, less remote. Shiv’s letters spoke of much change on Coruscant and not for the better. Under Isard and Pestage’s rule the Empire was suffering. If people had thought the Emperor cruel they now had reason to doubt this way of thinking. She was every bit as ruthless as she was rumoured to be and I felt guilty at my last words to Thrawn every time I read about Isard’s exploits. Perhaps he did not know how to cope with strong emotions but in the end, in sending me to Hjal, he was only trying to protect me.
Navaari had tried many times to get me to open up with him on the subject of Thrawn but that was a place I would not go. Thrawn was a topic that was off limits. My guilt and my anger mingled in an unhappy cocktail leaving me to wonder if what ever it was that had been between he and I was now irreversibly shattered. I had told him I hated him, and in that tiny moment of time those words had been true but now, now I regretted them but I could no more go back in time and undo them than I could make Hjal a warm and sunny place. My regret and guilt made replying to Thrawn’s letters impossible. I had no idea what to say to him, how to describe my experiences on Hjal and so his corrispondance went unanswered. Still, he wrote. His letters were every bit as elegant and wonderful as I remembered. His way with language never ceased to astonish me but often the subjects of his letters were less than encouraging.
The Empire was crumbling. The Alliance sniped away at small yet vital targets with everything they had. Thrawn wrote with some admiration of a group of elite pilots collectively known as Rogue Squadron and talked about the small battles lost and won. He also spoke of Isard and Pestage. He knew she was lying to him, keeping him at arm’s length because she feared what he might do if given the opportunity to take over. He was frustrated by this because it was, as he had often told me, never his wish or goal to take over as leader of the Galactic Empire, he felt that his role was that of steward, keeping the law in order to maintain peace and cohesion. As he often had before, he hinted that there were worse things in the galaxy than the Emperor to worry about but he could see the slow decay and felt powerless to stop it. So he continued his original mission, to expand the Empire into the Unknown Regions. He populated the base at Nirauan with both humans and Chiss but in reading in between the lines I could tell that things were also not going according to plan, he simply did not have the man power he needed to continue the level of expansion he had been achieving before the decline of the Empire really began.
The two year anniversary of the battle of Endor came and went. I marked its passing quietly with Ma’kehla, half expecting it to be a difficult day, but the pain of loss had dulled considerably. I no longer felt that terribly gaping sorrow at Lord Vader’s death instead more often than not, when I felt that pang of emptiness it came because I had thought of Thrawn. I missed him terribly but I could not bring myself to say it. To admit this would be to admit I had been wrong and that meant saying I was sorry which no matter how often I tried to write those words I simply could not seem to do. I ached for his presence, the touch of his hands the sound of his voice. With each and every letter he sent this pain was renewed because every time I touched the latest letter to come to me I was instantly given a myriad of images and sensations, thanks to my wretched gift of being able to read the memories from objects. He too felt regret, while he never spoke of it I sensed it, lingering under his words and, just like me, he did not know how to bridge that particular gap so he skirted around it filling his letters with news from the outside worlds, stories from his day to day life and updates of what was going on as far as the Empire was concerned. I read his letters so many times over I could probably have recited them word for word but not once did I ever answer them. If this hurt or worried Thrawn he never spoke of it. I suspected that Navaari kept him well informed on my life on Hjal, though he never said a word of that to me, nor did I ask although it had occurred to me to do so from time to time.
My days on Hjal were full and busy, time passed far swifter than I could ever have thought, Before I had realised it I had spent over a year and a half on the planet. I had grown and changed in ways I could not have ever imagined. If Navaari had felt I was ignorant to the ways of the Dantassi before, he could no longer make this claim. While I did not look like them, I felt as thought I was welcome among them, even one of them sometimes. I had learned their language and customs though some had taken a lot longer to get used to than others. I had made friends and learned new skills I had not dreamed possible and even come to occasionally enjoy the austere cold the planet had to offer. In short I began to feel comfortable and at home. This should have served as a warning of sorts because usually when things in my life settled down to some sort of normalcy was exactly when things tended to change. This was no exception.