Prologue: The Long Road Back 3
The sound of voices woke me. An argument low and fierce, whispered in a language that was both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I stirred slowly, finding my way out of the dreamless sleep the way a drunk finds his way home. Someone had put a cushion under my head and laid a blanket over me. I must have made a sound because who ever was speaking, broke mid sentence as the other hissed. “Quiet, you’ll wake her.”
“I’m already awake.” I mumbled sitting up slowly. Still groggy, I rubbed my eyes and yawned then looked to who was speaking.
“Navaari?” I could not quiet believe it. Tall and fierce looking, he was an imposing figure but his smile was like sunshine and before I could move he strode across the room to hoist me up in a bone crushing hug.
“Tjällh!” He exclaimed half squashing the breath out of me. When he set me back down Thrawn, who was at his side, held a cup of fresh stim-caf out to me. I took it gratefully and sipped it, welcoming its bitter warmth.
Thrawn said something to him quietly in Dantassi-Cheunh and Navaari smiled at me, but shot Thrawn a look. “Yes, I know.” He replied, “But she is still young, still rash and still doing incredibly foolish things, so to me she is still an’tjällh’ech.” The word meant beloved little child or simple fool depending on how it was used. I didn’t mind. I was so happy to see him that the slight insult that word offered washed over me like sand across the desert. He sat down beside me, wrapping his arm around my shoulders.
“You are well, yes? Recovered from your death sleep?” he asked.
I nodded mid sip, my eyes watching him and Thrawn from over the rim of my cup. The sleep induced fog in my brain receded and I began to sense a tension in the air between the two men. They had been arguing. It was what had woken me up. Terse words spoken in hushed tones. I finished my stim-caf and handed Thrawn the cup.
“Another?” he asked. I nodded and turned back to look at Navaari. He had not changed. Unmasked he was less intimidating but no less fierce. Red eyes stared into my own and waited for the question he knew I had to ask.
“Why are you here?”
I watched as he glanced at Thrawn. “You did not tell her did you.” It was not a question, he had known and it hadn't impressed him much.
Thrawn stopped mid pace, my empty cup still in his hands and sighed. The look he gave me was mingled with sadness and defiance. What ever was coming next he knew I would not be happy about it.
“No. I thought it best if she did not know until you were here.”
Navaari shook his head and pursed his lips, disagreeing with Thrawn’s logic.
“Know what?” I asked, loathing that he spoke about me as though I was not in the room at all.
Both men looked at each other, the hardness from the earlier argument that had woken me returned to fill the silence between them. I asked my question a second time.
“I am here to fetch you.” Navaari said eventually when Thrawn remained silent.
I looked from one to the other again. “Fetch me?” I asked raising my eyebrows.
“Fetch me where?”
“You are to come with me to Hjal.”
I stared at Thrawn as realisation dawned on me. “You’re sending me away?”
He gave me the barest of nods. “You cannot stay here. I thought it best if you were to go some place safe, be with someone who is far better at curbing your impulsive idiocy than I am.”
“Am I not in the safest place in the galaxy?” I asked ignoring the last bit.
“No.” He said quietly.
“If you cannot bear the sight of me then why not simply send me back to Coruscant?” My words were cruel and angry.
“Coruscant is also not safe.” He said plainly, ignoring my barb. Now the sadness in his voice was unmistakable.
“So your answer is to send me away to an ice planet on the edge of the galaxy with a chaperone?”
“It seems the best course of action given your propensity for running off blindly into the unknown. You would not have spent almost a year at death’s door and months afterwards trying to recover your strength if you had used some common sense.”
“And you’re letting him do this?” I turned to Navaari. If I had hoped for an ally to my own cause he was not it.
“It seemed to be the best way to be keeping you out of trouble, Tjällh.” He replied seriously.
I opened my mouth but had no idea what to say. “No!” I hissed angrily, standing up. “Absolutely not!”
My defiance threw a switch and Thrawn’s anger flew. “Seven and a half months, Merlyn!” He spat. His use of my birth name was his way of letting me know the extent of his anger. “For seven months and three weeks I watched and waited while you hovered in and out of death.” The bitterness, anger and pain in his voice sliced into my gut like a blunt knife. “You have no say in these matters any longer. You forfeited that right when you flew out of here alone, without an escort into certain danger on a whim or rash, instinctive impulse. You don’t think! You never think! So now I am removing your need to think and acting in accordance with Dantassi laws which bind me to you, which also, I might add bind you to me as you acquiesced.”
I stared at him in astonishment. I had suspected that at some point not knowing what I had agreed to during the unmasking ceremony would come back to bite me. I opened my mouth to protest but he held up his hand for my silence. The full extent of his anger, which he had held in check the night before, stunned me into submission.
He continued, his voice now ice cold and unforgiving. “You will go with Kirja’navaar’inkjerii and you will, for once in your life, do as you are told. No more headstrong disobedience. Do you understand?”
The air went still, the way it sometimes was before a terrible storm. I stared at Thrawn for a full minute in utter disbelief at what I had just heard and then not knowing what else to say or do I turned on my heel and stormed out of the room. I heard Thrawn move to follow me but out of the corner of my eye I saw Navaari stop him, a broad hand at Thrawn’s shoulder. “Let her go, kej’son, give her some space to digest the news that you….”
I did not hear the rest because the door shut and I was already running down the corridor to get away. There were a few places I knew where I could escape to, quiet, where no one went. One was the small room which had a doorway to a small outcropping that served as a sort of ledge or balcony. I often went to sit out on it and breathe the fresh air. It was one of the few places I felt free to sit and think. I stood leaning back against the wall of cold stone and tossed small pebbles over the side. I gulped for air, feeling as though I couldn't breathe. I was too angry to cry but the tears were not far away. All I could think were the things I had lost. It all seemed so terribly unfair and I ached with a deep sorrow that would not go away. It did not take Thrawn terribly long to find me. Doctor Thracer had filled him in on all the places I went to hide; there wasn’t much that escaped the doctor’s notice and I didn’t have that many hidey holes anyway.
I sensed him before I heard him so I didn’t turn around. “Go away.” I said.
“I shall do as you ask but only after you hear me out.” He replied coolly, the anger gone leaving only stillness is its wake.
“You have more to say?” I asked nastily turning around to look at him. “I thought you didn’t want to speak to me, that’s why you are sending me away isn’t it?”
“Stop being difficult and listen to what I have to say.” He said wearily.
In answer I folded my arms across my chest and glared at him defiantly. He took it for compliance and continued.
“I need you to leave because it isn’t safe for you here. It isn’t safe for you with me or anywhere within the Empire and it is especially unsafe for you to return to Coruscant or your home.”
I rolled my eyes. “And just why is that?”
“Because Ysanne Isard has put out a warrant for your arrest and there is a bounty on your head.” He said simply.
That was the very last thing I had been expecting. “What?”
He drew a deep breath. “She and Pestage wish to rid themselves of any they fear would oppose them. Isard had your young friend Mara Jade imprisoned. You know too much, you were too close to Vader and held the Emperor’s favour. She and Pestage are eliminating anyone from the Emperor’s coterie who might be trouble. You, as Lord Vader’s trusted personal assistant are considered trouble. I still do not know of all the details but I am working on this. Things between Isard and myself are strained.” He paused for a moment. “While I trust my men and the Chiss stationed here under my command, it would only take one careless whisper to put everything done here in jeopardy. It would only take one person to report that you are here to create some serious problems for me. I have enough to deal with as it is.” He looked at me to make sure I was getting the message. “You are not safe here and I cannot protect you all the time. Your home on Tatooine is being watched as is your family so I cannot send you there either. I did not think that you would wish to spend the rest of your life in an Imperial jail, so I contacted Kirja’navaar’inkjerii and asked if he would be willing to take you out of harm’s way until I can clear up this current issue.”
I just stared at him not believing what I was hearing. What had happened to the Empire that I had worked for and believed in that its loyal citizens and workers were being condemned and hunted by its own leaders?
Thrawn continued. “Kirja’navaar’inkjerii has wanted to teach you the ways of the Dantassi ever since he learned that I have failed in this particular duty. I cannot do what I need to do here and worry about you at the same time. I have much work to do and you no longer need medical attention. It seemed a good way to accomplish two things at once.”
“So I am just in your way?”
He looked at me, annoyance flashed across his features. “Believe what you will but you cannot stay here and I mean to see that you are safe. I promised this much, so you will go.”
“Promised? Promised who?”
He took a deep breath to steady his slow blooming anger. I knew all the right buttons to push and I was pushing them now. “Your family, Kirja’navaar’inkjerii and all those who care for you. It is a promise I intend to keep, A’myshk’a, whether you like it or not.”
“And this suits your purpose just fine to get me out of the way?” I asked angrily. “You are just pissed off and annoyed with me and this is how you punish me for it!”
I watched as he clenched his jaw. I was winding him up but he was working hard to keep it in check. I wished he wouldn’t, this Chiss coolness was alarming to me. I wanted him to explode at me, rail and be furious so that whatever it was he was holding inside would be released and we could go back to what we had been before all nine Corellian hells had been let loose. “I am, as you say, pissed off and yes, I am, to put it mildly, annoyed with you. I have been for some time but my feelings hardly enter into the picture do they? You go charging off where ever you will without considering the consiquences to yourself or others.”
Now we were getting to the heart of it. “Why didn’t you talk to me about this last night, then?” I asked.
“Because, my dear, it is pointless to discuss your actions with you. You go flying off into the unknown without heed or care for the dangers and wind up nearly dying in the process. I am quite certain in your head you had a perfectly good explanation for doing what you did but I cannot for the life of me think of one.”
“I was trying to tell you what happened at Endor.”
“Risking your life to do so when I would have learned of it soon enough. You are not the only messenger in the galaxy and we are not so backwater as one might think. What did you imagine you could accomplish?”
I opened my mouth for a second and stared at him but I did not know how to respond to this. I thought, had hoped that he had forgiven me, last night it had seemed that way, now I understood it had been his way of saying goodbye and softening the blow. It been just under a year and a half since the battle of Endor but it seemed that there was little I could say to him that would ease this anger which had stayed strong and fresh in all this time.
“Have you no answer?” His eyebrow arched and for a single second I hated his arrogance.
“I told you last night, I don’t know.”
His voice turned icy. “Do not lie to me behind half truths.”
That was all it took and my anger came loose like a spitting jax. “I came to tell you so that you would know, so that you could salvage the fleet and do what you were supposed to do!” I stamped my foot.
“And what would that be, my dear?” He asked, folding his arms across his chest.
“To lead the Empire!”
He laughed then, it was the last thing I had expected him to do and it was a biting sound. “Sate Pestage and Ysanne Isard lead this empire now. I am in exile, or had you forgotten?”
“That was a ruse!”
“Yes, which only the Emperor, a few others who are now dead or here with me knew about. As far as the rest of the galaxy knows I am the alien in disgrace. It suits Isard’s purpose well to have it stay that way and I am in no mind to challenge her at this point.” The bitterness in his words as he spoke was palpable.
I just looked at him in total disbelief wondering if I even knew him any more. What had happened to him in the time I had been in the coma?
“You, my dear, almost lost your life for nothing and I had to stand by and watch.” The flash of cold fury in his voice made me take a step back from him. For the first time, for as long as I could remember, I could not meet his eyes. When I didn’t say anything he continued.
“Parck was beside himself with guilt, I spent hours trying to tell him that short of throwing you in the stockade there was nothing he could have done. He could not bear to be on base while you lay at death’s door so he is currently in some sort of ridiculous self imposed exile on one of my ISDs. He is one of my best men, one of my friends and he hates himself for what happened to you. So answer me honestly, did you use your mind tricks on him?” Thrawn asked barely bothering to keep the viciousness out of his words.
“No!” I shouted hotly and shook my head. “I did not, I just asked. I told him what had happened and he let me go, he didn’t disagree with my reasoning!” The truth was I couldn’t recall what had happened. I remembered only a terrible sense of urgency and panic but I was fairly certain I had not used my force powers to push Parck into any decision.
“Your reasoning….” He spat the words out shaking his head slowly and drew a deep breath. “Your reasoning almost got you killed. You don’t think! You don’t reason, you just act! Your carelessness and your passions will be your undoing, A’myshk’a.”
And also yours, I thought but wisely I held my tongue. There was a long deadly silence and he turned away from me. His voice when he finally spoke was full of pain.
“I mean to keep you safe. Do you know what finding you at death’s door was like? How many times do I have to watch as you walk the line between living and dying, how many? You are the worst distraction a man in my line of work, in my position could ever have in his life! It seems I can not walk away from you nor can I have you here and I cannot do my job with you underfoot, constantly getting in harm’s way. You need to go with someone who can do a better job of keeping you out of trouble than I can.”
“Underfoot?” I asked turning on him, shaking my head in disbelief. “I interfere with your job? You will send me away because I am in your way or is it really because you are afraid?” my voice was barely a whisper because I could not fathom the truth of it all.
“I thought you were dead.” He said quietly. It cost him so much to utter these words, I saw the pain of it in his eyes but I ignored this and the anguish that flooded his voice. I was too riled up to care and lashed out accordingly.
“And that’s the real issue isn’t it, your fear.” I said coldly. “You hide from your emotions and your pain by ducking into duty. That’s what you did after your brother went missing and now you do it again with me only I am not dead!” my voice shook as my own fury gripped me. “No wonder your sister won’t speak to you. You’ll hide me away from the real world to save yourself from a broken heart and in the process you’ll break mine! You drive everyone who cares about you away because you are afraid of the pain relationships cause! You are such a coward!” I hissed the words at him and took a grim satisfaction from watching him flinch. I had hit home and it was a low blow. I should have stopped but I didn’t, I was too angry and beyond caring. “You are so full of pretty words and grand gestures but when it comes to what really matters you hide behind that uniform! The real truth of things is that you can’t deal with love or the pain of loss. You run away from emotions under the guise of work! So, go back to your duty then and see if I care!” I shouted, staring at him for a full second then uttered the words I would live to regret. “I hate you. You should have left me there to die we both would have been a lot better off.” Tears spilled down my face. I could not stop them. I went to shove past him and smacked his hand away savagely as he tried to catch my arm.
He whispered my name and for a split second our eyes met. My heart wrenched with what I saw in his expression but my own anger, grief and misplaced pride had a far stronger grip on me than sense, proving him right about everything he had just said. I turned away, leaving him standing there. Without another word I went to find Navaari, stopping along the way to pick up my satchel which held the few belongings I had on the base and with some clothes. Navaari was waiting for me at the docking bay. He looked at my face and wisely kept quiet. I didn’t say anything when I saw what ship he had come in, the Ahnkeli S’u’udelma, but it was another addition to the fuel that fed my anger.
“Let’s go.” I said as I marched past him up the ramp.
Wordlessly he followed me in.
“I assume you are the one who flew my ship here?”
“Fine, then she’s yours.” I told him and left to find refuge in one of the small cabins.
I felt the ship’s thrusters engage and closed my eyes as she swung lazily out of the docking bay. I had not known Navaari could pilot but nothing about the Dantassi who had rescued me in the middle of a raging blizzard surprised me anymore. I lay on the bunk, too furious to cry. When the shuddering stopped I knew the ship had broken free from the planet’s atmosphere. I counted the minutes until we left the planet’s gravity well and waited with baited breath to hear the hyperdrive kick in; when it did I knew a small sense of relief. Sometime after that Navaari knocked on the cabin door and then, although I told him to go away, came in anyway, holding a cup of tea. I glanced at him then went back to staring at the ceiling. He set the cup down on the small table then sat on the edge of the bunk and looked at me.
“That did not go as well as he wished, did it?” He asked. When I said nothing he continued, “I told him you would not be listening. He does not understand how you can be so emotional about something which makes so much sense to him. He only wishes to keep you from more harm.” He chuckled a little at the face I made. “You are far too hard on that man.” He added.
“Perhaps, but he is also hard on me.” I retorted. “And now he can do what he wishes, which is to forget about me and bury himself in his duty! It is what he’s good at.”
“Give him time, Tjällh, give him time.” Navaari said softly, placing his large hand gently on my shoulder.
“Time?” I could not keep the anger out of my voice. “Time, he has had months and months to get over it. I don’t understand him at all.”
“Yes, many long months of watching you find your way back from your journey through the underworld. Do you think it was hard for you to be in that dark place all that time? Imagine what it was for him having to be the observer of this journey. He is a man of planning and of action, not a man to sit easily and wait.” Navaari nodded. “You understand him better than you let on but you do not like the results of his choices and while he understands you as well, he loves you which blinds him. Pushing you away is the only way he knows how to deal with his own grief. He is not a stupid man. His crime is caring too much and that goes against all he has been taught. He does not mean to be cruel or cold. Allow him this time, this space, little one, he also needs to heal. Much has happened in these long months which he could not speak of; it has been difficult for him as well.” His deep voice rumbled in his chest. His kindness was my undoing. I gulped down air trying to stop the damn within me from bursting. He stroked my hair watching me struggle to hold the well of sorrow and emotion back from exploding.
“Let go of your sadness, Tjällh, keeping it inside makes you do crazy things.”
“Go away, Navaari.”
“No. Not this time. You need to be listening to me now.” He said. “You hurt through and through, you have lost loved ones and time, your life has changed forever if you do not allow this grief to pass through you, you will surely suffer for it, perhaps even die because of it, so let it go little one.” He spoke with a firmness I knew meant he would not go away, nor would he let me slide into the greyness that threatened to swallow mw whole. He caressed the side of my face and he waited.
The gentleness of his touch and the truth in his words were a trigger, permission to let go of everything I had been holding inside. I felt the damn burst and could no longer stop it, curling up into a small ball on my side and burying my face in my pillow, I wept bitterly without holding back for the first time since I had come back to the land of the living. Grief poured out of me like a river and I thought I would die from the pain of it. Navaari simply sat at my side, his large hand warm on my back as he rubbed it comfortingly. A father’s gift this was, the ability to somehow ease away pain without saying a word. It made me ache for my own father and I cried even harder. I thought it would never end but even the body has its limits and eventually there were no more tears to shed.
“I am thinking a rest on Hjal away from all this sorrow will be doing you some good.” He said. “You need a place to heal, you need time to mourn. Nikätza’arth’pavjäska was right this is a deep wound and it has had plenty of time to fester.”
I sniffled and turned around to look up at him. He read my disbelief in my eyes.
“He knows better than you think about such things, and he, too, carries much sorrow in his heart. Just because he is not showing it as you do does not mean it is not there.” When he handed me the cup of tea now no longer hot but still drinkable, I sat up, cross legged and took it gratefully. My throat ached from crying.
“This is my ship, you know.” I said for lack of anything else to say.
He smiled. “Yes, I know. I have taken great care of her. Your things are aboard and some of your clothes, your Ta’kasta’cariad thought you would be wanting them. He thought you would feel safe in her.”
“How long will I be staying on Hjal?”
Navaari shrugged slightly. “That is up to Nikätza’arth’pavjäska, it is he who must decide when it is safe for you to return.”
“So I am to be a prisoner then.”
“No, you could be leaving if you wished it but I would not be recommending doing such a thing. You will be safe with me, with the clan and if you are thinking to return to your family on Tatooine then I must ask would you wish to be putting them at risk as well? They are being watched, you cannot go home and where else would you be protected?” He paused to let the weight of his words sink in. “Would you rather be on the run? Always looking over your shoulder to see if you were in the sights of a bounty hunter? I do not think that imprisonment would sit well with you. Your family knows you are with someone safe, Nikätza’arth’pavjäska has kept them well informed. He simply did not give them details so that when they are questioned they do not need to tell lies.”
“If I went home I would put them all in danger.”
He nodded. “If I am understanding it correctly they could be executed for harbouring a known and wanted fugitive. Better that you vanish for a while and let Nikätza’arth’pavjäska sort things out on his end. It is what he is good at.”
I could only nod. My last words to Thrawn echoed loudly in my head. My anger had receded leaving remorse in its wake.
“Time, you both need some time.” Navaari said gently, readingthe expression on my face correctly.
But I shook my head. There are some wounds time never seemed to heal, was not Lord Vader proof of that? As if he could read my thoughts Navaari wrapped an arm around my shoulders and pulled me to him tightly. I just closed my eyes, my head ached fiercely and I was suddenly tired beyond belief.
“So now you are in my hands, Tjällh. Let us see if I can not make of you Jhal’kai and teach you how to be Dantassi.” He smiled.
I returned his smile but I don’t think it reached my eyes and then rested my head on his shoulder. I could not argue against anything he had said and in the end, truth be told, I was a little relieved that the decision had been taken out of my hands. At least if something went wrong no one could say it was due to my rashness or stupidity.
“How long before we reach Hjal?” I asked.
“A few days by your reckoning.”
I nodded. “Is there more tea?”
Navaari smiled. “I can be making more tea if you wish and perhaps something to eat? You are too thin, the cold will gnaw at your bones.”
I didn’t answer as I got up to follow him out to the galley. My mother used to say that nothing cured all ills like a good cup of tea. Now was as good a time as any to put her theory to the test because there didn’t seem to be anything else I could do or say that would change the way things had turned out. What was done was done and there was no going back. The Empire that I had known and worked for was gone, what had taken its place was a stranger to me. Whatever my future held next was a mystery but at the very least I was alive to see it.