Playing the Game 2
The storm which had begun the day Thrawn had arrived was far worse than either Navaari or I had predicted. It lasted nearly eight whole days. Thrawn enjoyed his enforced holiday for nearly four days but after that he became restless, itching to get back to work, to get back into space. He didn’t actually say anything and if I hadn’t known him so well I might not have noticed but I had long ago learned the tell tale signs of planet locked spacers. I had seen it in my father when he had been on-world too long, he needed space-room he would say and my mother would shoo him off, sending him out on some convoluted shopping trip to another planet so he would get out of her hair. As I got older and spent more time working at the docking bay I learned the tell tale signs in others, pilots, smugglers and drifters. It was as if the air around them shimmered with the anxiousness, the edginess of being planet bound which they felt after a certain amount of time.
In Thrawn, because it was tiny little things that gave him away, most people would never have noticed. He hid his restlessness well but I knew him better and it made me edgy, rubbing already worn emotions in entirely the wrong way. It did not help that I knew my time on Hjal with Navaari and all the friends I had made was coming to an end and it made me sad. I was torn by this, I didn’t want to go but on the other hand I couldn’t stay. At times such as these the apartment I shared with Navaari and now Thrawn seemed too small and claustrophobic even the enclave, which was by normal standards huge, felt oppressive and boxy.
I didn’t like the feeling of being caged indoors at the best of times but ever since Jyrki’s kidnapping it had been worse rather than better. I had a deep seated aversion to being in windowless places. So four nights into the bad weather, when I finally could no longer stand being cooped up and I could sense that the brewing tension would lead to a boiling fight, I threw on warm clothes and went to the South gates to be alone and get outside for a while. Growing up on Tatooine had taught me to appreciate solitude. The planet which was mostly desert was a very lonely place, unforgiving in its vastness. There was small solace in the cities and towns that clung tenaciously to its surface, where the difference between those that lived here and those that were just passing through was a look about the eyes. I could still recall the very first time I had spotted that look, the one which said I have what it takes to live here and you don’t. Being from Tatooine, living on Tatooine was like wearing a badge which said I survived the wrath of Darth Vader.
Some of my earliest memories were of the desert which we could see easily from our house outside of Bestine. My mother, a native of Alderaan had fallen in love with the place the first time she had laid eyes on it and my father, who was still a transport pilot and not a docking bay owner had bought it for her as a wedding gift. Long after her death, when he was able to bring up memories of her without bitterness or anger and sorrow, my father would talk about her love for Tatooine and how unusual it was.
“She came from a world as lush and as beautiful as this one isn’t. Most folks who visit this place take one look and high tail it out of here again. This place scares people but it didn’t scare your mother.” He had said one day. When I had asked him why he had replied, “Because Tatooine makes a person look deep inside to see if they have what it takes to survive here. Most don’t, it’s that simple.”
The things I missed most about my home world were the wide open skies, never ending vistas offered by the vast deserts and the exotic, dry spice scented air which swept off the Dune Sea. I had travelled to many planets in my life, enjoying each one for what it offered but noticing also that there was always something missing. It had taken coming to Hjal for me to figure out just what the missing thing was the scent of the world itself.
Where Tatooine smelled like warm pasha spice, Hjal smelled like cold, ground pepper, the scent of snow, Navaari has said when I had commented on it. This had led to a lengthy discussion about the differences and the similarities between our two home-worlds, both were places of great extremes which tested the body and soul of all those who visited them for any length of time. This conversation had to led to Navaari had given me a very large piece of his mind about just running off without first letting him know that I was heading outside, saying that if he ever caught me even thinking about just leaving the enclave like I had the last time I was on his home world, well, the consequences would be interesting.
I had only nodded sullenly at the time, not happy about being reminded of my own stupidity, but once we had landed on Hjal and after being shut in for a few days, defiant and angry at everything in sight, I had ignored his warning completely. I suppose he knew I would, given the mood and the frame of mind I was in at the time.
I had no intent to run away or go for another death defying walk through a blizzard, in fact just the opposite but my need for wide open spaces outweighed any fear I might have had of Navaari’s anger and the consequent punishment for not being obedient. He was, after all, I had pointed out in the several arguments that ensued, not my father and could therefore not tell me what to do. This argument was illogical and the barb was meant to hurt him, this was me lashing out in anger because my own pain was too big, too bewildering for me to acknowledge. With a calmness that was infuriating, he allowed me to rail against the wind all the while persisting in laying down some rules which I took great delight in ignoring. From the moment I had begun my strange exile with him on Hjal all I seemed to do with Navaari was fight. I was angry at everything and he caught the brunt of it and while he was good about it most of the times sometimes I pushed him too far.
The first time I had left the warmth and safety of the enclave, shortly after my arrival on Hjal, Navaari had been beside himself with anger, thinking I had run off on another crazy death walk. I had not bothered to let anyone know what I was doing; I had just dressed in my warmest clothes without wearing the mask and buggered off. His relief at finding me huddled by the South entrance had been almost as palpable as his anger. It had taken me nearly an hour to try and convince to him that I had not been planning on venturing from the doorway and that I had definitely learned that particular lesson and that I just really, really needed to get outside for a little while. It was a rare thing for Navaari to lose his patience but I had managed to make this happen when I had not told him I was heading out for some fresh air. It was a good job the discussion had been held outside where the winds could sweep most of the loudness away.
The story of my first and last little hike into the heart of a raging storm had become a bit of a legend in the enclave and not a particularly good one at that, so he had been anxious to make sure history did not repeat itself. In the end, it had been his friend, Kerrjan, who had solved the stop A’myshk’a from going stir crazy and Navaari from killing her by offering to build an addition onto the south door of the enclave.
Kerrjan was considered the master builder in the enclave. His skills at designing and creating structures from the materials at hand were almost magical. He was as old as Navaari was and he was also Navaari’s closest and oldest friend. When Navaari needed to talk with someone he sought out Kerrjan and vice versa. They had grown up next door to one another and, as Navaari had once told me, were like brothers. Navaari had been an only child so for him Kerrjan was family.
For the longest time Kerrjan had intimidated me. He was a tall, slender man almost wiry in stature but there was this thread of icy durasteel that ran through him which said no messing around here. When ever he came to visit Navaari I usually found reason to be elsewhere. I always had the impression that he disliked me and disapproved of Navaari having me live here so it was a huge surprise when he came by the apartment one day and instead of asking to speak with Navaari, he had simply told me to follow him. I was too dumbstruck to argue or think twice about it and I had done as I was told.
He had invited me into his studio where he drew up and designed architecture for the enclave. There he had shown me the plans he had created, with Navaari’s help, for an addition on to the South side entrance. I had fallen instantly in love with what Kerrjan had designed. It was elegant and beautiful, like a room with one wall missing so that I could see the outside world but was sheltered from the worst of the weather. I had simply stood and stared at it without saying a word, unable to take in what I was seeing.
“We’ll start tomorrow, if that’s alright with you.” He had eventually said breaking the silence.
“You want me to help?” I had asked in total disbelief. I had never helped build anything like this in my life. The only thing I knew how to build was an engine.
“Wasn’t my plan to be building this all on my own.” He had replied tartly. “You need to be doing something purposeful not sitting around staring at the walls.”
“I thought that was the idea behind the period of mourning.” I had muttered sullenly under my breath. Instead of annoying him this had made him laugh.
“Seems to me, little pup, that you could use something to take your mind off everything that has happened to you. Sju’ru’arwy’kha is about letting go of the past, setting your ghosts free, but sitting alone day in day isn’t healthy for you.” He had given me a little shrug, “I never did hold with the idea of leaving the person in mourning to sort it all out on their own, but then again I was never much one for holding with most traditions either, just ask your Pa’tjad’cu-sjä.” He told me, using the word that meant honoured grandfather for Navaari. “Besides, after what you did the last time you were here, he felt it wise to give you a place to be going that would indulge your need to be outside.”
“This was his idea?”
Kerrjan had smiled. “Sometimes it is easier to walk with the wind than against it.” He had said somewhat cryptically. “We’ll start tomorrow morning, dress warmly.”
The next day, a lot earlier than I was used to, Navaari had hauled me out of bed, fed me breakfast and sent me to Kerrjan who put me to work. While I had grumbled about the cold, the early hours and anything else I could think of I was deeply grateful to have something constructive to do with my time. It had taken us nearly a month to build the addition and in all that time he had rarely spoken except to give me instructions, ask for tools or correct me when I made a mistake. It had been a welcome change to be with someone who didn’t expect me to be conversational especially when I didn’t know what there was to say.
Once we had finished the work on the porch he began to work on a place for me to sit. “You don’t need to be huddled out here like a pup on the snow.” He had told me. He worked on the bench in his workshop and I was allowed to sit and watch him as he cut, shaped and joined the wood.
There had been something peaceful and cathartic about sitting there watching him work with the hand tools and create something ornate and beautiful out of the deep dark wood pieces he had found for this project. Where we had been silent and almost taciturn with each other outside, in this small sanctuary we talked to each other. He drew me out of my self imposed shell little by little and I had not even realised it was happening. He always seemed to know when I had had a bad night or when I had fought with Navaari. I had been almost sad the day he had finished the bench and I hadn’t known what to say or how to thank him but I guess he had understood. Together we had carried it through the quiet halls to the South door and I had watched with mixed emotions as he put the finishing touches on it. He had smiled with a certain satisfaction at the expression on my face as I trailed my fingers across the smooth wood he had shaped.
“This is not an easy time for you, I understand that and it may surprise you to hear this but so does Navaari, more than you realise.” He had said after what seemed like an eternal silence.
“It doesn’t feel that way.” I had replied. “It feels as though we are at odds with each other all the time. I don’t know how to get past it. I don’t know how to get past anything any more.”
He had nodded. “Well Ma’kehla will help you with that when you go to talk to her.”
My response had been to nibble nervously on my little finger and sigh, wondering if the weight I felt on my shoulders could get any heavier. I had been avoiding the enclave's healer even though I knew I was expected to go and see her.
Kerrjan had studied my face carefully for a long moment then as if he had decided on something he began to tell me a story. “You remind me of a snow wolf I once raised. I found him on the south ridge half dead cuddled by his mother who had been killed by some other creature. He wasn’t more than eight or nine weeks old, and I should have killed him rather than save him, born wild and too old to socialize usually snow wolves like that are feral, wild and hating everything but right from the very start that pup and I bonded. I could no more kill him than I could have left him there to die so I bundled him up, brought him back and hand fed him. For a very long time I was the only person he’d let get near him, I suppose he knew I had saved his life but he wasn’t terribly sure about anyone else. It took him a long time to stop hating the rest of the world and calm down. I began to train him up to run on my sled. I had lost my lead runner several months before and had not found a suitable replacement. He would do almost anything I asked but he hated being caged, hated being locked up in anything that had four walls, he’d bite and fight and make a terrible racket to get out of where ever it was he had been put in. Most people thought he was too savage, unusable as a sled-hound but he just hated being locked up no matter what size the room was.”
“So what happened?” I’d asked.
“I built him a kennel with a swinging door to the outside. Oh, he ran away a few times and people were convinced he was gone for good, I suppose testing to see if his freedom was real or not but after a day or so, when I didn’t chase him down, he always came back to the warmth of the shelter and promise of steady food.”
“Weren’t you afraid he’d never come back?”
“Yes, but sometimes to let a thing go is to hold onto it forever. You cannot cage a living thing against its will.” Kerrjan had smiled at the memory in his head. “Once he knew he had the freedom to make the choice of inside or out, well he settled right down and was the best lead on a sled I ever had. All it took was figuring out what he really needed which was a door to the outside world. He didn’t like being boxed in, he was never what one would called tamed anyway but he was as loyal as they came and a good friend. Still that didn’t stop him from being stubborn and disobedient from time to time just to point out that he was still his own wolf and not mine. Navaari just hasn’t quite figured out yet that you’re a lot like that snow-wolf. He is afraid that if he lets you go he’ll lose you. He worries too much you’ll just up and vanish like you did the first time you were here, not because you are being foolish or thoughtless but because you feel that you have nothing left to live for.”
“I don’t feel now the same as I did back then. I keep telling him I won’t do that again but he doesn’t listen.”
“Aye, but the threat is always there when you just up and vanish from the enclave and he still blames himself for not seeing the signs of that coming the last time. He felt he should have known, felt he should have been able to read what you had one your mind.”
I had answered hotly. “How can he blame himself for something I did? That wasn’t his fault. He can’t read my mind and know what I am going to do before even I know?”
“Of course not, you are quiet old enough to be responsible for your own idiocy.” He had replied with a shrug. “I’ve known him since we were children and he was always the one to take the responsibility for everything on his shoulders. He was always the one who noticed things first; it’s what makes him such a good Jhal’kai. He knows more about loss than many of us will ever dream about. He has passed through more than his fair share of grief. He knows something about letting the ghosts of the dead go, first it was his twin sisters, then it was his wife and then he said goodbye to his daughter when she fell in love with a Chiss who didn’t want to live here, knowing that he would rarely, if ever, see her again. He knows about letting go, but you… well you he is afraid to lose.”
“Why is that? I mean it isn’t as if I am really family, I am not even really Dantassi or Chiss.” I had frowned as I had asked this question, a question that had long been on my mind.
“Well that’s the true mystery isn’t it?” Kerrjan had replied carefully. “You and he, you bonded, just like I did with that wolf-pup. No one here is quite sure how that happened, not even Navaari but you are his family now and better you start thinking that way, behaving that way.”
“He doesn’t speak to me about these things.” I had said with a sigh.
“No, I don’t expect he does. Navaari was never a particularly open man nor does he let many people get that close to him, even less so after his daughter left home.”
“So what happened to change that?” I asked because the Navaari I knew wasn’t withdrawn or closed, but always seemed to me to be loving and wide open.
“You happened, little wolf pup.” Kerrjan had said, looking at me as though this should have been as obvious as night and day. “You gave him something to care for, to look after and love. He was talking about you long before the first time you ever showed up here damaged and broken. He was mystified by what Nikätza’ar had done but at the same time he was also completely baffled by how protective he had felt over you on Rothana.”
I nodded, remembering how Navaari had helped me, how powerful the sense of connection with him had been. That feeling had not lessened any when Thrawn had brought me to Hjal after what had happened with Jyrki. If anything it had made it stronger, more intense. “Did he tell you what happened there?”
“He did eventually.” Kerrjan had nodded. “And that tale was almost unbelievable to hear.”
“Meeting him felt like a derjak game with all the pieces moving in the right places at the right time.” I said. “Though at the time I was way more annoyed at Za’ar about it all because I figured that he had set the whole thing up, but he hadn’t. It really was chance. I remember Navaari telling me that things always happen for a reason and that his people did not question destiny.
Kerrjan had made a short bark of a laugh, “Most of the time we do not, although Navaari has been known to fight against it from time to time, much good it does him.” He had stopped what he was doing to look at me. I had held his steady gaze for a moment then looked away. It had felt as though Kerrjan could see into the deepest part of my soul which was unnerving. For a very long time there was a silence between us, then he said, “You are a gift. You arrived at a point in his life where he felt empty, like you do now.”
I had looked at him for an explanation and Kerrjan had sighed. I could see by the expression on his face that he was debating what he should say next and exactly how to say it, as if he were about to unveil a great dark secret.
“There is a lot you do not know about your Pa’tjad’cu-sjä,” He had started. “He went through a very bad time in his life, shortly before he found you. While he will never admit to this, he had gone to Kerest with the intent of maybe not coming back. He did not think it would be noticed, but I knew. Before he had left he had said goodbye in a manner that had sounded final and he had put all of his affairs in order. He had not expected to survive that hunt which is always a sure way to ensure one doesn't.”
I had given him a startled look then. “I don’t believe Navaari would do that. He would never give up, he would never …. ” I bit off the words that had started in my brain before I could speak them out loud.
Kerrjan gave me a long speculative look. “I am quite certain that many people would have said the very same thing about you, but you gave up everything when you decided to head out in a blizzard. Loneliness and sorrow do strange things to people and Navaari had carried his sorrow around with him for a long time. While he may preach about letting go of ghosts, he was not always one to be practicing the same thing. He went to Kerest to lead the most difficult and the most deadly hunt we know of, knowing that the chances were very good he would not survive it. Dying while on a hunt would have been an honourable death. Navaari saw that as preferable to dying alone in his sleep like an old wolf long past its usefulness.” He said plainly, stating out loud what I could not.
I had shaken my head in utter disbelief. “But he wasn’t alone, the entire enclave loves him, he had you, why didn’t he talk to you?” My voice had sounded so plaintive, so small, echoing the terrible ache in my heart. The rawness of the loss I still felt seemed to double with the knowledge that Navaari had felt the same way. It had taken all my concentration not to cry. I could not believe that Navaari, who was like a mountain of strength for me would have felt he had nothing to live for.
Kerrjan had sighed. “That’s not something most men will ever talk about. We tend to be taciturn at best about our feelings and stupid at worst. Navaari was over seventy eight years old, he had outlived his family with the exception of his daughter whom he almost never saw or spoke with, he had lost that vital link which seemed to make him whole and he did not know how to get it back. Sometimes that sort of loss and disconnection does funny things to a person and you of all people should understand this.”
“I don’t believe it. I don’t believe he would ever give up like that.” My words had been fierce and angry. I had not wanted to know this, not wanted to believe it but Kerrjan was not lying, I would have known if he was.
“Well, little pup, belief on your part is not required. Your Pa’tjad’cu-sjä went through very dark times of his own. He understands about wanting to be walking into a storm alone. That’s what makes him fear for you so deeply.”
When tears had welled up in my eyes I had not fought against them. It had never occurred to me that Navaari would understand me so well and I had been more than cruel with my words to him during many of the bitter arguments we had had since my arrival. Suddenly, I had felt a deep sense of shame at my own selfishness and it hit me like an avalanche. Kerrjan had watched me as I had brushed away my tears angrily and had nodded with a grim air of satisfaction before continuing to tell me his story.
“There comes a point when a man needs to face himself and that was what he was doing when he went to Kerest. He went without a reason to return but then, on the way, he met you.”
My memory of my first meeting with Navaari was so sharp, so clear but not once did I recall getting the sense from him that he was getting ready to face his last hunt. What I really remembered the most was his quiet calm strength, the way he had guided me through the fight which had occurred and helped me to come out of it alive. I also remembered his frustration and slow building anger, a fearsome thing, at my own ignorance of all things Dantassi. Yet underneath that anger had been something else, a kindness, a tenderness one sometimes feels towards strays and children but I had not seen this until now. Then I remembered the way he had looked at me and the way he had said ‘you have given me much.’ when I had told him that I had nothing to give in return for the amulet he had placed around my neck. I had thought he was simply being polite but now I understood. Kerrjan must have noted my revelation on my face because he had smiled then.
“When he returned from Kerest he had changed. It was as if he had found a purpose but for a very long time he would not speak of it except to say that something remarkable had happened, that he had met someone who had given him hope. It was only after Nikätza’ar had come to pay him a visit just after you had been kidnapped did he finally open up and tell me the whole story.”
“Za’ar came here?” I had asked. “I knew he had asked Navaari to ‘keep and eye out for me’ but I had not known he had actually come to Hjal.”
Kerrjan had nodded. “He came to ask the Jhal’kai Order to look for you. It was only then, after it became public knowledge that something truly extraordinary had happened did Navaari tell me the whole story. I know that he had confronted Nikätza’ar about you before but that had been in private. When your Ta’kasta’cariad came here to ask for help what he had done was out on the open, no more secrets to hide. Navaari had known about you since Rothana but he had said nothing. I suppose the situation was so unusual he was unsure how to proceed so he kept it to himself trying to find a solution or an answer but once your existence was common knowledge, well then he came to me.”
I had sighed. That I had been the cause of so much turmoil seemed unreal.
“We were most impressed to learn that you had managed to free yourself and find your way home.” Kerrjan had continued. “It was then that Navaari made known to the council that he wanted you to come to the enclave and be taught the Dantassi ways. He felt you had earned that right by surviving what must have been a difficult trial.”
I had shivered. “It was an awful time. I don’t like thinking about it.”
“Of that I have no doubt.” Kerrjan had nodded. “It was not a surprise when word came that Nikätza’ar was bringing you here. We all knew that you would be brought to stand before the elders so that there would be no need for masks, but no one had expected Nikätza’ar to ask for a soul-binding ceremony and the look on your face told everyone he hadn’t even spoken of it with you either. I suppose we all put down your quietness that night to being shy and maybe even surprise at Nikätza’ar’s actions. No one expected you to simply vanish off into a blizzard but in hindsight it was not such a surprise that you did.”
“It was a stupid thing to do.” I had said crossly. “I was an idiot.”
“On those two points I don’t disagree but you were also in so much pain, too much pain with no way to let it all go. That sort of anguish makes people do foolish things. Navaari, to this day, regrets that he did not see it coming because he knew the signs. The first time you left the hall he followed you, fearing you might get lost but the second time he figured that you were just exhausted and needed sleep.”
I had shaken my head angrily. “How could he have seen that coming? I didn’t even know I was going to do what I did before I did it.”
“You asked the right questions.” Kerrjan had said carefully. “You asked Navaari how to survive the cold because somewhere in that head of yours you had already decided on what you were doing later. He thinks he should have known. He was trained to see the smallest signs for tracking, so he thinks he should have been able to foresee your actions. Though, after getting to know you it doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t. You are a bit chaotic and unpredictable.”
I had just made a face but didn’t interrupt him.
“Now, after what happened here the first time, he doesn’t want to lose you to a repeat of that so he tries to hold you close. You fight this because you don’t want to be feeling trapped, backed into a corner you cannot get out of. But I have to tell you, neither Da’hajn’s hand nor unconditional love is a trap. He’ll figure it out eventually and so will you but until then, consider this place we’ve made here to be a room with a door to the outside and use it to compromise before the two of you wake up the whole enclave with your shouting.”
My cheeks had flushed red with sudden embarrassment. “You can hear us fight?”
“I live only a short ways from you and yes, I can hear you fight. You, little pup, have a very loud bark.”
I could only mumble an apology which had made Kerrjan laugh. He had me help him hook the seat he had finished to the chains that hung from the roof of the addition and that had been the end of that conversation.
I loved the bench he had made because I could sit with my feet barely touching the ground and swing back and forth. I liked it even better because it was broad and large enough for three of me, which meant that when Navaari came out to join me we could both sit on it comfortably.
What Kerrjan had told me about Navaari I kept to myself but from that time onward I always left him a note, letting him know where I had gone. Often he would join me outside somehow understanding that while I needed to be out in the open I didn’t necessarily want to be alone. He never asked what had prompted my change in behaviour but he had let me know in his subtle way that he was relieved not to have to fight with me about it. I had not ever really thought about my own actions or their broader implications before, but the conversation I had had with Kerrjan had shown me that what I did had consequences and I touched other people's lives in ways I could not even begin to imagine. Thrawn had been trying to tell me this for years but I had just been too wrapped up in my own little world to listen.
“Sometimes, little pup,” Kerrjan had said to me when I had spoken to him about this one day shortly after our earlier conversation, “you need to learn to pull with the team instead of against it.”
I had only nodded, acknowledging his words, hoping that this was a lesson I had finally, finally learned.